Hula Hoops, Fads, and the Consensus Patrum

Who remembers the hula hoop? Released in 1958 by Wham-O, it swept the country. I was six years old and I had to have one, just like all the other kids in my neighborhood. And not just little kids. Even teenagers embraced the fad. I never became adept at hula-hooping, but I can tell you that my life was enriched immeasurably by just owning one—until the next fad came around. Thank you, Wham-O. Thank you, Mom & Dad.

Why did the hula hoop became popular? It just did. “Nobody creates a fad,” Jim Henson once remarked. “It just happens. People love going along with the idea of a beautiful pig. It’s like a conspiracy.”

Fads also come and go in the theological world, and Scripture warns us to beware of them: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). Perhaps not all theological fads qualify as heresies, but the fact remains that we sinners find novelty attractive. Who before St Augustine of Hippo believed that God arbitrarily selects some of the massa damnata to be saved, while allowing the rest to continue in an everlasting state of condemnation; yet for hundreds of years Orthodox bishops and priests in the Latin tradition taught this doctrine. We are all susceptible to the itching ear disease. As Karl Barth once quipped (perhaps apocryphally): “The Church is always running after the train that has just left the station.”

Fr Lawrence Farley contends that modern advocacy of the universalist hope represents just another fad in the history of the Church:

When they are in fashion, fads are never recognized as fads. Those under their influence and promoting them feel that they have come across An Important New Truth, or (if Orthodox) An Important But Neglected Part of Our Tradition. Recognizing them as fads or, (worse yet for Orthodox) as deviations from genuine Tradition, would only serve to dismiss them from serious consideration. Thus fads never ’fess up. I suggest that the latest interest in Universalism, the belief that everyone will eventually be saved, is the latest fad (or, if preferred, that it is currently fashionable).

Fr Lawrence concedes that some Christians in the past have proclaimed the ultimate salvation of all, but as with Arianism, “the majority of Christians have decided to pass on it.” Under the guidance of the Spirit the Church refused the temptation of Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa and resolutely affirmed, and re-affirmed, the eternity of perdition. Numerous authorities, Eastern and Western, can be cited to document the existence of a churchly consensus, allegedly embodied in the 15 anti-Origenist anathemas attributed to the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Few can be cited as publicly supporting apokatastasis after this council. Perhaps St Maximus the Confessor, but if so only elliptically. Perhaps Dame Julian of Norwich, but did she really intend her “all shall be well” to include the reprobate (scholars disagree)? Within both Orthodoxy and Catholicism the consensual rejection of the universalist hope stood relatively uncontested for over 1300 years. “For centuries,” writes Fr Lawrence, “Orthodox Christians have believed that the doctrine of an ultimate apokatastasis was off the table, and this cannot be ignored.” But then the 20th century arrived, and the universalist hope, so prevalent in the early centuries of the Church, surprisingly re-awakened. Apokatastasis was back on the table.

In 1914 Fr Pavel Florensky published a collection of essays, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. In his essay “Gehenna,” Florensky affirms the antinomy of eternal damnation and apokatastasis. Because of creaturely freedom we must affirm the possibility that some will irrevocably damn themselves, yet the gospel presses us to affirm universal salvation: “From the point of view of eternity, everything is forgiven, everything is forgotten: ‘God will be all in all’. In brief, the impossibility of universal salvation is impossible” (pp. 153-154). Fr Sergius Bulgakov, who was profoundly influenced by Florensky, would later affirm apokatastasis in even stronger terms in his book The Bride of the Lamb, published posthumously in 1945. When Christ Jesus returns in glory, human beings will find it impossible to resist his judgment and illumination: “A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ” (p. 459; also see Paul Gavrilyuk, “Universal Salvation in the Eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov“). The universalist hope of Florensky and Bulgakov was continued in the teaching of Paul Evdokimov, Olivier Clément, and Alexandre Turincev.  Clearly these theologians did not believe that the consensual assertion of everlasting damnation enjoys dogmatic authority. Clearly they believed that Orthodox theology is free to reexamine the theological question of universal salvation. And apparently the Orthodox Church agrees, as not one of these men was formally disciplined. More recently, Met Kallistos Ware has also advanced an antinomic version of the greater hope, and he continues to represent the Orthodox Church at the highest levels in ecumenical dialogue. “Those who deny the orthodoxy of Ware’s hope are free to do so,” comments Brad Jersak, “but I will happily hide in the theological folds of his cassock.”

