Orthodoxy & Universal Salvation: Are the Two Compatible?

There’s a lot of excellent info here on the dogmatic status of eternal damnation in Orthodoxy. It well complements my article on the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The author also refutes some of the silly arguments recently advanced by Orthodox popes (oops, I mean bloggers). I so wish folks would address the theological and philosophical issues, rather than trying to stop debate by invoking some “pseudo-dogma” of doctrinal infallibility.

Shameless Orthodoxy

For about the past year or so now, some corners of the Orthodox blogosphere has been consumed with this question. In my experience, most who have dealt with the issue have been quite hostile to the idea of apocatastasis or universal salvation. By universal salvation, I do not mean the denial of hell, but rather the belief that all people will be saved and that hell is temporary, not eternal. These critics of the doctrine go as far as to declare it inadmissible and heretical for Orthodox. Many universalists, meanwhile, have be wont to declare such critics as generic Orthodox converts still suffering from typical American Protestant fundamentalist rigor and so forth. Perhaps these universalists are right in their accusations – who knows. But it probably is not a very good…

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David Bentley Hart and the Moral Argument Against Hell

by Tom Belt


I’ll get right to the point. I’m shocked that reviews of David Bentley Hart’s recent That All Shall Be Saved which reject his univer­salism all fail to engage his moral argu­ment. I suspect there is a real will to mis­un­derstand here. On the whole, the level of substantive engagement with his argu­ments has been disappointing. But the moral argument in particular still stands in want of a decent sparring partner. For myself, if this argument was the only thing David wrote (pardon the familiarity, we used to meet in a clandestine Baltimore pub), it would have been enough. Even if one were to neutralize the rest of his argu­ments in the book, the moral argument alone would make the majority view of hell (and its foul accomplice, “annihilationism”) untenable. A few reviewers mention the moral argument in passing. None engage it. Fr Andrew Louth nods in recognition of it but makes no attempt to expose in it any failure of reason or moral sensibility. I’m bewildered by the anemic nature of the reviews.

It’s difficult to address a will to misunderstand, but where there is honest confusion, clarification is worth a try. And since I possess little academic qualification, I feel especially equipped to demonstrate that the moral argument is not a complicated matter, that it can be grasped by simple folk (comme moi), and to implore reviewers to pick up the argument, restate it accurately, and then show us where and how it fails. If it turns out I also have failed to understand Hart’s argument, this is a good place for others to set me straight. To make matters easier for those who have not yet read TASBS, I will be relying on Hart’s seminal essay “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of Creatio ex Nihilo.”

As I understand it, the moral argument runs as follows:

First, distinguish between God’s antecedent and consequent (or permissive) wills, between what God positively wills for creation (the final end for which he creates) and the evil and suffering he permits. In short, the possibility of evil (not its necessity) lies originally within the scope of God-given creaturely powers of choice because such agency is essential as a means to the only sort of spiritual formation that can be a spiritual creature’s movement from origin to end in God. And in this case the possibilities one permits when acting free of necessity and ignorance must reveal the truth of one’s moral character.

Second, note that God creates freely, unnecessarily, gratuitously. Were this not true, the moral argument would fail. This is a crucial aspect of the argument’s success which I’ve yet to see reviewers contemplate with any seriousness. I’m at the bottom of the barrel, friends, and yet I see this clearly.

Lastly, observe that in the consummation of all things, the distinction between ante­ce­dent and permissive wills disappears. The two modes of willing collapse, morally speak­ing. The morality of permission supervenes, in part, upon the risks God freely takes (risks for us, not for God). In the case of an eternal hell, the risk is infinite. Hart on the moral meaning of creation from nothing:

No matter how great the autonomy one grants the realm of secondary causes, two things are certain it seems to me. First, as God’s act of creation is free…all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision. And second, precisely because God in himself is absolute…his moral ‘venture’ in creating is infinite. For all causes are logically reducible to their first cause, and the rationale, the definition, of the first cause is the final cause that prompts it. And so if that first cause is an infinitely free act, the final end to which it tends is its whole moral truth.

Morally speaking, the distinction between what God wants and what God permits with respect to creation disappears once what is permitted becomes a final end, at which point the true moral nature of God’s free choice to create is revealed. Where all are finally reconciled to God, the disappearance of the distinction reveals a divine identity radically different from that revealed by the final loss and suffering of creatures. How creation comes finally to rest reveals the truth about God’s character.

It is not enough to show that the finally reprobate realize their end by God’s just permis­sion through the abuse of their own God-given powers. The question is rather ‘What of the moral nature of this permission itself?’ It is entirely God’s, given the freedom of God’s choice to create. And what God freely permits, logically speaking, must manifest his character and identity.

One attempt to defend the innocence of God in the face of an eternal hell seeks to ground the just consequence of perpetual suffering in an equally perpetual rejection of God. Fr John Manoussakis’s approach comes to mind. He grants that no single choice to reject God can have infinite consequence. However, many choices made over the course of a lifetime can habituate one in an evil disposition. While no single choice can achieve a state of irrevocable self-alienation, the process of habituation over time can produce this effect. And this disposition to become one’s choices, Manoussakis believes, must be as open to foreclosure as it is to fulfillment. The risks embraced must be proportionate to the joys to be gained. This seems obviously false to me, and I’ve not heard a cogent defense of it, neither from Fr Manoussakis nor Zachary Manis.

