Thursday, September 23, 2010

3 thoughts about the discussion about Universalism

After chatting with Alex offline today I think there are three issues that should shape the contours of our discussion about Universalism.
  1. All passages need to be explained and qualified. Sets of 'problem passages' exist for Universalism and traditional theology, both these and other apparently clear passages need explanation.  (I'm not saying Scripture is entirely unclear but that the work of putting things in context belongs to both camps.) 
  2. How much of the larger theological framework is changed by Universalism?  Although Universalism and traditional theology come in number of shades it's important to realize that the central premise of Universalism changes a number of other doctrines.  
  3. How mainstream is the Universalist interpretation? Through Church History has the Universalist position been a consistent minority, an infrequent fringe or always outside the traditional camp? 

19 comments:

Jereth said...

Luke, I hope you don't mind - I'm re-posting this from the older thread that was getting very long and potentially sidetracked.

Hopefully this can be a fresh start.

------------

An attempt to get things back on track: here is my summary of 3 major issues that I have with universalism

1. "eternal" and "forever and ever"; if this is re-defined, what does that mean for eternal salvation, eternal life, God's eternal existence, to God be the glory "forever and ever" etc. Alex has had a go at dealing with this but not satisfactorily

2. The idea that God's universal victory, universal peace, and universal acknowledgement of Jesus' lordship must mean universal repentance (including of the devil and his angels). This is unconvincing.
- there is nothing in Scripture to even remotely suggest the devil and demons will repent
- it cannot be proven that true peace cannot and will not be established through involuntary subjugation of God's enemies
- involuntary subjugation of God's enemies is in fact taught in several texts, eg. Psalm 110:1; Heb 10:12-13; 1 Cor 15:24-28.

3. Hell has an exit door that leads to heaven
- there is not a single Scripture text that teaches that people will one day leave hell, or that repentance will occur in hell
- Luke 16:26 makes it clear that no one can cross over from hell to paradise, and vice versa

Gordon Cheng said...

Hey Luke, sorry I never got around to answering you're sola panel question. I'm not uninterested, and I'm glad to see you're fighting the good fight, but just never got to it. I enjoy reading your stuff on it though.

Alex Smith said...

To Luke:
It was a pleasure chatting and eating with with you today :)

I totally agree with your first point.

It will be interesting to see which doctrines change, and by how much.

I think Parry's new book http://theologicalscribbles.blogspot.com/2010/09/all-shall-be-well-edited-by-gregory.html , due out in 6-8 weeks, will help answer this question. I've looked at things like this http://www.tentmaker.org/books/Prevailing.html but question how accurate it is.

Keith DeRose said: But on the topic of the views of the historical church. I certainly accept that universalism has been a minority position from the beginning. However, it seems it was a well-represented minority position in the early church. It's not like it was just Origen. In fact, the Church father that seems most looked to by current universalists seems to be Gregory of Nyssa. A very brief history can be found in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge; see:
http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/encyc12/Page_96.html
While S-H correctly notes that universalism was never the majority position of the church, they also note:
"In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea, and Edessa or Nisibis) were Universalist, one (Ephasus) accepted conditional immortaility; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked."

Alex Smith said...

To Jereth:

1. Sorry that you didn't find my summary satisfactory. I can only suggest reading the fuller explanations in Talbott's & Parry's book :)

2. You are certainly hard to convince, however, that's ok, at least we are becoming clear what the key points of contention are. Again, Talbott & Parry deal with voluntary vs. involuntary submission in much more detail.

3. Parry deals extremely well with this point and as my summaries of chapters hasn't been helpful for you, I'll leave this for now.

James Goetz said...

Hi Luke,

Nice work on your blog.:)

I agree with your first point apart from some of the wording.

Concerning your second point, at least in the case of my approach to universalism, the rest of my Neo-Pentecostal theology barely changed.

Per your third point, regardless of the controversies, 1 Corinthians 15:29 and possibly 1 Peter 3:1—4:6 indicate Apostolic Church belief in postmortem conversion. This belief in itself isn't strong universalism, but it suggests the possibility of universalism. Also, these verses don't prove that belief in postmortem conversion was the dominant view in the Apostolic Church, but the view clearly existed in the Apostolic Church. Likewise, these verses challenge assumptions that belief in fixed damnation at death was the sole "traditional theology" of the Apostolic Church.

Jereth said...

