Of universalism and orthodoxy

I mentioned last week that I have been engaging in a dialogue with a friend well-educated in history and theology regarding my personal theology. He challenged me after that post and while I fully believe in the things that I wrote, I thought his words were worth sharing to frame the merits of orthodoxy:

While it seems that Jesus and universalism are compatible, systematic orthodox theology says otherwise. As you think about these things, let me encourage you to examine an additional aspect of the subject. While there is new understanding to be gained, there is nothing new under the sun. What you are exploring has been examined before. What you are discarding as error has been examined before. And, etc. This generally occurs with each generation of thinkers.

One principle of thinking is to examine what others have thought about and concluded. I would like to hear you think your way through the theological history of what you are considering on universalism. While I appreciate your consideration of belief in various traditions, I need to hear you come up with something that hasn’t been considered, or that has come to light, since the fourth century that indicates a theological adjustment is in order. This can and does occur. Folks believed the world was flat in the fourth century, etc. Further, the rigor of an historical (or theological) test requires delving back into the subject farther than current thinking. In other words, don’t quote Rob Bell or Baxter Krueger as authoritative.

Whether you are thinking about science, art, history, mathematics, music, business, cooking, logic, or theology you get where you are going based upon the thinking that has preceded you coming to the subject. For example: The astronomers who are currently thinking about dark matter are doing so based upon Hawking’s work, who built upon Einstein’s work…who built upon the work of the Persians and the Egyptians and the Babylonians.
Universalism is an attractive hypothesis, i.e. What if everyone is in heaven and there is no hell? This is why John Lennon’s song was such a hit! Seriously.

But here’s the deal: Your best thinking won’t make it true if there is data you have ignored or not fully considered. A step that you need to carefully consider is that the long view of history has consistently held universal salvation to be wrong/heretical.
As I said much earlier, I have a few professional colleagues who are into universal theology. Like you, they are quoting chapter and verse in the Bible (you can prove anything with Scripture). They are quoting their peers, quoting each other, and lecturing/writing with convincing compulsion. A few are quoting sources from the last century, but mostly indirectly. Not one has worked his/her way through the long view of theological history, i.e. systematic theology, to effectively dispute the repetitive conclusion in each generation that universalism is heretical. It is as if they are willing universalism true with their gifted communication skills.

I’m not closed to universal salvation/universalism, etc. God gets to do whatever God wants to do and I’m fully aware that He is significantly larger than the fraction of Him I grasp. However, before I will be ready to give universalism much credence, I need to see something that demonstrates why the long view of biblical and theological history is incorrect on this subject. I’m not seeing that anywhere even though there is a resurgence of the subject.

Be sure you don’t stumble in that last paragraph. I’m not saying the application of theological history is correct, i.e. Baptist, Methodist, etc. I’m saying the conclusion by many over a long period of time regarding sound theology is correct. In other words, systematic theology has stood the test of time, is re-examined with every generation, and has not changed in centuries.

I know you want universalism to be true. I know the idea of it has helped you and proved appealing to how you think about people. You write about it articulately. I see that you have located Bible verses that are supportive.

But, you have not yet considered the history of orthodox thought and pointed out the flawed thinking of the theologians who have preceded you. Before universalism can be meritorious, you must prove a great deal of history wrong.

Holding universalism to be true without proving the underpinnings of history and theology flawed, is an argument lacking full consideration. Simply writing more about the subject based upon your own thinking won’t prove your point. If you are on the wrong road to Chicago, going faster will not get you to the Windy City.


steven said...

I'm pretty uncomfortable with this guy's argument for two reasons.

1) Tone- He comes across as condescending. Hopefully, he's a friend of yours or something and you weren't offended by his attitude, but, "You're just being naive and silly, as soon as you wise up you'll get in line with my thinking" is a weak argument and I would have been offended by it.

2) Veracity- It's simply not true that no legitimate voice has proclaimed Christian Universalism since the third century. Granted, mainstream Christianity (i.e, whatever form of Christianity claimed political power at any given time) has rejected it for a variety of reasons, but there have always been Christians in the margins, primarily mystics, whom have claimed a Universalist approach to orthodoxy. St. Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Bishop Theodore (5th cent), Johannes Scotus Eigena (9th cent), Meister Eckhart (14th cent), Blessed Julian of Norwich (15th cent), and streams of Reformation era groups (including the Anabaptists, Moravians, and Quakers). William Law, a mentor of John Wesley, promulgated Universalist doctrine. We've even had a President- Abraham Lincoln- who firmly believed in "predestined universal salvation." CS Lewis was sympathetic to universalism as well.

Dr. Richard Beck writes convincingly on the subject. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2006/10/why-i-am-universalist-part-1-talbotts.html

Just because Christian Universalism is out of line with mainstream Christianity doesn't mean that it hasn't always been hidden in the margins, a voice in the wilderness. It's also easy to imagine why it might have been rejected by the Religious/Political establishment in a long era when the common people couldn't read the Bible for themselves.

Sorry, I know that this is a really long and possibly unwelcome blab-fest, but I just want to give you some encouragement that you're not thinking things that no one else ever has before. You are not alone, neither in the present nor in history.

Is Christian Universalism true? Maybe, maybe not. But "you're making things up" shouldn't deter you from going on this journey.

Cathy_H said...


Yes, is a friend. The speaking is heartfelt, not condescending.

Your comments are extremely welcome. For so long, I never expressed these ideas out loud. I started thinking along this line when I was fourteen, but I was in a culture that would definitely not have approved, so I just kept it all inside.

When I read Rob Bell's book, I was so relieved not to be alone. Your comments of together-ness make me feel connected.

Thank you.

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