Saturday, September 18, 2010

Clearer criticism of 'The Inescapable Love of God'

My commentator, cousin, dear friend and in this case theological sparring partner, Alex referred my blog post to Mr Thomas Talbott himself and in the insuring exchange I've realized my criticisms of the Inescapable Love of God weren't clear enough. (Thanks for sharpening me up Alex!) So I've laid out my argument more clearly below in both a summary and more detailed form.  The outcome is still unfortunately the same, Talbott is laying the 'emotional' foundation against traditional theology, in other words saying: "Boy, those traditional theologians are nasty," before making, in the next section, his own theological case for universalism.  "In the following chapters, therefore, I shall try to create a context - biblical, theological, and philosophical - in which the grounds for hope and the groundlessness of our fears might be more evident to us" (Talbott, 39).

Talbott argues
Predestination is a loveless theology that leads to a demonic picture of God. Augustine and Calvin are representatives of this theology and also theological villains whose theology of fear lead to their deadly persecution of heretics which makes their theology unbiblical and so it follows that predestination is wrong.  

But ...


#1 Talbott hasn't proved Predestination is a loveless theology and only states without argument that it leads to a demonic picture of God.
#2 Talbott misrepresents history by casting Augustine and Calvin as theological villains.
#3 The theological systems of Augustine and Calvin do not necessarily lead to their more unfavorable actions.



Talbott's argument and my criticisms in lots of detail


Predestination is a loveless theology that leads to a demonic picture of God. ["Clark's view was no aberration at all; he had simply made explicit, and with greater consistency, a demonic picture of God that pervades Western Theology."(Talbott, 8)] Augustine ["Augustine's defense of the use of terror" (Talbott, 28)] and Calvin ["Calvin's willingness to have his adversary put to death" (Talbott, 26)] are representatives of this theology ["Wherever I turned ..." (Talbott, 7)] and also theological villains whose theology of fear ["Against the many religious doctrines that appeal to and cultivate fear" (Talbott, 1)] lead to their deadly persecution of heretics ["the use of the sword in coercing heretics back into the State Church is justified"(Talbott, 28)] which makes their theology unbiblical ["a symptom of unsound doctrine or theological error" (Talbott, 24)].

#1  Talbott hasn't proved Predestination is a loveless theology and only states without argument that it leads to a demonic picture of God.

Talbott argues that traditional theology is loveless by using pejorative language, describing predestination as "narrow", "exclusive" where "God restricts his mercy to a chosen few" (Talbott, 6).  After quoting from an author in favor of predestination he writes "I was utterly dumfounded when I read such passages as these and searched in vain for at least an echo of the love of God" (Talbott, 7). Talbott labels the author a "hyper-Calvinist" who believes in "double-predestination" eschewing the more accurate label of 'election and reprobation' (Talbott, 6).

Talbott completely fails to explain why God only extending his mercy "to a chosen few" (Talbott, 7) isn't an expression of love.  While I don't agree with Clark's comment implying God is the author of evil, his presentation of election and reprobation is unremarkable, simply a reflection of the type of theology expressed in Romans 9 or Ephesians 1:5.  Talbott offers no logical argument for why predestination is loveless, relying instead on his pejorative description of Clark. Talbott also has no logical or even emotional argument for why predestination makes God demonic, he simply entitles that part of the chapter "a demonic picture of God" (Talbott, 5), leaving the emotional inference to the reader.

#2 Talbott misrepresents history by casting Augustine and Calvin as theological villains. 


Talbott seeks to cast Calvin in a villainous light by highlighting his role in the capture, trial and execution of Servetus.  Talbott says Calvin had desired the death of Servetus for many years (Talbott, 25) and then gives a bloodthirsty quote from Calvin about Servetus "I will never let him depart alive, if I have any authority" (Talbott, 26).  Talbott then interestingly finishes by highlighting Calvin's defense of Servetus' execution (Talbott, 26) and leaves the story at that, adding later only one comment about his motivation.

