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.


Anonymous said...

"Here it can be said that we know 'eternal life' to be unending."

Question: How is it you are so sure that in this particular case 'eternal' pertains to 'unending'?

Could it be that tradition has informed how we exegete this passage?

Is is that we always imagine eternal life to mean unending heavenly bliss?

I would suggest this is not what the biblical writers had in mind. Unending heavenly bliss would have been far from their minds.

"Eternal life" might I suggest means this: an 'eternal kind of life' 'life that is charactized by the age to come where God's shalom is established'

With this in mind this passage you quote might have more to do with the justice established at the beginning of the new age of God's shalom when the world is put to rights.

This might leave the door open for 'eternal punishment' to be a redemptive act.

Anonymous said...

It's reassuring to see another LCMS Lutheran (I am one myself) considering universalism. For my part, I'm about 99% convinced all men will eventually be saved, along the lines of Gregory of Nyssa's teachings. Christians are, as St James put it, "firstfruits." The rest of humanity will follow at some time or season known only to the Father.

JP Manzi said...

May I recommend to you:

A bunch of good guys, proclaimed Universalists. Though I can not label myself a universalist, these guys really help me understand what grace is.
Blessings to you as you continue your journey faith

T. Hahm said...


Finally answering your question, "How is it you are so sure that in this particular case 'eternal" pertains to 'unending'?"

Answer: I'm not sure at all. I agree with you that there are valid reasons to believe that 'unendedness' was not necessarily the point when Jesus used the phrase 'eternal life'. In fact, I would go so far as to say it was definitely NOT the point.

Jesus explained exactly what he meant by 'eternal life' in his high priestly prayer of John 17.

"And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent." John 17:3

If this is eternal life, then its parallel opposite in Matthew 31:46 (eternal punishment) is NOT knowing God or Jesus.

The "unendedness" of these two states is not what is being emphasized, and not necessarily clear - particularly in light of the different meanings for the Greek word "aeonios."