Sunday, July 17, 2011

The real impasse in the debate over Rob Bell

Mark Galli’s book, God Wins—a response, obviously, to Love Wins—was the topic of discussion last week. The book has been available on Kindle for a few weeks, though it doesn’t appear in print until August 1. In it, Galli explains why he thinks “love wins” is an insufficient understanding of the gospel, because it bypasses the question of God’s judgment and wrath. Hence, “God wins.” One almost wants to ask Galli whether he’s forgotten 1 John 4:8. But that’s a cheap shot. Since I haven’t read the book yet—and since I’ve already written a few thousand words on Galli in my series responding to his deeply misguided and misinformed review in Christianity Today—I defer to the recent blog posts by Roger Olson, a man I highly respect and deeply admire.

Olson, a friend of Galli, wrote about God Wins on July 7. There he made a number of ambiguous remarks that were clearly an attempt to praise the qualities of the man while criticizing the claims of the book. He begins by stating that “Mark is a serious evangelical scholar with an irenic approach to controversial material.” He then goes on to say, “I get the sense that Mark felt things that I did not feel and that I felt things Mark (and others) did not feel.” And later: “I think that may be because Mark is a member of a denomination struggling with rampant liberalism in which conservatives (by which here I mean people who value traditional, orthodox, biblical Christianity) feel embattled. I, on the other hand, have been beset by fundamentalists and aggressive neo-fundamentalist heresy-hunters.” The rest of the review is just filler: Mark is a great guy, but he’s approaching this book from a perspective I do not share. Translation: his criticisms of Love Wins are not really about Bell; they are instead about Galli’s own issues within his ecclesial context.

Olson followed up that review of God Wins with another post on “Why I defend Rob Bell’s Love Wins (and other controversial books).” In this fascinating post, Olson puts forward the claim that what is really driving a book like God Wins is the whole Calvinism-Arminianism debate. He then states:
I think SOME evangelical Calvinists are so allergic to both Arminianism and liberalism that they tend to lump them together and not see their differences.  There’s something in American evangelical Calvinisms’ DNA that makes it see a trajectory from Arminianism (or anything like it) to liberalism.  I deny that trajectory and, in fact, tend to think it is the other way around (if anything): Calvinism leads to liberalism.
Olson compares Love Wins to the books related to the open theism controversy. He observes that the attacks made against both by Calvinists are the very same arguments used by Calvinists against Arminianism. What happens in these debates is that the particularities of open theism and Bell’s “open eschatology” (if I may put it thus) are lost amidst polemics about divine sovereignty and human free will. In Olson’s words, “the crux of the debate has to do with two different interpretations of 1 Timothy 2:4,” and “the deep, inner logic of the attacks on Love Wins” are rooted in “Reformed assumptions about God rather than out of Arminian assumptions about God.” Olson then makes a very interesting comment that warrants further reflection:
Simply to respond that God Wins is to raise some questions from the Arminian side.  In what sense does God win?  Does God get everything he wanted?  Does God want hell–antecedently as well as consequently?  If you say no, then why does hell exist?  It has to be because of free will and that has to be because of God’s loving self-limitation.  If you say yes, then that raises a host of questions about God’s goodness.  There don’t seem to be alternatives.  Either God wanted hell antecedently, in which case God is a monster, or God only wants hell consequently (to the fall) and that means God doesn’t exactly “win” in every sense, right?  But love can still win IN THE SENSE that love wants free response and not coerced or programmed response.
There is much here worth examining in detail, but in the interests of brevity, I will summarize my thoughts with the following points. These are not meant to be exhaustive. They only hit on some of the key issues for the sake of further discussion.

1. The Calvinist-Arminian debate is an old one, but it seems blissfully unaware that there are serious alternatives to this rather stale binary opposition. It might seem a bit obvious, since it’s been suggested many times before, but a really compelling alternative is that of Karl Barth. Why? Well, it all comes down to understanding what we mean by freedom. The problem with both Calvinism and Arminianism is that freedom—whether the freedom of God or the freedom of the human being, respectively—has been defined in the abstract. The Calvinist freedom of God (i.e., the absolute sovereignty to determine the elect and the reprobate) and the Arminian freedom of humanity (i.e., the free will to determine one’s eternal identity in response to the gospel message) are both known prior to and apart from how God has actually exercised freedom in the person of Jesus. In other words, both are metaphysical conceptions of freedom. They are abstract notions not determined by the concrete particularity of God’s self-revelation. Now it may be that both sides simply don’t care; they like their metaphysics and cling to it tightly. That could very well be the case. But it’s important to point out just what is being assumed on both sides. In both cases, Christ is not definitive for what divine and human freedom means theologically.

