Universalism and the Deluge of Condemnation

In his article “Hell (Unfortunately) Yes,” Fr Stephen De Young invites us to judge the universalist hope according to the biblical witness. Specifically, what does the Bible teaching about “the nature of the condemnation issued when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead and that condemnation’s duration”? Rather than getting bogged down in exegetical debates about individual verses, he wants us to reflect upon the the fullness of the biblical witness.

“The controlling narrative for the entire Scriptures regarding God’s interaction with the world is covenant,” Fr Stephen declares. The model invoked is the ancient suzerainty (vassal) treaty, exemplified in the book of Deuteronomy: “the new king introduces himself, lists the deeds he has done on the people’s behalf, and issues to them the laws that they are now to follow.” What happens when one party breaks covenant? The wronged party takes the other to court. A judge hears the accusation, considers the evidence, and determines “who is in the right (justified) and who is in the wrong (condemned).” Unlike the American judicial system, which asks a jury of peers to determine justice, in the ancient system the judge both hears the evidence and then delivers a verdict. His task is to make things right and thus restore equity.

Those who have studied the ancient practices of covenant will be in a better position than I to judge the accuracy of Fr Stephen’s forensic description of Old Testament justice, but based on my reading of N. T. Wright, it seems accurate, as far as it goes.

The author then considers the question how God deals with those who stand outside the covenant community. Remember the story of Noah and the ark? God decides that because of humanity’s wickedness, it’s time to destroy all living things. But Noah finds favor in the sight of the Lord. Why? Because, Fr Stephen tells us, “the world is at enmity with Noah; it hates him and has oppressed him and his family.” We are to think of a dispute between the two parties, with God ultimately siding with Noah. Noah is declared to be in the right and the world in the wrong. At this point I think it not unimportant to note that the Bible does not actually state that Noah and the rest of the world were living in a state of mutual conflict and enmity. It’s a fair inference, I suppose, but only an inference. Gen 6:8 says that in the midst of the world’s wickedness and violence, Noah finds favor with God. 6:9 says that “Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God.” These statements certainly support the claim that Noah was relatively more righteous than his fellow human beings, but as Fr Stephen admits, he was not sinless. I mention this because it appears to me that Fr Stephen is engaging here in a bit of eisegesis in order to conform the story to his model of the Israelite law court. His model requires that Noah be cast in the role of plaintiff and mankind in the role of defendant. Would it not be more accurate, however, to say that all of mankind, including Noah, stands in the dock. We may then think of God as assuming the roles of both plaintiff and judge.  (But what role do we assign to the Crucified? [John 12:47].)  Noah is found innocent and everyone else found guilty.  But perhaps the model of the law court isn’t the best way to interpret the story of the flood.

We now come to Fr Stephen’s key interpretive move:

Noah and his family therefore receive life, and the world receives condemnation. We see an anachronistic mention of clean and unclean animals on the ark of Noah just to make clear the point that the ark is here a microcosm of the covenant, through which Noah is saved from the wrath that comes upon the world. In this picture of judgment, we see that there is not a principle of proportionality. Noah isn’t punished lightly for his lesser sins while those in the world are punished more or less severely based on their relative sinfulness. Rather, condemnation means death, over against life, and there is no additional second chance. The second, third, and fiftieth chances were given while God, in His mercy, waited to judge the world.

The judgment is comprehensive and decisive.  Some are justified and saved; many more condemned and utterly destroyed. There’s no middle ground. There is only vindication and condemnation, life and death. Perhaps we might even speak of the divine punishment as disproportional to humanity’s sins.  The very wicked are killed right along with the middlin’ wicked.  And most importantly for Fr Stephen’s argument, the judgment is final, decisive, and irrevocable. God ceases to wait upon humanity’s repentance and exacts final justice.

Fr Stephen believes he has scored a telling point against Orthodox universalism. Just before he begins his analysis of the Noah story, he states the following: “The Orthodox would-be Universalist position argues that every human person, regardless of their relationship to the New Covenant, is justified after paying a finite price of suffering for their individual sins.” I find this a curious construal of the “Orthodox would-be Universalist position.” As a general rule, we would-be Orthodox universalists eschew retributive notions of divine justice. We do not speak of purgative suffering as the imposition of a penalty that needs to be satisfied. As St Isaac the Syrian emphatically declares: “Love’s chastisement is for correction, and it does not aim at retribution.” If God condemns a person to Gehenna, it is only to effect that person’s ultimate conversion and repentance.

