Book Review: The Inescapable Love of God (part 7)

Can Almighty God effect the universal reconciliation of human beings, while respecting their libertarian freedom and autonomy? This question brings us to the heart of Thomas Talbott’s proposal and will occupy the final articles in our review of The Inescapable Love of God. Talbott accepts the Arminian construal of freedom: “Insofar as freedom and determinism are incompatible, free choice introduces into the universe an element that, from God’s point of view, is utterly random in that it lies outside of his direct causal control” (p. 167). On the basis of this understanding, the Arminian argues that not only is it possible for human beings to embrace evil definitively and irrevocably set their wills against the divine will, but God is ultimately helpless to do anything about it. Not only is he helpless to prevent our self-damnation, given the self-imposed limits upon his omnipotence, he is also helpless to rescue us from our perdition. While the Arminian does not know beyond a shadow of a doubt that some, many, or most human beings will suffer everlasting separation from their Creator, he will not be surprised if such is the case. Hell is the unavoidable, but finally acceptable, consequence of human freedom—collateral damage, as it were.

In response to Arminian damnation, Talbott advances three propositions:

(1) “The very idea of someone freely rejecting God forever is deeply incoherent and therefore logically impossible” (p. 170).

Talbott asks us to consider the example of a young boy who puts his head into a fire and keeps it there, despite the intolerable pain, despite all pleas from his parents and friends. What would we say about this boy? Is he acting rationally? morally? freely? responsibly? Would we not think, rather, that something must be terribly wrong with him? Perhaps he suffers from congenital analgesia. Perhaps he is overwhelmed by self-destructive impulses. The point Talbott is making is that other necessary conditions besides the absence of coercion obtain in order for an action to be judged a free action. A minimal degree of rationality is also needed. “That which is utterly pointless, utterly irrational, and utterly inexplicable, “he writes, “will simply not qualify as a free choice for which one is morally responsible” (p. 172).

Everyone agrees that eternal damnation represents the absolutely worst thing that can happen to a human being. It is not just tragic; it is the ultimate tragedy. So why would a rational being make such a choice for himself when it contradicts his ultimate good and makes impossible his own happiness? We can entertain such a decision if it rests upon ignorance, deception, pathology, or addiction; but all such conditions result in diminished capacity and therefore diminished freedom.

Of decisive consideration here is the coincidence between the ultimate happiness that we will for ourselves and the ultimate happiness that God wills for us:

Let us now begin to explore what it might mean to say that someone freely rejects God forever. Is there in fact a coherent meaning here? Religious people sometimes speak of God as if he were just another human magistrate who seeks his own glory and requires obedience for its own sake; they even speak as if we might reject the Creator and Father of our souls without rejecting ourselves, oppose his will for our lives without opposing, schizophrenically perhaps, our own will for our lives. … But if God is our loving Creator, then he wills for us exactly what, at the most fundamental level, we want for ourselves; he wills that we should experience supreme happiness, that our deepest yearnings should be satisfied, and that all of our needs should be met. So if that is true, if God wills for us the very thing we really want for ourselves, whether we know it or not, how then are we to understand human disobedience and opposition to God. (p. 172)

When I first read Inescapable Love three years ago, this paragraph in particular jumped out at me. My readings in the moral theologies of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, mediated in particular by Servais Pinckaers, had prepared me to receive Talbott’s argument. Here is the secret of the universalist hope. The good that we desire for ourselves and the good God desires for us are identical! At any given moment we may not be able to see this profound truth of our lives, due to our egotism, violence, and alienation; but no matter how hardened our hearts become, we remain creatures made in the image of God. God, and only God, can satisfy our deepest desires.

In order, therefore, for a person to irrevocably reject God and the happiness that union with him brings, he must irrevocably reject the happiness that he yearns for. “So if a fully informed person should reject God nonetheless, then,” Talbott concludes, “that person, like the boy in our story above, would seem to display the kind of irrationality that is itself incompatible with free choice” (p. 173).

Would a God of absolute love permit this to happen? We pray that he would not. Yet isn’t the Arminian God impotent before our self-chosen hells?

(cont)

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Alasdair MacIntyre on “Catholic Instead of What?”

Whether we are Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, Alasdair MacIntyre has so much to teach us.

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Book Review: The Inescapable Love of God (part 6)

God does not coerce! Without question, this is the most popular, and perhaps most powerful, objection raised against the universalist hope, at least in those circles where the retributive construal of damnation does not hold sway. God has given human beings the faculty of free will, and the exercise of this faculty requires genuine independence and autonomy. St John Chrysostom articulates the traditional Eastern understanding:

Beloved, God being loving towards man and beneficent, does and contrives all things in order that we may shine in virtue, and as desiring that we be well approved by Him. And to this end He draws no one by force or compulsion: but by persuasion and benefits He draws all that will, and wins them to Himself. Wherefore when He came, some received Him, and others received Him not. For He will have no unwilling, no forced domestic, but all of their own will and choice, and grateful to Him for their service. Men, as needing the ministry of servants, keep many in that state even against their will, by the law of ownership; but God, being without wants, and not standing in need of anything of ours, but doing all only for our salvation makes us absolute in this matter, and therefore lays neither force nor compulsion on any of those who are unwilling. For He looks only to our advantage: and to be drawn unwilling to a service like this is the same as not serving at all. (Hom. in John 10.1)

Arminians would no doubt like to see some mention of prevenient grace, but the essential point is ecumenically affirmed—God does not coerce. God has made humanity in his own image, bestowing upon him free will. He so respects the freedom of the human being that he will allow any and every individual to reject him—eternally, irrevocably, absolutely. God does not determine human choice in any way. He persuades and seduces, but he does not force; he does not manipulate; he does not violate.

Philosophers call this libertarian freedom or the power of contrary choice: if I choose to do A, I must also have been able to do B. I am only free if I could have acted otherwise. Robert Kane specifies two conditions for libertarian freedom:

1. The existence of alternative possibilities (or the agent’s power to do otherwise) is a necessary condition for acting freely, or acting “of one’s own free will.”

2. Determinism is not compatible with alternative possibilities (it precludes the power to do otherwise).

An action cannot be simultaneously free and the product of sufficient external causes. Or as Thomas Talbott formulates the libertarian position: “a rational agent chooses freely in a given set of circumstances only when the agent categorically could have chosen otherwise in the exact same circumstances” (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 190).

