"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, March 28, 2011

Is Rob Bell Right?

Rob Bell's thesis that "love wins" is all the rage. In reading his work, listening to him, and following this controversy, I quickly realized that both Bell's questions and his apparent answers are as old as Christianity itself.

The question of "soteriological exclusivism" has haunted Christianity from the beginning. Is the covenant with Israel exclusive to Jews, open to Gentiles, or in fact supplanted by a "new" covenant in Christ? From at least Origen onwards--and most notoriously in the case of his theory of ἀποκατάστᾰσις--Christians have been sharply divided in trying to answer the question of whether it is possible to think that ultimately all may be saved. Even today, commentators on Origen are not agreed that he meant what he has so often been accused of believing. There are several books that can help us shed some light on what Origen, the patristic, and the Eastern Christian tradition generally meant:

The Westminster Handbook to Origen has several good articles on this by Elizabeth Divley Lauro, Frederick Norris, Brian Daley, and others. This volume was edited by John McGuckin, author of The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity on which I have commented earlier.

Perhaps the most prominent Western theologian to revive this controversy in our time was Hans Urs von Balthasar (who has been sharply criticized by Alyssa Pitstick). Von Balthasar had studied many of the Fathers, and wrote about, inter alia, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.

In the East, it is not only Origen who has been "accused" of holding to the doctrine of apokatastasis, but some have suggested a variant of it may be found in St. Gregory of Nyssa. For this see, inter alia, Morwenna Ludlow, Universal Salvation: Eschatology in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa and Karl Rahner (Oxford UP, 2009). Others in the East in the modern period who are said to subscribe to some relative notion of apokatastasis include Sergius Bulgakov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Paul Evdokimov, and Kallistos Ware.

These questions are given fresh examination in a new publication from Cascade books briefly noted last year:

Gregory MacDonald, ed., 'All Shall Be Well': Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Cascade Books, 2011), xii+439pp. 

About this book the publisher tells us:

"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well" (Lady Julian of Norwich).
Universalism runs like a slender thread through the history of Christian theology. It has always been a minority report and has often been regarded as heresy, but it has proven to be a surprisingly resilient "idea." Over the centuries Christian universalism, in one form or another, has been reinvented time and time again.

In this book an international team of scholars explore the diverse universalisms of Christian thinkers from the Origen to Moltmann. In the introduction Gregory MacDonald argues that theologies of universal salvation occupy a space between heresy and dogma. Therefore disagreements about whether all will be saved should not be thought of as debates between "the orthodox" and "heretics" but rather as "in-house" debates between Christians.

The studies that follow aim, in the first instance, to hear, understand, and explain the eschatological claims of a range of Christians from the third to the twenty-first centuries. They also offer some constructive, critical engagement with those claims.
Articles of particular note include:
  • Origen (Tom Greggs)
  • Gregory of Nyssa (Steve Harmon)
  • Sergius Bulgakov (Paul Gavrilyuk)
There are many other articles examining this notion in modern evangelical and Protestant theologians, as well as Catholic ones; the complete list may be seen here.

I don't expect that books will resolve this issue. If Origen, whom even his enemies regarded as one of if not the greatest of scholars in Christian antiquity, could not resolve this issue to everyone's satisfaction; and if, in our own day, Hans Urs von Balthasar, whom Henri de Lubac once called the most learned man in Europe, also could not resolve this problem; and if Bulgakov, considered by many the premiere Russian theologian of the twentieth century, also did not resolve this, it is highly unlikely that the famously low theological and intellectual culture of American evangelicalism is going to provide us with an answer.

There is, it seems, something necessary to the "drama" of salvation (as von Balthasar called it) for us simultaneously to hope that all may be saved, but also to be aware that such is probably not likely, and in any event the outcome is most certainly not known to us. Here, again, the East's apophaticism has much to teach the West, especially North American evangelicalism, which knows so little history, and seems to think it is possible for anybody to interpret Scripture and declaim on God's mind about this, that, or the other thing. (Cf. St. Gregory the Theologian: "Not to every one, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God; not to every one; the Subject is not so cheap and low; and I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits" [I Theo. Orat. 27:3].)

One must underscore that there are things we do not, and cannot, know about God, not only in His essence/energies, but even in His communion with us. In matters of great mystery, where it is not necessary that we should intrude, it is necessary that we not intrude. Where the risks of speculation (theologoumena) are high, we must proceed very cautiously and only if we have serious and substantial justification for doing so (sucking up to the zeitgeist's faux universalism, and insipid blather about "love" that demands that all must have prizes, does not count). We must take appropriate care to steer between God's love, extended to everyone, and God's respect for human freedom that can be used to reject God's love and so seem to damn oneself. Here, it seems, is a classic instance of antinomic tension we cannot, and should not, collapse.

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