Thomas Talbott on Universal Salvation and the Purpose of an Earthly Life

One of the common objections to the universalist hope is that it renders our mortal lives irrelevant. If all are going to be ultimately saved, then what possible purpose can our present temporal existence have?

Philosopher Thomas Talbott has given me permission to share with the readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy this excerpt from the soon-to-be-published second edition of his book The Inescapable Love of God.

Hopefully Dr Talbott will be visiting the blog to address any questions, concerns, and criticisms you might have, so avail yourselves of the comment box.

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54 Responses to Thomas Talbott on Universal Salvation and the Purpose of an Earthly Life

  1. mkenny114 says:

    One follow-up question I might suggest here is whether, on this basis, the finite horizons that our mortal lives have don’t involve God in something of a deception? What I mean is that, given that our earthly decisions are in large part shaped by the fact that we strongly feel ourselves to have just one chance to grow in virtue and in our relationship with God (or simply with the Good, depending on one’s perspective), is this boundary condition not slightly misleading on God’s part – if there is still an infinite time in which we can grow in these things, is the creation of a world in which it seems that this is not the case, and in which this supposition forms the basis of the decisions we make to shape our future selves, does this not amount to something of a divine trick?

    I see that a temporal, contingent life that is subject to change and uncertainty is necessary for our moral development (and also for our sanctification), but it does seem that the finality of this life is an essential part of that process, and so if death is really not the end, then the context in which we made those decisions was misleading. If this is the case, our moral lives would be built on un-truth, which is contrary to the nature of God, and so I find it hard to reconcile it with His nature.

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      Thanks for a thoughtful response, mkenny114. You raise an important issue: whether God ever employs deception as a means of grace. But in truth you also took your concern in a direction that surprised me.

      If you were an atheist who rejected altogether the idea of life beyond the grave, then I would fully understand (and appreciate) your claim that “our earthly decisions are in large part shaped by the fact that we strongly feel ourselves to have just one chance to grow in virtue….” It seems, however, that you believe, as strongly as I do, that our lives in fact extend beyond the grave. So is it your view, then, that those who die in infancy never have an opportunity to make any morally significant choices at all?

      Whatever your view on that rather tangential matter, I would ask: Just who are the “we” to whom you refer in the above quotation? Among those who believe in life beyond the grave, your “we” hardly includes proponents of reincarnation; neither does it include those Christians, such as C. S. Lewis, who reject universalism but nonetheless accept the possibility of post-mortem repentance. And neither does it include such saints as Gregory of Nyssa. Is it not possible, therefore, that your strong sense of death’s finality arises from prior theological commitments of your own? And if these should turn out to be mistaken, why should that imply deception on God’s part?

      Thanks again for your response.

      -Tom

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      • mkenny114 says:

        Many thanks for your response, especially as it highlights several areas in my comment that need clarification! 🙂

        Yes, I do believe that life continues after death, and also I recognise that for someone (i.e.; the atheist) the absolute finality of this life creates a completely different context in which we see life. However, for the atheist, as this life is the only one have, it would seem that any moral choices made therein actually have no ultimate value at all, seeing as they take place within a context which is literally without meaning (that life in general and/or particular decisions may feel meaningful is without question – the point is that, ultimately, everything we do is grounded in nothing in finally comes to nothing).

        For the Christian though, whilst believing in life after death, this does not rid us of the knowledge that it is life after DEATH – there is still a finality to our existence, and (I would argue) we have a distinct sense that there is something about the decisions we make here and now that will contribute to a similarly final outcome in the hereafter. Your mention of other religious perspectives on this is a good point, as yes, other cultures have other views on the afterlife (notably reincarnation) and many cultures throughout the ages didn’t even have a distinct belief in the afterlife at all. C. S. Lewis’ view of a purgatorial process, if I remember rightly, seems to have been something more akin to a cleansing of the soul (given the images he often used to describe it) rather than a post-mortem repentance, but I am open to correction on that.

        The mention of Saint Gregory may help to clarify my point on this matter (that of differing views of the afterlife). If, as Christians, we believe the Church (and this is the case regardless of one’s ecclesiology) to somehow be the earthly instrument of our salvation, the means by which Christ continues His work of redemption (and this also by bringing the Gospel to new cultures), we then have the problem that the view of someone like Saint Gregory of Nyssa represents a minority voice, and sits in an uncomfortable disagreement with the consistent teaching of the Church throughout the ages. This is not to say that universalists have not existed throughout history, but that they have never represented part of what one might call the ‘ordinary’ teaching of the universal Church. So yes, the finality of death most probably does in great part arise from prior theological commitments of my/our own, but these commitments come from the Church, which all Christians believe in some sense comes from God. So again, the problem of deception comes up.

        Also, I’m aware that universalism entails the salvation of all, and so includes members of other religions, but as this is a Christian universalism that is (I think) being discussed, I think what the Christianity teaches and has taught on the matter is still relevant. If what we’re talking about is moving away from the particularity of Christian revelation, then that’s a different matter altogether. I hope that clarifies (and expands upon, a little) what I wrote earlier. As for the issue of whether those who die in infancy are able to make morally significant decisions, I would say yes, certainly they can, and do (although, upon the atheist view, no, as none of our decisions have any ultimate significance). Many thanks again!

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        • Tom Talbott says:

          Hello again, mkenny114:

          Thanks for your further reflections. I previously put the following questions to you: “Is it not possible … that your strong sense of death’s finality arises from prior theological commitments of your own? And if these should turn out to be mistaken, why should that imply deception on God’s part?” To which you replied as follows: “So yes, the finality of death most probably does in great part arise from prior theological commitments of my/our own, but these commitments come from the Church, which all Christians believe in some sense comes from God. So again, the problem of deception comes up.”

          Now this reply, I must confess, puzzles me for reasons of a kind that Brian has already expressed. Imagine some scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day adopting a line of argument similar to yours: “Yes,’ they might exclaim, “our understanding of the Messiah arises from our own prior theological commitments, but these come from the Jewish community itself, which was called out by God, and from the Torah, which all faithful Jews believe to be a revelation from God. So if we (that is, the great majority of us) are wrong about the Messiah, then it seems that God is a great deceiver after all.”

          Accordingly, I now begin to wonder how your own line of argument differs from the one I have just attributed to the scribes and the Pharisees. Both lines of argument appeal to tradition and to the majority opinion within a presumed people of God. You thus dismiss St. Gregory of Nyssa on the ground that he represents a minority opinion within the church. But can we not give tradition its due respect without holding that the majority opinion within the church is ALWAYS correct? If not, then I see no way to prevent your own line of argument from collapsing into something like this: because my own theological commitments ultimately come from God, I cannot be mistaken unless God himself has deceived me. But perhaps you can show me another way to interpret your remarks.

          Anyway, tomorrow morning I take my wife in for cataract surgery; I also need to spend some time at the hospital where a friend of mine is, in all likelihood, nearing the end of his earthly life. Still, I will definitely read with interest any response you might be inclined to compose.

          With all best wishes,

          -Tom

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          • mkenny114 says:

            Tom,

            Thanks again for your reply. First of all, I would like to say that I am not ‘dismissing’ Saint Gregory at all, merely pointing out that his is a minority view – to do this is not to dismiss him, only to point out that his views on the matter have never been presented as part of the ordinary teaching of the Church.

            Also, this is not just a matter of majority opinion – the Church is not, after all, a democracy. All I am insisting is that there is such a thing as Christian orthodoxy, and that universalism not only has not been part of that, but that it would be very difficult to present it as being a valid development from what has gone before (in fact, it would seem that it would represent a definitive break from Church teaching). Perhaps though I was mistaken in what I said earlier about ecclesiology not mattering here – as a Catholic, I am aware that Protestants (for example) have a very different view of the Church and its authority, but had assumed that some sort of consistency with what had been taught before would still be important for all Christians (and again, this is not just a matter of majority rules but what the Church has discerned and consistently taught over the ages).

            Aside from the issue of what the Church has taught though, I still think there is some sense in which most of humanity (including those who believe in an afterlife) has felt the context of finitude in which we live our earthly life to shape their decision making to a great extent – i.e.; if everyone lived with the sense (and with a reasonable degree of assurance) that what we do here and now is not completely determinative of what happens in the hereafter, but that there will be more opportunity for growth in holiness in the next life, we would live our lives very differently. The fact that religions in which this IS an aspect of their faith (e.g.; those that believe in reincarnation) tend (generally speaking) towards some form of Quietism would seem to support this.

            More importantly though, I am very sorry to hear about what you said in your concluding comments. I completely understand if you are not able to respond in the near future (or at all), and you have my prayers for your wife and friend (and for you, in what must be a difficult time).

            Best wishes, thank you again, and God bless.

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  2. steve95054 says:

    mkenney114:

    I’m not sure it can be counted as a deception when, as the excerpt says, “many of God’s redemptive activities in the postmortem realm…depend logically upon choices made during an earthly life”. And also, “an earthly type environment plays an essential role….in laying the groundwork for whatever redemptive activities God may yet bring to fruition in a postmortem realm.”

    Given the proposition of redemptive activities of God in a postmortem realm, it is illogical to say that this life is in “final” in the sense of permanently irredeemable. However, it is still perfectly logical, and not at all deceptive, to say that it is “final” in the sense of permanently and irrevocably shaping the contours of the future life — namely, in selecting which specific redemptive activities (if any) in the postmortem realm will be needed to bring me, as an individual, to perfection.