Given this understanding of human freedom, many Christian philosophers conclude that God does not cause free human actions. Human self-determination and divine agency are mutually exclusive:

I do something freely in this libertarian sense … only if it is within my (unexercised) power, at the time of acting and in the very same circumstances, to refrain from doing it; and I refrain from doing something freely only if it is within my (unexercised) power to do so. It is within my power to refrain some something I do, moreover, only if, first, it is logically possible that I should refrain from doing it, and second, nothing outside my control should causally determine (or necessitate) my doing it. Accordingly, if my act of writing this page is free in the relevant sense, then it must have been possible for me not to write it; and if it was possible for me not to write it, then there is a possible world in which I do not write it. That world—call it W—might be the same as the actual world (at least in certain relevant aspects) up to the time of my writing, but in that world I choose to spend my time in another way. But though W is truly a possible world (a way things might have been), it is a world that God was powerless to create; had he tried to make it actual, he would have failed. He could, of course, have caused me to refrain from writing, but then I would not have refrained freely. In the exact circumstances that obtained, only I could bring it about that I freely refrain from writing. Since I could have chosen not to write, W is indeed a possible world; but since I did not make that choice and God was powerless to bring it about that I did so freely, he was also powerless to create W. If free will (of the libertarian kind just described) is even possible, therefore, there may be infinitely many possible worlds that God, however omnipotent he may be, no more has the power to create that he has the power to produce a sufficient cause for an uncaused event. (pp. 160-161)

Talbott’s argument presupposes divine causality as extrinsic to creaturely agency—only thus can it be said that the two are mutually exclusive. Talbott is aware that providing a rigorous account of “external sufficient causes” is a challenging task. “But,” he comments, “if I am to exist as a distinct agent, then something must qualify as being external to myself, and this would presumably include causes that existed back in 1500 A.D. as well as causes that lie in eternity itself” (p. 156, n. 7).

If the above account of human action is true, then the universalist hope—specifically, hope as lively expectation—is false, so at least free will theists claim. There must be a world where a person freely holds out indefinitely against the divine offer of mercy and reconciliation. Perhaps this is that world. Perhaps this is a world where many or even most human beings irrevocably choose exclusion from the beatific vision.

Talbott has some very interesting things to say about libertarian freedom, such as the necessity of libertarian freedom for the emergence of creaturely personhood and its eventual replacement by perfect freedom in the Eschaton, when the Good is perfectly and unambiguously apprehended. But in this article I simply wish to discuss the alleged incompatibility between divine agency and free human choice. Have libertarian theists taken the transcendence of God and his free creation of the world from out of nothing fully into account? Or have they, to put it crudely, inadvertently reduced the Deity to a being within the universe? They will vehemently deny the suggestion, yet the absence of any sense of mystery in the incompatibilist formulation of free will has me wondering. It’s as if libertarian theists really believe they know what they are talking about.

I would like to succinctly, crudely, incompletely, and probably inaccurately present St Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of divine agency and human freedom, as articulated and interpreted by Herbert McCabe, Brian Davies, and Denys Turner. I do not claim that their interpretation of Aquinas is correct—that is for Aquinas scholars to decide—but for purposes of this article that is the assumption I am making. Nor do I claim that my presentation of McCabe, Davies, and Turner is accurate, though I have certainly tried to make it so. I welcome correction. The Thomist Triumvirate do disagree at various points in their respective construals of Aquinas, but I have muted these differences, again for purposes of this article.

1) God has created the world from out of nothing. Aquinas does not believe that we can conceive what this means. We certainly should not reify nothingness as some kind of undifferentiated metaphysical stuff which the Deity then shapes into beings. God has not made the world out of any preexisting anything. Nor is nothing to be conceived as the space into which God places the things he makes. The point, rather, is that everything owes its existence to God; everything receives its esse from God. Finite being is totally dependent upon infinite Being.  The creatio ex nihilo thus stipulates a clear metaphysical distinction between God and everything he creates through his Word by the Spirit.

We immediately note the inconceivability of divine creation. Creaturely making always involves a making from out of something. We take something and change it into something else. We make a difference to it. But divine creation does not involve any kind of changing, as McCabe explains:

To make something, in Aristotelian terms, is to actualise the potentialities inherent in some material. These tomatoes and mushrooms and bits of can can be made into a stew; making a stew is realising this capacity. When something has been made it always makes sense to ask what it is made of or what it is made out of (the two correspond roughly to making by accidental and making by substantial change)—what was it that had the potentiality of being this thing, what did you make a difference to in order to produce this? Now in these terms we can make no sense of the notion that God made the whole universe. There is evidently nothing for the universe to be made of or made out of. In other words creation could not have made any difference to anything—there was nothing for it to make a difference to. If God created the world he operated at a different level, or in a different dimension, from making as we understand it. To bring it about, in this sense, that something should exist is not to make any difference to it or to something else, it is not to change it in any way. It is just for this reason that Aquinas denies that creation is a change (Ia, 45, 1, ad2). But what sense can we make of a making that does not change anything? (God Matters, p. 147)

2) Because he has created the world from out of nothing, God does not exist alongside the world. He is not one existent among a host of existents. God plus the world does not equal two. If God is the creator of everything, there is nothing he is alongside or next to. Nor is it the case that Deity and creatures belong to different genera. Divinity is outside every genus and is the uncreated source of every genus. God can be “compared to other things,” says Aquinas, “only as transcending them” (ST Ia, q6 a2 ad3). God is not a god:

God must be incomprehensible to us precisely because he is creator of all that is and, as Aquinas puts it, outside the order of all beings. God therefore cannot be classified as any kind of being. God cannot be compared to or contrasted with other things in respect of what they are like as dogs can be compared and contrasted with cats and both of them with stones or stars. God is not an inhabitant of the universe; he is the reason why there is a universe at all. God is in everything holding it constantly in existence but he is not located anywhere, nor is what it is to be God located anywhere in logical space. When you have finished classifying and counting all the things in the universe you cannot add: ‘And also there is God.’ When you have finished classifying and counting everything in the universe you have finished, period. There is no God in the world. (McCabe, God Still Matters, p. 37)

This apprehension of the radical metaphysical difference between God and the world grounds Aquinas’s reflections on divine and creaturely agency.  Any philosophical formulation that does not acknowledge this difference and its implications for construing the relationship between divine agency and creaturely agency profoundly misrepresents the Christian God and can only lead to the idolatrous conception of the Deity as an all-powerful being who stands over against all other beings.