I don't condone the death penalty for heresy and agree that while cultures and circumstances differ from place to place and time to time, our biblical idea of not killing most people should of held sway over Calvin.  But Talbott seeking to show the villainy of Calvin doesn't give this episode any more historical context ["Calvin's precise role in the Servetus affair is not my present concern." (Talbott, 25)].  Servetus, was a smart man (he discovered the circulation of blood) and the author of anti-Trinitarian literature, who also argued with Calvin by correspondence.  "Protestant and Catholic theologians alike joined in condemning Servetus attack on the Trinity" (The European Reformations, Lindberg, 267).  Roman Catholic crowds even burned an effigy of Servetus.  Calvin eventually passed on his correspondence to a friend in Lyon who alerted the Roman Catholic Inquisition, who then captured Servetus (Lindberg, 268). Servetus escaped and then in strange move travelled to Geneva, where he was recognized and arrested.  "Servetus' fate was sealed by the Genevan magistracy even before the unanimous denunciations of him poured in from Basle, Bern, Schaffhausen and Zuich. ... Bucer had demanded the death penalty already in 1531 after the appearance of Servetus' first tract on the trinity" (Lindberg, 268-269). Lindberg then goes on to comment that Servetus' execution was widely approved of and that in our modern world of philosophical relativism "the sixteenth-century concern for truth appears strange" (Lindberg, 269).  At the time Servetus died, Anabaptists were being executed by Calvinists and Calvinists were being executed by Roman Catholics.  "The modern toleration of religious pluralism is anachronistic for the sixteenth century." (Lindberg, 270)  Interestingly Calvin, at the time of Servetus' execution, had less power and sway over Geneva than after the Servetus incident (Lindberg, 270).

But Talbott doesn't mention any of this; to show that Servetus was persecuted by the Roman Catholics, point out that Calvin only played a part in the whole incident and remark on the general blood-thirsty cultural climate would put a dampener on his villainous portrait of Calvin.  How do we judge the crew of the Enola Gay, who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? Carefully and in-context, they don't become the villains of the evil imperialism of the American war machine, though they had important part in that horrible event.

Augustine is next.  Here Talbott is able to draw a closer (but still misguided) link between theology, persecution and eternal judgement.  "In another place he [Augustine] again asks: 'Why, therefore, should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction [i.e., to eternal death]?" (Talbott, 28) Talbott goes on to write "But Augstine's defense of the use of terror against them remains one of the most appalling aspects of his thinking, and it is important to see that this defense was not an isolated quirk in his thinking" (Talbott, 28).  Talbott's central contention is that Augustine regarded heresy as worse than murder (Talbott, 28-29) and this makes him a brutal torturer (Talbott, 28).

Again while I don't believe torture and death are morally sound ways of dealing with heresy, Augustine's rhetoric should be seen in historical context.  Based on Talbott's presentation you'd be forgiven for thinking of Augustine as an arch villain bent on finding ways to kill and torture Donatists.  Again this suits the direction of  Talbott's argument which seeks to cast these central figures of traditional theology as villains.  The actual historical circumstances is little more complex than Talbott's portrait and doesn't support the idea of Augustine being a brutal villain of church history.

Prior to 410, the Donatists (a sect demanding purity in heritage) in were the ascendancy in Numidia.  They were an organized church of their own, having their own bishops and congregations, being the popular denomination of the North African peasants.  The Catholics on the other hand were in the minority, limited to the coastal cities and some of the land-owners.  Interestingly the Donatists had their own schisms and at one point used Imperial edicts to force their schismatic brethren back into the fold.  Tensions with the Catholics were high and sometimes roving bands of armed Donatists called "circumcellions" would either attack Catholic majority towns or defend Donatist towns against Catholic gangs. At one point even Augustine himself was targeted and ambushed by some circumcellions.  Prior to the sixth century the place of the Catholicism was by no means entirely settled. Even in North Africa, Donatists were only one threat among several, paganism was still strong and other heresies such as Pelagianism or Arianism ran amuck across the Christian world.  As bishop of Hippo Augustine sort to establish an orthodoxy that could meet the challenges of Paganism while also resist heresies such as Pelaginism let alone deal with the conservative Donatists.  Augustine was first and foremast a scholar, skilled in rhetoric and polemical argument, he'd often write stridently only to nuance it in a later publication. His development of the doctrine of original sin is an example of this.  Brown in his biography of Augustine shows how Augustine focused on using written propaganda to discredit the Donatists.  But Augstine was only one player in a larger conflict.  The dissident Donatists drawing on a inland peasant power-base were ultimately on the losing side. Catholic landowners and bishops used imperial edicts to dis-enfranchise Donatist bishops and churches.  Eventually the ever-present background of violence increased as the Donatists were forcibly amalgamated into the Catholic church, some resting violently others more peaceably but still reluctantly. Unfortunately at this time (400's) Augustine wrote in favor of state suppression of the Donatists. (Historical summary drawn from Augustine of Hippo: A biography by Peter Brown)

This was the post-Constantine era of growing church and state cooperation but that does not excuse Augustine from supporting the persecution of the Donatists.  To Augustine's credit he worked hard both before and after the Imperial edicts against the Donastists to bring them into line through non-violent means. "Despite Augustine's conscientious behavior, violence could not be avoided" (Brown, 237).  Talbott wants to cast Augustine as pro-violence but Brown reads the evidence differently stating "Augustine opposed the death-penalty in principle, for it excluded the possibility of repentance" (Brown, 238).  A more likely scenario is that Augustine misused his authority as a bishop in advocating state suppression of the Donatists.  To read his actions as some sort of cruel outworking of his theology overlooks both the wider historical context and Augustine's own personal context.  But to place Augustine's actions in more context would detract from Talbott's simplistic portrayal of Augustine as a theological villain. 

