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Is Evangelical Universalism an Oxymoron? Part 05

This is the fifth part of series which evaluates the compatibility between evangelicalism and universalism. This tries to draw conclusions building on the previous posts definition.

WARNING: This paper was written as a part of the requirements for a Master’s of Theology. It contains terms that are more difficult than what usually appear on this blog.

The Coherence of Evangelical Universalism

Robin Parry describes himself as a Hopeful Dogmatic Universalist. This is to say he offers Dogmatic Universalism with humility, given he is uncertain that the salvation of all is certain. The main thesis he defends is that Dogmatic Universalism is compatible with Evangelicalism.[1] That is to say, ‘Evangelical universalism’ is not an oxymoron. He proceeds by defending two contentions. First, that there is no good reason to think that dogmatic universalism is un-evangelical. Second, that there are good reasons to think that universalism is compatible with evangelicalism.[2]

In defense of his first contention he refutes ten common objections against universalism.[3] The viability of this strategy relies heavily upon the doctrine of post-mortem evangelisation being evangelical-compatible. To say an idea is evangelical-compatible is to say that the idea must be sourced from the biblical material or else not contradict the biblical material or the other affirmations in our definition of evangelicalism. Space does not permit a thorough treatment on the doctrine of the post-mortem evangelism. However, on the basis of Parry’s use of the words ‘unusual’ and ‘atypical’[4] and the absence of biblical support in his paper, we may at least tentatively conclude it is not derived from the biblical material. We do also have some reason to suspect that it does contradict the expectation of Scripture that this life is the only time for decision-making.[5]

For his second contention he proffers two lines of defence. First, that evangelical universalism grows from reflection on common evangelical convictions, and second, from the evangel itself.

For the first line of defence Parry presents a five-step syllogism built upon premises that are acceptable for different evangelicals.

  1. God, being omnipotent, could cause all people to freely accept Christ.
  2. God, being omniscient, would know how to cause all people to freely accept Christ.
  3. God, being omnibenevolent, would want to cause all people to freely accept Christ.
  4. God will cause all people to freely accept Christ.
  5. All people will freely accept Christ.

Premises 1 and 2 are given from a Calvinist perspective, and premise 3 from an Arminian perspective. The conclusion in 5 is the universalist’s position. He asks, should universalism be considered un-evangelical when it was arrived at by evangelical-compatible premises?

The main problem here is that the argument proceeds on an equivocation of what it means to freely accept Christ. The Calvinist and Arminian conception of freedom is not the same.[6] This makes the argument informally logical fallacious, so it can hardly be expected to count as evidence that universalism is evangelical-compatible – that is, unless it is acceptable for evangelicals to reason fallaciously.

The second problem is that premise 4 is not ‘entailed’ by premise 1 through 3, as Parry claims. Intuitively, it is suggestive that God will cause all people to freely accept Christ, however this entailment is formally logically fallacious. To arrive at 4 non-fallaciously, one needs to disclose the hidden premise that states whatever God can do and wants to do, he will do. To affirm this however is a denial of divine freedom. It is little comfort that the argument is not meant to be a proof for universalism but to show that universalism can be motivated by widely accepted evangelical beliefs, since divine freedom–not its denial–is a widely accepted evangelical belief.[7]

Parry’s second line of defence for universalism being compatible with evangelicalism is to seek to demonstrate that, through theological reflection on the evangel (the good news itself) and Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God, universalism makes more sense than traditional views of Hell.[8] He confesses his worry that on the traditional views of hell which all involve an irreversible destruction, something other than Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection becomes definitive for the ‘shape of the future’ and governs ‘God’s triumph’.[9]

Parry does not unfold clearly what that something is, but the implication is that it is human freedom that is preventing God from asserting his total control over humanity’s eternal destiny.[10] However this is not a worry for Calvinism, since compatibilistic freedom falls within the scope of God’s determination. Neither is it a worry for the Arminian theology, since not impinging on humanity’s libertarian freedom is God’s will and desire. Thus, on both theological systems, nothing other than God’s will keeps the damned in hell where they are. Parry’s reaction is more directed to the Calvinistic response. It is that God irrevocably damning people he could just have easily redeemed is, to his mind, an imperfection.[11] Parry’s reaction to the Arminian response seems to be that for God to allow irrevocable damnation does not correspond with the picture of Jesus on the cross and his resurrection triumphing over sin.[12]