3) Divine causality is unique and does not interfere with creaturely causality. Just as God radically transcends the world he has brought into being, so he radically transcends the network of creaturely causes. God is primary cause in that he causes everything to be. McCabe suggests that we think of divine agency along the same lines that we think of divine omnipresence. As I put one apple after another into a basket, there is less and less room for the oranges that I also want to put into it. Each fruit competes with the others for available space. But God does not take up space. No matter how many apples and oranges I toss into the bin, the divine presence remains undiminished. “The apples do not have to shift over to make room for God,” remarks McCabe. “The presence of God does not leave less room for the apples.  On the contrary, it is because of the presence of God that the apples are there at all” (Faith Within Reason, p. 74).

Just as God causes apples and oranges and everything to be, so so he causes the activity of every creature. His causal activity does not compete with creaturely causality, for the same reason that his presence in the world does not compete with the spatial presence of his creatures—namely, because of the divine transcendence. Thus Turner:

For as to any natural causation, it is true that no natural cause can cause an effect unless God sustains the whole action in existence through his creative power. It is true of anything at all that exists, as the creed of Nicaea puts it, “visible and invisible,” that unless God causes it to, it does not exist; unless God causes it to, it does not act. But when God is said to cause a natural cause to effect what it does, this is not as if to say that God suspends the natural law governing that cause’s efficacy—on the contrary, God’s action in virtue of which heavy objects fall is effective because of God’s sustaining the laws of gravity that are alone sufficient to explain why they do so. So, Thomas concludes, you could say that God brings about natural effects by means of natural agents effecting what it is in their nature to do, as if those natural causes were instruments of his will, unfreely acting as “servants” of their master’s will—natural causes are God’s tool kit. (Thomas Aquinas, pp. 158-159)

We must posit a simultaneity of and concurrence between divine causing and creaturely causing. God’s creative operation does not make a difference to creaturely activity and being. When we try to think of how something makes a difference to another thing, we might imagine two or more existents coming into contact and changing some aspect of reality. When the cueball impacts the other billiard balls on the table, they go all over the place. The physicist can explain the hows and whys and accurately predict the directional vectors of each ball. The transcendent Creator, however, does not make a difference to his creatures … he makes all the difference. He is the reason why anything and everything exists to begin with.  Yet as McCabe observes, we understandably find this notion of causal concurrence nearly impossible to imagine:

It is, of course, our image-making that deceives us here. However hard we try, we cannot help picturing God as an individual existent, even an individual person, making the world or controlling it like the potter making a pot or as an artist makes a statue. But the pot is in the same world as the potter, the statue shares a studio with the sculptor. They interact with each other. Or, to put it the other way, the potter is outside the pot he makes, the sculptor is outside the statue. But when we come to the creator of everything that has existence, none of that could be true. God cannot share a world with us—if he did he would have created himself. God cannot be outside, or alongside, what he has made. Everything only exists by being constantly held in being by him. (God Matters, p. 14)

4) God is the transcendent cause of free human choices and actions. Here is where things really get interesting. When free will theists talk about libertarian freedom, they assume the incompatibility of divine determinism and free creaturely determinism. As Alvin Plantinga writes: “Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely” (God, Freedom, and Evil, p. 30). Thus we may speak of a logical limitation of the divine omnipotence. Just as it is logically impossible for God to create square circles, so it is logically impossible for him to determine the free choices of his rational creatures. An action cannot “be both free and the product of external sufficient causes” (Talbott, p. 156).

The Thomist understanding of human freedom may be construed as self-determination: I act freely if, and only if, I am the cause of my actions, independent of other creaturely agents or forces. If my action is determined by someone else (I have been hypnotized or brainwashed) or by something else (I am under the influence of a mind-altering drug; my genes made me do it), then it is not a free action. Free actions are self-determined and uncoerced, determined by the agent himself and not by any other creature. We may even speak of them as “uncaused,” if we mean by this that they are not generated by a created power or agency external to the acting person. This does not mean, however, that a free action is unmotivated.

Free actions are always motivated: they are done for reasons. They may be good reasons or bad reasons, but they are reasons. “Why did you not go to work today?” you might ask me. “Because,” I honestly reply, “the roads were icy and slippery.” Whether you assess my explanation as weighty or not, it is the reason I judged compelling at the time and the reason why I decided to stay home and watch “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The reason did not determine my action. I freely made it the decisive motive for my one day holiday. “Free actions, then, are uncaused [by external factors] though they are motivated and done for reasons,” McCabe avers; “and these motives and reasons do not take away from freedom but rather are essential to it” (God Matters, p. 13).

The Thomist understanding, therefore, may be described as a qualified libertarianism. But—and this is a huge but—Aquinas also insists that a free human action is simultaneously caused by God, as Davies explains:

God is the Creator, the source of the existence (the continued and total existence) of everything other than himself. If God is this, however, then my making a choice has to be something that God is making to be. If everything that exists owes its existence to God, then God must be the source of my free actions, not someone who merely observes them, permits them, or somehow merely supports (what could that mean?) a context in which they are caused by me and not by God. To think otherwise, it seems to me, can only stem from the conviction that God is really an item in the universe, something able to distance itself from its fellows so as to let them act independently of its causality. Yet God, I have argued, is not an item in the universe. As making the world to be, his causality extends to everything that exists, and free choices are as real as anything else in the world. If you think that Mount Everest needs God to account for its being as opposed to not being (for as long as it is), then you ought to think that all human choices need God to account for them being (and therefore being what they are) as opposed to not being. There can be no such thing as a creaturely reality which is not produced or creatively made to be by God. (The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, p. 122; also see Davies, Thomas Aquinas on God and Evil, chap. 7)

This analysis, though, must be pushed a bit further.  “The proposition,” comments Turner, “that God’s agency could stand in a disjunctively exclusive ‘either/or’ relationship with human freedom is, for Thomas, inconceivable” (p. 157).