#3 The theological systems of Augustine and Calvin do not necessarily lead to their more unfavorable actions.

I said in my earlier post that Talbott commits the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy which basically means correlation does not equal causation.  Does Calvin's role in Servetus' execution really spring from his theological intolerance is it more probably the result of human sinfulness, living in the sixteenth century, dealing with that particular situation and being fiercely zealous for truth? Talbott concedes he was the product of an intolerant age but hastily adds that "it does not explain the theological roots of the intolerance" (Talbott, 26)

Talbott somewhat tenuously wants us to connect his interpretation of Matthew 7:18-20 (he somewhat interestingly omits any reference to verse 19!) connecting trees that do not bear good fruit with traditional western theology. "Part of the suggestion here seems to be that a sound doctrine, soundly interpreted, will not bear evil fruit in the lives of those who sincerely embrace it, it will, to the contrary, bear good fruit" (Talbott, 24).  He goes to state  "So if a sound doctrine, soundly interpreted, does not produce evil fruit in the lives of those who sincerely embrace it, then we are entitled, I believe, to regard acts of persecution with the Christian Church as a symptom of unsound doctrine or theological error." ( Talbott, 24)

This line of argument taken to its logical conclusion would support sinless perfectionism, that true Christians are perfect and without sin, because a single shard of bad fruit would go against Talbott's interpretation of Matthew 7:18-20.  Is Talbott's own bad fruit seen in his pejorative and judgmental language, a "symptom of unsound doctrine or theological error" perhaps?  Talbott ignores the complexity of humans and their historical circumstances, his line of argument would ban fatherhood because of the actions of some fathers in the name of fatherhood.  It's overly simplistic to draw line between someone's more negative actions and their theology or ideology.  This doesn't mean those connections don't exist in some form but it's fraught with far more complexity then Talbott's argument allows for.

Finally and importantly Talbott doesn't clearly show the connection between the negative actions of Calvin and Augustine and their wider systems of theological thought. Calvin may have been wrong to support the death penalty but why must that be lumped with his views on predestination.  Talbott of course has no explanation for this preferring to lump  his thinking together, avoiding making these type of distinctions in Calvin's wide ranging theological system.  Talbott does attempt a connection between Augustine's support of Donatist persecution and his wider theological system.  "But Augustine's defense of the use of terror against them remains one of the most appalling aspects of his thinking, and it is important to see that this defense was not an isolated quirk in his thinking. Indeed, within the context of his own assumptions, his argument is perfectly reasonable. If you suppose, as Augustine did, that heresy leads to eternal damnation and that like a deadly germ, the heretic tends to infect others with heresy, then you have every reason to terrorize and even murder heretics. " (Talbott, 28).  Talbott claims that Augstuine's approval of the Donatists persecution wasn't an "an isolated quirk in his thinking" but doesn't show how his punishment of heretics is connected to other parts of his theology.  In fact all Talbott does is label it as "brutal" (Talbott, 28) and let the reader assume Augustine's theology must be flawed, somehow.  This is quite ironic because Talbott only a few pages later makes the very same argument I'm making against him against Bertrand Russell! "He fails to distinguish carefully enough, in other words between different dogmatic beliefs" (p31)

Conclusion

Talbott's goal is to condemn the traditional Biblical understanding of scripture: "In the end, I decided [after reading Romans 9] I could no longer be a Christian in any orthodox sense. If Paul really taught, as Augustine and many of the Protestant Reformers insist he did, that God restricts his mercy to a chosen few, than Paul was, if not an outright fraud, just another confused and small-minded religious zealot" (Talbott, 9).  And hold up universalism by false contrast as somehow purer and more loving. "Here at last, was a religious writer [George MacDonald] who seemed to appeal not to fear or guilt or mean-spiritedness" (Talbott, 12).  On second thoughts this section of the Insescaple Love of God is more flawed than I first assumed. 

27 comments:

Allan Smith said...

A champion swimmer walked down the beach with a friend. A big sign said: DANGER! DO NOT SWIM!

"Look!" said the friend, pointing. "Ten girls are drowning in the surf!"

"Can't they read the sign?" the swimmer replied. "They chose to disobey. They deserve to drown. But because I am a merciful man, I will save... let's see now... eenee meenee minee mo... I'll save the blonde on the right."

"Only one?" the friend asked, horrified. "Can't you save more?"

"I can save them all, quite effortlessly, but I choose not to. Don't you understand? I am under no obligation to save any of them! Now call the newspaper. I want my photo on the front page. I want everyone to know how wonderful I am."

Hey Luke,

I can't swallow this view of election. Can you? There must be a better way of reading those verses in Romans. Fortunately, there is.

