Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 2)

Thomas Talbott begins his analysis of damnation and universal restoration by presenting us with three propositions:

(1) All human sinners are equal objects of God’s redemptive love in the sense that God, being no respecter of persons, sincerely wills or desires to reconcile each one of them to himself and thus to prepare each one of them for the bliss of union with him.

(2) Almighty God will triumph in the end and successfully reconcile to himself each person whose reconciliation he sincerely wills or desires.

(3) Some human sinners will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from him forever. (The Inescapable Love of God, p. 38)

Each of these propositions enjoys support within the Christian tradition. #1: The universality of God’s salvific will has always been affirmed by Eastern Orthodox, modern Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Arminian Protestants. #2: The decisive triumph of God’s salvific will was affirmed by Origen and St Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century and, in a different way, by St Augustine of Hippo in the fifth.  Today support for the proposition is largely restricted to Calvinist and universalist circles. #3: Belief in the eternal damnation of sinners has characterized ecumenical Christianity since the sixth century.

One immediately notes the logical inconsistency of the set. One can reasonably affirm two of the propositions; but one cannot affirm all three without contradiction. If I believe that God genuinely loves every human being and desires their eternal salvation and that, nevertheless, some human beings will be eternally lost, then I cannot logically affirm the eschatological triumph of God’s salvific will. If I believe that God will effectively bring his elect to eternal salvation and that, nevertheless, some human beings will be eternally lost, then I cannot logically affirm that his love intends every human being. And if I believe that God loves every human being and that every human being will be effectively restored to eternal life, then I cannot logically affirm the eternal damnation of some.

Talbott acknowledges that not all Christian theologians consistently think through the logic of their respective evangelical claims:

Now a good way to classify Christian theologians and their theological systems, I want to suggest, is according to which of our three propositions they finally reject. Of course, a theologian could always remain a skeptic on this question, but such skepticism would tend to undermine the entire discipline of systematic theology and is virtually nonexistent, therefore, among traditional theologians. Instead of skepticism, however, we sometimes do find a kind of subterfuge: a theologian may embrace, clearly and emphatically, two of the propositions and then try to waffle on the third, either by redefining a crucial term or simply by pretending to hold the third proposition in abeyance. Someone who embraces our first two propositions, for example, may try to ignore the third or to dismiss it with the comment: “The ultimate fate of the wicked is a mystery to be left in the hands of God.” Another may reject proposition (1), which states that God sincerely wills or desires to reconcile all sinners to himself, and then try to identify some artificial sense in which we can still say that God offers salvation to all. But the fact is that a theologian must reject at least one of our three propositions; and when we look carefully at a given theologian’s writings, it is usually rather easy to say which one the theologian in fact rejects. (p. 41)

If you think of yourself as a hopeful universalist, you find yourself in an awkward position at this point. You of course emphatically affirm the universality of God’s salvific will, and though you would also like to reject the eternal damnation of one or more human beings , you do not feel that you can, either because of the dogmatic commitments of your church or because of the ambiguities and conflicts that you see in the biblical witness. Hence you announce a policy of agnosticism regarding both propositions #2 and #3. If, as you hope, hell turns out to be empty, then proposition #2 will also be validated. This stance has the advantage of theological modesty (and is thus more likely to sneak by the dogma-censors), but it’s too wishy-washy to preach well, and it’s certainly not going to ignite anyone’s evangelical passion. It lacks both the power of unconditional promise and the existential sobriety of perditional threat.

Which one of the above propositions do you deny?

(Go to Part 3)

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43 Responses to Thomas Talbott: The Inescapable Love of God (part 2)

  1. Dallas Wolf says:

    I deny 3. I believe that God’s seductive love will, in the αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων, soften and unite the hardest of hearts. I do understand the 5th Council’s concern for Justinian’s disdain of Origen and/or Origenists. That’s the kind of thing that can happen when the church sleeps with worldly empire; even in ecumenical councils.

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  2. I think Talbott’s accusation of waffling is itself somewhat waffle-y; for the accusation to make sense, there would have to be reason to take each proposition to be the best expression of the particular doctrine in question, but there’s not much reason to think this. (I would say, for instance, just at first glance, that (1) is obviously not precise enough as it stands, and (2) is obviously, and (1) possibly, tendentiously stated. What kind of sincere willing and desire is being attributed to God? As Anselm noted in the Lambeth fragments, there are many different ways ‘willing’ can be taken in any particular case. If the inconsistent triad is not to equivocate, we have to have good reason that this should be the same in both (1) and (2); and we would need to know in what sense it is to be taken in order to determine whether (2) really does accurately describe the relevant kind of success and triumph. Is anyone really commited to God not being a respecter of persons in precisely the sense suggested by (1)? Usually, I imagine, when people say that God is not a respecter of persons, they mean that he can’t be turned in His definitive judgment by anyone’s wealth, power, reputation, or deeds. Do we have a particular reason to take it in the much stronger and more comprehensive sense given in (1)? Perhaps Talbott has answers, but if so, I’m not sure why they aren’t reflected in producing less ambiguous propositions.) As long as they are not the best expression of the particular doctrine they express, then there’s always going to be plenty of room to argue that there is a better expression “by redefining a crucial term”.

