Saturday, January 26, 2008

more on universalism

This past Thursday I got to lead the follow-up discussion on universalism on Thursday night--the follow-up on universalism & the Bible. I wish I'd done a better job, since I always get rambly and too talkative when it comes to hermeneutics. It's not really my bag, and while you'd think that would make me talk less rather than more--well, it makes me nervous, and Nervous JTB talks a lot more than Normal JTB. So, it wasn't as good as I'd hoped, on my end anyway; but some good things got said (by everyone else).

Anyhow, since the topic was really more the biblical witness and whether/how universalism comes out of that, the direction my thoughts have been going lately wasn't quite right for the discussion. I'm satisfied with acknowledging the fact of biblical plurivocality and the burden of conscious, responsible interpretive judgment that places on anyone who dares pick up the Bible and read it. As I confessed on Thursday (and have on this blog before), there are times when the early childhood spiritual formation kicks in (right around the gut area) and I think, Oh God, am I going to hell for this? But even as I work out my hermeneutic in fear and trembling I know there's no other way to do it; if you're not reading the Bible and doing your damnedest to understand it, in fear and trembling, then whatever you've got in your hands is not God's matter what the leatherbound cover says.

One question I took with me from Joe's first sermon on the topic was, what constitutes the difference, categorically, between inclusivism and universalism? Because it seems to me that, if you're willing to consider that people outside the few (elect?) who explicitly believe in Jesus Christ can be saved through Jesus anyway, how would that not run inevitably to universalism? So in pondering these theological categories what I realized was this. Exclusivists exclude on the basis of belief in right doctrine. If you don't believe, you aren't saved. (And of course, as we all know, there's the inevitable reductio ad absurdum inherent in this way of thinking, leading to the kind of sectarianism that refuses to recognize Christ might save anyone who doesn't do X, Y, Z exactly the way we do.) But if inclusivists reject explicit belief as the criterion, on what basis would people not be saved? Looking at inclusivism I realized that inclusivists, too, require that people merit salvation somehow--not by having the right belief, but by measuring up in some other way, usually cashed out in terms of moral behavior or moral character. Those who are saved by Christ, despite their non-belief, are the good pagans, the ones who somehow figured out how to live out the Christian life despite the handicap of not being Christian.

Now, sure, this is an improvement on a steadfast refusal to recognize that non-Christian people can ever be moral or good (a position I have heard sincerely advocated in the past). But still, what we have is a doctrinal position which requires people to merit salvation.

And we know that's wrong, right? I mean, our stubbornly plurivocal uncooperative biblical text does seem pretty clear that--no matter what else you hold regarding salvation--that human beings do not do anything which merits it and obligates God to save them. So why is it that options 1 and 2 are built around implicit convictions that it all hangs on what we believe or do?

Coming to it this way, it seems obvious to me that as long as we accept that the proposition that human beings do not merit salvation is biblical (note that I have not made a textual argument for this, see I told you, this is not my bag. You biblical scholars out there, feel free to construct it or challenge it), then both exclusivism and inclusivism (which I think we should call "soft exclusivism") are revealed as "unbiblical," because they implicitly teach that human beings merit salvation (or don't).


Anyhow, there are couple of good recent reflections on universalism by some others to send you to: Casey's Communion reflection here, and Feminarian's latest post here. (And of course, if you're looking to really buckle down, Dr. Beck's series of posts here.)


Brian said...

So, overly simplified, our only real soteriological options boil down to:

1. Calvinism (God arbitrarily picks the saved)
2. Pelagianism (The saved merit their salvation)
3. Universalism (All are saved)


JTB said...

Oh, I don't know that I would want to claim to catalog all possible options. But your list certainly summarizes the blog post quite well...and what's clear in the list is, the difference btw 1 and 2 is the agent of salvation (God or humans) and the diff btw 1 and 3 is the character of God. And this leads even further back to another very basic debated question, which is what is Good. Is "good" something which the character of God defines, or something which describes the character of God?

Brian said...

There's a good quote in Talbott's book - I think it's by John Stuart Mill, though I can't find it at the moment.

Something about how if we say that goodness is just whatever God says it is, then that's another way of saying that God isn't good.

Rats. The real quote is much better.

JTB said...

I find that move dodgy as well.

jduckbaker said...

I occasionally check your blog, as I find the discussion meaty and healthy. I do not have much to add in this realm, as I struggle with who does God love, and how. In some of my discussions with friends, I think I have ended up on the "concerned about" list, with mentions of possibly studying with others.
So, thanks for your posts and thoughts.