Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Universalism and Bad Theology

I discovered a most interesting blog today. It's called "The Ladder Home" and it belongs to Ian, who describes himself as "a gay, traditionalist, high-church, evangelical, orthodox, catholic Episcopalian." I found the blog by doing a Google search with the words "Universalism Episcopal Church." That led me to Ian's posting entitled "Correcting the Error of Universalism in the Church." Here's an excerpt:

... universalism is afoot in the Episcopal Church, and it is a disease that has now become deeply rooted in the administration and governance of the Episcopal Church and is continuing to gain ground. I know that the term “disease” may be harsh, but for Christians, I believe that there is no other appropriate term. Even the label of heresy does not even begin to describe the level of error of universalism. Universalism posits that all religions are of equal value and that all paths lead to salvation. It buys in to the postmodern notion that all truth is relative. However, this view is objectively in error when compared to the principles of orthodox Christianity. The Christian Church from the time of the Apostles affirmed the uniqueness of the Christian faith and its sole and exclusive claim to the fullness of truth. In the scriptures we read “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:4-6)

Universalism would either reject this notion as “exclusivist” or “narrow-minded”. Some universalists might pervert the traditional interpretation and say that all religions belong to the one faith in God. Universalism also leads to the inevitable conclusion that Jesus Christ is not Lord, and that He was not the savior of mankind and relegates him to a prophetic, non-divine status. This assertion is in direct contradiction to the orthodox understanding of Christianity in regard to the status of the church. The Church dealt with this error in the 4th Century and declared the divinity of Christ to be an absolute principle. To be Christian is much more than simply liking Jesus or following him as a nice person. Through the years, the Church (Protestant, Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) have affirmed that in order to be Christian, one must affirm the dogmas of the Church as contained in the Nicene Creed and in the Chalcedonian statement of AD 451 affirming the dual nature of Christ. Universalism finds support neither in the writ of Holy Scripture or in the sacred tradition of the Church, neither can it be reasoned from the two. ...

Universalism is but a false love of our neighbor, because in it, we allow people to remain in darkness and ignorance because we refuse to extend our hand in Christ’s behalf to them to invite them to a transformed redeemed life in Christ Jesus and to invite them to share in the blessings of the Kingdom of God.

In another posting entitled "The Do or Die Moment for the Episcopal Church," Ian has this to say about bad theology and its impact on evangelism and growth:

Our theology is the foundation of the very message that we proclaim to the world. When we begin messing with the basics of our theology and re-forming it to be less offensive or less radical or less whatever, and attempting to sanitize it for the sake of our own image, we begin to affect the very message that we send out to the rest of the world. When we begin to marginalize the very sources that make us who we are, we “[collude] with the pagan empire, deny [ourselves] the sourcebook for [our] kingdom critique of oppression” (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope p. 219). In other words, we begin to dilute the power of the very message we claim to share with the world.

In the Episcopal Church, it seems that all manner of poor theological conclusions are let to fly and to carry currency. Recently, a nominee to the Episcopate authored a revision of the baptismal liturgy which removed all references to atonement and to repentance and sin. The Bishops of the Episcopal Church also recently has refused to discipline a Bishop who has openly denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and has openly denied the teachings of the creeds. These two are but an example of the doctrinal trends that are occurring that need to be stopped if the Episcopal Church is to stop its hemorrhage of membership and Sunday Attendance.

Let me make clear that I am not advocating for fundamentalism or of an extreme swing in the other direction. What I am advocating for is the generous orthodoxy that is classical Anglicanism. This Anglicanism is codified in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and in the Creeds. This form of Christianity does not dilute or eliminate central doctrines that are accepted by all Christians such as the atonement and the resurrection of Christ and that affirms that the Holy Scriptures are the ultimate rule of faith and practice for Christians. The message of Christianity it is pure form is unique and starkly differentiates it from other religious paths. Among our uniquenesses is that our salvation is dependent on our history. We are saved by what Jesus did for us and not necessarily by Jesus taught us. Doctrine is important to us because the fundamental truths of our faith (should) produce a proper understanding of justification by faith and not by works. Pastor Tim Keller said in a lecture “When someone says ‘doctrine doesn’t matter’ that is a doctrine, the doctrine of justification by works. It is salvation through advice, and not salvation through what has been done.” (What is the Gospel, The Gospel & Heart Conference, 9/2003).

