Why I Call Myself a "Universalist," Or, Why "Reverent Agnosticism" Is Not a Position

Patrick McManus has presented me with the opportunity to address something which I was planning on addressing at the end of this series. But a flood of questions and criticisms makes waiting no longer a valid option. The question is this: Does not the acceptance of universalism as a position mean that one is dictating how God must act in the eschaton? Is not this a human effort to rationally determine what will occur in the future? Now I have indeed made comments along the way on this question, especially in this early post. McManus was astute enough to bring up George Hunsinger's essay on Barth view on hell and damnation. Hunsinger characterizes Barth's position as "reverent agnosticism," or "holy silence." I still hope to address this essay in more depth, but for now I will present some thoughts on why I do not think this position is entirely adequate. I am not giving a counter-thesis to Hunsinger, just merely presenting a reflection on the subject.

I think Hunsinger has done something to make Barth more palatable to evangelicals and other groups beholden to the view that a universalist must be a heretic or a Unitarian. My professors at Wheaton gave their "10 reasons why Barth is not a universalist," which is necessary in order for Barth to gain a hearing at that school. But to avoid the position altogether is silly, unless one thinks that holding any position means that we are dictating what God must do. (To be fair, some actually do hold this position and think theology is inappropriate altogether.) Viewing universalism as human manipulationg of God is a poor characterization of universalism, in my opinion, because it cuts both ways. The universalist has every right to say to the person who believes that God will send some or most of humanity to the pits of hell, "Are you not also dictating what God must do by rejecting universalism outright?"

The point can be made by using any other doctrine as an example. Do we think that the substitutionary atonement is a human imposition on the nature of Christ's death and resurrection, since God is presumably not bound to this? No, because it was revealed to us that some form of this doctrine properly conveys the purpose of the Son's incarnation based on revelation. This is just an example. Here's another: Do we think that the doctrine of the parousia is controlling what God must do? No, because Jesus makes it rather clear that he will return. Of course God could, in an abstract sense, be and do none of these things. But we do not place our faith in abstractions; we place our faith in revelation.

I am simply making the same argument here: God's self-revelation makes universalism the best avaiable option. I will address this more fully in a later post. The point is this: if revelation points to a position as the best available option for understanding what has happened and will happen, then taking this position is not a human imposition upon God but our response to what God has accomplished and revealed. Now, of course, we do not know with any rational certainty what will happen after death or in the eschaton — but we do not have rational certainty for anything. We have faith in revelation.

Barth is contradictory on universalism. He says that he does not accept the position, because I think he knows it is ecclesial suicide for him to do so in light of the condemnation of universalism as a heresy. But in his actual theology he basically says all the same things, even denying that hell can be a reality for any person. I will post that quote two posts from now. So does he accept the position? As a label or title, no. But materially, he does, because there is no other position for him to take with any confidence.

Should he or I or anyone else fear using the title "universalist"? Perhaps, considering the Unitarian Universalists and the stereotypical liberal theologians of the past and present. But why should I let what I think is the best position be ruined by those who have tossed out God's self-revelation for their own idols? I refuse to let them have this word or claim the position as theirs and theirs only. I highly commend this post by Keith DeRose about the unfortunate reality many Christians face in trying to hold to universalism when "universalism" is a swear word in the church. It is high time that "underground universalism" be allowed to walk freely in the open without being viciously attacked by Christians in the name of orthodoxy. Can we have a universalist "coming out" party? Will we be rejected over this even though we are profoundly trinitarian, christocentric, etc.? As it stands, it sadly seems so.

In closing, "reverent agnosticism" is not a position. It is the rejection of a position, just as agnosticism is not the counterpart to faith; atheism is. My frustration with Hunsinger's essay is twofold: (1) it misconstrues Barth by giving the impression that Barth simply throws his hands up in the air saying, "Who knows??" when in reality he makes some very clear statements even while refusing to take on the title of the position; and (2) it gives people the idea that they can always return to "reverent agnosticism" as their safety zone, their default answer to any question that disturbs or confuses them. "Reverent agnosticism" is valid in response to completely irrelevant questions, like, "What will heaven look like?" and "Did humans actually live to be 900 years old before the flood?" These questions are pointless and we must be agnostic about them. But universalism is not such a question. I would accept agnosticism only if everyone who believes that there will be an eternal separation of the sheep and the goats also admits to being "reverent agnostics." I doubt this will ever happen. Why? Because they feel that the answer has been revealed. Well, so do I and many others.

