Beyond Binaries: A Response to Mark Galli, Part 2

Read: Part 1

1. Universalism. Galli rightly acknowledges that there are passages in the NT which lean in a universalistic direction. He also acknowledges that Bell does not use the word “universalist” and nowhere clearly identifies himself with that position, though he does say, “it’s hard for me to believe that Bell doesn’t espouse universalism.” The problem here is that Galli does not seem to be as conversant in the history of this idea as he ought to be. In response to Bell’s “arresting” (Galli’s word) question, “Will God get what he wants?” Galli goes on to say:
It's rhetorically compelling, but he misleads at points. He says this theme has a "long tradition" and "an untold number" of devout Christians have believed it. Well, only a tiny minority of Christians have espoused it in 20 centuries. The church has consistently rejected it because the arguments for it have never been compelling. Bell doesn't wrestle with counter-arguments, other than to suggest that to believe in eternal judgment is to believe that history is tragic and that God doesn't get his way. But of course, proponents of eternal judgment think no such things.
Galli is certainly correct to say that proponents of eternal judgment (hereafter EJ, though I will have occasion later to criticize the choice of this terminology by Galli) have theologically robust ways to respond to Bell’s universalist-leaning questions. But this paragraph, and the rest of the section, misses the target for several reasons.

First, the paragraph sidesteps the arresting question by Bell. It’s understandable why Galli would move to discuss universalism and its standing within the tradition. But that’s not the immediate point of Bell’s question. Bell is asking about the nature of God. I don’t know how Bell develops the question, but I can think of some ways. For instance, a bone of contention within American evangelicalism is whether individual human freedom decides whether one is finally “saved” or not. The Reformed position has traditionally upheld divine sovereignty over against human freedom, hence the positing of a double predestination in eternity as the theological explanation for belief and unbelief in time. The evangelical position associated with the likes of Charles Finney rejected the Reformed doctrine of election because it wasn’t “useful” in facilitating conversions. Election went the other direction; the human person was the one who “elected” God. The problem then is that faith becomes a work. Jesus only accomplishes part of our reconciliation, and we have to supply the other half.

We have here the classic monergism-synergism debate, the well-known tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom. I cannot say where Bell himself falls on this debate, but I can say that his question is the right one. He is gesturing (and perhaps the book makes this more explicit) toward the claim that the sovereign power of God has to be united with the loving will of God. The two must not be placed at odds with each other, or else we have God against God. This leads to the uncomfortable but logical conclusion: according to the EJ position, either God wants to save all but cannot, or God does not want to save all and can. The former is the view of most American evangelicals (i.e., non-Reformed); the latter is the Reformed position. The problem is that each results in a view of God that more and more people today find irreconcilable with the biblical witness. The former is powerless against the human will; the latter hardly seems to be the God of love attested in Scripture (i.e., love and justice compete with each other). Bell’s question remains the right one: if God desires all to be saved, as we find proclaimed in the Bible, then does it really make theological sense to say that God cannot accomplish God’s own will? The majority position among evangelicals today seems to be the “argument from freedom,” viz. that God’s love compels God to give us the freedom to reject God. But this quickly unravels. If God knows what is best for us, then is it really loving for God to “respect our freedom” by letting us damn ourselves to hell for all eternity? Is this not the mere projection of a modern notion of respect for individual autonomy onto the being of God? It seems to me that Bell is attempting to move beyond this stale binary opposition between divine sovereignty (divine justice without love) and human freedom (divine love without power). Whether Bell’s attempt is successful or not is another question, but it seems that Galli has missed an opportunity to explore the issue in a more nuanced way than is often the case.

Second, to say that universal salvation (hereafter US) is a “minority” position is true, but surely something is not true just because it is in the majority! I’ll certainly grant that “majority rules” is generally how orthodoxy was decided in the past, but that does not oblige us to imitate our ancestors in the faith. Here and elsewhere, Galli comes close to espousing what I criticized in my response to Colson, viz. a doctrinal legalism that defines one’s “orthodoxy” (a word to be assessed later) based on whether one affirms a set of dogmatic statements held by others in the past. That kind of thinking leads almost inevitably to the conviction that Scripture plus Tradition constitutes the norm for Christian faith and practice. But that is a decidedly un-Protestant way of thinking. I do not think this is Galli’s position, or that he intends to go down this path—though I honestly cannot say, not knowing him personally—but this is the danger that I perceive in some of his statements scattered throughout the review. I will return to this point at the end of the series.

