Theologian Roger E. Olson posted on Thursday an article on universalism over at his blog. He’s been discussing Oliver Crisp’s book Deviant Calvinism. As one who has little interest in Calvinism, deviant or otherwise, I doubt I will ever read this book; but readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy may remember that in 2013 I blogged on Crisp and his proposal of an Augustinian universalism: “From Limited Atonement to Universalism.” It’s not clear to me whether his proposal was merely intended as a thought experiment or was advanced with a more serious intent.
After discussing Crisp’s interpretation of Karl Barth’s view of universal salvation, Olson goes on to suggest that were universal salvation ever to become acceptable within evangelicalism, it would be because of the Reformed, not the Arminians:
If this happens, however, I predict it will not be Arminians who lead the way; it will be Reformed/Calvinist evangelical theologians who bring it about. The fact of the matter is that, contrary what neo-fundamentalists would have you believe, it is Calvinism, not Arminianism, that inclines toward universalism. Schleiermacher, for example, was never an Arminian and did not believe in free will. Barth, whatever his beliefs about free will, was untouched by Arminianism (even though I find elements in his thought that are consistent with Arminianism). It’s pretty easy for a young, unmarried or not-yet-parent Young, Restless, Reformed person to embrace double predestination, but when he has a child and gazes on it as his own beloved son or daughter he beings to change (or should if his love is real and deep). Could this beloved child be predestined by God our Father to eternal torture in hell? Sure, some very iron clad Calvinists will not let that sway them, but many will. Then, unless the Calvinist converts to Arminianism, the next step, insofar as he or she holds firmly to “decretal theology” is to universalism. Universalists are Calvinists with soft hearts and a true vision of the love of God shown in Jesus Christ. Arminians are immune to universalism because we believe God’s love includes permitting the beloved to walk away and reject God’s mercy. (emphasis mine)
The bolded sentence is what caught my attention: Arminians are immune to universalism because they are convinced that the divine love accepts the possibility of eternal estrangement. “Immunity” is a pretty strong word. How did they acquire their invulnerability to the universalist disease? No doubt it varies for each Arminian. All cite Scripture on their behalf; yet interpretations of the biblical texts can only possess a measure of probability: it’s always possible that someone will come along with a fresh reading of the texts that might cause us to modify our certitude. Hence the Bible alone cannot be the inoculation that protects Arminians from apokatastasis. Ultimately it comes down, I suggest, to a shared vision of libertarian freedom. It just seems so obvious that every human being is free not only to reject God at this very moment but to do so definitively, irrevocably, and eternally. It was obvious to the great Arminian hero C. S. Lewis. It’s obvious to Roger Olson. It’s obvious to Roman Catholics like Pope Benedict XVI and every other pope one might mention. And it’s obvious to Eastern Orthodox theologians like Dumitru Staniloae and Christos Yannaras. All share an ecumenical immunity to the universalist hope. Theoretically they might leave open the minuscule possibility that everyone will take the bus to heaven and freely remain in the Blessed Realm; but they really know that some, perhaps many, will not. It’s just obvious. That, after all, is what it means to be free, right? If we are free, we virtually need someone to be damned.
But why do we feel it’s obvious? Because, I suggest, the possibility of definitive rejection is how we experience life. We experience this possibility when we reject another and when another rejects us. We experience this possibility when someone we love irrationally chooses a destructive behavior and we are helpless to help them. We experience this possibility when we sulk in a corner, impervious to all pleas to join the festivities.
a lover may spurn us for another;
we may decide to stop returning the telephone calls of a friend;
we become so overwhelmed by an addiction to some drug or pleasure that we are willing to do anything in order to possess it;
we are wounded so deeply by an act of wickedness that we become utterly consumed by hatred and the desire for revenge.
We know (we think we know) that it is possible for someone to reject God forever because our present experience of the world leads us to believe that we are personally capable of rejecting God forever, no matter what the cost and suffering it might entail. Hence when we read the proposals advanced by universalists such as Thomas Talbott and Eric Reitan, we immediately dismiss them as implausible.