Regrettably, nothing is offered here to address the troubling moral questions. How are we to render morally intelligible the free and unnecessary exposure of those God loves to infinite loss and suffering? Can so irrevocable a foreclosure be responsibly and rationally chosen, even gradually over time, when the true nature of such a consequence remains at best ambiguous within such a process of habituation? Would a God of infinite love freely create under such conditions? It’s a rationale for creating under the condition of infinite risk that is needed and which none have offered.

A similar attempt to defend the innocence of God in the face of eternal loss is made by Fr Thomas Joseph White in his 2006 essay “Von Balthasar and Journet on the Universal Possibility of Salvation and the Twofold Will of God.” He explains:

A theology that wishes to consider the question of the possibility of salvation for every human person, and a correspondingly real possibility of eternal loss, must try to keep in balance three theological affirmations. First, God’s grace comes to the aid of each one: There is no selective divine decision to exclude any creature from the possibility of salvation. Second, God is the unique primary cause of the existence, life, and movement of spiritual creatures, whom he sustains in being and governs providentially. Third, “hell” as a definitive state of separation from God has its origins in the spiritual creature insofar as it refuses God’s providential command­ments and grace, incurring the judgment of God. Therefore, this situation (of refusal) is not of God’s own making, but rather of his permission.

Shortly thereafter he continues:

However, to say that we must believe that every human person is offered the possibility of being saved…is not the same as saying that we must hope for the universal salvation of all persons. Nor is it to say that it is incumbent upon us to believe that an infinite divine love should eventually overcome a finite creature’s free refusal of the grace of God…Least of all is it identical with the claim that if the creation is to be a “successful” expression of God’s absolute freedom and infinite love, then all men must be saved.

White also fails to consider the moral question posed by the creatio ex nihilo. He simply assumes that God is innocent of permitting an eternal hell so long as the responsibility for ending up there can be attributed sufficiently to one’s powers of choice. This misses the crucial point. Just responsibility can obtain in the case of transient evils. Parents who have children freely are not to blame for the evil their children commit if those children act with sufficient liberty. But this explanation fails once the possible consequences of their choices include infinite suffering and the parents understand the infinite risk. Hart is on it:

But let us say that somehow, mysteriously—in, say, Zosima’s sanctity, Alyosha’s kiss, the million-mile march of Vanya’s devil, the callous old woman’s onion—an answer is offered that makes the transient torments of history justifiable in the light of God’s everlasting Kingdom. But eternal torments, final dereliction? Here the price is raised beyond any calculus of relative goods, and into the realm of absolute—of infinite—expenditure.

He comments further:

… let us say God created simply on the chance that humanity might sin, and that a certain number of incorrigibly wicked souls might plunge themselves into Tartarus forever; this still means that, morally, he has purchased the revelation of his power in creation by the same horrendous price—even if, in the end, no one at all happens to be damned. The logic is irresistible. God creates. Alea iacta est. But, as Mallarmé says, “un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard”: for what is hazarded has already been surrendered, entirely, no matter how the dice fall; the aleatory venture may be intentionally indeterminate, but the wager is an irrevocable intentional decision, wherein every possible cost has already been accepted; the irrecuperable expenditure has been offered even if, happily, it is never actually lost, and so the moral nature of the act is the same in either case. To venture the life of your child for some other end is, morally, already to have killed your child, even if at the last moment Artemis or Heracles or the Angel of the LORD should stay your hand. And so, the revelation of God’s glory in creatures would still always be dependent upon that evil, that venture beyond good and evil, even if at the last no one perishes. Creation could never then be called “good” in an unconditional sense; nor God the “Good as such,” no matter what conditional goods he might accomplish in creating.

Fr White supposes God’s innocence is secured by a distinction in God between antecedent and consequent wills in which responsibility for loss can be attributed to the lost. But ultimately this distinction vanishes when creatures reach their final end. To be sure, for universalists the distinction between what God positively wills and what he merely permits also disappears in the end. As creation rests in God as its final end, all things transparently express God’s will, and permission expires because it has served its morally justified role as means. But in the case of irrevocable loss and suffering, what is freely and knowingly permitted for the sake of what is desired becomes morally equivalent to what is desired, and freely permitting infinite suffering becomes equivalent to choosing it as such.

As I said above, I hoped to show that Hart’s moral argument is not a complicated matter requiring unusual academic insight and prowess. Its truth is profoundly simple and its clarity transparent to moral and aesthetic sensibility. The infinite God of love who creates with absolute freedom would not (‘could not’ is also fine) risk the eternal loss or suffering of creatures he loves so unconditionally. It is morally inconceivable that he should do so. But God has freely created, and he is the absolute God of love. Ergo, eternal loss and suffering are not among the risks we face.