God cannot cause my acts of free choice by means of any natural cause as his instrument, because, as we have seen, if any natural cause other than my own will brings about my action then it follows that that action is not free. Hence God’s creative power exerts itself upon my free actions only directly, that is, as unmediated by any natural cause: or, as one might put it in the more appealing language of Augustine, God’s action is too intimate to me, too within me, too close to my deepest freedom, to stand in any kind of coercive relationship to it. For God is more within me even than I am to myself—which is, after all, but another way of saying what Thomas himself says, namely, that God is the cause of the freedom with which I consent to his infallible agency. Therefore, of my free actions only God and I can be the cause, and in every case both God and I are the cause of them. … You cannot say that insofar as God caused my free action I did not: for God is the cause not only of the action itself, so that the action is his. God is the cause of the free choice that makes the action also mine. (p. 159)

Oh my. Now we are treading upon grounds that analytic philosophers fear to tread. Is Thomas here proposing one of those antinomies that offends reason? McCabe thinks not: “God is not a separate and rival agent within the universe. The creative causal power of God does not operate on me from outside, as an alternative to me; it is the creative causal power of God that makes me me” (God Matters, p. 13).

I have quoted McCabe, Turner, and Davies at some length because I do not feel confident expressing in my own words their understanding of the relationship between divine and creaturely agency. Let me close with this long but illuminating passage from McCabe:

I am free in fact, not because God withdraws from me and leaves me my independence—as with a man who frees his slaves, or good parents who let their children come to independence—but just the other way round. I am free because God is in a sense more directly the cause of my actions than he is of the behaviour of unfree beings. In the case of an unfree creature its behaviour is perhaps its own (in the case of a living thing—for this is what we mean by a living thing), but is also caused by whatever gave it its structure and whatever forces are operating on it. We can give an account of the behaviour of the dog (or we would like to be able to give an account of the behaviour of the dog) in terms of such causal factors. And maybe we could go back and explain these causal factors in other more general terms of physics and so on. It is only at the end of such a long chain that we come to the end of this kind of scientific explanation and ask the most radical question of all: yes, but how come any of this instead of nothing? God does bring about the action of the dog, but he does so by causing other things to cause it.

God brings about my free action, however, not by causing other things to cause it, he brings it about directly. The creative act of God is there immediately in my freedom. My freedom is, so to say, a window of God’s creating; the creativity of God is not masked by intermediate causes. In human freedom we have the nearest thing to a direct look at the creative act of God (apart, says the Christian, from Christ himself, who is the act of God).

We are free not because God is absent or leaves us alone, we are free because God is more present—not of course in the sense that there is more of God there in the free being, but in the sense that there is nothing, so to say, to distract us. God is not acting here by causing other things to cause this act, he is directly and simply causing it. So God is not an alternative to freedom, he is the direct cause of freedom. We are not free in spite of God, but because of God. (pp. 14-15)

This analysis of freedom by Aquinas and his disciples raises many questions, yet it seems very right to me (on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays). I invite Dr Talbot and others to engage Aquinas’s arguments and help me to come to a better understanding of what I presently consider to be an unfathomable conundrum—the interaction of divine and creaturely causality, sometimes referred to as double agency. The libertarian position makes perfect sense, yet I just cannot get away from St Thomas’s explication of the doctrine of creation.

(Go to Part 7)

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Book Review: The Inescapable Love of God (part 5)


2 Thessalonians 1:9

This is the verse most frequently invoked to disprove the thesis that the Apostle Paul believed that God will ultimately restore all human beings to himself in love and faith. Before preceding any further, I’d like to ask you to read the first twelve verses of Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians, just so you can put 1:9 in some kind of context. Somehow I made it through 30+ years of active ministry without ever preaching on this letter. Hence I was unaware of the difficulty of translating the verse into English. Here are some translations:

They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (RSV)

These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (NRSV)

They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (NIV)

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (ESV)

Four very similar renderings from four popular English translations. It sure does sound as if Paul is saying that the enemies of Christ and his Church will be eternally excluded from the divine presence. But now consider these more literal translations:

Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power (KJV)

who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might (ASV)

who shall suffer justice — destruction age-during — from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his strength (YLT)

who shall incur the justice of eonian extermination from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of His strength (CLNT)

Now matters are not so clear. One might read these translations as stating that the source of the destruction the Apostle is promising will be the face of the Lord and his glory. There is no mention of eternal separation from God.

And just to be sure we cover the bases, here are two renderings based on the Vulgate:

Who shall suffer eternal punishment in destruction, from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his power (Douay-Rheims)

The presence of the Lord, and the majesty of his power, will condemn them to eternal punishment (Ronald Knox)

So why the difference in translations? All translations, of course, are interpretations; but the translators of the RSV, NRSV, NIV, and ESV have quite literally introduced an interpretation that goes beyond the Greek. There is no verb in the Greek text that suggests separation or hiding and therefore there is no necessity to read the preposition “from” as “away from.” At very least these “away from” translations must be judged as speculative attempts to bring clarity to a less than clear original text. Tom Talbot elaborates:

But in the context of 2 Thessalonians 1:9, we find no relevant verb, such as “to hide” or “to conceal,” no relevant subject of the action, and no other grammatical device that would entitle one to translate apo as “away from.” In the absence of such a device, such a translation makes no more coherent sense in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 than it would in Acts 3:19, where the wording is identical: “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Just as the presence of the Lord is the causal source, or that which brought about, refreshing times for the obedient, so the appearance of the Lord “with his mighty angels in flaming fire” (2 Thess 1:7-8) is the causal source of, or that which brings about, the destruction of the disobedient. No other understanding seems to me even remotely plausible. “Destruction away from the glory of his might” simply makes no sense at all in the context, but “destruction that comes from or has its causal source in “the glory of his might” makes perfectly good sense. (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 90)

Once we have eliminated the “away from” rendering, 2 Thessalonians 9 ceases to be the decisive text that ostensibly disproves the universalism of the Apostle Paul. Now Paul simply sounds like an Old Testament prophet declaring God’s judgment upon the wicked. There will be vindication for the faithful Church. The enemies of the gospel will be destroyed. Yes, this destruction is eonian (olethros aiōnios), but it is plausibly interpreted to mean “the destruction that comes from God” or “the destruction the pertains to the future eon” or a combination of both. Olethros aiōnios also occurs in 4 Maccabees 10:15: “No, by the blessed death of my brothers, by the eternal destruction of the tyrant, and by the everlasting life of the pious, I will not renounce our noble brotherhood.” This verse is of particular interest because whereas the author uses the term aiōnios to qualify the ruination of King Antiochus, he uses the term aïdios to qualify the unending and glorious life of the martyrs. “Both adjectives refer to the afterlife, that is a future αἰών,” explain Ilaria Ramelli and John Konstan, “but whereas retribution is described with the more general and polysemous term αἰώνιος, to life in the beyond is applied the more technical term ἀΐδιος, denoting, at least in classical philosophy, a strictly endless condition” (Terms for Eternity, pp. 49-50).