To be sure, Christians have to have some faith in the church of the past, since without the church there would be no canon and no creeds. Galli could quite justifiably respond that though Scripture alone is normative, we are dependent in some way upon the general contours of those who have gone before us. And we depend especially upon those thinkers and leaders in the church who have defended the truth of the gospel against error. Without that, we lose the ability to make distinctions between truth and false, between what accords with the gospel and what does not. But the question is to what extent are we free to critically assess the past. Can we make the judgment today that past judgments by church leaders and councils were, in fact, themselves in error? Surely the Reformers felt free to do so. Just because the rejection of US is the majority report in church history, does this make EJ the only correct view? Do we have the freedom to look afresh at the biblical text and discover a new word for us today, even if that word breaks with the majority? It would be a strange kind of evangelicalism that declared an unequivocal “no” to that question.

Third, it’s not only the questionable doctrinal limitations that Galli seems to place on Christian faith; it is the apparent lack of awareness about those who have actually espoused universalistic views in the past. As the new book, “All Shall Be Well,” edited by Gregory MacDonald/Robin Parry (of The Evangelical Universalist fame), demonstrates rather nicely, the position of Christian universalism does indeed have a long pedigree in the church. I’ll grant that Origen and Gregory of Nyssa do not a “long tradition” make, but neither are they insignificant. Nor are they the only ones, by any means. There are many within the Eastern church that espoused universalist views. And even if most of the proponents of US appear in the modern era, it would be a great injustice to these major theological voices to imply that they are all liberals. Galli does not actually make that connection, but based on where he goes in the rest of the review, that is certainly the strong implication. More on that point later.

Fourth, Galli goes on to argue that the refusal of Scripture to decide one way or the other regarding US and EJ “should give us pause.” I am deeply sympathetic with this view. It is the one that holds someone like Hans Urs von Balthasar back from outright affirmation of US. And yet it strikes me that Galli has not entirely heeded his own advice. For nowhere in the review do we hear of the need to refrain from advocating EJ. He rejects a “barbless universalism” that “risk[s] sentimentalizing the gospel,” but then proceeds to advocate “warning [people] of the eternal rewards and consequences of following Jesus.” If both tendencies are present in Scripture—the universalizing and the particularizing, so to speak—then it stands to reason that there ought to be caution on both sides. Here I would say that no church should make either US or EJ part of its doctrinal statement, since both positions find support in Scripture. To declare either as the “orthodox” position that ought to be held by all is to be unfaithful to the complexity of the scriptural witness. Galli, it seems, is quite willing to espouse EJ, but this is no better in the end than any outright universalism. 

Here is a modest suggestion. Proponents of both US and EJ need to acknowledge that there is textual support for each side in the Bible. This means, especially, that proponents of EJ need to stop pretending that they have a monopoly on the meaning of the biblical text, just because their position is the majority report. Both sides need to acknowledge that, beginning with either the US or EJ texts, one can offer cogent explanations for the other set of texts. Neither side has a self-evidently knock-down argument in their favor. Galli gestures towards one by appealing to Jesus, which is a common EJ tactic. But this is theologically fruitless. For starters, that is precisely the argument that Unitarians and other non-Trinitarians used in the past, because Jesus makes a strong differentiation between himself and the Father. Moreover, Jesus offers no soteriology, no doctrine of the atonement. The appeal to Matthew 25—which is done so often and usually in a very irresponsible manner, and Galli is to be praised for not mentioning the passage—is empty of any force. One cannot take its parabolic description of a separation between sheep and goats literally without also taking literally Jesus’ words about what divides the two groups: doing good works, such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. The result is—horror of horrors!—precisely the kind of works-righteousness that the NT largely condemns, not to mention the Protestant Reformers and their descendants. Finally, the appeal to Jesus just doesn’t work because the gospel accounts on their own do not make the Christian faith. Christianity is inconceivable apart from the Pauline epistles, which are also the earliest texts we have. 

The attempt to make the words of Jesus (as narrated in the gospels) the norm is, in the end, historically and hermeneutically naive. We have to think canonically and theologically. The mere fact that Jesus is recorded as speaking of hell or Gehenna is by no means a knock-down argument. Galli’s question—“If universal salvation is true, why does Jesus not showcase it?”—is thus a bit silly. We could turn this around quite easily. For example, if the doctrine of the Trinity is true, why does Jesus not showcase it? Or, if the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is true (as Galli claims), then why does Jesus not showcase it? Galli quickly appeals to Romans to justify his belief in that doctrine, but why is he able to use Jesus against Bell on EJ while appealing to Paul for the atonement? Why can’t Bell appeal to Paul for US, since it is the Pauline witness that is decisive here? Galli is guilty of what might be called “shifting the goalposts.” He isn’t playing by the same rules. Bell is being asked to justify his position based on what Jesus says, when Galli allows himself more biblical liberty. While this appears to be intellectually disingenuous, I don’t think Galli has any dishonest intentions. It seems to be more of a blindspot.

