Thursday, May 8, 2008

Origen's pastoraly wise universalism

I recently read an interesting article by Tom Greggs on Origen's universalism ("Exclusivist or Universalist? Origen the 'Wise Steward of the Word' (CommRom. V.1.7) and the Issue of Genre." International Journal of Systematic Theology 9.3, 2007, 315-27). The issue was how to interpret the fact that sometimes Origen sometimes comes out and teaches universalism (a well established point that needs no defending here) but at other times seems to be very exclusivist. For instance:

"Outside this house, that is, outside the Church, no one is saved. If anyone goes outside, he is responsible for his own death" (HomJosh. III.5).

Does Origen's left hand not know what his right hand is doing? According to Greggs the key is found in Origen's idea that

"Paul [in 1 Cor 15:33f] is thus acting as a wise steward of the word. And when he comes to the passages in which he has to speak about God's goodness, he expresses these things in a somewhat concealed and obscure way for the sake of certain lazy people lest, perchance, as we have said, 'they despise the riches of his goodness and patience and forbearance and store up for themselves wrath on the day of wrath" (CommRom. V.1.7).

Greggs argues that

"Origen suggests here that St Paul is acting as 'a wise steward of the word' to conceal and obscure the goodness of God in the universalist passages which have preceded 1 Cor 15:33 in order that the weaker are not tempted to fall back into sin" (Greggs, 321).

In other words - Origen, like Paul himself, is a pastoral theologian and biblical exegete. There are contexts in which bringing out the full glory of universalist hope is appropriate and contexts in which it is not (lest it elicit the wholly inappropriate response, "If I am going to be saved whatever I do then I think I'll keep on sinning!").

We can learn wisdom from Origen here. I worry that some Christian universalists are so dazzled by the vision of final ultimate reconciliation (and it is easy to understand why they are) that they are not always wise in their deployment of the notion. They feel that we must tell the world that they will all be saved and do our best to tone down Hell. I disagree. Sometimes, like the OT prophets or like Jesus himself, we need to warn of the coming warth without making mention of restoration after destruction. Sometimes we need to speak of both wrath and restoration, and sometimes simply comfort the broken with the good news of restoration. May God's Spirit grant us to wisdom to know how to speak in the specific situations we face.


Don said...

Dear Mentor,
How delightful to have you blogging. Count on my regular visits. What great counsel in this post. Christian Universalism is not lawless, nor should it encourage lack of diligence to know and obey the Lord.


Rebecca said...

I just wanted to say that I really like your interview on the UK Christian Bookshops site!

Anonymous said...

A friend said to me a few months ago, "You'd be a beast to not hope universalism is true, but you'd be a fool to preach it." Origen's method seems to be a good answer to that criticism.

Gregory MacDonald said...

Dear Don and Rebecca - Thanks. :-)

Dear Staggering Forth. Quite, although I would not go that far. I'd be very happy to preach universalism . . . in the right context.



Denver said...

I know the original post is old, but I had a question none the less. How can we believe universalism if the majority of Christians have believed otherwise throughout history. I notice many universalists appealing to Origen or Gregory of Nyssa. But this seems to be what lots of pseudo-Christian people appeal to. They're always saying, "See! Our ideas were held by the early church until the powerful people pushed us out!" I even saw a book once that claimed Origen taught reincarnation!

I don't know if there's an answer to this really, but I'm curious of people's thoughts.

Gregory MacDonald said...


Good Q. My default position is this: go with the tradition unless you have good reasons not to. What that means in this case is that we presume that Hell is eternal conscious torment unless we have good grounds to doubt that.

The burden of proof on the issue of Hell lies with those like me who dispute the tradition. The traditionalist has the benefit of the doubt.

But we know that the tradition is not perfect. All Christians are prepared to recognize issues on which they feel it went astray (even if they may not agree on what those are). The Christian tradition must always be open to revision as long as the proposed revisions seek to offer alternatives that aim to be true to heart of the tradition, being rooted in biblical revelation.

Simply appealing to Origin is not going to win any argument. He was certainly not infallible! He had some weird ideas. The point of such appeals is that there were early Christians who were accepted as sound people (Gregory is a better example as Origin was later condemned as a heretic) who were also universalists. The idea is simply that universalism was considered one possible Christian view.

But a lot more will have to be done to make a Christian case for universalism. I make a start at that bigger case in my book.

You are right - people do like to argue that their view was pushed out of the church. Such arguments are not always impressive (often there were good reasons why such views were pushed out).

In sum - the burden of proof is on people like me so if we do not make our case then you ignore us. We should expect no more. We are the misfits.

The heart of my case is that certain beliefs fundamental to the Christian tradition and the biblical revelation make more sense if we are universalists than if we are not. So I argue that universalism allows us to affirm the central claims of traditional orthodoxy in a way that eternal conscious torment does not.