    You say, “given that…we strongly feel ourselves to have just one chance to grow in virtue and in our relationship with God”. However, I’m not sure that’s entirely a given. Granted, it may be in the American, Protestant-hell-fire-and-damnation based theological and popular moral discourse. But I don’t think it’s universally in the heart of man by any stretch. How many cultures and religions see this life as a womb, leading to the next life of adulthood (in comparison)? How many see this life as one of many such lives, each affected by the choices of the past lives, to be constantly gone over and over until one “gets it right” and moves on to a higher existence? How many others see this life as having no consequence at all?

    Granted, these may be deceptions, but not necessarily more or less so than the Protestant focus on “sinners in the hands of an angry God” frying for all of eternity because “they deserve it”, with it’s corollary that we “only have one chance to get it right”.

    So I think we agree that it is a deception. But the question remains: is it of God? I would propose that it is not. It, like all effective deceptions, is based on a certain truth (that it is appointed unto man once to die, and after this the judgment), but it is a distortion of the truth it is based on (that the judgment referred to is corrective in its intent). Any distortion of the Truth is from the Evil One, and designed to bring slander against God. It has been somewhat effective in this task, I think, but God Himself has overcome this deception by the Church, which the Apostle Paul says exists “[to the end] that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace”. But to whom will He show these riches? To those by whom He shows them? He will have no need, as we will be experiencing them already, since it is precisely “in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” that they are displayed.

    I propose that He, in the ages to come, will show these exceeding riches of His grace to those who have chosen to reject them through ignorance of them, as the excerpt suggests, and that this ignorance does not constitute a deception from God. Either it does not constitute a deception (not telling someone something, and allowing them to act on their ignorance, is not, to my mind, deception), or it is not “from God”, however much He may allow it.

    Furthermore, the idea that God is above deception is somewhat suspect as well. He deceived the Devil, didn’t He? when He offered Himself on the Cross? Hell saw a man and swallowed God, and was by this Greatest of Deceptions completely undone!

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    • mkenny114 says:

      Dear Steve,

      Thanks for your reply. First of all I would say that the excerpts you quote from the article are not really relevant to the point I made. I am not denying that what we do in this life would be relevant for what God is then able to do in the afterlife. The ‘deception’ I am talking about is the fact that we feel our decisions in this life to be in some sense final and definitive, and that if this is not the case, then we may perhaps be being deceived. See my reply to Dr. Talbot for elaboration on this, but my basic contention is not what might be the case in the post-mortem realm, but that if it is true that further possibility of repentance and redemption occurs there, then the sense we have of our earthly decisions deciding our ultimate fate there would be in some sense deceptive.

      This very much does not entail a ‘hell-fire-and-damnation’ model of one possible post-mortem outcome. It has nothing to do with emotive visions of what hell may be like (although these have no doubt existed at various points throughout history), but the basic recognition that what we do here in some sense determines what our post-mortem lives will be, and that the decisions we make here and now are, in great part, made in the light of that knowledge. Again, see my reply to Dr. Talbot for some clarification on this.

      As for the idea that, if this is really a deception, then it is of the devil not God, I think this is deeply problematic, as it would entail the devil having consistently misled the Church (and, as I said in my reply to Dr. Talbot, I don’t think it matters what view of the Church one has here) throughout her history, to teach something contrary to the truth. One could make the argument (and it is a perfectly good one) that we are still in the ‘early days’ of the Church, but then we have to ask ourselves if universalism represents a valid development of (as opposed to a contradiction of) what has been taught before.

      Interesting point about God ‘tricking’ the devil on the Cross (a favourite atonement model of the Church Fathers) being evidence that He is not above deception. In this case I would say that the devil was deceived because he has warped himself so much that his capacity to receive the Truth has become drastically diminished, and so it is not so much the case that God deliberately deceived him, but that when the Truth was presented so starkly before him, he could not see it. We read similar things about those who could not receive Our Lord’s coming and His teaching (e.g.; John 3:19-21)

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      • brian says:

        mkenney114:

        You seem to assume that the dominant view on hell and salvation is somehow either dogmatically secure or at least significant enough that it clearly represents a valid expression of Christian truth. Then, one further concludes that if Christian universalism should turn out to be true, then God is somehow complicit in deception.

        I don’t see that one is compelled to accept the presuppositions built into this line of thought. The dominant position is a theological opinion that may turn out to be wrong. The fact that many have held that opinion says nothing about God.

        Further, a belief that our temporal acts significantly impact our eternal destiny does not logically exclude God’s creative ability to transcend the limits of our actions or for the ultimate consequences of those actions to be more felicitous than we are able to conceptually or imaginatively conceive.

        Certainly, the subjective sense that death is a “finality” that disallows further possibilities for mercy or redemption is a purely psychological perspective. It carries no ontological weight.

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        • mkenny114 says:

          Brian,

          Thanks for your reply. First of all, yes I do assume that the (for want of a better word, as the word ‘orthodox’ might be too loaded a term in this context) standard view on hell and salvation is a secure one and represents a valid expression of Christian truth. As I said in my reply to Dr. Talbot above, I realise now that this does very much depend on a view of Christianity (with respect to its authoritative teaching) that I had assumed would be held by all. However, this is clearly not the case, so I see that this line of argument is not really applicable here.

          Nevertheless, in my reply to Dr. Talbot I also maintained (and do so here) that the majority of people’s decisions are still shaped to a great extent by a sense that what we do here and now will have a decisive effect on our eternal destiny, and that this is the case regardless of what one believes about whether the Church can err or not. You may well disagree, but this is certainly the impression I have.

          I agree that this sort of belief (however commonly held) does not logically exclude God’s ability to make something more of what we have done here when it comes to the next life, and I wasn’t ever arguing that such a logical problem exists. My point was that the perspective that death disallows further possibilities for redemption, whilst being a subjective position, is something that seems to emerge naturally from the way God has created us (i.e.; as finite, contingent beings that need a context of finitude and contingency in which to fully develop), and that it is THIS that would involve God in something of a deception. Consistent Church teaching on the matter only compounds a sense that we already have as creatures that have an innate sense of our own finitude from the very beginning.

          I hope that helps to clarify my position a little (though I do not, of course, expect you to agree!) Thanks again for your comments.

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          • brian says:

            Hi mkenney114,

            Thanks for your response. I may not be fully understanding your views, in spite of your attempts at clarification. Based on what I think you are saying, I offer the following.

            There are, as you acknowledge, differing views of ecclesial authority. This whole topic invites many digressions. Apart from certain literalist Protestant views of Scripture, however, which are unable to accomodate a complex, nuanced hermeneutic, I am unaware of any particular Christian tradition that has pronounced definitively regarding hell and salvation. I don’t think Catholicism or Orthodoxy has ruled out the possibility of Christian universalism.

            The argument from finitude and contingency is a philosophical one that can be illuminated by a theological lens, However, I would argue that there is nothing in either condition that compels one to accept the standard theological position on hell. The inherent longing of the human heart argues for a transformation of the person that would transcend the limits of finitude and contingency. It seems to me that human development actually requires such a transfiguration. How this would naturally imply the kind of eschatology you surmise to be true is not evident to me.

            Sorry if this is redundant or perhaps irritating.

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          • mkenny114 says:

            Brian,

            You are right in thinking that there has not been a definitive pronouncement on hell and salvation, certainly not in the sense of Pope or Council stating unequivocally that hell exists and if one ends up there, then there is no chance of further repentance. However, whilst I cannot speak for the Orthodox, Catholicism* considers the existence of hell and its eternal nature to be an article of the Faith, and does so precisely because of the consistent teaching and preaching on these matters from apostolic times (which teaching was itself based upon the consensual understanding of the words of Our Lord) throughout the ages. I think (though again I cannot say so for sure) that the Orthodox take the same view. Basically though, there are many things that Christianity has not pronounced upon definitively, but are nevertheless understood to be part of the ordinary teaching purely because of this consistent teaching from apostolic times onward, and the possibility of eternal damnation is one of those things.

            Re our finitude and contingency, I certainly wasn’t arguing that this condition compels us to accept the standard teaching on hell. What I was trying to say is that given that this is the way we have created, this condition commonly leads us to intuit that decisions made in the pre-mortem realm will have a lasting effect on our eternal fate. You could compare it to the sense most of us have that we are fallen creatures – there is nothing about human existence that compels us to accept the doctrine of Original Sin, but our experience leads us to see such a doctrine (however one formulates it, as I am aware that there are various schools of thought on this) as fitting.

            I certainly agree that the longing of the human heart also speaks to us of a transformation that transcends finitude and contingency, and I definitely agree that human development (and more specifically, our salvation) demands such a thing (c.f.; Matthew 5:48; Revelation 21:27, etc) – this is, in part, why I believe that a post-mortem purgatorial process will be necessary for most of us before we can enter into the blessedness of life with God. However, I don’t think this really tells us anything about whether or not everyone actually will be so transfigured.

            Thanks again for your reply, and for your interesting questions, which are not in the least irritating or redundant 🙂

            *See the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1033-1037 here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2O.HTM

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Tom, at your convenience, could you say a few words about the common objection that the universalist hope undermines faith and repentance: if universal salvation is guaranteed, why be faithful? why obey the moral law? why convert to Christ and become his disciple?

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      Fortunately, Father Kimel, I can take a first step in addressing these questions without consuming more than a minute or two of my own time; I need only reproduce three paragraphs from the forthcoming second edition of *The Inescapable Love of God*. Here they are:

      But if our salvation is guaranteed from the beginning and guaranteed no matter what choices we make in the present, then where is the incentive, many would ask, to repent and to enter into communion with God? Why not just keep on sinning if we are going to be saved anyway? That very question, however, betrays a terrible confusion, and Paul himself, I might add, exposed a similar confusion when his interlocutor had asked: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1). Nor did Paul ever reject the assumption behind the question: namely, that the more we sin, the more grace will indeed abound. To the contrary, he endorsed this very assumption when he wrote: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20). Not in a million, or a billion, or even a trillion years could our sins ever out-duel the grace of God.