Cheers.

Jack Lim said...

Luke,

A well reasoned criticism of the oft used "straw man" arguments of universalism. While I can certainly appreciate why universalism is attractive, after all any reasonable understanding of eternity without God is a horrendous thought, it is such a distortion of God as revealed in the Bible, and offers such false hope that it needs to be called out for what it is and good to see you doing that.

Allan, an analogy maketh not a truth. God has always had a chosen people since the fall, but the why and wherefore is his prerogative as God, not for us to dismiss because it doesn't suit our image of Him.

arthurandtamie said...

Speaking of swallowing, Allan, I wonder what you made of my reply all the way back here. :)

Cheers

Arthur

Allan Smith said...

Hi Arthur,

If push came to shove, I'd opt for Annihilationism. I think it's a defensible position, but I'm no expert. It's certainly not as glorious as universalism.

John tells us the final fate of the devil, the beast and Babylon, is to be thrown into the lake of fiery sulfur. ie. they will suffer God's fierce judgment. If the devil is the personification of evil, Babylon the personification of oppressive economic systems, the Beast the personification of false religion, then the smoke of their torment will rise forever. ie. They will be utterly destroyed, never to rise again.

But note how death and hell will also be destroyed in the very same fire. That's very hopeful.

Scarily, the unrighteous (ie. most of us) will also be cast into the fire, the second death. The first death involved casting Adam and Eve into the fire of God's judgment (thorns, thistles, pain in childbirth etc). For those of us who haven't learned the lessons of the first death, the second death awaits, and turns up the heat.

More hopefully, John says the gates of the Heavenly City are never shut, and that the honor and glory of all the nations will be brought into it.

Most hopefully of all, John tells us in Ch 5 that one day all created beings will sing God's praises. God's salvation will be complete.

Allan Smith said...

Jack said: While I can certainly appreciate why universalism is attractive... it is such a distortion of God as revealed in the Bible, and offers such false hope that it needs to be called out for what it is...

Allan replies: Universalism is very attractive. It upholds both Calvin and Arminius. God's grace is irresistible, his election is sure, and he desires all people to come to a saving knowledge of Christ. ie. God wants to save us all, and he jolly-well will.

Jack said: an analogy maketh not a truth.

Allan replies: a rejection maketh not a rebuttal :)

Jack said: God has always had a chosen people since the fall, but the why and wherefore is his prerogative as God, not for us to dismiss because it doesn't suit our image of Him.

Allan replies: God chose Adam to tend the Garden. He failed. God chose Israel to be a light to the Gentiles. She failed. God chose Christ to save the world. He did not fail. The purpose of God's election is always for the elect to bless the non-elect. The elect are there to serve, not to be served.
Before they were even born, God chose Jacob but rejected Esau. How unfair? Not at all. From Jacob came Christ, whose death saved the whole world, including Esau. Rather than demonstrating God's capricious love, Jacob's election demonstrates God's boundless wisdom and grace.

arthurandtamie said...

So Allan, the devil/beast/Babylon/death/Hades are completely destroyed in the fire, but the people thrown into the same fire are not? :S

A.

Luke said...

Hi Allan,

Talbott fails to show how reprobation makes God demonic. Inter-Trinitarian love is sufficient, any extension of it is purely gratuitous. Furthermore God is is own reference point and so therefore choosing to extend his love to only a selection of his creation is both merciful and loving.

In an age of tolerance but also an age where evil is devalued this sounds more horrible than the way universalism subsumes evil and sin into the plans and purposes of God.

Andrew Bowles said...

With item #1 I think you and Talbot are just staking out positions on different sides of an old dichotomy. This just seems like a rehash of the intellectualist vs voluntarist debate of the scholastics. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

Allan Smith said...

Arthur said: So Allan, the devil/beast/Babylon/death/Hades are completely destroyed in the fire, but the people thrown into the same fire are not? :S

Allan replied: I take these things to be symbols for evil in its various guises. They will be destroyed by God's fiery judgment.
Suppose the love of money (that whore Babylon) infests my heart like a cancer. It's in me, it's made from me, but it's not truly me. (All evil is like that. It's a cancer of the soul.) The lake of fire is God's sulfur drug. Divine chemotherapy. It's painful, but it kills the evil, not the good. It burns up wood, hay, stubble, but leaves the gold. We can begin the treatment now (take up your cross and follow.... Blessed are those who weep now...), or we can put it off. The longer we leave it, the more painful the procedure. (Make your peace with the judge on the way to court.) However you choose, the cure is certain. (God will not give his glory to another).

Alex Smith said...

It's a long post, so please forgive me if I only reply to a few of your points.

