Monday, June 25, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 5)

As I understand it, professional theologians offer us three exits from a Biblical contradiction. (Actually, Luther offers a fourth, but I will deal with that later.)

The first exit is exegetical. We study passages of Scripture in their context, word by word in the original language, trying to ascertain the plain meaning as intended by the original writer and his intended readers. Perhaps there is a contradiction only because we have misunderstood the actual meaning of the text.

For example, in the apparent contradiction between universal salvation and unending torments, much of the exegetical discussion centers on two words - the word “all” and the word “eternal”.

Does the word “all” in the universalist passages (like Romans 5:18) really mean “all without exception?” Or can it mean something else, like “all of a particular kind” or “all without distinction”? On the other hand, in the passages about eternal judgment (like Matthew 25:46), does the Greek word for “eternal” really mean “without end?” Or does it mean “age enduring”, “pertaining to an age” or “from the Eternal One?”, thus opening the door to post-mortem redemption?

We dig a little deeper. Studying the immediate context, we find a second usage of the word “all” in the same passage of Romans 5:18. “through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all.” Since most agree that the first all means “all without exception,” it follows then that the second all would have the same meaning. The universalists appear to be on firm ground.

However, in the Matthew 25:46 passage, we find a similar parallelism with the use of the word eternal. “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Here it can be said that we know “eternal life” to be unending. And so it follows that eternal punishment would have the same meaning - torment without end. The traditionalists also seem to have exegetical support.

On and on it goes, from passage to passage, from word to word, we search for an exit. In this arcane world of exegesis, as fascinating as some of us might find it, we seem to be at the mercy of the scholars’ research and expertise. It seems we are the jury, weighing the evidence, judging which scholars make the most convincing case. But the evidence is technical and sometimes difficult to understand. And both sides seem sincere and credible. So what are we to do?

We need more evidence.

We look for another exit.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 4)

One of the grand paradoxes of being Lutheran is this - that, as devoted as we may be to the historic, orthodox teachings of the Christian faith, everything we believe and confess still falls subject to correction by the Word of God. A single, small word or phrase of Scripture has more power in it than all the volumes of Christian theology ever written.

A lone monk, standing on mere phrases of the biblical text (“the just shall live by faith”, etc), challenged a thousand years of learned thinking, “common knowledge”, official councils, pure reason, and “orthodox” teaching. Following such an example, even the most confessional, conservative among us will still, if we want to remain truly Lutheran, humbly subject ourselves to the power of the Word - through which God speaks - regardless of where it takes us, and what consequences we might suffer along the way.

To the Lutheran, tradition is allowed to speak softly, but the words of Scripture will always carry the big stick. And so if a Lutheran is to contemplate the final fate of the damned and reexamine the doctrine of unending torments, he or she must put aside tradition and treat it as nothing compared to the plain words of Scripture.

If the words of Scripture teach of punishment without end for the condemned, and no final restoration for all, then the Lutheran must accept that, even if it seems unfair, unmerciful, and contrary to the nature of God as we have come to know Him.

And if the words of Scripture teach of a final restoration of all, and do not teach of unending torments, than we must accept that also, even if it overthrows two thousand years of majority Christian thought, turns us into “heretics”, and results in countless new ways for the old man in us to abuse the grace of God.

And then there is the final “if.” What if the words of Scripture seem to teach both? What is a Lutheran supposed to do with that?

This, I submit, is what appears to be the actual case.

And Lutherans, in my opinion, are better equipped than most to deal with such a powerful Biblical contradiction.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 3)

We Lutherans like to believe that “the tradition of the church” holds little sway in our theology. Sola Scriptura precludes it. And our long-running dispute with Rome over the role of tradition and church councils demands that we poo-poo tradition in favor of the Biblical text.