      So why, then, did Paul answer his own question, correctly, with his characteristic “By no means”? He did so because of his firm conviction that sin is utterly irrational and utterly contrary to our own best interest. For how, he in effect asked, could those who have “died to sin” and therefore understand its true nature continue to sin (6:2)? Is not sin (or anything that separates us from God) precisely the problem, the very thing making our lives miserable? That the pain I experience when I thrust my hand into a flame may serve a beneficial purpose—because it enables me to avoid an even greater injury in the future—hardly entails that I have a good reason to thrust my hand into the flame again and again. And similarly, that the misery and discontent that sin brings into a life can serve a redemptive purpose—because it can provide in the end a compelling motive to repent—hardly implies that one has a good reason to keep on sinning and to continue making oneself more and more miserable in the process.

      We thus return to the well-worn analogy of the grandmaster in chess to which we alluded in the previous chapter. When a grandmaster plays a novice, it is foreordained, so to speak, that the grandmaster will win, not because he or she causally determines the novice’s every move or even predicts each one of them; the end is foreordained because the grandmaster is resourceful enough to counter any combination of moves that the novice will in fact freely decide to make. And similarly for the infinitely wise and resourceful God: He has no need to exercise direct causal control over our individual choices in order to “checkmate” us in the end; he can allow us to choose freely, perhaps even protect us from some ill-advised choices for a while, and still undermine over time every conceivable motive we might have for rejecting his grace. For once we learn for ourselves—after many trials and tribulations, in some cases—why separation from God is an objective horror and why union with him is the only thing that can satisfy our deepest yearnings and desires, all resistance to his grace will melt away like wax before a flame.

      -Tom

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  4. brian says:

    mkenny114,

    Thanks, again. I think most people, if they are honest, recognize that something is awry both within themselves and with the cosmos. The Fall and Original Sin, however, is not self-evident to many people. It is within a theological tradition with particular narratives that a particular interpretation is rendered thinkable.

    I recommend a perusal of Joseph Ratzinger’s Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, as well as Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved, and Walter Kasper’s recent book, Mercy.

    The Catholic tradition is not monolithic on this topic.

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    • brian says:

      Sorry, forgot to mention FC Bauerschmidt’s terrific Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ as another Catholic work that meditates profoundly on some of these issues.

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    • mkenny114 says:

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks again for getting back to me. Yes, what you say re Original Sin this is kind of my point – that although none are compelled to accept the doctrine Original Sin, human beings do, for the most part (and yes, as you wisely add, if they are honest) acknowledge that there is a disjunct between what we are and what we should be (and similarly with respect to the world at large). We have, I am suggesting, similar intuitions about the finality of our moral decisions in this life, and although this does not mean we are compelled to accept a certain teaching on this matter, it does shape how we make those decisions to a great extent.

      Thank you for the recommendations. I am aware of von Balthasar’s work in this area, but I haven’t actually read the book, so this serves as a good nudge to do so! As for Josef Ratzinger, I would be interested to see what he has to say there, as what he wrote (as Pope Benedict XVI) in Spe Salvi seems pretty much congruent with magisterial teaching. However, from what I know already of both of these two, I would be very surprised if either of them advocated an assurance that all will be saved. As the title of von Balthasar’s book indidicates, I think all he advocated was that we may hope for the salvation of all, which is not the same thing; and Pope Benedict has affirmed on several other occasions that hell is a real possibility for some, whilst providing justification for the hope that the number that end up in that state will be few.

      As for Catholic tradition being monolithic here, I think we need to distinguish between acceptable theological opinion (what the Orthodox refer to as theologoumena) and actual Catholic tradition/teaching. I would not deny that there have been various opinions on this matter throughout the ages – far from it – in fact, to achieve unanimity in this sense would be impossible; but the fact is that some opinions are more consonant with the wider tradition than others. I would certainly place Pope Benedict’s thought within that wider tradition; as for von Balthasar, I’d say he represents the further edges of ‘acceptable opinion’ – not unorthodox, but pushing the boundaries a bit 🙂

      P.S. I shall certainly check out the Julian of Norwich book too. She is an intriguing thinker!

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      • brian says:

        Hi mkenney114,

        I should clarify that none of the theologians I cited is a universalist in the full sense. All of them are inclined or at least open to it’s possibility. They hope . . . Personally, I am somewhere between Balthasar and those who have certitude. I have a “strong” hope.

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        • mkenny114 says:

          Brian,

          Yes, that is so, and fair enough. I would say personally that I lean closer to Josef Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI in that I am open to the possibility but find it hard to discount the Church’s teaching on this matter (and again, I do not just mean that in the sense of what the Magisterium has definitively stated) and the many examples of human beings actively working against what is in their best interests even in this life (more so the former than the latter though, I might add).

          Nice ‘talking’ to you here anyway 🙂

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  5. Tom Talbott says:

    Reply to mkenny114:

    I want to thank you again for continuing with this discussion and especially for your wonderfully gracious spirit. In your latest reply to me, you wrote: “I would like to say that I am not ‘dismissing’ Saint Gregory at all, merely pointing out that his is a minority view – to do this is not to dismiss him, only to point out that his views on the matter have never been presented as part of the ordinary teaching of the Church.”

    Actually, I did not mean to imply that you were dismissing the good bishop himself; you would even agree, I presume, with his Trinitarian theology and with his opposition to Arianism. But it did seem to me—and perhaps I was wrong about this—that you were dismissing his universalism and his affirmation of post-mortem repentance, which was the context of our discussion. You thus commented that “the view of someone like Saint Gregory of Nyssa represents a minority voice, and sits in an uncomfortable disagreement with the consistent teaching of the Church throughout the ages.” You then noted that your own theological “commitments come from the Church, which all Christians believe in some sense comes from God. So again, the problem of deception comes up.” I took your reference to deception here to imply that, if St. Gregory were right on the matters relevant to our discussion, then God would turn out to be a deceiver of some kind. But perhaps I was wrong about this, as I said.

    Now I also take your point that “the Church is not, after all, a democracy.” But the opposite of a “minority view,” to use your own term, is a presumably a majority view. So if we consider Christianity as a whole including the Roman Catholic tradition, the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and a bewildering variety of Protestant Churches, then perhaps we can agree that Christian universalism represents a minority view within this broader Christian framework. Accordingly, lest we lose sight of your original concern about God being a deceiver, here is the question I would now like to pose. If a “minority view” (your term) within the Christian tradition, considered broadly, should turn out to be true, why should this entail that God himself is a deceiver? Is it not possible that many Christians, no less than many Jews, have simply misunderstood some aspect of the divine revelation?

    In any case, if we can both agree that the documents included in the Christian Bible are, at the very least, a witness to the divine revelation, then perhaps we can simply set aside, for the moment, questions about ecclesiology and church authority and focus instead on the meaning of specific texts. You might then interpret a given text from a Roman Catholic perspective, and I might interpret the same text in some other way. But at least we will then have a specific text before us to reflect upon and perhaps even to argue about. So is there anything specific in the Christian Scriptures, I am now wondering, that would lead you to believe that, with respect to unrepentant sinners, God’s mercy has an arbitrary time limit, namely the moment of one’s physical death?

    Thanks again for your contribution to our discussion.

    -Tom

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    • mkenny114 says:

      Tom,

      Thanks for your follow-up here, and I hope all is as well as can be with you.

      First of all, I didn’t mean to imply that you had implied I was dismissing all of Saint Gregory’s teaching. What I wanted to clarify was that, in pointing out that his view on post-mortem repentance etc does not represent what the wider tradition has always taught, I was not simply dismissing this particular teaching of his. In fact, I think he has some very interesting things to say in this area – I can’t go all the way with him there, but his views here are certainly worth thinking about. So what I mean is that to point out that his view is a minority one is not to dismiss that view, only to put in its wider context.

      Re the issue of how this would then fit in with what the Church has consistently taught on hell and salvation, unfortunately I do now think that the assumption I made that the majority of Christians, regardless of ecclesiology, would be deeply uncomfortable (to say the least) with the Church having been wrong on this matter, was incorrect. For the question you ask, namely:

      ‘If a “minority view” (your term) within the Christian tradition, considered broadly, should turn out to be true, why should this entail that God himself is a deceiver? Is it not possible that many Christians, no less than many Jews, have simply misunderstood some aspect of the divine revelation?’

      will be answered very differently by those (Catholics and Orthodox) who think that the Church cannot err in matters of faith and morals, or Protestants who considers a certain body of teaching (including the standard view on hell) to represent Christian orthodoxy, versus those who believe that we have been given no such guarantee (that either we will be unfailingly guided into Truth, or that a defined body of orthodox teaching exists and cannot be contradicted).

      I don’t really want to get into the whole issue of final authority, as it is always a contentious issue, but my main point here is that I was wrong in assuming that these things didn’t matter – the view we have of the Church and of what constitutes orthodoxy really does determine how one would answer your question – i.e.; if these things (authority, having a means of knowing what orthodoxy is) are important, then universalism being true would indeed represent something of a deception on God’s part, or would at least show Him to have been highly misleading in guiding the Church to teach something that contradicts the truth about our salvation.

