by Tom Belt
It’s a pleasure to review and recommend David Artman’s Grace Saves All: The Necessity of Christian Universalism (Wipf & Stock, 2020, hereafter GSA), yet another voice among a growing chorus in defense of Christian universalism. I recall a time when contemporary Christian defenses of universalism were scarcely available. Today one would have to work hard to become familiar with all the contemporary published works on the subject — books, periodicals, and, we should add, excellent blog entries and conversations such as are found here on Fr Aidan’s site. We are enjoying a revival of renewed interest in the question of the destiny of souls that has been provoked by the growing number of Christians who have embraced universalism, not a Christless pluralism dressed up in Christian vocabulary, but a truly Christian universalism, the participation of all in Christ.
I immediately tracked with David’s (pardon my informality) articulation of things because, like him, I came to faith and continue to pursue it in an Evangelical context. David, a Disciples of Christ pastor, models the openness of mind that he asks of his readers. He has a comfortably concise way of presenting the arguments without pretense or provocation, and his unassuming style keeps readers’ attention on his arguments and off of him. He’s given readers unfamiliar with the debate a helpful pathway into the conversation.
The book opens with an observation regarding two different views of grace relative to our salvation. On the one hand, many (Calvinists mainly) hold that while “grace alone actually saves,” God doesn’t extend grace to all, so all are not saved. Others (Arminians), on the other hand, hold that God gives grace to everyone but deny that “grace alone” actually saves, so again all are not saved, since salvation is dependent in some measure upon human agency. GSA splits the difference between these two views, combining what David holds to be true in each, namely, that ‘grace alone actually saves’ and that ‘God gives grace to all’ without exception.
This raises questions about how it is we saved by grace, which in turn provides David the main outline of his book which he explores three approaches Christians have adopted in addressing such questions.
- The first approach is the Transactional, so named because it represents salvation as a transaction between God and persons who each play a necessary role. God provides grace, human beings resolve themselves in response. Grace is offered to all, but this offer is not sufficient in itself to save, for each person retains a measure of agency which he or she must resolve. Only the provision of grace and the integrity of individual choice combine to provide the sufficient conditions for salvation.
- The second approach to grace and human agency David calls the Exclusive approach, because, as you will guess, it views salvation as effectively offered only to some. In this approach God sovereignly elects only a portion of humanity to save and grace alone irresistibly effects the desired outcome.
- Lastly then, David gives the name Inclusive to his approach, which combines those aspects of the first two models he views as correct: ‘grace alone’ which is ‘offered to all’, thus saving all. Salvation is neither transactional (because God’s grace provides all that is necessary for salvation) nor exclusive (because God intends all to be saved and thus extends grace to all).
All three of these approaches are found within the history of Christian thought and are “ways of being Christian,” although David’s burden is to argue that it is only the Inclusive approach that can consistently maintain the goodness of God, thus the book title’s byline.
After briefly introducing these approaches, David dedicates a chapter to a 5-point defense of his Inclusive approach, a second chapter examining what Scripture has to say about judgment consistent with the Inclusive model, a third chapter examining how each of his three approaches understands the relationship between grace and salvation, and a fourth chapter examining Hell within each approach. A fifth chapter considers the book of Revelation, a sixth addresses challenges of mystery and free will relative to what has come to be known as ‘hopeful universalism’ (i.e., hoping but not believing it’s true), followed by a seventh chapter mentioning a few notable proponents of the Inclusive approach in Church history. David then shares his own journey of faith and coming to believe in Christian universalism in an eight chapter (which it might have been better to begin the book with). Lastly, we have an Afterword by Tom Talbott and recommendations for further reading.
As you can imagine, in roughly 100 pages of text there is no way even one of the questions taken up in any of these chapters can be adequately discussed, but GSA doesn’t pretend to be anything like a final word on the issues it discusses. It aims to be a conversation starter, and David should feel good about having accomplished what he set out to do. As he admits, he writes for parishioners and other Evangelicals who, though they’ve inherited a certain suspicion of universalist claims, are nevertheless open to considering what reasons there might be for finding Christian universalism convincing. GSA opens the door to inquiring minds and describes the basic terms of the debate and the positions as they’ve appeared within the history of Christian thought. As Tom Talbott says in the Afterword, if he had to offer the average churchgoer a single book that introduced the topic, he’d be hard-pressed to pass up David Artman’s GSA.
On to a few particular comments. In Ch. 1 we meet David’s 5-point defense of the Inclusive approach:
- God is a loving parent to all.
- God sincerely wants to save all.
- God in Christ covers the sin of all.
- God is sovereign over all.
- God will be all in all.