Doctrinal correctives and discipline are necessary if the Episcopal Church is to present a coherent message to the rest of the world. Again, unity is not uniformity, however there must be minimal agreement so that we can agree on what we will present to the world about us and our story as God’s people. Stories about our contribution to world relief and our commitment to environmentalism wax empty and meaningless unless backed with the message of our understanding that our redemption and transformation by Jesus is what drives us to do these things.

I couldn't agree more, Ian. And I'm pleased to discover you out there in the Episcopal blogosphere.


hawk said...

Isn't there a difference between a "universalist" who believes in the truth of all world religions and a Christian who believes in universal salvation based in a generously orthodox understanding of the revelation of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

I happen to be one that believes the Buddhist and Muslim and Hindu have been saved through the Paschal mystery. Whether the Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu understand this or accept this does not in any way disrupt God's work and purpose.

Additionally, I can appreciate and honor the truths revealed in these other faith traditions and still hold fast to the exclusivist truth claims of the Gospel.

I am called to be a witness to Christ in my life and to proclaim the Good News to people who are far off and to those who are near. I live into this call to witness and proclamation with clarity and conviction. But, I worry that I must not make an idol of "orthodoxy." My guess is that some of these "universalist" Episcopalians are dangerous to the spiritual health of the church. Yet, many universalist Episcopalians are attempting to extend hospitality to their neighbors as well as their enemies, and opening themselves to the possibility that God is working his purposes out in this fuddled up and muddled up and shook up world.

Can I not be simultaneously universalist and exclusivist?

"If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:1-2).

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, Hawk.

You are correct to cite two types of universalist in your first sentence. I've written before concerning the first of the two types you mention citing Paul Knitter's discussion of the "common essence" theory of religions and its problems. But while there are differences, as I understand the matter, the end result is the same: regardless of religion or what anyone believes or does, all paths lead to the same destination, and so, in the end, everyone will be saved.

To me, universalism is just another form of predestination that presupposes a God who does not respect the human will or take "no" for an answer. And since the outcome of universalism is the inclusion of everyone (whether they know they'll be included or even want to be included or not), it's hard for me to see how, as a matter of definition, it can be anything other than contrary to 'exclusivism'. At their core, all religions are equally true, all paths lead to the same destination, and, in the end, all will be saved. I reject this not only as heretical, but also for expressing disrespect for the genuine, substantive differences in theology and practice that exist between religious traditions.

I also note that The Book of Common Prayer repudiates universalism. Praying according to the liturgies of the Prayer Book entails rejecting universalism. How ironic it is, then, that some Episcopalians pray contrary to their beliefs.

Joe Rawls said...

Kallistos Ware discusses the Orthodox view of universalism in The Inner Kingdom (SVS Press 2000, pp 193-215). In a nutshell, he says that Christians may *hope* for the salvation of all, but God respects human freedom so much that He will not impose salvation on anyone who rejects it. This is basically my own position.

Ian's blog looks very interesting and I've bookmarked it for further examination.

Bryan Owen said...

An excellent citation of Kallistos Ware, Joe. That puts it all very succinctly, and I agree with it, too.

Glad you like Ian's blog. It's been a while since I've come across a blog that I feel like I want to take the time and read all the postings on it, but that's definitely the case with "The Ladder Home."

Bill Carroll said...

Paul Griffiths, in Problems of Religious Diversity, distinguishes four questions.

(1) that of epistemic confidence-- does the existence of the religious other undermine our confidence in the truth of our own tradition

(2) that of truth--is there truth in alien religious traditions, or are all truths (or all important truths) found in one's own

(3) that of salvation--are adherents of alien religious traditions saved (possibly, necessarily)?