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  3. Mike H says:

    I’ve found the 3 points themselves to be very helpful and easy to understand. The complexities don’t really distract from the straight forward nature of the statements. And IMO, the complexities associated with the 3 points are sub-points. Augustinians who hold to points 2 & 3 and reject point 1 may not agree on exactly how “predestination” or election work, or the nature of final punishment, but when pressed they do in fact agree to reject point 1. The same holds for those who reject point 2 – there are all kinds of complexities about free will, if God’s disposition changes, if God gives up on people at some point, that God might want all to be saved but wants a free will decision even more, etc. But these are shown to be REASONS for rejecting point 2 – there is still agreement that point #2 is the one rejected, it’s only the reasons why that differ. The same is true for those who reject point #3.

    Since stumbling across Talbott’s work maybe 6 months ago, I’ve talked to a number of people of different theological traditions about the theology behind these 3 points. Without exception, after cutting through all of the nuance, I’ve been able to see how their beliefs necessarily lead them to reject one of the 3 statements. It’s usually pretty clear. And I’ve found this to be true even though most people that I talk to don’t fit neatly into either the Augustinian box or the Arminian box . So even with the messiness of reality, one of the theologies trumps the other when it comes to thinking about the 3 points.

    I also think that Talbott’s quote is right on the money – “a theologian may embrace, clearly and emphatically, two of the propositions and then try to waffle on the third, either by redefining a crucial term or simply by pretending to hold the third proposition in abeyance.” There are many who I’ve talked to who simply hadn’t taken certain arguments to their necessary conclusions. And when they get there, the conclusions are tough to embrace. They weren’t prepared for the implications or for how the implications might themselves might contradict dearly held beliefs.

    This was certainly the case for me. Growing up in what I’d consider to be an Arminian tradition (in terms of the topics being discussed here), rejecting point #2 was a no brainer. I recognized the difficulties of such a position very early on but never really examined the pillars that supported such a belief. I wasn’t aware that any challengers existed.

    At this point, I can’t say for sure which of these I reject. Not helpful, I know. Being a layperson and not a systematic theologian I have the luxury of being able to waffle in uncertainty – but I do recognize the need to reject one of the 3 points. One reason for the waffling – this is very new territory for me. Two – I’m way emotionally invested in this – enough so that I’m cautious in working through the theology and arguments. Three – it’s hard to step back and look objectively at what’s been hammered into me for years. I will say that I’m trending in the direction of rejecting point #3.

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  4. Tom Talbott says:

    Thanks for your comment, Brandon. I agree with you, of course, concerning this: “If the [supposedly] inconsistent triad is not to equivocate,” the term “willing” must have the same sense “in both (1) and (2).” That’s fair enough. But is there, as you see it, any recognizable sense of “sincere willing and desire” such that, if we plug that sense into both (1) and (2) without equivocation, all three propositions might nonetheless remain true? If so, could you perhaps indicate what that sense might be? And if not, then I begin to wonder why you think the issue of equivocation is even relevant to the inconsistent triad as formulated.

    I also wonder why you think that “(2) is obviously, and (1) possibly, tendentiously stated.” Could you perhaps help me out and explain why you think this so obvious in the case of proposition (2)? If I had a better understanding of this, I might also grasp your concern here a little better than I yet do. In the meantime, you might bear in mind that I have never intended these propositions to constitute “the best expression of” some “particular doctrine in question”; it is not my intention, for example, that proposition (2) should constitute the only or even the best measure of divine success. My only claim for the triad is that at least one of the propositions is false. Indeed, not a single substantive argument in the book requires the assumption that the triad really is inconsistent, as I think it is. But the triad does serve as a useful system of classification because I am unaware of any mainstream theologian who in fact affirms all three propositions, as I understand them. In general, as Mike H points out, Augustinians and Calvinists reject proposition (1), Arminians and free will theists reject proposition (2), and universalists reject proposition (3). So if you prefer to think of this as a rough and ready system of classification, that is fine by me.

    Still, I do think you are raising an extremely important issue, Brandon. But I also feel the need for a bit more information, such as an answer to the above questions, before I can respond to your specific concern in a more fruitful way than I have here.

    Thanks again for you comment and for your interest.

    -Tom

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  5. Father Gregory says:

    I wholeheartedly deny #3 … Btw so far a great review. I am also reading the book and impressed. Though I would hasten to add that I have more faith in the Church and Tradition than Talbot seems to have.

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  6. Tom Talbott says:

    I think I may just have had a moment of illumination concerning my inconsistent set of three propositions. For years I have puzzled over why certain philosophers I respect have objected to it and have done so for reasons that have always seemed to me confused. But thanks to your remark above, Brandon, that “(2) is obviously, and (1) possibly, tendentiously stated,” I think I now see exactly what I need to clarify further. I first asked myself why you seemed most concerned about proposition (2), a bit less concerned about proposition (1), and expressed no concern at all about proposition (3). I then speculated that you probably wanted to reject (2) on account of your own understanding human freedom and that, not being a universalist, you probably found (3) to be acceptable or at least possibly true. How accurate that speculation was, of course, only you could say, but it did lead me to my moment of illumination concerning what I may need to clarify at this point.