      Unfortunately I don’t think it is possible to set all this aside in examining the relevant scriptural texts either. For example, in Matthew 25:31-46 (particularly vv.41 and 46), the Greek word ‘aionios’ can be translated as ‘eternal’ or as ‘pertaining to/of the age’ or perhaps even a combination of the two – the ‘eternal age’. The problem here is that the former meaning seems to have been accepted by the Church from apostolic times onward, and all the other sayings of Our Lord wrt hell (e.g.; Mt 10:28; Mk 9:43-48) were similarly seen as referring to an eternal future after death, either of blessedness or of damnation (and I’m sure they were aware of both possible translations of aionios). So, if universalism is true, this either means that God has provided no means for guiding His people into the truth on very important matters of faith, or that He has misled us – the first situation either leaves us in the dark or makes God a deceiver, neither of which I am personally willing to accept as being consistent with what God has revealed about Himself (although ironically, this knowledge presupposes that God hasn’t left us in the dark and that we can trust what has been passed down to us).

      Thanks for engaging critically and charitably with my questions and for posing some interesting follow-up questions of your own. Whatever conclusion one comes to on this topic, I think we can all agree that it is a very interesting area of discussion, and certainly an important discussion to have too.

      Like

      • brian says:

        Hi mkenny114,

        I shall be terse, as this conversation is capable of merry-go-round exhaustion.

        It seems to me that when you reference Benedict XVI and say “I am open to the possibility but find it hard to discount the Church’s teaching on this matter,” with regards to universal salvation, you are not quite accurate.

        Since you have actually decided that universal salvation is contrary to established Christian truth from a Catholic perspective, you are not open to the possibility. Or, you admit the possibility, but then God is in some sense a deceiver.

        I suggest that the Church has not, in fact, pronounced as definitively as you assume. If it is such a settled matter dogmatically, Hans Urs von Balthasar was surely somewhat ignorant of this fact and foolish to make a contrary proposal.

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        • mkenny114 says:

          Hi Brian,

          Yes, you’re right it is easy for this to just go back and forth.

          What I mean by being open to the possibility of an eventual universal reconciliation of some kind is precisely that – that it is a possibility, albeit a distant one given the teaching that we have received. Basically, from the Catholic perspective one is allowed to hope that, despite what the Church has consistently taught about the possibility of eternal damnation for some, that this teaching itself speaks in terms of possibilities and it has never been unequivocally stated that anyone will end up in hell, only that it is quite possible and highly likely, and that hell will be eternal should they end up there. And again, I never said that the Church has issued any pronouncements on this either – I was appealing to a consistent witness to the apostolic teaching on this matter throughout her history.

          Hans Urs von Balthasar was not ignorant of this fact, which was why he only said that he dared to hope all might be saved, and insisted that we must equally contend with the possibility that some might not be, precisely because of the words of Scripture and the traditional interpretation of them. I already said that von Balthasar was pushing the boundaries a bit, and to be honest I think that this is as far as one can go with these ideas in a Catholic context, but what he proposed (remember, his was an uncertain hope not an assurance) was still (just!) compatible with what the Church teaches.

          Like

          • brian says:

            Hi mkenny114,

            Okay, I think we have finally reached a point where I see pretty much what you are saying and where you stand. I am more optimistic, but not actually in substantial disagreement. I do think it is a mistake to speak in terms of probabilities. If one were to engage in such speculation, my own opinion is that based on God’s stated intentions, never exhausted compassion, and the infinite creative ingenuity of the Holy Spirit, a more happy outcome is not as unlikely as you surmise.

            Most of my intellectual formation has been Catholic, but I synthesize from Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and the odd Protestant source. I am probably slightly heterodox from your perspective.

            In my view, if any person ends up in hell, it is a loss for God. I’m inclined to think God will have a total victory. But, you know, I am the sort that thinks a total redemption of the Cosmos will include a transfiguration of everything, from minerals to plants to animals — not just in terms of species, but in terms of individual creatures. Every ant that exists has an eternal destiny, though no one knows what a heavenly transfigured ant or anything else is. So, that’s the way my theological imagination tends. I appreciate the conversation and your patience for sticking with it.

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        • mkenny114 says:

          Hi Brian,

          Thanks again. I definitely see where you are coming from here (c.f.; the clarifications of your own position in your recent comments above) and certainly see the force of those arguments. Has been good discussing these thing with you (and no patience required, honestly!) 🙂

          Like

      • Tom Talbott says:

        Thanks a million, mkenny114, for setting before us a specific text for discussion, namely, Matthew 25:31-46 or, as it is sometimes called, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. As you know, a common translation of verse 46 runs as follows: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (NRSV). For starters, then, I propose to focus specifically on this verse and to set aside for now a host of issues—e.g., the fact that Matthew 25:31-46 is a parable, that virtually all New Testament scholars agree that we should not take the details of a parable literally, and that, personally, I seriously doubt that the main point of this parable has anything to do with final judgment. But I also propose to accept the translation of “aiōnios” as “eternal,” which seems to me an accurate translation in the present context. Time constraints and space limitations being what they are, however, I must limit myself to three brief comments and leave further elaborations and clarifications for later.

        First, “aiōnios” is an adjective and must therefore function like an adjective, and it is the very nature of an adjective for its meaning to vary, sometimes dramatically, depending upon which noun it qualifies. This is especially true when different nouns signify different categories of things. As an illustration, consider the English word “everlasting.” An everlasting struggle, if there should be such a thing, would no doubt be a struggle without end, an unending temporal process that never comes to a point of resolution and never gets completed. But an everlasting change, or an everlasting correction, or an everlasting transformation (note that these are all result nouns) would hardly be an unending temporal process that never gets completed; it would instead be a temporal process of limited duration, or perhaps even an instantaneous event, that terminates in an irreversible result. So however popular it might be, the argument that “aiōnios” must have exactly the same force regardless of which noun it qualifies in Matthew 25:46 seems to me clearly fallacious.

        Second, when we consider the relevant nouns in verse 46, it also seems clear that they signify different categories of things. For whereas the life (zōē) is clearly an end in itself, the punishment (kolasis) seems just as clearly to be a means to an end. And because the Gospel writer chose the noun “kolasis,” a common Greek word for remedial punishment or correction, nothing in the context excludes the idea of an eternal correction, which would be an event or process of limited duration whose corrective effect literally endures forever.

        Finally, compare Matthew 25:31-46, which is a parable, with Paul’s systematic discourse in Romans 5:12-19. As you know, Romans 5:18 reads as follows: “Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal [or justification] and life for all men” (RSV). Given the parallel structure of this sentence, which is so typically Pauline (see 1 Cor. 15:22 and Rom. 11:32); and given the almost philosophical precision with which Paul identified his reference class in the context, there is simply no reasonable way, I believe, to explain away the universalistic thrust of this text. Both instances of “all men” pick out exactly the same group of individuals. I do not, of course, expect you (or anyone else) to accept this on my say so, and perhaps we can argue about the details later. In the meantime, I’m wondering how you would respond to the following argument, which I lift almost word for word (but not quite) from your latest reply. “If universalism is false, this either means [in light of Romans 5:12-19] that God has provided no means for guiding His people into the truth on very important matters of faith, or that He has misled us and is in fact a deceiver.” Could you perhaps explain why, as you see it, your own argument is more cogent than this one?

        I’ll look forward to your further reply. Thanks again.

        -Tom

        Like

        • steve95054 says:

          Tom,

          Regarding the sense of the word “aiōnios” in Matthew 25:46, I believe there is a third sense (or perhaps an aspect of the first sense that is being overlooked), namely, the hyperbolic.

          When you use the example, “everlasting struggle”, we could just as easily say “eternal struggle” and get the same meaning.

          However, many people do use such terms to refer to actions that do in fact have an end. e.g. to refer to many of the political movements that abound these days. The struggle against racism could be referred to as “aiōnios kolasis”, not because racism will never be vanquished, but because there is no set timeline as to when it will be, and we must continue the effort to purify ourselves of it forever until it is.

          I propose that it is the same with God: “in the ages [aiōsi, a plural of aiōnios] to come” He will (continue to) act to purify all of His creation, until it is purified indeed, however long that takes.

          This is a frightful thing, of course, since that process is one of weeping and gnashing of teeth, and we would want to do everything to avoid it: it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, Who is a consuming fire.

          So our Lord, I think, chose a phrase that is both accurate and ambiguous, because if He had said too plainly, “all will be reconciled, and none will be in Hell”, skipping over “the ages to come”, many would not repent now. He knows the human psyche, having created it, and also the depth of our depravity, and how we will do anything to avoid even the thought of pain, up to and including ignoring the truth. So He could not (and we, following Him, also should not) give too much hope that might lead to presumption and damnation for many.

          This is why I like the ambiguous and tenuous approach: hellfire and damnation are real, but there is a hope (but not a dogma! it cannot be a dogma, for the reasons listed above), that eventually, in the end, way farther out than many of us realize (there are, after all, “ages” (plural) still to come), “God will be all in all”, and there will be none left in Hell. Not that none will have dwelt there, but that all will have been healed, and set free.

          What do you think?

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Your comment, Steve, got me thinking of one of Robert Jenson’s early books, Story & Promise. Jenson asks, What is the difference between Jesus’ summons to repentance and John the Baptist’s summons to repentance? His answer: whereas for John the future is still future (we still have time to repent or delay repentance), for Jesus the future is absolutely now; hence there is no time left to delay repentance. If Jens is right, then Jesus’ use of gehenna language must be interpreted within his apocalyptic, and therefore hyerbolic, mode of speech. Check out my article on St Gregory of Nazianzus, in which I bring Jenson into the conversation. Let me know what you think.

            Like

        • mkenny114 says:

          Hi Tom,

          Thanks for your reply, in which you raise some very interesting points.

          Firstly, before I respond to your three main comments, I would differ with you on one of your earlier brief comments, namely that because Matthew 25:31-46 is a parable we should not take its details literally. I agree with this principle in general, insofar as parables do not purport to describe real situations but are illustrative of a wider point. However, parables are also meant to be didactic, and it is thus important that we take the teaching communicated through the parable literally – in this case, what is being illustrated is that we will be judged on the quality of our love, expressed concretely by our behaviour towards others. On that basis I would personally find it difficult to accept an interpretation which had nothing to do with final judgement.