Perhaps a analogy will help: Say you go on to have nine more children! Yes, you are still technically loving, if you chose only to love one of them, but compared to loving all of them, you aren't that impressive. Some would say you aren't obliged to love any of them, so you're doing slightly better than that. However, it gets more complicated because the philosophical question is, are you being completely loving to that one child if you don't love who they love (assuming they love their brothers & sisters)?

Expanding on the question; say Eva grows up and tragically doesn't become a Christian. Sadly both of you then get hit by a bus. Moments later, you will still, know doubt, love her, but according to Calvinism, as far as I can tell, God won't, or at least not enough to guarantee to rescue her somehow, somewhere, sometime. Could you be happy, completely happy and feel that God love you? Surely not. To make matters worst, you will then have to endure eternity knowing she is being punished. I know it might sound like just an appeal to your emotions but our emotions are part of the way we reason and as this could seriously happen, I think it's a fair question to ask.

Sorry to keep using Eva in our discussions but I don't want this to be completely abstract and furthermore God uses the Father/Son analogy a lot so I think it's an important reflection of our relationship with him.

Allan said...

Luke said:

Talbott fails to show how reprobation makes God demonic. Inter-Trinitarian love is sufficient, any extension of it is purely gratuitous. Furthermore God is his own reference point and so therefore choosing to extend his love to only a selection of his creation is both merciful and loving.

In an age of tolerance but also an age where evil is devalued this sounds more horrible than the way universalism subsumes evil and sin into the plans and purposes of God.

Allan replied: To say God's love might differ radically from what we judge to be love is simply to say God might be evil. But John tells us (note how he assumes we can perceive his meaning) that God is Light. There is no Darkness in Him. Jesus himself said, “judge for yourselves” (which implies we can) and affirms that, though we are evil, we still know how to give good gifts to our children.

We must judge. We must choose the God we worship from a veritable pantheon of deities. A God who gives all to save all would be a God worth worshiping. He would inspire our deepest adoration (once we truly understood the price he was willing to pay). But a God who saves a random few and damns the many in order to demonstrate his glory... such a God is contemptible. If this was the God presented in the Bible (and I don't for a moment believe it is), it would be sufficient grounds for rejecting the Bible as true revelation.

As for evil and sin being subsumed into God's plans, how about this? “For God has bound all men over to disobedience...” why? “...so that he may have mercy on them all.” Romans 11

arthurandtamie said...

Hi Allan

Yeah nah... :)

Rev 21:7 presumably refers to a final inheritance of life, so why would 21:8 refer to anything but a final, contrasting destiny? The fact that both 21:8 and 22:19 refer to these destinies in terms of μερος (share/lot) makes that connection even more explicit, were that possible! If this is divine chemotherapy, it sweeps away the patient along with the cancer. However, I suspect a more useful image of passing through God's judgement would be the idea of the remnant.

But the greater significance of the second death would be in its connections with the big strands of the biblical story.

For example, God's people were to enter God's rest in the promised land. Yet the people hardened their hearts against God and a whole generation was kept out.

Those entering the land were offered life and warned against death. It is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can do it! Therefore choose life! Yet the story of the land is a story of ongoing rebellion.

Today, just as God's people died in the wilderness, just as God's people were exiled, we too can squander God's offer of life while it lasts. The stern warnings of the NT (eg Heb 3-4) include us in this strand: the amnesty is now, the invitation is now, the hope is now, so do not harden your hearts! Choose life! There is a real danger of missing out on God's eternal rest! Like the man said, it is better to enter life maimed or crippled...

This, I take it, is part of the weight of the second death. The finality (hence danger) of the second death reflects the persistence (hence danger) of rebellion in human history.

Somehow, our faith must flow out of the big story of the Bible as a whole. Evil is in me and from me, and sin is naivety, but if that is all, we've got some terrible understatements.

A.

Allan said...

Hi Arthur,

God has bound us all to disobedience, says Paul. We carry an evil alter-ego round like the proverbial albatross. Adam's apple is truly stuck in our throats. We now taste evil from the inside, and the fruit is bitter. But why does God bind us all to this body of death? In order to set us all free through Christ.

As you say, the recurring theme of God's remnant is illuminating. God always preserves something for himself. When the world was at its worse, God preserved Noah. He preserved Israel from the nations. He preserved 7000 from Baal, and so on. The bits God reserved for himself have always survived the fire, though they also shared the pain of his judgment.

We are called to crucify the old self and put on the new. Christ commands us to follow him, to willing jump into the fire that burns away the old self. This fire will reveal God's chosen remnant within each one of us, the eternal image that cannot be destroyed.

arthurandtamie said...

Hi Allan

Excuse that chunky reply of mine, I should add! :) Thanks for continuing the conversation and trying to ease my bewilderment. :)

But you've lost me again. :) The idea of the remnant is a corporate one, about a people rather than people. We can't simply morph it into one of the more personal ideas -- at least, not if we're trying to follow those ideas through on the Bible's terms. In the remnant idea, the remnant is saved and the non-remnant don't make it. If that's a metaphor for the human self, it's one of our own invention.