    The whole point of trying to formulate an inconsistent triad in the present context was to get the following result: I wanted Augustinians and Calvinists to reject (1) on the ground that, as they see it, (1) expresses an inadequate understanding of the scope of God’s electing love; I wanted Arminians and free will theists to reject (2) on the ground that, as they see it, (2) expresses an inadequate measure of divine success; and I wanted universalists to reject (3) on the ground that, as they see it, (3) expresses an inadequate understanding of divine judgment. The whole point, in other words, was that no one should “take each proposition to be the best expression of the particular doctrine in question”; to the contrary, everyone should object to at least one of the three propositions on doctrinal grounds. But then, when one finds oneself objecting to one of the proposition, especially in the case of (2) so I have found, then one is tempted to object to the triad precisely because it is doing the job I wanted it to do. Does that make any sense to you Brandon?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, was your eureka moment anything akin to Bertrand Russell’s moment when he (momentarily) saw the validity of the ontological argument for the existence of God?

      I remember the precise moment, one day in 1894, as I was walking along Trinity Lane, when I saw in a flash (or thought I saw) that the ontological argument is valid. I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: “Great God in boots, the ontological argument is sound.”

      🙂

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      • Tom Talbott says:

        Yes, I have always loved that comment, especially the “Great God in boots” part! But since Russell finally decided that his eureka moment was a delusion, I’m hoping that mine is more enduring.

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    • tgbelt says:

      TomT (to Brandon): Could you perhaps help me out and explain why you think this so obvious in the case of proposition (2)?

      TomB: I’m jumping in uninvited from the stands. How are you Tom? I’m so very glad your voice and sanity are available for others to engage, especially on this important subject. I’d like ask you (re: (2) whether you think it might be helpful to restate it simply as “(2a) God will never fail to pursue reconciling to himself each person….”? It makes a slightly different claim, and one which one may want to argue entails your (2). But that aside, it may help some who are uneasy with the fact that your (2) isn’t explicitly made in Scripture but who are OK with the idea that God does not fail to love what he creates. For me that simple affirmation was key. Perhaps it’s my libertarian intuitions as well that make your (2) seem to draw too assured a fixed ‘terminus ad quem’. I’m more comfortable leaving things open ended and resting in the unfailing nature of God’s love rather than guaranteed conclusions. In other words, what if you were to make the different argument that ‘No sentient creature can possible rest in any irrevocable end other than God’ and leave folks to ponder the implications?

      TomB

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      • tgbelt says:

        The typos are for Fr. Aidan to enjoy.

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      • Tom Talbott says:

        Hello Tom Belt,

        It’s always good to hear from you. I remember fondly our discussions over at the Evangelical Universalism website. Anyway, you asked: “I’d like to ask you (re: (2)) whether you think it might be helpful to restate it simply as ‘(2a) God will never fail to pursue reconciling to himself each person….’?” And you then commented: “It makes a slightly different claim, and one which one may want to argue entails your (2).”

        The problem I see with (2a), Tom, is that no Arminian or free will theist would see any need to reject it; indeed, a free will theist could rightly claim that the conjunction of (1), (2a), and (3) is a perfectly consistent set of propositions, and at least some would insist further that all three are in fact true. God wills the salvation of all, never fails to pursue reconciling them to himself, but some nonetheless freely reject him forever. Also, I think you may have gotten the entailment relation backwards. Certainly (2) entails (2a), but I don’t think that (2a) by itself entails (2).

        As for the idea that “(2) isn’t explicitly made [or taught] in Scripture,” many universalists would insist that, according to Romans 5:18 & 19, God will indeed successfully bring all the sinful descendants of Adam to justification and life, and that, according to Colossians 1:15-20, the very same “all things” created in Christ will in the end be reconciled in him. They would insist, in other words, that such texts do entail the truth of (2). Whether they are right about this is, of course, another matter, that is, a question of biblical exegesis.

        But I also understand and appreciate your commitment to libertarian freedom and why you might want to leave things a little more open ended. I would therefore be most interested in your reaction to my argument, which is apt to sound crazy at first, that a free will theodicy of hell finally requires of God that he interfere with human freedom in morally inappropriate ways.

        But enough about such matters. I trust that all is well with you and your family.

        -Tom

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Tom, I think you’re missing the whole point of TomT’s triad, at least as I understand it. He’s not advancing these propositions to persuade anyone of a particular position. They are not premises in a syllogism. The triad’s purpose is to bring clarity to our reflection and force us to see the logic of our doctrinal positions. Hence your proposed substitute (“(2a) God will never fail to pursue reconciling to himself each person….”) simply destroys the purpose of the exercise. Your (2a) may be true, but it’s irrelevant. TomT is not saying that two of the three propositions are true. He is only saying that if you affirm two of them (take your pick), then you cannot affirm the third.

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        • tgbelt says:

          I agree, Fr Aidan. I wasn’t taking TomT’s triad as a syllogism and trying to improve it in that sense. As you say, it’s intended to bring clarity. My point in (2a) was to give those free-will theists who agree with (1), who disagree with (3) and who are also inclined to disagree with (2) (based on its incompatibility with their commitment to an understanding of choice they feel essential to God’s loving purposes in the first place) a way to express their eschatological hope in terms of their convictions regarding the nature of choice. As TomT recognizes, (2) is incompatible with a libertarian understanding of choice. His options, as they stand, assume some manner of compatibilistic divine determination of choice is needed to ground (2). That’s ‘how’ God gets it done in the end.

