1 Timothy 2:3-4: will, intend, or desire?

by David Bentley Hart

A quick note on 1 Timothy 2:3-4. It seems that certain captious reviewers of my book—one especially confused reviewer in particular—believe that my translation of these verses, which says that “God intends” the salvation of all, is illicitly slanted toward the reading I desire, and without any good etymological justification. Here we see the importance of a classical education for reading the New Testament, as opposed to a smattering of seminary Greek. The verb thelo is stronger in connotation than mere wishing for something. It indicates a positive intention. Hence, the committee that produced the King James version rendered the phrase as “God wills” the salvation of all, much as they might have preferred to do otherwise. The all-but-infallible Lightfoot who points out that to say, “ho basileus bouletai” can be to say, “the king wants,” while to say, “ho basileus thelei” can be to say, “the king ordains.” “The latter in usage seems no weaker than the former.” Hence, also, the Vulgate: “Deo … qui … vult.” Deus vult—the very phrase that the Crusaders used (alas) to mean “God commands!” Thus Ronald Knox’s translation: “since it is his will that all men should be saved, and be led to recognize the truth.” Hence also the Douay rendering: “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

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35 Responses to 1 Timothy 2:3-4: will, intend, or desire?

  1. SF says:

    As I’m sure you know — as even those with mere seminary Greek learn very quickly — above all it’s *usage* that determines meaning; it’s not etymology, or some Platonic lexicon where words always have clearly delineated and immutable denotations.

    Incidentally, I. Howard Marshall, in his notes on 1 Tim 2.4 in his ICC commentary, mentions the *opposite* view as the one Lightfoot did: “[s]ome scholars try to find a weak sense [for θέλω here] in contrast with βούλομαι in the sense ‘to order'” (427). Marshall rightly counters this; but he also goes on the write that “[e]qually, however, there is no guarantee that this purpose will necessarily be fully accomplished, any more than other things which God wishes.”

    Incidentally, on the DBH Facebook group, I recently commented on the use of βούλομαι in 2 Peter 3.9, where at first glance the logic of the passage itself may also seem to suggest God invariably *accomplishing* the salvation of all (via willing it). But in the end, the broader literary context of the passage clearly affirms the more traditional understanding, where God’s desire to see all saved is nonetheless subordinate to the fact that the impious will still be destroyed at the eschaton.

    In sum then, I’d agree that there isn’t any problem with translating 1 Tim 2.4 as “…his will that all men should be saved” or anything like that — provided that, in *interpreting* this, we don’t insist that this is necessarily a prooftext that God will actually *accomplish* this. (Obviously, then, a dynamic translation like “God accomplishes the salvation of all” here would be too much.)

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    • DBH says:

      SF<

      For one thing, no, you're quite wrong, you've misread the context. You are reading hell or final destruction into a prophesy only of the ruin that comes upon sinners. The context of the verse says nothing one way or the other about the ultimate ends of judgment or about eternal dereliction or final destruction. In fact, the pastoral epistles as a whole have always been more persuasively read as universalist.

      For another, it doesn't much matter, since I don't use it as a proof text. Only the demented Doug Farrow seems to think the verse is crucial to my argument.

      Still–let me repeat–you're quite, quite in error.

      Liked by 2 people

      • DBH says:

        Ah, meant to comment on 2 Peter 3:9 also. It too merely warns of the coming judgment, not of any particular final fate for those who will suffer its worst consequences. No universalists of any importance in Christian history have ever denied judgment or ruin or hell for some of us. Again, you are assuming a “traditional understanding” that is in fact absent from the text.

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        • DBH says:

          Oh (you can see I’m distracted here), on Lightfoot: The citation you quote is not actually the opposite of the one I mentioned. Lightfoot speaks of those who look for a weaker meaning in thelo than in boulomai, but he also affirms that in actual usage the former is stronger than the latter, and that it is the former that is more likely to be used to mean “command” rather than “wish.” Actually, F. D. Maurice, I seem to recall, wrote on the matter too–but I may be thinking of someone else.

