This will be a quick post. My intent is more to open up a question for discussion than to advance a sustained argument. Last week Arminian theologian Roger Olson declared that he and his fellow Arminians are “immune to universalism because we believe God’s love includes permitting the beloved to walk away and reject God’s mercy.” Olson is willing to acknowledge universalism as a valid hope; but he insists that the Arminian cannot go beyond hope because “the only possible ground for such a claim (beyond hope) is belief that God will (not can) over ride free will in the matter of salvation.” Olson thus seems to be positing a distinction between hope and expectation.
I have been wondering the past few days about the practical traction of this distinction. Is it, for example, a matter of probabilities? The weather man tells me that there is a 95% chance of snow. Hence I expect it to snow, and if I like snow, I may even hope for it—but obviously this is not what Olson is saying.
Perhaps we should instead contrast two possible immensely positive outcomes—one that has been promised by the omnipotent and benevolent God and one that has not. Instance the topic at hand—eternal salvation. God has promised that if we repent of our sins and turn to him in faith, he will bestow eternal life upon us. Hence I fully expect that all who fulfill the stipulated conditions will receive the promised results. May I simultaneously affirm that I also hope that all who fulfill the stipulated conditions will receive the promised benefits? I think so. After all, what is hope but faith directed to the future? If I expect something to happen, and if I want this something to happen, then hoping for it to happen seems quite natural. But I admit that it almost doesn’t feel quite right to use “hope” in this context, given Olson’s previous distinction between “expectation” and “hope.” But perhaps this is just semantic quibbling.
Elsewhere in the same thread, though, Olson clarifies his meaning by invoking the category of dogma. In response to Tom Talbott’s first comment, he replies:
At the end of the day, however, I cannot see how an Arminian, believing in libertarian free will, can assert (as opposed to hope) that all will be saved. It is a valid hope, but not one that can be turned into dogma. It is a worthy opinion, but not one that can be proved–from Scripture or reason.
Now things are getting interesting. I asked the professor to elaborate a bit further, and this is what he said:
When I hold something as dogma I want everyone in my community of faith to believe it and will argue vociferously for it. When I hold something as hope I may argue for it but with humility knowing it’s my opinion and not based on firm evidence; it can’t be proven or demonstrated. I may hope for universal salvation but I cannot claim that hope is firmly grounded in the organic, canonical Word of God.
There’s some kind of slippage going on here between a dogmatic belief and opinion. With the former Olson is willing to forcefully argue for its truth, presumably because it enjoys firm support in the written Word of God. A mere opinion, on the other hand, lacks this kind of clear biblical support and therefore should not be vigorously presented. Does that sound right? Am I reading Olson accurately? We can thus put aside questions like “What kind of evidence does an opinion need to qualify as a dogmatic belief?” Olson’s distinction seems to be commonsensical enough. We can also put aside Orthodox and Catholic concerns about what makes dogma dogma. Catholics and Orthodox do not believe that the testimony of the Bible alone establishes dogma. But that is by the by. We want to accept Dr Olson’s arguments on their own terms.
Let’s now come back to Olson’s insistence that universalism can only be entertained as a hope but not as an expectation that flows from revealed truth. Olson’s “hope” here is hardly any hope at all. It’s more like a wish asserted against reality. Even though the odds are vastly against me being dealt a straight flush in Five Card Stud, I may still wish for that lucky deal. I just know it ain’t ever going to happen to me or to anyone I know in my lifetime. This ain’t the movies. So what’s the point even in hoping for one? I’d be satisfied with a pair of kings.
But Tom Belt zeroed in on the real flaw in Olson’s argument:
When Olson says, “Arminians are immune to universalism because we believe God’s love includes permitting the beloved to walk away and reject God’s mercy,” he is taking love to imply things it needn’t imply. Divine love for us may very well imply our being libertarianly free with respect to some possibilities. There’s an argument to make for that. But Olson takes it further when he says divine love for us requires that freedom include the power to self-determine irrevocably out of all possible Godward movement. But love implies no such thing, at least not obviously. Rather than securing that kind of absolute freedom for finite creatures, I should think love precludes it. That’s the more intuitive/commonsensical notion of love and freedom.
Olson seems to believe that the only alternative to libertarian freedom is some kind of determinism or invasive manipulation. But as Tom points out, all infinite Love needs to do is to keep on wooing and waiting. God has all the time in the world. Hence it is reasonable for us to hope, really and confidently hope, that all will be saved. Olson’s argument only acquires persuasive force if God has set an arbitrary cut-off point, such as death, beyond which God will no longer actively work to secure the conversion of the impenitent; but either Olson forgot to mention this as another of his dogmatic beliefs, or he has improperly imported it into his understanding of divine freedom.
Hence when Dr Thomas Talbott proposes that God can save all without in any way violating anyone’s personal integrity, Olson lacks a convincing retort. Talbott’s words:
Now it is theoretically possible, I gladly admit, for sinners to separate themselves from God as far as is metaphysically possible short of annihilation (in the outer darkness, for example). It is also possible for them to cling to their illusions and to various forms of self-deception. From these possibilities alone, however, it simply does not follow, so far as I can tell, that minimally rational agents, those capable of acting in moral freedom, could both separate themselves from God in the way just described and do so without shattering the very illusions that made such a choice possible in the first place. And that, I believe, opens up a very natural route from Arminianism to Christian universalism.
All Talbott’s proposal requires is the refusal of God to abandon his creatures. There’s no need for him to override the free-will of anyone. Or as Talbott puts it: “I hold that God has no need to interfere with human freedom in order to guarantee a glorious end for each of us; he need only permit us to experience the very condition of separation (the logical limit of which is the outer darkness) that we sometimes confusedly choose for ourselves.”
If I were scoring a debate, Talbott has won hands-down—and he hasn’t even gotten started yet.