Saturday, May 31, 2008

Calvinism, the Trinity and God's Universal Love

It has been argued by some Calvinists that the assertion "God is love" can be true even if there are people that God does not love. That sounds very odd so allow me to explain the thinking.

The statement "God is love" is rightly taken as referring to God's essential, necessary being. Within the Godhead there is mutual divine love between the Persons of the Trinity - the Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. Thus "God is love" is a truth even if God does not create a universe containing beings for him to love.

But some in the Reformed tradition go further. They argue that if God freely chooses to create the world (and he did not have to create this world or indeed any world) then God is totally free to decide whether or not he loves everything or anything in that world without his choice impacting the truth of the claim that "God is love". Why? Because the truth of the claim that "God is love" depends on the love within the Trinity and so God's decision whether or not to love his creatures has no bearing on that truth whatsoever! Consequently it would be true that "God is love" even if God chose to hate every single creature that he created!

This line of reasoning opens the way for some Calvinists to feel reasonable when maintaining both (a) that "God is love" and (b) that God loves only some people with a robust, redeeming love (he only loves the rest with a lesser, non-redeeming love shown in common grace). It is true, we are told, that "God is love" even though God chooses to send some people to eternal, conscious torment when he could just as easily have saved them from Hell.

Here is what I think about that: It is both completely right and completerly wrong - and in that order.

It is completely correct in maintaining that God's love is an essential divine characteristic because it is grounded in the mutual love of the Persons within the Godhead. It is consequently completely correct to claim that the assertion that "God is love" is true even if nothing at all existed apart from God. So far so good.

It is completely wrong, so I think, to assert that God's essential nature of love would not be compromised if God failed to love his creatures. That would be to maintain that the following two propositions were fully compatible

1. God is essentially loving (in other words, it is God's nature to love)
2. God does not love some of the creatures that he has made.

But at face value that seems a very odd claim indeed. It seems much more 'obvious' to me that

if God is essentially loving then

3. if only God exists then God will love himself
4. if God has created a universe then God will love himself and the creatures that he has created

If God creates a universe yet only loves himself and not his creatures could we say that it is God's nature to love? That love is essential to God? Could we maintain with integrity that "God is love"? When pondering that question remember that the phrase "God is love" comes from 1 John and in that letter it is not God's self-love that is in view but his love for creation.

As an aside, I do not hear many Calvinists arguing that for God to be essentially truthful all that is required is that he is truthful within the Trinity but that he can lie through his teeth when speaking to his creatures. If God is essentially truthful then he does not lie to anyone. Well, the same goes (or so I maintain) with his love.

I would be interested to know what Calvinists made of my continued suspicion that propositions 1 and 2 above really are incoherent and that, consequently, traditional Calvinism really does have a serious problem holding on to the central Christian conviction that "God is love".

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.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Universalism and the Salvation of Satan

Must a universalist believe that Satan will be saved?

Not necessarily. A universalist could believe that God will save all humans but perhaps not fallen angels. We could call that 'human universalism'.

But it has been pointed out that the logic of the arguments that I employ in chapter 1 of my book would entail a more radical conclusion - that God will redeem all fallen creatures, both human and angelic. Let's call this 'radical universalism'. So the question then becomes, "Does Gregory MacDonald believe that Satan will be saved?"

I confess to being agnostic on the issue. Agnostic not because the logic of my arguments is not clear but because I am not sure what to think about the Devil.

Is the Devil a personal being? Suppose that he is (perhaps he is a fallen angel, although Scripture never spells out his origins). If Satan was once a good spiritual person who was later corrupted then the logic of my position is indeed that God could and would redeem him. There are two problems with this and both are big.
1. Scripture indicates otherwise (Rev 20)
2. the Christian tradition is clear that Satan will not be redeemed (indeed, contrary to popular opinion, not even Origen claimed that Satan would be saved).
The only way that I can think to get out of this bind is to suggest that Lucifer (the good being created by God) will be saved but that Satan (the name for Lucifer-as-corrupted) will be destroyed. This is analogous to the way that God destroys our old natures in Christ and makes us new creations. If anyone is in Christ - new creation! Old things have passed away and all things have become new. Satan is dead. Long live Lucifer. But, I freely confess, this is very speculative and it is not what I actually believe.

Suppose then that Satan is not actually a personal being at all. Suppose that he is a personification of evil or, more plausibly, some kind of epiphenomena supervening on human evil (individual and social). I am thinking along the lines of Walter Wink here. On this view of Satan then even a radical universalist such as myself would insist that Satan cannot be saved. Indeed, quite the opposite! Satan must be purged from the created order in order for there to be radical, cosmic redemption.