          Liked by 1 person

        • SF says:

          I’m not sure if you’ve seen my follow-up comment yet; but again, it’s precisely our ability to look at a number of early Christian texts and traditions through the lens of Second Temple Jewish traditions which allows us to see them sharing a similar conception of, say, the annihilation of the unrighteous — with no restoration plausibly beyond this horizon.

          At the end of the day, the alternative hypothesis founders on the lack of parsimony. With universalism, we’re left to wonder how, if an author of the New Testament *had* truly wished to suggest the irreversible annihilation of the unrighteous, they might have done so — in a way that would prevent someone else from coming along later and suggesting otherwise, and/or that there was some sort of restoration beyond this horizon.

          Were there a much larger number of people inclined to take, say, 1 Enoch and the Dead Sea Scrolls as theologically authoritative, we might also see similar proposals about loopholes for a post-destruction restoration here. So the absence of similar suggestions for *these* texts — despite that their eschatological material and language isn’t qualitatively distinct from that of the New Testament, at least in a number of instances — is somewhat glaring.

          In any case, back to the NT itself: the idea of a post-annihilation restoration especially starts to look like special pleading in light of, say, Revelation, which — in the section that virtually all academic commentators agree is addressing true eschatology — speaks of the “second death”: *already* a type of destruction which follows after the original reconstitution of the (universal) resurrection. By the way, this language is to be clearly correlated with Targumic tradition, which already speaks of the exact same phenomenon of dying a second time, viz. as eschatological annihilation.

          So if God saw fit to destroy these persons after resurrecting them in the first place, why not just skip the theatrics and let the resurrection itself function this way, without having to destroy them yet *again* (and then reconstitute them yet again) after this? Again, how many times would the author of Revelation have to speak about the extermination of the unrighteous before someone throws in the towel and takes it at face value?

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        • Ghost says:

          Good day, Mr. Hart,
          To those of us who aren’t familiar with the terminology, could you please detail the distinction, if any, between judgement / ruin / hell? I noticed that in your translation of the New Testament, for example, you use “judged” where other translations use “condemned”.
          By judgement / ruin / hell do you mean different things?
          Thank you for your clarifications in this thread.

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      • SF says:

        I’m not in the habit of equivocating about typically strong terms like ἀπώλεια (or ὄλεθρος) — at least not when the broader context clearly refers to cosmic annihilation, as it does in 2 Peter; and when this (3.7 in particular) is also easily correlated with the broader tradition of the fiery eschatological annihilation of the unrighteous in Second Temple Judaism and beyond.

        And by the way, this is absolutely the standard context that commentators detect here, from Jerome Neyrey and Richard Bauckham, to J. Albert Harrill (“Stoic Physics, the Universal Conflagration, and the Eschatological Destruction of the ‘Ignorant and Unstable’ in 2 Peter”) and Edward Adams — the latter of whom has written extensively on the expectation of literal cosmic catastrophe in early Judaism and Christianity.

        But beyond the analogy in 2 Peter, and as to the broader eschatological leanings of the Pastorals: I’m certainly aware of passages like 1 Timothy 4.10. It’s strange, however, how many people neglect to look at this in line with how σωτήρ/σωτῆρες were understood in a more transparently Hellenistic and Roman imperial context, rather than the context of early Christian eschatology and its understanding of salvation. (Especially when there are other syntactical clues in the verse that it might more profitably be read that way, too.)

