Monday, July 30, 2007

Gregory MacDonald responds to my previous post

Gregory MacDonald (author of The Evangelical Universalist) asked if I could post this simply as a comment on my posting rather make it a post of its own, but I thought it would be worthwhile to put this helpful response on the main blog page to discuss.

I'd be most interested to hear what people think of his response.

"Thank you for your intelligent and helpful response to my work and that of other Christian Universalists. Let me make the following comments by way of initial response:

You make the point very well that Paul makes a distinction between the judgment of believers in this age and the condemnation of nonbelievers at the end of the age. You'll get no argument from me on that front. You also note that the redemptive judgment texts appealed to in Paul fall into the category of texts about the judgment of believers in this age. That is correct. Indeed there is very little in your exegesis that I would wish to question. One thing I would pick up on is the distinction between those who have hope (believers) and those who have no hope (non believers). That distinction is Pauline but we must not forget that Gentile believers were also once "without hope" (Eph 2:12). That nonbelievers have no hope does not mean that salvation cannot be their ultimate destiny.

So, if I agree with you on almost everything you say, what of my claim that Paul was a universalist? Well, I don't think that my book ever claims that Paul was a universalist … at least, a universalist in the way that I am (though I freely confess to being somewhat ambiguous on the matter). Did Paul think of hell as corrective? He never comes out and says so. The argument in my book is slightly different. I am trying to do contemporary Christian theology grounded (in part) in Pauline theology and this requires me to extend some of Paul own teaching in ways that I think are fully consistent with it. So I think that Paul did envisage a universal salvation (and he was a robust universalist of sorts) and I think that he also envisaged a condemnation of unbelievers. He never tried to explain how those two ideas can be held together so I suggest a way of doing it (a way I find more helpful than alternative suggestions). Now I am well aware that when I do so I am not seeking to explain the way that the historical Paul did it. As I say, he was not writing systematic theology for our convenience and so he simply does not tell us how to do it. He may not even have thought it through himself – who knows? So perhaps you and I actually agree and may be in danger of speaking past each other. When I speak of hell as corrective I am not seeking to say what Paul said but what I think that I must say in the light of what Paul said. Now I argue that one can draw biblical support for this notion of hell as corrective from the wider biblical teachings on divine punishment (and I argue that God's punishment of Israel and the church is not utterly different from his punishment of unbelievers. The distinction between punishment of believers now and unbelievers in hell is one of degree but in kind they are not totally different). Thus I do draw a little (and only a little) on Pauline texts that speak of the correction of believers. This is not because I think that one can infer directly from such texts that hell is like that. Rather I think that such texts can play a role in a more general understanding of divine punishment and feed indirectly into a theology of hell. So I am transcending Paul's intent. Am I subverting it? I would be if Paul's teaching on final punishment ruled out any future deliverance. My point is that the only text that seems to do so 2 Thess 1:8-9 and I don't think that it needs to be read that way. However, if I am wrong in thinking that we can do justice to the breath of Paul's teachings in this area (i.e., that the distinction between the judgment of believers and unbelievers is more radical than I maintain) and that my suggestion entails a denial of some of Paul's teachings then I am wrong and another way needs to be found to hold the texts together. Hope that is of some help but I suspect that I have not really replied adequately.

Gregory MacDonald"


At 7/31/2007 2:46 AM, Anonymous Judy Redman said...

Gregory's response reminded me of one of the problems that I think we have in producing doctrine. I do not think that either Paul or any of the other NT writers saw themselves as writing systematic theology. I am fairly sure that Paul didn't expect that anyone would take the letters that he wrote to different early Christian communities and hold them up against one another and say "but he says X here and Y there".

Paul was an apologist who was trying to get people to become followers of Christ. He was writing material that was designed to be performed to his intended audience and I am pretty sure that he wasn't beyond a bit of hyperbole in order to convince his audience. I think it's very clear that he was quite sure that those who didn't become followers of Christ were in for a much tougher trot at the end of the age than were those who did. I think it is far less clear what he thought that actually was.

