The Inescapable Love of God

My reading of late has turned to questions of Christian hope. Over the weekend, I re-read Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell: Papers Presented at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference in Christian Dogmatics, 1991 (edited by Nigel M. de S. Cameron) and today I read with profit Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”?: With a Short Discourse on Hell. These are two very different books, but one thing that they have in common is the belief that Christian hope is christologically-determined hope. (For more on this theme see  my post, ‘Will the Love of God Finally Triumph?’)

I may post on the latter at some stage, but for now I want to draw attention to another book I read this week: Thomas Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God (Boca Raton: Universal, 1999). [Many thanks to Universal Publishers for a review copy].

I want here to post more of a reaction than a formal review. Firstly, Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God has much to commend it. Here’s just a few things:

  1. Talbott’s writing betrays throughout that the questions concerning the fate of unbelievers is one that believers ought to feel existentially.
  2. He seeks to take seriously the omnipotence of divine love, and to allow that love the determination to fulfil its goal.
  3. He seeks to provide a reasoned argument for universalism, and provides some good responses to critics of the doctrine.
  4. Talbott makes good use of the ‘positive’ NT texts that appear to support universalism (such as Rom 5:12-21; 11:11-35; 1 Cor 15:20-28; 2 Cor 5:17-20; Eph 1:10; Phil 2:10-11; Col 1:20 and 1 Tim 2:3-6).
  5. Talbott rejects any notion of a crisis of attributes in God, resisting those tendencies in some quarters to play God love against his justice, or his holiness against his mercy, for example.
  6. His argument is clear. Those who want to finally disagree with him will at least be clear at which points the divergence happens.

However, my initial reaction (which is not always the best barometer!; these thoughts are, therefore, offered most tentatively) to the book is that there are some significant theological weaknesses in Talbott’s universalism. These include:

  1. The doctrine of the Trinity appears to plays no significant – let alone determining – role in his theology. This is a problem for any Christian account of universalism.
  2. At times, Talbott’s argument could have been more christologically controlled than it is. It is not always clear that the Incarnation makes enough difference to the particular argument that he is making. In this respect (alone), Talbott’s argument sometimes reads more like John Hick than it does John Robinson (or the Apostle with the same name, for that matter). Consequently, hope in an apokatastasis panton rests on shakier ground (at certain points) than it might otherwise. [This is not to say that the christological basis for Talbott’s universalism is absent. See, for example, his essay ‘Christ Victorious’, Chapter 2 in Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate.]
  3. Talbott posits that the determining attribute of God is love, but he fails to adequately define that love either in terms of the divine triune community, or in terms of the cross (1 John 4:10). In fact, the atoning work of Christ – what I would consider to be an indispensable part of any cogent defence of Christian universalism – is all but ignored throughout the book.
  4. Contrasting with # 4 above, Talbott’s treatment of the ‘negative’ NT texts is less convincing. In contrast, I found von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope to be a much more balanced treatment here.
  5. Talbott’s disdain for Reformed theology leads him to make too little of the doctrine of election, a doctrine which forms the basis of what are, in my view, the most compelling arguments for christological universalism. Moreover, it seems to me that if Christian-universalist theologians are going to ‘pull-off’ their argument, then they are going to need to posit the kind of God that Reformed theology (at its best!) magnifies.
  6. At significant points, Talbott seems prepared to undermine (sacrifice) divine freedom in an effort – strangely – to secure creaturely freedom.
  7. Talbott undermines the moral affects of the Fall. Subsequently, he has a much more optimistic view of a sinner’s ability and desire to repent and to ‘do the right thing’ unaided by the Spirit than I think the Bible suggests is possible. This leads him to posit that the main reason for human rejection of God is noetic rather than moral: ‘If only we knew how good and loving God is’, he suggests, ‘then we would have no logical reason to not repent’ [These are my words, not his]. Such a move threatens to rationalise sin.
  8. Talbott makes far too little of the ministry of the Spirit.
  9. Talbott is well aware of his opponents (both Reformed and Arminian) but seemingly too little aware of his allies (particularly Reformed ones). This means that he sometimes comes across as more negative than he needs to be. Certainly, his position is not as isolated as he seems to think.