A similar development also occurred in the Roman Catholic Church, though it had to wait a few decades. In the 50s Karl Rahner proposed the possibility that Christians might hope for the salvation of all, but only if they had first attended to the real possibility of damnation. As he would later put it: “The existence of the possibility that freedom will end in eternal loss stands alongside the doctrine that the world and the history of the world as a whole will in fact enter into eternal life with God” (Foundations of the Christian Faith, p. 444). But it was Hans Urs von Balthasar who brought the universalist hope to the fore in Catholic theology. Like Rahner, he denies that we may know that all will be saved. Damnation is a real possibility that we ignore at our peril. “We stand completely and utterly under judgment, and have no right, nor is it possible for us, to peer in advance at the judge’s cards” (Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?, p. 166).  Yet despite this existential possibility, not only may we hope for the salvation of all human beings, it is our Christian duty to do so. I deem that Balthasar’s cautious position represents the consensus of Catholic theologians today (see John R. Sachs, “Current Eschatology“), despite recent pushback from Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Ralph Martin. I am acquainted with only one serious Catholic scholar who has been willing to express a confidence in apokatastasis that goes beyond Rahner and Balthasar, Wacław Hryniewicz. Hryneiwicz has called for a revalorization of hope in the strongest terms. Like David B. Hart, he provocatively challenges the thesis that creaturely freedom limits the ability of God to effect his salvific purposes for the world:

In defending human freedom traditional theology assumes that we are able to reject God ultimately and irreversibly. This assumption is one of the foundations of the doctrine on the actual possibility of eternal damnation and the real existence of hell. But the question arises whether human freedom can indeed persist in an everlasting state of separation from God. Can a decision to reject Him be truly ultimate and irrevocable? It is God himself who knows and defines the mystery of created freedom. He is its ultimate horizon and goal. It is in Him that it can attain to the ultimate purpose for which it has been created. Creating humans and calling them to participation in his eternal life, God wanted to have free and creative beings rather than slaves. The human being able to shape his or her own fate and history is a person longed for and beloved, given the admirable ability to take free decisions. The gift of freedom is a gift for eternity in order to achieve the ultimate fulfillment of the whole of existence. One must not forget this positive and ultimate purpose of freedom, this dramatic but wonderful gift.

There is something astonishing in the mystery of freedom: the ability to reject God comes from His own gift! Many things seem to indicate that the Creator is not afraid of granting this dramatic and dangerous gift to His rational creatures. He behaves as if He were sure that He will be able to save this gift and rescue it from the most dangerous and harmful situation of being lost. Freedom maybe ill and blind but it never ceases to be God’s gift. It carries in itself a promise and hope for achieving its ultimate goal because it does not cease to be, even in case of wrong and sinful decisions, an ability given by God himself. There is always hope that every freedom will finally prove to be what God wanted, namely, freedom to the right decision. He alone can save the created freedom in a truly divine manner without destroying His own gift.

A deeper understanding of the gift of freedom is able to open new perspectives of universalist eschatological thinking. One can then perceive that God is always present in the very depths of His creatures. A created being is unable to free itself entirely from this immanent presence of the Creator. It may ignore or reject it, but it cannot change the very fact of being created and its dependence in existence on the all-embracing reality of God. This fact already implies a mysterious promise stemming from the indestructible bond between God and each creature. No fault, nor the state of getting completely lost, can destroy this ontological bond. The human being is and will always remain an icon of God, a being who with the help of the Creator is able to overcome all resistance and make the ultimate and irreversible choice of the Infinite Goodness. (“Universal Salvation,” The Challenge of Our Hope, pp. 58-59)

The list of theologians can be multiplied, especially if we were to open up the discussion to include Protestant thinkers. But let me ask, does the rediscovery of the greater hope really sound like a fad? The more one reads the literature, the more one realizes that these theologians are addressing pressing evangelical questions that cannot be dismissed by the mere wave of a dogmatic hand.  As weighty as the theological tradition may seem at this point, we may not responsibly declare that Holy Church has definitively spoken her mind on apokatastasis and the universalist hope.

This brings us back to Fr Lawrence’s assertion that patristic tradition authoritatively excludes the universalist hope. This claim raises many questions. Who determines the content of this consensus, and when does it become dogmatically binding?  How are interpretative and applicational questions resolved? Perhaps most importantly, has the Orthodox Church ever formally imposed upon herself a particular construal of the consensus patrum and its authority?

