Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Evangelical Universalist- Book Review

I recently read a book called "The Evangelical Universalist".  I think the title would strike most people as an oxymoron.  Can one be a bible "believer" and  Universalist at the same time?  Aren't  Universalists all liberals who ignore the Bible in favor of wishful thinking and kumbaya theology?  Once I heard the title of the book, I knew I had to learn more about it.

The author attempts to answer these questions (taken from the back cover):
  • Can an orthodox Christian, committed to the historic faith of the Church and the Authority of the Bible, be a universalist?

  • Is it possible to believe that salvatiaon is found only by grace, through faith in Christ, and yet to maintain that in the end all people will be saved?

  • Can one believe passionately in mission if one does not think that anyone will be lost forever?
  • Could universalism be consistent with the teachings of the Bible? 

All of these are answered in the affirmative by this book.

The book was written by Gregory MacDonald.  Unfortunately, we know very little about Gregory MacDonald, other than the name is a pseudonym.  The author does give some biographical information in the introduction.  But, not much.  I like to know more about where people are coming from when I read this type of book.  But, I think he makes a strong enough case that the lack of background is fine. He still comes across as very credible.   What we do know is that, apart from universalism, Mr. MacDonald seems to be a mainstream Christian.  He takes the Bible very seriously.  He suffered from a crisis of faith brought about by trying to reconcile a God of love and a God worthy of worship with a God who would send people to Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT).  He had accepted
"hell-as-annihilation" as an alternative to ECT.  But, as he was wrestling with the issue of God's sovereignty versus human free will he began to realize the problem with a God who has "middle knowledge" (humans can have free will and God can exercise strong providential control over our actions) and a God who would allow people to suffer Eternal Torment.  If God can save all (without violating "free will" and does not save all, ECT becomes difficult to justify and God becomes difficult to love and to find worthy of worship.

It seems that from this point of tension, the author began really exploring the idea of ECT  After the introduction, the book discusses the reasoning behind ECT and the problems with trying to justify it from a rational POV.  The author acknowledges that (current) tradition would, by default, force a Christian to begin from the position that ECT is true.  But, tradition is not necessarily the final word.  Reason (logic), experience and scripture must be given their say.  The bulk of the book is spent showing how Universalism is consistent with the Bible.  If not a clear cut conclusion, the author makes a strong case for showing that Universalism is far from anti-biblical.  Given the strength of the case reason makes against ECT and the strength of the Biblical case for Universalism the author makes a very strong (and in my opinion convincing) case that, these two far outweigh the dubious tradition of ECT.
The author takes us on a survey of Universalism in the Bible literally from the opening of the Bible to Revelation.  I don't believe he overstates his case at all.  In fact, I think he often understates his case.  For example, even after pointing out passage after passage in the Old Testament that point to Universal Reconciliation, he admits that the Old Testament is silent on the subject of eternal rewards or eternal punishment.  The Old Testament speaks mainly of the living nations being judged and rewarded (or punished) and ultimately all being reconciled.

I've read several books on Universalism and this is one that I'm glad to have in my library. At this point in my journey, I did not buy the book to convince myself of Universalism or even to bolster my faith in it.  Honestly, for me, there was nothing new in it in terms of facts.  But, I got it because I realize how important a book like this might be to the sola scriptura set.  I thought it might help me speak to them.  I used to be one of them.  But, not all universalists have made the transition away from that (and one should have to in order to be a Universalist).  We who don't take the Bible literally or think it inerrant might be tempted to overlook troublesome passages.  Or we might be tempted to even say that since reason and experience are so strongly against ECT that we wouldn't believe the Bible even if it did say that God was planning ECT for the majority of mankind.  I do still take the Bible very seriously (why do I feel the need to keep repeating that?).   But, the author has managed to keep his strong Protestant Evangelical faith in the Bible and to embrace a Universalist perspective.  I am hopeful that he can speak to people who are more reticent to give up their inerrant and literal view of the Bible than some of us might be. 

The book is not exactly a light read.  It's pretty scholarly and is loaded with scriptural references and footnotes.  It's well researched and well written. I wish we knew a little more about the author and why he (or she) chose to write under a pen name.  In my hierarchy of books on Universalism, I would put this one, in terms of the strength of the case it makes, pretty close to Talbott's  "The Inescapable Love of God".  But, in terms of readability, I'd put it below "What The Bible Really Says About Hell" or "Martin Zender Goes to Hell".  Its real strength, I believe lies in the credibility it might have among evangelicals.  Pick it up, read it yourself and loan it to an evangelical friend.

Peace,
Brian

4 comments:

SteveTaylor said...

Maybe this would be done best by you making a specific post on it, but I don't really get why you keep referring to a need to abandon Sola Scriptura, as you put it.

