Wednesday, May 28, 2008

At last! A critical review! Two cheers for Evangelicals Now!

For a long time I have been a little frustrated that the only responses to my book have been positive. Of course, that is nice in one way but part of the reason for it was that the people who would not be sympathetic to my cause did not bother to read the book in the first place. Thus it was welcome news when Rebecca at SPCK emailed me the latest review from a British newpaper called Evangelicals Now. EN represents the conservative-Reformed (though not the ultra-super-mega-conservative-Reformed) end of British evangelicalism. It is a good paper. I was pleased that they printed quite a sizeable review by a pastor from near Bristol called Phil Heaps.

Of course, EN would not print a review of the book that was not critical so I expected the reviewer to argue that I was mistaken and also to suggest that most people avoid the book (after all, if they read it they may be in danger of being persuaded by me!). But let me say the following things. Credit goes to Heaps and EN for the following

1. reviewing such a contentious book in the first place rather than sweeping it under the carpet. Heaps said, "the issues it raises are important."

2. my view was not caricatured but was, on the whole, presented accurately and in a sufficiently nuanced way. Heaps said, "its arguments should be addressed not dismissed or caricatured."

3. for having the courage to make some positive comments. I was pleased that "the style is clear, irenic, and persuasive," and "in terms of exegesis the book is (unsurprisingly!) strong in dealing with the 'universalist texts' ..." and that it was the "best case presentation" of universalism (I am not agreeing with that claim but I am pleased he was generous enough to be positive).

4. for not claiming that I am not a real evangelical (although he does conclude that most Bible-believers will remain convinced that "evangelical universalist" is a contradiction in terms).

Heaps also offered some criticisms.

(1) I am disturbingly naive about the irrationality of sin (response: I disagree - I just believe in the power of the Spirit to overcome such irrationality).

(2) I underplay the biblical notion that God's goodness consists in his hatred of evil and that God is glorified in his punishment of sin (response: I disagree. I affirm both of those things but neither provides an obstacle to universalism and neither can serve as a justification for eternal hell without undermining God's love. See the book for the argument).

(3) I do not accept that God may have good reasons not to save everyone, e.g., as enduring testimony to his holiness and the consequences of sin (response: In the book I consider suggested reasons God may have to leave some in Hell forever - including those identified here - and argue that they are inadequate. I will not reiterate the arguments but I will say that simply noting that I do not accept such reasons hardly constitutes a response to my view).

(4) I assume that God's victory implies universalism but forget that God must define what his victory means. (response: yes, God must define what ultimate divine victory means. I try to argue [I do not simply assume] that it entails universalism. My arguments may fail to convince all but that is another matter).

(5) I fail to grapple with the concept of death as "that state in which there is no opportunity to choose, or repent" (response: well, he is right that I do not accept that definition of death but it is a rather question-begging definition. It is a view deeply rooted in the Christian tradition but not so clearly in the Bible itself. I do try to launch an indirect biblical argument against it - indeed much of the book constitutes precisely that. I guess it depends what Heaps means by "grapple with").

(6) I claim too much for the power of reason. (reply: Perhaps I do but to be fair
(a) my philosophical arguments are grounded on biblical premises and not, as Heaps indicates, "unbelieving philosophy",
(b) I do claim that if Scripture indicates otherwise then we have to go back to the drawing board on the philosophy front so I do not allow 'reason' to trump 'revelation' as he suggests.
(c) perhaps I do allow reason to influence the shape of my theology but in so doing I am simply doing what all good Christian theologians have always done and Calvinists, such as Heaps appears to be, are most certainly no exception.

(7) I am exegetically "very weak" on the Hell texts (response: maybe on some. I do need to do more there but I did think that the exegetical handling of the Revelation texts was pretty reasonable and the suggestion that it was "very weak" is perhaps somewhat harsh).

(8) I do not grapple with the prominent pattern found in texts that seem to indicate the final fate of humanity end with a division between lost and saved (response: I thought I had tried to grapple with precisely that. In the end it depends on how one theologically exegets these texts in the light of the whole of the biblical revelation. I may come to a different conclusion than Heaps but is it true that I do not grapple with the issue? Hmmmmm. Perhaps it is a metter of perspective).

So it is two cheers for EN on being willing to enter the skirmish (but not quite three cheers). Blessings on their good work and on my brother Phil Heaps.


Anonymous said...