In response one might point out that a doctrine of annihilationism[13] would equally resolve the problem he uses universalism to solve. Alternatively, one could suggest that to simply make it possible for sin to be finally eliminated by universal reconciliation is enough for God–he need not make it so. To insist on this, in the manner of a dogmatic universalist, is to deny the libertarian freedom on which the proposal was built. As Van Oosterzee reminds us, ‘[t]his freedom involves in itself the terrible possibility of an endless resistance, which equally endlessly punishes itself.’[14] Therefore, either we redound upon unconditional election or else, with the British New Testament scholar Andrew Lincoln, incline towards hopeful universalism and away from dogmatic universalism.[15]

Parry takes pains to say he is not grounding his theology in a ‘sentimentalised view of God’s niceness.’[16] He believes it is the gospel story itself which grounds evangelical universalism, but it is strange that an evangelical would let their ‘eschatological reflections and speculations… be utterly reconfigured around Jesus’[17] without taking into account what Jesus himself taught about hell and the eschaton. The point here is that Jesus communicated through the Scriptures and Parry’s reflections here are not buttressed by the primal evangelical source. He uses, for example, phrases such as; ‘sounds to me like’, ‘to my universalist ear’ and ‘to my mind’.[18] This creates the suspicion a prior ‘sentimentalised’ theology is directing his ‘reflections and speculations’.

Consider Lewis Sperry Chafer’s biting remark, ‘[w]ith all others of this belief, the restitutionist builds on human sentiment and reason more than upon the Word of God.’[19]

Conclusion

This brings us to the central question of this paper: is Evangelical universalism, in fact, an oxymoron?

Parry’s arguments for the compatibility of evangelicalism and dogmatic universalism leave us sympathetic but doubtful. His first contention – that there is no good reason to think that dogmatic universalism is not compatible with evangelicalism – relies upon a controversial doctrine of post-mortem evangelisation that is doubtfully biblical. His second contention – that there are good reasons to think that dogmatic universalism is compatible with evangelicalism – is defended with two arguments that, in my evaluation, are not persuasive. The first falls flat for being both formally and informally invalid, and the second is suspicious for lack of biblical referencing and philosophically can admit only hopeful universalism – not dogmatic universalism. Although he has failed to convince, we are better informed of the state of the current debate and are satisfied that much of what evangelicals affirm is congruent or compatible with his some versions of universalism.

Our historical survey of evangelicalism led us to give a minimal theological description with which we can evaluate. This definition included a commitment to the Scripture as the source and norming norm for theological beliefs, the Triune God, the centrality of Jesus Christ and his atoning work on the cross, and justification by faith alone. We have already seen how this definition can be used to determine the pluralist universalism of John Hick is non-evangelical. However it is not immediately apparent that it can be utilised to determine all varieties of universalism as non-evangelical, especially hopeful universalism and the dogmatic universalism of Parry.

This conclusion raises the question of whether evangelicals collectively need to clarify evangelical identity with a theological definition that utilises more numerous, precise and exclusive terms. Should we fail in such a task, we may speculate that the term will, if it has not already, become so hopelessly diverse and fragmented that it no longer is of practical use as a descriptor for the contemporary Christian scene.[20] Is this acceptable? Or may we speculate further that this fragmentation will be beneficial in some way?[21]

It also raises the question of how evangelicals use and approach the Bible. Is it enough for evangelicals to believe their theological position is biblical, or must it also be the biblical position? What role or significance do we give to extra-biblical doctrines in our theological system? What hermeneutical principles must an evangelical commit to in biblical interpretation? And what consequences do these principles have when we structure our beliefs? For instance, do these principles commit one to internal coherence? Do they permit fallacious arguments when theologising? Do they imply what the ETS and EPS make explicit: that is, do they reject approaches to Scripture that deny that biblical truth claims are grounded in reality?