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    • Tom Talbott says:

      Hi SF,

      For two reasons, I have never cited 1 Timothy 2:3-4 as a biblical proof of universalism any more than Hart has. First, since I do not have Hart’s expertise in both classical and New Testament Greek, I have always accepted something like the following translation: God “sincerely desires” the salvation of all humans. That is certainly enough to exclude the Augustinian understanding of this text. Second, whenever possible, my general strategy is to accept, at least for the sake of argument, whatever translation of a specific word that some opponent might prefer. With respect to Matthew 25:46, for example, if someone should insist that we translate aiōnios as “everlasting,” I will assume that for the sake of argument. I will then point out that even the English word “everlasting” has a radically different meaning depending on which noun it qualifies, particularly when two nouns signify different categories of things. For even though an everlasting struggle clearly implies an unending temporal process that is never resolved and never completed, an everlasting correction hardly implies a similar unending temporal process that is never completed. And, of course, this is a point that many annihilationists would also accept.

      Beyond that SF, I’m wondering whether you have any reason for believing that the “cosmic annihilation” of which you speak includes anything more for a sinner than the destruction of what Paul called the old person or the sinful nature (see for example 1 Corinthians 5:5). In that way, a cosmic annihilation would merely prepare the way for a new creation in Christ.

      Liked by 1 person

      • SF says:

        First off, I don’t think we should read the idiosyncratic idea of Romans 6.6 into other texts. For one, Romans 6 is addressing those in the Christian community, about their current transformed existence. 1 Corinthians 5.5 seems to refer quite literally to the cursed person’s corporeal existence, in contrast to their incorporeal spirit, for which it was hoped that they’d still attain salvation — though I think Paul’s language implicitly suggests the possibility that other spirits *wouldn’t* be saved at the eschatological judgment (cf. also 1 Peter 3.19-20).

        As for αἰώνιος, I don’t think the way forward here is really two different types of “everlasting.” For one, I think that Second Temple Jewish eschatological traditions attest a number of times to a quite coinciding binary of life and death — or more specifically, a coinciding unending life/bliss and permanent/irreversible punishment and/or annihilation; and so in this particular instance I see no reason to push a distinction based on what αἰώνιος modifies, if we’re really trying to put our theological biases aside and just do straightforward historical and philological analysis.

        I’m not sure how someone would understand an everlasting struggle with respect to annihilationism. In any case though, as I suggested in my follow-up to DBH, I don’t think that simple terms like ἀπώλεια or ὄλεθρος — or κόλασις in particular, which is the most common term for “punishment” — can be mitigated to denote a softer “(temporary) loss” or (constructive) correction” or anything like this, as opposed to just straightforward retributive punishment and damnation. At least for κόλασις, the idea that this only suggests constructive “correction” (in contrast to τιμωρία) depends on a well-known Arisotelian pseudo-etymology that doesn’t obtain in actual Greek usage.

        Of course, DBH and Ramelli prefer a different approach to this altogether, glossing αἰώνιος a la “eschatological” — in which it specifies temporal *setting* (the eschatological age), and not any sort of duration whatsoever. Although this is also without lexicographical basis, again I still don’t see a good reason to disturb the closely coinciding binaries of the standard language of the Two Ways eschatological traditions here, e.g. in Matthew 25.46, etc.

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        • Tom Talbott says:

          Thanks for your response, SF. A couple of points here do bewilder me. You wrote, “I’m not sure how someone would understand an everlasting struggle with respect to annihilationism.” Neither am I. But where have I even hinted that an everlasting struggle could occur if a cosmic annihilation should likewise occur? Mine was a point about how even the English word “everlasting” can vary in meaning, depending upon the noun it qualifies—a point that Edward Fudge also seems to make in defense of his own annihilationist reading of Matthew 25:46.

          You also wrote, “Paul’s language implicitly suggests the possibility that other spirits *wouldn’t* be saved at the eschatological judgment (cf. also 1 Peter 3.19-20).” But as you (correctly) point out in your later response to me, Paul’s perspective is not necessarily the same as Peter’s. So what in Paul’s own language “implicitly suggests the possibility that other spirits *wouldn’t* be saved at the eschatological judgment”? Can you be more specific about that?

          And finally, you wrote, “I see no reason to push a distinction based on what αἰώνιος modifies, if we’re really trying to put our theological biases aside and just do straightforward historical and philological analysis.” Although I think a theological interpretation of a text requires much more than a “straightforward historical and philological analysis” of it, it seems to me that a distinction based on what αἰώνιος modifies” is just what a careful historical and philological analysis might in fact require.

