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].
- Talbott’s writing betrays throughout that the questions concerning the fate of unbelievers is one that believers ought to feel existentially.
- He seeks to take seriously the omnipotence of divine love, and to allow that love the determination to fulfil its goal.
- He seeks to provide a reasoned argument for universalism, and provides some good responses to critics of the doctrine.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- At significant points, Talbott seems prepared to undermine (sacrifice) divine freedom in an effort – strangely – to secure creaturely freedom.
- 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.
- Talbott makes far too little of the ministry of the Spirit.
- 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?