Dear Alex,

I do not possess those books and I was honestly hoping that you would help me by providing some of your own explanation here. I don't mean this to sound rude, but if you are very much persuaded in your own mind by the doctrine of universalism, I would expect that you would be able to explain some of its more difficult aspects to someone else who is having trouble coming to grips with it.

I want to assure you that I am not being intentionally difficult or "hard to convince". These are genuine problems that I (and most Christians) have with the doctrine of universalism. I have changed my mind on a number of doctrinal issues in the past; if it can be shown me that the Bible teaches something, I will believe it.

In any case, perhaps our discussion has run its course and it is time to move on.

Best wishes,
Jereth

Luke said...

Jereth
Thanks for debating Jereth, make sure you stop by in the future though.
Gordon
Thanks also for stopping by, I think the debate (for me) is now about establishing the place of Universalism in Christianity, doctrinally and historically.
Alex
It was a good chat! Regarding church history, I have no idea what the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia (That edition is a 100 out of date, hopefully the latest edition is clearer and better sourced!) actually means! Who are all these alleged church fathers who were Universalists? If Universalism was the majority view, (which is a staggering claim) why haven't DeRose, Talbott and Perry pointed to them? This single quote from Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia is fairly thin evidence. (I having almost the same debate with your dad in the other thread!)

James
I see you've found your way over, welcome!

Although the possibility of a universalist reading might exist, that in and of its self doesn't prove the traditional view wasn't the dominate and preferred one.

James Goetz said...

Thank you, Luke. I like to find blogs that analyze subjects that I research.:)

I agree that if 1 Corinthians and 1 Peter (and Revelation) implied the possibility of universalism (possible universalism), then that doesn't necessitate that possible universalism was the majority doctrine in the Ancient Church. But strong evidence indicates that possible universalism was a widespread doctrine in the Ancient Church while no Ancient Church creed refuted possible universalism.

By the way, Parry (http://theologicalscribbles.blogspot.com/2010/09/all-shall-be-well-cover-and-blurb.html) supposes that universalism was a minority view in the Ancient Church.

Luke said...

Hi James,

But Parry only mentions Orign and Gregory Nyssa. Origin's suspect and I think the jury is out on Clement, who are the others?

James Goetz said...

Luke,

First, I heard prepublication privy that Parry only chose a sample of universalists. And the book is over 400 pages, so nobody can blame him for only selecting a sample of universalists.

Second, acceptance or rejection of postmortem conversion/universalism was barely a debated topic among Church Fathers until Augustine. For example, it was always a secondary doctrine that the Ancient Creeds never addressed.

Here is a sum of ideas on universalism in Ancient Church history:

Philip Schaff noted that of the six known "schools" in the Early Church, four of them taught universalism. Also, all of the Early Church taught that Christ preached the gospel in hell according to 1 Peter 3:18-20 & 4:6, but the Early Church disputed if Christ preached the gospel in hell to everybody (universalism) or merely the Old Testament righteous (http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/11/1/5.aspx). We can see Clement of Alexandria describing the debate of Christ preaching in hell (hades) in Stromata, Book 6. And Augustine described the continuation of the debate in Letter 164 while Augustine noted that universalism was widespread in his time. (Note, even if you reject the orthodoxy of Clement, his Book 6 indicates debate in the Early Chruch.)

Augustine eventually opposed universalism and became the most influential Father of Western Christianity. Both Augustinianism and the Fifth Ecumenical Council mostly wiped out universalism from the Western Christianity while universalism survived as an option in Eastern Christianity to this day (http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/11/1/5.aspx).

I apologize that I cannot quote a plethora of Church Fathers teaching about universalism per your request, but the above evidence strongly supports that universalism was widespread minority orthodoxy in the Ancient Church.

Jereth said...

Thanks for debating Jereth, make sure you stop by in the future though.

No worries, Luke.

I'd be more than happy to carry on with a discussion of the Bible's teaching. However, when the discussion runs into "I can't explain it any further; go and read x, y, z book" and "your god is Allah" I feel that things have reached a dead end and further debate would not be profitable.

cheers
Jereth

Jereth said...

James,

You mention that there was minimal debate about universalism in the early church, and that universalism was not addressed in early church creeds.

This cuts two ways. It could mean that universalism was a widely accepted teaching during that time. On the other hand (and I think this is far more likely) it could mean that universalism was held by a nutty fringe, who were not taken very seriously by the mainstream of the church.