2. Of course, to lift up Barth as a possible solution to the debate is not new, nor is it very persuasive to hard-core adherents of both positions. I suspect Calvinists and Arminians want their abstract conceptions of freedom, not because they care about the debates over metaphysics but because they are both deeply afraid of what it mean to go a different route. To put it directly, both Calvinists and Arminians are afraid of universalism. Calvinists need an abstract divine freedom (that is, an abstract decision of predestination) because their commitment to irresistible grace and the efficacy of God’s election means that a divine freedom determined by Christ’s reconciling promeity would result in the salvation of all people. Arminians need an abstract human freedom because their commitment to God’s universal desire for all to be saved (see Olson’s reference to 1 Tim. 2:4 above) would mean, again, that all humans would be saved were it not for our ability to thwart God’s will. But maybe—just maybe!—the problem is the presupposition by both sides that the salvation of all people is absolutely prohibited as a possible option in theology. Maybe our abstract commitments to a non-universalist eschatology and to certain notions of what freedom means for God and for human beings are at the root of the problem. Maybe we should let the reconciling mission of Christ determine what we can say about freedom and eschatological consummation.

3. In other words, the following claim by Olson is a false binary: “Either God wanted hell antecedently, in which case God is a monster, or God only wants hell consequently (to the fall) and that means God doesn’t exactly ‘win’ in every sense, right?” The answer is no and no. I agree with Olson that God would be a monster for willing hell in advance. The old doctrine of double predestination is indeed a diabolic position to hold. But the Arminian alternative fares no better. Is a God who sends people to hell really much worse than a God who is impotent in the end to save those who reject the gospel (or never hear it in the first place)? The former is a God who is sovereign but cruel; the latter is a God who is weak but loving. The former is protologically monstrous, while the latter is eschatologically monstrous. But it’s unacceptable either way. If all are not finally saved, then God cannot be said to have “won.” And a God who does not “win”—who does not fully and finally accomplish God’s own perfect will—is simply not the God attested in scripture.

4. We can put the problem another way: for both Calvinists and Arminians, love and justice have been defined in the abstract, i.e., apart from God’s concrete self-communication in Christ. Thus both pit love and justice in a competitive relationship. Calvinism grounds the competition in God’s eternal predestination—so that God determines where love will “win” and where justice will “win.” Arminianism grounds the competition in the conflict between a loving God and a sinful humanity: God loves everyone, but this loving divine will is overpowered by a human refusal of this love that, according to the rules of the game, forces God to exact justice. If we begin with Christ, however, it turns out that love and justice are non-competitively related, since it is precisely the love of God for all that God’s cruciform justice serves to accomplish. Justice is simply the form that God’s love takes in the event of the cross. The notions of love and justice are not theologically meaningful independent of and prior to the actualization of God’s just love in the concrete reality of Jesus Christ. The attempt to define them in advance and then figure out how they relate theologically results in this intractable debate.

5. This whole debate also seems to take for granted the notion that eschatology refers to something “beyond death,” that is, beyond each person’s individual perishing. Maybe that’s something we need to reconsider as well.


Jonathon said...

Great post! I like hearing something other than the talking points from each camp; even though I fall on the Calvinist side (I was a staunch Arminianist for 8 years, or more like a semi Pelagian).

phillip said...

To sound naive but isn't Paul just insisting at 1Tim that we don't allow the mindset of seeing those 'against' us as outside of God's redemptive grace, even as he is able to insist of his own countrymen that 'God's wrath has come upon them to the uttermost' and yet 'they are beloved for the father's sake, that whatever the reality in our present in God's present and our practice He must always be Judge. To do otherwise is to 'grieve the holy spirit' a fact which the vituperative and dishonest treatment by opponents on Bell's book illustrates distressingly well.

Matt Frost said...

Well-put. Good touch on the use of a priori freedom in both cases. Whether or not Barth is a trite answer to the dialectic, his insistence upon posterior notions of freedom and agency does seem to be what makes him the good alternative.

The trouble with universalism, as I've been wrestling in these past two weeks with Matthew 13 in the lectionary, is that our concepts of God's universal salvific will run smack into the scriptural logic of some-and-not-others in quite a number of places. And so I vector Matthew through Romans to get a gospel I can preach, but somehow I have to do justice to Matthew at the same time. And we could so easily do it the other way! (And so often do, in our history of reading Romans.) You know I believe in universalism, if in my own twisted way, but it becomes my prior principle for reading scripture, just as Calvinist and Arminian positions are prone to. I just like it better than the alternatives.

