Monday, July 21, 2008

Steve Hays Responds

It may interest some people that Steve Hays has responded to my four part response to him. In the interests of fairness you may wish to read it.

In summary: he still disagrees with me and still things I am a bad and dangerous person.
Oh dear. Never mind.

I have already said that I will not be responding to it (not because I cannot but because I judge it to be fruitless). Readers must judge for themselves the merits of our respective arguments.

It simply remains to thank Steve for all the hours he has put into reading my book, and responding to it. It is an honor to be taken seriously, even if only in order to be 'refuted'.

I also thank Steve for making the book more widely known and inadvertantly communicating that its arguments warrant serious consideration. I hope that others follow his lead in reading and considering the case for universalism. Perhaps he has increased the sales a little. :-)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Trinity and why it is a big issue

Bobby asked me a really good question - Why do I think that the Trinity is such a big issue?

It was never my intention that this blog should be a forum for discussing such a topic but, given the fact that Unitarians have had an historic link with universalism, I guess it was inevitable.

To start, I think that it is important to point out that all the Christian thinkers who thrashed out the doctrine of the Trinity from 2nd to 5th centuries did not think that they were 'inventing' new truths or adding to revelation. They were simply seeking to find ways of doing justice to the divine self-revelation testified to in Scripture. They wanted to preserve the fine balances required to appreciate the God revealed in Christ. Indeed, for them the debate was never about abstract and irrelevant theological talk - though it may look that way to us at first glance - it was always about the God of the gospel.

I personally take the Christian tradition very seriously and in my view the fact that the ecumenical creeds have governed Christian belief in all three major streams of the Church for centuries gives them prima facie authority. As Christians we'd need very strong reasons to reject them. So I am not starting from a neutral place in this discussion.

Is the idea biblical? Some people never tire of pointing out that the word "Trinity" does not occur in the Bible. But that is simply irrelevant. If the concept is the best way of doing justice to biblical revelation then the Trinity is biblical even if the word is a later label used for convenience.

Where to start? I simply intend to make a few, simple and provisional remarks as the topic is VAST!

All the early Christians were good monotheistic Jews. For them there was one God and to worship any other deity was to commit the primal sin of idolatry. But here's the funny thing: As far as we can tell from the extant evidence the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus offered to their Messiah the worship due to God alone and they did not think that in so doing they were compromising their monotheism. (Richard Bauckham's book God Crucified and Larry Hurtado's book Lord Jesus Christ explore this issue at length).

Worship of Christ goes back to the earliest levels of the tradition that we can access. Given the robust monotheism of those who worshipped Jesus this is an extraordinary fact that needs accounting for. How could solid monotheistic Jews worship Jesus in good conscience?

In early Christian worship and theology Jesus was approached as the one though whom God made all created things (e.g., Jn 1:3; Col 1:16); the one who sits upon the very same throne as God (e.g. Rev 22:3); the one who receives the worship of God (e.g., Phil 2:10-11, note the allusion to Isa 45:23); as one who bears God's own name (Phil 2:9); as one who is even called "God"on occasion (e.g., Jn 20:28; Heb 1:8). Old Testament texts about YHWH are applied to Jesus (e.g., Isa 45:23 in Phil 2:10-11 or Ps 45:6-7 in Heb 1:8). Jesus' human body is the divine temple in which the very glory of God dwells (Jn 1:14). And so on and so forth. If Jesus did not participate in the identity of the one God of Israel then all this was idolatry.

And yet the early Christians were very clear that Jesus' identification with YHWH was not such that Jesus was identical with his Father in heaven. God (the Father) created all things through his Word (1 Cor 8:6 - which, incidentally, is a Christian expansion of the Jewish shema from Deut 6:4); the throne in heaven is "the throne of God and of the Lamb" (Rev 22:3); and when Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven he was not talking to himself.