Back to my modest proposal. Let’s decide to acknowledge that people on both sides have valid and biblically-based reasons for holding to their position. That much is the necessary first step to a generous and honest conversation about this crucially important topic. Then, I wish to suggest, let’s acknowledge that individual theologians—since they do not speak for the church, but seek instead to think critically and reflectively about the church’s faith in Jesus Christ—are free to explore a theology that adopts either US or EJ. Let’s allow for both without impugning the evangelical faith of the other. That’s not to say each side cannot demand exegetical rigor and theological sophistication from the other. (On that point, I actually think advocates of EJ have much to learn from advocates of US!) It only means that EJ proponents need to recognize that there are good evangelical reasons for holding to US—as Gregory MacDonald, among others, has demonstrated. The problem with Galli’s review, which I will explore in more detail later, is that he identifies Bell as a “liberal.” There’s a lot of baggage that goes with that word. Often it functions in evangelical circles as code for “here is someone who may have good intentions, but he is outside the circle.” Galli is much better than that. He does not succumb to the temptation of writing Bell off simply because he leans in a universalist direction. For that reason alone, Galli deserves our thanks. The basis for the identification of Bell as a liberal only then becomes clear in his discussion of the cross and the atonement in the next section, to which I now turn.


byron said…
Thank you for writing with integrity and intellectual honesty. All the other reviews and reactions concerning Bell and his new book are kind of making me sick.
Anonymous said…
That's a strange understanding of Matt 25. There is a strong theme of "works of faith," against "works of the law," in Paul, Hebrews, James, 1 John, and not just the Gospels. There is an expectation among the followers of Christ to bear fruit of the Holy Spirit, and this is then considered (by Jesus, Paul, James, Hebrews, John...) as external evidence of the obedience of faith. So, although the law no longer stands as judge, the law became a person, Jesus Christ, who is judge. Christ judges according to the heart, which needs to be a heart of faith: those who served the needy, and did not realize they were serving Christ, are glorified by Christ the Judge in Matt 25. The others are condemned. The parabolic nature of the passage (the image of sheep and goats) hardly makes the judgment scene a mere speculation or "possibility," i.e., perhaps everyone will be sheep. That's quite a bit of exegetical strain.

So, as you can expect, I'm not convinced that the biblical testimony is, more or less, evenly EJ and US.

First, I don't think Matt. 25 has anything to do with one's eschatological destiny after death. I think it is a parable meant to transform the way people live here and now. I think it has ethical, not eschatological, significance.

Second, "works of faith"? In James, sure, but in Paul? Sure, faith works through love, but nowhere do I see any evidence for the notion that our works of love are themselves constitutive of our salvation and justification. I'm perfectly happy making faith and love coincide in a paradoxical sense, but this does not mean that our acts of love are the basis for our identity as children of God. I see no textual basis for that in the NT.

Third, what does it mean for Christ to be our judge? I agree that he is, but Christ is the judge as the one who has been judged in our place. He judges us as the judged one, as the crucified one. For that reason, when Christ looks at us, he sees those for whom he died. Eberhard Jüngel has a great statement in one of his essays where he says that the one who judges us still has the marks of the nails from the cross. We have to see that the eschatological judgment cannot be divorced from the historical judgment in the cross. The two are one and the same event seen from two perspectives.

As for the biblical passages, I refer you to Balthasar's book. I also think we have to distinguish between judgment and eternal damnation. Galli and others seem to think that universalism requires the elimination of divine justice and judgment. But nothing could be further from the truth. I will take that up in my final post.
Gabaon said…
That "shifting the goalposts" thing is right on the spot!

I really enjoy reading Rob Bell. I think Mark Driscoll is responsible for the "liberal" tag on Bell since "Velvet Elvis" came out.

As a Catholic I didn't like von Balthasar's book, nor did I like John Paul II's fondness for it. In Catholics circle is becoming more and more common to find people adhering to the "Hope" of Balthasar, because canonically it's impossible to assert it as a fact. Instead the hot question, this side of the fence, is the "fewness of the saved".