(4) attitude--how should we treat the religious other

Pluralists tend to believe that the only position consistent with respect for the other is to weaken one's epistemic confidence and assert that different religious traditions are different symbolic ways of responding to the same underlying truth. They tend also to assert universal salvation as a necessary fact and to downplay any Christ-centered understanding of the salvation of non-believers.

I think we can have much more confidence in the truth of our own tradition. We can discover important truths through dialog with alien traditions. We can also come to a better understanding and appreciation of the truth of our own tradition in this way. I think that Christianity contains plenty of internal warrants for living peaceably with others. I am not sure that all other religious traditions do this. If they do, it is a contingent rather than necessary truth.

I believe that we can assert that non-Christians are possibly saved through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We can hope for universal salvation, but to assert it as a necessary truth is to deny the role of free will in accepting grace.

Bryan Owen said...

Excellent points, Bill. And yes, we can certainly hope ...

Christopher said...

C.S. Lewis also makes a fine distinction between hoping for all and claiming salvation for all. While I get what he's going for, failing to make hawk's distinction left me asking the same questions. I think hoping for all requires a more humble regard for the other than I see in triumphalistic reassertions of late, which seem actually rooted in a lot of anxiety. A truly orthodox position is generous, not just on the level of thinking, but on the level of how we meet others.

I noted your concern is that paganism has infiltrated the church. I find the definition in that piece the first problem. Paganism is not one thing. I also think given Christian history in relation to pagans and Paganisms we need to be very careful about bandying about such terms so broadly. Name the exact problems, don't give a very inexact overarching term to them. The exact problem seems to be 1) a form of universalism that bypasses the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. How can instead we show that the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the Person who took into himself human nature and individuates that nature be hope for all particular persons, for example? How do we proclaim the beauty of that central truth, that flesh is brought into participation in God's own life by God's Personal initiative of taking in the flesh? How do we name that for those who do not know or even despise without acid? Beauty is key.

Bryan Owen said...

Christopher, thanks for making a number of good and important points. I essentially agree with you, and would point out that while the term "paganism" is, perhaps, inadequate (or at least should be understood more as a broadly encompassing 'ideal type' rather than a narrowly defined "one thing"), Peter Kreeft does name the exact problems this phenomenon raises in his essay "Comparing Christianity and the New Paganism." I can envision the possibility that persons with very diverse practices, theologies, and understandings of the world might fit into this broadly understood 'ideal type,' and yet still share in common the problems noted by Kreeft and others.

I also agree with you about the need to proclaim the beauty of the central truth(s) of our faith from the standpoint of a truly generous orthodoxy. But I also think it's important to discern when we don't allow those who reject these central truths to trash this beauty and to walk all over us. I don't believe that, in the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord was commanding us to be doormats for the world. Or for those within our own Church (including some bishops) who, if left unchecked, will push the agenda to revise the dogmatic core until the faith we proclaim is no longer recognizably Christian.

boydmonster said...

Thanks for posting this blog. It looks very interesting. While I agree with his analysis, I'd want to take it one step further. The problem with the universalistic truth claims in the Episcopal Church right now is that it treats Jesus as a means to an end. In other words, Jesus is the ticket that gets us to heaven. Therefore, a devout Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, etc may enter heaven through the finished work of Jesus on the cross without realizing that Jesus is the one who has saved him. The problem is that Jesus is not only the means but the end as well. In other words, the Biblical view of salvation culminates in union with Jesus Christ. Thus, to reach heaven without treasuring Jesus Christ is a theological contradiction. More than that, salvation in this life means union and fellowship with Jesus. How then can we look at anyone who is not united to Jesus with anything but the deepest sympathy and longing for their salvation. The problem with simply treating Jesus as the way to heaven is that we forget that he is also the truth and the life as well.

hawk said...

Thanks to everyone for your comments regarding universalism. They have helped bring clarity to my own position and given me some new avenues to explore.

