Why I Am A Universalist, § 1: Prolegomena

The definition of universalism that I am working with states that all will live in communion with God for eternity. No one will be annihilated or eternally damned. We will indeed be made new, perhaps even purged, and will be raised with new bodies like Jesus Christ who came before us. I do not deny the possibility of a hell, just the eternality of divine punishment.

The question of universalism has been a perennial one since the dawn of the church, it seems. Passages in the NT seem to point in that direction: “we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died” (2 Cor. 5.14); “if anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12.47); “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11.26); “. . . the mystery of [God’s] will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10); “for in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20). A number of passages from the New Testament make the eschatological purposes of God explicit: in the Day of the Lord, “God will be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Many other passages could be marshaled to make a biblical case for universalism, but ultimately the position does not derive from proof texts, and should not despite the protests from fundamentalist Christians.

To begin, universalism is like a doctrine of the atonement: nowhere in the Bible is any “doctrine” to be found, because Scripture is not a collection of propositional truths. Scripture is the authoritative witness to the event of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and this witness authorizes the rational (though not rationalistic) exposition of the faith based on the narrative of God’s being-in-act in the kerygma. Doctrines and dogmas are explications of what is testified to in the Scriptures, and these doctrines allow for the further interpretation of the biblical text. Some doctrines function as hermeneutical keys or categories which provide a rule for reading the biblical text in a way that coheres with the proclamation of the gospel in the communion of saints. Universalism is thus accepted or denied based on a complex framework of hermeneutical principles which are situated in the church as the people of God.

Hermeneutics aside, the issue of revelation is central to our discussion. Traditionally, the Bible has been viewed as God’s special revelation to humanity as words divinely inspired to teach us the truths of the faith. This is still common teaching in most conservative, evangelical institutions. However, a revolution in theology occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when revelation was identified not with Scripture itself but with Jesus Christ. Karl Barth is the paradigmatic theologian in this case, because he was the first to think through the ramifications of such a christocentrism. Revelation is thus always and only God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. The importance of this move is that Scripture is not, in the end, the final authority—only Jesus is. Of course, Jesus is only witnessed to in the Holy Scriptures, and so in another sense, these biblical texts are the authority. But Scripture is not wholly uniform or consistent or even non-contradictory, despite what ardent inerrantists wish us to believe. Thus, christology is where one must begin. We cannot start with an abstract idea of God’s will apart from what God revealed about God’s own purposes in Jesus Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection. We cannot conceive of God as Judge apart from the judgment enacted upon Christ on the cross. So on and so forth. These remarks set the framework for what will be discussed in later sections.


Shane said…
I have several comments I would like to make, but first a question. Is this the appropriate place to launch some philosophical queries? I have some theological reservations too, but I want to hold those off till the end so that I can see your entire case laid out.

At any rate, I would like to ask for your comment on some passages from the Gospels. I don't need a scholarly examination, just a gut pastoral response to a confused layperson. In other words, what would you preach about these:

Matt 13.40-42; 47-50: "As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear. . . .
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."

Matt 25.37-45: "Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me."

Luke 3.15-18: "John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable."
Shane said…
Pardon my KJV, it's what I had at hand.

D.W. Congdon said…
Thanks for offering those passages for us to consider. Honestly, I don't have some incredible response to give, except that those passages cannot be the last word. Just like no single passage can act as the only definitive word on any particular doctrine. Honestly, I tend to think those "end-times" passages from Jesus' discourse function like other prophetic-apocalyptic passages in the Bible: not as predictions about the future but as urgent pleas for people to change their lives now. Prophetic passages use eschatological language and imagery in order to urge people to make an existential choice in the present. They are not intended to tell us what will occur at some unknown time in the future.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Jesus could not be speaking about the future. We must leave that open as a possibility, just like we cannot, as finite humans, ever give absolute answers to what is always and entirely in the hands of God alone. We are thrust entirely upon the faithfulness of God. That does not mean we have no knowledge or that God's self-revelation has no bearing on such questions. My whole point is that God's revelation does provide us with coordinates for offering systematic reflections on the subject--however humble and reticent we must be.
D.W. Congdon said…
As a general rule, let's only ask questions that pertain to the subject matter of that particular post. Whether it's scriptural, theological, or philosophical does not matter to me.
Shane said…
[Please excuse the logic jargon, it seemed helpful to explain, I hope you find it that way]

You are quite right to point out that the Bible is not just a book of propositions. There have been periods in the history of doctrine that have viewed the Sciptures that way (e.g. Galileo's astronomy was condemned because it seemed to contradict a proposition implicitly contained in the scriptures, namely that the sun moved--[[I'm writing a paper about this right now]]). Thus you are right to say that one needs hermenuetical aplomb to read the Bible well. But, whatever hermeneutic you adopt has to be realistic enough to be able to find propositional content within the Scriptural text. The faith of the Bible is intimately connected to a certain content--There is only one God and we are redeemed by his son. Believing this is what it means to be a Christian.