The lesson that Fr Stephen draws from the story of the flood (confirmed, he believes, by 2 Peter 3:18-22 and other Old and New Testament texts) is this: final judgment is final judgment. What else can “final” mean? At some point the game of life must conclude. At some point there will be no more time for repentance. At some point God will separate the sheep and the goats with eschatological definitiveness.

This eschatological hope is taken and seen as being fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament, as Jesus conquers and establishes His Kingdom over the entire earth. As prophesied by Psalm 109 (110), there is now an interval, during which we pray for that day when His Kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth, as it is now in heaven. The metaphors of the New Testament regarding the condemned, however, are in no way mitigated. The state of those on the wrong side of His judgment when He returns is described as outer darkness, as weeping and gnashing of teeth, of being shut out of the joys and beauty of God forever. Again, none of these metaphors have any sense of proportionality to particular sins, or of being a temporary state. Indeed, the nature of the judgment itself, that one side is in the right and the other in the wrong, does not admit of such. There is not suffering due to God for each sin. Rather, those who spent this life mourning are blessed, and those who spent it laughing are cursed; those who spent this life poor are blessed, those who spent this life wealthy are cursed; those who spent this life being persecuted and maligned for the sake of Christ will be blessed, and those who spent this life being thought well of and praised will be cursed. Just as there is no sense that the former blessings are ‘for a time’ (quite the opposite), there is no sense that these curses are ‘for a time’.

There’s nothing here with which an old-style revivalist preacher would disagree—just straight “repent or be damned” rhetoric.  I have to admit that after all the banal Orthodox and Catholic preaching I have had to listen to over the past decade, a rousing fire and brimstone sermon might be just the tonic the doctor ordered—but please, no more than one a year.

It is unclear to me whether Fr Stephen is willing to entertain, or even can entertain, the possibility of salvation for non-Christians, given his strict understanding of covenant and divine judgment. “Condemnation is total for those outside of God’s covenant when the cup of their iniquity has reached its full,” he declares. “This constitutes generations in the life of a nation, but also corresponds to the life on this earth of a person, which is the opportunity which God gives in His Grace for repentance.” Yet may not God provide a way for nonbelievers to be saved, as he did for those destroyed by the deluge (1 Pet 3:18-20)?

(Go to “The Gospel of Deluge“)

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26 Responses to Universalism and the Deluge of Condemnation

  1. Father De Young: What then does the rainbow in Genesis 9 signify? Will God break his promise and again destroy all the living except for a chosen few?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Bowman, you might want to ask Fr Stephen that question over at his website and see what he says.


      • Done. The rhetorical is actual.

        But– speaking of nobody in particular– might readers of Genesis who warm to the angry God of the deluge, but cool to the pensive God of the rainbow be somewhat like the Jonah who was delighted with the condemnation of Nineveh and disappointed with its forgiveness, or like the servant who buried his talents for fear of a hard master who reaps where he does not sow? Being unpersuaded by the evidence for particular universalist claims seems safe enough, as does admiring universalism for its sober view of God’s steady correction of souls, but rejecting universalism because its God seems insufficiently frightening without retribution seems to be embracing a disposition toward God that the scriptures foreclose and that, in practice, interferes with the cultivation of the commanded virtues. One can profitably debate universalism on the plane of impersonal authorities, and so we do it, but if God’s revelation is self-revelation, then it has an animating heart. If one of our theorems inhibits persons from cultivating his own merciful disposition toward creatures, then we should be wary.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Your comment reminded me of this passage from Hans Urs von Balthasar:

          It can be taken as a motif running through the history of theology that, whenever one fills hell with a “massa damnata” of sinners, one also, through some kind of conscious or unconscious trick (perhaps cautiously, and yet reassuredly), places oneself on the other side. (Dare We Hope, p. 191)

          Earlier in the book Balthasar quotes Hans-Jurgen Verweyen:

          Whoever reckons with the possibility of even only one person’s being eternally lost beside himself is unable to love unreservedly. (p. 78)

          Infernalists worry that the universalist hope breeds presumption (and that is a spiritual problem that needs to be addressed) but more serious is the problem generated by the knowledge of a populated hell—the undermining, as you put it Bowman, of the “cultivation of the commanded virtues.”


          • “Infernalists worry that the universalist hope breeds presumption…”

            Which is why the old universalists preached so mightily against it. As you, Thomas Talbott, and nearly all universalist apologists have noted, the absence of divine retribution does not at all imply the absence of divine correction. What intrigues me is the infernalist refusal, at that point, to take that ‘yes’ for an answer, and agree that presumption has indeed been addressed.

