Monday, December 14, 2009

The Case for a Christocentric-Missional Universalism

This will be old news for many, but I figure it is worth pointing out for those who might be interested. I wrote an essay for Testamentum Imperium on election and universalism, and in it I offer my most mature argument for universalism. The first half is a critique of double predestination, which I view as the only other viable alternative to universalism, and the second half is an exegetically-based argument that focuses primarily on Romans 5 and the Pauline distinction between reconciliation and salvation.

The key difference between this essay and my blog series on universalism is the emphasis on mission. To get a sense of my argument, here is a passage from my conclusion:
The form of Christian universalism offered here is certainly not pluralistic (“all religions lead to God”). It is rather strictly christocentric in nature: Jesus Christ alone is “the way, the truth, and the life.” No one may come to God except through him. The difference from traditional evangelicalism is that everyone will come to God through him, because everyone has come to God in him. At the same time, I am proposing a universalism that does not diminish the importance of the church’s mission of proclamation in the least. In fact, it seeks to make such activity truly meaningful within the Reformational emphasis on sola gratia. Here there is no compulsion to “get as many saved as possible,” as if we have the responsibility to “get people into heaven.” There is no need to scare people into salvation. Instead, when our reconciliation to God is our starting-point, we are able to go forth in joy and gratitude for what God has done for us already. We are able to preach truly “good news.” We are able to say with a straight-face, “God loves you precisely as you are”—not “God loves you” insofar as you repent of your sins or say this prayer or join this church. There is no soteriological instrumentalization, either of Jesus or of the church’s mission. Instead, we are able to proclaim the glorious news that sin and evil will not and cannot have the last word, because the powers and principalities have already been conquered by Jesus Christ. Death has been defeated, evil destroyed, and hell emptied. There is nothing left to do but acknowledge this fact with grateful hearts, giving thanks to God by going forth with this word on our lips as we proclaim what God has done.

[Download the .pdf here.]

25 comments:

byron said...

I am currently struggling with universalism, so thank you for providing another perspective.

Rachel said...

You are awesome! Thanks so much for sharing this!

Stacy Barton said...

rock on.

Keith said...

Very interesting.

What do make of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 and all the other references to judgment? If all are saved in Christ, then who is left?

David W. Congdon said...

I've discussed Matt. 25 elsewhere, but I'll just summarize my thoughts briefly:

1. Matthew 25 is a parable. It's not intended to be any more literal than the story of Lazarus and Dives is meant to be a literal description about something that happened in heaven and hell. Like pretty much all the stories Jesus tells, it is a parable that is meant to teach us something about the kingdom of God. We can only evaluate Matt. 25 based on what the intended teaching is.

2. The intended teaching of Matt. 25 is that participants in the kingdom of God must take care of the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the oppressed. We truly participate in the kingdom by caring for those in need. Matt. 25 uses a story to teach Jesus' twofold commandment of love: love of neighbor is love of God.

3. Treating Matt. 25 as a teaching about the "afterlife" results in a works-based righteousness, in which it is our good deeds that save us from hell. Such a reading goes entirely against the tradition of the church. You cannot split the story into a part about social justice and another part about the sheep and the goats. It is a single story and must be treated as such.

4. The proper reading of Matt. 25 is an existential-ethical interpretation. Jesus' story is meant to teach us what it looks like to be a participant in the kingdom, and the language of hell is an existential reminder of how seriously God takes the command to love the poor. But we cannot extrapolate from this passage a doctrine of hell. The parable simply does not allow us to make that kind of propositional move. It is a parable that proclaims an existentially-relevant message; it is not a piece of theology.

keo said...

I understand your point about needing to understand parables correctly, and agree that works-based righteousness is incorrect.

What about Hebrews 10:27, Luke 13:28, Revelation 20:12-15, and other references to judgment, punishment, and "weeping and gnashing," however? Your claim is ... that there will be no future judgment that involves any punishment, at the coming of the son of man, perhaps, or at some other time? Or that "judgment," "raging fire," etc. are just code words for some event when everyone gets welcomed in?

Thanks,
(Keith)

David W. Congdon said...

Keith,

For every one of your passages about eternal judgment, I can find you others that intimate a very different conclusion. And let's be clear: I'm not getting rid of divine judgment or wrath; I'm simply locating this judgment where the church has always confessed it to be located, namely in the cross of Christ. The only real difference is that I am claiming that this cross is the full actualization of reconciliation, and not simply the making-possible of a reconciliation that we have to actualize ourselves through some work of faith.

As the history of the church very easily shows, virtually every position, every heresy, every belief, can find some support in the Bible. I am not claiming that traditional views on hell are not biblical - far from it! They certainly have a great deal of passages to choose from. Nor am I claiming that any of the biblical authors were themselves universalists; almost certainly they were not.

What I am claiming is that the core convictions of the Christian faith make the most sense when viewed from a (christocentric-missional) universalist perspective. Certainly, that will mean reinterpreting or subordinating those passages that speak of God's eternal condemnation of (some) sinners. But it will mean also lifting up and highlighting those passages which have been ignored or subordinated by the traditionalists.