          Anyway, your first main comment, that the adjective ‘everlasting’ qualifies the noun in different ways depending on what the noun is, is undoubtedly true. However, it is not true that there could be no such thing as an everlasting correction, or transformation, or change – it is perfectly possible for something to go on changing or transforming or being corrected for ever, and whether this process is of limited or unlimited duration would depend upon the one doing the changing/correcting/transforming or the person/substance being acted upon (or even both). Though these processes are limited in our everyday experience, it is by no means logically necessary that such processes should be limited in every circumstance.

          This also applies to your second point, which to some extent relies on the first point about limited duration being necessary for certain processes. What you say about ‘kolasis’ being a term commonly used for remedial punishment is a good point and something I will certainly take note of – out of interest though (for comparison and clarification), which other Greek words were available at the time to describe other sorts of punishment?

          Your final point, which is the most interesting of all, is a very persuasive one. The first thing I would say is that (like with the case of 1 Corinthians 15:22) this passage in Romans cannot be taken alone but has to be balanced against other texts which suggest a non-universalist soteriology. Also, even within its own immediate context there are some things that run counter to a straightforwardly universalist interpretation. In v.15 Paul talks of the ‘many’ not the ‘all’, and in v.17 we read that ‘…much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ’ – which could very well suggest that eternal life in Christ is dependent upon the reception of the gift offered, and not something guaranteed for all. This, in fact, is the traditional interpretation of verses like Romans 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 – that, given the other verses which do not support universalism, Saint Paul, when speaking of ‘life for all men’ etc must be talking about the universalism of what is made available for all in Christ, not what will necessarily be the case for everybody. It is this sort of universalism (a gift offered to all peoples, regardless of culture, status, etc) that characterises so much of Saint Paul’s writings, so it would make sense to interpret the two verses in question in light of that.

          Your argument which edits what I wrote about God’s misleading us should universalism be true, doesn’t (I think) seem to work. Firstly, it presupposes your interpretation of Romans 5:12-19, and secondly it suggests that the means by which God has chosen to lead us into the truth regarding salvation is one single passage of Scripture, whereas when I was contending some kind of divine deception through the teaching of the Church I was speaking of the whole Christian tradition (both written and oral).

          This all goes to show though that ultimately, as interesting as it is to debate what the meaning of particular verses and passages of Scripture are, that the issues of authority I mentioned earlier are very important and cannot be ignored in a discussion such as this. If we go down the line of comparing differing interpretations, we will never have anything more than our own authority to back them up, and apart from the fact that we are each as fallible as one another, neither does our personal authority have any force in terms of conclusively determining the truth, however carefully and prayerfully we examine the texts. This is why, for me, I cannot disregard the teaching of the Church on these matters – at the end of the day either the Church is right, or anyone could be. The latter position is fine in and of itself, but that God might have left us in such a situation is something I personally find very hard to accept. This doesn’t mean we can’t debate this stuff though of course! 🙂

          Thanks again for your reply, and for raising some very important (and interesting) points.

          Like

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        “For example, in Matthew 25:31-46 (particularly vv.41 and 46), the Greek word ‘aionios’ can be translated as ‘eternal’ or as ‘pertaining to/of the age’ or perhaps even a combination of the two – the ‘eternal age’. The problem here is that the former meaning seems to have been accepted by the Church from apostolic times onward, and all the other sayings of Our Lord wrt hell (e.g.; Mt 10:28; Mk 9:43-48) were similarly seen as referring to an eternal future after death, either of blessedness or of damnation (and I’m sure they were aware of both possible translations of aionios).”

        Michael, I believe that your claim that the “eternal” meaning of aionios was accepted by the Church from apostolic times and onward is false. Several of the Church Fathers, including the great biblical exegete Origen, read the NT uses of aionios as “pertaining to/of the age”: see Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis; also see the book she co-authored with John Konstans, Terms for Eternity. I summarize Ramelli’s & Konstan’s research in this article: “From Here to Eternity.”

        Just throwing another rock into the pond. This is a very fine discussion. Keep at it, gentlemen! 🙂

        Like

        • mkenny114 says:

          Fr. Kimel,

          Thanks for your comment. This is an important point to raise, but I wasn’t claiming that the translation of aionios as ‘eternal’ was accepted unanimously. As I’ve said in other comments, such an acceptance of any doctrine would be nigh on impossible.

          Like

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Michael, in rejoinder I suggest that the burden of proof that aionios signifies “eternal,” either in the NT or, say, the second and third centuries, lies upon the “traditionalist” position. As you are no doubt aware, the supporters of annihilationism believe that the majority of the second century Fathers actually support their position.

            I emphasize this point because supporters of the traditional eternal punishment position often assume that their position enjoys the support of at least the majority, if not the overwhelming majority, of the ante-Nicene Fathers. But this may not be the case. At the very least it needs to be demonstrated.

            Like

          • mkenny114 says:

            Fr. Kimel,

            This is a very good point, as it raises the question of how the Church comes to consensus on things (something you explored in your excellent series of posts on St. Vincent of Lerins), given that what becomes established as the consensus or ‘mind’ of the universal Church does not necessarily enjoy majority support at all times in Church history (Arianism for example, found an enormous amount of support amongst the episcopacy at one time).

            It is clear that there were various positions on our ultimate fate in the early Church, and people claiming for the veracity of those positions (e.g.; annhilationists) will no doubt claim that their position had the most support amongst the Fathers. The problem is that, given that patristic thought is not monolithic, it is often difficult to decide amongst the claims just by doing a survey of the opinions extant amongst the Fathers. Thus I would suggest we have to use other criteria to discern amongst them – namely which school of thought ultimately became the ‘mind’ of the Church, and which teaching represents the most valid development of apostolic teaching. Saints Basil and Chrysostom for example, were aware that during their time the influence of Origen had led a significant number of people to believe in his theory of universal reconciliation, but were insistent that this teaching represented a perversion of the apostolic teaching that they had received. The question we have to ask is ‘who was right?’, and for a definitive answer the only place we can look to is the consensus the Church eventually came to.

            Like

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Michael, we are starting to wade into a pond in which Dr Talbott, I’m sure, has little interest of joining us. It would probably be best for us to restrict our comments in this thread to questions and topics upon which Tom might substantively engage. It’s hard enough trying to determine what aionios means without also worrying about “the mind of the Church.” 🙂

            Like

          • mkenny114 says:

            Yes Fr. Kimel, I agree, and it is not a direction I want to go in too much either, for various reasons. Unfortunately it does seem unavoidable to a certain extent, given that the way one interprets scriptural texts very much depends upon what one thinks the ‘mind of the Church’ is, and similarly the question of what the traditional view is depends on this quite a lot too. Nevertheless, I certainly agree that we shouldn’t stray too far from the path in this respect! 🙂

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        • mkenny114 says:

          P.S. I would also add that the ‘age to come’ meaning and the ‘eternal’ meaning are not mutually exclusive, and a Church Father’s use of the former doesn’t necessarily exclude the other. I shall read your article with interest 🙂

          Like

  6. Edward De Vita says:

    Why is the hope, whether weak or strong, that God will in fact be able to obtain precisely what He desires, I.e., the salvation of all human beings, considered to be “just” compatible with what the church teaches. Are you of the opinion that church dogma requires that there be eternally damned souls? What do you make of the scriptural hope that death and evil will one day be vanquished forever? What of the hope that God will one day be all in all?

    Like

    • mkenny114 says:

      Edward,

      It is only ‘just’ compatible with what the Church teaches (and if you read through some of my earlier comments you’ll see what I mean by the Church and the nature of that teaching) because, based on that teaching, it remains a possibility but not a very probable one. If it turns out that universalism is true, then I am sure there will be very good reasons why the teaching of the Church gave the impression that things were otherwise, but for now we can only work with what is most likely, and if one takes Church authority and consistency in her teaching seriously, then universalism does not seem a very likely outcome.

      And yes, I have read the scriptural verses you allude to, but there are of course verses that point in the other direction too. I don’t think much can be achieved, ultimately, by simply pointing to one or another – we need to take the whole scriptural witness into account, as well as considering this in the light of traditional interpretations of it throughout the ages.

      Like

  7. jrj1701 says:

    As I have been sitting on the sidelines and watching this discussion, the situation of the alcoholic has come to mind in regards to whether Christ meant eternal suffering or not. With the alcoholic there is no possibility of returning to casual use of alcohol, the alcoholic must refrain from alcohol use for the rest of the alcoholics life. Folks that don’t suffer from this ailment believe if the alcoholic is not drinking then the alcoholic is cured, which is far from the truth of the matter, for when the alcoholic starts to believe this, that he is cured by his own efforts then he is setting himself up for a tragic relapse. There are many alcoholics that relapse and die in their addiction because they forget that they are part of a process that last until they draw their last breath.

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  8. john burnett says:

    Lotta discussion!

    But i just can’t get over the initial question— “If all are going to be ultimately saved, then what possible purpose can our present temporal existence have?”

    That is, in fact, something i’ve actually heard from many people, both fundamentalist christians and from muslims alike.

    The assumption seems to be that the purpose of our life is to avoid hell, and without a hell to avoid, life would be meaningless.

    i just don’t worship that god. What a small god it is, too!

    Like

    • brian says:

      Hi John,

      I agree. A similar question, perhaps ultimately, the same, is why follow Christ if everyone is going to be saved?