Does the eschatological destruction of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 exclude all redemptive possibilities? Nothing in the text requires such a reading. Consider 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, where the Apostle orders that the man guilty of living with his father’s wife be delivered “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh,” yet despite the harshness of this judgment, Paul holds out hope for the man’s eventual salvation—“that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” And consider Paul’s discussion of the future of Israel in Romans 9-11. The judgment of God may at times be severe, but it remains mercy and is never its absence. In judgment upon their disbelief and for the redemptive purpose of incorporating the Gentiles into his people, says Paul, God has hardened the hearts of the Jews against the gospel, making them vessels of wrath destined for destruction (Rom 9:22). But when the full number of the Gentiles have been grafted in, all Israel will in turn be saved (Rom 11:26). “Just as you were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience,” Paul tells the Roman Christians, “so they have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy. For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:30-32). It’s not just a matter of God alternating between compassion and severity. He always acts in love and from love. He permits us to harden our hearts, both for the advancement of his salvific purposes in the world and for our own ultimate good. “By literally shutting sinners up to their disobedience and requiring them to endure the consequences of their own rebellions,” writes Talbott, “God reveals the self-defeating nature of evil and shatters the illusion that make evil choices possible in the first place” (Inescapable Love, p. 71). The Creator takes vessels of wrath and transforms them into vessels of mercy.

Yet despite all the grammatical and exegetical arguments Talbott and his fellow universalists advance, we still find it hard to believe that St Paul may really have taught apokatastasis. Why is that?  Is it because the universalist reading of the Scriptures is objectively weaker than the traditionalist reading, or is it something else?

(Go to Part 6)

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“We know how well-versed the devil is in Scripture”

We must not expect baptism to free us from the temptations of our persecutor. The body that concealed him made even the Word of God a target for the enemy; his assumption of a visible form made even the invisible light an object of attack. Nevertheless, since we have at hand the means of overcoming our enemy, we must have no fear of the struggle. Flaunt in his face the water and the Spirit. In them will be extinguished all the flaming darts of the evil one.

Suppose the tempter makes us feel the pinch of poverty, as he did even to Christ, and taking advantage of our hunger, talks of turning stones into bread: we must not be taken in by him, but let him learn what he has still not grasped. Refute him with the word of life, with the word that is the bread sent down from heaven and that gives life to the world.

He may try to ensnare us through our vanity, as he tried to ensnare Christ when he set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said: “Prove your divinity: throw yourself down.” Let us beware of succumbing to pride, for the tempter will by no means stop at one success. He is never satisfied and is always pursuing us. Often he beguiles us with something good and useful, but its end is always evil. That is simply his method of waging war.

We also know how well-versed the devil is in Scripture. When Christ answered the temptation to turn stones into bread with a rebuke from Scripture beginning: “It is written,” the devil countered with the same words, tempting Christ to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple. “For it is written,” he quoted, “he will give his angels charge of you, and on their hands they will bear you up.” O past master of all evil, why suppress the verse that follows? You did not finish the quotation, but I know full well what it means: that we shall tread on you as on an adder or a cobra; protected by the Trinity, we shall trample on you as on serpents or scorpions.

If the tempter tries to overthrow us through our greed, showing us at one glance all the kingdoms of the world—as if they belonged to him—and demanding that we fall down and worship him, we should despise him, for we know him to be a penniless impostor. Strong in our baptism, each of us can say: “I too am made in the image of God, but unlike you, I have not yet become an outcast from heaven through my pride. I have put on Christ; by my baptism I have become one with him. It is you that should fall prostrate before me.” At these words he can only surrender and retire in shame; as he retreated before Christ, the light of the world, so will he depart from those illumined by that light.

Such are the gifts conferred by baptism on those who understand its power; such the rich banquet it lays before those who hunger for the things of the Spirit.

St Gregory of Nazianzus

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Book Review: The Inescapable Love of God (part 4)

But what about hell? This is the question we all want answered. Did not Jesus and his Apostles explicitly warn us of the dire consequences of disbelief and impenitence? Did they not plainly teach that those who reject the divine offer of mercy will suffer eternal punishment? Universalists must provide plausible readings of the key New Testament texts that speak of Gehenna if they ever hope to persuade their fellow Christians that the omnipotent love of God will triumph in the hearts of every human being.


Matthew 25:31-46

What is, Thomas Talbott asks, the didactic point of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats? Did Jesus really intend to convey to his hearers divinely revealed information about the eschatological destinies of the righteous and wicked? Even a cursory reading of the parable compels a negative answer. As Talbott observes, the heart of the parable is its surprising twist—the solidaric identification of the Son of Man with the poor and dispossessed. Like all of Jesus’ parables, its purpose is not to provide details about the afterlife but to elicit a conversion of heart and behavior.

Nonetheless, Jesus did say that the wicked will be condemned to “eternal punishment” (kolasin aiōnion) and the righteous rewarded with “eternal life” (zōēn aiōnion). “Why suppose,” Talbott asks, “that on either occasion of its use in Matthew 25:46 the Greek adjective aiōnios, which many of our English Bibles translate as ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting,’ implies unending temporal duration?”

As many commentators have pointed out, its literal meaning is something like age enduring or perhaps that which pertains to an age; and in some contexts, at least, that literal meaning seems to preclude the idea of unending temporal duration. When Paul spoke of a “mystery that was kept secret for long ages (chronois aiōniois) but is now disclosed” (Rom 16:25-26—my emphasis), he clearly supposed that an age-enduring mystery or a mystery that endures for “eternal times” can come to an end; and if an age-enduring mystery can come to an end, so also, one might argue, can an age-enduring punishment. (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 79)

In other words, aiōnion by itself does not necessarily imply eternity, as we typically understand it, yet the overwhelming number of English translations render the word “eternal” or “everlasting.” Why? Many exegetes have been persuaded by an argument attributed to St Basil of Caesarea in the fourth century:

In one place the Lord declares that “these shall go to eternal punishment” (Mt. 25:46), and in another place He sends some “to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt. 25:41); and speaks elsewhere of the fire of gehenna, specifying that it is a place “where their worm dies not, and the fire is not extinguished” (Mk. 9:44-49) and even of old and through the Prophet it was foretold of some that “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be extinguished” (Isa. 66:24). Although these and the like declarations are to be found in numerous places of divinely inspired Scripture, it is one of the artifices of the devil, that many forgetting these and other such statements and utterances of the Lord, ascribe an end to punishment, so that they can sin the more boldly. If, however, there were going to be an end of eternal punishment, there would likewise be an end to eternal life. If we cannot conceive of an end to that life, how are we to suppose there will be and end to eternal punishment? The qualification of “eternal” is ascribed equally to both of them. “For these are going,” He says, “into eternal punishment; the just, however, into eternal life” (Mt. 25:46). If we profess these things we must recognize that the “he shall be flogged with many stripes” and the “he shall be flogged with few stripes” refer not to an end but to a distinction of punishment. (Rules Briefly Treated 267; this passage is believed by some patristic scholars to be an interpolation)

If eonian life is eternal and unending, then eonian punishment must also be eternal and unending—and vice versa. Talbott, however, does not find this argument compelling. It forgets how adjectives work. “Adjectives,” he explains, “often vary in meaning, sometimes greatly, when the nouns they qualify signify different categories of things” (p. 80); and there can be no question that eonian life and eonian punishment belong to two different categories of things. We rightly believe that eonian life is everlasting because it is life in and with the eternal God; but we cannot simply assume that the same everlastingness is to be attributed to the eonian punishment. A tip-off here is our Lord’s use of kolasis, which typically signifies remedial or corrective punishment, as opposed to a purely retributive punishment (timōria). Whereas eonian life with God “is clearly an end in itself—that is, valuable or worth having for its own sake—the punishment (kolasis) is just as clearly a means to an end” (p. 81). If the reading of kolasis as corrective punishment is correct, then that end can only be reconciliation with God. Talbott, however, recognizes that Christ’s choice of kolasis alone is not decisive. “The language of correction and that of retribution often get completely mixed up in ordinary linguistic contexts,” he remarks (p. 81).

Unwilling to put all of his eggs in the kolasis basket, Talbott returns to the question of aiōnios. Relying on William Barclay’s New Testament Words (1964), Talbott offers the following proposal: “Eternal punishment is simply punishment of any duration that has its causal source in the eternal purposes of God” (p. 83). Consider, for example, Jude 7, which speaks of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by puros aiōniou. Clearly this fire did not burn perpetually—it did end after consuming everything; it is not burning today—yet most English translations of the New Testament render the Greek as “eternal fire.” In what sense, then, can it be said to be eternal? The most plausible answer, suggests Talbott: it is a fire that comes from God. He then applies the same reasoning to the Parable of the Last Judgment:

The point here was not that the fire literally burned forever without consuming these cities and continues to burn even today. The point was that the fire is a form of divine judgment upon these cities, a foreshadowing of eschatological judgment, and that its causal source lies in the eternal God himself. And similarly for the eternal fire and the eternal punishment to which Jesus alluded in Matthew 25:41 and 46 respectively: like the fire that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah, this fire will not be eternal in the sense that it will burn forever without consuming anything—without consuming, for example, that which is false within a person—and neither will it be eternal in the sense that it continues forever without accomplishing its corrective purpose. Both the fire and the punishment are eternal in the twofold sense that their causal source lies in the eternal God himself and that their corrective effects will literally endure forever. For anything that the eternal God does (or any specific action of his in the created order) is eternal in the sense that it is the eternal God who does it. (pp. 83-84)

While I find the above construal plausible, I remain unconvinced and am disappointed that Talbott did not update this section for the 2nd edition of his book in light of more recent scholarship. He relies excessively on Barclay, who claims that in the New Testament “aiōnios is distinctively the word of eternity … it can properly describe only that which essentially belongs to and befits God.” (Words, p. 35). And again:

Aiōnios is the word of eternity as opposed to and contrasted with time. It is the word of deity as opposed to and contrasted with humanity. It is the word which can only really be applied to God. If we remember that, we are left with one tremendous truth—both the blessings which the faithful shall inherit and the punishment which the unfaithful shall receive are such as bits God to give and to inflict. (pp. 36-37)

How reliable is Barclay here? I do not know, but I’m dubious. I have no idea what he means when he says that aiōnios “can only really be applied to God,” when it is used in Greek literature and the Greek Bible in so many diverse ways. Barclay appears to be positing a continuity between Plato (4th century B.C.), who apparently invented the word aiōnios to signify the absolute timelessness of deity, and the New Testament, without however mentioning that Aristotle and many other Greek philosophers did not adopt Plato’s usage and preferred instead to use the term aïdios to signify divine eternity. Reading Plato into the New Testament is a questionable enterprise, as Talbott I think would agree.

Contrast Talbott/Barclay with the semantic analysis of Ilaria Ramelli and David Konstan in their recent book Terms for Eternity. The authors survey the use of aiōnios and aïdios in classical and biblical literature, including the Septuagint. They conclude their survey of New Testament usage thusly:

In the New Testament, then, ἀΐδιος, which is used far less often than αἰώνιος, would appear to denote absolute eternity in reference to God; in connection with the chains of the fallen angels, on the other hand, it seems to indicate the continuity of their chastisement throughout the entire duration of this world—and perhaps too from before the creation of the world and time itself, that is, eternally a parte ante. As for αἰώνιος, it has a much wider range of meanings, often closely related. It perhaps signifies “eternity” in the strict sense—without beginning or end—in reference to God or his three Persons or to what pertains to God, such as his glory or his kingdom; or it may mean “perpetual”—in the sense of “without end,” “permanent,” “uninterrupted”—in reference, for example, to the new covenant mentioned by Christ. Far the most common expression is ζωή αἰώνιος, which, we have argued, indicates life in the future αἰών, in contrast to the present καιρός (or χρόνος, “time,” or κόσμος, “this world,” often used in a negative sense), and which is expressly connected with Christ, faith, hope (for the future), the resurrection in the world to come, and above all to grace in numerous passages, especially Pauline, where grace is said to justify, and Johannine, where it is connected with love or ἀγάπη: for John, God himself is ἀγάπη, and the αἰώνιος life is directly identified with Jesus. This life, which is the goal or finality of the Gospel, is the true life, and is often designated simply by ζωή tout court; and it coincides with salvation. The adjective αἰώνιος is associated too with other nouns (e.g., glory, salvation), always with reference to life in the next world. Although one may infer that life in the world to come is eternal in the sense of unending, it appears that this is not the primary connotation of αἰώνιος in these contexts, but is rather the idea of a new life or αἰών.