The question at the end of the day is: which picture of God, which conception of Christian faith, best accords with the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ? Does it make sense in the end to claim that Christ is the one mediator between God and humanity and then go on to assert that this mediation is incomplete, and that - horror of all horrors! - we have to complete it through some herculean act of faith in God? Does this not finally contradict in the deepest way Paul's central conviction that God reconciled us "while we were still sinners"?

Mike said...

hi there, first ever comment on your blog - found it through my NT Tutor's blog (Chris Tilling) - i fully admit I haven't read your full pdf article yet - I will - but so I don't forget...your last comment: "we have to complete it through some herculean act of faith in God?" Ummm, 'herculean'. According to Jesus we need just faith as small as a mustard seed but we do need faith, and according to Paul, this is all we need (but we do need something): "That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Rom 10.9)

I fail to see why it's 'herculean' or why it's too much to ask if you are aware of what Christ has done for you to make reconciliation possible... if someone dies in your place to save your life, surely a simple 'thank you' is the least they should expect, it's not herculean...!?

David W. Congdon said...

Mike,

Good comment. Faith is only "herculean" under the following two conditions: (1) it must be accomplished under our own free power, and (2) it is what finally saves us from eternal damnation and reconciles us to God. I don't care how it is described in the Bible — even if it's a simple "thank you" — if our act of faith falls under these conditions, then it is most certainly "herculean."

But thankfully that's not what Scripture presents us with. Paul, at least, is clear that we respond to the free gift of God's grace by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit in concert with our spirit that utters our faithful Yes and Amen to what God has done for us. It's quite a bit less clear in the Gospels, where it is very easy to develop a Pelagian soteriology. I am privileging Paul's interpretation of Christian teaching, because otherwise we are left with just another version of self-salvation.

My article will not convince those who believe in some version of Arminianism. I take it for granted that Scripture rejects any free will soteriology from the start. Even if there are plenty of passages that seem to support it, the dominant NT witness is that we are "dead in our transgressions," utterly lost in our sin, and enemies of God. We are in bondage to death, and only the death of Christ, communicated to us by the Spirit, can liberate us from that situation.

The question then is, for whom did Christ die and to whom is the Spirit given? My claim is that Christ's death actualizes our reconciliation (same as the double predestinarians) but that this death was for all humanity. I also claim that the Spirit confirms the reconciling work that Christ accomplished. It will therefore eventually be given to all, though it is given to some here and now in order to testify to and participate in the reconciling mission of God.

Matthew said...

> negated and then applied to divinity (e.g., infinitude, immorality, ungenerateness)

"Immortality", perhaps? =)

E said...

Have you considered Matthew 25 in light of Joel 3:1ff. (Joel 4:1ff. in Hebrew)? Both refer to a judgment of the "nations" (ethnos) for how they have treated God's people ("My brethren" - i.e., not all mankind), as opposed to being a judgment on all persons, believers and unbelievers, for how they treated or ignored the poor, etc. Some commentators do consider the parable of the sheep and the goats as possibly being about a judgment of how non-Christians treated Christians. Jesus said that if anyone gave one of His a cup of water because they were Christ's, they would not lose their reward, so there seems to be a possibility for a kind of salvation as well as a judgment for non-Christians that is separate from that for Christians. And considering the Jewishness of Matthew's Gospel, it would be wise to try to locate this parable in some OT setting, and Joel 3 (4) seems to fit the bill in several ways language-wise.

David W. Congdon said...

@Matthew:

Immortality is not a proper attribute of God. Why? Because God died in the death of Christ on the cross. The fact that God lives beyond this death in the resurrection does not mean that we can toss around an attribute like "immortal." Immortality means that God cannot die, but this is simply not the case. God can die and has done so in the person of Jesus. What Christian faith confesses is that God can fully participate in death and yet still live. This is the mystery of the gospel. We do not confess a God who is immortal but a God who is resurrected from death.

David W. Congdon said...

@E:

Honestly, I'm really not all that concerned about the exegesis of Matt. 25. I was only arguing against the position that this parable of Jesus can be used as a proof-text for a doctrine of hell. I stand by that conviction. I'm sure you're right that a full exegesis of this passage should take the OT context into account; I'm just not personally interested in that, at least not in this context.

As for your point about this passage concerning non-Christian treatment of Christians (btw, these terms are all anachronistic, since there were no "Christians" then), the same point is made by exegetes of the Johannine epistles, in which it is almost certainly the case that the command to love concerns those within the community of faith. The author did not think Christians had a command to love those outside of the community. While this may be the case — as with the Matt. 25 passage — I think we today have to say that the significance of these passages is not limited to the original authorial intention. In fact, I would say very strongly that no exegesis is finally ever concerned with simply replicating authorial intent. Historical exegesis is simply the prelude to the actual interpretation of a text, and thus these passages are not and cannot be bound to the limited theological horizons of the authors.

Anonymous said...

David, i realise this is a side issue, but you have your two natures Christology confused. God did not die on the cross - he experienced death in the human nature of Jesus. So omnipresence (eternality) is an attribute of the divine.

David W. Congdon said...