          That, at least, is how I view the matter. I have no particular objection to your next reply to me, but I do want to make a response—which will have to wait until tomorrow, however.

          Thanks again for your two responses.

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          • SF says:

            In my first reply I think I meant to type “everlasting correction” instead of “everlasting struggle”; but yeah, I suppose I may have misunderstood what you were saying about annihilation.

            I probably should have also emphasized that I think the eternality of αἰώνιος life (which truly persists, perpetually) corresponds to the αἰώνιος of annihilation, suggesting the same type of permanence — viz. the eternality of being irreversibly annihilated. Others might see it differently, though. That being said, I think there are passages in the NT which almost certainly suggest genuinely everlasting torment, too, alongside those which indicate annihilation or indeed universalism. In any case, the main things that are philologically/lexicographically unsustainable are αἰώνιος as “eschatological” or “of the age [to come”], and as “long-lasting but not permanent.”

            As for 1 Corinthians 5.5, I suppose I was thinking the passage implies that some sort of tangible earthly actions or conditions have to be met in order for someone to be saved eschatologically (cf. the next chapter, too, which prohibits those who persist in their sinful actions from entering the kingdom). The passage is notoriously obscure; but the general idea may be that, despite his egregious sin, the man had accrued enough merit prior to this to still attain salvation. So I suppose the main controversial aspect with respect to universalism here would be whether there’s the possibility of a postmortem repentant actions, etc. (I’m actually not sure where DBH stands on the possibility of conscious postmortem repentance, e.g. as distinct from a sort of unconscious postmortem reconciliation/purification initiated by God alone, with little to no “cooperation” from humans.)

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  2. Ed says:

    I think it is rather problematic to argue that God’s purposes are sometimes not accomplished. This may be true in the short term but not in the long term. Indeed, the whole story of the Old Testament is nothing other than God accomplishing his purposes in spite of man’s resistance. The story of Jonah is a great example of this theme.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Mark Arey says:

    You’ve got to go with Ronald Knox — and I’m not kidding!

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  4. mary says:

    Ed –

    I understand what you are saying but which of God’s purposes? That we be free or that we be saved?

    If we are given the freedom to refuse participation in the divine Life, true freedom means that we do not participate in it – even if God created us with the full intention that it be ours.

    An interesting question is whether we are indefinitely (or infinitely) free or, as many Christian Churches teach, our freedom expires at death (or at the Second Coming).

    If I remain free indefinitely, I might still choose after death to participate in the divine Life, having seen what it truly means and having had my wounds healed and my sins cleansed. (However, unfortunately with regard to human behavior in this life, there is then no real rush to repent before death.)

    If I am recalling correctly, in “The Great Divorce”, C.S. Lewis leaves a lot of the deceased in a place of ambivalence. They have not lost their freedom to choose, but they seem unable to make the seemingly simply decision to go up and meet Him.

    While Scripture would seem to support some expiration of our free will, we cannot conceive of the “end of time” and what that truly means. Presumably we will find out when we get there. I personally think it wise to try to use my freedom (while I’m sure I still can) to accept the salvation that God has intended for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tita Deacon says:

      The idea of God having conflicting purposes, such that fulfilling one will prevent fulfillment of the other, strikes me as a worser problem than any yet presented. To avoid this we need to somehow reframe freedom, unless we can actually freely choose to define one purpose as the damnation of some, which strikes me as frank evil.

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    • Ed says:

      Hello Mary.
      It can never be God’s purpose that anyone should freely reject Him. In any case, He has made clear His purpose in the Incarnation. And that is to save all mankind.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Peter Bell says:

      True freedom does NOT mean that we choose to remain in death, not life. We are only truly free when we choose to go with the overwhelmingly true impetus of our will and desires and emotions to surrender to him who is our life and love. If we are still refusing this, we are not yet fully free.

