Evangelical Universalism (2)

In the last post we sketched Robin Parry’s proposal for an evangelical form of universalism in the current edition of Evangelical Quarterly. Parry’s coming at this as an evangelical (former editor at Paternoster books). His tone is irenic, he’s not dogmatic, he’s not trying to dismiss traditional interpretations, nor is he trying to be provocative in order to sell loads of books … nough said.

He is, you sense, exploring the possibility that he would very much like to be true for pastoral reasons. He is a ‘hopeful dogmatic universalist’ without being too dogmatic.

Do you feel the weight of that hope? God himself desires all to come to a knowledge of salvation.  He delights not in judgement – in the OT it is often a last resort after numerous prophetic warnings and appeals. Jesus comes first as one who seeks and saves the lost.

By evangelical universalism, Parry means not a form of universalism by which all paths lead to God but one in which all eventually are saved through faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. His version includes a place for justice, judgement and hell. But, he speculates, hell is temporary not infinite, ultimately educative not endlessly retributive.

In other words, God’s judgement is not the final word; ‘love wins’. Sin and sinners do not have the last word in defying God, God’s ultimate aim of reconciliation of all things will triumph. God will be ‘all in all’.

Derek Tidball, in his response, summarises the components of Parry’s argument, considers the biblical evidence and offers his verdict. I’ll just discuss the components in this post.

The argument for evangelical universalism traces some familiar paths – nothing being said here is dramatically new, except perhaps the proposal that such a view is inherently evangelical in nature.

A moral component: an argument against the idea of God inflicting infinite punishment for finite sin. John Stott famously raised this objection in Essentials many years ago (1988). And it’s telling that he (tentatively) proposed an evangelical case for annihilationism not universalism. There is nothing in this moral argument that demands universal salvation for all.

A philosophical component: if God is truly God – all loving, all powerful, and willing that none should perish, how is it logically compatible to say that some have the power to resist him and will therefore be punished eternally?  Scripture, Tidball responds, simply does not resolve the issue and leaves space for the mystery of God. It also speaks of the victory of God over his enemies – ultimate judgement is not a failure of God to overcome those who resist him, but the opposite.

A theological component: This has several parts. The key one for Parry is that there are NOT two forms of God’s punishment: a disciplinary form for believers (e.g. Heb 12:6) and a retributive form ultimately endured by unbelievers.

The big idea here is that God’s justice will be restorative not retributive. This links together his love and his justice – eventually all will come to accept and know the love of God for themselves, it just takes longer for some to get there than others!  Tidball isn’t convinced by the exegesis or the culturally shaped assumptions about what constitutes love and justice.

A hermeneutical component: Parry and Tidball agree that our reading of Scripture is context bound – we don’t ‘just read the Bible’ and fool ourselves if we think we are objectively neutral. For this reason we need to read the Bible aided by reason, tradition and experience. But they differ over the implications. Parry thinks that reason and experience point to a universalist hermeneutic. Tidball points out that universalism has been rejected by mainstream orthodoxy throughout Church history.

Next post the biblical evidence.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

4 thoughts on “Evangelical Universalism (2)

  1. As a Christian Universalist, greatly helped by Parry’s work, I’ve noticed an interesting trend over the years.

    The traditionalist begins by saying that our beliefs must not be based on philosophical theology but on scripture. Well, we’ve got that approach out of the way, now, with the above post.

    So then it moves on to “what the Bible really says”, which is your next post. And this is where the universalist reading is discovered to be much stronger than anyone expected. And this, then, is the point where the traditionalist returns to philosophical theology to defend the traditional position! I’ve seen this trend unfold several times.

    My own view is that the “traditionalist” teaching on the fate of the wicked is precisely that: a “tradition of men”, especially the tradition of Augustine and Calvin. So I look forward to the next post where we consider “what the Bible actually says!”

    • Welcome Nicholas. Interesting point. Leaving aside the biblical material til the next post or two, I do agree that how we use the term ‘biblical’ is often pretty loose. Not everything that is orthodox can simply be ‘proved’ from exegesis of some key biblical texts. How the Creeds talk of Jesus for example: I agree and believe he is fully God, fully man and that this is consistent with the witness of Scripture, but their Greek ontology is not quite how the NT puts it. I guess I’m saying we need to understand theology is distinct from exegesis. Yes an evangelical will want to tie the two together as strongly as possible, but they are not simply synonymous.

  2. I think the philosophical objection is a real problem for a Calvinist, or even a classical Arminian. Using the mystery of God to plug holes our own position seems pretty weak, and not particularly honest.

    “Tidball isn’t convinced by the exegesis or the culturally shaped assumptions about what constitutes love and justice.”

    We are all steeped in these “culturally shaped assumptions” more than we know, but I’ve noticed that theological hangups (even amongst traditionalists) are often birthed by the unconscious notion that God must surely be a good humanist, ordering his values and behaviors accordingly.

    Among other things, I don’t see how the sense of urgency communicated by Jesus meshes very well with a view that salvation is just a matter of time. There are hints here and there that there are things about salvation and judgment we don’t understand (God has a little wiggle room :)), but as best as I can understand it, the overwhelming message is that eternal destiny depends on what we decide in this life.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

    • Hi Crystal – Derek says something very similiar to your final sentence about this life.

      Continuing on from Nicholas’ comment, the articles are debating ‘evangelical universalism’. So by definition the question of whether Parry’s proposals are compatible / consistent with the witness of Scripture is the key question.

      If evangelical rejection of Parry depends on philosophy or incompatibility with later theological formulations, then it is a weak argument. But philosophy, reason and tradition can still be legitimate and important strands of an evangelical response….

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