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
Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - 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

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Discussions on "Heresy, Universalism, Hell and Free Will"

by Roger Olson
on July 30, 2011

I have called universalism “the most attractive heresy.” For a lover of God’s love, universal salvation might seem to be necessary. (I guarantee you that some neo-fundamentalist will take that sentence out of context and attribute it to me without acknowledging what follows.) However, I’m not a universalist. On the other hand, I’d rather be a universalist than a true Calvinist (i.e., a five point Calvinist who believes in double predestination).

Someone once asked me whether I would still worship God if somehow I became convinced the Calvinist view of God is correct. I had to say no. Sheer power is not worthy of worship. Only power controlled by love is worthy of worship.

If somehow I became convinced that universalism is correct, would I still worship God. Yes, but…. I would have to wonder how a God of love can enjoy love from creatures that is not given freely. Of course, someone might argue that, in the end, every creature will freely offer love to God and be saved (e.g., Moltmann). I would just call that optimism. There’s no way to believe that's true other than a leap of optimistic hope.

Everyone harbors some heresy in his or her heart and mind. The only question is–how serious are the heresies one holds? Of course, nobody thinks they harbor any heresies (in the sense of theologically incorrect beliefs).

I agree with Swiss theologian Emil Brunner (and others) that universalism is heresy. It is unbiblical and illogical. However, that does not mean a person who holds it is not a Christian. I have never met a Christian who was one hundred percent theologically correct. Scratch hard enough and you’ll always find some heresy beneath the surface (if not on the surface). That’s true for me as much as for anyone else. If I thought I held no heresies, I’d think I had already arrived at the fullness of truth–something even the apostle Paul did not claim.

I think universalism is a minor heresy SO LONG AS it does not interfere with evangelism. (See my earlier post here about why universalism should NOT interfere with evangelism.) I also evaluate the seriousness of universalism by its context–viz., why does the person affirm it? If universalism is evidence of a denial of God’s wrath and/or human sinfulness, then it is much more serious. Barth’s universalism (yes, I believe Karl Barth was a universalist and I’ll post a message here about why later) did not arise out of those denials which is why he didn’t like the appellation “universalist.” The term is usually associated with liberal theology. In that case, as part of an overall liberal/modernist theology, I consider it very serious indeed.

Strictly historically speaking, any universalism is heresy–according to all major branches of Christianity. The Catholic church allows hope for universal salvation but not confident affirmation of it. But, of course, as Luther demonstrated, all branches of Christianity can be wrong. That is why I reject paleo-orthodoxy and any appeal to absolute authority of tradition. Tradition gets a vote but never a veto. The Bible trumps tradition.

When universalism is believed on biblical grounds (as in The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory McDonald–a pseudonym), it is much less serious than when it is believed as part of a liberal theology that denies the wrath of God and the sinfulness of all human beings (except Jesus Christ, of course).

(Sidebar regarding neo-fundamentalism: A neo-fundamentalism is someone who will take what I have written here and claim I have affirmed universalism or at least given aid and comfort to heretics. A neo-fundamentalist, like a straightforward fundamentalist, is a person who cannot distinguish between non-absolute condemnation of error and error itself. Count on it. Some probable Southern Baptist heresy-hunting neo-fundamentalist will pick up on this blog post and spread it around as “proof” that Roger Olson harbors sympathies with universalism. That is, however, evidence of either a weak mind or ill will.)

So, what is my final word on universalism? I don’t have a “final word” on it because “it” is not all that clear. What kind of universalism? Based on what? I consider all positive affirmations of universal salvation that include denial of everlasting hell heretical. But not all are equally bad or condemnable. Some are based on confusion. Some are based on liberal theology. Some (e.g., Karl Barth’s) are based on the logic of God’s love and electing grace (viz., “Jesus is victor!”). All are wrong, but not all are equally bad.