But I think in the end you're right, again for the use of Christological posteriority. If we begin by defining God's actions as actions apart from the nature of God, we wind up setting God's actions against themselves. We therefore set God against God within history, and do what we must to make that make sense in light of our belief in one essential nature of the eternal God. But I have to agree that love and justice cannot be competitive if God is self-consistent, and wins.

Matt Frost said...

It occurs to me that you can have a God who is both sovereign and loving, but does not actually desire to save everyone. Whose desire is not for the whole creation, but only for select portions of it. But there are then two routes to go: either God selects arbitrarily, as we see it asserted in Deuteronomy -- it was not because Israel was good, let alone better than their neighbors, that God saved them, but to demonstrate his own goodness. Or God selects on the basis of what is good in creation, and we assert therefore a knowable basis for that, external to divine self-revelation even if comprehensible because of it.

In the former case, nothing prevents God from making other equally arbitrary selections. We might assume that these selections would be in some way unified by the nature of God, but they need not appear uniform from the creaturely side of things. In fact, if they did, we'd be in the second option, in which the logic of God's selection reveals an independently knowable created criterion. If salvation is non-universal and arbitrary, strictly on the basis of a quality of God a se and with no creaturely unifying factors, then God remains the God who is defined by saving, seen against an environment of general condemnation. Creation is not saved, except where God has explicitly saved it, and by the given means by which those events happened -- which may allow for the continuation and expansion of that salvation through conformity with those acts/means in their continued created presence. They become the sole created criteria, as direct interventions of God in creation. Miraculous violations of the general order.

In the latter case, having been saved, we may be able to develop a theory of the kind of things God saves. Rather than simply conforming to the miraculous events and means, we may assure salvation by conformity to some prevenient means within creation. Again, on the assumption that not everything participates in this prevenient nature. The advantage here being that the combination of the prevenient and the miraculous provides us with a sense in which we see the uniformity of the divine will across actions. We may theorize and predict the divine will. Again, against a general backdrop of condemnation.

It seems to me that talking about hell first is putting the cart before the horse. But perhaps the only difference between universalist and non-universalist theories of salvation is precisely this: that the former assumes an environment of general salvation, and the latter an environment of general condemnation. That creation is not good enough of itself -- I doubt any of us will dispute. Even if the second position flirts with an idea of merit when misunderstood (as though nature did not derive from a divine act), salvation still owes to an act of God all the way back. So then the question returns, not to condemnation, nor to salvation, but to creation.

Is creation good? Do we believe in the fall as a basic explanation for the dynamism of the world? Assuming that we do, how powerful is it? What does the fall do? Can it contradict the grace of God? Does sin imply condemnation, and therefore imply eternal condemnation? Is that God's response to sin?

Stephen Krogh said...

Hi David,

I'd caution you against the road of argumentation you took in 2. You argued against Jamie Smith's psychological evaluation of universalism a couple months ago (or at least condoned Halden's response to it), and yet essentially charge both Calvinists and Arminians with a psychological motivation for rejecting universalism. If Smith's charge was illicit–I'm not sure whether it was or not–then yours in 2. should also be (unless, of course, you can make a relevant distinction between the work you think your claim to psychological motivation is doing that Smith's failed to do).

David W. Congdon said...

Thanks, Stephen. I appreciate you keeping me honest, but I don't buy the similarity -- or at least I'm not yet convinced that the two are comparable. Smith's charge was illicit because it was so at odds with the actual concerns of real universalists. He attributed the affirmation of universalism to a set of feelings and convictions that he described at length. I take it that my charge is quite different, insofar as I'm only pointing out a general presupposition that universalism is "out of bounds." Is this really a psychologizing of the situation? You can toss out my mention of "being afraid" and the point of the paragraph would still hold. You couldn't remove the psychological references in Smith's post and still have an argument. I think this is a significant difference.

Danny Houck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David W. Congdon said...


Your comments are very interesting. Specifically, this point:

"But perhaps the only difference between universalist and non-universalist theories of salvation is precisely this: that the former assumes an environment of general salvation, and the latter an environment of general condemnation. ... So then the question returns, not to condemnation, nor to salvation, but to creation."

This might be true for some versions of universalism, but it's certainly not true for the kinds of christocentric versions I am in favor of. I may not be understanding your point, so you might have to clarify matters for me. But it seems like you're suggesting the Calvinist and Arminian positions presuppose an environment of condemnation in contrast to universalist soteriologies. But I agree with them on that point: condemnation is universal. It's precisely because of the universal condemnation that a universal reconciliation becomes truly meaningful. See Romans 11:32.

