Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The future of Christian Universalism debates

I don't believe that the debate about Christian Universalism can circumnavigate scripture, and solve the issues with recourse to systematic theology. After all, systematic theology at its heart is (or should be) all about exegesis. However, no Christian Universalist with an ounce of honesty would deny that there are 'problem texts' for his or her position (as indeed there are for the traditional view). Hence, the debate about Universalism cannot be resolved merely in terms of systematic theology or exegesis alone. Interested parties in the debate must negotiate their positions in terms of a big picture mixture of hermeneutical, biblical Wirkungsgeschichte, exegetical and theological concerns. The days of quoting this or that scripture, or making recourse to this or that theological axiom – as if that settled the debate – are long over.


At 1/16/2008 10:11 PM, Anonymous Jason Goroncy said...

Yes. Yes. Yes.

At 1/17/2008 2:31 AM, Anonymous W. Travis McMaken said...

Bruce McCormack did precisely the kind of work you are calling for on this point in his contribution to the 2007 Barth Conference here in Princeton. It will be published with the remainder of the conference proceedings in due course. The content of this soon-to-be-chapter is not, however, new to his students: he has been lecturing on the material in courses on the atonement and on the doctrine of election for a number of years. Thus, if you run in to many Christian universalists from PTS, it may be helpful to assume that they are assuming this material in their engagement with the issue.

At 1/17/2008 2:50 AM, Anonymous Jason Goroncy said...

I agree with Travis. Professor McCormack's paper from the 2007 Barth Conference is an exemplary model of how this (and any theological) discussion ought to proceed.

At 1/17/2008 6:49 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

I ought to add that I think MacDonald does, to a large extent, what I suggested. Now it needs a counter argument with just as much depth.

I heard a McCormack lecture on this subject and found it very helpful.

At 1/17/2008 3:57 PM, Anonymous Cliff Martin said...

Chris, you make an excellent point here, and I do not disagree. But it left me wondering. You apply these new "ground rules" for debate to Christian Universalism. Would your comments not equally apply to debates about the Virgin Birth, the Bodily Resurrection, the Trinity, Providence vs Free Will, etc? Are there any "sacred truths" that you would exempt from your suggested approach to Universalism? And if so, why?

At 1/17/2008 9:48 PM, Anonymous Rachel said...

I think this is where we run into a problem with "sola scriptura." Protestants are at am impasse when it comes to this issue and we can't give church history the benefit of a doubt! Even though Origen's version of universalism was condemned, Gregory of Nyssa was also an outspoken universalist without the weird pre-existence ideas and the church never condemned him. You would think that if universalism were some big heresy they would have taken steps to set the record straight as with the Arian and Nestorian controversies.

At 1/17/2008 10:36 PM, Anonymous Owen Weddle said...

Not necessarily. The Arian and Nestorian controversies were necessitated by not merely a certain teaching beng out there, but one that was gaining a large following. Universalism did not garner a huge following early on I believe. I am only conscious of Gregory of Nyssa, Origen, and Clement of Alexandria that were proponents of universalism. In other words, only a small percentage of the early teachers.

Beyond that though, the Arian and Nestorian controversies were centered around the person of Christ, the central part of the Christian faith. As such, more energy would be focused upon the foundational teachings. Universalism would be a secondary issue then. As such, it wouldn't garner much controversy either.

So we don't need to give Universalism a pass merely because of its absence as controversy in the early church. The early church had different battles to fight. If Universalism is a heresy (if we define heresy objectively and not subjectively), it didn't necessitate the attention necessary to get it labeled as such in the early church.

At 1/18/2008 7:55 AM, Anonymous Shane Clifton said...

"After all, systematic theology at its heart is (or should be) all about exegesis"

Chris Tilling, I realise that you are a biblical scholar, but I would expect better of you than this! Exegesis helps us to understand the meaning of texts (texts that are foundational to Christian theology), but that is not what systematic theology is all about.

In fact, i think you make this very point in your concluding comments to this post!

At 1/19/2008 7:35 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks for your great question.
I would have to say that I would want to apply the same ‘rules’ to any subject. Personally, I think the first four of your list can be confidently affirmed in the light of such a process – as better theologians than I ever will be have already argued. They are secure truths partly for that very reason. They are ‘sacred’ truths, more importantly, not because the church has recognised them as such, but because they are True.
The providence free will issue, however, has a more differentiated situation to face.
What do you think?

Rachel, Thanks for your comment.
Some have suggested (this is beyond my ken) that Origen was rejected by the Catholics (apart from Benny!) partly because of his universalism. But that there was no council as such is probably due to the fact that it never generated much of a following (as Owen argued, and I would add that this was so for very concrete sociological reasons too).

Shane, Thanks for your comments.
I think my lack of clarity has caused misunderstanding here. I didn’t want to say that exegesis is systematic theology, nor is it not the sum of theology, but that it lies at its heart. As Jüngel says, systematic theology is nothing if not consistent exegesis. As Barth said: ‘listen to my advice: exegesis, exegesis, and yet more exegesis! Keep to the Word, to the scripture that has been given to us’

At 1/19/2008 11:39 PM, Anonymous Cliff Martin said...

After a life time of listening to conservatives malign Barth (and yet appreciating every Barth quote I've every read), it is refreshing for me to read that last quote, that he was really such a biblicist! Thank you Chris.

And thank you for your response to me question. So, is this, for you, something of a departure from sola scriptura?

Whether or not I have ever articulated the position as you did in this post, it has been my approach to all matters of theology.

At 1/31/2009 9:14 PM, Anonymous Valera said...

Short, yet very true post, Chris!

I came to a realization of this only after a few year of studying theology as it relates the the question of hell.

I would though add a philosophical dimension to the ones you've listed!



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