Let me be clear  (this is necessary because of the power of neo-fundamentalists within evangelicalism today!) I am not a universalist nor do I sympathize with universalism. I am simply trying to get people to consider the possibility that not all versions of universalism are on the same level of error. There is (1) egregious error and there is (2) simple error. One kind of universalism (based on denial of God’s wrath and human sinfulness) is egregious error. Another kind (based on confusion about God’s love requiring his overriding free will) is simple error. I hope I don’t hold any egregious errors, but I’m sure I hold some simple errors. I am open to having those pointed out to me.


Hopefully Now I Am Able to Respond re: Hell and all That

by Roger Olson
on July 29, 2011

Comments (56)

This morning I wasn’t able to respond to all of the comments. Hopefully now I can.

Someone suggested that a person who refuses God’s love, preferring hell, would not be free but insane. In that case, he suggested, a God of love would save the person without his or her consent.

My response is that even an insane person has free will. As a society we do not force insane people into institutions to be “cured.” (See C. S. Lewis’ defense of that in an essay in God in the Dock. He was very sensitive to the whole issue of governments deciding who is and who is not insane and to forceful treatment of those deemed insane.) If a person who refuses God’s love is insane, it’s an odd kind of insanity that we may simply be attributing to him or her because we don’t understand their choices. I don’t think God is obligated by his love to force his grace on anyone against their will.

Also, we need to keep in mind the difference between free will and true freedom. I’ve discussed that important distinction here before. The only person who is truly free is one who is all that God intends for him or her to be. But free will is the gift God gives us with which to move toward or away from that real freedom. Real freedom is ours to lose; misusing free will is how we lose it. God graciously extends to all the possibility of realizing true freedom IF we meet a certain condition–acknowledge our dependence on him and his grace and cease our own efforts to achieve it apart from God. The only alternative would be for God to force true freedom on us which seems oxymoronic.

The only way I see to avoid universalism (which I cannot accept because of my belief in free will and God’s respect of our personhood and desire for our free, uncoerced acceptance of his grace) and Calvinism’s view of hell as God’s horrible decree (which makes God a monster) is to view hell as our choice–not God’s. Hell is real, but only because we insist on making it real. 

As C. S. Lewis said, in the end there are only two kinds of people–those who say to God “Not my will but thine be done” and those to whom God says “Not my will but thine be done.”


Some random thoughts about that awful but necessary word “heresy”

by Roger Olson
on August 2, 2011

Comments (28)

Recently I’ve used the word “heresy” here. I hate that word, but I find it inescapable. But dictionaries aren’t very helpful for defining it (or many other necessary theological terms). So, in an attempt to shed some light (and hopefully less heat) on the matter, please bear with me as I explain what I mean by it.

The most general meaning of heresy is any theological error as determined by some authoritative religious group. In other words, to call something heresy is to imply that it is not just theologically mistaken in one’s judgment but also in the judgment of some organized (or at least semi-organized) group of religious people (e.g. a denomination or movement). When I call a belief (or denial of a belief) “heresy” I do NOT mean it is something I find erroneous by my own lights. There are many things I find erroneous by my own lights; they are not all heresies. When I call something heresy I mean it is generally considered seriously theologically mistaken by some group I recognize as having some authority to make such judgments.

But even there a caveat is in order.

When I call something a heresy I MIGHT mean it is considered theologically mistaken by a group I recognize as having some right and authority to make such judgments BUT I DISAGREE in which case I would be using the term in a strictly descriptive, not prescriptive, manner. OR, when I call something a heresy I MIGHT mean it is considered theologically mistaken by a group I recognize as having some right and authority to make such judgements AND I AGREE in which case I would be using the term prescriptively and not only descriptively.

Also, I think every group implicitly recognizes degrees of seriousness of heresies. For example, the Catholic church considers obstinate heresy tantamount to apostasy but does not consider all theological error tantamount to apostasy. In other words, once a person has been shown the serious error of his or her thinking and persists in it, that amounts to apostasy. On the other hand, when it is determined that a person simply does not understand that his or her thinking is erroneous and why, the error is not automatically tantamount to apostasy.