I suspect I'm probably missing your real point, so please help me understand if I've gotten it wrong.

David W. Congdon said...


If you isolate that statement, then yes, your point is valid. But I take it that the language of "victory" is serving as shorthand for "what happens in Christ," or perhaps more specifically, "what happens in Christ on the cross" (or something like that). The question regarding victory is (a) whether Christ is united with all humanity (or, put differently, each particular person) and (b) whether what Christ accomplished is the actuality of reconciliation or only the possibility of it.

Arminians say yes to the former, but then no to the latter. Calvinists say yes to the latter and thus no to the former. When I speak of victory, I mean that we should say yes to both. And my point is that there is no compelling reason to say no to either unless one begins by rejecting the possibility of universalism.

Stephen Krogh said...


Your distinction seems fair enough. Thanks.

Matt Frost said...

Hm. You're right, I wasn't totally clear. Not precise enough, and I have an idea on why, so bear with me. The language I used is the same as I use to talk about law/gospel dialectics -- which of God's actions forms the general background against which we see the other. And it is sure that we see the Yes framed against the No. This is because as sinful beings epistemologically disconnected from the divine-human relationship, we perceive the No first -- even though in creation the Yes is prior. With respect to the orders of sin, there is a general standing No from God.

But in that historical sense, we are talking about the environment of condemnation in which we see salvation appear, and we recognize the Yes as God's triumphant opus proprium. This is the sense in which we find the uses of the law, whether you hold there to be two or three, and in what order. But in any case, salvation/justification/reconciliation/redemption/sanctification/... is the resolution of the condemnation in this sense. It is so even if we make it eschatological and procedural, such as when Luther says that we are iustus in fides et spe, constantly becoming righteous without properly being righteous. But at any rate, this is the case in which I read Paul in Romans, and so agree with you, and even Calvin and Arminius (as far as that point goes). There is a present environment of God's condemnation of sin against which we see the affirming and life-restoring actions of God in history.

The problem comes when we take salvation and condemnation and make them dialectically related eschatological judgments. And the tradition does this, in so many places -- it reserves to God an eschatological No that stands on par with the eschatological Yes. And that seems to me to be the root of the problem: whether, how, and to what extent God exercises an eschatological, eternal condemnation of creatures. We would not deny that God, as God, could do so, or has a right to, but this is the root question of the assertion and population of hell.

From the historical case to which the Scriptures bear witness, and most emphatically in and because of Christ, I have been led to assert that God does not exercise an eternal No. That God's Yes is what God does, because it is what God has chosen to do in Christ, and we assert with the scriptures that that action from eternity into time has universal scope and effect. As such, the basic environment of God's eternal decision is Yes, even if there must be proximate negations between the Yes of origin and the Yes of return.

What I was trying to do in my second comment was chase down what it might look like to assert the positive characteristics we assert of God, and still assert the exercise of an eternal No. And it seems to me that the only way it can work, is if we extrapolate from the No of the Fall to an eternal and general eschatological No. One that is only remedied by local acts of salvation, and may only become universal by the process of universal conversion into one of those local acts. And so we make the Fall bigger than God, and say that the Yes of creation was destroyed by sin. And we make the Yes in Christ contingent upon creaturely affirmation. And so God reserves an eschatological Yes for these local and contingent pockets of creaturely affirmation, but it stands against a general environment of eschatological condemnation.

Obviously there are places between these poles, but does this clarify where I was trying to go?

Danny Houck said...

That's a good point about reconciliation; I definitely need to read more about it in-depth. I think Tom Talbott has something in his book on universalism about this dilemma (each side has to deny at least one thing that has relatively strong NT support, whether it's unlimited atonement, Christ's final victory in salvation, or an eternal hell).

Chris E W Green said...


Thanks for the post. You won't be surprised that I agree with you more or less across the board (minus a couple anti-metaphysical notions). I read somewhere that hyper-Calvinism is all house and no door while hyper-Armenianism is all door and no house. That's about right, I think, and in any case the alternatives are certainly false, just as you say.

I wonder if most theological debate in fact has precious little to do with theology, really, and much, much more to do with interpersonal dynamics and language games? Anyway, insofar as there are genuine substantial differences at play in this controversy, I suspect it's as much about theological method as it is about fear of universalism (although, again, I agree with you that this fear is driving much of the discussion). We Protestants, 'conservative' and 'liberal' alike, are in a full-blown meta-crisis, and have been for a long time: we simply do not know how to ground and orient our theology, and as a result everycontroversy is seen as a threat to the entiresystem of thought because we know, at least instinctively, that the system is built on thin air.