            For outspoken infernalists, the ‘qualitative distance between God and man’ is somehow illusion unless God actually hates at least some of his creatures as much as he possibly can. It’s not enough that God corrects the faults of sinners to perfect them; even with his holiness satisfied, and against his own creative intent, God is not being a real god unless there is also some surplus of pain and destruction. The infernalist saith in his heart, “If God does not damn at least somebody, I just cannot take him seriously. I might still believe in him, but that belief will have no motivating power for me.” This intuition about God is not easily traced to scripture.

            But it figures in other controversies about God besides universalism. In Janice Knight’s history of the antinomian controversies in C17 Massachusetts, we see it in contrast between the ‘spiritual brethren’ who emphasize God’s love for sinners and the ‘intellectual fathers’ who emphasize God’s power over sinners.

            Can we seriously discuss such deeply subjective predispositions? Insofar as God commands emotional dispositions in scripture, perhaps.


    • steve95054 says:

      I am not Fr. De Young, but the answer to the question is an easy one:

      The Rainbow signifies, by God’s own declaration, that He would not destroy the world WITH WATER again. (Gen. 9:15, “And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh;and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.”)

      Next time, it’s with FIRE, not water. So the covenant signified by the bow, that “the WATERS shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh”, is not broken.

      “…the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished: but the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men….the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. … the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat[.] Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.”

      Frankly, I should quote the entirety of the second and third chapters of Peter’s second, as it is entirely relevant to the conversation. But I think this should suffice for this particular point.

      As for the question raised in the OP, “Yet may not God provide a way for nonbelievers to be saved, as he did for those destroyed by the deluge (1 Pet 3:18-20)?”

      The question is answered quite easily in the verses following those referenced: YES, God provides a way for salvation, as He did for those. That way of salvation is the Life in Christ, our Ark, entered by Baptism, made certain by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and lived by ceasing from sin.

      And “the Gospel is preached also to those who are dead, that they might….live according to God in the spirit”. Notice the present continual: “is preached”.

      But the answer is not “for nonbelievers”, nor is it available (to our knowledge) after the judgment. “But the end of all things [I dare say, including this preaching] is at hand.”
      … “And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”

      We HOPE (for we must!) that there is some path to salvation beyond the judgment of fire. But we cannot even honestly posit such a thing as anything more than a secret hope, because we have no assurance of any such thing. The only thing we have any indication of, positively, is permanence of conditions after the fire. To intimate anything else as anything but a secret hope — and prayer! — is, I think (based on Peter’s statements, and on the anathemas against this kind of thought), to begin to lead yourself and others to destruction, as says also the current text of the Synodicon of Orthodoxy.

      Pun fully intended, I am concerned that by so strongly and assuredly espousing such doctrine, especially publicly for all to see, you are playing with fire. This is strong meat indeed — if it is meat at all — and it is not fit fare for most of your readers, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Cyranorox says:

        We have a hope, publicly proclaimed every year. Amazing that the infernalists don’t refer to it; perhaps they have early bed-times. Every Pascha, we hear ‘Not one dead remains in the grave’ and ‘The Universal Kingdom is established’, and other words that clearly state that all men, be they never so late, be they never so foolish – and remember most of the dead didn’t live to speak their first sentences – are admitted to the Feast, in joy. And lest you try to adduce the Fathers, be reminded that the Liturgy is the primary, public, and central voice of the Fathers.


        • steve95054 says:

          Yes, not one dead remains in the Grave, and yes, the Universal Kingdom is established. But this does not signify universalism by any stretch of the imagination, except insofar as the Resurrection is universal and the Kingdom is universal.

          But that all will (eventually) enjoy release from punishment — a restoration, if you will — is nowhere intimated. Jesus said that that Resurrection will be universal, but its effects binary: namely, some will rise to life, and others to condemnation. He nowhere says that those who rise to condemnation will ever be anything but condemned.

          And that the Kingdom is universal is also no guarantee, “For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.” This is a characteristic of the Universal and Eternal Kingdom.

          And that this does not simply refer to those who are outside the city before everything is burned up, but rather describes the eternal state, hear the words of the Prophet:

          “‘For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me,’ saith the LORD, ‘so shall your seed and your name remain. And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me,’ saith the LORD. ‘And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.'”