On the other hand, αἰώνιος is also applied to punishment in the world to come, particularly in the expressions πυρ αἰώνιος: ἀΐδιος is never employed either for fire or for other forms of future punishment or harm of human beings, and on one occasion (in 4 Macc) ὄλεθρος αἰώνιος is contrasted specifically with βίος ἀΐδιος. (pp. 69-70)

The difference between Talbott and Ramelli/Konstan is minor, however. The former interprets kolasin aiōnion to mean “the punishment that comes from God”; the latter, “the punishment that belongs to the age to come.” Both reject the interpretation of unending torment. Talbott, in fact, expresses his agreement with the reading of aiōnion as “belonging to the age to come” as a complement to his own:

The Gospel writers typically thought in terms of two ages, the present age and the age to come, and they associated the age to come with God himself: it was an age in which God’s presence would be fully manifested, his purposes fully realized, and his redemptive work eventually completed. They therefore came to employ the term aiōnios as an eschatological term, one that functioned as a handy reference to the realities of the age to come. In that way they managed to combine the more literal sense of “that which pertains to an age” with the more religious sense of “that which manifests the presence of God in a special way.” Eternal life, then, is not merely life that comes from the eternal God himself; it is also the mode of living associated with the age to come. And similarly for eternal punishment: it is not merely punishment that comes from the eternal God himself; it is also the form of punishment associated with the age to come. Nor is there any implication here that the life that comes from God and the punishment that comes from God are of equal duration. In fact, there is no implication here of temporal duration at all, and this, I might add, in no way threatens the Christian understanding of an unending resurrection life with God. For that idea hardly rests upon the translation of the Greek aiōnios; it rests instead upon the doctrine of the resurrection (see John 6:40) and that of God’s enduring and unchanging love for us. (Inescapable Love, p. 85)

So, brethren, did Jesus really teach an eternal hell?

(Go to Part 5)

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Book Review: The Inescapable Love of God (part 3)

The universalist confessor faces what appears to be an insurmountable challenge—reconciling his convictions with the plain and obvious testimony of the Holy Scriptures. Traditional Christians have long believed in the real possibility of everlasting damnation because this is, so they have long believed, what the Scriptures teach. Jesus taught eternal hell. The Apostles taught eternal hell. It’s all there in the Bible. Yet this plain teaching was not so plain in the early centuries of the Church. When Origen, perhaps the greatest biblical exegete of the patristic period, unrolled the sacred scrolls, he read them as declaring apokatastasis; nor was his an idiosyncratic opinion (see John Sachs, “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology“). Almost two centuries after the death of Origen, St Augustine found it necessary to subject the universalist hope to lengthy criticism. He called the proponents of this hope nostri misericordes, “our party of pity,” and numbered them as “indeed very many” (Enchiridion 112). Because of their sentimentality and false sense of compassion, the misericordes evade the plain, and harsh, meaning of the biblical texts. This judgment has been reiterated down the ages ever since. When Western Christians read the New Testament on everlasting punishment, they read it through the eyes of Augustine. (Eastern Christians may substitute the eyes of the Emperor Justinian for those of the bishop of Hippo.)


Thomas Talbott devotes two chapters of The Inescapable Love of God to direct engagement with the New Testament and its commentators. He believes that the universalist hope is so plainly expressed in the New Testament, and particularly in the writings of St Paul, that we must wonder “why so many Christian theologians have struggled heroically to explain it away” (p. 49). The brevity of a blog article does not permit me to survey and summarize his exegesis of the important texts nor his critical analysis of various commentators. (Fortunately for those who are interested but do not yet have access to the second edition of Inescapable Love, Talbott’s first-edition chapter on St. Paul’s universalism is available online.) Consider, for example, this well-known verse from the Epistle to the Romans:

Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. (Rom 5:18)

At face value the text plainly supports a strong universalist hope; but the important question arises: does “all” mean the same thing in the first clause as it does in the second? If one is committed to the doctrine of eternal reprobation, then the answer to this question must be no. Yet consider similar constructions found elsewhere in the Pauline corpus:

For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all. (Rom 11:32)

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor 15:22)

Given the parallelism of the two clauses in each sentence, one would expect each “all” to refer to the same class, namely, all human beings. Talbott comments:

In each of these texts, we encounter a contrast between two universal statements, and in each case the first “all” determines the scope of the second. Accordingly, when Paul asserted in Romans 5:18 that Christ’s one “act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all,” he evidently had in mind every descendant of Adam who stands under the judgment of condemnation; when he insisted in Romans 11:32 that God is merciful to all, he had in mind every human whom God has “shut up to,” or has “imprisoned in,” disobedience; and when he asserted in 1 Corinthians 15:22 that “all will be made alive in Christ,” he had in mind everyone who dies in the first Adam. The grammatical evidence here seems utterly decisive; you can reject it only if you are prepared to reject what is right there before your eyes. And though there seems to be no shortage of those who are prepared to do just that, the arguments one actually encounters have every appearance, it seems to me, of a grasping at straws. (p. 55)

These are strong words. Talbott, of course, is well aware that a single verse does not prove Christian doctrine; but after surveying some of the modern Reformed and evangelical commentary tradition, he questions whether those who reject the universalist reading of Romans 5:18  have legitimate exegetical reasons for doing so. Is it not possible that antecedent doctrinal or philosophical commitments are driving the exegesis?

While reading this chapter I kept wondering, what would the New Perspective folk think about this? How do they interpret Romans 5:18? Well, it just so happens that I have the commentaries of N. T. Wright and James D. G. Dunn sitting on my bookshelf. First, Wright:

The balance he [i.e., Paul] is asserting, after all the imbalances of the previous verses, lies in the universality. Adam brings condemnation for all; Christ, justification for all. Our minds instantly raise the question of numerically universal salvation, but this is not in Paul’s mind. His universalism is of the sort that holds to Christ as the way for all. … Paul here, as usual, refers to the final coming judgment, the time when there will be wrath for some and life for others (2:5-11). The theme remains central in the coming chapters, reaching its dramatic climax in 8:1 (“there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus”) and 8:33-34 (“it is God who justifies; who will condemn?”). By referring to Jesus’ messianic action on the cross (this, of course, is what the second half of the comparison in each verse has been about) in terms of an “act of righteousness” or “act of acquittal” (the word is dikaiōma, as in v.16), Paul again draws on the thought of 3:21-26 and 5:9-10. Christ’s dikaiōma in the middle of history leads to God’s dikaiōsis on the last day. What was accomplished on the cross will be effective at the final judgment. (New Interpreter’s Bible, X:529)

Not a strong argument against the universalist interpretation, if I do say so myself. On the basis of Paul’s earlier discussion of judgment by works in 2:5-11, Wright infers that Paul cannot strictly mean what he appears to say in 5:18. I wonder what would happen if he were to read 2:5-10 in light of 5:18, instead of the reverse.