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“Yet no matter how many wounds our human nature has sustained, we are never justified in giving ourselves over to despair”

In today’s Gospel, beloved, we heard the exhortation to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Now the kingdom of heaven is Christ, who, as we know, is the judge of good and evil and scrutinizes the motives for all our actions.

We should therefore do well to forestall God’s judgement by freely acknowledging our sins and correcting our wrongheaded attitudes; for by failing to seek out the needful remedies and apply them, we place ourselves in danger. And our knowledge that we shall have to account for the motives behind our shortcomings makes the need for such a change of heart even greater. We must recognize the greatness of God’s love for us; so generous is it that he is willing to be appeased by the amends we make for our evil deeds, provided only that we freely admit them before he has himself condemned them. And though his judgments are always just, he gives us a warning before he passes them, so as not to be compelled to apply the full rigor of his justice.

It is not for nothing that our God draws floods of tears from us; he does so to incite us to recover by penance and a change of heart what we had previously let slip through carelessness. God is well aware that human judgment is often at fault, that we are prone to fleshly sins and deceitful speech. He therefore shows us the way of repentance, by which we can compensate for damage done and atone for our faults. And so to be sure of obtaining forgiveness, we ought to be always bewailing our guilt.

Yet no matter how many wounds our human nature has sustained, we are never justified in giving ourselves over to despair, for the Lord is magnanimous enough to pour out his compassion abundantly on all who need it.

But perhaps one of you will say: “What have I to fear? I have never done anything wrong.” On this point hear what the apostle John says: “If we claim to be sinless, we deceive ourselves and are blind to the truth.” So let no one lead you astray; the most pernicious kind of sin is the failure to realize one’s own sinfulness. Once let wrongdoers admit their guilt and repent of it, and this change of heart will bring about their reconciliation with the Lord; but no sinner is more in need of the tears of others than the one who thinks he has nothing to weep for. So I implore you, beloved, to follow the advice given you by holy Scripture and humble yourselves beneath the all-powerful hand of God. As none of us can be wholly free from sin, so let none of us fail to make amends; here too we do ourselves great harm if we presume our own innocence. It may be that some are less guilty than others, but no one is entirely free from fault; there may be degrees of guilt, but no one can escape it altogether.

Let those then whose offenses are more grievous be more earnest in seeking pardon; and let those who have so far escaped contamination by the more heinous crimes pray that they may never be defiled by them, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

St Caesarius of Arles

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If God is going to deify everyone anyway, why not deify everyone immediately?

by David Bentley Hart

Frankly, Al, I find the question very strange. In part, because its premise is an absolute banality: that life is a kind of contest, played within the arbitrary constraints of the clock, at the end of which one either gets the trophy of salvation or suffers damnation.

​But, more to the point, the entire question is rather on the order of asking why God bothered to give a square four sides or wind the capacity to blow. Nothing is what it is except as realizing those inseparable rational relations—“aitiai” or “causae,” to use the classical and mediaeval terms—that make it what it is. Temporal extension, entailing emergence from nothingness and growth into a last end, is simply what it is to be a creature. And the emergence of a free, intentional, rational nature—beginning in nonexistence and ending in an endless journey into deification—is what it is to be a spiritual creature. That passage from nothingness into the infinite, which is always a free movement toward a final cause, is the very structure of such creatures. They could not exist otherwise. Not even God could create a free spiritual being without that real history. God’s act of creation is not the magical conjuration into existence of something that possesses all the attributes of the past without actually possessing a past. Any temporal origin in media res, as it were, would rest upon an established and extrinsically imposed fundamentum inconcussum, a substratum of the unfree, immutably “posited” prior to any free intention. Any “human being” created under such conditions would be a fiction, a dramatis persona, a fictional character summoned into existence in a preordained state of character, and not a living soul.

​These are not arbitrary rules that God could change without abolishing the spiritual nature of his creatures. They do not, however, imply that a passage through evil is somehow a necessary phase in the growth of spiritual natures. It merely means that, as spirit must move toward its divine end freely, out of and away from the utter moral and ontological poverty of nonbeing, the possibility of temporary but often tragic divergences from the true path are intrinsic to its nature until such time as that nature has grown into what Gregory of Nyssa calls stability in the Good.

​So, again, to ask why God did not create spiritual beings already wholly divinized without any prior history in the ambiguities of sin—or of sin’s possibility—is to pose a question no more interesting or solvent than one of those village atheist’s dilemmas: can God create a square circle, or a rock he is unable to lift? A finite created spirit must have the structure of, precisely, the finite, the created, and spirit. It must have an actual absolute past in nonbeing and an absolute future in the divine infinity, and the continuous successive ordering of its existence out of the former and into the latter is what it is to be a spiritual creature. Every spiritual creature as spirit is a pure act of rational and free intentionality away from the utter poverty of nonbeing and toward infinite union with God. This “temporal” or “diastematic” structure is no less intrinsic to it than is its dynamic synthesis of essence and existence, or of stability and change.

​​I should end there, but why not up the stakes, just for the sake of mischief? Just to make this whole issue more abstruse than it needs to be, I would recommend here that everyone consider the logic of Bulgakov’s re-Christianization of Fichte. (At least, as I interpret him.)