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      • mary says:

        We can use the word “free” in a number of ways. One who refuses to surrender to the overwhelming love and goodness of God can be said (as you imply) to remain enslaved to sin and therefore not “free”.

        However, another perspective is on choice. For me to love God (which is His purpose), I must do so voluntarily (i.e. freely). If God should take away my option to choose otherwise, “forcing” me if you will to participate in His love, I will not have loved Him. There is no love that is not freely chosen.

        Of course, it is hard to imagine that anyone, being shown the great goodness and glory of God, would choose something else. We see people make choices against God all of the time in this life but with our post-modern psychological-mindedness, we tend to cite the mitigating factors – their genetics, poor upbringing, etc. that may have blinded them to how evil are their behaviors. (And, as a psychologist, I am not saying this is all bad.) But there still remains the possibility that human beings can choose evil, even once the mitigating factors have been accounted for. Did not Satan do as much?

        Now, I am not saying that we are not all saved. I am raising the question of whether salvation can be refused. The Gift has been given to all. Do all accept it? This is something I can never know the answer to, particularly with regard to any individual. Only God knows the heart and how culpable a person is for their misdeeds. Some apparent sinners may actually be putting up a greater fight than me.

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  5. Hosea 6:6-7 LXX suggests that God doesn’t always get what he wants: “For I desire (thelō) steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Actually, in this case, he definitely doesn’t get what he wants.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Introducing a little levity into the discussion.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ed says:

      Andrew,
      I was referring to God’s final purpose, not to His short term desires. St. Paul states that God has consigned all men to disobedience (short term resistance to His will) in order that He may have mercy on all (long term purpose).

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ed, my comment had to do with the translation of thelō. I think the argument from classical Greek is misleading. Even if it is correct, which is debatable (LSJ gives us the first meaning: “to be willing (of consent rather than desire, v. βούλομαι 1 ), but also generally, wish”), Hosea 6:6 LXX suggests that even divine “positive intention” can easily be thwarted. The distinction, in this case, between short term and long term is theological rather than lexicological. Basically, I don’t see how the “etymological” argument changes anything, but I come at this from the premise that it is not ultimate personal destinies that are a stake.

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  6. Clickbait headline for this article:

    David Bentley Hart TOTALLY DESTROYS the “orthodox” party poopers with INFALLIBLE knowledge of Ancient Greek.

    This short article has utterly made my morning. Many thanks to DBH and Fr Kimel. When the infernalists fight back, they successfully cast some doubts on my gospel convictions, but then all i have to do is read more DBH to get an iinjection of sanity again. Much love for you ❤

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  7. Tom Talbott says:

    SF wrote: “With universalism, we’re left to wonder how, if an author of the New Testament *had* truly wished to suggest the irreversible annihilation of the unrighteous, they might have done so — in a way that would prevent someone else from coming along later and suggesting otherwise, and/or that there was some sort of restoration beyond this horizon.”

    Don’t you see, SF, that this sort of problem cuts both ways? Consider the following worry, which I have patterned after yours. “With anti-universalism, we’re left to wonder how, if an author such as Paul had truly wished to suggest universal reconciliation in Romans 5:18, for example, he might have done so—in a way that would prevent someone else from coming along later and suggesting otherwise, and/or suggesting that there was no possible restoration for some beyond the horizon.

    Welcome to the problem of interpreting the Bible as a whole!

    Liked by 1 person

    • SF says:

      But that’s only really a problem for those who accept the theological consistency of the Biblical texts. Good Biblical scholarship is always careful to let distinctive voices and views be distinctive voices and views. I’m not really troubled by the prospect that, say, Paul might have expressed universalism while… well, most everyone else didn’t.

      Hell, it may even be the case that Paul himself expressed both universalism and then conditionalism in different epistles — e.g. if 2 Thessalonians is authentically Pauline. And this wouldn’t be that surprising either. I mean, Paul in Romans (and elsewhere) intimates that the Law is a curse and even incites sin (!), while Paul in Acts seems to be perfectly Torah-observant.