He also clearly believed that some of what he wrote came from God and some of it was his own opinion. Unfortunately, he didn't differentiate clearly enough for us to be sure exactly which bits of the Pauline corpus are which. :-)

At 7/31/2007 2:50 AM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

I suspect that both you and MacDonald could take a moment to step back a wee bit further and consider a wider range of ideas and arguments rather than simply attempting to harmonize Paul with Paul. One can of course attempt to spend one's life harmonizing priestly views with those of the prophets, or the views of the wisdom writers with those of the Psalmists, or attempting to harmonize James with Romans, or the Jesus of the synoptics with John.

But one might also at some point step back and ask oneself just what one is defending and attempting to harmonize?

Consider the Bible for a moment in another light, as perhaps an ancient people's list of "favorite books," like a top ten list some people put together, and now everybody who believes it contains some truth is supposed to try and make every diverse view in every book stick together like harmonious glue using all the mental flexibility at our disposal?

I take the view that I love some portions of the Bible, like 1 Cor. 13, and various teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes of Matthew and Luke, and many O.T. verses as well.

In other words I'm willing to create a top ten list of my own, something the ancients did when deciding between books to included in their "canons." But my list is a lot shorter, and takes what appears to be the most inspiring and practical wisdom from portions of the Bible, and portions of any other books as well.

What is the best book in the world? I'd say that even the best book remains a mere book, and not life itself. Even the best book is one that can eventually bore you, if only through repetition. Be open to the best in every person, every experience and every book, and use your better judgment, built upon a lifetime of your own experiences. Books are not life, and cannot lead your life for you. You must decide. Even Bible believers have to decide which passages in Scripture deserve greater emphasis than others. And if an action commends itself to your conscience you don't need a book to also tell you whether it is "good" or not.

At 7/31/2007 2:52 AM, Anonymous Edward T. Babinski said...

Also, for a treat concerning problems inherent in reconciling Paul with Paul, one might want to read Robert Farrar Capon's book, Hunting the Divine Fox. Capon dissects Paul's train of logic, pointing out where and when it gets derailed. Capon is quite an interesting read as are his other books as well, like The Parables of Judgment.

At 7/31/2007 5:08 AM, Anonymous Cliff Martin said...

Gregory uses the terms "punish" and "punishment" quite freely. There are a number of New Testament words so translated, but they fall into two distinct groups. Most of them are corrective, (examples would include koladzo and paideia). The whole essence of corrective chastisement has less to do with penalty, and more to do with correction. Rarer in the New Testament are the words that speak of punishment per se, penalty for specific wrong-doing (an example would be ekdikeo, literally, "out of justice"). And where ekdikeo occurs, it usually has more to do with avenging the cause of some third "wronged" party then actual retribution for the perpetrator. In other words, the punishment has more to do with the third party's right to justice than with an offended God.

It seems to me that the notion of God executing punishment is actually somewhat rare in the New Testament, and you could perhaps make a case that it is non-existent. Not surprising in view of the fact that the guilt for the sins of the whole world has already been fully punished. If punishement is still on the table, what does that say about the efficacy of Christ's payment?

John 3:18 suggests that the only condemning factor for any person today is his or her rejection of Jesus.

I am not a Unversalist. But I arrive at my position wholly apart from notions of punishment. To think of God continuing to execute puinishment upon sinners for millenia to come is extremely distasteful, and I do not think the N.T. warrants any such view. Rather, Hell is that unavoidable consequence of a rejection of the person and life
of Jesus, a choice that seems only to become increasingly solidfied in life, and moves on to crystalization at death (Revelation 22:11). Hell is the continuing choice of many who taste of it's horrors in this life. Why should we expect that choice to change in the life that is to come?

~ Cliff Martin

At 7/31/2007 6:30 AM, Anonymous J. Clark said...

It is an interesting thing that anyone could read the Bible and think that it doesn't teach eternal consequences to our actions. It seems that the universalist now has his own Calvinistic God. One that has predetermined everyone to Heaven. I do not quite see what all the commotion is about Jesus and such(justice, morality, and a good steak) if we all in the end get him whether we like it or not.

Babinsky, who let you out of the "origins" pen to plea with men about a god? Keep working on that subversive apologetic for skepticism. I was almost fooled to thinking that reading the Bible was no different than reading Mother Goose.

