According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Friday, April 1, 2011

Universalism's Forms and Varieties
A Framework for Understanding the Rob Bell Controversy
By Timothy Dalrymple, March 18, 2011 6:18 pm

It’s taking me longer than I had hoped to write my own review of the famously hip Rob Bell’s famously controversial new book, Love Wins, but in the meantime I wanted to offer what I hope is a helpful framework for understanding some of the issues at hand. I happen to believe that only 10-20% of the controversy is really about universalism. The greater part of the controversy is about the questions behind the questions — progressive accommodation to contemporary culture versus conservatives holding-fast to inherited theological tradition, selective reinterpretation of the Christian message versus a profession of the whole counsel of scripture regardless of its offensiveness to modern ears, etc; the other, central theological issues Bell reformulates — the character of God, the nature of the person and work of Christ, and the means of salvation; and the way in which Bell thoroughly and repeatedly casts doubt on, caricatures, and condemns what has been the traditional teaching of the western churches for many centuries now.

Bell is to be complimented and thanked for some things, and criticized for others. But more on that anon.

For now, it strikes me that people are wrestling with the question, “Is Rob Bell a universalist?” in part because the terms have not been sufficiently clear. Some say Bell is clearly not a universalist because he says that God will not forcibly save everyone, and some may continue to reject God even in the afterlife. Some say Bell clearly is a universalist because he strongly implies that God’s loving pursuit of every individual — in the present life and in the life to come — must eventually prevail. Still others say that Bell should properly be called a Christian universalist or an evangelical universalist, because he believes that all (can?) (will?) be saved but through the intermediation of Christ.

The most philosophical nuance I’ve seen in the online discussion so far has been Scot McKnight’s post on the variety of universalisms, but even this is confusing because these are not all positions on the same axis. Let me explain. The colors red, yellow and blue are all at different points on the electromagnetic spectrum. So I can make a list — blue, yellow, and red — in which all three elements in the list are differentiated along one axis (in this case the axis of wavelength). But if I create another list that runs thus — blue, yellow, red, red apples, red cherries — then I have created a a typology with two axes (colors or wavelengths, and types of fruit). If I were making a graph, I could not just create a one-dimensional line, and locate the colors at different points along the line; I would have to create a two-dimensional grid, with colors along one axis and kinds of fruit along another. If I added another axis, I would have to create a three-dimensional cubic graph, and so on.

I hope this is clear so far. If a child asked me to hand her a kind of paint, and I said, “Do you want blue, yellow, red, or red apples?” (not apple-red but actual red apples), the child would look at me curiously, because I would have just confused different categories. Well, I find a similar confusion running through some of these conversations about universalism. There are actually several different axes at play here.

1. The SOTERIOLOGICAL axis: What is the mechanism of salvation? Is it known and confessed faith in Christ (exclusivist) — or might a person be saved by a kind of pseudo-faith even if he or she does not know or confess that this is through Christ (inclusivist) — or can a person be saved by a variety of religions through their own mechanisms (call this soteriological relativism)?

What becomes clear at this point is that inclusivism and universalism are not on the same axis. One is a statement about how people are saved, and the other about how many are saved. To this point, one would have to say that Rob Bell is an inclusivist. He believes that people of all religious tribes and none, whether or not they confess Christ or understand Christ or have ever heard of Christ, can be saved by the redemption God made available through Christ. While this is not traditional Christian doctrine, and has not been evangelical doctrine, it is not terribly heretical either. The Roman Catholic Church has held to a doctrine of inclusivism ever since Vatican II.

(It’s worth noting that there are sub-distinctions in each of these. Some have begun to call exclusivism by a different name, particularism, and distinguish different varieties of particularism. So, for instance, one could be an “agnostic particularist” if one believes that those who never had the opportunity to respond to the gospel in their lives on earth will have an opportunity to respond postmortem. Traditional particularists believe that there is no such postmortem opportunity, but others have argued that God knows how each person would respond if given the opportunity, and saves those who would have responded in faith. My point is not to advocate one of these, but to say that there is a whole body of philosophical literature on this, and many options within the options. See Collin Hansen’s post here for some other varieties.)