Hunsinger gives Barth this problematic label as a via media between universalism and whatever the opposing side is (there are more than one). But "reverent agnosticism" is not and never will be a middle path, because it is no path at all. Agnosticism is not a position; it is the unwillingness to take a stand at all. But that is not the Barth that I know. Barth takes many stands, and many of them break with tradition—but only with good reason. Hunsinger leads us astray with such a comfortable answer to this question. We must not follow by throwing up our hands in a "worshipful thoughtlessness." The gospel does not permit silence. Rather, the gospel compels us to proclaim the Good News. What is that Good News? That God has taken on our sin in Jesus Christ and rendered it null and void on the cross, where judgment was effected and our salvation realized. We are entirely dependent on the triune God who alone is capable of rescuing us. We can do nothing to effect our salvation, prevent our salvation, or lose our salvation. The first is semi-Pelagianism, the second is historically impossible since what is done is done, and the last views salvation as something in our control that we have the freedom to gain or lose (i.e., the continuation of Pelagianism).

The Gospel compel us to think anew, to speak anew, to be anew. Anything less is irresponsible.


Shane said…
As I said earlier, there are two quite different positions one might take:

(1) All people will be redeemed.


(2a) All Christians will be saved.

(2a) does not imply that no non-Christians will be saved, therefore,

(2b) Some non-Christians might be saved as well.

This second view is what you are calling 'reverent agnosticism' which you attack as "not a position" or a default "safety zone" answer. I don't see how you can claim this at all. This seems like a perfectly reasonable position to hold to me. Admittedly, we would need to do some exegesis to support it. For right now it seems enough to say that this is not really a negation of the universalist position because it does not say that not all people will be redeemed. (It leaves this possibility open, of course).


You say that Barth took many stands that were unpopular, dangerous, etc. True. But, remember that he never did so on the topic of universalism. There are two reasons for this: (1) explicit universalism is an official heresy condemned by a council (2) there are passages in Scripture that explicitly contradict universalism.

No matter how sure you are about universalism, those two points stand like question marks outside of your formulation. If you are going to take Scripture as a whole (and we're talking about the gospels here) seriously, and if you are going to take the decisions of the church seriously (which we must do if we are to do theology in service of the church), then you need to tread lightly on the universalism subject.

I am not saying that the decisions of church councils are true a priori / de facto / or however else you want to say it (except, I would give Nicaea something of this authority). But, they are serious matters as they were formulated by Christian leaders who were better and more devout men than you or I. Furthermore, there is the 'conflicting' Scripture witness which any theologian who wishes to be for the church and grounded in God's self-revelation must take very seriously.

In light of this, there is only one responsible choice on the question of universalism: reverent agnosticism. The biblical witness is not clear enough to let us think in these directions without serious second guessing. All we can do is explicate what is there, recognize that any theological construction is imperfect, and proclaim the Gospel.
Shane, if that's what you call "reverent agnosticism," that's fine, because that is indeed a position. I guess I would have to call that partial agnosticism, but that's not significantly different than my own position, insofar as all positions must be partially agnostic since we are omniscient in our understanding of these matters.

My question for you is why not make (2b) read: All non-Christians might be saved as well? What logical necessity is there for you to use the word "some" instead of "all"?

And just so I'm clear, I would not want to make (1) my sole position, as if this will and must happen. I would rather want to conflate (1) with my modified (2b). In other words, I want to protect God's freedom while doing justice to God's self-revelation.

Travis, point well taken. I never want to make universalism a dogmatic point, something that I would preach or make the claim to having full knowledge on. But I do not like the position of reverent agnosticism. I think it would be better to say that one subscribes to universalism because it is the best available model, fully aware that this and all other models may be entirely wrong in the end. Having humility is not the same as being agnostic. I do not think we are simply in the dark on this issue. But I also do not think that we have the full light of divine knowledge. We are in the middle, but the middle is not the realm of agnosticism.
Could we find another word besides universalist that would prevent it from being associated with a liberal, heretical, overly dogmatic, quasi-unitarian position that I have nothing to do with? Is that word, as Patrick said, too freighted with connotations to be of any use?
Patrick McManus said…
Hi David,

thank you for your response. I do appreciate the answer you've given my question, and I'm sorry for jumping the gun on it, as it were.

Nevertheless, I'm not sure that Hunsinger, and what he takes Barth's position to be, can be that quickly and easily jettisoned. I'm not convinced that Hunsinger is trying to make Barth palatable but is genuinely representing Barth's position, and I'm more than convinced that Barth is not "of two minds" here due to fear of "ecclesiastical suicide" (I'm not too sure if he ever worried about 'ecclesiastical suicide'!).