          But what are libertarians to do who are as convinced of the incompatibility of such compatibilism with (1) as they are convinced of the incompatibility of (1) with (3)? That is, they agree (1) is true and (3) is false. But when they turn to (2) they feel equally uncomfortable because it entails compatibilistic divine determination of creaturely choice. Of course, non-libertarians may conclude this as all the more reason to believe libertarian choice doesn’t exist. I didn’t want to open this can of worms here because it’s a long debate. I was just concerned to create some space within TomT’s options for libertarians who are convinced in the truth of (1) and the falsity of (3). They needn’t assume with (2) that libertarianism is false, but they would have to express God’s pursuit of the wicked in terms of the God-given freedom they feel is essential to God’s getting the loving outcomes he wants. Such freedom isn’t incidental those outcomes. So, no terminus ad quem (but terminus ad quem is what (2) seems to be about).

          I’m aware of the complications libertarian choice creates for those affirming (1) and denying (3). If it means I have to conclude with saying God will love and pursue those he loves “as long as it takes” and leave it at that (a weaker claim than (2)), I’m comfortable with that.

          I’ll try to get around to responding to TomT and describe why my (2a) isn’t so irrelevant. Basically, any Arminian who affirms either annihilationism or irrevocable conscious torment and says she agrees with (2a) has a very inadequate appreciation for what it means to say that God’s love for us will never fail—i.e., that our very existence as an act of unconditional divine love just is the possibility of Godward movement. If we exist at all, it follows that we may become what God created us to be, and if we may become what he desires, that openness to becoming is what’s irrevocable. But this just means that annihilationism and irrevocable torment are metaphysically impossible. Both are different versions on the same metaphysical hopelessness.

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    • Hi, Tom,

      On (3), I am indeed not a universalist, although I don’t think I would accept (3) without further clarification, either. I do think (3) is at least not running the danger of the other two of stating things in such a way as only to get an inconsistency (rather than in such a way as to state things how they must be stated, or in such a way that it is natural to state things in this way). Likewise, I think (1) is actually the most problematic overall, because it has so many working parts whose relation to each other is unclear; it just doesn’t have the problem of being definitely tendentious. (The single greatest weakness in the triad is the willing/desiring issue, which is shared by (1) and (2): everyone wills and desires things in lots of different ways, and ‘sincerely’ is not a term that can reduce the kinds of willings and desirings that are on the table at all.)

      On (2), I think the primary issue arises from words like ‘triumph’ and ‘successfully’, which seem to be there only to force the inconsistency by scaring people (if you’ll pardon the expression) into thinking that it has to be taken as is, on pain of making God a failure. But everyone in the dispute holds that God triumphs somehow; in a sense, precisely what they are disagreeing about is what that means. Likewise, I don’t really see what ‘successfully’ is doing here beyond giving the illusion that the relation between the reconciliation and the desire has been clarified, when it actually hasn’t (just as ‘sincerely’ seems to be functioning only as an intensifier in both (1) and (2), thus giving the illusion of having clarified in what sense God is desiring or willing without actually clarifying anything).

      Your explanation makes a lot of sense of one thing I found baffling, namely, why you think that something about triumph/success has to be in there, rather than just going the obvious route and making (2) instead to be (2′) “God will reconcile to himself each person whose reconciliation he wills or desires.” But at the same time, I think you’re running into the problem that you can’t make the response that Fr. Kimel quoted in the post — it’s always a possible option for people to say, “Close, but you don’t, in fact, have a crucial term quite right” (what you called ‘waffling’, which could also just be called closer analysis) or even “Maybe, but taking it precisely this way requires committing to things that I don’t think anybody knows” (what you called ‘holding a proposition in abeyance’, which could also just be called sticking to actual evidence). An inconsistent triad requires constraint: options on the table have to be reduced, so that the obvious possible responses (incompleteness, equivocation, etc.) are ruled out. But at least as it’s stated here, there’s so much left unclear that it isn’t clear why anyone would be much constrained at all. An Arminian can accept something like (2); he just can’t accept (2) while keeping everything in exactly the same sense as (1) and (3); a Calvinist can accept (1), just not while keeping everything in exactly the same sense as (2) and (3), and so on; but if each is focused on a particular group, why should the Arminian or the Calvinist take all the terms in the same sense, given that in each case what at least seems to drive the problematic sense of one of the propositions is someone else‘s way of taking the terms for that proposition?

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      • Mike H says:

        Brandon,

        “On (2), I think the primary issue arises from words like ‘triumph’ and ‘successfully’, which seem to be there only to force the inconsistency by scaring people (if you’ll pardon the expression) into thinking that it has to be taken as is, on pain of making God a failure. But everyone in the dispute holds that God triumphs somehow; in a sense, precisely what they are disagreeing about is what that means.”

        But isn’t what the “triumph” means in this particular triad pretty apparent? In this case, it has to do with Gods universal salvific will. Coming from an Arminian background myself, I had no problem understanding what Tom T was getting at with that.

        You highlight that God “triumphs” in some sense, and that seems to be exactly the point. Arminians hold that God “wants” all people to be “saved” (I don’t think it necessary to have universal agreement on exactly what these terms mean before discussing – definitions will at least be close enough to effectively discuss). But Arminians hold that while God might want this, there is something that God desires more (or is an ontological necessity) – a truly free choice (at least this is how I’ understand it). So God is not a “failure” in Arminian theology per se, because, it would seem, multitudes of people damning themselves doesn’t make God a “failure”. That admission does seem to be very important to Tom T’s argument as it relates to the Arminian perspective – conversation won’t get far without it.