​Finite spirit is, as spirit, always also a self-positing “I,” for both better and worse. And it is only as such an “I” that any free spiritual being could be created by God. That is, God cannot create a free rational creature unless that creature is already free in being created—which is to say, unless that creature has freely consented to its own creation, and unless that consent is truly constitutive of the act of its creation. And so, then, it must also be true that no creature can exist as spirit except by its free acceptance of the invitation to arise from nothingness, and by intending itself in intending its final cause. Spirit exists as an act of assent to the Father and, in that assent, an act of complete acceptance of the gift of being. Though whatever is created must be created in its last end, still spiritual existence is possible only under the conditions of those rational relations (those aitiai) that logically define it. That assent, of course, cannot come “before” a creature exists; but it is necessarily the eternal truth of that creature’s existence, one that—from the perspective of time—is an eschatological reality, but sub specie aeternitatis is the very beginning of days.

​I should explain that, I suppose.

​When Paul describes (Roman 14:11, Philippians 2:11) creation’s final acclamation of God’s majesty in the Age to Come by borrowing the Septuagint’s version of Isaiah 45:23, where the Hebrew תִּשָּׁבַ֖ע (tiššāḇa‘) is rendered as “ἐξομολογήσεται,” he is also describing the moment in which all of creation is called into being. That act of “grateful praise” or “joyous confession” (ἐξομολόγησις) at the end of days is nothing less than the creature’s original response to the call that, in the beginning of days, draws all things into being out of nothingness. It is the creature’s participation in God’s eternal return to himself within the divine life itself and within his exitus and reditus in creatures. All things are created in their last end, and spiritual creatures possessed of reason and freedom exist only to the degree that they fully assent to and delight in the end that summons them from the night of nothingness. Here, the disproportion and qualitative difference between the eternal and the temporal must be observed with absolute exactitude. The eternal reality of all things is, from the perspective of time, an end to be attained; but, were that end not eternally always so, no finite creature would exist. This is especially so for spiritual creatures, whose very existence as spirit can be nothing other than an insatiable intentionality toward the whole of divine being. The final cause of all things that come into being is the whole reality of the created, in its accomplished and so original plenitude. The spiritual life is nothing more than a constant labor to remember our last end by looking forward our first beginning. The final ἐξομολόγησις of creation is nothing less than its eternal assent to be, its original answer to God’s call, its joyous acceptance of the gift of being, and therefore its full moral and spiritual commitment to existence as a wholly contingent manifestation of the divine life in its absoluteness.

But then, if the free assent of the spiritual creature to and in its own creation is nothing other than that final act of joyous confession and praise that is at once both the culmination of the creature’s temporal nisus and the eternal origin of the creature’s existence, then universalism is not merely entailed, but is in fact a necessary premise for any coherent account of spiritual creation. For, of course, only a “saved” and deified will can, with full rational autonomy, make that confession. No spiritual creature could possibly exist except as “saved,” as a god in God. Moreover, this free confession is, in its eschatological realization, also the corporate free assent to existence on the party of the “Adam” of the first creation, who from the perspective of time exists only at the end, but who sub specie aeternitatis is the eternal creaturely dimension of the divine humanity. And, of course, creation’s ultimate confession can be total only by way of a total unity, since a fully moral affirmation of God’s goodness—and so a full surrender to God—requires that this rational consent not be inhibited by any “regret” over unredeemed spiritual natures. Finite spirits are not monads, but are constituted in and by their communion in the eschatological fullness of the Adam of the first creation, which is a unity of coinherent love.

Anyway, I deal with much of this at greater length in my forthcoming book You Are Gods.

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Fr Andrew Louth on “The Necessity of Platonism for Christian Theology”

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“Andrew was the first to restrain the tongue of Moses, for he would not allow it to speak after Christ had come”

Spurred on by the testimony of John the Baptist, the glorious apostle Andrew left his teacher and ran to the one pointed out by him. John’s words were his signal, and, moving more swiftly than John could speak, he approached the master with obvious longing, his companion, John the Evangelist, running beside him. Both had left the lamp to come to the sun.

Andrew was the first to become an apostle. It was he who opened the gates of Christ’s teaching. He was the first to gather the fruits cultivated by the prophets, and he surpassed the hopes of all by being the first to embrace the one awaited by all. He was the first to show that the precepts of the law were in force only for a limited time. He was the first to restrain the tongue of Moses, for he would not allow it to speak after Christ had come. Yet he was not rebuked for this, because he did not dishonor the teacher of the Jews, but honored more the sender than the one sent. In fact Andrew was seen to be the first to honor Moses, because he was the first to recognize the one he foretold when he said: “The Lord God will raise up for you from among your kindred a prophet like myself. Listen to him.” Andrew set the law aside in obedience to the law. He listened to Moses who said: “Listen to him.” He listened to John who cried out: “Behold the Lamb of God,” and of his own accord went to the one pointed out to him.