Now Universalism also implies a proposition, in this case, the categorical proposition 'All human beings will be saved.' Aristotle notes that there are four kinds of these propositions:

A--All X's are Y's.
I--Some X's are Y's.
E--Some X's are not Y's.
O---No X's are Y's.

'A' propositions establish a necessary connection between a class of subjects and a certain predicate. For example, 'All bachelors are unmarried men.' This is universal affirmation: 'if anything is a bachelor then it must also be an unmarried man.' For an 'A' proposition to be true, it must hold universally of every subject. 'I' Propositions are particular, 'Some cats are black.' This kind of proposition only requires a single case to be true, i.e. as long as there is one black cat in the world, the proposition is true. The 'I' proposition remains perfectly valid if some cats are white, some cats are grey, just so long as at least one is black. The 'E' proposition is similar, 'some cats are not black'. The proposition would be proven by a single instance of a non-black cat. The 'O' proposition is the reverse of the 'A' proposition. It is universal, 'No cats are green'.

Note that 'A' and 'E' propositions are contradictory. If all cats are black then it must be false that some cats are not black. Likewise 'O' and 'I' propositions.

My problem with universalism is that I simply do not see how you can move from the biblical texts I adduced in my previous example to that kind of a proposition. Universalism implies that it is false that some will not be saved. These passages seem to suggesting fairly strongly that indeed some will not be saved. However, maybe there are other considerations that make us want to bracket these teachings: the broader teachings of scripture, the literary context of apocalyptic literature, etc.

If, universalism (the 'A' proposition) is simply too strong, why not make a weaker claim. For example one could read these passages as offerings only an 'I' proposition ('Some will be saved'). If the 'I' proposition is true, then the 'O' proposition is necessarily false, but the 'I' implies nothing whatsoever about the 'A' or the 'E'. That some will be saved does not preclude the possibility that all would be saved or that some would not be saved.

The 'I' claims is much more defensible than the 'A' claim. I think there are other good arguments in favor of the 'E' claim as well, but those will have to come later. At any rate, it would also be possible for someone to affirm the 'I' claim and simultaneously deny our ability to know the truth of the 'E' claim for theological reasons. That position too I find more satisfying than outright univesalism.
Shane said…
I hope these logical remarks are appropriate to the context here, if not, we can discuss them later on in the essay.

D.W. Congdon said…
If I were purely working with biblical proof texts as evidence for or against a position, then I would wholeheartedly agree with you. The problem is that rational logic does not lead me to my conclusion. Only a christocentric theology does, which I will explain later. In other words, my logical arguments do not involve a balancing of biblical texts but a theological clarification of what has been revealed in Jesus Christ.
Adam Gonnerman said…
"nowhere in the Bible is any 'doctrine' to be found"

What about where the Bible specifically uses the words "teaching" and "doctrine?"
In other words, my logical arguments do not involve a balancing of biblical texts but a theological clarification of what has been revealed in Jesus Christ.

and here i thought you were a Protestant. perhaps i assumed that incorrectly? what is the alternative source of revelation to which you appeal? is the problem with Trent simply that the Roman Catholic Church honestly said what it appealed to?
Honestly, I tend to think those "end-times" passages from Jesus' discourse function like other prophetic-apocalyptic passages in the Bible: not as predictions about the future but as urgent pleas for people to change their lives now.

let's take this hermeneutic as a given, not because i think it's right, but because discussing it would lead too far afield and my point lies elsewhere.

now, given that such statements are not predictions about the future but pleas about how to live now, what conclusions should we draw?

