Evangelical Universalism

It seems a contradiction doesn’t it?

Well yesterday Robin Parry attempted to convince us that these two words could sit together comfortably. His own story is quite interesting which you can find a bit about on his two blogs.

The conference was at Spurgeon’s and there seemed to be quite a mixed crowd in terms of age, gender and class. There were a few non pink people as well.

Robin started and I must say that I was quite biased towards him and what he said. He was very clear that he wasn’t there to prove to us whether universalism was true or not. He wanted to convince us that Evangelicalism and Universalism could be compatible. Here are a few snatches of what he said.

‘People will be redeemed from hell.’

Christian Universalism doesn’t diminish the seriousness of sin but has a high view of grace.

Evangelical Universalism doesn’t ignore divine justice or wrath and it has a more theologically satisfying understanding of the divine nature of love.

It maintains the uniqueness of Christ.

‘Traditional Calvinism isn’t compatible with the notion that God is love.’

Most Christian Universalists have believed in hell.

He also made the important difference between pluralism and universalism. Overall I felt quite hopeful about life after his talk and he was quite funny.

Derek Tidball our former principal at what was then LBC spoke a response which was more to the book rather than the talk.

He spoke well but I thought his arguments were a bit tired. Robin’s book starts with philosophy and Derek called philosophy ‘mental gymnastics’ with no resolution. I was a bit aghast at that. Then he spoke of how we need to start with scripture but then said that everyone has a hermeneutic. So where does that hermenuetic come from I wonder? Philosophy. So I feel that he severely undermined himself at that start.

He also said about cancer cell destruction as an analogy of the destruction that would come on those who don’t believe. I thought that this was a bit tired as well because within redemption one can assume that the cancer cells will return to their due purpose of being good cells.

He also said that universalism fits with contemporary views of punishment which is not retributive but educative. I found this odd because then surely hell as it is being preached today is a view of punishment from an older time?

A significant portion of his talk was discussing the verses in the bible that were supposedly universalist. He used opposing verses to those in order to consider that the universalist verses weren’t that at all but they were heavily qualified. I thought that this was a poor strategy because using one verse against another has to have a good reason. Robin later said that the reason for starting with philosophy was so that he could then have a reason for using the universalist verses as the core and the hell verses attached to that.

So overall even though I’m not a hook line and sinker Universalist I must say that the arguments against Universalism as Robin has framed it is very poor.

One consisitent issue that is thrown against Universalism is the holiness of God. It is taught that the holiness of God has been violated therefore it needs redress. His wrath needs fulfilment. And it is taught that his wrath is because of his love. I would agree with this but not in the way wrath is interpreted and taught today. The wrath of God is almost shown to be a primary characteristic of God when we have to say that the wrath of God is temporary. It is his love that is eternal. God has always been love, always is, always will be. There was a time when God wasn’t wrathful. So the primary lense of viewing God has to be love. Instead in many cases the primary lens is holiness and holiness defined against sin. So it could be said that a lot of Christians define God in terms of what is not sin! That is no way to speak of someone we are meant to love.

Another odd part of the conference was a repeated statement from the speakers ‘we cannot know’ and an appeal to the ‘mystery’. Now in a pastoral situation I understand these are sometime good things to say but when a whole bunch of theologians (lay or otherwise) come the whole point is surely that we can know a little more! Can’t we say that we have known more than the average lay Christian a 1000 years ago? I felt that these were argument cushions in order to pad and deflect debate (not intentionally of course, I thought the whole debate was done in a great spirit). But the whole arc of history and salvation history has been that we do know more and we can know more of the mystery.

So overall I had a good time and thought it was a good discussion but yet again no women speakers.

No change at this conference on preaching.

Not even Spring Harvest.

Shame on us.


8 thoughts on “Evangelical Universalism”

  1. Thanks for the review, Sunil. Mine’s here: http://christpantokrator.blogspot.com/2011/02/conference-summary-is-universalism.html#comments

    I thought the cancer cell analogy was a bit off, actually. Derek said that the surgeon kills the bad cells for the good of the whole body – but this suggests that the existence of those in hell is for the good of those in God’s presence. That seems unjust by anyone’s standards!

    The absence of female speakers (‘women’ isn’t an adjective – think how odd it is to speak of ‘men speakers’) is an issue. When organising these conferences, I don’t get too much of a say in who gets picked. But having said that, I’m not sure who we could have got in for the universalism conference. I’ve a friend who did her PhD on universalism in John Hick and Richard Swinburne, but she’s also based in Eire and I’m not sure the college would have been willing to pay for air fares, etc.

  2. I didn’t completely get this post because I don’t know much about Universalism 🙂 Right now I’m struggling through ‘The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ – and it’s messing with me a bit. So I’ll have to look up universalism later.

    But it strikes me as interesting that even in the UK (which in my head is slightly more progressive but that could just be the stereotype in my head), no women speak at conferences 🙂 That’s true in most contemporary Christian arenas (unlike televangelists – some of which are women) which involve speaking – conferences, pulpits, etc.
    I know several women go to Bible school – but why don’t they do anything with that education? I’m just asking because I have no idea why this happens!

  3. Plenty of women speak at plenty of conferences, Jessie – but not so much, it seems, at evangelical or conservative type conferences. This year’s Whitley lecturer (the Whitley Lecture is an annual Baptist Union funded lecture that tours the UK Baptist colleges, I think) is a woman and a good friend of mine. But I wonder how much of it reflects a balance that within ecclesial-academic circles, there are probably still more men than women who are ‘active’. I dunno. There’s bound to be some research out there somewhere on this issue.

  4. I’m glad to hear that women get to speak if they were qualified to. The imbalance makes sense if there’s a general imbalance in terms of the genders which generally go to bible school or are particularly qualified to teach, debate, or discuss as the case may be.

    I wonder if women who’ve received a theological education actually end up teaching at theological colleges/schools?

    In my experience, I’ve rarely heard women speak but I put it down to cultural norms (maybe a bit too hastily) prevalent in India.

  5. That’s good to hear! I think I should talk to folks who’ve gone to Bible schools in India as well to get a better idea.

    Sunil, sorry I missed the main part of your post but you’ve got me thinking about women in ministry in general 🙂

    1. I think Terry is being slightly kind :). (In real life he is much kinder). Though women aren’t a rarity, as my link to the Spring Harvest site shows it is not a norm. The Indian cultural thing about women not being preachers is something that quite a few Indian male Christians hide behind in order not to engage with the issue of encouraging female preachers.

      1. Thanks Terry for taking on some of my questions 🙂

        Sunil, I think you’re right. I’m not sure how soon things will change. Even in progressive circles here, I’ve not seen women preach beyond a small group.

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