          And lest you be confused and think that this refers to the state of things only before the General Judgment, you have only to hear the description of that very event and its aftermath, given in the Apocalypse, especially from the end of the 20th chapter to the end of the book.

          And if you want to add to the words found there — well, I say good luck with that; you’re gonna need it!


          • Cyranorox says:

            You pick and choose where you want to be literal. ‘All flesh’, indeed, is a universal claim, right there in what you quote. Those rotting corpses may be, indeed must be, seen allegorically and anagogically. And the Pascal homily does, in total, claim universal joy; not to see that is not to listen. Further, right there in Revelation we find Revelation 22:2
            “down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Since the Nations are the outsiders, gentiles, pagans, riffraff, nobodies, and reprobates, and they are to be healed by the produce of Paradise, it is clear that they will be admitted to Paradise. Not only that, but their problem is framed as illness, not crime. God has provided the means whereby universal salvation can make sense, healing those who otherwise would be too ill [‘condemned’] to stand on the right side.


  2. A couple of items that come to mind when contemplating Fr Stephen’s Deluge punishment construal. As we know there are some that suggest that “The Flood” may have in fact have been local as opposed to global. So, if it was potentially “local” in scale, would that not suggest others as being outside the retributive effects of God’s verdict? Or was the whole of humanity restricted to that specific geographical region? There are carefully calculated scriptural arguments for this position –

    The Genesis Flood: Why the Bible Says It Must be Local http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/localflood.html

    But…. would that then imply the Rainbow only had “local” symbolic significance, etc… I’m inclined to think that it was NOT however. It all starts to unravel. Arguments over the interpretation and definition of what [earth – “erets”] actually implies, as well as [all or whole – “kol”] also are problematic.

    Another aspect to this discussion reminds me of John 21 –

    …21So Peter seeing him said to Jesus, “Lord, and what about this man?” 22Jesus said to him, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” 23Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?”…

    Some of my thoughts on this matter gravitate to this brief dialog above; especially verse 22. Pulling it out of context a bit and elastically applying it eschatological discussions has helped me to see the emotionally evocative nature of an intrusion into the salvatio path of another believers journey. It shouts from the heavenly tannoy – “YOU ARE NOT IN CHARGE!”

    Now Peter may have been expressing loving concern and empathy for his dear friend and brother in the faith [Like those who claim their warnings of an eternal Hell is an act of love in itself], but there’s something inherently about Christ’s response, that chides a bit. In other words, “stop being overly concerned about his destiny, his outcome, his status with Me – I’ll take care of that, thank you very much – you mind your own steps”. That’s not say we should ever negate or wimp-out on “The Great Commission” or wrestle with theological discourse at the risk of stepping into another’s bubble of personal space and or causing offence – there will be risks: it comes with the package tour!

    One of the unavoidable characteristics of the Universalist / Infernalist polemic, is the amount of personal gravitas one carries coming into the discussion. Everyone has a dog in the fight; whether they state it or not. We are drawn to certain soteriological conclusions like a moth to the flame based on our own meandrous journey to The Cross. But there’s a certain quality in our apprehension of the Eshcaton that is designed to be subjective, relative and applicable to our personal spiritual frame of reference. When putting forth a post-death schema, everyone is to one degree or another, a scripture collage artist: we cherry-pick what we like and then systematically jettison and minimalize that which we find less coherent and sympathetic to our view. I have friends that are obsessed with “The Rapture”, others whom always looking for the “Beast”. I am culpable to fixation as well; like Universalism – Ha!

    We would all like to brazenly claim that we leave our personal baggage at the hermeneutical door, but it just isn’t so! I honestly believe that some require and do quite well spiritually through the embracing of a hardcore ECT theology – it keeps their deriere in line! Others however, do not and have moved well beyond the need to be an exponent. I see it more as an incremental enlightenment. I’ll go as far to say that at some level, it’s about spiritual maturity and those who habitually propagate ECT have a puerile need to envisage the misanthropic punishment of others. Having a disturbingly disproportionate confidence in “Punishment”, rather than power of ultimate Grace, they smother “heretic sauce” on any theological parfait’ they don’t like the taste of.

    Paradoxically, questions of theology are ultimately the questions of cosmology and vice versa. Obviously “Apocatastasis” goes against [The Heat Death of the Universe Theory] Ironically those who want the punishment of the “wicked” to be eternal and everlasting prescribe a [soul death by Heat] or better yet those who crave Annihilationism, where some simply cease to radiate and are phased out permanently.