2. The EXTENSION axis: How far does God’s grace reach in effective redemption? Are all people ultimately saved (universalism) — are most people ultimately saved (majoritarian) — or are the saved a relative minority (minoritarian)?

A universalist can be an inclusivist (all people are saved through Christ) or a soteriological relativist (all people are saved through various means). And an inclusivist can believe that all, most, or still a relative minority are saved through Christ). Rob Bell clearly rejects the minoritarian view. He calls it “tragic” and “crushing” and “unbearable.” He also presents the minoritarian view as the mainstream teaching of the church for centuries. In the infamous promotional video, Bell evokes an exclusivist minoritarian view and suggests that such a God could not be good, and that such teachings have led many to reject Christianity as “an endless list of inconsistencies and absurdities.”

So where does Bell stand on the extension axis? It’s not entirely clear. The question is whether he is a majoritarian or a universalist. He clearly states that some people will presumably reject God in the afterlife just as they did in this life. But will they do so ultimately, forever? He says that God would not force people into redemption, because God respects our freedom to choose. But if God has an eternity to reach out to them, will everyone eventually surrender to the relentless, salvific pursuit of God? The FAQ made available by Bell’s church, Mars Hill Bible Church, is clearer than Bell himself has been. It says: Rob is not saying that “all will be saved, regardless of faith” — but he is saying that “all could be saved,” since “the invitation to God’s grace may extend into the next life.”

There are other possible refinements. A person could be an actual universalist or a potential universalist, for instance, believing that all people definitely will be saved (actual universalism) or that all people may well be saved (potential universalism).

3. This brings us to a third axis, the FATE OF THE REJECTORS: What happens to those who reject God? Will they be tormented eternally in hell, decisively separated from God (for lack of a better word here, traditionalist) — will they be destroyed (annihilationist?) — or will they have an eternity in which to repent (eternalist)?

If you’re a universalist, you cannot be an annihilationist or a traditionalist, unless you believe that none reject God. But an inclusivist could be any one of these three, and an exclusivist could be a traditionalist or an annihilationist. Some Christians over the years have chosen annihilationism, in the view that it would be more merciful for God simply to destroy the unrepentant than to consign them to eternal suffering. Bell is clearly an eternalist, who holds open the possibility that hell will eventually be shut because all people will ultimately repent and take refuge in God’s mercy.

In my reading, Bell is certainly an inclusivist and an eternalist. The question comes on the extension axis: I would suggest that Bell is both a majoritarian and a potential universalist. In some places he seems to prescind from judgment on whether all will finally be saved — who can say, after all, what people will freely choose? In other places he suggests that God would not be fully great, or love would not fully “win,” unless all people are eventually redeemed. So this, I think, is where one should press for clarity from Bell.

Again, ultimately, the disagreements and differences run far deeper than these questions. But these are exceedingly important questions nonetheless, and evangelicalism is coming to terms with the fact that different people who call themselves evangelical are passionately committed to different answers to these questions. I hope that the above offers some sort of conceptual framework that might be helpful.

UPDATE: Added the note above regarding different forms of particularism/exclusivism.

I say this with tongue-in-cheek as I was reminded by Tim's review of my Systematic Theology classes and the endless permutations that a doctrine could be parsed and re-parsed. But I did find Tim's article helpful in elucidating all the many types of universalism that Christians are speaking back-and-forth with one another currently.
I also liked Tim's brief mention of all the jumble of other issues that have arisen as a result of Rob Bell's Love Wins book which gave us a mish-mash of everything in its scatter-gun approach to theology.  But rather than find fault with it, let us see Bell's main message for what it is - a very clear restatement of God's love for us and our responsibility to respond  to God's love through Jesus, his Son and our Savior.
Message-wise, this and other blogs will do the hard work of sorting out the rest of postmodernity's mish-mash of doctrines, one by one, patiently, over the years ahead, as statements and positions become clearer and clearer in our globally transitioning world or pluralistic cultures, religions and socieities. In the meantime, evangelicalism must transition, and with it, its doctrines, dogmas, litergies, and hermenuetic. Emergent Christianity may have some of the answers or it may not, but it is that in-between land of unknowing that is being crossed in the land of the living. It is messy, it can be dissettling, it can be confusing. Through it all we must learn to listen to each other's griefs and complaints and patiently love, not label, brethren who differ.

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