The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: The Reviews Start Coming In

The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis by the esteemed scholar Ilaria Ramelli is the most important book on universalism and the Church Fathers to be published in the past hundred years. It is not an easy read. The Latin quotations and some of the Greek quotations have not been translated into English (why?!), and the book is tediously repetitive. Ramelli would have benefitted from a ruthless editor. But that being said, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis is a remarkable achievement.

The scholarly reviews are finally starting to get published. From what I have seen, they have been mainly positive and in one case, quite negative (see below). The big question is, who is competent to review the entire monograph, given its breadth? Most patristic scholars specialize in specific writers or periods, but Ramelli covers the entire patristic corpus, including Syriac authors! Such is her erudition. As I recently wrote to an editor at a well known publisher, what is needed is a collection of essays by various experts, each reviewing one section of the book. The editor agreed but expressed doubt it would ever happen. Sigh.

One non-scholar on the net has accused Ramelli of throwing spaghetti up against a wall to see what might stick. At best, the charge is unfair; at worst, irresponsible. Ramelli is a scholar of the highest caliber. Few can match her academic accomplishments. But she is not infallible. I’m sure that scholars will challenge (and indeed already have challenged) some of her more controversial theses. That’s the way the game is played. What her book will do is force historians and theologians to go back to the sources and read the Church Fathers more deeply and carefully. I imagine that many of her readings will stand up under critique and some will not. I am particularly keen, for example, to see how scholars receive her presentation of St Maximus the Confessor’s eschatology.

The longest review I have so far come across is by Michael McClymond, published in Theological Studies. I find it odd that McClymond was asked to write the review, given that he is not a patristic scholar. He specializes in Jonathan Edwards and modern Christianity (see his impressive curriculum vitae). But he is working on a book on universalism, so I suppose that is the reason why he was invited. McClymond scores several points against Ramelli, but clearly her monograph lies outside his scholarly competence. Caveat emptor.

 

Theological Studies also gave Ramelli an opportunity to respond to McClymond. Here is her rejoinder:

 

One thing for sure: future studies in patristic eschatology will now be dated “before Ramelli” and “after Ramelli.”

Unfortunately, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis is exorbitantly expensive. The good news is that Ramelli is writing a popular version of her tome for Wipf & Stock. It is slated for publication sometime before the return of Christ in glory, after which all books on universal salvation will be unnecessary.

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5 Responses to The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis: The Reviews Start Coming In

  1. Dick says:

    Hello Father Kimel – and thanks for this 🙂

    Two points jump out from Dr Mike’s review –

    ‘’From his own lifetime up through the past 19 centuries, Origen’s reputation was mixed. Later writers often borrowed from Origen’s biblical exegesis, though the source of the ideas or quotations was usually not credited’’.

    This is a bit misleading. Origen’s reputation in the Renaissance was high amongst Christian humanists and he was highly esteemed by Erasmus for his biblical exegesis (albeit Erasmus did not have much time for Origen’s dogmatic theorising). Erasmus used Origen extensively in his annotations of the New Testament (and credited Origen) and the writings of Origen were published and were influential in European thought from the sixteenth century onwards (hence Pico’s debate about whether or not Origen was saved – which was a hot topic for many years. And Origen’s ideas about apocatastasis informed George Rust’s book that advocated Universalism for Anglicans at the close of the seventeenth century for example and several continental discussions such as those of de Clerc at this time (see Walker’s ‘The Decline of Hell). I just flag this because Dr Mike seems to be banging the same drum about interests in Origen’s doctrine of universal salvation being a post millennial thing as he was in his YouTube lecture.

    Footnote 7 seems important to me. The fall and restoration of souls found in the Nag Hammadi community that Dr Mike refers to and says Dr Ramelli ignores is not universalist (even if there are affinities between Origen and the Gnostics and some respects – which Dr Ramelli has shown is debatable). I’m not a patristic scholar but when I had a conversation with Dr Mike about this contention I’d did read the sources he was citing at this time to back up his argument about universalism coming from Gnosticism and other relevant sources translated in the Nag Hamadi Library reader. None of these taught universalism as far as I could see.