Having recognized the prophet foretold by the prophets, Andrew led his brother to the one he had found. To Peter, who was still in ignorance, he revealed the treasure: “We have found the Messiah for whom we were longing. How many sleepless nights we spent beside the waters of the Jordan, and now we have found the one for whom we longed!” Nor was Peter slow when he heard these words, for he was Andrew’s brother. He listened attentively, then hastened with great eagerness. Taking Peter with him, Andrew brought his brother to the Lord, thus making him his fellow-disciple. This was Andrew’s first achievement: he increased the number of the apostles by bringing Peter to Christ, so that Christ might find in him the disciples’ leader. When later on Peter won approval, it was thanks to the seed sown by Andrew.

But the commendation given to the one redounded to the other, for the virtues of each belonged to both, and each was proud of the other’s merits. Indeed, when Peter promptly answered the master’s question, how much joy he gave to all the disciples by breaking their embarrassed silence!

Peter alone acted as the mouthpiece of those to whom the question was addressed. As though all spoke through him, he replied clearly on their behalf: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In one sentence he acknowledged both the Savior and his saving plan.

Notice how these words echo Andrew’s. By prompting Peter the Father endorsed from above the words Andrew used when he led Peter to Christ. Andrew had said: “We have found the Messiah.” The Father said, prompting Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” almost forcing these words on Peter. “Peter,” he said, “when you are questioned, use Andrew’s words in reply. Show yourself very prompt in answering your master.” Andrew did not lie to you when he said: “We have found the Messiah.” Turn the Hebrew words into Greek and cry out: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”

Basil of Seleucia

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2020 and Eclectic Orthodoxy

Between the pandemic, presidential election, and the Capitol insurrection, who cares how well Eclectic Orthodoxy did during 2020? Life is so much more compelling than an obscure theological blog. On the other hand, who am I to break with an ancient tradition? So let’s review 2020.

It appears that the growth of the blog has finally hit a wall. In 2019 we had 177,872 visitors; in 2020, 165,460 visitors. That represents a decline of 7% (if I’ve calculated correctly). I’ve been wondering when the decline would finally happen. Now it has. As the Calvinist remarked after he fell down the stairs, “I’m glad to get that out of the way.” On the other hand, blog traffic inexplicably increased. In 2019 we had 511,781 views; 2020, 553,480 views—an 8% increase. Go figure.

Now to the interesting info—2020’s most popular postings. Not unexpectedly, David B. Hart securely holds first and second place.

1) “The Edward Feser Algorithm” by DBH

2) “When Only Bad Arguments are Possible” by DBH

For some reason David’s articles are always more popular than mine. Go figure. 😎

3) “Wheels Within Wheels

Really interesting! This article of mine on Ezekiel’s first vision was published a year and a half ago, yet it is still drawing readers. In 2019 it had 1,261 hits, which put it way down in the middle of the pack; but this past year it had 5,425 hits. I have no explanation. Maybe everyone in 2020 was feeling apocalyptic.

4) “The Remarkable Unity of Rhetoric and Dialectic in That All Shall Be Saved” by Jordan Daniel Wood

The popularity of this fine article does not surprise. I wish all reviewers of TASBS would read it before writing their reviews.

5) “Did the Fifth Ecumenical Council Condemn Universal Salvation?

This is a revised, expanded, and retitled version of my article “Apokatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was,” originally published in 2015. Each year it has garnered a high number of hits. Without question it is the most popular article I have written. I’m quite proud of it. If I were a scholar and historian, I would rework it for publication in a scholarly journal, but my incompetence in foreign languages (ancient Greek, Latin, German, French) poses an unfortunate limitation. Sigh. What I can say is that several patristic scholars have read and complimented it. No one has reported any grievous blunders. I have exhausted English scholarship on the Second Council of Constantinople. Hopefully a real scholar will take up the task.

6) “George MacDonald Against Hans Urs von Balthasar on Universal Salvation” by Jordan Daniel Wood

Another fine piece by Dr Wood. I love George MacDonald. I wish all Orthodox and Catholic theologians would read his writings, both fiction and nonfiction. Few have grasped the meaning of God’s love in Jesus Christ as truly as he did.

7) “Divine Retribution, Hell, and the Development of Dogma

Once upon a time, many of the Eastern Fathers taught eternal retributive punishment. Most Orthodox theologians today no longer do. Doctrine develops.

8) “A Reply to N. T. Wright” by DBH

Published two years ago, this article put Eclectic Orthodoxy on the map in the matter of a week. Boom! No other article comes close to the number of views it has received. It appears that folks are still finding it via Google.

9) “Apprehending Apokatastasis: What the Bible Says … and Doesn’t

This article belongs to a series I wrote on That All Shall Be Saved. I put a lot of work into this series. IMHO, it provides one of the best summaries of the book to be found on the web. Check out the series if you haven’t read it yet.

10) “St Maximus the Universalist?” by Mark Chenoweth

Was St Maximus a universalist? This question is debated by scholars. Chenoweth takes us deep into Maximus’ writings in this journal-worthy essay and concludes with a decisive … “maybe.” Read it along with Chenoweth’s companion piece “Was St Maximus Merely a Hopeful Universalist?