      Though the best theology, imo, begins with Christ – and Christ is the key to any valid anthropology, there is some benefit to looking at our common human experience. A book like Luigi Giussani’s The Relgious Sense is good at drawing out the implications of our desire to know, for instance. I think the play of childhood and the creative impulses of artists give us a fundamental insight into the elemental nature of human beings. Further, as Jean-Yves Lacoste asserts in From Theology to Theological Thinking, true thought is inseparable from prayer; one could almost make this a tautology, true prayer is also true thinking. Knowing and loving are metaphysically coincident. The corollary is that a lot of what passes for thought really isn’t.
      Enlightenment notions of reason have many flaws, among them, a constitutional inability to recognize the mystery of love. Ultimately, like any love, Creation is a Whyless Why. One can enumerate the qualities of a beloved, but as John Zizioulas notes, the person’s uniqueness is not reducible to any collection of qualities. One loves a person simply because he or she is.
      Well, okay, I could easily get long here. In short, human flourishing is meant for creative work, joyous discovery, loving relationships. All human beings are by nature directed in this fashion, even if they nihilistically attempt to deny such. A moralistic Christianity may think of following Christ as a way to escape punishment, but a more adequate Christian life understands that Christ makes possible in an infinite degree what we are always already thirsting for. We desire God and in God, the cosmos is made fully real. Christos Yannaras would say that the moralized Christianity is a decadent Christianity. Real Christianity is not a religion; it is an ontological transformation that transcends the petty insecurities of the individual ego. Further, if our personhood is only realized in participation in Christ, the relations between ourselves and all others are intrinsic to our actualized identity, not elective associations we could easily do without.
      If this last were properly grasped, one might discern in the non-universalist understanding of redemption certain aspects that were prevalent in antiquity – limiting human being to rational substance – and then exacerbated with the rise of the modern individual.

      Like

  9. Tom Talbott says:

    Hello all,

    Whenever I get involved in these electronic forums, I sooner or later feel the need to slow down and to proceed one tiny baby step at a time. That’s in part because I cordially dislike the feeling of trying to cover too much ground too quickly. So Steve, I would love to comment on your fascinating post, and Michael, I would love to respond to all of the points that you have raised as well. But in accordance with my own time constraints and my current desire to proceed very slowly, I shall here restrict myself to a single issue with respect to Romans 5:18. Concerning this text, Michael, you wrote: “Also, even within its own immediate context there are some things that run counter to a straightforwardly universalist interpretation. In v.15 Paul talks of the ‘many’ not the ‘all’, and in v.17 we read that ‘…much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ’ – which could very well suggest that eternal life in Christ is dependent upon the reception of the gift offered, and not something guaranteed for all.”

    Here, in far too sketchy a fashion, is why I find both of these observations unpersuasive. As I said in my previous post, Paul seems to have identified his own reference class with great precision. In verse 12 he initially identified it as all humans (or more literally all men) who have sinned. Then, in verse 15 he distinguished within that single group or class between “the one” and “the many”—“the one” being Adam himself, who first sinned, and “the many” being all of those who died as a result of Adam’s sin. And finally, he insisted that “the one,” namely Adam, was “a type” of Jesus Christ (vs. 14), presumably because Jesus Christ, the second Adam, stands in the same relationship to “the many” as the first Adam did. But with this difference: “if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!” (vs. 15—NIV). It seems to me indisputable, therefore, that Paul had in mind one group of individuals—“the many,” which included all human beings except for the first and the second Adam—and he envisioned that each of the two Adams stands in the same relationship to that one group of individuals.

    As for Paul’s reference in verse 17 to “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness,” it is nearly certain, I believe, that he was using the verb “to receive” (“lambanō”) in a passive sense. Indeed, with respect to those contexts in which the thing received is divine judgment, divine grace, or a divine gift of some kind, Paul may never have used this term in anything but a passive sense—which is quite different, by the way, from the grammatical idea of the passive voice. When Paul declared: “Five times I have received [active voice] … the forty lashes minus one” (2 Cor 11:24), we understand that he received these 39 lashes in the same passive sense that a boxer might receive severe blows to the head; and when he spoke of those who “have received [active voice] grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5), we again understand that such persons are the recipients of some divine action in the same passive way that a newborn baby receives life. Similarly, in Romans 5:18 and 19 Paul was comparing the effect of Christ’s one act of righteousness on the whole mass of humanity with the effect of Adam’s disobedience, pointing out in verses 15 and 17 that the latter effect is far greater, and far more extensive, than the former. (On the passive sense of “lambanō,” see Richard Bell, “Rom 5:18-19,” New Testament Studies, July, 2002.)

    Now as you point out, Michael, Romans 5:12-19 is “one single passage of Scripture” even as Matthew 25:31-46 is a single passage of Scripture. So perhaps I should emphasize the very limited nature of the claim that I here set forth for others either to accept or to argue against. It is the claim that nothing in the immediate context of Romans 5:18 will enable one to explain away its universalistic thrust.

    Anyway, thanks again for the continued stimulation. I can only marvel at your own ability to carry on so many intelligent conversations simultaneously!

    -Tom

    Like

    • mkenny114 says:

      Hi Tom,

      Many thanks for another very thoughtful reply. I would like first to respond to your final point about this being only one passage of Scripture, just to clarify something. The only reason I mentioned this is because in your previous response you had included Romans 5:12-19 in a re-working of my argument, where it acted as equivalent to what, in the original argument, was the whole Christian tradition, written and oral. I certainly see no problem with the more limited claim you are now proposing.

      As for your exegesis of the passage itself, I have to admit that I don’t really follow the argument. It is correct that Paul refers to the ‘all’ that have sinned (and that death spread to all) in v.12, and also that in v.15 he distinguishes between the ‘one’ Adam and the ‘many’ who died through his trespass. Whilst I also agree that Christ and Adam stand in the same sort of relationship to the ‘many’ I don’t however see that it is indisputable therefore that this ‘many’ means everyone who has ever lived, or will live. The reason I disagree here is that typology does not imply an exact equivalence – e.g.; the brass serpent is a type of Christ, in the sense that it provided healing, but it did not provide healing in the same way, nor with the same scope.

      Similarly, whilst Adam is a type of Christ in that he is a representative of humanity, they are not equivalents – the sense in which they are not is the nature of how what they did affects the human race. Adam’s action had a negative impact; Christ’s a positive. Also, Adam’s action impacted on humanity without their consent (again, Original Sin is a complicated issue, and it can be said that as all were somehow present ‘in’ Adam that they did consent, but that in terms of real-life individual choices we have not done) whereas what is achieved in and through Christ is offered as a gift (c.f.; v.15 – ‘the free gift is not like the trespass’ and v.16 – ‘the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin’) and must be received freely by the individual (c.f.; v.17 – ‘much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ’).

      With respect to the Paul’s use of ‘lambanō’ in a passive sense, I don’t think this necessarily implies that there is no consent involved. When we receive grace it is indeed always in the passive sense, as we are acted upon by God – He takes the initiative and must bestow it upon us. However, that God’s action has priority does not mean that we do not cooperate with or consent to His grace, both as it effects change in our lives and in the initial awakening of the soul through justification – if we did not, then we would be stepping into ‘Five Points’ Calvinism territory, which I would not be comfortable with. Romans 1:5 is in fact a very good example of the way in which the passive sense can be used to describe this situation, as though the apostleship Saint Paul is talking about is a free gift of God, he and the other Apostles had to consent to their calling – their will was still truly free and it was possible for them to reject the apostolic office. So I wouldn’t say it was comparable to the way in which a newborn baby receives life – it is comparable to a re-birth, but one that (unlike the newly born child) has a say in the matter.

      Thus, whilst I can see a universalist thrust to Romans 5:18, I do not see that the sort of universalism you are suggesting it speaks of is in any way indisputable. I still think that the universalism I referred to in my earlier comment (that of the free gift being made available to all peoples, regardless of race, gender, status, etc) makes more sense, both in the immediate context of Romans 5, of Saint Paul’s thought overall, and of the whole NT witness. Thank you again for the response though – although ultimately I find it unconvincing, your argument certainly does have a good deal of persuasive power to it, and it is always a good thing to read serious exegesis, especially when it challenges one’s own opinions! 🙂

      Like

  10. Edward says:

    I have a question for Tom that relates to the Church’s task of proclaiming the gospel. It seems to me that the universalism that Tom espouses, which is akin to that of Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa, still requires a belief in an eternal hell. By this I mean that both Origen and Gregory (and, I presume, also Tom) would say that, apart from Christ, man is hopelessly lost. He is doomed to physical death and then eternal separation from God. They would point out, however, that Christ has come and that man is no longer in a hopeless condition. His salvation has been accomplished once and for all through the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. Since they had great faith in the power of the cross to save, they believed that this salvation would extend to every human being. But it would not happen automatically. Each human being would have to freely turn to God. They simply believed that God had the means of convincing even the most hardened of sinners.
    In today’s world, there is a very prevalent “I’m okay, you’re okay” attitude amongst people which simply assumes that everyone is a shoe-in for heaven. Many non-universalists think that this is what traditional Christian universalism is all about. But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. In the universalism of Origen, Gregory, and Isaac, no one who remains in a state of sin can see God. Man must make a decision either now or later. And the more the decision is postponed, the more difficult the recovery will be.
    So, my question to you is the following: do you think that confronting people with their desperate and hopeless condition apart from Christ is an integral component of the gospel proclamation? If so, is this not, in some sense, the equivalent of telling them that apart from turning to God in Christ, they are headed for an eternal separation from God?
    I hope I’ve stated this clearly.

    Ed

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    • brian says:

      Hi Ed,

      I won’t presume to answer for Dr. Talbott, but what you have articulated is the difference between Christian universalism and other forms of universalism.