In an article published last month on the website of the Orthodox Church in America, “The Consensus of the Fathers,” Fr Lawrence explicates the consensus patrum as a rule for theology and proclamation. He is particularly concerned to counter the doctrinal innovations given birth by the Protestant principle of sola scriptura. The consensual tradition provides a bulwark against theological relativism and fads:

A belief in the reliability of the Church’s received doctrine as the pillar and bulwark of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) is the foundation for a belief in the consensus of the Fathers, for we access the former through the latter. God may indeed guide all the Christians so that it is the consensus fidelium that really counts. But most of the faithful live and die without leaving written records; their consensus therefore lives in the consensus of those who did leave written records—namely the Fathers. Through the broad agreement which the Fathers share we can discern the faith of the Church. To do otherwise is to cast any ultimate certainty to the wind. In the absence of a patristic lens for reading the Scripture we Orthodox are left at the mercy of the loudest voices—either the voice of the latest popular author writing the latest best-seller, or perhaps the voice of the scholar whose theories happen to be currently ascendant in the academic world. But all such popularity fades, as best-sellers are relegated to the dusty shelves of second-hand bookshops, and as one academic theory succeeds another. (my emphasis)

I am more than a bit sympathetic with Fr Lawrence’s concerns. Thirteen years ago I found myself in a crisis of conscience. I was an Episcopal priest who could no longer invite non-Episcopalians into the fellowship of the Anglican Communion. It appeared to me that the Episcopal Church had become a sect whose only dogma was inclusivity. All beliefs and opinions were welcome. No one was required to affirm the constitutive dogmas of classical Christianity. If a Bishop Spong wanted to deny the resurrection of Jesus or the Nicene assertion of the homoousion, that was perfectly acceptable. If a priest wanted to admit the unbaptized to the Eucharist, that was just fine. It finally became clear to me that Anglicanism, like the rest of Protestantism, was incapable of asserting orthodoxy as being anything more than optional—Neuhaus’s Law! As one of my parishioners bluntly told me, dissenting from my teaching on the eucharistic real presence: “Father, we’ve had Anglo-Catholic priests who taught it, and we’ve had evangelical priests who rejected it. Yours is just an opinion. Our next priest will probably teach something else.” She was right.

During my crisis I began to voraciously read the writings of John Henry Newman. Newman was driven by the quest to find a certainty beyond private judgment and beyond the always fallible appeal to antiquity. He found it, so he believed, in the magisterial teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church, an office that has the power to dogmatically define and interpret dogma. Only divine teaching can properly bind the conscience of the human being. Newman’s contemporary, Archbishop Henry Manning, bluntly stated what Newman never said quite so bluntly:

It was the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity. But the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine. How can we know what antiquity was except through the Church? No individual, no number of individuals can go back through eighteen hundred years to reach the doctrines of antiquity. We may say with the woman of Samaria, ‘Sir, the well is deep, and thou hast nothing to draw with.’ No individual now has contact with the revelation of Pentecost, except through the Church. Historical evidence and biblical criticism are human after all, and amount at most to no more than opinion, probability, human judgment, human tradition. (The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost, p. 227)

Here is a powerful antidote to modernity, rationalism, liberalism; yet most Orthodox will be loathe to embrace it, requiring as it does an ultramontanist understanding of the papacy. Ironically, some Eastern Christians approximate Cardinal Manning in their invocation of the living experience of the Elders as infallible guides to doctrine.

I understand Fr Lawrence’s appeal to the consensus patrum and his desire to employ it as an infallible touchstone in doctrinal controversy. Many Orthodox join him in this belief and practice. Yet can it reasonably function in the way he desires? Is this the best way to do Orthodox theology? These are questions that need to be explored before we can address traditionalist objections to the universalist hope.


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“We circle aimlessly in the void, in the insoluble mystery of death”

We circle aimlessly in the void, in the insoluble mystery of death. Countless galaxies around us, and beyond us stars “like the sand on the shores of the sea.” Dead worlds without the smiles of flowers, the songs of birds, the colors of sunsets. A pair of human eyes and the consciousness behind the startled glance are “another” incomparable universe. And in this other universe we seek to solve the riddle of death. The lifeless worlds of the galaxies do not know death; only our tiny earth throbbing with life gathers death in every handful of soil.