        It does seem to me to be fairly straight forward that if God doesn’t want anybody in hell for eternity but people do end up in hell for eternity then God doesn’t get what he wants as it relates to that specific objective. Simple. For me at least, no amount of doctrinal definitions can obscure that fact – the precise definition of theological terms seems secondary. Precise definitions of “hell”, “saved” “success” or what God “wants” might help to explain theological differences or make the whole thing more (or less) palatable, but they don’t change the reality itself.

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        • Tom Talbott says:

          Thanks Mike H. Although I think that Brandon made some good points that are worthy of further discussion, in particular his point that “everyone wills and desires things in lots of different ways,” I think your reply is right on target.

          -Tom

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          • Mike H says:

            Thank you, Tom.

            Yes, I completely agree that Brandon makes some important points about the complexities surrounding definitions and language. The way I see things, however, those complexities are secondary – the complexities & ambiguities can still be properly examined within your triad. From a practical standpoint, I’ve yet to see any kind of Christian eternal punishment scenario that permits acceptance of all 3 points – when they’re examined closely enough (at least) one turns out to be false. I could come up with scenarios in which more than 1 is rejected, but none where all 3 are accepted.

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        • Hi, Mike,

          I suppose I’m a philosopher, and we don’t really do apparent meaning when people are talking alleged inconsistencies between claims — we come across far too many cases of alleged inconsistencies that turn out instead to be a failure to be precise and explicit enough. My actual worry, though, is not primarily about the triad itself but how it functions in the further argument in the passage quoted by Fr. Kimel — given the triad, Tom also wants to close off options like redefining terms (that’s the ‘waffling’ passage); for this to make any sense we need to have fairly precisely defined terms in hand already — otherwise people are just making reasonable clarifications.

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      • Tom Talbott says:

        Hello again, Brandon:

        Thanks for your further reply, which persuaded me that the word “sincerely” in propositions (1) and (2) is largely fluff and should have been eliminated. But eliminating it would not, for the very reasons you state, have any bearing on the inconsistency issue. Neither, so far as I can tell, would replacing (2) with

        (2′) “God will reconcile to himself each person whose reconciliation he wills or desires”

        have any bearing on that issue.

        But here is where I find myself getting a bit confused. You wrote: “An Arminian can accept something like (2); he just can’t accept (2) while keeping everything in exactly the same sense as (1) and (3) …” So just how are we to understand the expression “something like (2)”? I think I would understand the claim that (2′) is something like (2); the conjunction of (2′) and (1), after all, entails that God will successfully reconcile all sinners to himself. But in what relevant way would a proposition that an Arminian could accept be “something like (2)”? Would it also in a relevant way be “something like” your (2′)? And if so, could you perhaps provide an example?

        Anyway, in revising my triad from the first edition, I did add some complexities to proposition (1). So bearing in mind that, for some purposes at least (particularly when considering the logical relationship between propositions), simplicity has certain advantages over complexity, I’m wondering how you would respond to the following simpler version of the triad:

        (1) It is God’s redemptive purpose for the human race (and therefore his will) to reconcile all human sinners to himself.

        (2) God will eventually achieve his redemptive purpose for the human race.

        (3) Some human sinners will never be reconciled to God and will therefore remain separated from him forever.

        This simpler version eliminates such words as “successfully” and “triumph”—intensifiers, as you call them—that I added in order to appeal to those Calvinists who like to speak of the ultimate triumph of God’s sovereign will, but it does not, so far as I can tell, alter the fact that this set of propositions is indeed logically inconsistent. Do you agree?

        Thanks again for some very good comments.

        -Tom

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        • By ‘something like (2)’ I’m indicating that your (2) does not seem to me to be precise enough to eliminate ambiguities; everybody can hold something like (2), and it isn’t clear how (2) is supposed to be precise enough to establish any kind of inconsistency if everyone could say the words in (2) and mean something different by it. [(2′) was just a contrast, not a proposed alternative; my point was that I didn’t understand, before your clarification, why all these extra things in (2) were thrown into the mix when (2′) would raise fewer questions and focuses more obviously on what would be relevant to any inconsistency. But your clarification made some sense of why (2) might be preferable to (2′) for what you were trying to do in this case.]

          I like your simpler version. I think it does what one would really like an inconsistent triad to do — it cuts down questions to what would be strictly necessary for the inconsistency. So instead of having all these things to focus on, someone who wanted to check that there was no equivocation would have just a few things to check — redemptive purpose and reconciliation; checking what, precisely, are the reasons one would accept each proposition would be easier, too. It’s certainly apparently inconsistent. (I’m too much of an old hand with apparent inconsistencies to commit definitely to something’s being inconsistent prior to actually doing a close analysis! But the new triad is certainly less worrisome to my eye.)

