About Providence, Divine Action and the Church


In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Conference Summary: Is Universalism an Evangelical Option?

Yesterday, Spurgeon’s College in south London hosted a one-day conference, Is Universalism an Evangelical Option? Almost ninety delegates attended, representing a range of (how shall I put it?) evangelical persuasions or intensities; and of these, all those to whom I spoke thought that the day was very interesting and worthwhile.

Robin Parry’s good-humoured presentation was first on the programme. I missed the first ten or fifteen minutes of his talk, as I was welcoming latecomers and dealing with conference administration. But I still caught most of what Robin had to say. As anyone who has read The Evangelical Universalist will anticipate, Robin didn’t need to say much beyond what is already written in that book. The uniqueness of his lecture came through its layout: Robin took various objections to universalism – e.g., Doesn’t universalism undermine evangelism? – and attempted to show why these objections do not apply to his thesis. On the whole, I found Robin persuasive. Broadly speaking, I see no reason why universalism can’t be an evangelical option.

It was Derek Tidball’s task to challenge Robin’s position. After a series of preliminary comments about various things (apologies for my vagueness), he focussed on certain New Testament texts that could point either to universalism or the reality of eternal conscious torment or annihilationism. (Others who have read his books will no doubt confirm or refute this, but Derek seems to be in favour of annihilation, so to speak!) He argued that all the texts Robin supposed pointed to universalist readings (as discussed in The Evangelical Universalist) in fact did no such thing. I must admit that I was unconvinced by a lot of what Derek said. By discussing specific biblical texts, Derek approached the conference theme differently to Robin, who had limited himself to sketching a framework for reading Scripture and identifying commonalities between his account of universalism and general evangelical thought. Moreover, I didn’t think that Derek acknowledged as clearly as he could or should have done Robin’s own defence of his interpretations of these texts in The Evangelical Universalist. I wonder how many people in attendance yet to read this book thought that Derek had drawn Robin’s attention to a number of texts that he had neglected to consider. Still, Derek’s paper was interesting and presented in a way that did not belittle Robin or his views.

After lunch, Robin and Derek spent half an hour in free discussion, focussing on how one determines the ‘natural’ way of reading individual scriptural texts and so on. Following this, Graham Watts delivered a paper on universalism in the thought of P. T. Forsyth and T. F. Torrance. Graham thought that the differing views of these two theologians in part can be accounted for by their relation to Karl Barth’s doctrine of election. Forsyth’s thought was pre-Barthian in this respect, and so his leanings towards purgatory, prayers for the dead and so on should have lead inevitably to universalism – a conclusion with which Forsyth flirted, but one to which he did not finally commit himself. Thus Graham concluded that Forsyth is theologically incoherent on this score; Forsyth had no theological reason not to hold to universalism. However, T. F. Torrance, influenced directly by Barth, denied universalism as a real possibility on the basis that such a conclusion would deny God the freedom of God’s love; there can be no logico-causal connection between the statement that ‘Christ died for all’ and the conclusion that ‘all will be saved’. Even if all are elect in Christ, this does not mean that the Spirit will actualise faith in all, for only God in God’s freedom can determine the faith of individual people. Graham indicated that the Barthian–Torrance line is preferable to wholesale universalism (though in the final Q&A session, Robin argued that the intention to defend the freedom of God in fact presupposes that there is still a God behind God, in so far as God’s intentions of universal salvation revealed in Scripture are obscured by the divine freedom which could, in fact, mean that not all are actually saved). I thought Graham’s self-contained paper was outstanding, and I do hope that it finds publication at some point.

Finally (well, penultimately, but I’m not going to summarise the final Q&A session), Nigel Wright read a paper on J├╝rgen Moltmann and universalism. The main thing I took from this is Moltmann’s insistence that human decision cannot prevent God from making all things new in Christ. If people can refuse salvation, this makes the faculty of human decision-making triumphant over God’s power and intention to bless the world. Nigel, echoing the Barthian sentiments found in Graham’s paper, suggested that there is a difference between universalism (as proposed by Moltmann and Robin) and universal hope (as in Barth). He concluded by suggesting that Scripture is silent on the topic of universalism, or at least gives mixed signals, so that we don’t know how things will end. Personally, I think this is a via media too contrived: Robin is surely right to suppose that if Scripture gives hints that all will one day be saved, then we are entitled to attempt to fit these hints into some kind of interpretative framework by which they will make sense alongside other, perhaps contrary texts.

That’s my take on the day; I thoroughly enjoyed it. I must admit that I’m still more with Barth than with Robin, but I think Robin’s arguments need to be taken very seriously – and I need to reflect more on his comment that prioritising the freedom of God can actually run the risk of obscuring scriptural revelation. There has to be some coherence between the two, otherwise we could say that God is free to act arbitrarily or inconsistently.

Some final notes: Audio recordings were made, though I’m not sure at the moment in what way they’ll find their way to public access. And Harvey and Andy have offered their reflections on the day.

UPDATE: See Robin's further thoughts on universalism and the 'God behind God' here.

10 comments:

  1. Terry, thanks for this summary. With you on following Barth, although having read Oliver Crisp's chapter in All Will Be Well on Barth, think Barth was a universalist without saying it ... which is a point I would have liked to have made in final session ... although I follow the Colwell reading of Barth on universalism, Crisp makes a convincing case that Barth's defence against universalism does not stack up ... but I think I am in a position which Robin obviously finds frustrating of coming as close as you can to universalism and then the swerve away at the last minute, like Barth does ... hope this makes sense

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  2. It does, Andy. I know of Oliver's article, but I've not read it. Perhaps I'll get round to it sooner rather than later!

    By the way, I thought your point about pistis christou in the Q&A session was a good one, and I was disappointed that it was sidestepped. Perhaps you should write a paper expanding your view...

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  3. Thanks for the review of conference Terry. I'm glad it was such a success!

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  4. Thanks Terry

    your comments mirror my own feelings of how it went.

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  5. Ha! well now that you ask, I'm the one who came from the far north, for whom you and Andy B. kindly arranged accommodation in the Hall of Residence ...

    ... and then, despite being on campus, I came for registration at the last minute (talking too much), with no time to properly thank you for all your help -- which I now do!

    T. N.

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  6. Ah, not a problem, T.N. Glad you enjoyed the day!

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  7. Just a minor point, in the roundup you mentioned the danger of God being arbitrary. I understand how humans being arbitrary is a negative thing, "based on personal whim, without any reference to a system". But isn't God always acting according to his personal whim and isn't he his own system? (The deeper magic of Narnia is Aslan, Aslan may be bound to it but he is not separate from it.)

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  8. Well, I guess the main thing is that if we believe that God is revealed in Jesus Christ, then whatever we see in Christ is true testimony to what God is like. So if 'in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive' (1 Cor. 15:22) is genuinely a text pointing to universal salvation, then we should be confident that all definitely will be made alive in Christ, and that we shouldn't fear that God will actually condemn a certain number of people to eternal conscious torment or to annihilation. I think Robin's point is that the line Barth takes runs the risk of negating this point, as though God is free to condemn people even though in Christ God has revealed the divine universal love for all. Rather than focussing on God acting on a whim, perhaps it's better to talk about God acting in faithfulness to the divine action in Christ.

    Is that clearer, or have I just mudded the waters even more?

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  9. I would have loved to have been there, but couldn't make it. I hope those recordings do become available.

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