    If we are to Love one another as He first loved us and forgive our brother seventy times seven; how is then, that He himself would not be able to do so? It reminds me of back in the day being told by an adult “Don’t ever smoke kid, it’s bad for ya!” All the while, he’s standing there puffing away on a cigarette. I can’t help but think of the smoke of their torment drifting in front of His throne, blocking my view of the majestic waterfalls of living water gushing forth. Kind of reminds me of the irritation of “controlled burning” in Yosemite, while one tries to appreciate Bridalveil Falls! How can one enjoy the experience of being in the presence of His throne & Glory, when you know that’s going on?


    • steve95054 says:

      I think that conversation had a profound effect on Peter. I think his epistles’ dealing with the very topic at hand display prominently the exact perspective he gained from that very conversation: this is what we know, don’t get wrapped up in theories about things that have not been revealed — just stick to what you know now, and grow in Christ, suffer patiently, and trust the keeping of your soul to Him.


  3. Marc says:

    Perhaps in the end the universalist, infernalist, and annihilationist, all have it right to some degree. Satan and the demons will indeed be tormented in the fire prepared for them until the end of the age. By the end of the age, Satan and the demons will be consumed and annihilated. All human beings who experience torment in this fire of Gehenna, will repent before they are consumed and annihilated. Thus all human beings are saved, Gehenna is empty, Satan and the demons are forgotten, and all of God’s rational creatures live happily ever after.


  4. HI Fr. Kimel–a great post, indeed!

    I wanted to bring to your attention and perhaps to Fr. Stephen de Young’s attention an excerpt from an article that I read concerning war as used in the Old and New Testaments and in the Masoretic and Septuagint texts:

    “Now, in our Bible study, we come to a complicated but revealing task that has to do with differences between Greek and Hebrew biblical texts. It will show that even the Ancient Church had no simple interpretation of the Bible text.
    In the Book of Deuteronomy, there was a commandment to kill those, even members of your family, who try to lead you to other gods. This is what the Hebrew (Masoretic) text says. Keep in mind that the Hebrew text is the source of most English translations. But if we look at the Greek (Septuagint) text, we find something different. Instead of “kill him” we read “you shall surely report concerning him.” One could say that the following words are the command to stone the trespasser anyway. It is true. But shall we consider the substitution of the very word “kill” just a mistake of a translator, or is there is something more significant?
    In many cases where the Hebrew text describes God as a man of war, the Septuagint has something else that gives the passage quite another meaning. Here God is no longer the man of war but He who destroys war! So in Exodus 15:3, the Masoretic text reads: “The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is His name,” but in the Septuagint we find, “The Lord is crushing war.” Again, in the Masoretic text of Isaiah 42:13, we read, “The Lord shall go forth as a mighty man… like a man of war,” while in the Septuagint it is, “The Lord God of hosts shall go forth, and crush the war.” We find similar expressions in Judith 9:7 and 16:3: “God breaks the battles.”
    This clearly shows that either the members of the ancient Jewish community who produced the Septuagint translation had another understanding of the text according to which God is not the war maker but rather the destroyer of war, or the Ancient Church chose alternative readings.
    In any case, we must remember that the Old Testament is valid for us only as a part of the whole, as a part of the history of revelation to the mankind — a history consisting of two parts. But One God acts in both parts. That is what we sing at the Pentecost: “When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations: but when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity; wherefore with one voice we glorify the All-Holy Spirit.” (Kontakion)

    As we see, Scripture does not suggest simple answers, a scheme, an ideology. We can say we live at the same time in peace and at war, with an inner peace that equips us to be warriors, not against men but against evil. This is our history and this is our being — our being in the Church.”

    -Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov


    The reason for my bringing this article up is that language is extremely complicated and nuanced, and of course historically context-dependent. As such, although I am great at languages (speak Romanian, Spanish, English, and some French, Swedish, Italian), and learning some Koine Greek, I cannot really commit to the interpretation that Fr. Stephen gives concerning judgment unto reward and unto condemnation. Although I lean toward the universalist hope very much so, I cannot say with any certainty that either of the interpretations are correct, but what I can say is that what makes most sense to me is the universalist interpretation. What would give God more glory than to see all of His creation reconciled to Himself–those who followed Him, and those who were/are His enemies, or to have a very select subset of His creation in His kingdom, who supposedly would forget completely about the ties they’ve had in this earthly life and live in the kingdom of God, while the great majority of humankind would suffer in the state of the lake of fire without end? I know what I think/believe, and although I do gladly go to Liturgy to a Romanian Orthodox church on a regular basis now, that is something that will always be a point of contention when it comes to ultimate reconciliation/universal salvation in reference to what is taught in the Orthodox Church.