This, I have to say, is the level at which I'm experiencing universalism as incoherent -- not a handful of passages about hell/judgement, but entire streams of the big story.

A.

Allan said...

Andrew said:

But you've lost me again. :) The idea of the remnant is a corporate one, about a people rather than people. We can't simply morph it into one of the more personal ideas -- at least, not if we're trying to follow those ideas through on the Bible's terms. In the remnant idea, the remnant is saved and the non-remnant don't make it. If that's a metaphor for the human self, it's one of our own invention.

This, I have to say, is the level at which I'm experiencing universalism as incoherent -- not a handful of passages about hell/judgment, but entire streams of the big story.

Allan replied: Hi Andrew. I'm enjoying this :)

NT writers were quite happy to “morph big theme events into more personal ideas”. (eg: 1 Cor10) And there's the disturbing command from Paul to “hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.” That sounds like a remnant of an individual being saved, to me.

As for the Big Story, God delights in bringing order out of chaos. Creation and the New Creation both reveal his glory. (Traditional hell is chaos, the never-ending failure of God's redemptive work. It is utterly inglorious.)

arthurandtamie said...

Hi Allan

(A for Arthur, by the way. :) )

Re. the NT writers' morphing of earlier ideas -- that's what I'm getting at! I think we need to follow their lead (or the lead of the texts).

Is 1 Cor 5:5 about remnant theology? Nah, not unless that corporate remnant idea has suddenly been individualised. Instead, I think the key is in Paul's language of flesh versus spirit, which is about two world orders rather than some kind of dualism in human nature.

You've done something similar in your earlier references to gold and straw in fire. Yet 1 Cor 3:10ff is not about our personal insides but about the building of the church. If you had in mind Peter's reference to fire, well, that's connected with present trials such as persecution. The idea of the need for God's people to be refined is an obvious one -- but the Bible writers apparently don't reapply this same language to those who are not (yet) God's people.

You've also referred to Romans 11 a couple of times. The phrase about 'God having mercy on them all' has an obvious universalist sense. But when reading that phrase as it was written, as part of a massive discourse, which at that particular point concerns the corporate fate of the nation of Israel, it's clear that the only sense in which individuals are on view here is in terms of the corporate. This is a national universalism.

In all three cases, I reckon you've read things individualistically when they're actually presented corporately -- as is the Bible's general pattern. The Bible writers re-appropriate certain concepts within certain contours, and I think we need to be wary of stepping outside those contours, especially insofar as a theological system might depend on it. Incidentally, I do think the Bible is pretty clear that all peoples will be saved (ie, people of all nations) -- but it does not simply follow that every person will be saved.

In these cases, I get the feeling that your appeals to Bible language have come loose from the Bible tapestry. Hence my failure to dig the universalist vibe so far! ;)

But I may leave things here for the time being... I'm going to read The Evangelical Universalist and try thinking a bit more systematically about it.

Cheers

Arthur

Luke said...

To say God's love might differ radically from what we judge to be love is simply to say God might be evil. But John tells us (note how he assumes we can perceive his meaning) that God is Light.

Is Matthew as clear in Matt 25:41?

We need to be consistent Allan and Alex, either all verses need qualification or no verse needs qualification, if we can pick in choose then we run into issues of power (who gets to do the picking and choosing) or irrelevance (everyone picks and chooses by-themselves). Talbott stumbles on exactly this issue.

Allan said...

Hi Arthur (Andrew?? I did reply before my first coffee...)

I follow the lead of the NT writers and seek helpful parallels. For example, just as David kills Goliath and saves his people, so Christ kills Death and saves his people. David as king saves Israel, but Christ as king of kings, saves the world.

Jesus tells us to chop off evil bits. ie. He commands the new man to kill the old. This assumes a superposition of two natures. The part of me that hears Christ's voice and moves to obey cannot possibly be the evil part of me that Christ wants to amputate. The evil in me is not going to give Christ the hand. Rather, it will give Christ the finger, if you follow my drift.

This Jacob/Esau love/hate struggle is part of our daily experience and open to introspection. Paul famously complains that the nasty part of him simply doesn't do what the good part wants. ie. Saul won't obey Paul. Thanks be to God, Christ can rescue Paul from Saul, and he will. In fact, we might say that Saul will be destroyed eternally, and Paul will be saved. (A polarizing filter springs to mind. Or resolving vectors. Or a beam splitter.) I dare say the separation of Saul/Paul may well be painful. A bit like being crucified...