Each point is briefly developed with supporting Scriptural references. Seasoned readers of Fr Aidan’s blog here will recognize the value of these points and their interconnectedness. ‘God as love’ – properly understood – secures all else that follows. For if God is the infinite love which creates and sustains us, he desires to unite all to himself, deals with the sin which alienates us from him, is able to secure his final intentions for us come what may, and consummates his creative intentions wherein he is ‘all in all’. Whether you consider these consecutively from the first or jump in the middle and work through the implications from there, the combined truth is finally persuasive.
Regarding divine judgment (Ch 2), David’s burden is to overcome the pitting of God’s love against his justice. Judgement can be from beginning to end a work of love undertaken in the best interests and reformation of those judged. The biblical basis for this line of thought is pursued in terms of the following passages:
- Lam 3.31-33 | God’s Promise to Not Cast Off Forever.
- Ez 16.53 | The Restoration of Sodom.
- 2Sam 14.14 | The Woman of Tekoa.
- Mt 5.25-26 | On Paying the Last Penny.
- Mt 18.21-35 | The Unforgiving Servant.
- 1Pt 3.19-20; 4.6 | Jesus’ Descent to the Dead.
One sees in the very act of divine judgment an abiding love and mercy at work, not a choice in God between two alternating and contrary acts. However, I have mixed feelings about the extent to which Old Testament passages can be depended upon to derive the sort of conclusions David wants to secure here. But I grant the presence in these texts a view of God, a tradition within Israel’s evolving view(s) of God, that represents a movement toward the kind of understanding of judgment which David defends. But I can’t see deriving such a view from the Old Testament as such because a) there are competing views of God in the Old Testament and no way to claim one text or set of texts represents the truth about God, and thus b) the Christian is compelled to defer to a Christ-centered reading. So how Old Testament texts might legitimately be called upon to support a universalist eschatology is more complicated than simply pointing out this or that Old Testament passage. Granting that David’s book is intended to introduce readers unfamiliar with the debate over universalism to its main issues, I do wish he had brought the hermeneutical question of reading the Old Testament in light of Christ into the conversation.
I also have doubts regarding two of David’s passages. First, regarding Lam 3.31. The text is not complicated: “For the Lord does not reject forever” (ki lo yiznakh leʿolam ʾadonai). Most English translations render leʿolam here as implying some manner of finality or permanence, a rejection from which there is no return. David questions this reading, however, and explains that since ʿolam does not mean forever, the text can’t be denying that God rejects us forever. David suggests we construe v. 31 as saying something like ‘God only considers rejecting for ʿolam, not forever’. The problem is that the text doesn’t say ‘God only rejects ʿolam’. It says, ‘God does not reject ʿolam’. Divine rejection leʿolam is denied, not affirmed, as David suggests. So ʿolam has to be understood as implying some relatively permanent state of judgment. And this is not difficult to grant. Keep in mind that ancient Israel had no clear understanding of a future resurrection. So the denial of v. 31 is made with respect to this earthly life, in which case God is pictured as not rejecting so long as life endures. God is, in other words, always willing to restore. In addition, the Hebrew doesn’t specify an object (“anyone” in most English translations). It simply denies that God’s rejection endures ʿolam. Given the context, Israel is the best candidate. That is to say, it is this particular rejection, God’s exiling of his people (not divine rejection per se) which is in view. This particular judgment is not ʿolam.
A second doubt I have has to do with David’s reading of 2Sam 14. A woman from Tekoa approaches David on behalf of his son Absalom, who has been banished by David. She implores David to allow Absalom to return to Jerusalem, because, she reasons, though “we must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground which cannot be gathered up” (v. 14a) nevertheless (v. 14b) “God does not take away life; he will devise plans so as not to keep an outcast banished forever.” God doesn’t banish irrevocably; neither should David. While I agree (for other reasons) that God’s rejection is never absolute, again I find it hard to extract this particular truth from this passage, for v. 13b ends by identifying Absalom as “his banished one” (“his” as in “David’s banished one” and “banished” from nadakh). In v. 14 the banished one under consideration is again Absalom, not banished people per se. While we can be confident now through Christ that God does not banish or judge irrevocably, I’m not sure it’s obvious that this passage gets you that truth.
So perhaps I’m just unclear about what David thinks these passages achieve. Do they contribute to a growing trajectory in the Old Testament which is brought to full clarity in Christ? I agree. Or do they establish universal truths discernible in their Old Testament context? David appears to argue as if the latter is the case. If so, that would be a point of disagreement.
