Friday, September 24, 2010

How Evangelical is Universalism? A brief review of 'The Evangelical Universalist'

The Evangelical Universalist is by Gregory MacDonald, which is a puesdoynom for Robin Parry, who is also the author of Worshipping Trinity.  In many ways the book covers much of the same territory as Talbott's The Inescapable Love of God (overall argument and then key passages)  but without the negative straw-man critique, a more consciously biblical approach and I think a more coherently argued case.  However Parry is attempting two things at once and only pulls off one of them.  He is first and foremost making the biblical case for Universalism, so he looks at the larger argument across Scripture, key passages and then how a Universalist reading of Revelation makes the best sense.  Although I found the arguments unconvincing, he made a stirling effort at presenting the biblical evidence for Universalism. (This is essentially because I would qualify the "all" passages differently, plot the trajectory of the biblical meta-narrative with more of an emphasis on glory and sin, have a slightly different definition of God and be comfortable with predestination as a doctrine.)

Parry's second task is to self-consciously make the "evangelical" (MacDonald, 6) case for Universalism.  He asks "could a Christian theology that is grounded in the Bible be universalist?" (MacDonald, 34)  Here Parry stumbles more noticeably, it's far from clear if Universalism sits in evangelical Christian theology.  Clearly if one accepts unique salvation through Christ and a miraculous triune Godhead your an orthodox Christian.  If Universalism were ever to deny these things it couldn't be regarded as Christian (I'm curious now about Parry's other book.) but Evangelicalism draws a tighter circle.  Parry doesn't provide a definition so let me set some parameters although there is admittedly no definitive definition for this rather disparate movement.  Evangelism is both something doctrinal (bible, salvation, activity) and something observable through history (flowing out of the Reformation via the Puritans).  Alex was telling me that last century there was a groundswell of Universalists who sadly became Unitarians.  Parry it seems wants to carve out a place for Universalism not just within orthodoxy (by saying everyone will be saved, but only through faith in Jesus (MacDonald, 47)) but deeper within evangelicalism. For example unlike Talbott who attempts a more philosophical approach, Parry deliberately makes a biblical case linked carefully into a wider biblical meta-narrative.

Although I think this is only the beginning of a Universalist movement to make it a mainstream Christian idea, I think ultimately too much doctrine is changed by the premise of everyone being saved for Universalism to ever be regarded as Evangelical or even mainstream.  While I acknowledge the evangelical movement is a giant and fragmented tent, the Universalist changes to hermeneutics, doctrine of God, sin, predestination, judgement and eschatology will be too great for the Evangelical movement to sallow. Being a fan of systematic theology I find these changes very worrying and can already see the early signs of cracking in both Talbott and Parry's work.  In conclusion the lineup of famous Universalists from Parry's new book is very telling.  There aren't many Evangelical heroes in that list!

[My holidays are finishing soon so this will be my last post on universalism for a while, however I invite my readers to comment in this particular thread on the place of Universalism in Christian theology (and the possible future of universalism), but not get involved at this stage in verse-trench-warfare.]


arthurandtamie said...

Parry not Perry :)


Alex Smith said...

Parry: "So what do the "evangelical" universalists believe? Much the same as any other evangelical. They believe that God is triune and created the world ex nihilo; they believe that humans are created in this God's image; they believe that human rebellion separates us from God and deserves punishment; they accept the final authority of the Scriptures for matters of Christian faith; they believe that the Father sent his one and only Son as a human being (who did not cease to be divine) to live as our representative, to reveal the Father and to atone for our sins through his death on the cross; they believe that through his resurrection eternal life is available to those who trust in Christ; they believe in salvation by grace (not merit), through faith in Christ (not works); they believe in the return of Christ and the coming day of judgment; they even believe in hell!"

Luke said...

Opphs! Thanks Arthur!

It's be good Alex, some time in the future to draw up a table of key doctrines and see if Universalism makes any difference.

Alex Smith said...

Anyway, thanks everyone for the discussions but I'm off to the forum, perhaps I'll see some of you there :)

Luke said...

BTW Alex,

Do you have the link for that quote? (Interestingly and I think importantly, the attributes of God, regeneration, substitutionary atonement, sanctification and perseverance are missing from that list.)

James Goetz said...