In terms of remnants, I don't think it's straining credibility to say, “Just as God saved Judah from the ruin of Israel, he will save Paul from the ruin of Saul.” Or borrowing from Isaiah: In that far off and blessed Day, the righteous Paul will look with loathing upon the rotting remains of the rebellious Saul, and worship God.

If I say, “Just as God saves Israel from Egypt through Moses, God saves me from sin and death through Christ”, everyone is happy. But if I continue, “Just as all who are faithless in Israel die in the wilderness, so all that is faithless in me will die in hell”, why am I suddenly going beyond the text? It seems pretty arbitrary to me.

Skipping a few points... Lastly, and quickly. Rom 11. The context certainly implies nations, but nations are made of individuals. A few verses later, Paul reveals the width of God's net by declaring that everything that has come from God through Christ will return to God through Christ. Everything.

Thanks for a most pleasant conversation. :)

Allan said...

Luke said: if we can pick in choose then we run into issues of power (who gets to do the picking and choosing) or irrelevance (everyone picks and chooses by-themselves).

Allan replies: We all get to choose which God we serve, so choose wisely.

For my part, I think it's best to hope for the Best.

arthurandtamie said...

Likewise, Allan! :)

A few further thoughts.

Allegorical readings of the Bible have an ancient pedigree -- I think you stand in good stead!

But it's certainly not the first approach I'd take to any given passage. I think reading Scripture is more straightforward than that, as well as more nuanced (church history has not a few examples of allegory wielded as a blunt instrument!).

1. It's one thing to say that the rock in the desert was Christ (although this is not strictly an allegory), but it's quite another to say that the five stones of David are five characteristics of the sexually attentive Christian husband (as does one recent marriage manual!). The difficulty with allegorising Scripture is that, once we start, there can be little way of knowing where to stop. That's part of the 'contours' thing I was getting at.

2. Allegories may not go beyond the text, but by the same token, it can be pretty hard to locate them in the text. For example, your biblical allegories may be entirely legitimate, yet because I don't necessarily understand human nature as you do, it would be hard for me to arrive at those same readings if I were to allegorise the same passages. I figure there are other, less personalised/arbitrary approaches to Scripture that can better promote common ground.

A.

Luke said...

Sorry Allan and Alex,

That sounded harsher than it should of, just my frustration with Talbott finding other targets. I can be just as guilty of inconsistency.

(Arthur - good comment on allegory. )

Allan said...

Luke: Didn't sound harsh too me:)

Arthur: Is thinking even possible without allegory? Wiki tells me that "Allegory communicates its message by means of symbolic figures, actions or symbolic representation." But all information is communicated by means of symbols. We cannot know anything in itself. The best we can ever have is a very frugal symbolic representation of the object as presented to us by the senses.

Suppose I say Aslan is Christ, and Eustace is humanity. You reply more precisely, saying Christ provided substitutionary atonement. Is this a clearer expression the same truth? I have to trawl through all the stories in my head to give meaning to those big words. Why not forget the big words, and just retell the stories, or make up some new ones of your own?

Cheers

arthurandtamie said...

Hi Allan

I have no problem with allegory. I think allegory and symbolism is a fundamental dimension of reading Scripture, simply because that is how many texts of Scripture function and how Bible texts frequently address other parts of Scripture. On that count, I just googled this useful article.

However, I'm talking not about allegory but about allegorical reading. Scripture contains a vast wealth of symbols, and constant interpretation and reinterpretation of them, but an allegorical reading goes beyond that to ask, What if there are still other meanings hidden there?

And this is where things get tricky. To use a modern example, the Battle of Jericho is said to represent struggles in our lives: when we face barriers, if we cry out in faith, God will demolish them. But is the text of Joshua 6 an allegory? If so, it's not at all obvious, not least because it's not treated as such elsewhere in Scripture. More to the point, if we can read it as an allegory, how are we to decide on its meaning? Perhaps it's not about our struggles, but about God's struggle to enter our hearts. Or perhaps it's both. Or perhaps... But at this point we're in the thick of speculation.

Allegorical readings may be fruitful, but as a hermeneutic for reading Scripture, it quickly takes us outside the orbits of Scripture. Instead of handling symbols and symbolic thinking as Scripture does, we end up reading our own concerns into Scripture. For example, the intricate categories of medieval allegorising certainly made for stimulating Bible reading (!) but also led to a game of Who's Got The Best Allegories, a search for hidden meanings that came unstuck from the text itself.

And I'm not suggesting that big words (like substitutionary atonement) are much use, either. Both allegories and theological buzzwords can serve as ways of reducing ideas to wrap our heads around them. That might be useful to a point, but on their own, both allegories and theological buzzwords dumb things down by leaving us with neat slogans and categories. They're only useful to the extent that we keep on fleshing out their content. So I think you're right -- we need to keep retelling the stories! :)

A.

Allan said...

Hi Arthur,

Great post. Very clear and very helpful. (I read Mark Shea in the Catholic Register.)