So in the very earliest Christian responses to God in the light of the Christ-event we find a tension. Jesus shares in the identity of Israel's one God and yet is not identical with the Father. Trinitarian theology is the attempt to clarify this tension and to guard it again those who would deny the deity of Christ (Arianism) and those who would say that Jesus and the Father are the same 'Person' in different disguises (Modalism). It also guards against a whole range of other unbalancing theologies. The aim is not to explain God or to put God in a box and understand him. God is mysterious - and this assertion is not an attempt to dodge hard philosophical issues but a simple admission that God's bigger than our little brains. The aim of the systematic formulations of Trinitarian theology is to protect certain fundamental Christian claims about God and the gospel from being lost. It is to preserve the delecate balances of the divine self-revelation.

A similar process took place with the Holy Spirit after the controversies over the person of Christ had died down. Perhaps people might like to pick that up in conversations (this blog does not wish to outstay its welcome).

But it is not just a matter about how to interpret certain texts. Issues surrounding the deity of Christ had theological import.

All of the Father's interaction with the universe - from creation through to new creation - is mediated through the Son and in the Spirit. If Son and Spirit are creatures (even highly exalted creatures) then God has no direct contact with his universe at all. God disappears off into the distance leaving us to engage with super-beings (the Son and the Spirit) instead. But Trinitarian theology, by insisting that Son and Spirit participate in the identity of the one God, puts God right at the heart of all creative and redemptive action. When Christ is saving us from sin God is saving us from sin. When Christ is with us God is with us. When the Spirit draws us through Christ to the Father God is drawing us through God to God. It's God all the way down.

Of course, please do not think I underplay the humanity of Christ - it is simply that this post is not on that issue. Christ is able to fully save us because he is divine but he is able to save us because he is fully human and can represent humanity.

Universalism does not require Trinitarian theology (it does not even require theistic theology). Christian universalism, I think, does. I know that in saying this I will anger a whole load of blog readers. Oh well. I'm getting used to upsetting people.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Trinitarian Universalist Prayer

Here is a prayer if you feel happy praying it:

Holy Father, you created all things through your powerful Word and your life-giving Spirit.
All that exists is from you and through you and for you and to you. You are the origin and destiny of this beautiful world.
Your creation is good and in your love, sovereign God, you will perfect that which you have made.
We are so grateful that the future of the world ultimately rests in your hands and not ours.

Lord Jesus Christ, Word of God, we give you praise that through you the Father was reconciling the world to himself. In you there is healing, life, restoration, salvation, new creation.
Lord Jesus - our representative before heaven's throne - your life, your death, your resurrection and your ascension are our salvation.

Spirit of Life, we thank you that you entice all creation towards its destiny in Christ. You are the power of resurrection and of new creation. You are leading our world to Jesus and, through him, back to the Father.

Triune Lord - we have been created and are redeemed by the Father, through the Son and in the Spirit. We hope for the restoration of all things to God, through God and in God. Ancient of Days, from start to finish it is all about you.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Gregory MacDonald Really is Bad, part 4 (he lacks a grasp of theological basics)

Steve continues:

As a universalist, you fail to appreciate either divine mercy or divine justice. You lack a basic grasp of law or gospel.

Oh? I am not sure how to reply to this one so I thought I would very quickly sketch how I understand those terms currently. Obviously the words have specific nuances in specific biblical contexts but as a starting point here are my broad brush-stroke definitions:

Divine mercy is God giving us what we do not deserve and witholding what we do deserve (i.e., punishment).

Divine justice is quite a wide category in the Bible that covers both God's action to punish sin and to save his people.

Law is (usually) the divine Torah given to Moses. It reflects the character of the holy God who gave it. (I confess not to having yet sorted out my views on the place of the Torah in the Christian life but I incline in the Calvinist direction on that issue. The NT texts are so complex that my little brain gets confused).

Gospel is the message about how God has acted in Christ's life, death, resurrection and ascension to redeem Israel and the world. It calls for trust in and allegiance to this Messiah, recognition of his Lordship, and repentance.