"It'[ll] be good Alex, some time in the future to draw up a table of key doctrines and see if Universalism makes any difference."

Luke, I propose myself as an example of an evangelical universalist. In my case, I belong to a Vineyard USA church. And Vineyard has a 36-page document "The Vineyard USA: THEOLOGICAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL STATEMENTS" (1995), currently found at And I agree with all but one sentence in this document.

Does "The Vineyard USA: THEOLOGICAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL STATEMENTS" lack any key doctrines?

jereth said...

An interesting thing to note is that universalism is necessarily Arminian -- it denies that God is sovereign over human decisions. Everyone makes up their own mind of their own totally free will; some just take longer than others.

I suspect that a portion of Arminians are secretly universalist. On the other hand, universalism is hardly going to get any traction in Reformed circles.

Here's an interesting thought. It appears to me that universalists put a lot of currency on human freedom. It is all about God wooing everyone into his kingdom. If such a high view of human freedom is held, then the logical conclusion is that once we are all in heaven, we will be free to sin again. So there really is no such thing as "eternal life" and "eternal salvation".

Ahh, finally, it all makes sense!

James Goetz said...

Hi Jereth,

For the record,
1. Barth made a big splash and trend with the possibility of universalism within the Reformed tradition.
2. Moltman proposes universalism within the Reformed tradition.
3. Talbott believes Romans teaches about unconditional election, which is intrinsic to his universalism.

Luke said...

Sorry James I need correct a couple things there, the Reformed tradition since it's start during the Reformation, has divided into two major and quite distinct stream of theology. Barth, Moltmann etc. belong to a different stream to Hodge, Warfield, Berkhof, etc.

Contra-Talbott unconditional election doesn't necessarily prove universalism is present in Romans.

Andrew Bowles said...

Another correction would be to note that Arminianism is in the 'Reformed Tradition' as well. Arminius' primary disagreements with the Dutch church of his day were to do with the order of God decrees, not whether or not the human will is free. Very much an intra-Reformed debate. I understand that a number of Arminian churches are part of the World Council of Reformed Churches (or some such body) to this day.

James Goetz said...

Hi Luke,

I never suggested tarring the entire Reformed tradition into one stream. I merely responded to the claim that "universalism is necessarily Arminian."

Also, I'm unsure of your point about Talbott. I never suggested "unconditional election" in Romans proves "universalism is present in Romans." I merely said that Talbott's view of unconditional election based on Romans is intrinsic to Talbott's doctrine of universalism. I disagree with Talbott's view of Romans on a couple of points, but again I merely responded to the claim that "universalism is necessarily Arminian." I suppose we can say that you responded to Talbott's view of Romans. I don't think that I stated anything incorrectly in my above post in this thread, but I appreciated learning about the nuanced typology of the Reformed tradition that I suppose could fill an entire book.

Hi Andrew,

I appreciate you ironic point. You made me laugh, regardless if you tried to make me laugh. Of course, part of the irony is that you were technically correct. But again, I merely responded to the claim that "universalism is necessarily Arminian."

Jereth said...

Hi Jim,

Barth does not fit within the classic reformed camp. It would be fairly widely acknowledged, I think, that Barth was a neo-orthodox or Christian existentialist. That does not disqualify him from the broader reformed umbrella, but (as Luke said) he is a long long way from Calvin and Berkhof in terms of some basic assumptions.

A universalist "unconditional election" is also well out of line with classic reformed theology; it is a total re-definition of what election is. An election of absolutely everyone, and conversion of some in hell, is a long way from what you will find in any reformed confession. Even classic arminianism would not teach these things.

James Goetz said...

Hi Jereth and Luke,

Fair enough. I've an epiphany. I should rephrase my response to "universalism is necessarily Arminian." I'll clarify that Barth, Moltmann, and Talbott are clearly outside Arminianism. (I don't claim to have a strong background in the nuanced streams of the Reformed tradition.:)

Where do you guys think that Moltmann fits?

Luke said...

which is intrinsic to his universalism.

Your right, sorry James I misread you disregard my response to you on that point.

Moltmann: I think he's definitely within the wider Reformed tradition. But Andrew whose posted recently knows far more about him than I do. I'm not in familiar territory here but I think you could see Moltmann's eschatological framework as worthwhile without having to go to its universalistic conclusions.