    In any event–a great article, Fr. Kimel! Look forward to the continuation of the series!


  5. If I may make one clarification. I don’t wish to engage in a tit for tat, I gave my position and you, Father, are doing a fine job of stating yours. I also do not wish to use your blog here for me to answer questions about my piece, people interested in asking about it can go over to O&H and post there.

    I just wanted to clarify that the bit about Noah and his family and their persecution is from extra-biblical tradition, but from extra-biblical tradition that I felt permissible to bring to bear here based on the clearer reference to it in a similar context in II Peter 2:4-9. Make of that what you will.


  6. AR says:

    It’s so weird to read Covenant Theology from an Orthodox preacher, but I guess with the influx of converts in our generation lots of different colors are being added to the doctrinal swirl.


    • Yes. If Father Kimel explains a minority position in Orthodoxy, Father De Young is proposing a covenant theology (CT) that is, in content and method, heterodox. As you say, it adds a different color to the doctrinal swirl, one that cannot be blended into a patristic hue. It is authoritative nowhere.

      Neither the De Young OP nor the discussion about it, establish a rationale for embracing his particular variant of CT. Indeed, it would be helpful to read some explanation of why it was thought that this innovation was needed. Is it thought that the tradition of the fathers is inadequate for Orthodoxy?

      Without such a rationale, at least, we have no reason to read Genesis 9 as a contract like one for insurance in which only the insurer really knows what is covered. Those of us who read the flood story with the ‘consensus patrum’ will continue to see the rainbow as the sign of a turning point in God’s relations with man. Doing so, the most natural conclusion to draw is that the flood story is not a precursor of the end of the aeon, and that Father De Young’s OP is mistaken in his application of the text to universalism.

      To be clear, is not inconceivable that a fresh covenant idea might play some role in a future ecumenical theology acceptable to Orthodox and others. The OP does not prove a need for such a theology, and even in the spirited debate about it, nothing of interest has emerged. But this should not prejudice us against further ecumenical explorations better informed by the tradition that we have received.


      • Dante Aligheri says:

        Bowman Walton, I am curious. How might Covenant Theology conflict with Orthodoxy?


        • Blessings, Dante. AR probably refers, and I certainly refer, to the CT of Reformed scholasticism. (If you are unfamiliar with this theology, you can find balanced accounts of its development in several works of Richard A Muller.) It is not controversial that this theology reflects Augustinian and nominalist suppositions that are not not native to the Eastern theology from the Cappadocian fathers through St Maximus to later Orthodoxy. (If you are unfamiliar with that tradition, there is still no handier introduction to it than John Meyendorff’s Byzantine Theology.) These two traditions are oil and water.

          Just how fundamental their differences are can be seen in the way alternate construals of the Greek text of Romans 5:12 lead the Reformed, with the rest of the West, to see it as proof that Adam’s guilt was transmitted to all his descendents (eph ho = in whom), while the Greek fathers see it as proof (eph ho = because) that either death is the consequence of sin (eph ho –> hemarton), or even that sin enters the world through death (eph ho –> thanatos). From this startling dissimilarity, among others, many understandably assume that the suppositions of this oil and water pair are ultimately incompatible. It would be fascinating to see the contrary demonstrated, of course, but unless and until such a feat is achieved, we should avoid syncretism and respect the integrity of both traditions. In an Orthodox forum, even an ‘eclectic’ one, it is natural to prefer argument that is, on basic questions, congruent with the patristic witness.


        • Dante, I should have mentioned the contrast most often drawn between CT and the thinking of the Eastern fathers: where the Eastern fathers more often see God’s continuing creativity as the central reality in his relations with man, covenant theologies posit God’s making, stacking, and enforcing of decrees that ideally define an eternal, static order. One can press anything too far– plenty of fathers allude to God as a righteous judge, and some Reformed scholastics reflect on continuous creation– but when we try to discern the motivations being attributed to God in the two contexts, we find that those inured to CT attribute lawyerly, indeed punitive, preoccupations to God where those who see him as the Creator tending his creation find him anticipating his new creation. Thus our infernalist readers open the Genesis narrative about Noah and finds an expression of everlasting law in which the high points are– (a) a divine policy of obliterating the non-concompliant, and (b) a decree that the world will not end by water– while Father Kimel’s new OP finds a rather rich proclamation of the gospel that presupposes God’s ongoing creative activity. Again, what should interest us is the contrast in the divine motivations that these accounts posit. Which better reflects the whole and the depth of scripture?