Of course, there is far more to all of these categories than the above but this should put you in the right ball park for understanding my views. I imagine that Steve would not disagree with what I have said above (though he may wish to add some more). So whence the disagreement?I think that it is rooted in my understanding of God's unity/integrity. Let me explain:

A doctrine of the unity/integrity of God's attributes: God is a unity in perfect harmony with himself. Consequently God's justice must be compatible with his love. All God's actions are loving and just. His love is a just love. His justice is a loving justice. So I claim that all God's acts of just punishment of sinners - including Hell - must be compatible with his love. And God's merciful treatment of his people - inclusing forgiveness and salvation - must be compatible with his justice.

I suspect that this is where Steve and I disagree. It seems to me that any doctrine of Hell that is incompatible with God's love for the ones punished falls foul of the theology of divine integrity. I imagine that Steve solves that problem by arguing that God does not love those in Hell (except in the weaker sense of having shown them common grace in this life). But my problem with this move is that it is, to my mind, fundamentally problematic (see my post on "Calvinism, the Trinity, and God's Universal Love").

So that's where I am at. If it reflects my faiure to understand these fundamental categories then I apologize.

There ends my self-defence.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Gregory MacDonald Really is Bad, part 3 (he's only orthodox by chance)

Steve continues

It’s just a coincidence that you’re theism happens to be as nominally orthodox as it turns out to be. The Trinity doesn’t conflict with universalism, so you just so happen to affirm the Trinity.Your universalism is heretical, and where your remaining theology is orthodox, it’s orthodox by chance. Like being accidentally innocent of murder because the gun misfired.

Ouch! On non-universalist theological issues I am only orthodox "by chance" and thus only "nominally orthodox" (on universalist issues I am simply a heretic). I think that Steve's point is that he believes that my deepest convictions about God are idolatrous and where my surface beliefs appear to be orthodox this is simply a matter of convenience (because they do not contradict my deeper, universalist convictions). As a result they are not expressions of genuine faith but mere nominal faith.

I must confess to being somewhat surprised that Steve, who does not know me at all, feels so confident in his analysis of my inner life as to be able to make such claims. I hope that if he knew me personally then he would come to see that he is quite mistaken. One day he will know me personally and we'll have heartfelt fellowship. For now I can only made claims which he may simply not believe. However, for the record, here goes ...

The revelation of God as triune - Father, Son and Spirit - is far more fundamental to my faith than universalism was, is, or ever will be. It is the heart of my Christianity and I would surrender universalist theology any day before surrendering trinitarian theology. It is not something I believe by accident or as a mater of convenience, and it is not nominal.

I hope that helps.

However, I am make no apology for being thrilled that the beautiful, glorious God and Father of our Lord Jesus is the one who is reconciling the whole world to himself through Christ and in the Spirit. Universalism is compatible with orthodox trinitarian faith - deal with it!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Gregory MacDonald Really is Bad, part 2 (he trivializes evil)

Steve continues his critique of me as follows:
You say I’ve leveled an exceptionally serious charge against
you. But there are no exceptionally serious charges in universalism.
Universalism trivializes every evil. If universalism is true, I could flay you
alive with a penknife, say three Hail Marys after I die, or do 1000 hours of
postmortem community service, then head for heaven. In universalism, all is
forgiven since all are forgiven.

Yikes! Best not to think too hard about the hypothetical case study! Eeeek! I don't think I will sleep well tonight!!!!

What is the charge here? That universalism trivializes every evil. But why on earth suppose that this is the case? Of course, in Steve's caricature of my view it is. There I commit my evil act and then just go through the motions to get my "Get out of Jail" card. That trivializes evil. But that is not my view.

My view is that there is no forgiveness except through the atoning death of Christ and heart-felt repentance and faith on the part of the sinner. This forgiveness comes at the cost of Christ's death on the cross. There is no trivializing of evil in that. The sinner is ashamed at what they have done and repudiates it. There is no sense in which their evil "doesn't really matter."

So unless Steve is prepared to say that if God forgives a repentant sinner then God has trivialized their evil I really do not see how his criticism can get off the ground.