Prophetic passages use eschatological language and imagery in order to urge people to make an existential choice in the present. They are not intended to tell us what will occur at some unknown time in the future.

but they are not only this. surely Jesus could have used non-eschatalogical imagery if he chose: as indeed he often chose. (indeed, part of the argument for taking these as existential present-tense concerns only is that so much else clearly is exactly that.)

one additional thing we can learn from the Biblical witness: it is appropriate to use eschatalogical imagery to motivate that existential choice.

so it seems to me that what you are doing is looking at Jesus words, saying "what he really meant was XYZ", and then presumably the next step is to declare that we cannot use those words, that we must use the words XYZ. here i think we end up on very shaky ground.

if eschatology is not prediction (i agree that it is not merely prediction; the question is whether it is even prediction at all) then this is something which would come as a surprise to the early Church Fathers. if it was clear to the original hearers that it was not prediction (that this is a genre which we have lost the ears for) then one wonders just when the ears went deaf to it. somewhere between 2 Peter and Ignatius, perhaps?

but i am willing to remain entirely agnostic on the "what he really meant" aspect here, and stand on the "what can i say?" question: surely i can say what he said, right?

this reminds me of a T. S. Eliot story. someone says to him, "What did you mean when you wrote Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree?" and he responded after long pause for thought, "I meant Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree."
D.W. Congdon said…

You utterly miss my point about the Bible. It's not that I reject the Bible in favor some other source of revelation. It is that I refuse to simply proof-text or balance out proof-texts. Instead, I seek the "canon within the canon," the hermeneutical category that allows us to go beyond weighing proof-texts and actually thinking through the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ as witnessed in Holy Scripture.

I am not really sure what your point is regarding eschatology and prediction. Are you suggesting that the multivalency of the passages means that we need to hold the present-tense and future-tense referents of prophecy in tension? If so, I wholeheartedly agree.

But I think evangelicals in particular, and much of the Christian tradition in general, have been guilty of misunderstanding Hebrew prophecy through a strained attempt to see in the OT predictions of Christ and to see in the NT predictions of some future historical events. While there is a future historical sense to these passages, it is by no means primary, nor simply literal.

This metaphorical sense is especially important when interpreting the parable of Jesus. As Ernst Fuchs and Eberhard Jüngel have quite helpfully articulated, the parables are not predictions of some futuristic kingdom; they are the event of the kingdom itself. Jesus does point to some future reality of the kingdom; he is the kingdom! Similarly, Jesus is not a means toward grace; he is grace. The point in saying all this is not to denigrate a teleological focus within Christianity; it is simply to relocate and re-emphasize the center of Christian eschatology: not in the future but in the existential present as our present is conformed to the objective, historical past in Jesus Christ.

So prophecy is historical, but not (merely) in terms of a future history. And they are also existential, but not at the expense of past and future existential orientations, in addition to the present.
i think my point is simpler.

if it was appropriate for Jesus to speak of the sheep and the goats, for example, to make whatever point your hermeneutical key tells you he was making, then surely it is appropriate for a contemporary preacher and eschatologist (to coin a word) to speak of the sheep and the goats too.

so when we discuss "is universalism true", i think that one thing we must start out with is that it is ok to speak of the sheep and the goats. and, if we find that we end up with some conclusion that tells us it is not ok to use that language, then i fear we have strayed too far.

i'll leave aside the discussion of hermeneutical keys; i think it's extremely probematic, but that takes us way too far afield.

do you see what my point is, though? you'll end up saying "everyone is saved", and, it seems to me, that you are then forced to either say it is incorrect to speak of the goats since there are none.

now if we mean by the damned a hypothetical possibility, realized by none, then once the argument that it is realized by none is complete, it is no longer a possibility, and we are back with saying that it is incorrect to speak of the goats.

so, if it is correct to speak of the sheep and the goats, we can correctly continue to speak of the judgment making the same sorts of points that Aquinas or Luther or Augustine might have made (none of whom seem to be universalists).

at the end of the day, is not a universalist one who says there are no goats, and thus, there are only sheep, and thus, it is incorrect to tell people "beware lest you be a goat!" since after all there are no goats whatever you do?

are we not then forced to say that it was well and good for Jesus to use this metaphor to motivate an existential choice (or whatever you wish to argue his purpose was, and about which i probably have no argument), but that we must not use such metaphors ourselves?
As Ernst Fuchs and Eberhard Jüngel have quite helpfully articulated, the parables are not predictions of some futuristic kingdom; they are the event of the kingdom itself.

i have read neither, alas, but i wonder why these are the only possibilities. can they not be statements of what the Kingdom is like? after all, that is what the grammar seems to say.

i am reminded of the anti-Tillich joke, in which Peter answers Jesus "you are the New Man, the eschatalogical manifestation of the Ground of our Being", and Jesus replies, "Huh?!"