I do agree all these passages challenge Israel’s understanding of God in terms that anticipate the character and scope of love which we later see confirmed in and as Christ, but I’m not convinced these later insights are transparently discernible in the Old Testament texts alone. Perhaps this is a point universalists can take from David’s book, namely, that Old Testament passages cannot be brought to bear upon the Scriptural side of this debate (or any theological or moral debate for that matter) apart from being explicit about how one reads the Old Testament.
Regarding the chapters on Hell (Ch 4), Revelation (Ch 5), and his comments on Church history (Ch 7), I’ll just say that as brief they are, they are sure to provoke an open mind to ask further questions and to dig deeper, which is precisely what David aimed to do. Hell is construed as restorative, Revelation yields relevant passages that only make sense if the judged are able to reform their attitudes and join the company of the redeemed, and recognized saints of universalist persuasion are discussed.
Let me end with a response to something more directly related to the heart of David’s understanding of grace and human agency. David inclines to a Reformed doctrine of grace (sola gratia). Grace “alone” saves. From the start, his concern is for whether grace is thought sufficient to “actually save.” In Ch 3 (“Grace”) it becomes clearer that he understands grace in Calvinistic terms, for he names Calvin in identifying that sense in which he agrees with the Exclusive approach. Calvinists correctly suppose that grace where offered achieves its end without fail. Their mistake is to limit the extension of this grace to an elect few. David corrects this by extending grace to all, but that “grace alone” saves is left unchallenged.
This creates a problem. For if “grace alone” achieves its aim without fail, how is the gospel ever rejected? And if we recognize that grace can be (because it is) rejected by individuals in some measure, then is “grace alone” true? Curiously, in Ch 3 David seems to adjust his understanding of grace by limiting its guarantee to the ‘eventual’ salvation of all. But surely this is not the Exclusive/Calvinist notion of “grace alone.” And it leaves us wondering how divine grace and human agency effectively relate now, en route to the end. In any case, in the end it seemed to me that David’s position on grace collapsed into a transactional view, for God is viewed as pursuing persons as long as it takes to win hearts and minds. And why should a grace which, strictly speaking, “alone” saves ever need to wait for anything? David ends up implicitly granting that God’s ends are not always immediately achieved and thus that some manner of genuine synergy is involved.
I suggest that we not split the difference between the Exclusive (Calvinist) and Transactional (Arminian) approaches. That is, one may simply reject the “grace alone” view of salvation and affirm a genuine synergy at the heart of God securing his purposes in us. This would not subject us to having to grant that some may not finally be saved, for so far as human agency resolves itself responsibly under the terms of God’s gracious offer, all shall be eventually saved, not because grace “alone” effects the salvation of anyone, but because the scope of our God-given capacities to choose, even if they must surrender to God under their own God-given powers, cannot foreclose upon themselves.
There is an irresistibility to grace which defines us, yes. It is our irresistible openness to God as our final end and the inescapable orientation of desire which cannot finally rest from its pursuits until it rests in God. This means infernalism and annihilationism are ruled out, but it does not give us a terminus ad quem at which point God adopts a fundamentally different mode of securing our surrender. Nor do we see in it a mechanism by which God summarily dispenses with human deliberation. These are complex issues that continue to resurface, and there’s no covering it all here. I just wish to suggest that we must construe our surrender to God in terms that make it impossible to think that “grace alone” is sufficient to explain that surrender, for if grace alone is sufficient to explain why any are saved, grace alone explains why any are not saved, and that is not a truth Christianity can afford to embrace.
In the end, where David splits the difference between his Exclusive (“grace alone”) approach and his Transactional approach to a combination that retains the “grace alone” model of salvation, I’m inclined to affirm the Transactional approach (rid of its Arminian attire) that posits the real integrity of human agency, and thus a genuine synergy, but qualify the scope of this agency by grounding it transcendentally in an irresistible openness to God and a desire that haunts us until it is satisfied in God. We can say ‘no’ to grace on occasion, even in the best of circumstances (consider the Fall, primordial or historical). But we cannot reject our way out of our essential openness to God. Long story short, it is not “grace alone” that invariably defines the faith of those notable universalists David celebrates in early Church history, for none in the East (or anywhere before Augustine?) held to anything like a Reformed understanding of grace. It is thus through both the grace of impartation and the labor of participation that we are saved. This will be as great an adjustment for Evangelicals as opening up to the possibility that all shall be saved.
My differences with David here (provided I’ve read him accurately) do nothing to diminish my excitement at the publication of this wonderfully helpful book. I highly recommend it. It will challenge any honest and inquiring mind to explore reasons for believing all shall be saved. I pray Grace Saves All is read widely, sets its readers on the path of discovery, and provokes fruitful discussion.