      Like

    • Tom Talbott says:

      Hello Edward,

      You asked: “do you think that confronting people with their desperate and hopeless condition apart from Christ is an integral component of the gospel proclamation? If so, is this not, in some sense, the equivalent of telling them that apart from turning to God in Christ, they are headed for an eternal separation from God?”

      I guess that, before answering your question, I would first need to know how you understand the idea of someone’s condition being hopeless apart from Christ. Take Saul of Tarsus, for example. Would you say that his condition was hopeless prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus? If so, then I think one could consistently hold both (a) that “confronting people with their desperate and hopeless condition apart from Christ is an integral component of the gospel proclamation” and (b) that all people are nonetheless destined for a glorious end in communion with God through Christ. But if you would say that Saul’s condition at that time was not hopeless—because being apart from Christ today carries no implication that one will remain apart from him for all eternity—then I see no reason to infer that the condition of any other nonbeliever is hopeless either.

      Does that make any sense to you? Thanks for your question.

      -Tom

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  11. john burnett says:

    On the question of “many” in Rm 5.12 and passages like it, that’s clearly a well-known semitism, and all scholars treat it as such. Even in English, “many” can imply a limit (“many, but not all”), or limitlessness (“many; we couldn’t even count them”). In phrases like Rm 5.12, “many” is the latter case; it means “all”, and that’s why Paul can use it in parallel with the word “all”.

    Some other examples in Scripture are—

    Mt 13.17 || Lk 10.24, “many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them”— obviously, this does not mean “a lot, but not quite all prophets and righteous men desired to see”;

    Mk 10.45 || Mt 20.28, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”— he didn’t come just to give his life for “a lot, but not quite all people”; 1Tm 2.6 says almost the same thing but has “ransom for *all*”;

    Mk 14.24 || Mt 26.28, “For this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins”— again, Christ’s blood was not shed just for “a lot of people, but not all of them”.

    There are too many of these to count, but you might have a look at the Hebrew words “rab” in HALOT or BDB (the standard lexica of Biblical Hebrew); also the corresponding “polys” in BDAG or LSJ (the Greek lexica). That would sufficiently clarify the issue, i think.

    About the meaning of “receive”, since the argument here is basically about the meaning of a word in scripture, it might or might not be apposite to note here that the fathers of the church *universally* taught that Christ’s work applies to our human nature (indeed to all of creation generally), and therefore all will be raised by his grace. It strikes me that the real problem with this mystery (and it *is* a mystery!) is that we westerners just find it impossible to shake off a juridical notion of salvation, and (a) we tend to see it in terms of an either-or decision, both on the part of man and on that of God, and (b) we want to know for sure in logical terms what the answers are.

    But “save” (sōzō) means “heal” (yes it can mean “rescue”, but that is not its primary meaning). That’s why St John of Damascus can pray, “Save me even if I don’t want it.” We find that impossible to contemplate; it’s like a Zen koan.

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    • brian says:

      Nice post.

      Simple question: If it is understood that what happened in Adam had universal consequences, why would one not at least consider it plausible that what Christ achieved also has universal consequences?

      I alluded earlier to problems with bringing modern individualist notions into soteriology. Conceptual notions of freedom are also distorted by nominalism and voluntarism. Both of these philosophical notions derived some certain theological controversies in the late medieval period. In general, John Milbank and the Radical Orthodoxy folks are good on this.

      I like that you note that Christ’s work applies to the Cosmos, not simply to human nature. It’s important.

      Like

  12. Tom Talbott says:

    Hello again, Michael:

    Thanks for an excellent and forceful reply to my remarks on Romans 5:12-19—one that I found very little with which to disagree, by the way. But neither did I find anything there that would, in my opinion, count against a universalist interpretation of our text. Let me explain.

    I quite agree with you that “the many” to which Paul referred in verses 15 and 19 does not, strictly speaking, mean “everyone who has ever lived, or will live.” For one thing, if the group or class that he had in mind is restricted to those humans who have sinned, then it could hardly include Jesus Christ, given Paul’s understanding of Christ’s sinless nature. So here we already have at least one exception. But beyond that, the relevant group or class would not include angels (i.e., non-human persons) or even Martians, if there are such persons. And neither would it include any other past or future humans who never sin, if there are any such human beings. But it certainly does include all the sinful descendants of Adam, as Paul explicitly stated in verse 12.

    So however one might understand the sense in which, according to Paul, Adam was “a type of the one who was to come” (vs. 14), a far more critical point, as I see it, is that Paul made two parallel statements about the single group or class of individuals first identified in verse 12: “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (verse 19). Is the point here merely that all sinful humans will have an opportunity to become righteous? Not at all. We have instead a bold assertion that the very ones who were made sinners, as a consequence of Adam’s sin, will also be made righteous in the end, as a consequence of Christ’s one act of righteousness. So in that sense we are indeed the passive recipients, according to Paul, of “the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness” (vs. 17); hence all credit for our salvation ultimately goes to God.

    As surprising as it may now appear, however, I also agree with you concerning this: “With respect to Paul’s use of ‘lambanō’ in a passive sense, I don’t think this necessarily implies that there is no [freely offered] consent involved.” Neither do I think that; to the contrary, I believe that our own free will plays an essential role in the process whereby God reconciles each one of us to himself. But that is a subtle and complicated matter, and one should not, in any case, allow a philosophical concern about free will, however legitimate it may be in its own right, to overpower Paul’s message in Romans 5. Suffice it to say that, as I interpret Pauline theology as a whole, God’s grace is indeed irresistible in this sense: the infinitely resourceful God has the power, over an indefinitely long period of time, to elicit from every sinner a freely offered consent. So let us simply stipulate that such a freely offered consent is a necessary condition of our salvation, and let us also accept, at least for the sake of argument, your own understanding of verse 17. Now consider again, in the context of these assumptions, Paul’s explicit statement in verse 18 that “one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men”—not just some men, but all (sinful) men. Does that statement not already entail that all the necessary conditions of the specified “acquittal and life,” including the sinner’s freely offered consent, will eventually be met?

    Accordingly, if we simply combine verse 18 with your own understanding of verse 17, then we get the following result: the power of the Cross (i.e., one man’s act of righteousness) is precisely what enables the infinitely resourceful God to secure in the end every sinner’s freely offered consent—as the chief of sinners and foremost religious terrorist of his day illustrated on the road to Damascus.

    -Tom

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    • mkenny114 says:

      Hello Tom,

      Many thanks for (another) stimulating reply! I think I can see now a bit more clearly one of the areas in which our difference lies. First of all, you say that the ‘many’, whilst not including Jesus Christ, or any number of non-human persons or those who haven’t sinned, etc, ‘certainly does include all the sinful descendants of Adam, as Paul explicitly stated in verse 12’. Now, it seems to me that whether or not Saint Paul CERTAINLY (sorry, don’t know how to put things in italics on here!) meant by the ‘many’ all the sinful descendants of Adam mentioned in v.12 is precisely the point at issue – i.e.; one cannot assume the certainty of this point in order to make the case that the passage overall is unequivocally universalist in thrust, as this is to use a conclusion as a premise in the argument.

      This is why my point about typology is not incidental but a key point in the exegesis of this passage, for the parallel made between Adam and Christ (and the impact they had or will have on humanity) is a typological comparison, and we cannot thus assume that this comparison means that the effect of the one will be identical to the effect of the other – again, to do so is to assume that universal salvation is true and so this is what Saint Paul must have meant. My point is that other instances of typology in the NT are not cases of straightforward equivalence in that sense, and that a universalism in terms of the opportunity of salvation for all kinds of people does fit the NT typological pattern better as well as fitting in better with Saint Paul’s thought overall.

      Furthermore, I certainly agree that all the credit for our salvation comes from God – which is most definitely what Paul is asserting here – but the idea that we are passive recipients of the ‘free gift of righteousness’ swings a bit to close to a theology of imputation, which I don’t think is what Saint Paul means by being made righteous. I don’t meant to suggest that this is what you actually believe or are putting forward, only that this is where your argument seems to lean towards. This is why I think the question of our free consent is not just a philosophical issue but central to how we read this passage, and Saint Paul overall. If we believe that the process of our salvation involves our free cooperation then it will always be something that we can either receive or reject, even after the initial moment of ‘awakening’ (I’m avoiding technical terminology here as how this is effected is an area of great contention!) and so that free gift Paul talks about will not necessarily always be accepted.

      The question of whether, ‘over an infinitely long period of time’ God’s grace can bring about a free consent in every individual is an interesting one in and of itself, but I don’t think it is appropriate here, as again, this is to impose a universalist paradigm on what Saint Paul has written, when what we are discussing here is whether or not Paul was writing with such a view of salvation in mind. We cannot start with universalist assumptions, especially when it comes to the question of how much time would be afforded to each person to respond to God’s offer. You might be right that Paul is making his argument on this scale, but I am not sure that you have shown this from the text itself – rather it seems to be a presupposition for your exegesis.

      What is meant in v.18 also does, I think, depend on what we believe Paul meant by the preceding verses, and also what he is trying to say in the whole epistle, which is also to say it depends on what we believe he means by justification. If one took the forensic imputation view, I think your point re v.18 has a great deal of force to it, although one could always make the case that Paul (given what he has already written and will go on to write about those who are ‘in’ Christ) is only referring to ‘all’ those who have faith in Christ, not all people in general. If one took the view that justification is the infusion of grace into the soul which then enables the individual to cooperate further with the grace of God and grow in holiness, then we are back into the question of whether or not this gift can be received or rejected – the passage reads that Christ’s act of righteousness ‘leads to’ acquittal and life, which can still be read as conditional (depending of course on what one thinks the wider context is).