I think the comment regarding death is interesting, and this is also one of the aspects of your book I found a little disturbing. It seems you are taking the classic going to heaven - going to hell- dichotomy for granted (despite the work of NT Wright and others). I think your view needs a clearer emphasis on bodily resurrection. I don´t think anyone will repent being dead, but I think all will eventually bow their needs after their resurrection, and be included in the coming kingdom.
/Jonas Lundström

Jason Pratt said...

I would have to disagree that the goodness of God, even biblically, consists in His opposition to sin. That line of thinking is notoriously prevalent in the church, admittedly, but it also tacitly affirms ontological dualism of some sort (i.e. God/Anti-God.) God doesn't need sin to be good.

Bro. Heap's remark (assuming that was what he actually said) does illustrate a common mental gap regarding positive goodness and justice.

Anyway, congratulations on the negative review (and the eirenic reply! or irenic. Whichever word means friendly. {g})

Will you be sending it as a letter to EN's mailbag?


Jason Pratt said...

Whoops, forgot to subscribe for comments...

Gregory MacDonald said...

Dear Anonymous,

I think perhaps you have misunderstood me. I am relatively certain that I did not speak in the book about going to heaven. If I did then it was an a-typical slip of the pen (keyboard). As a matter of fact, I have argued for many years that Christian future hope is not about going to heaven when you die but about bodily resurrection and new creation. My book did not discuss that at length because it is not the focus of the debate (I do not see how it would make a difference to whether one is a universalist or not) but I am sure that it would have been presupposed throughout what I wrote. I am 100% with N.T. Wright on that issue. I hope that reassures you.

But how is that related to the disagreements about universalism? In Revelation we see the resurrection of the dead (bodily),followed by judgement, followed by the saints enjoying the new creation and the rest being sent to the Lake of fire. Now that might sound 'classic' but it is also biblical and N.T. Wright would agree with it (even though he has a particular understanding of what Hell is all about that I find problematic).

In my book I claim that it is possible for those in the Lake of Fire (i.e., Hell) to repent and find salvation in Christ. I am not totally clear what your position is. Please can you clarify how it differs from my own and then I will try to be more helpful



Gregory MacDonald said...

Thanks Jason.

Just one thought. I agree that God does not need sin to oppose in order to be good. So you are correct to say that his goodness does not consist in opposition to sin. Nevertheless, and I am sure you would agree, God's goodness does require that he oppose sin IF SIN EXISTS. In just the same way, God can be love even if he does not create anyone else to love (because there is mutual love within the Trinity) but if God does create others then, being love, he will love what he has created.

Anonymous said...

Gregory. Thankx for clarification. It might simply be the case that I have misread you. If this is the case, I owe you an excuse. I didn´t see much of res. in the book, but I might have to look again. Maybe I´ll be back on this one.
/Jonas Lundström

Jason Pratt said...


{{Nevertheless, and I am sure you would agree, God's goodness does require that he oppose sin IF SIN EXISTS.}}

Absolutely; no remotest debate there (or with the rest of your comment either). My observation was only that I often find preachers and theologians (and lay advocates for various positions) having no real idea of positive justice, and so they have to do things like presenting God’s justice as consisting in His opposition to sin. The same goes for the term ‘righteousness’--it’s simply a meaningless blank to a lot of people, except insofar as it has something to do with what God prefers and does Himself.

I think this commonly occurring blind-spot is worth keeping in mind when doing orthodox apologetics for universalism, because in practice I often find it to be a significant stumbling block for people: their notion of righteousness is so empty, that when I point out the word in Greek is an emphatic compound of “fair-togetherness”, they habitually resist accepting this meaning--even when I point out how this relates to the self-existent eternally coherent interpersonal relationship of the Trinity.

(But then also, even though most Christians might say they accepted trinitarian doctrine, in practice they think this makes no practical difference to theology, except perhaps as a way of distinguishing us from Mormons or whatever.)


Anonymous said...

Gregory. I think the reason I interpreted you this way is that you spend a lot of time speaking about "hell" in the book, without clearly opposing the traditional heaven-hell view that usually comes together with the talk about hell. As a reader, the natural thing is to interpret your talk about "hell" in light of the traditional dichotomy. I suspect you did this for strategical reasons (not bringing up too much new stuff at the same time, thereby risking taking the focus away from universalism), and I am not sure I want to criticize you for this.