If I understand you, we can't use allegorical reading to uncover new doctrines, but we can use it (with varying degrees of success) to illuminate existing ones. For example, we know from Paul that God works for the good of his elect, and we can use David and Goliath to demonstrate and deepen our understanding of this. But we could not discover or convincingly justify this general doctrine merely by pondering David and Goliath.

Hmmm. I'll swallow that, maybe... But where did Paul get this general doctrine from in the first place, if not from pondering the Biblical stories deeply, discerning their true significance, noting the regularities and re-expressing them abstractly? (All this, of course, with God's help, and the help of a good heart and a good head.)

But following your rule, and to our case in point... Paul expresses existential angst regarding his wayward self. He is speaking of his daily internal struggle. He's not referring to some abstract conflict of world orders, but to self-control (ie. the profound question of which self is controlling which self.) Paul says Christ alone can deliver him from his internal conflict, his body of death. Again, this is no abstraction, but a body of flesh that wills and acts against God and against Paul himself, and for whom Paul no longer claims responsibility (...it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.) This does not mean Paul gives it free reign. Rather he is determined to wage war against it and throttle it as best he can. It's painful. It's like being crucified every day. It's like leaping into a refining fire (of roses. Have you read The Princess and Curdie?)

For me, then, I have a clear doctrine. I now feel free to find stories in the OT (and elsewhere) that might illustrate this and deepen my understanding. Stories like unfaithful Israel dying in the wilderness. (Remember Gollum arguing with poor Smeagol?)

Cheers.

arthurandtamie said...

Hi Allan

This is a longer one! :)

"We can't use allegorical reading to uncover new doctrines, but we can use it (with varying degrees of success) to illuminate existing ones". Yep, that's what I'm getting at -- although I'd define "varying degrees of success" as "very little, if any". :) Allegorical readings are I think guilty of the same thing as literalistic readings: ignoring the ways in which Bible texts are texts (literature). Both readings will do violence to biblical metaphors/symbols, in the one case by 'flattening' them, in the other by 'spiritualising' them. And both readings fail especially when the Bible creates metaphors/symbols from God's redemptive historical acts (eg, the '144000 sealed' in Rev 7).

Where did Paul get his doctrine? I'd say that Christian faith and doctrine stems not from abstract teaching or speculation but from God's redemptive acts in history, which form the ultimate curriculum vitae of God's character and purposes. Scripture is the story and interpretation of these acts.

Some major benchmarks for this are in Exodus, for example. In Exodus 3, immediately after God claims the exodus event as his calling card, God refers to his name as (most accurately) 'I will be who I will be'. In this, God anchors his very identity in his acts: 'Watch what I do!' Exodus develops this especially with God's momentous self-proclamation in Ex 34:5-7.

Just as the writers of Exodus reflected on the great salvation acts of their day, Paul and the other NT writers reflected on the great salvation act of their day, which, ever since then, God's people have come to understand as the very hinge of history: the birth/life/death/resurrection/ascension/session/return of Jesus, Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God. All Christian doctrine, and the Bible itself, flows out of God's mission to creation through God's people across history.

To Romans 7, then! The sense of Romans 7:7-25 has been disputed. A reading much like yours has been taken by Augustine, Luther, and Calvin: that it describes an inner, ongoing Christian struggle. But others have read it differently: that it describes the pre-Christian struggle of life under the law. (I take the second.)

But in either reading, there is still a struggle in Romans 7, an inner battle with sin. What Romans 7 doesn't do, however, is connect that personal struggle with the language of refining or God's judgement. Instead, Romans 8 goes on to speak of life by the Spirit.

I'd draw three things from this:

1. There are of course many other passages that speak about human nature and/or the struggles of Christian living, and we need to feel the weight of all those. Why should we privilege Romans 7? Indeed, Romans 8 would be a better starting place for thinking about Christian experience than Romans 7.

2. The existence of an inner Christian struggle with sin doesn't imply anything about the nature of judgement/hell. And, so far, we have no grounds for drawing a connection between God's judgement/hell and the insides of human individuals.

3. If we want to link Bible stories, as you say, we should start by considering the ways in which Scripture already does this. You mentioned Israel in the wilderness, which forms a central idea in Hebrews 3-4, for example.

How ought we to read the Bible today? Well, the textbook waiting on my shelf, which I've not yet read, is The Hermeneutical Spiral by Grant Osborne. If you know anything about Gadamer and 'fusion of horizons', you'll probably be excited by it! :D

That's all for now. :)

Cheers

A.

Andrew Bowles said...

Arthur, just a stab in the dark - have you read Colin Gunton's 'Act and Being' recently?

arthurandtamie said...

Nah, I had to google it to work out what you were getting at! Am I channelling 'Gunto' without knowing it? :P