11) “Universalism’s Convenientia” by Paul J. Griffiths

Dr Griffiths is a highly respected Catholic theologian, and the publication of his review of That All Shall Be Saved represents a feather in Eclectic Orthodoxy’s cap. Thank you, Paul.

I plan to continue blogging through 2021, but I anticipate far fewer articles. Hopefully others will fill in my slack. I find that both reading and writing takes a lot more time and energy than it used to. I’m at the point where I wonder if I have anything of theological interest left to write. There are days when I feel I’d like to spend a year or two just reading Tolkien and MacDonald. I am feeling my mortality.

Thank you visiting this blog. Thank you for your support, patience, and prayers.

May 2021 prove to be a truly new year for you, for your families, and for the world. God bless us everyone!

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A Glimpse into the Enigma that is Fr Aidan Kimel

In August 2014 Alvin Rapien interviewed me for his blog “The Poor in Spirit.” I had completely forgotten about it when I stumbled upon it this afternoon while doing a Google search for something completely different. (Google’s search logic often escapes me.) I thought I’d share it with the brethren.


Fr Aidan Kimel served as an Episcopal parish priest for twenty-five years.  He entered into the communion of the Orthodox Church three and a half years ago. In an earlier life, when his brain still worked, he published essays in Pro Ecclesia, Anglican Theological Review, Scottish Journal of Theology, Interpretation, Sewanee Theological Review, and Faith & Philosophy.  He now lives a tranquil retired existence in the foothills of Roanoke, Virginia, where he writes articles no one reads (or so he thinks) for his blog, Eclectic Orthodoxy. He currently writes on the Church Fathers and other theologians, drawing from both Eastern Orthodox (such as Alexander Schmemann, John Zizioulas, John Meyendorff, Hilarion Alfeyev, Kallistos Ware, John Breck, John Behr, Paul Evdokimov) and Western theologians (Thomas F. Torrance, Robert W. Jenson, E. L. Mascall, Robert Wilberforce, Martin Luther, Karl Barth, Joseph Ratzinger, Stanley Hauerwas, George Lindbeck, Herbert McCabe, and C. S. Lewis).

Alvin Rapien: Who are your greatest influences?

Fr Aidan: On a theological level, I would have to say that over the past forty years C. S. Lewis (Anglican), Thomas F. Torrance (Reformed), Robert W. Jenson (Lutheran), and Fr Alexander Schmemann (Orthodox) have influenced me most deeply. I am a voracious reader. I have read many (too many) theologians, yet I keep coming back to these four. When I am working on a blog article, I often find myself reaching for one of their books.

On a spiritual, personal level, I have to mention Fr James Daughtry, the Episcopal priest who sent me to seminary. He was my mentor and remains an inspiration in my life.

What books are you reading and why?

I spent much of May, June, and July working my way through Sergius Bulgakov’s The Bride of the Lamb. I had skimmed the chapters on eschatology about a year ago and knew that when the time was right I would need to tackle the entire book. Bulgakov is a remarkable theologian. Early last spring I read and blogged on the last volume of Dumitru Staniloae’s dogmatics. His discussion of eternal damnation depressed me to no end. That is when I knew the time had come for me to tackle Bride of the Lamb.

I have long believed, professed, and taught the unconditional love and mercy of God. Bulgakov’s God – who is simply, of course, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – never abandons the creatures he has made in his Image, no matter how wicked and sinful they have become. Even in the depths of hell, he searches for his lost sheep. He never gives up on any of us. He is always knocking on the doors of our hearts, always looking for opportunities to restore us to himself in repentance and faith. Bulgakov does not deny the possibility that we can cut ourselves off from our Creator and thus condemn ourselves to the hellish pit of our egoism; but he believes that God’s mercy and grace will ultimately prove irresistible – not in a coercive or manipulative way but in a way that pierces our delusions and reveals to us our deepest truth. And our deepest truth is this: we are made for God and he alone is our supreme good and happiness. Isn’t this the gospel? What other good news is worth preaching? I recommend to your readers, Alvin, my blog series on Bulgakov’s eschatology.

You state that your spiritual journey has taken you from Anglicanism, to Catholicism, and you are now in the Eastern Orthodox Church. What were the transitions like on a personal and theological level?

This is a difficult and painful question for me to answer, but succinctly the story is this:

After 25 years as a parish priest in the Episcopal Church, I found that I could no longer, in good conscience, summon anyone into its communion. It had become a church I no recognized as orthodox and catholic. I just could not remain. Waiting for retirement was not an option.

For me there were only two Churches open to me – Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. After much prayer, reading, and soul-searching, I decided to enter into the Roman Catholic Church. It was a hard and close decision. Looking back on it now, I think two elements weighted my decision – the writings of John Henry Newman and the opportunity to continue my priestly ministry. We moved to Newark, New Jersey, and I began work as a college chaplain with the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark.