I do not trivialize sin. I simply believe that where sin abounds grace abounds all the more.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Gregory MacDonald really is Bad, pt 1 (a bleeding-heart, limousine liberal, idolator)


Steve Hays has, as you may know, accused me of idolatry. I replied briefly to his accusation and Steve has now responded to my defence (see link).
So here is my last ditch attempt (in 4 parts) to defend myself. After that I go silent. You must decide for yourselves. Steve writes:
True, you then spend chaps. 2-6 trying to make an exegetical
case for universalism. However, these come with a tacit disclaimer. Given what
you said in chap. 1
[GM - he is referring to two passages in which I
describe my struggles over Hell - see link to read them], you will only believe in the self-revelation of God in Scripture
on condition that Scripture teach universalism. Your faith in Biblical theism is
contingent on universalism. That’s the escape clause in your contract. So, you
subordinate the authority of Scripture to your extrascriptural preconception of
divine worthiness.
Do I subordinate divine revelation to my own pre-conceived ideas about what God ought to be like? Do I think that my human reason trumps divine revelation? That's Steve's legitimate worry. The answer is 'No' (unless I am far more self-deceived than I imagine).

I think that it is clear in the book that I present the philosophical arguments not to settle the issue of whether universalism is true or false but to show that traditional interpretations of biblical teaching on Hell are deeply problematic and that this should prompt us to ask ourselves whether we have misunderstood the Bible.

But there is nothing unusual about that way of thinking theologically. It is no different from claiming that empirical evidence that the earth is not stationary and is not the centre of the solar system should cause us to rethink biblical texts which seem to suggest otherwise. I imagine that Steve himself interprets the Bible in the light of some insights from Copernicus and Galileo. Nobody would suggest that by doing this he is subordinating revelation to reason.

Furthermore, I state unambiguously that, "Scripture must retain its place as the primary locus of authority in any hermeneutical spiral of understanding; so if such a review
of the Bible does not plausibly yield a universalist interpretation, then we must return to the philosophy and try to see how we can make sense of the everlasting damnation of the lost"
(p. 41).
So I hope that it should be clear that Steve has misunderstood my position. If I was convinced that universalism was unbiblical I would stop being a universalist. I have no interest whatsoever in making up theological ideas to make me feel better. I want to know the sober truth. I happen to be fairly convinced that universalism is the sober truth.
And, yes, that’s the very definition of idolatry. You begin,
not with revelation, but with your preconception of God. If the Bible happens to
agree with your preconception, then that’s a bonus point for Scripture—but if
the Bible teaches everlasting punishment, then you jettison Biblical theism. So
you most definitely assert the primacy of your extrascriptural preconception.
[GM - see above] For you, the Bible is expendable.
You were able to reinterpret Scripture consistent with your preconception. But
had you been unable to do so, then—by your own admission—you would no longer be
a Christian.
I said nothing of the sort, nor would I have because it is not true. (However, I am pleased that Steve thinks I did manage to show that the Bible can be read in a way that is consistent with universalism. :-) I am interested that at no point does he engage with any of my five chapters of biblical arguments. Even if, as Steve thinks, my motivation for reading the Bible in a new way was questionable that need not mean that my biblical arguments are no good. Those arguments still deserve to be taken seriously. I do not think that they are all equally strong but overall I think my case has merit.)
Actually, I wouldn’t dignify it with the label of “reason.”
It’s simply emotion. The bathos of the bleeding-heart, limousine liberal. It’s a
secularized Christian conscience. You’re very compassionate behind your tinted
A bleeding-heart, limousine liberal? Ouch! In brief, just two points:

1. My philosophical arguments are surely not so bad that they cannot even be dignified with the label "reason". I have had feedback from several professional Christian philosophers and all of them were positive about the philosophical case (even if they disagreed with my final conclusions). Steve does not agree with my arguments but his reaction here perhaps errs on the side of being an over-emotional as opposed to a rational one. :-)

2. Emotion has a very important place in theological and ethical rationality so I make no apology for caring about those in Hell. I am just sorry that Steve is able to consider the whole matter from a non-emotional perspective.