I've always wondered why is it that when people read Matthew 25 they keep hovering over the parable of the goats and sheep... there are two more parables in the chapter, and right at the end of chapter 24 there is another. That makes 4 parables about how the last days would be like: 1. A fiscal-year performance evaluation 2. A bride-selection for a wedding. 3. An employee performance evaluation. and 4. A Trial. What is it with people and trials? Why of this four different approaches people stick with number four? Why? Would it be wrong if we were talking about The Last Wedding instead of The Last Judgement?

Regarding Matthew 25, I only need to point you to Richard Beck's recent blog post:

He says all that really needs to be said about that passage (and others as well).
Anonymous said…
The judgment scene in Mt 25 begins, "When the Son of man comes in glory." In fact, unlike the parables preceding it, there is no "like" or some such indicator (e.g. "the Kingdom of God is like"). So, the genre of parable may not exactly be accurate. Regardless, the setting is the coming again of the Lord, so it's eschatological. That doesn't mean, of course, that there is not an ethical pedagogy in place, but that hardly rules out the eschatological setting.
To be fair, my original statement was that Matt. 25 is "parabolic," but I still stand by my other comment that it is a parable. Sure, it doesn't have the immediate genre indicators, but it's a continuation of the same discourse. It's making a certain ethical point, and he uses imagery that would be relevant to his hearers. I liken the passage to the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. That's another parabolic story that doesn't have a "like" indicator.

But at the end of the day, the issue is not the genre of this passage, but rather whether we can really take away any dogmatic content regarding our position on salvation and eschatology. It seems fairly clear to me that this passage is about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, not about the separation of sheep and goats. If we focus on the eschatological imagery, I think we completely miss the point of what Jesus is actually trying to teach us. Yes, we should fear the judgment of God and repent for our failure to care for others. We should learn from this passage that Jesus is present with the poor; he is "incognito" in the world, as Kierkegaard declares. Jesus is with the least of these, and we must follow him there.

But does any of this mean that our salvation is dependent on whether we clothed enough people or welcomed enough strangers? Can this passage be used to develop a doctrine of heaven and hell? No! I think to interpret the passage in that way is to totally distort the message that Jesus is preaching.
Anonymous said…
We're not forced into an either-or interpretation of the passage. It's both eschatological and ethical. Jesus is both putting forth an image of the final judgment (once again, "when the Son of Man comes in his glory") and an exhortation (with eschatological force!) to charity in genuine humility...all of which fits quite nicely with Paul's understanding of a faith that partakes in the conquering of sin and evil (Rom. 6; Gal. 5:13-26).

Thus, Matt 25 has a proper place (an important place) in eschatology and the question of hell. I would hardly want to isolate it and make it into a "slam dunk" for eternal condemnation. Obviously, there is a larger exegetical and dogmatic framework in which it fits, and I'm quite convinced that your universalist framework is obscuring the passage by reducing it to a moral exhortation.
Matt. 25 only has eschatological significance if eschatology is removed from the sphere of "what happens after death" and placed in its rightful context of "that which is final, ultimate, and eternal." In that context, the passage makes perfect sense. We are indeed judged by God in every moment, and we are commanded again and again to care for and be with the poor.

Don't misunderstand me. I certainly do think that Jesus - if we can make claims about what Jesus believed - believed in hell and saw himself making a statement about the judgment that awaits those who do not care for the poor. But I don't think this means that Jesus is giving us a doctrine about hell that we must then adopt simply because it is recorded as spoken by him. Theology is not a matter of simply finding things that Jesus said and systematizing them. It's a matter of thinking critically and reflectively about what the church confesses in light of the gospel kerygma, the message of the cross and resurrection. Put differently, I think we have to read Jesus in light of Paul. We have to interpret Matt. 25 in light of a larger NT hermeneutic.

I've been trying to do that all along, and maybe that wasn't clear. I'm not interested in what Jesus himself believed, because I don't think we have access to that nor do I think that's what the church is grounded on. The church begins with the message of the world's apocalyptic rectification in Jesus the Christ. That doesn't mean the synoptic texts are irrelevant; only that they are subordinate to a larger theological understanding of the NT message.
Anonymous said…
I'll continue to ponder your points, David. I've enjoyed the discussion.
Robin Parry said…

Spot on! Good critique!

Anonymous said…
David - Great posts. Thanks for crystallizing my thinking on this.