          This contrast in– shall we call them mindsets?– is already implicit in the differing exegeses of Romans 5:12 that I mentioned yesterday. If one reads the text in the Western way, then the momentous problem to which Christ is the solution is the God’s own decision to punish all human beings for Adam’s sin in Eden. What can seem to an Eastern imagination to be a somewhat deranged fascination with power, anger, judgment, and violence seems to such readers, including all CT readers, to be the inevitable reaction to the revealed facts of our condition. For them, the gospel is that God solved this problem by sacrificing Christ on the Cross, which solved the legal problem. Conversely, if one reads the text with the majority of the East, then the cosmic problem to which Christ is the solution is that because human beings die, they struggle against death in sinful ways that have dislodge them from the natural place in the creation that the Creator had intended. For these fathers, God solved this problem by “trampling down death by death” in the god-man Christ, by bringing his glorified humanity to heaven, and by the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Orthodoxy can never surrender the whole of this solution; the legal mindset of CT can find little use for most of it. Not to put too fine a point on it, a mindset to which God speaks clearly as the angel with the flaming sword, but only obscurely as the rainbow after the flood, is just what most Eastern fathers recognized as the death-distorted mind that keeps creation groaning in futility. The mind of Christ brings us instead to the manifestation of the sons of God in Romans 8.


        • “How might Covenant Theology conflict with Orthodoxy?”

          Your excellent question is too large to be answered all at once. But, finally Dante, we can consider a simple answer–

          Because a CT, by definition, systematizes human knowledge of God’s disposition to all things around a legal instrument of limited scope, it excludes too much that the Eastern fathers (and hence the Orthodox) have taught and celebrated to be acceptable.

          The Bible does have laws, and does mention contracts, but these cannot work as the single organizing metaphor by which we understand the Creator’s whole disposition toward his Creation. The legal instruments CTs propose, even if actually in scripture or abundantly commonplace in scripture– which is disputed– do not preeminently represent God’s disposition with respect to the Creation generally (Romans 8), to humanity, his “image and likeness” (Genesis 1), or to his ecclesial spouse (Ephesians 5). Moreover, the Anselmian soteriology associated with CTs cannot account for the Resurrection, Ascension, and Descent of the Holy Spirit as saving events for us and for the Creation. Conversely, a theology that fully acknowledges all of these sacred mysteries has solutions far beyond the scope of the legal problem that CTs purport to solve. It is only because the somewhat legalistic hermeneutic of CT does not have the ears to hear lyric, metaphor, narrative, paradox, and canonicity in scripture that it does not know that it is much too small for the Bible. One must rather force the imagination to think that those observing the twelve great feasts with patristic faith could embrace any CT we know.

          And yet again, please note that the danger these worshipers avoid is not at all that of exploring covenant metaphors in scripture. How can any of us avoid this? But they wisely do refrain from following theologians who have steadily elevated ‘covenant’ in their systems until legality finally toppled creativity from the zenith of God’s concern. In CTs this happens when a contract is seen, no longer as embedded here and there in biblical narrative, but as the transhistorical, cosmic reality of which that narrative is a mere shadow. Ultimately, that move disintegrates the spirituality of creational monotheism that it seeks to codify.

          Such Protestants as Thomas F. Torrance and Robert W. Jenson have also largely avoided this danger in their speaking of covenant. Like the fathers, they have read the scriptures with more narrative sense than the infernalists who have recently posted here and nearby. Indeed, their categories have been deeply informed by those of fathers important to Eastern traditions– SS Irenaeus and Athanasius, the Cappadocians, St Maximus. Orthodox might have other criticisms to make of their systems, but anyone should agree that both the Reformed theologian and the Lutheran one have been led away from the cosmic legalism of CT by their patristic influences.

          Thus, we can understand AR’s exclamation “It’s so weird to read Covenant Theology from an Orthodox preacher…” The worry beyond that sense of weirdness is that CT as a remedy for universalism is surely a drug worse than the disease. The infernalist majority in Orthodoxy who disagree with Father Kimel should be able to see this, grounding their own views on the scriptures and the fathers. Just so, we should all see that one cannot find CT to be more congenial than universalism without stepping away from the consensus patrum and into another spirituality.