What does the uniqueness of our earth mean within the infinity of the universe? What does the uniqueness of every person mean in the infinite succession of generations? Prehistoric people of the caves, of the stone Age, how much animal instinct and how much personal otherness was expressed in their being? Retarded children, cases of grave imbecility, the forgotten sufferers of psychological illnesses, schizophrenia, and senile dementia. And even the myriads of aborted embryos, the countless fertilized ova which are expelled by the mother’s body a few weeks before they acquire a beating heart. Who decides on this implacable natural selection: nature on its own or God? Who can say what is the boundary between human and non-human, between reality and potentiality, the given and the possible?

Our mind cannot conceive of an inert personality, without thought, reason, judgment, imagination, will, or expression. Nor can it conceive of existence outside space, time, and number. How can we conceive of human existence after death, personal otherness without bodily and psychological energies? How do “all” attain immortality, and what is this “all”? We cannot determine when the fertilized ovum attains conscious personhood, nor can we draw a boundary between conscious personhood and congenital amentia.

We have discovered the constitution of the atomic nucleus, the structure of DNA, the composition of light, the material elements of the most distant galaxies. And yet we do not know how to define either the beginning or the end of the human person, of our own self.

We search for the solution to the riddle of our existence, to the mystery of life and death, in the way that earthworms after rainfall move, blindly in the mud, within predetermined insuperable limits. Thought and word do not guarantee us anything other than the illusion of knowledge, parables, allegories, images seen in a glass darkly. We latch onto the experience of others, the experience of people who testify that they have seen God. They have spoken to him. And we objectivize these ineffable experiences in solid concepts to support our views. So that upon this logic we can build our psychological self-sufficiency, the defense that wards off fear and panic. …

“What use is our struggle in this world? What use is our imagined view of transitory things? All is dust, all is ashes, all is shadow.”

Perhaps there is “another” knowledge, that begins where our particular knowledge ends. Perhaps it arises as a more certain knowledge when everything becomes dust, ashes, and shadow.

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark.

The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant.

I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you.

Which shall be the darkness of God.

There exists a particular state in which you have doubts, and yet make an act of trust. And we encounter this state only in erotic love. Love signifies faith, trust, self-surrender. You are lost in the darkness of endless unanswerable questions. Yet you abandon yourself to longing, and this confirms to you whether the Other longs for your longing. And then your unanswered questions have been answered. What is signified functions without the signifiers. There is only the language of reference, the language of longing. This is the language the infant speaks as it suckles its mother’s breast. This is the language lovers speak in the silence of the “one flesh.” …

The darkness of these questions is the natural distance that separates human beings from God. “All things are distanced from God, not spatially but by nature.” It is our nature that prevents us from giving answers to these questions. That is why even denying the existence of God, the eternity of the human person, is a natural stance. It is understandable. To transform the natural distance into a personal relation is an achievement of self-withdrawal from nature; it is love.

“How long will this age last, and when will the age to come have its beginning? And for how long will these tabernacles sleep in this form, and our bodies be mingled with the dust? And how will that new life come about and in what form will this nature be raised and constituted? And in what manner will this new creation come? And when he has pondered these questions and others like them, wonder comes upon him and deep silence, and he rises up at that hour and falls on his knees and gives thanks with copious tears to the only wise God who is glorified in his all-wise works for ever.”

The gift of thanksgiving replaces the unanswerable questions. “For all things, those which we know, and those which we do not know.”

Christos Yannaras


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Richard Neuhaus on Reconciling East and West

On February 12th the Patriarch of Rome will meet with the Patriarch of Moscow in Cuba. I certainly do not want to exaggerate the significance of this meeting, at least in terms of concrete ecumenical consequences. Perhaps very little will result. Yet they are meeting, and that is something.

In light of this announcement, I thought this article by Fr Richard John Neuhaus might be of interest to our readers.

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Richard Neuhaus on the Universalist Hope

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May We Only Wish for the Salvation of All?

I have received several emails and text messages from fellow Orthodox Christians who share the universalist hope but who are now asking themselves whether they can, or even may, remain in the Orthodox Church. Over the past year, several parish priests and lay apologists have publicly declared the teaching of apokatastasis heretical, and even those who have distinguished between apokatastasis and hope have intimated that the hope will likely prove empty. Thus the wonderful Frederica Mathewes-Green:

So I don’t think we can assert with any confidence that everyone is going to be saved, and certainly we have not, throughout Christian history, throughout the history of all denominations until recent centuries, and of course in our Orthodox Church. The assumption has always been that some people are going to spend eternity in torment, because that’s what Jesus says, that there will be an outer darkness where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. There’s got to be somebody there making those noises. It’s not like it’s a “Halloween sounds” cassette. Those noises are being generated by someone in agony, and as horrible as it is to think about, that’s where our faith has always come down, and that we have been under tremendous pressure not to say that in the last few centuries as evident, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still true.