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      • Tom Talbott says:

        “But that’s only really a problem for those who accept the theological consistency of the Biblical texts. Good Biblical scholarship is always careful to let distinctive voices and views be distinctive voices and views.”

        Once again, that applies just as much to the view that you expressed with all seriousness, so I thought, as it does to my parody of it, which was designed to illustrate the very point you make in the above quotation.

        This is not the response that I promised for tomorrow. It is instead an interim jab that I just couldn’t resist!

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        • apoloniolatariii says:

          SF,
          I actually tend to believe that Paul was a universalist and other NT writers were not. Hence, that is where the tension is. In fact, Jude clearly states that they are in δεσμοῖς ἀϊδίοις. I’m not sure whether this is not eternal or that it is metaphorical (or as Hart says, “the chains are infrangible”) since the author himself used πυρὸς αἰωνίου later on. Using aidiois seems a bit weird here. But even if it that were the case that it is metaphorical, that it means that the devil is in chains until the day of judgment, that does not help the universalist either. If we interpret this is through 1 Enoch, we read in the second parable in that the “day of judgment” for those angels is a day of affliction and distress. When they will be in front of the “Chosen One,” they will be judged and “sheol will open its mouth and they will sink into it and their destruction; sheol will swallow up the sinners in front of the faces of the chosen.” The passage is simply not universalistic.

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          • SF says:

            Thanks for bringing this up.

            In several of my replies to DBH above, I’ve referred to 2 Peter (and 1 Enoch too); and one of the more salient things here — though I didn’t say this absolutely explicitly yet — is how much texts like 1–2 Peter and Jude in particular seem to be indebted to Enochic eschatology at several points.

            Again though, we rarely see interpreters offering universalist readings of 1 Enoch.

            When resisting some of the more fundamentalist interpretations of the New Testament — even when it comes to eschatology itself — elsewhere DBH turns toward the influence of Second Temple Judaism. But when at other points he ignores the possibility of its influence, even when the NT’s eschatological traditions are more or identically framed — even when explicitly indebted to things like 1 Enoch (in the case of Jude) — it starts to look more like he’s only selectively parsing this when convenient, abandoning it when acknowledging its influence might disconfirm the eschatology he prefers.

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          • DBH says:

            Where did you get the notion that I claim the NT advances a single eschatological vision? I explicitly claim that it was all quite vague for the earliest Christians, and probably quite contradictory. But the universalist pericopes, especially in Paul, stand out as straightforward declarative statements, in the way no potentially “infernalist” claim does. And yet that is precisely the opposite of how most persons think of the NT texts.

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      • DBH says:

        There is no consistent picture in the New Testament, but neither is there any clear picture of eternal perdition. 2 Thessalonians contains a single verse that is difficult to translate, but that promises nothing but some kind of “olethros” on the Day. Read into it what you like. In the end, it is what is missing from the text—given later certitudes on these matters—that is significant.

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        • SF says:

          You wrote that Paul’s universalist-leaning statements “stand out as straightforward declarative statements, in the way no potentially ‘infernalist’ claim does.”

          But I have no idea how one would qualitatively distinguish between those, to say that one is more “straightforward declarative” than the other — even if two different classes of statements were “all will be saved” versus “the unrighteous will be destroyed” or “suffer forever” (both paraphrased, obviously).

          If one could equivocate about the latter class of statements, surely they could equivocate about the former, too. Or better yet, just let them *both* mean precisely what they appear to mean.