At 7/31/2007 6:49 AM, Anonymous J. Clark said...

One other point, the whole universalistic doctrine doesn't pass the reality/experience test. Are we humans so ungraceful that we would allow a man to have the death penalty or a lifetime in jail as punishment while God lets the murderer rest in His bosom? Do we have no understanding of justice? The doctrine nullifies so many verses in the Bible but here are two: "unless a man take up his cross" Unless what? No more consequences, take up your spear, you'll be forgiven. How bout, "a man must be born of God, not of flesh & blood nor of men" to be children of God. You might as well be born of a heifer.

I don't think Paul was an apologist, he was writing for believers of (usually) specific geographical churches. "a bit of hyperbole" Do you mean emotionally charged language to get across a point or do you mean fabricating or lying?
And as many times as I've read Paul, I have felt, generally speaking, confident of his distinctions.
The real problem with understanding of the Bible is not reading more German redactional criticisms (sorry Chris) or ancient Aquanis' sytematic theologies. (I guess those are genres) The chief problem lies with little aquantince with the Spirit who teaches all Truth. Men like Babinsky lose their "faith" at seminary not because they are so smart and figured out the "Q" hypothesis but because they divorced their heart from the source of all life for which faith receives its breath.

At 7/31/2007 7:08 AM, Anonymous Nick Norelli said...

:::scratches head:::::

Did Babinski's first comment have anything to do with the post he was commenting on???


At 7/31/2007 7:01 PM, Anonymous Cliff Martin said...

J. Clark asks, "Are we humans so ungraceful that we would allow a man to have the death penalty or a lifetime in jail as punishment while God lets the murderer rest in His bosom? Do we have no understanding of justice"

Ah, but God does let murderers lie in his bosom! The difference is not so much that we are inherently ungraceful. The difference is that we are not very adept at exercising grace. God is. He knows just when and where to pour out grace. If we tried to do that in our jucicial systems, we would fail miserably. But God is good at this kind of thing!

My view of grace does not lead me to Universalism. But it seems your view of grace might lead to an empty Heaven.

~ Cliff Martin

At 7/31/2007 7:14 PM, Anonymous Jason Goroncy said...

Chris. Just wanted to say thanks for posting this response in a separate post. I appreciated 'McDonald's' clarifying and would probably have missed it if it had been stuck away in the comments section. BTW: I'm really enjoying your posts.

At 7/31/2007 11:30 PM, Anonymous J. Clark said...

Actually I agree with you. I think you missed the analogy. If our punishments are just then how much more are his. Everyman enters the gates of Heaven by grace but not everyman enters the gates. No man who refuses to receive a gift will enjoy the gift. It's not that there is a lack of grace but the grace is not received. The insurrectionist on the cross was not entering Jesus' paradise until he finally received the gift. Grace forgave His sin. The other one refused the gift and was left in condemnation.
I think the internet is a difficult place to communicate even in the most simple of matters.

At 8/01/2007 3:52 AM, Anonymous the ROCK says said...

'Are we humans so ungraceful that we would allow a man to have the death penalty or a lifetime in jail as punishment while God lets the murderer rest in His bosom? Do we have no understanding of justice?'

What if God's justice is not only about the murderer's punishment but also his restoration?

At 8/01/2007 8:20 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Great discussion!
I'm preparing two papers at the mo so I'll keep out of this for now!

At 8/02/2007 1:21 AM, Anonymous J. Clark said...

That is what this life is for.

Hebrews 9:27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him

Notice, who Jesus is coming for, "those who are eagerly waiting for him." I know a lot of people who are eagerly waiting for a piece of ______ but not for Jesus. After this life, there comes judgment. Why is it so difficult to believe that the God of the universe knows who has received his grace and who has rejected it for eternity?

At 8/02/2007 1:34 AM, Anonymous J. Clark said...

Here's a short essay by an Englishman on "universalism."

"Evil can be undone, but it cannot develop: into good. Time does not heal it."

It seems to me, there may be an issue here(in the universalism debate) of soteriology.

At 8/02/2007 10:03 PM, Anonymous Jason Pratt said...