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          • Tom Talbott says:

            Thanks Brandon. I take your point that in formulating an inconsistent triad it is typically best, at least for purposes of logical rigor, to cut “down questions to what would be strictly necessary for the inconsistency.” I also accept the importance of eliminating various possibilities for equivocation and imprecision. So I thought I would point out that in the book I do not present propositions (1) and (2) without further clarification aimed at achieving that end. For I immediately offer the following clarifications:

            “Now it is important not to misunderstand proposition (1). All human sinners are equal objects of God’s redemptive love in my sense only if God loves Esau every bit as much as he loves Jacob, only if he desires that Esau eventually achieve eternal happiness every bit as much as he desires that Jacob achieve eternal happiness, and only if losing Esau forever would thwart his redemptive love every bit as much as losing Jacob forever would have thwarted it. It is also important to appreciate the following implication of proposition (2): unless it is God’s own purpose, plan, or choice never to reconcile Esau to himself, he will successfully accomplish such reconciliation in the end.”

            Now like you, I fully appreciate that the attempt actually to demonstrate an inconsistency through a rigorous deduction can be fraught with surprises. So even though the above clarifications seem to me sufficient, the really important thing, as I see it, is that, given these clarifications, virtually every Augustinian or Calvinist I can think of would reject proposition (1) and virtually every Arminian I can think of would reject proposition (2). And in the end this is all that is required in order to spell out the three different theological views discussed in the relevant chapter: the Augustinian view, the Arminian view, and the universalist view.

            -Tom

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  7. Father Gregory says:

    Tom: you have written a very good book here, and the comments you have made about the triad make it even more clear. It seems to me you have covered all the different theological positions … and indeed one of the premises must be rejected.

    I remember reading Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange on Predestination while at Seminary and he actually argued that those that are elected and given the grace of perseverance are indeed loved MORE by God. I find Garrigou-Lagrange a very good writer but I found myself disagreeing with him on almost every other page. It is at that point that I realized that would never be a Thomist (even though I like St. Thomas just fine) but would always remain firmly grounded in Origen, Evagrius and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Perhaps Fr. Aidan remembers from his reading of Bulgakov … But I seem to remember him arguing along the lines of the Cross of Jesus Christ being a failure if only one lost souls remains lost and is thereby able to defeat the Cross. I am sympathetic to that thought. If indeed the Cross is where Christ embraces and (re)creates the world it stands to reason – I think – that it cannot be un-created. Universalism, I would suggest, is a necessary consequence of the Cross.

    Gregory +

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      Thanks for your kind remarks, Father Gregory. I haven’t read Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange on predestination, But Jonathan Edwards explicitly stated that the non-elect, those destined for hell, “are the objects of God’s eternal hatred.”

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      • Father Gregory says:

        I suppose I just can’t understand where that comes from. When I stand at the Altar to offer the Holy Sacrifice and I look up at the Crucifix I just don’t understand how He who did that for all … could hate what He created. If there is to be talk of hate it is surely directed at what He did not create? Sin and evil? The work of our feeble hands that He has died and risen to undo? To me the Cross seems truly invincible. Or as you say … “the inescapable love of God.”

        Be that as it may, I am very grateful you wrote and I found your book.

        Gregory +

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  8. brian says:

    Father Gregory,

    Norris Clarke used to call himself Thomistically inspired. I personally synthesize from all over the place, but there’s too much really good thinking in Thomas to leave him aside. Alasdair MacIntyre argues in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry that Thomism is more a mode of discovery than a totalizing system of thought. Like you, however, I side with Nyssa when it comes to soteriology.

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    • Father Gregory says:

      Brian: I like St. Thomas just fine … I am not sure I like Thomism as much. St. Thomas has a prominent place in my life – but when it comes down to it … He is subordinate to Origen, Augustine, Evagrius, and Gregory of Nyssa. At least to my mind.

      G+

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  9. Isaac says:

    Good to see Dr. Talbott stopping by to comment.

    If I have the wrong attribution please forgive me because it has been awhile, but I believe it was Perry Robinson from the “Energetic Procession” site that claimed that the three propositions don’t contradict if you conceive of heaven and hell as the same reality, which is the unmitigated presence of the glorified Christ who is light and joy to the righteous and is fire and torment to the damned. The trite way of putting it is that the damned are in paradise, but like the Dwarves in The Last Battle, they are miserable and can’t see their salvation for what it is so they are effectively in hell.

    Anyway, I don’t actually agree with that point of view and soundly reject prop. 3, but I thought it might be interesting to bring this up as a possible objection some people in Orthodox (and maybe Catholic) circles may hold to.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Isaac, it’s not clear to me how someone who espouses a “River of Fire” view of damnation can affirm proposition #2. If we affirm proposition #1, as Orthodoxy certainly does, then surely we also affirm that God desires that all human beings should experience beatitude and bliss rather than torment and pain. The fact that the damned do not experience paradise as paradise must imply that God’s universal salvific will has been frustrated.

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      • Can we not affirm #2 in the same way as St. Isaac the Syrian does, or am I misunderstanding something? Gehenna exists, but only as long as the sinner’s rejection of the love of God exists. Sin is its own punishment. Sin’s intrinsic punishment leads to repentance. St. Isaac could not see how the sinner’s rebellion could outlast the love of God, and so God gets His way in the end because human rebellion will be exhausted. A Gehenna-like experience will exist for some in the Eschaton corresponding to the intensity of their attachment to their sin for the very reason proposed in “The River of Fire”, while all sinners will eventually freely respond in repentance to God’s irrevocable offer of salvation, and so sin and death will ultimately be destroyed.