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          • SF,

            Hermenutically speaking, I think one must consider a couple of live possibilities when interpreting the NT as a whole universalistically:

            1) The ‘lighter/heavier’ motif that was clearly in play in Christ’s own interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. In such a motif, the weightier statements pointing to God’s love for the world, not willing that they perish, et. al. must be weighed against the lighter statements (dire though they are) that intimate destruction. Assuming that ECT is really not in the cards, which is hard to imagine anything of the sort being in the mind of some of the biblical authors, we are left with either annihilation or an eventual universal reconciliation. In the book of Matthew, even with the difficult chapter 25, there is the countervailing evidence in chapter 18 that intimates a release from prison once the unforgiving servant’s debts are paid – so it is hard to say that the parables of Jesus, as recorded by Matthew, taken on the whole leave anything but an ambiguity when it comes to eschatological judgement. Rhetorically speaking, I don’t think we should atomize one parable against another when it is more than likely that the compendium of parables should, on the whole fit within Matthew’s strategy of depicting what Jesus was teaching on the Kingdom. Likewise, in the Pauline corpus, granting that 2 Thessalonians was early, Paul’s teaching could have been in development. Or, better yet, taken as a whole, cannot mean anything to Paul that would finally leave a real contradiction in his thought as to what the final estate of humanity and the cosmos would be once restored. The same could be said of Revelation, where the destruction of the wicked must also be weighed against the final statements of the gates of New Jerusalem being perpetually opened. We can speak of these things as being in some sort of irreconcilable tension only if we grant equal weight to both. However, in the legacy of the prophetic tradition where justice was always proportional stretching from the Pentateuch on into the Prophets, and mercy and grace always held priority over judgement (indeed judgement often being put in service to the former), I find it hard to believe that the authors of the NT had such a disjunctive relationship with their prophetic forebearers. Therefore, it would not be a hermenutical stretch in the slightest, even after a diachronic analysis of the texts in hand to come to a synchronic interpretation on the NT as decidedly universalistic where grace, mercy, and love are given clear precedent over wrath and judgement.

            2) We must also allow a measure of contingency in the prophetic statements surrounding destruction and judgement. Here I would point to OT scholars like Chsolm, Pratt, and Waltke who go to painstaking lengths to describe numerous incidents where the threats, and even guarantees of judgement throughout the Hebrew Bible are rescinded – sometimes with and other times without any intervening Divine explanation. Bauckham takes some of this up in his discussion on the delay of the Parousia as well. The upshot is, we cannot take the threat of destruction for a nation (Egypt, Babylon, Tyre, Sidon, et. al.) or for individuals as given. It would appear that the many of the OT threats were either explicitly revoked, or turned around into a still greater universal vision of international salvation, or at times left unfulfilled as well as unexplained for why this was the case. Such contingency surely cannot be seen as impossible in the prophetic pronouncements for eschatological judgement, which could – on the account of the severity of the rhetoric employed – induce repentance on the part of offending sinners. Nowhere is this contingency more on display than in John’s Apocalypse, which of all NT books is most dependent upon and steeped in the stock imagery and conceptual framework of the Hebrew Prophets. This is clear both in the blistering indictments on five of the seven churches in the beginning of the letter, and the contingency shouldn’t be dropped by the time we enter into the eschatological crescendo of the book. John is appropriating the prophetic rhetoric of his forebearers in the manner in which they used this in order to induce repentance and encourage faithfulness in the reading audience, all the while assuring that God will meet out justice upon the offending nations and their Satanic overlord, while at the same time assuring that even then the gates of Paradise will remain open to all. The effect of prophetic language is not to ‘fix destinies’, any good reader of prophetic literature knows this, it is to provoke a positive response – this runs true, I would argue, as much in the New Testament as it does in the Hebrew Bible.

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          • apoloniolatariii says:

            SF,

            Yes, unless one already has a (an a priori?) universalist view, all of the destruction passages will be relativized to the “all will be saved” passages, and if one has an infernalist view, all of the “all will be saved” passages will be relativized to the destruction passages.

            It’s been a while since I have conversed with Ramelli, but I did not buy her explanation of Jude in her book. (Her mastery of ancient languages is unmatched, in my opinion. But it was her witness through her suffering that actually almost moved me to just accept universalism). I will have to ask her about it again.