But are we right to project this commonsense notion of freedom upon the human being and his relationship with his divine Creator? Does our finite experience of personal freedom in the world exhaust the possibilities of God? And what if, as Servais Pinckaers suggests, our commonsense notion of freedom has been uncritically formed by a late medieval innovation, what he calls the “freedom of indifference” and which we would today call “libertarian freedom.” He describes this freedom of indifference, famously formulated by William of Ockham, as follows:
Ockham … maintained that free will preceded reason and will in such a way as to move them to their acts. “For I can freely choose,” he said, “to know or not to know, to will or not to will.” For him, free will was the prime faculty, anterior to intelligence and will as well as to their acts. … Freedom was posted as a first fact of human experience. It was affirmed that, whatever the decision dictated by reason, the will could follow it or not (Quodl. I, q16).
In view of this experience, how could freedom be described? Freedom lay entirely in the power of the will to choose between contraries, and this power resided in the will alone. It was the power to opt for the yes or the no, to choose between what reason dictated and its contrary, between willing and not willing, acting and not acting, between what the law prescribed and its contrary. Thus freedom consisted in an indetermination or a radical indifference in the will regarding contraries, in such a way that actions were produced in a wholly contingent way. As Gabriel Biel was to say, freedom was essentially the power to move in two opposite directions. It was qualified by an indifference to the opposites.
Thus understood, freedom was practically identified with the will, as the origin of willing and acting, as a power of self-determination. In this way, it came to constitute, in some way, by itself alone, the very being of the person, at the source of all action. It was in this sense that Sartre could write: “My freedom is not an added quality or a property of my nature; it is the very stuff of my being.” (The Sources of Christian Ethics, pp. 331-332)
Ockham does not, of course, deny that man is divinely ordered for happiness with God; but he insists that human freedom transcends the natural desire for God. The human being is free, in the radical indifference of his freedom, to choose or refuse happiness, to choose or refuse the good, to choose or refuse his very existence. As a result, human freedom is divorced from the natural inclinations of human nature:
All natural inclinations, summed up in the inclination toward good or happiness, were thus subject to choice and to the will’s free determination. It was as though they were uprooted from the will’s depths, to be placed before it, beneath it, and subjected to its choice. They were no longer a part of the essence of freedom. (p. 333)
When I read Pinckaers’s lengthy description of the freedom of indifference, I find myself nodding in agreement. Yes, that’s how I understand human freedom. It’s so obviously true. Yet Pinckaers believes that his this freedom of indifference represents a significant departure from the Church Fathers and high scholastics. Oops. Maybe our commonsense notion of freedom ain’t so obvious after all.
So what is this more traditional alternative to the freedom of indifference? Pinckaers names it the “freedom for excellence” and identifies St Thomas Aquinas as its most sophisticated exponent:
For St. Thomas free will was rooted in the two spiritual faculties of intellect and will, which make the human person an image of God possessing freedom of action, particularly in regard to the natural inclination toward happiness and love and in the inclination to truth. It opened these faculties to the measure of divine infinity, beyond any created object and any created love. Thus the human person was free and in control of his actions, not in spite of, but because of this natural inclination to happiness and truth. … This concept of freedom was based on the harmonious interplay of mind and will. I name it freedom for excellence or perfection, since it tends spontaneously to the good and true, to what is of highest quality in view of human perfection. (p. 223)
To state the matter succinctly, for Aquinas we are free not despite our natural desires for goodness, happiness, being, and truth but because of them. They are the sources of our freedom. Thus the rejection of God must be seen not as an expression of freedom but as a sign of deficiency: “The ability of free will to choose between various things in conformity with the end shows the perfection of freedom; but to choose something not ordered to the end, that is, to sin, evinces a defect of freedom. Therefore the angels, who cannot sin, enjoy greater freedom of choice than do we, who can” (ST Ia, q62 8, ad 2).
This isn’t commonsensical at all! But if it’s true, perhaps none of us are immune to the universalist hope.