The survey of the history of both evangelicalism and universalism has led to me to suggest that the growing diversity of evangelicalism has played a significant role in the growing acceptability of universalism, and that in the future greater numbers will embrace the doctrine, but not with greater confidence. For myself, it has called into question the influence culture has on the evangelical mind, and whether indeed the Bible’s truth remains today evangelicalism’s bedrock.

As Bernard Ramm explained, evangelicals understand the impulse and attractiveness of universalism. In this way they are both mutually reinforcing. However, large and important questions loom over the biblical foundations for universalism. In particular over whether it is biblically permissible to believe a second-chance is provided to those who die in their sins. Is it not the case that this life is the time allotted for decision-making? Isn’t God’s ‘final judgment’ final?

The remaining question that all this has raised is whether we are asking the right questions? As D. A. Carson states in another context, evangelicals should be asking ‘not what evangelicalism can tolerate, but what Scripture authorises and forbids.’[22] Should evangelicals simply be lovers of God’s truth as revealed in Scripture: a religion of the heart and mind, and on this basis proceed, in the style of Augustine and the way the WEA’s standards for membership suggests, to engage in friendly in-house discussion?

Accordingly, while it is not immediately apparent that universalism is non-evangelical, with closer examination we may be able to determine on evangelical premises that there is no reason to believe there is hope all will be saved. For example, since the most vocal proponents of hopeful universalism, with the exception of Kierkegaard, are all predicated upon some form of restorationism, to show from Scripture that there is no second-chance after death would be a sufficient refutation.[23] Is evangelicalism compatible with universalism? To echo the final words of David Wells, ‘[w]ell, that all depends.’[24]

Footnotes:

  1. Robin Parry, “Evangelical Universalism: Oxymoron?” (a talk delivered at the Spurgeon’s College, 3 February 2011). This paper’s title is the inspiration for the title of this paper.
  2. The following critique is based upon an unpublished paper that is based upon his talk (see footnote above). Robin Parry, “Evangelical Universalism: Oxymoron?” unpublished.
  3. These objections are universalism (1) is unbiblical, (2) undermines the seriousness of sin, (3) undermines divine justice and wrath, (4) undermines hell, (5) undermines Christ’s role in salvation, (6) undermines the importance of faith in Christ, (7) undermines mission and evangelism, (8) undermines the Trinity, (9) was decaled anathema by the church, (10) has historically been rejected by evangelicals.
  4. Gregory MacDonald, The Evangelical Universalist, 6; Robin Parry, “Evangelical Universalism: Oxymoron?” unpublished, 2.
  5. ‘Beyond these considerations, these are definite statements to the contrary. A finality attaches to the biblical depictions of the sentence rendered at the final judgment; for example, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). The parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), although it relates to the intermediate rather than the final state, makes clear that their condition is absolute. It is not even possible to travel between the different states: “And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (v. 26). We must therefore conclude that restorationism, the idea of a second chance, must be rejected.’ Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 1244. See also Leon Morris, The Biblical Doctrine of Judgement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 66. ‘The fact that the same word is used in Mat. 25:46 to describe both the suffering of the wicked and the happiness of the righteous shows that the misery of the lost is eternal, in the same sense as the life of God to the blessedness of the saved. ‘ Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology, 1045.
  6. Calvinism is compatibilistic with respect to human freedom and divine determination, and Arminianism conceives human freedom as libertarian. These conceptions are mutually exclusive. Parry is thus equivocating in premises 1 through 3, by using a word in such a way as to have two meanings.
  7. Even Parry seems to commit himself to divine freedom. ‘God has already shown his hand in the story of Jesus. He has already chosen, in his freedom, to “be our God”.’ Robin Parry, “Evangelical Universalism: Oxymoron?” unpublished, 12.
  8. Again, this is not to show that universalism is true, but that it is acceptable for evangelicalism, since it flows from prime evangelical concerns.Robin Parry, “Evangelical Universalism: Oxymoron?” unpublished, 12.
  9. Parry argues, ‘[t]he idea that God will ‘reconcile’ some creatures by forcing them to acknowledge that he is the boss and then destroying them is, to my universalist ear, a call to allow the theological concept of ‘reconciliation’ to wander free from its anchoring in the gospel and Scripture.’ See “Evangelical Universalism: Oxymoron?” unpublished, 12. However, as Shultz has argued, this is to conflate reconciliation with salvation. The scope of reconciliation is universal (See 2 Cor 5:18-21 and Col 1:19-20), but different groups experience reconciliation in different ways. For believers reconciliation is a saving relationship with God. For unbelievers reconciliation is coming into a full knowledge of God’s glorious will and ways, yet being unwilling to repent of their sins and seek relationship with God through Jesus Christ will spend eternity in a state of remorse. See Gary L. Shultz, Jr., “The Reconciliation of All things in Christ” Bibliotheca Sacra 167:668 (October 2010): 442-59. This interpretation of reconciliation does not disprove Parry’s thesis that evangelical universalism proceeds from evangelical emphases. What is does do is remove Parry’s sole argument from scriptural grounds, and hence unconnected to our evangelical definition.
  10. Robin Parry, “Evangelical Universalism: Oxymoron?” unpublished, 12-13. A sentiment I am inclined to agree with. However, the Calvinist could insist that God’s choice to regenerate some and not others is amorally arbitrary.
  11. Ibid., 13.
  12. There are different forms of annhilationism, including pure mortalism, conditional immortality and annihilationism proper. Conditional immortality affirms that humans are by nature mortal, and are granted eternal life. There are variations within conditional immortality. Some affirm death is the absolute end, others that unregenerate persons will be restored to life in the resurrection to be judged and then annihilated, others that some time after death God will allow them to pass out of existence. For more see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 1237.
  13. Van Oosterzee, Church Dogmatics (trans. J. W. Watson and M. J. Evans; 2 vols.; Michigan: Armstrong & Co. 1874), 2:807-9; quoted in Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, (8 vols.; Grand Rapids: Dunham, 1948), 4:423. Also, ‘[u]pon the theory of human freedom just mentioned, no motives which God can use will certainly accomplish the salvation of all moral creatures. The soul which resists Christ here may resist him forever.’ Augustus Hopkins Strong, Systematic Theology (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1907), 1040.
  14. Though he does so on the basis on certain biblical texts and themes, not philosophical theology. See Hilborn and Horrocks, “Universalistic Trends in the Evangelical Tradition: An Historical Perspective,” in Universal Salvation? The Current Debate, 236, 243. He mentions this only in scattered references. See Andrew Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary, (Waco: Word, 1990); Paradise Now and Not Yet: Studies in the Role of the Heavenly Dimension in Paul’s Thought, With Special Reference to His Eschatology, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 32-44.
  15. Robin Parry, “Evangelical Universalism: Oxymoron?” unpublished, 12.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., 12-13.
  18. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 4:426.
  19. To recall Bebbington’s distinction made in footnote three, there is no reason I can see which would diminish the usage of the term in the former lower-case sense, that being the minimal description ‘of the gospel’.
  20. Noll, for instance, has observed a repositioning of old religious and ideological antagonisms between evangelicals and once sectarian groups such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and the World Wide Church of God, as they move towards more traditional Christian affirmations. At the end of the twentieth century there has even been improved relations between some evangelicals and Mormon, whom most have considered far beyond the pale. See Noll, American Evangelical Christianity, 24. Is it possible that a corollary to evangelical diversity and fragmentation is a leavening effect on doctrinally unorthodox groups? Can we hope that this will also mean the evangelization of Mormon and Catholic churches?
  21. D. A. Carson, “Is Sacrifice Passé?” Christianity Today, (19 Feb 1990): 15; quoted in R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “Evangelical: What’s in a Name?” The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel, 36.
  22. A preliminary case is outlined in footnote 84.
  23. David Wells, “On Being Evangelical: Some Differences and Similarities” in Evangelicalism: Comparative Studies of Popular Protestantism in North America, the British Isles, and Beyond, 1700-1990 (eds. Mark A. Noll et al.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 407.

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