            What jedidiah says below about prophecy and destruction is interesting. There are some passages in the OT that speak of “future destruction” but it was not fulfilled. It was not fulfilled (here I am relying on Yochanan Muffs’ works) because God sent prophets to pray for and carry His people, thereby revealing His love through their prayer. But there are also passages where the destruction clearly happened. I interpret NT passages within those two possibilities, that destruction is possible but prayer can also “change” that. So the best way to interpret these passages is within the prayer of the Church, which is always praying for the salvation of all. In other words, Balthasar was right.

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          • DBH says:

            Surely you jest. The difference is obvious.

            There is no straightforward claim anywhere in the NT that a state of unending torment awaits the derelict. None. Not one. There are plenty of terrifying images, invariably metaphorical and pictorial and rather vague. There are furnaces and prisons and locked doors and gnashing teeth and lakes of fire. There are hints of finality or endlessness, but only hints. But there is nothing remotely comparable to the clear, non-metaphorical, declarative simplicity of Romans 5:18 or 1 Corinthians 15:22 or many of the other verses that universalists fix upon. To corroborate the infernalist orthodoxy, you must presume a certain picture of reality before you can find it explicitly reflected in scripture. To refute the universalist thesis, you must explain away what seems like the obvious meaning of many verses. If you don’t see the difference here, you’re not paying attention.

            In fact, I don’t believe there is any particular fixed eschatology consistently advanced in the New Testament. Even the vague assurance of a real Last Day may be largely absent from the fourth gospel. But what seems obvious to me is that the hell of later Christian imagination is not there in any unarguable form, while proclamations of universal redemption are. Perhaps the former are real but implicit, and the latter only explicit because they are hyperbolic. But the burden of proof clearly falls upon the infernalist party here.

            And it seems to me that 1 Corinthians 15 gives us the only thing resembling a complete eschatological theology in the NT.

            Liked by 1 person

  8. Tom Talbott says:

    In part because I don’t have time right now to continue pursuing this particular discussion much farther, I want to address one final issue to which SF has in effect called our attention, the issue of interpreting the Bible as a whole. I addressed this issue, albeit very briefly, in a presentation I made at the Door Standing Open Conference in Providence, Rhode Island, on April 28, 2018. It was entitled “How to read the Bible from a Universalist Perspective,” and I reproduce below a couple of paragraphs contained therein.

    “Behind that question [concerning why I am so confident in a universalist reading of the Bible as a whole] lies the more basic question of just what it might mean to interpret the Bible as a whole. Some scholars (especially those of a more liberal persuasion) are understandably suspicious of any such effort; some would even dismiss it, though I do not, as an incoherent project. For as even religiously conservative scholars typically acknowledge, the Bible is not a single text with a single (human) author; neither is it, as the New Testament scholar Donald Hagner once put it, a systematic theology that has floated down from above like a balloon. It is instead a rich and diverse set of documents that appeal to the religious imagination in a variety of complex ways. Given the diversity of interests and writing styles of its various authors, the history of some of its documents, and the variety of perspectives it includes, a fertile imagination can almost always find a congenial way of putting things together. And for that reason alone, a theological interpretation of the Bible as a whole is as much an art, as much a work of the imagination, and as much a product of theological reasoning as it is of historical and linguistic study. Just as proponents of the geocentric theory of the solar system found many ways to account for the anomalous behavior of planets, so those who interpret the Bible from the perspective of a given system of theology inevitably find many ways to account for anomalous texts in the Bible.

    “Mind you, I would never minimize the contribution of Bible scholars to our understanding of the text. To the contrary, I have always tried never to challenge an expert on any specific point in his or her area of expertise. Nor is it necessary to do so, because large scale theological disputes, particularly those between Calvinists, Arminians, and universalists, almost never turn decisively upon scholarly minutia, and that is but one reason, perhaps, why one can find accomplished scholars in each of these theological camps.”

    My thanks to SF for bringing up similar issues.

    Liked by 1 person

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