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.