James Goetz said...

Hi Jereth,

I don't see you considering the overall context of my above post, so I'll refer you to look at the overall context of my above post.

Blessings,

Jim

Luke said...

Hi James,

I don't have to time blog individually through each of the church fathers, there are a couple of problems with your summary.

1. The Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia quote doesn't prove anything. It's an unsourced generalization.
2. Regarding 1 Peter (admittedly a tricky passage) you jump without explanation to the assumption that I responded to earlier:
Although the possibility of a universalist reading might exist, that in and of its self doesn't prove the traditional view wasn't the dominate and preferred one.

Allan said...

Jereth said:

I'd be more than happy to carry on with a discussion of the Bible's teaching. However, when the discussion runs into... "your god is Allah" I feel that things have reached a dead end and further debate would not be profitable.

Allan replies: I don't recall saying your God was Allah (though, with respect, the similarities are there.)

I did say that once you entertain the possibility of such a God, you can never know where you stand. Are you really elect, or merely destined to think you are? You cannot love such a God with all your heart.

I can only worship a God who is good as my own parents are good, only more so. My parents had no favored ones. They did not decide to hate one child and love the other, even before they were born. If this is what the Bible seems to teach, either it's plain wrong (an enemy has sowed weeds in the night), or we must discern a gracious interpretation that doesn't sin against the Holy Spirit.

The same is true of other doctrines. My godly parent sometimes punished us for our own good, but they would never have bolted the door against us forever. Nor would they rest or be happy until the whole family was united in peace and love.

James Goetz said...

Hi Luke,

I'm unsure of what assumption your mean. I never said that fixed damnation of the wicked dead wasn't "the dominant a preferred view" in the Ancient Church. I merely said that universalism was "widespread minority orthodoxy in the Ancient Church." This is a far cry from claiming "the dominant a preferred view."

Luke said...

Sure I see your point, I think I might have been conflating your two comments together. (The lesson to self is not to write comments at midnight!)

I've run out of energy for the universalism debate at this stage. I think was optimistically hoping I could convince people out of it. Obviously I'm not convinced by it but I think it's now about defining the place of Universalism in Evangelical theology.

(This is not to say I disapprove of debate but am closing this one down for now, thanks everyone for your contributions!)

jereth said...

I've run out of energy for the universalism debate at this stage. I think was optimistically hoping I could convince people out of it. Obviously I'm not convinced by it but I think it's now about defining the place of Universalism in Evangelical theology.

Don't despair, Luke. Universalism is an error, plain and simple -- I know it and you know it. It comes not from the Bible's teaching but from wishful thinking and a wrong conception of God's character.

It doesn't matter that you haven't been able to convince people out of it. I have found that the discussion on your blog has been fruitful because it has shown just how bizzare some of their exegesis and reasoning is. Keep praying that God will show them the truth in his own time.

And don't get too stressed about trying to define whether universalism fits into this theological camp or that theological camp. Definitions like "evangelical" and "reformed" mean very little at the end of the day; the only categories that really matter are "truth" and "error".

Paul warned us that in the last days men would have itching ears and be blown around by every wind of doctrine -- we can just add univeralism on to that big long list: egalitarianism, new perspectives on Paul, Steve Chalke's attack on the substitutionary atonement, theistic evolution, the social gospel, etc. etc. etc.

Allan said...

Jereth said: Universalism is an error, plain and simple -- I know it and you know it. It comes not from the Bible's teaching but from wishful thinking and a wrong conception of God's character.

Allan replies: Jesus forgives his enemies and prays for those who hate him. ie: God earnestly focuses his divine energy towards achieving our blessing. Imagine that. A humble God who comes to serve.

Like the good shepherd, Jesus seeks and saves the lost. Will he succeed? Jesus is the good doctor who comes to heal the sick of soul. He is the liberator who comes to set the captives free. Again, will he succeed? Paul joins the chorus, telling us to overcome evil with good. Why? Because it's what God does, and it works. Paul tells us that love is gentle and kind, that it keeps no record of wrong and it never fails. Why won't people believe this? How is hellism an expression of gentleness and kindly patience? Rather, it is an everlasting record-keeping of wrong and an eternal failure of love.

As for itching ears and wishful thinking, sinful men are kind to their friends and family, but will happily kill their enemies. We assume God does much the same. Even more, in our worst moments we hope he does.

Thanks for the interesting conversation. :)