Think about my three categories of right religious beliefs: dogma, doctrine and opinion. (I have written about this rubric in many places.):

1 - A dogma is a a belief considered essential to authentic Christianity (insofar as a person is capable of understanding such matters).

2 - A doctrine (in this technical sense) is a belief not essential to authentic Christianity but essential to being faithful to a particular church system and its tradition.

3 - An opinion is a belief one holds that is not essential to anything.

A similar taxonomy could be used for heresy:

1 - egregious heresy amounting to apostasy (when the person is capable of understanding such matters),

2 - heresy as denial of something important to a church system and its tradition,

3 - and heresy as profoundly mistaken belief but not a denial of anything essential to either authentic Christianity or a particular church system and its tradition.

One thing should now be apparent: “heresy” is itself an essentially contested concept AS SOON AS one applies it to a particular belief (or denial). In other words, what counts as heresy (of any kind) in one form of Christian life may not count as that in another one.

As an evangelical Protestant Christian I work within and out of that general tradition and I define it broadly–as encompassing a wide range of denominational traditions and doctrinal systems. For example, it includes both Reformed and Anabaptist individuals and groups (to choose two branches about as far apart as any two can be and still somehow be part of the same movement!). When, over a long period of time, the consensus of all evangelicals is that something is heresy, I tend to call that heresy also. But I don’t think all heresies are equally pernicious.

For example, all evangelical Christians (and I’m talking about respected spokespersons for the movement beginning with Edwards and Wesley and ending for now with Henry and Graham) agree that denial of the deity of Jesus Christ is heresy. They also agree that FOR SOMEONE WHO CLAIMS TO BE EVANGELICAL to deny the importance of conversion is heresy. But the second heresy is specific to evangelicalism; the first one is universal among all orthodox Christians. I would have trouble recognizing someone as “evangelical” who denied the importance of conversion, but I wouldn’t necessarily say he or she is not a Christian.

Another tradition I belong to is Baptist. A person who denies the deity of Jesus Christ is, in my view, not a Christian whether he or she is a Baptist or not. A person who denies the importance of believer baptism may be a Christian but is certainly not a Baptist!

So, when I say that a person who denies the importance of believer baptism is a heretic I’m using the term in relation to being Baptist and not in relation to being Christian. Such a person would, of course, have to be Baptist for that appellation to apply. That person would possibly not be a heretic in another church system and tradition.

When I say that we are all heretics, I mean we all hold some mistaken beliefs–the third category that corresponds with opinion. We all hold opinions that are theologically incorrect even if we will only find that out with certainty in the afterlife.

So, now, that all points to the question–what do I mean when I say universalism is heresy? Well, it certainly is historically a heresy within the evangelical movement and its tradition. Whether it is a heresy in terms of authentic Christianity, making a universalist automatically apostate, is another question. For now, anyway, I don’t think so. There have been good Christian universalists and, from where I sit, there is no authoritative Christian magisterium to settle that question. I tend to look back to the consensus of the church fathers and reformers, but I also recognize they could have been wrong about some things.

So, when it comes to making my own personal judgments about heresy in the absence of an authoritative body that I regard as legitimate for deciding with finality what counts as heresy I have to turn to my own best theological judgment. Then I should say “In my opinion, going by my own best theological judgment, such-and-such is heresy.” And the I should explain what level of seriousness I attribute to that heresy.

All this messiness is why some Protestants run to the Catholic church. It has a magisterium to settle these matters. But is that magisterium always automatically right? I don’t think so. Therefore, I have to live with the messiness of terms like heresy that can’t be completely avoided but contain a good deal of ambiguity.

Practically speaking, on the ground, so to speak, when I say something is heresy, at the very least I mean I would not affiliate with a church or denomination that tolerated it among its leaders OR that I would at least continue to try to convince those who held the defective belief that they are wrong.

If someone has a better approach to defining “heresy” that does NOT appeal to an authoritative magisterium or simplistically say “unbiblical” I would love to hear it. In the meantime, at least you now know what I mean when I utter “heresy” toward a belief (or denial of a belief).

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