I know there's probably no point I can add to it that you haven't worked through several times, but it just seems odd considering the references to all scripture being God-breathed, or the NT's approach to applying scripture literally and vigorously to make sense of their present situations.

Scripture is in itself the timeless foundation of our faith(s) here, a collection of timebound points of reference of God's works in the world, agreed from an early stage in the church as a collection of God-breathed hebrew and aramaic texts with Greek texts written by those who had seen and heard Jesus for themselves.

It just seems to me that abandoning the approach that seems to have arisen in scripture in the early church cannot be right. Surely there are cultural barriers to cross as we examine and re-translate the texts, but surely first and foremost we always go back to the author-intended meaning as the priority above our own preferred interpretations?

brian said...

Steve,

The church has gone through various phases in its belief on what's more important, scripture or church teachings. While there most definitely was an extremely high regard for the Hebrew texts when they were written, I don't think the Jews would have ever classified their texts as infallible. And, in any event, they were and they are constantly reinterpreting and questioning their own scriptures. It's a part of their tradition.

As for the Christian church, sola scriptura is a relatively recent and Protestant developement. The Catholics (who would argue they are the original church) placed much more importance on church teachings and traditions than they did on scripture. Sola scriptura is a reaction to that.

There is just no reason, IMO to believe that scripture is infallible. G-d did not auto-write it. It was written by men, just like men who write about their impressions of G-d today. Just because they wrote longer ago doesn't mean they heard any more clearly from G-d. I believe that G-d is still speaking and that we can hear from G-d today just as well as Moses, or the prophets or Paul heard from Him in days of old. The Bible is not a single writing, it's a collection of writings spanning centuries, written by dozens of men, some of whose names we don't even know. I do believe the Bible is inspired. But, it's not magical.

SteveTaylor said...

I would follow the reverse logic - men write about their impressions of God today, and that doesn't mean they hear any less clearly from God today, but scripture is the only place we can be assured is "God-breathed".

You say that sola scriptura is a recent development, but from an early stage (200-350CE) the church had formalised which books they included in their NT, and the OT was formed by the historical Jewish scriptures together with every prophet quotes in the NT. The Catholics in this sense decided on their 'Canon' largely in defence to attacks on books in the canon. You're right that church tradition eventually began to take on an equal role to scripture, but these traditions were formed in such apologist scenarios, in response to teachings and problems of the time - to stop history repeating itself, per se. Stuff became tradition because they saw it fall in line with scripture.

I would never claim God auto-wrote it, with the deep sense of uniquity that comes with each writer (Judges has a very different feel to Romans). Each writer wrote as they saw fit, but I would argue that these writings are those which are 'God-breathed', considering the way that Jesus, Paul and others take and apply writings from all over the OT as God-inspired and authoritative (especially all the prophecies fulfilled in the Gospels). I've always found the textual evidence compelling too - for hundreds of years accusations were levied at the Canon for probably containing copyist errors, questions of how much of the 'original' text remained. Copy through copy through copy was made, and yet when the Dead Sea scrolls and other ancient texts were found, the scrolls were 99% the same (as evidenced by any modern Greek NT, with mere thousands of slight variations across the hundreds of source copies) - I would argue that God has guarded his word over the years.

The Bible is inspired, and shows a remarkable unity for being a collection of writings spanning centuries, written by dozens of men. I'd give it as much authority as the church has always given it - that it is never less than anything else, be it tradition, reason or doctrine. I'd rather er on giving it too much importance rather than too little :)

brian said...

Steve,

I understand exactly where you're coming from. I once said the very same things you are saying now.

Where I am now though is there is no reason to believe the Bible is magical. That doesn't mean it's not inspired, it just means it's not perfect. I do believe much of what is in the Bible is inspired. But, if it claimed to be perfect (which it does not) that doesn't make it perfect. Paul himself differentiated (in his letters) between what he thought was inspired and what were his own thoughts. He also said that he saw through a glass darkly. Yet, we take letters he wrote to churches and call them perfect. A parallel would be if someone found a series of emails from Billy Graham to churches today decades in the future and deemed them to be perfect. I don't think so.

I understand the desire to have a perfect standard, something we can point to and say is directly from G-d and that is good for all time. I just don't think that's the way it works. G-d is still speaking.

You say "scripture" is the only place we can be assured that it is God breathed. Why is that? Because it's old? Because the church at the time canonized it? What if God wanted to get a God breathed message through today? What would that look like? Is it possible? Would the church recognize it? Or is the book shut?

Rhetorical questions for your consideration. I don't expect or hope to convince you of anything. These are questions I asked myself at one time and why I can' no longer consider scripture infallible and why I think it's important to keep listening to the still speaking God.