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      • Isaac says:

        For the sake of accuracy I tracked down the link and relevant passages:

        Here I think that one can see the dialectic of many debates in the history of western theology. I think all three can be true. Of course, I gloss redemption more widely than Universalists, Arminians and Calvinists, who tend to gloss it much more narrowly so as to mean the appropriate moral and doxastic disposition of individual persons or conflate the redemption of human nature with the redemption of the person.

        If redemption means something like, God saves all humans from the effects of sin, namely annihilation, giving them immortality, then all three can be true. For the wicked persist forever because they have a share in Christ’s immortality, which is why they are raised up as well. So if we think of redemption in a wide sense referring to immortality of created natures and more narrowly in terms of personal salvation in terms of the appropriate moral and doxastic dispositions, the problems dissolve.

        https://energeticprocession.wordpress.com/2008/06/11/ping-pong/

        Father,
        I agree with you. Either God is “all in all” after everything has been placed under Christ’s feet (which I take to mean under his authority through free choice) or some part of the creation goes on in endless rebellion. I don’t see how God can be “all in all” if hearts remain closed to his presence. I don’t see how he can truly “tabernacle among men” if a portion of people are lost in outer darkness.

        With that said, however, I thought this was an interesting objection to the three propositions, especially because he went on AFR and disputed universalism outright. That is a lot of voice for one tiny community. By the way, I actually like the Energetic Procession site and first heard about “Pontifications” on there so I have nothing negative to say about the guys that run it. They know their subject. I just disagree on this one issue.

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  10. Isaac says:

    Karen,
    That is what I believe to be true and also what I take George MacDonald to be describing when he wrote about the “fire of God, which is his essential being, his love.” It also matches the purifying fire described in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa and his sister Macrina.

    What I take to be the main difference between universalism in Orthodoxy and the more common view of eternal torment is not the nature of Paradise and Gehenna, but the purpose of the fire. In the former the fire purifies until all sin is destroyed. The latter goes on tormenting the unrepentant soul in perpetuity. As far as the spatial relations (MacDonald seems to envision a distance between the unrepentant and God until they finally reach the bottom of self-centeredness) between Paradise and Gehenna I am far less concerned than what eschatological views say about God’s nature.

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    • I’m still a bit confused because it seems to me to say the fire “purifies until all sin is destroyed” and that the fire “goes on tormenting the unrepentant soul” is basically saying the same thing. The difference in the two groups is that some believe the wicked will never repent (the nature of the fire/God’s nature does not change, but the torment goes on “in perpetuity” because the persistence in wickedness is perpetual), whereas the Orthodox universalist believes all the wicked will eventually repent bringing their torment to an end and experiencing the fire of God’s energy as mercy.

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      • Isaac says:

        Karen,
        But the idea that some remain unrepentant in perpetuity means that on some level God has failed to be “all in all” since he is clearly not in their hearts, which is the door Christ stands at. I think that makes all the difference in the world.

        Anyway, the point is that if people remain damned or in torment forever it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference if we are talking about the “River of Fire” or the version of hell that your average independent fundamentalist Baptist envisions in terms of a created place with created fire. Annihilation would be preferable to that.

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        • It seems to me it makes a difference in how we understand the nature of God in His motivations toward sinners. In the Independent Baptist version, God does not love the damned. He rejects and vindictively punishes them. That is a different God than the One depicted in “The River of Fire,” Who simply remains Himself, loving all. The damned just can’t stand that love. I have a hard time, too, understanding how God can be “all in all” if the damned never do repent, which is why I tend toward hopeful Orthodox universalism.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Karen, I used to think there was a difference, but I’ve come to believe that the difference really doesn’t make a difference. Take a look at this article that I wrote two years ago and share with us your response: “Hell and the Torturous Vision of Christ.”

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          • Isaac says:

            Karen,
            Believe me when I say that I am a former fan of the Kalomiros article and it was a pivotal bit of writing in terms of changing my view of God from the vengeful version taught in the fundamentalist churches I was raised in to a God that loves all without distinction. But, over time, I had to concede to the idea that people left in fear, darkness, and torment was still intolerable. This probably became most clear to me after I had children and saw how hazardous free will actually is if it is the the thing that stops God. Now I certainly believe in free will, and I don’t think a person can love in the agape sense without it, but now I believe that God will, for lack of a better term, woo all to repentance even if it takes ages or eons for some to turn around. Otherwise I can’t make sense of how Christ brings everything under his feet and how every knee shall bow and tongue confess him as Lord.

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  11. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Brandon, I would like to invite you to offer three alternative propositions that do not contain the flaws that you believe that you find in the ones formulated by TomT, yet which fulfill the argumentative purpose of the triad. That is to say, they need to be formulated in such a way that a Christian might consistently assent to two of them but not three. Specifically, the first proposition needs to affirm the universal salvific will of God; the second proposition needs to affirm the efficacious salvific will of God; and the third needs to affirm that some human beings will ultimately suffer eternal exclusion from the beatific vision. Have at it!

    You may be interested to know that TomT’s initial formulation of the triad was worded quite differently that what is presented in the 2nd version of his book:

    (1) It is God’s redemptive purpose for the world (and therefore his will) to reconcile all sinners to himself;

    (2) It is within God’s power to achieve his redemptive purpose for the world;

    (3) Some sinners will never be reconciled to God, and God will therefore either consign them to a place of eternal punishment, from which there will be no hope of escape, or put them out of existence altogether.

    I’m sure Tom would welcome your insights into improving his triad.