If you have thoughts on this difficult topic please do post a comment.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Universalism, Reconciliation and Trivializing Horrors

Here is a serious question. Universalists believe (rightly in my view) that God will not only reconcile all people to himself but also all people to each other.

The serious issue is this: some crimes, such as the holocaust, are so absolutely horrendous that we need to be careful not to end up trivializing them by glibly declaring that God will reconcile the offender and the victims, period!

We need to say more. We need to recognize that the final reconciliation between humans does not occur by way of ignoring or downplaying the gravity of the sin or the torment inflicted. We need to make sure that our accounts do not have God riding roughshod over the wills of the victims. But we also need to affirm that whilst with humans this forgiveness may be impossible, with God all things are possible.
So - if you have thoughts on how to due justice to this issue please do offer your reflections.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Universalist Theology of Worship

For the universalist our Christian worship in the present age is a prophetic anticipation of the universal worship in the age to come.
One day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:8-9). But not yet. Right now the world is divided between those who worship God through Christ and those who do not. But when we declare the praises of him who called us out of darkness into his glorious light we anticipate that final day.

You might think that your Sunday morning worship is a insignificant, mundane thing. It is not. It is a prophetic act of resistance to the idolatry of the age. It is an act of hope, straining against the night, yearning for the day when all will love him.

Few have expressed this universalist theology of worship better than Matt Redman in his song, "There's a louder shout to come"
(NOTE: Redman is not a universalist but the theology in this song is both universalist and profound!)

There is a louder shout to come, there is a sweeter song to hear;
All the nations with one voice, all the people with one fear.
Bowing down before Your throne, every tribe and tongue we'll be;
All the nations with one voice, all the people with one King.
And what a song we'll sing upon that day.

O what a song we'll sing and O what a tune we'll bear;
You deserve an anthem of the highest praise.
O what a joy will rise and O what a sound we'll make.
You deserve an anthem of the highest praise.

Now we see a part of this, one day we shall see in full
All the nations with one voice, all the people with one love.
No one else will share Your praise, nothing else can take Your place;
All the nations with one voice, all the people with one Lord.
And what a song we'll sing upon that day.

Even now upon the earth there's a glimpse of all to come;
Many people with one voice, harmony of many tongues.
We will all confess your name, You will be our only praise;
All the nations with one voice, all the people with one God;
And what a song we'll sing upon that day.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Should we form universalist congregations?

NO! To be honest the whole idea makes me shudder with horror. In the list of things that are essential for a good church, teaching universalism is WAY down on the list. Indeed, a church that formed itself to be a 'universalist' congregation makes me imagine that it would spend a lot of its time preaching about universalism and so on (forgive me if I am wrong). God spare us from that!

I want to be part of a church that is trinitarian, Christ-centred, Spirit-filled, missional and loves people. If they also happen to teach universalism (in appropriate contexts - see my post on Origen) then great. Indeed, I would like it that they did. But if they taught eternal conscious torment then I'd rather be with them than a church that was all about universalism.

Don't get me wrong. I really do think that universalism is true (and I rejoice in it!) and I'd be very happy to be part of a chuch that was evangelical universalist so long as the universalism was simmering away in its background. It is simply that I think we need to put universalism in its place. It is good news. It is important but it is not fundamental to healthy and obedient Christian living. Indeed some of the best churches I know believe in eternal conscious torment. Bless them Lord!

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.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Is the UK more open to universalism than the USA?

OK - here is a weird thing. My book seems to be getting more attention in the UK that the USA (that is an observation not a complaint). Weirder still is the fact that this has been the case since the beginning when only a US edition was available. So what's the score here? Are Brits more open to universalism than Americans and if so why? Here's my guess - they are suckers! (That was a joke!)
Feel free to comment with your reflections on this puzzle.

Spring Harvest and Universalism

Here is a genuine surprise! Spring Harvest, the main Christian festival in the UK, explored the topic of eschatology this year. And the study guide (which all delegates receive) handles the topic of Hell in such a way that eternal conscious torment, annihilation, and evangelical universalist views of Hell are set out as equally evangelical options!!!

I must confess to being somewhat astonished that universalism has been treated not only as something less than heresy but as a view to serious ponder, albeit a minority report.

So - it is thumbs up to Spring Harvest for having the courage to tolerate evangelical universalism! It will be interesting to see what the fall out of that decision is.