However, it seems to me that we huff and puff a bit too much about all this. We are, I think, in denial on the matter. I discovered this in my little controversy with the WELS regarding church fellowship, where I learned just how powerful the “tradition of the church” can be. In that controversy, Scripture itself consistently took second place to the church’s traditional interpretation of Scripture. There was far more emphasis on the actual meaning and interpretation of the wording of the church doctrine (and the books that tried to explain it) than there ever was concerning the words of Scripture. In the end, my own (and others) beliefs and actions were judged against the wording (and supposed meaning) of the church’s written documents - not the words of Scripture. Of course, my adversaries claimed that they were essentially one and the same - which is precisely my point.

So as I assess the obstacles to Lutheran universalism, I believe the tradition of the church, the rulings of councils, the thoughts and writings of the most dominant theologians, and ultimately peer pressure - all these will present far more difficulty to the Lutheran universalist than the Biblical text. Although closet universalists may be many, there are few today who are willing to publicly challenge traditional church teaching on the everlasting destiny of the damned.

It is not without good reason that Gregory MacDonald (whoever he is) used a pseudonym when he wrote his book The Evangelical Universalist.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Mercy is Falling

Mercy is falling, is falling, is falling.
Mercy it falls like a sweet, spring rain.
Mercy is falling, is falling all over me.

Hey-oh, I receive Your mercy,
Hey-oh, I receive Your grace!
Hey-oh, I will dance forevermore.

Announcing the birth of Mercy Rain Arn (grandchild #3).

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part 2)

It seems to me that evangelicals attempting the move toward universalism have a longer, harder road to travel than do Lutherans. With a salvation theology that is either Calvinist or Arminian, evangelicals come to the issue facing major theological obstacles.

Calvinist theology is committed to a limited atonement, thus ruling out any means of salvation for those God did not choose to love. Arminian theology, on the other hand, is committed to man’s ability to choose to love God, placing salvation (or at least the final, most decisive piece of it) in the hands of unreliable people. Under such a system it is simply not plausible that all people would choose God.

Lutherans, on the other hand, have neither of these obstacles to contend with.

Lutherans already embrace a universal atonement. Unlike Calvinist theology, Lutherans believe that God loves everyone, Christ died for all, nobody has been elected or predestined to damnation and God wants all to be saved.

Lutherans also reject the doctrine that man chooses to love God of his own free will. Unlike Arminian theology, they believe repentance, faith and salvation is a gift of God - entirely a work of God’s grace. There is therefore no theological basis to believe God cannot (or does not want to) give this gift to all people.

Without these two theological obstacles, a Lutheran seems well down the road to universalism without even working up a sweat. But there are still two other obstacles in the way.

The first is the traditional teaching of the church. The second is the Biblical text.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Can a Lutheran be a Universalist? (Part I)

I am currently reading The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald (pseudonym), 2006.

MacDonald has also written a shorter paper entitled “Can an Evangelical be a Universalist?”, which is posted on Brian McLaren’s website.

Seeing the title of this article, I ask myself the same question about Lutherans.

I’ve read a fair number of books and articles defending Christian universalism (or the doctrine of final restoration, as some prefer to call it.) A lot of them, to my way of thinking, aren’t very good. Universalism comes in a lot of flavors, even including non-Christian universalism, which teaches salvation apart from Christ. Authors come at the issue from a wide variety of perspectives - as very liberal theologians, as legalists (we can all earn our way to heaven eventually), as former Calvinists, Arminians, or even Unitarians. Some are overly argumentative, seemingly just out to condemn the harshness of the traditional church and its teachings. The variety of perspectives and agendas results in a kind of smorgasbord of thought on the matter, most of which I can’t relate to.

Some of the better authors, however, approach the issue with great clarity and honesty, evidencing a high regard for Scripture and “Luther-like” principles of letting Scripture interpret Scripture. MacDonald appears to be one of these. Other authors I have appreciated are:

- Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God (1999)
- Jan Bonda, The One Purpose of God: An Answer to the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment (2003)
- Andrew Jukes, Restitution of All Things (1867 - Out of Print)

I am on the lookout for a Lutheran theologian who has studied and written extensively on the subject (either pro or con) - so far without success.