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    • I am actually rather skeptical of the idea that the field is so narrow an inconsistent triad can capture it; in particular, I am skeptical that anyone could formulate a statement about God’s salvific will that would even be understood by a Calvinist, an Arminian, and a universalist in the same way, and that in itself makes it very difficult to build this kind of inconsistency. But, as noted above, my primary worry was not about the triad itself, but about how it functioned in the context of the further argument in the ‘waffling’ passage you quoted.

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      • Tom Talbott says:

        The more I think about it, Brandon, the more it seems to me that all of your concerns are addressed in the paragraph, reproduced in my 18 February 2015 at 11:13 pm reply to you, that follows immediately after my initial presentation of the inconsistent triad on page 38. That this particular paragraph was omitted from Father Kimel’s summary is quite understandable; no summary, after all, can include everything. But in any event, that paragraph clarifies what it means for two people to be equal objects of God’s redemptive love, which is the crucial idea in proposition (1). It implies that God wills or desires the redemption of all human sinners equally only if, for any two of them, s and s*, God wills or desires the redemption of s in every sense that he wills or desires the redemption of s*.

        Now in your first comment you wrote: “As Anselm noted in the Lambeth fragments, there are many different ways ‘willing’ can be taken in any particular case. If the inconsistent triad is not to equivocate, we have to have good reason that this should be the same in both (1) and (2).” But if, for any two sinners, s and s*, God wills or desires the redemption of s in every sense that he wills or desires the redemption of s*, does that not remove the risk of equivocation in propositions (1) and (2)? And if not, could you perhaps explain why not?

        Thanks,

        -Tom

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        • Tom Talbott says:

          Here, then, is how I would try to avoid any risk of equivocation without changing any of the wording in propositions (1) and (2). Let “R” represent some sinner whom God successfully reconciles to himself, and let us now simply stipulate the following necessary condition of God’s sincerely willing or desiring to reconcile someone to himself. For any sinner s, God sincerely wills or desires to reconcile s to himself only if he wills or desires to reconcile s to himself in every sense that he wills or desires to reconcile R to himself.

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      I owe you a great debt, Father Kimel, for initiating this discussion of my book.

      The problem I came to see with proposition (2) in the first edition is that people were too often tempted to reason as follows. God may have the power to achieve his redemptive purpose for the world and yet have an overriding reason not to exercise that power. I think I successfully blocked that move in a footnote, but it was too easy to ignore the footnote. In the footnote I wrote: “As I here use the expression, “God’s redemptive purpose for the world,” it includes everything that God regards as most important; hence, it is by definition a purpose that overrides all others.” Then, after making some additional clarifications, I wrote: ” But if God desires the salvation of all in any intelligible sense and also desires to preserve human freedom in this matter, then his redemptive purpose for the world is simply a combination of the two: It is his overriding purpose of bringing it about that all are reconciled to him freely.”

      But in addition to that possible misunderstanding, the original version of proposition (2) eventually came to seem to me weaker than necessary. All of those texts that seemed to support the weaker idea that God has the power to achieve his purposes likewise support the stronger idea that he will in fact achieve his purposes. So why not go with the stronger idea? Accordingly, if I were now writing the first edition, I would replace (2) with

      (2′) God will eventually achieve his redemptive purpose for the world.

      For if (2′) is true, so also is (2). And (2′) also avoids the misunderstanding that I described above.

      But the interesting thing is how many fail to see the very point that you make in a previous comment–namely, that nowhere in the book do I treat any of these propositions as premises in some argument that I put forth. In no way, of course, is this a criticism of anyone here, since one could hardly be expected to know this in advance. In any event, thanks again, Father.

      -Tom

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  12. Just briefly looking at your other article, Fr. Al, I stand by my position. I don’t take my intuitive understanding that the torment of the damned comes from the his awareness of the true nature of God, as much as the redeemed’s joy does, to rule out that the damned are tormented also by the demons, their sense of separation from God, etc., to which their attachment to sin subjects them. To my way of thinking (not always the most rigidly logical–I’ll be the first to admit!), these could all describe aspects of the same existential experience. I also don’t have a clue why Fr. Irenei believes that this view perpetuates the opposition between God’s justice and His mercy. These are the same thing, the same energy. It is also the energy in which everything that exists, the damned included, has its being. Is Fr. Irenei a universalist or an annihilationist then? Because to take the view that the sinner’s torment results from anything else doesn’t resolve that opposition if sin’s torment is seen as perpetual and God allows it. It certainly doesn’t perpetuate an opposition if we allow sin’s torment must be effectual in separating that sin from the sinner. Sin’s torment, like sickness, is a self-limiting condition.

    Like you I believe, I live in the hope that, that which is hardened can also be crushed, ground to powder, life-giving water poured in and be rebirthed as clay that can be remolded. This is also, as I said, why I tend toward St. Isaac the Syrian’s vision of the end, but it seems to me this is a view which can only ultimately be sustained by one’s own real encounter with God in theosis. My reticence to be dogmatic about the universalist hope of St. Isaac is because I am a long way in my transformation from where he was, and I am reluctant to say anything dogmatically which the Church does not. At whatever point it becomes necessary for this to have the weight of dogma, rather than hope, for me, I trust God will provide that. I simply in faith affirm the words of Julian of Norwich, “All will be well” and “everything that Holy Church teaches is true.” 🙂

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