Should we not start with what the text says? I'm happy to agree that we should not just stop there, and I'm quite uncertain what I think about universalism, but I think that the starting place should be the text, and not some hermeneutical key that will "unlock" the text, as if the text were written as some sort of sekrit kode awaiting the right decoder ring.

indeed, i'm worried that in so doing, we will stray too far from the text, and be back in the Modernism that Barth was so good at saving us from. :)
I seek the "canon within the canon," the hermeneutical category that allows us to go beyond weighing proof-texts and actually thinking through the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ as witnessed in Holy Scripture.

what if there is no such thing? what then? where do we find hermeneutical categorie from? (the old protestants said to let Scripture interpret Scripture; do you find your canon there?) how do you know you have the right canon when you have found it?

these are the sorts of prior assumptions that exercise me. you assume that there is such a canon, that we can find it, that it is necessary, and such.

i am worried as well about the continuity of the Church. if such a canon is necessary, did Paul have one in reading the Old Testament? would we be remiss in seeking to adopt his hermeneutical categories? (and why not Peter's, or John's, or Luke's instead?) are we not then approaching the Scriptures from an ahistorical perspective?
D.W. Congdon said…

There are very few people who have frustrated me as much as you have. You are a very poor interpreter of other people's ideas, I'm sorry to say. I welcome the dialogue, but you are challenging me to practice Christian charity in ways that I have rarely been challenged, at least in terms of intellectual discussion.

First, I have never said and will never say that one cannot or should not speak of the sheep and the goats. I do not know where you would get that idea. If an existential reading of Matt. 25 is legitimate, then to speak of sheep and goats is perfectly acceptable, because they refer to a present-tense reality; i.e., a person is a sheep or a goat depending on that person's life.

And if you were really well-versed in Barth's theology (as you so often claim), you would know that a true Barthian would read the sheep and the goats in reference to Christ himself, as the one who is both the elect and the reprobate in himself. Jesus Christ is the sheep and the goat, the accepted one and the rejected one. While we may live in contradiction to our future destiny as the blessed children of God in our life here and now -- and thus live as goats -- this does not mean that we are destined to become goats. Our existence and essence are estranged from each other; only in the Christ who reconciled them in himself do we find our true identity.

All of this proves to me that you insist on reading Matt. 25 in a futuristic, non-christological sense. Your insistence on this reading keeps you from seeing the other ways this passage can and, I suggest, should be read. The argument that this is the most literal reading proves nothing. In fact, I think it only works against you. Literal readings of Jesus' parabolic passages are suspect from the start. And even if you wish to classify this as a prophetic text, literal readings are still quite problematic and by no means the preferred reading.

The biggest case against reading Matt. 25 literally, however, is soteriological. If a literal, futuristic, non-christological reading were correct, then we would have a full-blown salvation by works. If you wish to accept this literal reading, then I call you Pelagian and we part our separate ways. But if you wish to dispense with the works-based aspect and simply retain the sheep-goat distinction in a futuristic sense, then I submit you are doing precisely the kind of injustice to the text that you were accusing me of doing by dismissing the goats altogether (which I am not doing, btw). In the end, I am convinced that you are doing the most injustice to Matt. 25 between the two of us.
D.W. Congdon said…
I think that the starting place should be the text, and not some hermeneutical key that will "unlock" the text

That sounds nice, except that "the text" is not like a grain silo full of facts that we just need to pick out. It is not a plain, straightforward text that simply gives its proper meaning when encountered by an impartial (read: non-liberal) reader. Nor is it a code that needs to be unlocked.

The whole point of the "canon within the canon" is simply to follow the Reformers in affirming that some parts of Scripture are more authoritative than others. The gospel of justification is more central than the emphasis on good works. The egalitarianism of the gospel (Gal. 3:28) is more central than provisional hierarchies and social norms. I won't bother arguing for these because I assume they are self-evident to any reflective Christian. In all of this, I have not departed from Luther or Calvin.

The "canon within the canon" means that Scripture must interpret Scripture, and that some Scripture functions thus as a hermeneutical category for interpreting other portions. We all have a hermeneutical category (or key) that we use in reading Scripture. The question is which key is the more appropriate one. I follow Jüngel (following Barth) in stating that the doctrine of justification is the heart of the Christian faith and the lens through which we must read Scripture. There are other helpful categories, but this is, I believe, the best and the most helpful; i.e., it can make the best sense of the biblical text. (For example, literalism is not a key or a hermeneutic; it simply creates more problems than it solves. And besides, no one is a literalist, even the ones who claim to be.)