      • If you’re going to say that something found all over the Scripture is not in the tradition of the Fathers, you’re going to have to work a lot harder than just saying it.


  7. Dante Aligheri says:

    I’m not sure exactly how relevant this is, but I’ve recently been reading through Sigmund Mowinckel’s “Psalms in Ancient Israel’s Worship” and Aubrey Johnson’s “Sacral Kingship in Ancient Israel,” both of which are rather old (1950s-60s) but whose basic contours have remained in most other things I’ve read on Yahwistic liturgy and mythology – for example, in John Geyer’s “Mythology and Lament,” which traces the Israelite mythological and liturgical imagery in the Prophets. Regarding the Flood, I’m not certain that law court or covenant lawsuit encompasses the whole topic – at least it could be held within a wider set of motifs, particularly that of cosmic purity, the relative distance in the quality of “stuff” that creates distance between us and God, created beings hovering over non-being and Being in our thinking. The Flood looks to me like a prototype of Yom Kippur and the Feast of Tabernacles. The main emphasis is not necessarily judgment but cleansing the world of cosmic pollution like the kipper blood in the Temple before the creation covenant, which included angelic powers as well as mankind, completely fell apart. Judgment in Yahwism seems to have cleansing as its primary aim – the removal of impurities to maintain the presence of God in the world and keep the good creation from falling into un-being instantiated in the, ultimately, the Fall of the Angels, Adam’s Fall from Paradise, the Flood, or the Exile. WIth all events like the Day of YHWH, God enacts purification events and then is enthroned in triumph back to the Temple whereupon the Divine Warrior-King, on our behalf, manifests Himself against the Mordor-like nations mythologically surrounding Zion, themselves on the behalf of wayward but quite real “no-gods”/demons who have brought them against YHWH. In the cult, probably at Tabernacles/Sukkot in the autumn and what rabbinic Judaism calls Unleavened Bread in the spring following Passover, YHWH’s enthronement means the vindication of Israel, the overthrow of the foreign gods (esp. in Psalm 82), and the casting of light to all nations gathered under the aegis of the Messiah. The judgment scene is secondary to the primary aim of purification instrumental to the Holy Spirit/Wisdom’s tabernacling “rest” in Genesis 1. The Israelite apotropaic rites at the two festivals, roughly the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, existed to deal with all human impurities and the polluting human condition because God “realized” after the Flood that, apart from the Holy Spirit’s indwelling in the once glorified Adam, mankind is “corrupt from his youth,” to prevent another Flood from happening, only for Israel to fall herself and lose the Temple apparatus – leading to the hope for a Temple “made without hands” and a New Covenant-style change in the human condition.

    I agree this can be read quite traditionally. But, if the primary enemy is not some-body in a lawsuit sense, at least not fully, but rather a disease which requires cauterization, the post-Resurrection ingathering of the Gentiles would throw this classic Yom Kippur-Feast of Tabernacles imagery out of kilter because the enemy is no longer a vast Mordor rallied by fallen angels, also responsible for plague and natural evils, at least in the context of the time, against Israel such as envisioned by the Essenes but rather the effects of those fallen beings with every Jew and Greek on potentially equal footing. If the enemy is not “flesh and blood,” as Paul realized, but “dominions,” then it seems that the primary aim of purification might logically entail a full restoration of Adam, not just Israel. Maybe it was this breaking down of walls between Israel and the nations which made wrestling with universalism possible for St. Paul and others? That distance between the relative effectiveness of the Flood and the Final Judgment at the Cross, the blood of bulls line from Hebrews, precisely to the unexpected and peculiar shape of Israel manifested in the Cross and Resurrection, enabled something like 1 Peter, a wilder hope than perhaps any imagined at the time.

    Or not. It’s at least an interpretive possibility. Whether the writers of the NT saw it exactly this way is an open question, but, if there is wrestling with universalism in the NT, this might be a conceivable way they worked the OT and however much Jewish apocrypha which the writers knew, into this Cross-shaped context.


  8. William says:

    I will maybe have to take the time to read Fr Stephen’s thinking on 1 Peter 3, but verses 19 and 20, describing Jesus preaching to the disobedient in Noah’s time, and especially paired with Orthodox hymnography on Christ’s descent into hades, seems to suggest an ultimately good end for those who were disobedient before the flood (and perhaps by extension all the other disobedient ones in hades).


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