After two years my wife and I began to see that we had made a terrible mistake. My conversion to Catholicism had largely occurred in my head with my books. I knew very little about the Catholic Church on the ground level. Speaking only for myself, I increasingly came to realize that I could not spiritually survive in the Catholic Church. With the generous support of the Archdiocese, we packed up our belongings and moved to Southern Virginia. Eventually we entered into the Orthodox Church.

What have these transitions been like?

On a personal level – difficult, humbling, painful. On a theological level, educative. When I decided to become Orthodox I knew that I needed to immerse myself in the Church Fathers. Readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy know that I have blogged at great, and no doubt boring, length on the Cappadocians, St Gregory of Nazianzus in particular. Two years ago I also discovered the homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, which, quite frankly, were a godsend (especially homilies 38-41 of the Second Part).

Some people may be suspicious that an Orthodox priest reads Protestant scholarship. Why do you think it’s important to read Western, non-Orthodox scholarship?

I do not know if there’s a definitive answer to this question. I think it depends on the person and where he or she is in their spiritual life. If one is new to Orthodoxy, it might well be best to restrict oneself to Orthodox writings, at least for a good while. Orthodoxy is a deep and profound tradition. One cannot fathom its mysteries in multiple life-times, much less one. We must use our reading time wisely.

But if one is a preacher of the gospel or just interested in reflecting seriously on theological questions (as opposed to engaging in fruitless polemics), then one simply must include Western theologians in one’s reading. If I desire to increase my knowledge of Holy Scripture, why would I avoid wonderful biblical scholars like N. T. Wright, Richard Hays, or Raymond Brown? And if I desire to tackle dogmatic theology, how can I not read and learn from great theologians like Karl Barth or Hans Urs von Balthasar? Does Orthodoxy hold a monopoly on truth? Does it have nothing to learn from fellow Christians beyond its canonical boundaries? Of course, all theologians must be read critically; but this qualification also applies to Eastern theologians, whether it be Met John Zizioulas, Fr Georges Florovsky, Fr Sergius Bulgakov, or Fr John Romanides. I try to learn something, and hopefully many things, from every theologian I read. There are also many theologians (Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic) that I choose not to read.

What is the most important thing to you about the Orthodox Church?

The Divine Liturgy! The Holy Eucharist has been central to my faith since my conversion to Christ in 1975. I cannot imagine my life apart from communion with Christ Jesus in his Body and Blood. My faith has always been deeply sacramental and liturgical. In Orthodoxy I find this faith fulfilled. It’s stepping onto holy ground.

I also experience in Orthodoxy, at least in its best expressions, a theological and spiritual wholeness. I love how Scripture, liturgy, theology, and prayer interweave and cohere. This experienced wholeness, which is the wholeness of the Kingdom, encourages and sustains me with the promise that I too will one day be perfectly healed and made whole.

Theology, as you’ve mentioned elsewhere, has been deeply important to you on a personal level. How has theology helped you?

Theology has been deeply important to me, but sometimes I wonder if it’s been more a curse than a blessing. It is scandalously true, however, that I prefer hard theology over spiritual writings. This probably says something negative about the state of my soul, but I take consolation in the fact that C. S. Lewis also found it to be true for himself:

For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

To give you an example, I remember reading Robert W. Jenson’s The Triune Identity back in the early ‘80s [correction: late 70s]. One sentence jumped out at me: “Christians bespeak God in a triune coordinate system; they speak to the Father, with the Son, in the Spirit, and only so bespeak God.” Now that sentence will probably not mean much to anyone reading this interview, yet at the time it deeply impacted me: I suddenly understood that all worship and prayer – and indeed all living – happens in God – and not just in any ole God, but in the Father, Son, and Spirit.

I hope that my theological reading and reflection has helped me to be a better preacher and therefore has been a benefit to my former parishioners. I hope it has informed my homilies and given them greater substance. Not that I have ever preached on arcane theological questions. The overwhelming majority of my homilies have been expository and kerygmatic in nature. Who wants to hear a sermon on the filioque or the scholastic doctrine of created grace? I sure don’t. Preaching is proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not Theology 101. But reading theology has helped me in important ways to connect the biblical story with the trinitarian life of God. As I said, I hope it’s been a blessing to my parishioners. If I’m suddenly inundated with emails from folks telling me how I bored them to tears, I’m going to be very disappointed.

On your blog, you have a page entitled “Readings in Universalism.” You have wrestled with this topic in many of your articles, staying within the bounds of Orthodox theology. What do you say to those that claim it is a heresy?

Thank you for asking this question and for suggesting that my blog reflections have stayed “within the bounds of Orthodox theology.” Many Orthodox would disagree with your charitable assessment.

Let me respond to the question of heresy in an odd way – namely, by quoting a canon law from the Roman Catholic Church: “No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated” (749.3). In my experience, Christians who comment on the internet are often too free in delivering anathemas, particularly when it comes to the universalist hope. Often they do so with only superficial acquaintance with the theological Tradition. But one should never mistake a private opinion, or even a common, popular opinion, for irreformable dogma. Before someone accuses anyone of heresy, that someone had better be darn sure he or she is on solid ground.

