Paul among the Evangelicals, §3: The Argument (3.2.2)

3.2.2. Possibility and actuality: does Christ make salvation possible or actual?

The foregoing debates are closely related to a central theological debate within evangelicalism, whether the “one man’s act of righteousness” is effective for those whom it includes (“all”; “all in Christ”) or merely makes justification and life a possibility which each individual must make actual in the decision of faith. This is less of a textual debate than a theological debate between those who side with the Augustinian-Calvinist position and those who side with the Arminian position. The former position argues that Christ’s act of obedience brings about or actualizes justification and life, but limits the scope of justification; the latter position argues that “Paul really did have in mind all human beings but his statement, they insist, carries no implication of actual salvation.”[32] Such a distinction is an oversimplification, but it is nevertheless the one which dominates the evangelical literature. On a textual level, the universalists have the upper hand, since Rom. 5 on its own does not speak of an offer of salvation or the possibility of being saved.[33] Marshall, a defender of Arminian universalism, anticipates this point by arguing that Paul is not concerned in this passage “with how salvation is received but rather with the universality of the provision, and the way in which it is through Christ that God operates. It is therefore not surprising that there is nothing explicit here on the response of faith.”[34] Marshall ends up making sense of Rom. 5 by imposing a possibility-to-be-actualized narrative into the text. William Barclay, also Arminian, reads the text more faithfully, but he ends up declaring that Paul’s argument in Rom. 5 has “one great flaw”—viz. that our relation to Adam is “purely physical” and thus leaves us no choice in the matter, while “our connection to Christ is voluntary.”[35] Barclay states frankly that Paul is right to emphasize our universal bondage in sin, but wrong to give the impression that Christ similarly effects liberation for all apart from our decision to accept or reject Christ.

This is a matter that needs to be addressed in depth, but it would take us too far afield from the purpose of this paper. The theological questions at stake are rooted in confessional divisions that have far-reaching consequences. Even so, one textual argument is worth noting for the sake of contributing to the discussion. Part of the problem with the non-universalist argument is that it depends upon a sharp difference between the way Adam affects “all” and the way Christ affects “all.” One possible textual solution to this problem for the non-universalist is to deny that Adam’s sin brings about the actuality of humanity’s condemnation. Contrary to the Latin translation used by Augustine, the ἐφ᾽ ᾧ in Rom. 5:12 is best read as “because,” so that “death spread to all because all have sinned.” On this basis, Adam does not actualize the sinfulness of each and every individual, but rather makes such sinfulness possible by being the cause of death entering the world. Similarly, on this non-universalist reading, Christ brought justification into the world, but such justification only comes to all on the basis of their faith. This reading, which I have not found in any literature, is the strongest argument for a non-universalist reading of Rom. 5, because it handles the text more faithfully and does not allow arbitrary changes in meaning, as Barclay, Marshall, and others are prone to do.[36] The failure of this non-universalist argument would have to rest on theological grounds, rather than purely textual ones. Of course, this interpretation does not preclude Talbott and MacDonald from responding that the actualization of this possibility can extend throughout eternity. Non-universalists would still need to argue against this point.

[To see the outline of the series with links to the other posts, click here.]

32. Thomas Talbott, “Christ Victorious,” in Parry and Partridge, 21.

33. MacDonald, 83.

34. I. Howard Marshall, “The New Testament Does Not Teach Universal Salvation,” in Parry and Partridge, 67.

35. Barclay, 81.

36. Whether non-universalist interpreters would be comfortable with adaptations to the traditional doctrine of original sin is still an open question.


Don said…
I really enjoyed your vaca photos. I have never visited the northeast and choose Phoenix over Portland when deciding church planting locations 17 years ago. I am enjoying all your posts and awaiting the development of your studies on universal reconciliation as this hope has energized me in a long pastoral ministry. I'm grateful
Camassia said…
That position you say you "have not found in any literature" -- isn't that basically the Eastern Orthodox position? I haven't really read any EO scholarship but the EO's I know tell me that the translational issue you mention led to a different understanding of the Fall, and therefore of the atonement, in the East and West. Or are you talking specifically about the idea of Jesus making justification available but contingent on faith?