Christian Universalism Pt. 3
This is the final part of my Christian Universalism trilogy. Cf. parts 1 and 2.
Certainly at first sight, then, there appear to be two different possible answers to the question, ‘Will everybody finally be saved/reconciled to God?’, from within the biblical texts, and the logical categories derived from these texts.
The problem with this theme is that the questions thrown up in the Christian Universalism (CU) debate go to the very heart of Christian theology, and are bound up with a myriad of other themes like: free-will and divine-determination, the role played by reason, tradition and Scripture, etc., and this makes short posts on a blog almost unbearably superficial. This, the last post in the series, will a) look at how some Christian theologians have attempted to resolve the apparent tensions, b) make some suggestions as to what matters future debate needs ‘take on board’, and c) give a brief personal note.
A) Approaches that have been taken to resolve the apparent tension/contradiction in the texts:
- Stress the prima facie value of the sort of texts mentioned in the first part of this series, eternal separation and ‘hell’ texts, and seek to read the apparent universalist texts in a different way (the Traditionalist approach, e.g. by I. H. Marshall)
- Stress the apparent universalist texts and sort of logic mentioned in the second part of this series, and seek to reinterpret the nature of ‘eternity’ and ‘punishment’, making it something redemptive (Talbott), or as just a rhetorical threat, i.e., not something that will actually happen (J. Robinson).
- Others want to allow room for the ‘natural’ reading of all texts, accept them, then redefine what the Scriptures are actually doing, as opposed to providing timelessly true teaching (Brunner), and thereby transport the question to the realm of verbal ‘hope’ (Barth, von Balthasar)
B) A couple of issues that the developing discussion would do well to bear in mind:
- The texts usually quoted for or against CU need to be more firmly contextualised. What questions Paul was actually seeking to address in 1 Cor 15 and Rom 5 need to be brought more firmly into the heart of the debate. Sven Hillert in his, Limited and Universal Salvation, has started this process, but I suspect much more integration work with the rest of Paul’s theology needs to be done.
- The exegesis of the NT witness also needs to be contextualised more thoroughly in the literature of second Temple Judaism and seek to uncover how these other traditions held the matters in tension, and why they did so. E.g., even the Dead Sea Scrolls literature evidences remarkable universalist tendencies (pretty much universally underestimated by DSS scholarship!).
- Perhaps particularly for evangelicals to engage with is the following: the relation between the witness of Scripture as a whole, and the centrality of God’s revelation in Christ needs to be clarified. ‘In these last days’, the author of Hebrews writes, ‘God has spoken to us by the Son (not through the 1611 KJV!)’
- The theme of ‘new creation’ needs to be brought back in to centre stage, and replace much talk of ‘heaven’.
- Ones hermeneutical approach needs to engage more thoroughly both with the dynamics of scriptural narrative (and not simply limp out verses or theological platitudes), and the missional and ecclesiological consequences and goals of the debate.
- Like Bultmann, Wright etc., who have explicitly sought to erect an interpretive edifice around the reading of the NT texts (much like scaffolding around a building) and to test it against the texts, the CUs and their critics need to engage in such thought experiments to determine whether or not the addition of CU to Paul’s edifice helps to better explain, or not, specific contextual arguments and strategies within his letters. OK, that last sentence was a bit wordy, but, for me, important.
I could go on, but this post is already getting too long.
I’ll finish with personal note: I would dearly love CU to be correct, not just as a hope, but as a believable dogma - dearly love it to be true. Furthermore, the CU approach makes so much sense (bar the sovereign freedom of God [Barth] and seriousness of sin coupled with human free-will) of major theological themes and problems.
However, out of intellectual honesty, I cannot (yet) believe Paul was as a universalist, or, for that matter, anyone else in the bible. There are far too many places in Paul’s letters that I suspect, would have been written and approached very differently were he a CU (see point 6 above). Nevertheless, perhaps CU is the best and most consistent way to understand Paul’s theology for today, and an accurate, but nevertheless developed, representation of his eschatology and soteriology, but the evangelical in me doesn’t, yet, quite know how to handle this, and thus how to interpret matters into my own theological framework. Hence my reading and study with regards this question continues ...
My provisional position, and I stress provisional: I 200% hope CU is correct, but I am, as yet, 80% unconvinced. Admittedly, such percentage numbers hardly mean much.