I’m just about to begin Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate (edited by Robin Parry and Chris Partridge) which opens with 3 chapters by Talbott, before various responses are offered – biblical, philosophical, theological and historical. Talbott is given the right of reply in a concluding chapter. After reading Universal Salvation? I may, of course, develop a different perspective on Talbott’s proposal and, if I do, I will gladly recant!

I’m keen to hear from those who have read Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God. What did you think?

You can read more about Talbott’s proposal at his website. He has also kindly made available the following three chapters of his The Inescapable Love of God.

5 comments

  1. Several things about the Bible. God could have written the Bible so that everything was spelled out in a way that there could be no misinterpretation. However, He inspired it in such a way that our inpretation reveals us, rather than him.

    If you can be happy with a God that will same some and not others, than you do not love your neighbor as yourself.

    The Bible tells us that we shall know them by their fruits. That means not only individuals, but also beliefs. Univeral reconcilation, is the only belief that brings about positive fruits. Certainly the religions of this world have brought about fruits that are destructive.

    Only Universal Reconciliation brings fruits of love and compassion, both towards God and our brothers and sisters.

    But we must all travel a road to both self discovery and the discovery of our Father and Brother. We must all wander in the desert for 40 years before we are allowed to go into the promised land.

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  2. I’ve only just caught up with this post, Jason, because I’ve only just finished reading Talbott’s book. You’re probably right about many of your criticisms, and some of them occurred to me too as I was reading. Nevertheless, I found this a very encouraging book, and one that gives great hope for the total salvation of humanity. Paul uses the word ‘all’ so strongly in relation to salvation, and frequently. Either he was using hyperbole a great deal, or he meant what he said. I know it’s not always easy to see when the Scripture writers are exaggerating for effect, but it’s struck me for a long time that Paul means ‘all’ when he says ‘all.’ How that can come about is up to God. Talbott has some suggestions about its process, but only time will tell if he’s even close to the truth. Meanwhile, it not only gives me hope for those who’ve died without becoming believers in this life, but also hope that the rubbish that still seems to accumulate in my own life will be thoroughly dealt with in due course. Which will be a relief!
    You mention some other titles on the subject above. I might have to check them out…

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  3. Your review to me reveals an academic who hasn’t worked out much. Of course Talbott’s right. Let me simplify it for you: Jesus is God John 1:1 God is love 1John 4:8 Love NEVER fails 1Corinthians 13:8 , case closed, but for the academics , Jesus was sent/came to save everyone/sinners so unless he does save everyone he’s a failure and the One who inspired the Bible is a serial liar: ” No one is cast off by the Lord forever, though he brings grief, he will show compassion because of the greatness of his UNFAILING love” Lamentations 3:31,33. Christ came to do the will of his Father; which is “that all men be saved” 1Timothy 2:4 ; did Christ fail? , can God do what he wills or is The Almighty not Almighty , is he is Sovereign down to the roll of a dice Proverbs 16:33 a lie ? as Isaiah 46:10 which says God will accomplish all he wills must also be false along with Daniel 4:35, Ephesians 1:11 which also must be lies if Jesus’s mission and God’s will fail. The absurdity of God or Christ failing is made plain in scripture and if all that nonsense about eternal punishment is not errantly translated, as it most surely is, we are left with the inspired word of God contradicting itself and of no effect. why do we not hear more preachers echoing the 8th century prophet Isaiah’s record Of God’s solemn oath that all mankind will worship him and freely give their loyalty and commitment ” I have sworn by myself, the words have left my mouth in righteousness and will not be revoked, that to me, every knee will bow and every tongue will swear allegiance” Isaiah 45:23 . Try and imagine a booming voice shaking mountains hahaha, appropriate to an Almighty who doesn’t regard failure as an option and who came in person and died on a cross shedding his blood to ensure reconciliation with not only earth but all heaven as well Colossians 1:20, and you may begin to grasp that the common Christian preacher is a liar and confused failure but Jesus was totally victorious on the cross by his grace and his faith, totally a gift of God and nothing to do with ourselves. Our faith or belief in Christ is also a gift which leads us to the path of knowing God and what he has done and wills for us John 3:27, given at different times and in variant measure Romans 12:3 In the Greek, do not the words transliterated ” It is finished ” more accurately render ” I have accomplished what I set out to do “

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