Thomas Talbot

April Book Notes – 1

While there certainly remains a place for more lengthy book reviews, I thought it might be useful to just pen a few very brief book notes (and give some scores – ♦ – out of 5) on some of the more significant books I read each month. So here’s a few from April so far. As you can see, I’ve been following a definite theme.

Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz, The Kingdom and the Power: The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann (trans. John Bowden; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

This is one of the most helpful introductions to Moltmann’s thought available. Appreciative, but not uncritical at key points, Müller-Fahrenholz introduces us to the big themes in Moltmann’s major works. Recommended. ♦♦♦

Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed., Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell: Papers Presented at the Fourth Edinburgh Conference on Christian Dogmatics, 1991 (Carlisle/Grand Rapids: Paternoster/Baker, 1993).

Like most collections of essays, this one is a bit hit and miss. The better essays are those by Trevor Hart, David Powys, TF Torrance and Henri Blocher. ♦♦½

Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (Boca Raton: Universal, 1999).

See my review here. ♦♦♦

Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge, ed., Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003).

This is a well chosen collection of essays and authors on a timely and important topic for evangelicals. It seeks to engage with Talbott’s thesis of dogmatic universalism which Talbott outlines in the first 3 chapters. His chapter on ‘Christ Victorious’ expands on what I believe is an underplayed theme in his The Inescapable Love of God, and so I was encouraged to see it included here. Biblical, philosophical, theological and historical responses are then offered. Talbott responds briefly in the final chapter. The best responses are those offered by Eric Reitan, David Hilborn and Don Horrocks. Overall, it’s a helpful discussion. It needs an index, but the book is worth buying for the bibliography alone. It’s 18 pages! ♦♦♦

Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2006).

This is the most well argued exegetical treatment on the subject of universalism currently available. It’s well written, and the combination of ‘MacDonald’s’ cogency of argument, respect for the Biblical texts, and personal humility as to his claims makes his advocacy of evangelical universalism most attractive. Those who disagree with his position will find here a case worthy of as humble response. Good bibliography, but no index. ♦♦♦♦

Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007).

A beautifully-written reflection – it’s almost a poem – that deserves the widest readership. ♦♦♦♦

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? With a Short Discourse on Hell (Fort Collins: Ignatius Press, 1988).

While this wee book is not particularly well written (it may be better in the German), it’s almost impossible to put down, and it really does have not a few flashes of magnificent insight. Von Balthasar’s overall thesis regarding a hopeful universalism is attractive, even if not at every point convincing. His aggregating of quotes reminded me of Bloesch’s work (which I love). A good read. ♦♦♦½

Lindsey Hall, Swinburne’s Hell and Hick’s Universalism: Are we free to reject God? (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).

This is a helpfully lucid outline and critical response to important themes in the theology of Richard Swinburne and John Hick. While her own position is considerably more Hickian than perhaps most evangelical universalists will be comfortable with, Hall is to be commended for avoiding stereotypes and for offering a cogent contribution to an increasingly voluminous discussion on the question of Christian universalism. ♦♦♦

Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart, Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millennium (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999).

Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart pair up again for this project that arose out of number of conferences and the result is a stunning collection of six essays on Christian hope – its context, its value, its basis, its power, its praxis, and its goal. Bauckham and Hart set out not merely to expose modernity’s myth of inevitable progress and postmodernity’s Nietzschian anti-metanarrative and deconstruction of mimetic imagination, but do so by laying before our eyes the broad and graced vision of God’s promises begun in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and fully realised in the new creation. Inspired by the work of Jürgen Moltmann (to whom the book is dedicated), this is a book that requires careful and reflective reading, stopping regularly to view the terrain, and then returning to again and again to grapple with its implications. This is one to buy, read, keep and re-read. [NB. This may be a biased note as Trevor is my doctoral supervisor]. ♦♦♦♦

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.