In IV/3, p 477f. Barth makes the following comment regarding apokatastasis:

...it can only be a matter of the unexpected work of grace and its revelation on which we cannot count but for which we can only hope as an undeserved and inconceivable overflowing of the significance, operation and outreach of the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ. To the man who persistently tries to change the truth into untruth, God does not owe eternal patience and therefore deliverance any more than He does those provisional manifestations. We should be denying or disarming that evil attempt and our own participation in it if, in relation to ourselves or others or all men, we were to permit ourselves to postulate a withdrawl of that threat and in this sense to expect or maintain an 'apokatastasis' or universal reconciliation as the goal and end of all things. No such postulate can be made even though we appeal to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even though theological consistency might seem to lead our thoughts and utterances most clearly in this direction, we must not arrogate to ourselves that which can be given and received as a free gift.

Barth does go on to say the following:

...there is no good reason why we should forbid ourselves, or be forbidden, openness to the possibility that in the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ there is contained much more than we might expect and therefore the supremely unexpected withdrawl of that final threat....If for a moment we accept the unfalsified truth of the reality which even now so forcefully limits the perverted human situation, does it not point plainly in the direction of the work of a truly eternal divine patience and deliverance and therefore of an 'apokatastasis' or universal reconciliation? If we are certainly forbidden to count on this as though we had a claim to it...we are surely commanded the more definitely to hope and pray for it.

What this highlights is not a contradiction but is characteristic of Barth's dialectical tension necessitated by the free and surprising character of Divine freedom and grace. To solve the tension in favor of a logical dogmatic outcome (either way) is, in Barth's opinion, mere presumption. In this sense, I admire the consistency of your position, and am deeply sympathetic with it, but it's finally not Barth's position, if indeed you think universalism is a valid 'dogmatic' position (as I assume you do)

For what it's worth, I was once speaking with an Aussie professor of theology who studied with James Torrance in Scotland. James relayed the following story to his student.

When Barth was near the end of his life and knew that his Dogmatics would be left unfinished, he confided in Thomas Torrance his regret for not having been clearer in his position on universalism and why he rejected it as a dogmatic position.

As I said, take the story for what it's worth since it may indeed be apocryphal.


Shane said…

If you aren't embracing my (1), then you aren't really a universalist in a dogmatic sense. This makes me much happier, but it seems to be a pretty severe qualification of your previous views. I say "some" in 2b, in the sense of 'at least one'. "Some" could be "all," but it isn't so necessarily. (2b) is a much weaker claim than (1), which is more plausible since, as you say, "we are [not?] omniscient in our understanding of these matters."

Oops! NOT omniscient. Thanks for picking up on that.

Let me clear, by calling myself a universalist I DO NOT mean that I think universalism is something that can be proclaimed as a dogmatic issue, one that we can state with absolutely and infallible certainty. No, definitely not. But I must take a stand, because I think that all the other positions are much more flawed than universalism. And because I think universalism best conforms to the revelation from God. I take a strong stand on issues because I think this is what the church can and should do, but that does not mean I assume the issue is decided from our end and therefore from God's end as well. But I do think God did something decisive 'there and then' (AD 1-30) which demands that I do more than say, "I don't know," or "Some could possibly conceivably theoretically be saved who are not part of the church."

Shane, the logic of your first comment is fine, but it gives the impression that we can figure out our position apart from Jesus Christ. How about this instead:

(1) Jesus atoned for the sins of all people.


(2) Jesus atoned for the sins of a selected group of people.

I reject the latter, therefore I accept the former. End of argument.
When I say that I do not view universalism as a dogmatic issue, I mean that I would never leave a church or denounce someone as heretical over the issue. It is not like the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of justification.

In a similar but still very different way, universalism and the homosexuality issue are related. Both are ones that we must abstain from making dogmatic in our presentation of Christianity. The difference is that while the case against homosexuality relies on just a few rather marginal texts in the NT and some ambiguous texts in the OT -- none of which should be dismissed, mind you -- the case for universalism, I think, is quite strong. That does not make it worthy of dogmatic status, precisely because of the ambiguity in the biblical account. But that ambiguity leans, I believe, in favor of universalism, whereas the ambiguity regarding homosexuality leans against it.
Shane said…
David, thanks for the clarification.

I agree the biblical case for universalism is much stronger than the one for full inclusion of homosexuality, but I still cannot accept the idea that homosexuality is simply a marginal issue, because it is fundamentally connected to the idea of discipleship and living a life of holy obedience.

Shane said…
The problem with your position above is that universal atonement does not imply universal salvation.

At least, I don't see how it does so.

I will get around to discussing that. My claim is that it does.