So we can’t assert with any confidence that all people are going to be saved. It might be things actually turn out that way, though; maybe they will. Nevertheless, we can’t say for sure, but it might be the case. I think it’s possible. I think about “God wills that all be saved,” and if God wills something, is his will ultimately done? Is his will going to be done? I don’t think we can rule it out. I see very clearly that we’re not allowed to assume it. We cannot assert that this is the case, but some people approach this, as we say, as we are allowed to hope; we are allowed to hope that hell will be empty; we are allowed to hope that no one will suffer eternal torment; we are allowed to hope.

I just sound like I’m being cranky, but I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not allowed to hope that. We’re not allowed to hope that.

At this point I think we have to be honest and admit that if Frederica is right (and Brad Jersak therefore wrong), then it is improper for Orthodox Christians to speak of a universalist hope. Perhaps we might speak of a universalist wish, but there is a difference between the truth and what we wish were true, a difference between hoping for an outcome based on solid grounds, such as the character of God and the paschal victory of Christ, and wishing for an exceptionally improbable, if not impossible, outcome, given the logic of libertarian freedom and the incorrigible wickedness of so many. Fr Patrick Reardon has gone so as to virtually forbid hoping for the salvation of all: “No, we do not dare to hope for such a thing. It is a delirious fantasy, not a proper object of Christian hope, or a proper subject for Christian speculation.” Fr Andrew Damick describes the preaching of universalism as “pastoral malpractice,” though he admits the permissibility of hope, for “hope admits the possibility that it may not happen but that we desire it anyway.” Again I have to wonder whether we talking about hoping or wishing.

Fr Lawrence Farley, pastor, author, and podcaster, has recently published several critical articles on the greater hope:

Will Everyone Finally Be Saved?

The Morality of Gehenna

The Fathers and the Fire

What Does Aionion Mean?

Fr Lawrence writes clearly and well. His articles invite substantive engagement and at specific points rebuttal. I intend to blog on them in the near future. I hope I can do so in the same thoughtful spirit in which these articles have been written.

May Orthodox Christians hope and pray for the salvation of all?  Yes, I say, yes! If we believe that God is absolute love, if we believe that by cross and resurrection Christ Jesus has conquered death, emptied hades, and given birth to a new creation, then we may, and indeed must, hope for the salvation of all. The gospel of Pascha invites such hope, commends such hope, demands such hope. Not mere wishing … but confident hoping and bold praying.

(Go to “Hula Hoops, Fads, and the Consensus Patrum”)

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Holy Cross Monastery in West Virginia

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If not “infernalism,” then what? Suggest an alternative term.

I need your guidance. When it comes to the question of final destiny, there are three basic positions that are advanced in theological discussion:  annihilationism, universalism, and _____.  The annihilationist position declares that the damned will be eventually obliterated out of existence. The universalist position declares that all will be eventually restored to God in grace, repentance, and righteousness.  And the _____ position declares that the wicked will be definitively excluded from the bliss and joy of the Kingdom. Each category comprises any number of variations.  For example, within the _____ camp, there are those who espouse a retributive construal of damnation and there are those who espouse a damnation of freely-chosen alienation and estrangement.

My problem is this:  within the literature it has become popular to refer to the _____ position by the term infernalism. As a descriptive term this seems to work well, as it immediately evokes memories of Dante’s Inferno, as well as the words of Jesus himself (e.g., “Gehenna of fire” in Matt 5:22).  Everyone agrees that damnation is not a pleasant prospect for anyone.

But those who believe in eternal damnation object to this descriptive term. So my question is this:  If not infernalism, then what?  You who espouse _____, please suggest an alternative term. Neither “traditional” nor “classic” will do, as they do not actually describe the position.  Besides, annihilationists and universalists believe that their respective views have as much claim to being “traditional” as the other two positions do.

So I need a substitute for infernalism.  At the moment, the term that seem to work best, at least in my mind, is perditionism.  It does not immediately evoke the objectionable image of hell-fire, but it does point to the state of lostness and ruin that is perdition.

What do you think?


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