I am not aware of any universalist who is defending the position that _time_ heals evil, undoes it, or turns it into good. {s} Certainly I am not. Nor am I aware of any universalist, including myself, who is defending or even merely proposing the position, that evil develops itself into good. We are not naturalists, atheists, or Satanists.

So, _that_ misunderstanding being cleared up: does anyone here, among those of us who believe and trust in God, dissent against the notion that _God_ heals evil, undoes evil, brings good out of evil, and acts to save evil ones from their evil by destroying their evil? Who here denies "the Lord is salvation" or "the Lord saves"? (i.e. the name of Jesus)

Not me! {g}

But, perhaps there is an issue _here_, in the debate about soteriology...?


At 8/03/2007 6:40 PM, Anonymous J. Clark said...

Yes, that quote is C.S. Lewis' and obviously comes out of an issue of soteriology. The Lord saves, yes, but now we have stepped into the debate of all ages: Augustine or Pelagian? Well, maybe that is not the dichotomy we want but none the less. I have been reading the Hindu Scriptures and have found some similar problems with their doctrines and theologies as with universalism. And Lewis brings it to light: "either/or" not ambiguously both. A man cannot be both born again and dead in his sins. The Lord saves, yes, saves who? Those who call upon His name. I know of no other means which a man must be saved except he be born of God. Jesus, emphatically says, "You must be born again." It is commanded to those who want to enter the kingdom of God. Without parsing every word in the Bible, somehow a man is born again by his receiving God's grace. If you will not receive then you will not receive. God will force no man.

At 8/04/2007 4:25 AM, Anonymous ntWrong said...

The comments seem to have lost track of the original post and the specific question Chris posed.

In the post, Gregory explains the way that he handles the pauline texts: When I speak of hell as corrective I am not seeking to say what _Paul_ said but what I think that _I_ must say in the light of what Paul said.

Chris asks our opinion on whether Gregory's approach is legitimate.

In my opinion, the approach is indeed legitimate. I suspect we are all forced to use it when dealing with ethical issues of the sort that arise from modern technology, which the authors of scripture never contemplated.

Of course, this is a different scenario because it deals with a topic that Paul did contemplate and which he explicitly addressed. But I think Judy made a good point at the outset of the discussion. When Paul wrote his earliest epistles, he believed that the Lord's return was imminent. He wasn't writing systematic theology, nor did he sit down to write for the ages. Even Romans (the "mature" Paul?) should not be pressed so far.

I think we have a responsibility to seek the trajectory of Paul's thought (his core principles), and likewise of Jesus' thought, and follow the trajectory out further than either Paul or Jesus took it.

For the record, I don't agree with Gregory's conclusions. But I see nothing objectionable in his approach.

At 8/06/2007 12:27 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks, Stephen, you may well be right. We need to think with Paul, but that raises a whole new set of questions to which I do not have an answer - even if it is exciting. I have much to think on still!

At 8/06/2007 5:46 PM, Anonymous Jason Pratt said...

Steven (aka q) notes: "The comments seem to have lost track of the original post and the specific question Chris posted."

Not lost track, so much as already-opined on by the conversants so far. {g}

That being said, while I can (with strong provision) agree with the notion that we can have a responsibility to seek the trajectory of a prophet's thought, out further than the prophet may have given it; I am obviously going to have equally strong theological cautions against doing the same thing for Jesus. Not that that's impossible: obviously Jesus didn't go around teaching the Athanasian Creed (or if He did, we have no record of it!) But if we're talking about a situation where (as another mere _prophet_ might) Jesus simply didn't understand the content of what He was saying, and so we have to extrapolate beyond it to get to the truth of what God was trying to communicate, then (obviously) I'm going to call a halt.

That probably wasn't what you meant to be proposing, but it seemed like a good idea to make my limits clear on that. {g}


At 8/08/2007 2:15 AM, Anonymous Judy Redman said...

I haven't been back to this post for a while - very busy. J Clark asks what I meant by "a bit of hyperbole" - I meant emotionally charged language, perhaps some exaggeration of the "everybody knows" when your sample size of "everybody" is not that large, rather than lying or fabrication.


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