      Thanks again – I doubt we will either of us be able to convince the other on this one (this is the cardinal problem with scriptural interpretation of course!) but it has certainly been an interesting and thought-provoking engagement so far 🙂

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  13. Tom Talbott says:

    Well, Michael, I read your latest reply with a real sense of satisfaction—thinking, first, what a pleasure it is to interact with someone as reasonable and thoughtful as you, and second, how incredibly close our views are when one looks below the surface. I agree with you that neither of us will likely persuade the other on all points; in fact, I made the same observation in the first draft of my previous reply, but I then took it (and other things) out in order to reduce the post to a reasonable length. Still, it now seems to me that hardly a hair’s breadth of difference stands between us.

    Neither of us, for example, has any use for a five-point Calvinism, as you called it a couple of posts ago. But now I find that you also seem no less suspicious than I am of “the forensic imputation view” of justification. What I find most objectionable in a five-point Calvinism (or TULIP), however, is the doctrine of limited atonement and its corollary the doctrine of limited election, and there is no chance that a universalist interpretation of Romans 5 will degenerate into that. And as for justification, I have no objection to the idea, as you expressed it, “that justification is the infusion of grace into the soul which then enables the individual to cooperate further with the grace of God and grow in holiness….”

    So where, exactly, do our differences lie? I think the following remark of yours provides a clue: “one could always make the case that Paul (given what he has already written and will go on to write about those who are ‘in’ Christ) is only referring to ‘all’ those who have faith in Christ, not all people in general.” A similar move is, of course, commonly made in the commentaries. According to the New Testament scholar Douglas J. Moo, for example, “the deliberately worded v. 17, along with the persistent stress on faith as the means of achieving righteousness in 1:16-4:25, makes it clear that only certain people derive the benefits from Christ’s act of righteousness” (The Epistle to the Romans, p. 344). But unfortunately, Moo appears to have attributed to Paul an obviously invalid argument of the following form:

    (1) Only those sinners receiving the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness will “derive the benefits of Christ’s act of righteousness” and thus be saved.

    (2) Therefore, not all sinners will “derive the benefits of Christ’s act of righteousness” and thus be saved.

    (3) Therefore, the second “all men” of verse 18 is more restricted than the first.

    The inference from (1) to (2), however, is no less invalid than the following inference of exactly the same form: only those believers who remain faithful to the end will be sanctified; therefore, not all believers will be sanctified. Shoring up the inference from (1) to (2) would thus require an additional premise, something like:

    (1a) Some sinners will never receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness.

    But that premise begs the whole question of the correct interpretation of the passage; it assumes as a premise, in other words, the very point at issue or the very thing that needs to be established as a conclusion. Although it may seem ironic that each of us suspects the other of begging the question on this crucial issue, you have hinted yourself, if I remember correctly, that any interpretation of the Bible as a whole may involve some circular reasoning. For my own part, in any case, I simply cannot get past the parallel structure of Paul’s sentences in such texts as Romans 5:18 and 19, 1 Corinthians 15:22, and Romans 11:32. Is not the whole point of such a parallel structure that the first “all” determines the scope of the second? Paul may have been a cumbersome writer at times. But I find it impossible to believe that in Romans 5:18 he would incompetently shift reference on us by using the same term “all men” twice in a single sentence with two different denotations in mind.

    Anyway, we may now both suspect that we are at an impasse with respect to Romans 5, which is fine. I think we now both understand each other a little better. Behind the impasse probably lies a difficult question about the nature of human freedom; as you put it yourself, “the question of our free consent is … central to how we read this passage, and Saint Paul overall.” Because I agree with you wholeheartedly on this point, I will here conclude with a kind of confessional statement rather than an argument. It seems to me that Paul’s understanding of God’s all-pervasive grace provides a perfectly clear picture of how human freedom, indeterminism, and even sheer chance, if you will, could fit into a predestinarian scheme in which a glorious end is ultimately inescapable. But that, of course, is a much longer story.

    Thanks again,

    -Tom

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    • mkenny114 says:

      Hi Tom,

      Many thanks for another generous and insightful reply. I think, as you say, that we are probably at something of an impasse, so there is not too much more to say on this particular topic. However, I would like to address a couple of the things that you’ve mentioned in your response.

      Firstly, just to clear something up, I don’t think (or at least I don’t remember hinting!) that any interpretation of the Bible necessarily involves circular reasoning. I presume that at least part of what you mean by this though is that we all carry certain presuppositions to the scriptural text – this I certainly agree with, and I have indeed mentioned in the past that there is a problem with the doctrine of private judgement in that most passages of Scripture are open to a great deal of differing interpretations, some based on prior commitments, some based on hermeneutical approaches within the same theological school, some based on both.

      To my mind this can only be remedied by commitment to an authority that limits, critiques and (to a certain extent) controls individual judgements. This commitment doesn’t necessarily have to be to the Magisterium (for example), but could simply be adherence to a continuous tradition of Christian thought and biblical interpretation through the ages, such as I believe that (roughly speaking) C. S. Lewis held to. Anyway, whilst private judgement will not always lead to circular reasoning in the sense of using an already arrived at conclusion as a premise for the interpretation, it is definitely a danger, yes. Neither do I deny that ‘traditional’ interpretations do this to a certain extent as well – but then this begs the question of whether certain presuppositions (i.e.; the traditional ones) are more valid for the Christian to hold than others, which is a vexed question in and of itself!

      What presuppositions we hold (and the question of which are the most valid for a Christian to be able to hold, in light of tradition, etc) are important though, as, to turn to the question of Moo’s exegesis of Romans 5:12-18 (as you have summarised it), he clearly presupposes a particular idea of what it means for faith to be the means by which we are saved (i.e.; the classical Reformed one) and, although his exegesis takes into account the context of the rest of the epistle, even that wider exegesis will be viewed through a Reformed lens. If on the other hand one sees salvation by faith as an infusion into the soul of the believer that enables them to live a life in concert with the continued offer of God’s grace (i.e.; one that sees justification and sanctification as two sides of the same coin, and our cooperation – or not – with grace as determinative of whether it is, in the end, efficacious or not). This, based on presuppositions of my own, is an important part of why I interpret v.17 as I do.

      It is that, and the way in which I believe Saint Paul is making the equivalence between Adam and Christ (i.e.; in common with other NT uses of typology, as a useful comparison to show how much greater is the achievement of Christ to the OT type – not to show that His achievements, just like His Person, are direct reflections of the type in every way) which is why I cannot find myself in agreement with your exegesis, compelling in many ways though it is. I do not think Paul is incompetently shifting reference in v.18, but it is in the nature of the type of comparison he is making (which is clarified by v.17) that leads to the different uses of the same term. Also, aside from his use of typology, in 11:32 (which you cite) the ‘all men’ similarly does not necessarily mean the same thing in both cases – to ‘consign to disobedience’ and to ‘show mercy’ though both things directed to all, are different in kind, as the latter still very much depends on whether humankind will respond to that offer of mercy*.

      I would agree then, that behind all this is a difference of opinion regarding human freedom, but I think there is also a question here (presuppositions again!) of whether, when Paul is talking about grace and our response to it, he is talking in terms of a limited time period or an infinite time that extends into the post-mortem realm. It seems to me that all the things he writes along the lines of ‘if you do x, y or z you will not inherit the kingdom of God’ and the urgency with which he insists the early Christians change their behaviour and start to live in concert with the new life that has been offered to them, suggest very strongly that he sees things in the former sense. This is a discussion for another time perhaps, but I think it is an important point, as what time-scale we believe Saint Paul was seeing the working out of his (for want of a better word) ‘parishioners’ salvation as occurring on will determine how one sees the key texts.

      Nevertheless, this has been a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable discussion, and I’m glad you’ve found my replies reasonable and thoughtful, as I’ve certainly found yours to be so. I’m also glad that there’s been so much we’ve agreed on! I think one more thing we can agree on is that Saint Paul (and the rest of the NT) certainly sees God’s grace as all-pervasive and God as insistent on our joining in His life of self-giving Love. The only thing that separates us I suppose is (apart from the time-scale issue) whether or not there will be some who will, to paraphrase Lewis (and I think MacDonald), continue to say ‘my will be done’ instead of ‘Thy will be done.’ Traditional teaching, and experience of human wilfulness even in the face of what they know will be for the good and their own happiness, unfortunately leads me to suspect that there will be. I only hope that, if so, their number be very small indeed.

      Thanks again for the excellent replies, and for taking the time to engage with this comment thread in general. I am sure it has been a great help to others as well as myself.

      *1 Corinthians 15:22 is admittedly much more difficult!

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  14. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    It appears that this fine conversation is drawing to a close. Before it does and before the participants return to lurker stage, I wish to thank all for your civility and thoughtfulness. This has been a model of what internet conversation should be.

    I especially wish to thank Dr Talbott for honoring us with his presence and thoughtfully addressing our questions and concerns.

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      You are very welcome, Fr. Kimel. Although I’m leaving town for a few days, I want first to thank Michael again for his gracious spirit and to apologize for misreading him on the matter circular reading. I do try not to do that sort of thing, but it inevitably happens on occasion.

      My thanks to all who have participated in the discussion.

      -Tom

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      • mkenny114 says:

        Tom,

        No need to apologise at all – I think I got the gist of what you were talking about there, and it was certainly relevant to what I had said earlier – I just wanted to clarify my position a little re interpretation. Thanks again for your generosity, openness and insight – it has been a very interesting and (I think) worthwhile discussion, and you have provided a great example of how challenging debate can be conducted with charity and courtesy. Thanks also Fr. Kimel for hosting the conversation as a whole, as well as your equally charitable and courteous contributions 🙂

        Michael

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