So it's not as if there could not be a "canon within the canon." There is, in the sense that there has to be. In order to interpret the Bible, we need to read Scripture in light of Scripture. I assume I am saying nothing new. I will assume instead that you simply have an aversion to most anything I write and that this will probably fall on deaf ears. I expect you will probably have some problem with what I've written, but try to put aside your issues with me and recognize that I am simply restating the basic Protestant position.
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D.W. Congdon said…
I do not wish to fundamentally disagree with Barth, because I think he was fundamentally right. Your insistence that Barth was fundamentally wrong results in a total misunderstanding of what Barth was up to and what he accomplished. So it's not I who have failed to join understanding with fundamental disagreement; that would be you. It couldn't possibly describe me, unless by "fundamental disagreement" you mean "an occasional criticism on certain points."

I find your commentary on the sheep and goats parable utterly incomprehensible. You say that I am bound to accept all views? Is that right? Are you saying my hermeneutic means that I am incapable of critically analyzing other readings of Matt. 25? If so, was I simply violating my own hermeneutic by criticizing your reading of Matt. 25? I just don't understand what you are trying to say, and I'm sad that you are leaving this conversation if only because I am entirely confused about what your argument actually is. It seems to me that your position is nonsensical at best, and intentionally disingenuous at worst.

My whole point is that it makes perfect sense to speak of the sheep and the goats, since Jesus' parable most directly refers to how we live our lives in the present tense. The fact that he frames it in apocalyptic language is not unique to him but common to Jewish apocalypticism. Moreover, a robust Christology can affirm the validity of this metaphor while also affirming the fact that Christ assumed the identity of the goat in order that we may all be sheep. That is the position of the Christian universalist.
I expect you will probably have some problem with what I've written, but try to put aside your issues with me and recognize that I am simply restating the basic Protestant position.

i have no issues with you, and it bothers you that you think i might. but if things have come to the pass that the only way you can understand why i might disagree with this or that thing which you say is personal animus, then there is a serious failure, for which i am surely responsible. in that light, first please disregard the comment i just posted earlier on this thread today, and which i have now deleted.

i think your inability to find any other explanation stems from an unwillingness to think that i may really have thought through things. i suppose it may seem so obvious to you that such-and-such, and when a gadfly pops by and says, "hey, i don't think that's so at all", it's natural to guess that perhaps i haven't heard the arguments why such-and-such is so clearly true.

but in fact, i have heard the arguments; i'm not a theological novice and i really am familiar with what you say. when we have disagreede, the content of the disagreement is not new to me; what you say is extremely important, but, i have concluded long before your presentation, incorrect. i am happy to discuss it, but i fear it is impossible between us, because you now distrust whether i'm even speaking the truth. at that point, the possibility of charitable conversation is impossible in my experience.

let me conclude with two separate points. first, i find it quite odd that you should think apparently that "the basic Protestant position" has some weight. i'm perfectly clear on what that basic Protestant position is, and i think you do a good (even an excellent) job of presenting it fairly. however, i think it's incorrect, and not because i have failed to study it sufficiently.

second, i am under an obligation to seek peace with you, and it is clear to me that this is only possible right now if i am not commenting on your blog. so i won't read or comment further, and i hope that you will perhaps consider whether you have misjudged me. please email me if you wish.
D.W. Congdon said…
I will not email you, but not because I do not wish to correspond; only because I am a very busy student and it's hard enough to keep a blog up. Unless I think the correspondence is really necessary, I probably will not write.

That said, I think our disagreement is clear: I am a Protestant and you are a Catholic (your position in the Episcopal Church notwithstanding). You wish Barth had been a Catholic, and you fail to see why the Reformers broke away in the first place. Fair enough. I know plenty of Catholics, and I do not wish to exacerbate the conflict. BUT I was under the impression that you were a Protestant as well.

My apologies if I have misunderstood you this whole time. And perhaps I have misunderstood you again. Maybe you mean something else by the "basic Protestant position." That's possible. But I am wholeheartedly a Protestant. I believe the Reformers were right, and the Reformation continues to be right, insofar as it proclaims the gospel that we are saved by God alone, that we are creatures of the Word, that it is Christ and not the Church which is the center of our identity, that Scripture alone is the witness to God's revelation, that nothing we do or do not do has any eternal merit in the sight of God.
Thankyou for displaying this project. It has been very helpful for my thinking. Thanks David.