Anon:

And I'm going to say that you have your two natures confused. The doctrine of the two natures does not mean that we have two subjects, so that God does one thing and the human Jesus another. The two natures affirms that what this man Jesus did, God did, too. As a man, he is God; and as God, he is a man. The two natures can never be employed to divide up Christ's actions into "human acts" (suffer, die, etc.) and "divine acts" (perform miracles, rise from the dead, etc.). That is the kind of Nestorian nonsense that the early church continually fell into, despite their best intentions.

So I hear your complaint, but I reject the premise upon which it is based. There is a single acting subject, the man Jesus Christ, and as this single acting subject, he is definitive (even constitutive) for the very being and life of the eternal Godhead.

David W. Congdon said...

Also, have the balls to attach your name to your comments. I have nothing but disdain for the legion of commenters on theo-blogs who refuse to be known as anything but "anonymous." It's nothing but intellectual cowardice.

David W. Congdon said...

Anon:

Let me clarify. The problem with your statement is not that God experienced death in Jesus, it is that you said, God experienced death "in the human nature of Jesus." My point is that this statement is either theologically misguided (insofar as you are trying to split the human nature from the divine nature) or it is redundant (insofar as Jesus is nothing but a human being; what else could he be?).

My christology takes its bearings from Jenson and Jüngel, in which it is precisely as a human being that he is God. Being that this is the case, I reject the dichotomy between God "experiencing" death in Jesus and God undergoing death. The claim of the gospel is that God suffered death and still lives. God conquers death in the event in which God dies — that's the paradox of faith. The crucified one is the resurrected one, precisely as the one who is crucified.

B.B. Warfield said...

David, I think that you are playing a little to fast and loose with your analysis. Take Cyril of Alexandria, for example. Here we have someone who uses precisely the language of God experiencing death in the human nature of Jesus. But, it is clear that all this means for Cyril is an affirmation that it is one thing for God to undergo human death, and it is another for the divine being to die (stop existing), and that what we have to do with in Christianity is the former and not the latter. The "in the human nature" language is simply a way of saying that God qua God does not have any organ (organon) by means of which to experience human death and so, in order to undergo human death and defeat it, God hypostasizes himself as human and undergoes that death.

Conclusion: not all this death in the human nature stuff is necessarily bad. Of course, I don't know how Anon is using it.

However, it is fair to say that you think people like Barth, Jungel, and Jenson - insofar as they have utterly rejected metaphysics - have an ontology that is better able to make sense of these things than did old Cyril. Something like that would be the better claim.

David W. Congdon said...

@B.B.:

I certainly agree that it is only by virtue of the assumption of human flesh that God is capable of death. No dispute there. I would dispute that that is what Cyril is actually saying, though. I've done a fair amount of research on this, actually. Cyril only says that by virtue of the incarnation, we can ascribe death to God, but he is in no sense willing to say that God takes death into God's very being. Cyril's paradoxical statements - "the impassible God suffers impassibly" - are linguistic in nature only; they are not ontological descriptions of God's encounter with death. Like the other ancient fathers, he views the two natures as subsisting in one person, and this person acts as a kind of tertium quid in which both natures can be unified linguistically while differentiated ontologically. So there is no actual communication of what the human nature does to the divine nature; there is only a communication of certain divine powers to the human nature (such as omniscience).

I didn't go into all these details, because I didn't think they were animating the debate thus far. I am more than happy to discuss them, though, since they are very important and worth engaging. For what it's worth, I do think Cyril is one of the very best patristic theologians, second perhaps only to Maximus. But I don't think his paradoxical christology is finally a sufficient answer.

In any case, you're right that there are other alternatives to the Barth, Jenson, Jüngel line that I prefer. But I just don't think they are adequate to the task, and they end up perpetuating certain errors, such as Nestorianism, that the early church never really escaped.

B.B. Warfield said...

You're misreading Cyril. Come by my portrait sometime and we'll talk about it in more depth. :-P

Basically, I think you're giving Cyril too much credit for having metaphysical commitments that he doesn't actually have in the same way other patristic authors do. That said, I'm willing to grant Maximus superiority.

David W. Congdon said...

Cyril definitely does have those metaphysical commitments. All the best Cyril scholarship confirms it (McGuckin, Gavrilyuk, etc.). In order to convince me that he doesn't have these commitments, you'll have to prove it on the basis of his texts. You can't base an argument from silence, and he repeatedly insists that God does not actually experience suffering or death; but we can ascribe such things to God because the assumption of flesh allows us to do so.

B.B. Warfield said...

No worries - I've a couple arguments for it. ;-)

Its not that he doesn't have the commitments, its that he doesn't have them in the same way. Again, stop by my portrait and we'll talk.

David W. Congdon said...

"Doesn't have them in the same way"? That's interesting. I don't know what to make of it, but I'm willing to be convinced. I like Cyril a lot, so I want to read him as charitably as possible.

Scott said...

Great stuff!

Christine said...

Hi David, I just came across a saved bookmark on my computer to your blog and have no recollection of every having been here before. But I have been browsing around and I just finished reading this publication and enjoyed it very much.

All Blessings in Christ!!
Christine