I think the clarity for me in this discussion is recognizing the universal offer of salvation while understanding the autonomy to reject the offer.

I heard Miroslav Volf speak a few weeks ago, and one of his statements has really resonated with me. He said, "Forgiveness is at the foundation of the world and is exemplified in the life of Jesus Christ."

If Volf is right and the heart of God is infinite forgiveness as fully expressed in the life, death, resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ, how can there not be a universalist component of salvation? I can agree with Bill Carroll that the offer can be rejected, but the offer is not invalidated.

I'm probably splitting hairs, which I've been known to do, so thank you for your indulgence.

I'll go now and reflect on salvation with fear and trembling.

Christopher said...

I would point out the reading of Prayer A is problematic in this piece. For Christ's blood to be shed for all is not heretical, and use of many in the prayer does not imply that Christ's salvation is not meant for all. That is not to say all will be saved, but Christ's reconciling work is once-for-all as in Cranmer's 1549 Prayer. Indeed, to say otherwise is to suggest that salvation is somehow incomplete in Christ. Salvation is offered for and to all and is found expressed visibly and surely in the Church. That need not mean we dismiss the Word's invisible and unacknowledge work in the world, as Stringfellow reminds. This looks like what Leonel Mitchell has warned against, a sort of Prayer Book text-proofing.

Also, one can disagree with say the work of Karl Rahner or St Gregory of Nyssa who hold out quite a lot of generosity for non-Christians and still be perfectly orthodox. To read as a dictum "outside the Church is no salvation" outside its original textual and argument context is problematic as much as reading "the rule of prayer is the rule of belief" outside its textual and argument context or "believed everywhere and always" outside its textual and argument context. It ends up arguing by dictum without noticing that often there are ironies if we read the actual texts. St Cyril's assertion, for example, is ultimately turned down in favor of St Stephen's more generous approach to those baptized outside the Great Church, including certain Gnostic groups. St Prosper's appeal is not ultimately to the prayers (of the Church) but to the See of Rome. In St Vincent's case, he is attacking St Augustine as an innovator (which he was) and those Churches that rely heavily on St Augustine come under St Vincent's rejection.

An orthodox Christian can have a high christology, an understanding that salvation is uniquely and only in Christ without making sweeping claims that those who do not know Christ are damned as this link claims.

Bryan Owen said...

Perhaps I should rename this blog "Quickfire Christian." But then again, I have never once pronounced with certainty on any other person's eternal destiny, whether Christian or non-Christian, nor have I once denied natural or general revelation and the possibility of God working in other religions. At the same time, I do believe that salvation is God's work, and that this is work is uniquely and definitively revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The tendency in some circles within the Episcopal Church to deny these truths in favor of a universal salvation that waters down the uniqueness of Jesus is the heresy underlying some of the bad theology targeted in this posting.

Jendi said...

I appreciate boydmonster's point that union with God in Christ is not only the *means* of salvation but the *definition* of salvation. Discussions of universalism too quickly pass over what salvation actually means. Is it just "not going to hell" or something more? Does a Buddhist, for instance, who doesn't believe in a personal God, even *want* this salvation (whether or not we think he's missing out on something)?

I think we can hang onto the uniqueness of Jesus without necessarily believing that non-Christians, or anyone, is sentenced to "eternal conscious torment", to quote the language found in many evangelical churches' confessional statements.

Bryan Owen said...

Over at "Thanksgiving In All Things," Fr. Stephen rightly notes this point: " ... hell is nothing other than our self-imposed refusal to accept the love of God. It is that refusal that brings its own torment."

I don't believe that I was at variance with this perspective when I said this in a sermon I preached quite a while back:

"It's been said that hell is a prison cell whose door locks from the inside. That's an important image because it conveys a fundamental truth. God doesn't want anybody thrown into that cell. And God doesn’t put anybody in that cell. We do it to ourselves. And we hold the key to the door. Hell is a real possibility, but thanks be to God, it's not a foregone conclusion."