Evangelical Universalism? (1)

A significant debate goes on within the latest Evangelical Quarterly between Robin Parry and Derek Tidball among others on whether evangelicals can also be universalists. Robin Parry is the (formerly anonymous) author of the The Evangelical Universalist. Derek Tidball is ex-principal of London School of Theology, author of Who are the Evangelicals (and coincidentally our current external examiner at IBI and my former PhD supervisor).

Parry’s argument here is not so much a detailed case for universalism (see his book for that), but an appeal for evangelicals who are universalists to be considered and accepted as authentic evangelicals – to see this as an inner-evangelical debate. In other words, to see this as a secondary sort of matter of interpretation and theology.

What do you reckon? Is the notion of universalism ‘out of bounds’ for authentic evangelicalism? What’s your reaction (emotional and/or theological!) to those like Parry arguing that universalism should have a respectable place at the evangelical table? Is such a project a sign of capitulation to an increasingly pluralist and inclusivist culture or a theological awakening prompted by currents within culture? Or something else?

[Rob Bell is close to Parry but Parry’s book is far far better than Bell’s – Bell is not quite all the way with Parry down the universalist path in that he (Bell) says people can freely choose hell]

Parry roots his case in a two part argument.

In Part 1 he asks and addresses 10 common objections to universalism within evangelicalism:

  1. Universalism in unbiblical – he argues the Bible can be interpreted in universalist-compatible ways. And evangelicals holding this interpretation do not cease to be evangelical. Universalism is not incompatible with core evangelical beliefs.
  2. Universalism undermines the seriousness of sin: he says not. Evangelical universalists believe in the seriousness of sin but God’s love is bigger and deeper than sin.
  3. Universalism undermines divine justice and wrath: see point 2.
  4. Universalism undermines hell: evangelical universalists believe in hell, but also believe redemption from hell is possible.
  5. Universalism undermines Christ’s role in salvation: he rejects the charge that his universalism is a form of pluralism. Rather he quotes Bell here on a universal salvation based on the unique and effective work of Christ.
  6. Universalism undermines the importance of faith in Christ: Parry affirms its importance – he just argues that in time, whether before or after death, all will come to such exclusive faith.
  7. Universalism undermines mission and evangelism: while Parry agrees this can well happen, it need not do so.
  8. Universalism undermines the Trinity: while there has been overlap between universalism and unitarianism, Parry again says this need not be so. There is nothing in evangelical universalism than requires unitarianism.
  9. Universalism was declared ‘anathema’ by the Church (especially Origen): he argues that universal restoration is compatible with the great Creeds and Councils of the Church
  10. Historically, evangelicalism has rejected universalism: He admits this is true but argues for the evolution and development of a living tradition, open to reform and change in light of the heartbeat of that tradition.

In Part 2, he proposes that evangelical universalism has historic antecedents within a narrow stream of evangelicalism and, more significantly, universalism grows out of theological reflection on core evangelical concerns. He has a creative line of reasoning here: combine aspects of Calvinism and Arminianism and you can get evangelical universalism – therefore there is nothing intrinsically ‘un-evangelical’ about evangelical universalism since both Calvinism and Arminianism fall within its orbit.

1. God, being omnipotent, could cause all people to freely accept Christ

2. God, being omniscient, would know how to cause all people to freely accept Christ

3. God, being omnibenevolent, would want to cause all people to freely accept Christ

(Premises 1 and 2 are Calvinist, 3 is Arminian)

4. God will cause all people to freely accept Christ

5. All people will freely accept Christ.

So he concludes

Evangelical universalists are christocentric, trinitarian, evangel-focused, biblically-rooted, and missional … what else does one have to be to be an evangelical?

Next post will be on Derek Tidball’s response.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

5 thoughts on “Evangelical Universalism? (1)

  1. Parry’s premises 1-3 have internal logic, though premises 4 and 5 are bald assertions. But none seem to me to be embodied in any Biblical writings, (with the possible exception of 2 Peter 3:9 in the case of Premise 3).

    Eagerly looking forward to an outline of Derek Tiddball’s response!

  2. Yes, he’s proposing a theoretical case – that such a scenario could be true of God and be consistent with his character and ability. He does engage with ‘universalist-compatible’ biblical texts in his book – but you’re right, the argument is largely ‘extra-biblical’ in that it is extrapolating outwards to what, he hopes, might be possible (points 4 and 5). He’s not so much here arguing for readers to be convinced of his argument, but he’s proposing his reasoning is consistently evangelical in approach and content.

  3. I’m having a hard time with the phrase ‘CAUSE ALL to FREELY…’ In my book, the argument breaks down right there at point 1. And even if 1 and 2 are valid, why wouldn’t point 3 be, ‘God, being omnibenevolent, would want to cause all people to freely reject sin’ – preventing the pain and brokenness that came from curse of sin in the first place?

    As to whether those with such a view should be invited to dine at the table of Evangelicalism, the claim of ‘Biblically-rooted’ is dubious at best. One can find some support in the Bible for just about any view–if he leaves off all the rest.

    I might as well insist on being recognized as an atheist Evangelical Christian. I’m sure I could play the connotation game and come up with quite a few points of commonality, irrespective of the fact my conclusions fly in the face of the fundamental assumptions and claims of Atheism.

    I wonder what the motivation for or the significance of being included under the Evangalical umbrella is?

  4. Naah. Whatever else this book might indicate about evangelicalism the fact that he can coherently articulate that he should be called an evangelical only indicates that the term “evangelical” has definitely lost any real meaning**. Do a search of the term on any newspaper website and it mostly just means someone who is passionate about their thing. If that’s what an evangelical is then Parry has proved his case simply by dedicating enough time out of his life to writing a book.

    **says the man just accepted to the ordination track of a mainline denomination…

  5. Hey Ritchie – that’s great news!

    Crystal, reading Parry I think the motivation is that he very much wants universalism to be true and is proposing a way of doing that while not wanting to jettison core elements of Christian orthodoxy. He has a far more thoughtful (and gracious) approach than Love Wins (the Evangelical Universalist was published well before Love Wins). I’m unconvinced tho ..

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