When presented with the universalist hope, Protestants will typically quote their favorite biblical proof-texts. Orthodox and Roman Catholics, on the other hand, will typically invoke the Fifth Ecumenical Council, citing the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas. What no one mentions is that historians over the past few centuries have seriously questioned whether these anathemas were ever officially promulgated by II Constantinople. The council was convened by the Emperor Justinian for the express purpose of dealing with the Three Chapters. Not only is there no mention of the apocatastasis controversy in Justinian’s letter to the bishops, but the fifteen anathemas are neither cited nor discussed in the official records of the council. Hence when church historian Norman P. Tanner edited his collection of the Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (published in 1990), he did not include the anti-Origenist anathemas, offering the following explanation: “Our edition does not include the text of the anathemas against Origen since recent studies have shown that these anathemas cannot be attributed to this council.”

Who then wrote the anathemas and when?

Over the past century different hypotheses have been advanced, but historians appear to have settled on the following scenario, first proposed by Wilhelm Diekamp in 1899 and more recently advanced by Richard Price in his book The Acts of the Council of Constantinople of 553 (published in 2009): the anathemas were most likely composed by Justinian and his advisors and submitted for approval to the bishops who had come to Constantinople for the council. This probably occurred sometime before the council formally convened on 5 May 553. We do not know how long before the council this meeting took place (days? weeks? months?) nor do we know who attended; but one thing is clear—the Emperor wanted the anathemas cloaked with conciliar authority. We may confidently affirm, therefore, that the 5th Ecumenical Council never officially issued an anathema against apocatastasis. This is not just my private opinion. It is shared by many historians, as well as by Met Kallistos Ware and Met Hilarion Alfeyev.

But let’s assume, if only for debate purposes, that the Council did issue the fifteen anathemas. There would still remain the challenging question of interpretation. Not all universalisms are the same! Just as there are both heretical and orthodox construals of, say, the atonement, so there are heretical and orthodox construals of the universalist hope. There is a critical difference between the apocatastasis of St Gregory of Nyssa—whose name is never mentioned in the anathemas—and the apocatastasis of the 6th century Origenists against whom the anathemas are directed. The views of the latter appear to have been bizarre in many ways. Let me quote a lengthy passage from Met Kallistos Ware:

There is, however, considerable doubt whether these fifteen anathemas were in fact formally approved by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. They may have been endorsed by a lesser council, meeting in the early months of 553 shortly before the main council was convened, in which case they lack full ecumenical authority; yet, even so, the Fathers of the Fifth Council were well aware of these fifteen anathemas and had no intention of revoking or modifying them. Apart from that, however, the precise wording of the first anathema deserves to be carefully noted. It does not speak only about apocatastasis but links together two aspects of Origen’s theology: first, his speculations about the beginning, that is to say, about  the preexistence of souls and the precosmic fall; second, his teaching about the end, about universal salvation and the ultimate reconciliation of all things. Origen’s eschatology is seen as following directly from his protology, and both are rejected together.

That the first of the fifteen anathemas should condemn protology and eschatology in the same sentence is entirely understandable, for in Origen’s thinking the two form an integral unity. At the beginning, so he believed, there was a realm of logikoi or rational intellects (noes) existing prior to the creation of the material world as minds without a body. Originally all these logikoi were joined in perfect union with the Creator Logos. Then followed the precosmic fall. With the exception of one logikos (which became the human soul of Christ), all the other logikoi turned away from the Logos and became, depending on the gravity of their deviation, either angels or human beings or demons. In each case they were given bodies appropriate to the seriousness of their fall: light-weight and ethereal in the case of angels; dark and hideous in the case of demons; intermediate in the case of human beings. At the end, so Origen maintained, this process of fragmentation will be reversed. All alike, whether angels, human beings, or demons, will be restored to unity with the Logos; the primal harmony of the total creation will be reinstated, and once more “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Origen’s view is in this way circular in character: the end will be as the beginning.

Now, as we have noted, the first of the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas is directed not simply against Origen’s teaching concerning universal reconciliation, but against his total understanding of salvation history—against his theory of preexistent souls, of a precosmic fall and a final apocatastasis—seen as a single and undivided whole. Suppose, however, that we separate his eschatology from his protology; suppose that we abandon all speculations about the realm of eternal logikoi; suppose that we simply adhere to the standard Christian view whereby there is no preexistence of the soul, but each new person comes into being as an integral unity of soul and body, at or shortly after the moment of the conception of the embryo within the mother’s womb. In this way we could advance a doctrine of universal salvation—affirming this, not as a logical certainty (indeed, Origen never did that), but as a heartfelt aspiration, a visionary hope—which would avoid the circularity of Origen’s view and so would escape the condemnation of the anti-Origenist anathemas.

Many scholars would now question Met Kallistos’s identification of the views of Origen with the views of the 6th century Origenists; but his key point stands: the conciliar anathema against apocatastasis does not apply to construals similar to those of St Gregory of Nyssa or St Isaac the Syrian. The universalist hope is, of course, a minority view within Orthodoxy, but being a minority view does not make it heretical. The Orthodox Church has yet to speak its final dogmatic word on this subject.


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