Now Dunn:

With v 18 Paul at least feels able to round off the comparison between Adam and Christ left incomplete in v 12. But it is now a more carefully phrased comparison with major elements of the contrast drawn from vv 15-17. The correspondence has already become plain and Paul is in some danger of merely repeating himself. It lies in that fact that the act of one has determined the destiny of all, humankind in the mass—a typological correspondence of epochal figures in that the first man introduced the original and present epoch, while the other has introduced the ultimate and future epoch. The contrast lies in the nature of the one act and in its effect in each case: Adam’s trespass, Christ’s righteous deed; the result of the first, condemnation (as in v 16); of the second, acquittal which brings life (a combination of vv 16 and 17). Or in the terms of v 19, the contrast between Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience, resulting in the many being made sinners in the first case, and being made righteous in the second. …

Here too the degree to which the two verses have been structured to bring out the parallelism between the two men raises the question of whether Paul has sacrificed precision of language for rhetorical effect. How close is the actual parallel in each case? The question arises with particular reference to the parallelism of the “all men” in v 18 and “the many” in v 19. Does the language of v 18 mean that Paul looked for everyone without exception to share in the life of the new age (“universalism”)? Even if Paul had not intended to raise this question, he could hardly deny that it nevertheless arises from the phrasing of his argument. How he would have responded to the question is a good deal less clear. On the one hand, he has already hinted that there is at least an element of human responsibility in the actual receiving of the grace which marks out the members of the new epoch (v 17), with the implication that membership of the new epoch is neither automatic nor conferred without the individual’s consent. (It is hard to imagine Paul or his readers envisaging reception of the gift of righteousness apart form the conversion they had all undergone with the concomitant exercise of faith on the part of the convert—as defined for Paul in Hab 2:4 and illustrated by Abraham in Gen 15:6). So Paul may well have meant “all men” in the sense of everyone belonging to that epoch. On the other hand, he could hardly have complained if his Roman (or subsequent) readership took the “all men” as embracing the totality of the human race in each case. Nor should we exclude the possibility that Paul, enthused by the epochal sweep of his vision, cherished the hope of such a universal salvation, however much a more hard-headed analysis may have persuaded him otherwise in another context (2:8-9). How, after all, can grace be “so much more” in its effect if it is less universal than the effect of death? In Paul as in other Christians the logic of love may well have coexisted uneasily with the simpler logic of systematic consistency; according to Jonah it was not otherwise with God! (Romans 1-8, 38A: 296-297)

Dunn here offers a far superior exegesis of the text than Wright. He is taking Paul’s language seriously and therefore has to wonder whether the Apostle has stretched his language for rhetorical effect. At the same time, Dunn acknowledges the possibility that Paul may well have entertained a universalist vision. That at least is what the verse seems to directly state. But Dunn is cautious. He does not see how one can reconcile such a vision with the evangelical demand for faith and repentance. Note how he, like Wright, also appeals to Romans 2. Does not Paul warn us there will be “wrath and fury” for the wicked, and what is this “wrath and fury” but the inferno of Augustine?

But it is not at all obvious that when Paul speaks of the day of wrath, he is thinking of pure, everlasting retributive punishment. Talbott refers us to another “all” text, already cited above: “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all” (Rom 11:32). Talbott then comments:

But where is the biblical warrant, I would ask, for thinking that divine justice requires something that divine mercy does not, or that divine mercy permits something that divine justice does not? At this point, I fear, we sometimes read our own ideas (and philosophical preconceptions) into the Bible. We think that mercy is one attribute and justice another, so we read this into the Bible; we think that God’s love is an attitude of one kind and his wrath an attitude of an opposite kind, so we also read this into the Bible; we think that God punishes for one kind of a reason and forgives for another, and we tend to picture God as a schizophrenic whose justice pushes him in one direction and whose love pushes him in another; so we again read all of this into the Bible. When we turn to St. Paul, however, we encounter a profound and vigorous challenge to this whole way of thinking. …

Paul expressed his challenge most clearly in the eleventh chapter of Romans, where he explicitly stated that God’s severity towards the disobedient, his judgment of sin, even his willingness to blind the eyes and harden the hearts of the disobedient, are expressions of a more fundamental quality, namely that of mercy, which is itself an expression of his purifying love. …

According to Paul, therefore, God is always and everywhere merciful, but we sometimes experience his mercy (or purifying love) as severity, judgment, punishment. When we live a life of obedience, we experience it as kindness; when we live a life of disobedience, we experience it as severity (see [Rom] 11:22). Paul himself called this a mystery (11:25) and admitted that God’s ways are, in just this respect, “inscrutable” and “unsearchable” (11:33), but nothing could be clearer than his own glorious summation of the whole thing in 11:32. If the first “all” of 11:32 refers distributively to all the merely human descendants of Adam, if all are “imprisoned” in disobedience, then so also does the second; they are all objects of divine mercy as well. And if one should insist, as some have in a seemingly desperate effort to escape universalism, that neither “all” literally means “all without exception,” the obvious rejoinder is that here, no less than in Romans 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, the parallelism is even more important than the scope of “all.” According to Paul, the very ones whom God “shuts up” to disobedience—whom he blinds, or hardens, or cuts off for a season—are those to whom he is merciful; his former act is but the first expression of the latter, and the latter is the goal of the former. God hardens a heart in order to produce a contrite spirit in the end, blinds those who are unready for the truth in order to bring them ultimately to the truth, “imprisons all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to [them] all.” (pp. 67-69)

Though not a professional biblical scholar, Talbott brings to his reading of the Scriptures a philosopher’s acuity and a precision of argumentation. Ultimately he invites us to look at St Paul and the other books of the New Testament with fresh eyes and a renewed heart.

(Go to Part 4)

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