    A note on Williams book Re-thinking Gnosticism cited as being very important in Dr Mike’s Footnote:

    Williams argues broadly that our current view of the Gnostics has been distorted by the polemics of the Church Father’s against Gnosticism and that a careful reading of the texts that we have will show that there was more diversity and more subtlety amongst Gnostic thinkers than has previously been acknowledged. Dr Mike is obviously referring to the following argument by Williams as something that Dr Ramelli has not taken into account (from the publisher’s blurb):

    ”Williams takes up the question of “gnostic determinism”: the oft-repeated modern assertion that the gnostics believed mankind to be strictly divided into different types (the spirituals, the psychics, the materials) or different races (the race of Seth, the race of Cain), and that the doctrinal upshot of such divisions was that each individual’s potential for salvation was understood to be already determined at birth. Williams shows that this modern notion of Gnostic determinism is not supported by the original texts. A careful reading of the sources shows that one is not “born into” the race of Seth: rather it is a status one may attain or earn. The race of Seth is more a spiritual community than a biological “race” in our modern sense. Likewise with the division into three types: one’s status as a spiritual is seen to be linked to one’s behaviour: one may lose this status through abandoning the truth, and thus to be born as a spiritual is no guarantee of salvation. The assertion that the ancient gnostics were elitists in the sense of believing themselves predestined to salvation (saved in essence) is misguided. Williams demonstrates that there was at least as much flexibility in these gnostic notions as there is in more recent Protestant doctrines of the elect”.

    I’ve read the Chapter from Re-Thinking Gnosticism on Gnostic determinism. It has nothing to say about Universalism. The author does make a good case that not all Gnostic sects were rigid in their determinism; that salvation through gnosis was seen as conditional upon diligently effort in seeking and finding; and that even the spiritual ‘elect’ could lose salvation through backsliding. However, with my little knowledge I was always aware that the ‘psychics’ – those with a mental and emotional life who were not yet fully spiritual –could either attain or lose salvation. All that this study does is extend this conditionally to the elect spirituals. The author is less convincing about the fate of those who are merely physical/sarkic/hylical. These are the people who are bound to the cycle of toil – the majority of the population and he does not produce evidence to soften any of the contemptuous texts I have seen towards this large class of people that the Gnostics produced (and dismissed to destruction). It would be interesting to know what Dr Ramelli has written about this new study. However, it does not impact directly on her case for universalism.

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  2. Tom says:

    Oh yeah, the “spaghetti” guy. I forgot that.

    She is pretty darn amazing.

    And her book will be the closest Carlton Pearson’s name ever gets to respectable academic work. 😛

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Agnikan says:

    I suspect the Kindle version will be $250.

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  4. Dick says:

    For information: regarding the positive reception of Origen in some quarters during the sixteenth century that I mentioned in my previous post (and which Dr Michael McClymond glosses over in his review) it just so happens that there is a major scholarly event reassessing this at the moment with Thomas P. Sheck’s translations of the prefaces to Erasmus’ edition of Origen. The commentary looks again at the wider reception of Origen in the sixteenth century and in the medieval church. See –

    http://www.amazon.com/Erasmuss-Life-Origen-Translation Rotterdams/dp/0813228018#reader_0813228018

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  5. Very fascinating exchange between the two scholars. Perhaps I will manage to eventually read this book many months from now. Augustine being a universalist at one point in time is a bit surprising, although not unthinkable. James Wetzel considers such a possibility in his analysis of Augustine’s conception of grace in his Confessions “Snares of Truth: Augustine on Free Will and Predestination.” In Augustine and His Critics: Essays in honour of Gerald Bonner). He basically concluded that Augustine’s framework either leads to predestination (as he later held) or universal salvation.

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