Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption” and Barth

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption” and Barth June 23, 2018

The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism

Michael McClymond is Professor of Modern Christianity at Saint Louis University. He has published widely on Jonathan Edwards. His book, The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (co-authored with Gerald McDermott) was chosen by Christianity Today in 2012 as the best book in theology/ethics.

The following interview revolves around McClymond’s just released (June 2018), two-volume (!) magnum opus, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism

This interview was conducted by David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org and some of his video can be seen at www.mooreengaging.com.

Moore: I did a recent interview with Alvin Plantinga on potential ties between aspects of his work and Barth. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/10/10/plantinga-and-barth-a-marriage-made-in-heaven/ Would you respond to his response to my question here? Moore: I am a graduate of both Dallas Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  We read a bit about Barth (mainly to critique him), but not really much by him. There is much suspicion about Barth in American evangelical circles.  To what degree is that concern legitimate? Plantinga: I realize that in evangelical circles (including in my own background) there has been a lot of criticism of Barth (for example, holding a somewhat nonstandard view of divine revelation).  I think this response to Barth is unfortunate.  Maybe he is wrong on some points, deviates from standard evangelicalism in some areas; but he is nonetheless a serious and influential Christian theologian who proclaims the main lines of the gospel.  The energy that some evangelicals have expended criticizing Barth could much better have been expended in, for example, defending the main lines of the Christian gospel against the various attacks leveled at it ever since the Enlightenment.  We have real enemies out there; we don’t need to attack each other.

McClymond: Karl Barth himself had quite a lot to say (consult the Gesammelte Schriften!), and of the making of many books (on Barth) there is no end. My 100+ pp. discussion of Barth in The Devil’s Redemption is a focused response to just one aspect of Barth’s theology. It’s hard to improve on Flannery O’Connor’s comment: “I like old Barth. He throws the furniture around.” There is always more to learn about Barth and more to learn from Barth. When I set out to write The Devil’s Redemption, I would essentially have agreed with Plantinga as cited above. Yet the longer I worked on the universalism project, the more I began to see the subtle, pervasive, and damaging effects of Barth’s doctrine of universal election, which had I believe a distorting influence over academic Christian theology since the 1950s.

Prior to Barth’s elaboration of universal election in Church Dogmatics II/2 (German, 1942), Barth repeatedly insisted on God’s freedom and independence vis-à-vis the created world. God was defined as “the God-who-is.” From Church Dogmatics II/2 onward, and in the later volumes, there is a tendency toward redefining God as “the God-who-is-for-us.” In other words, God’s grace was defined increasingly not as flowing from God’s free decision but simply as who God inherently is. (Like most issues in Barth, things get complicated, and yet God’s self-constituting choice to be the God-who-is-for-us-in-Christ transforms a divine decision into an ontology. On my view, one ends up with some of the same problems in construing salvation ontologically in Barth that one also finds in Western esotericism, as well as in Solovyev and Bulgakov.)

After Barth’s passing in 1968, the tendency to posit a conjoint God-plus-world system accelerated in the theologies of Jürgen Moltmann and the later kenotic-relational theologians. One ends up then with a God “essentially” related to the world—i.e., as if God and the world were “codetermining” or “codependent.” This perspective is contrary to the fundamental biblical and creedal principle of creation from nothing. Some recent theologies have such a disempowered God that in my book I use the admittedly incongruous analogy of a terrified schoolteacher, confronted by rowdy students in the classroom, who do drugs in the back of the room, start fights, and ignite a fire in the wastebasket. Let us imagine that the school in question allows the teacher to give student rebels a fifteen- or thirty-minute time-out, but not to expel any students. All students are “essentially” related to the teacher and the school. My point is that the metaphysical assumptions of contemporary kenotic-relational theologians do not permit God to exercise judgment over creatures.   We would do well to cleanse our minds of all such unworthy conceptions regarding God. God is self-defining. God is God. God is. And as the Hebrew prophets and psalmists tell us: God is judge.

The great irony of Barth’s half-century theological career (1918-1968) is that he more than anyone else in his early days summoned the church and its thinkers to let God be God. Yet Barth’s fateful decision to embrace the doctrine of universal election marked a major turn—as Bruce McCormack of Princeton Seminary convincingly argues (though McCormack evaluates this differently than I do). On my view, this move opened the door to the later and more radical departures from a biblical picture of God.

And what should one say regarding the idea of universal election? Did the God of the Old Testament choose the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the Incas as his “chosen peoples” alongside the Hebrews? Barth’s relentless assertions and reassertions of universal election in Church Dogmatics II/2 cannot conceal the exegetically unsoundness of his claims. Biblical election begins with God’s particular choice of Abraham and Abraham’s descendants, and it continues into the New Testament with a particular people, i.e., the church. There are of course many questions regarding so-called inclusivism, and those who have lived outside of the visible community of faith. Yet the idea of universal election stands in obvious contradiction to the whole thrust of the biblical teaching on this topic.   On this point, the Emperor of Basel is naked, and so I feel like I’m the little boy in the fairy tale who says out loud what should be obvious to all. It shouldn’t have been necessary for me to have taken so much space in my book to argue that “Barth is wrong on election.” At least a few biblical scholars, whom I cite, have been willing to say so. I am willing to say it in the book because theologically it needs to be said and to said clearly: “Barth is wrong on election.”

Regarding Barth I would say this: the vast mansion that is Barth’s theology has many beautiful chambers, rivaling the most beautiful rooms furnished by earlier thinkers. I would not want to move in and to occupy this mansion, but I’m happy to visit it every now and then and perhaps spend a weekend there.

Moore: Other than Origen who seems to get all the press, weren’t there other Church Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa who held to universalism?

McClymond: Gregory of Nyssa (as noted above) was an early Christian universalist. In my book I offer an analysis and tabulation of early church opinions on eschatology—based on part on the meticulous work of Father Brian Daley, SJ, of Notre Dame University, who is a reliable guide. I won’t recount a long list of names here (see The Devil’s Redemption, pp. 1097-1099), but I will cite the overall statistics. Of the authors Daley surveys in his comprehensive book, The Hope of the Early Church (1991; 2nd ed. 2002) there are sixty-eight authors who clearly affirm the eternal punishment of the wicked, while seven authors are unclear, two authors who teach something like eschatological pantheism (i.e., all creatures dissolve into the Creator), and perhaps four authors who appear to be universalists after the fashion of Origen. The support for universalism is paltry compared with the opposition to it. The Fifth Ecumenical Council denounced Origen by name in its formal proceedings, and this condemnation almost certainly had to do not only with Origen’s idea of preexistent souls, but his idea of final salvation for all.

Contrary to what one reads online at certain pro-universalist websites, there is really not much of a “universalist tradition” in ancient Christianity. The non-universalist authors come from each of the centuries surveyed, from both the Christian East and the Christian West, and they wrote in Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, and Armenian. From Daley’s analysis, one can see the distortion involved in claiming a “universalist East” versus an “infernalist West.” The opposition of the Coptic, Syriac, and Armenian authors to Origenism is little known and yet noteworthy. It weighs against the widely diffused though erroneous idea that the doctrine of eternal punishment was somehow unique to the Latin West—or perhaps even largely an invention of Augustine during the early fifth century. Those who say this seem not to have read the so-called Apostolic Fathers of the second century, who clearly wrote of heaven and hell and a two-fold final outcome for humankind. The early church scholar Ilaria Ramelli has tried to make a case for universalism as a kind of common tradition in the early centuries, and yet she can only make this argument only by largely ignoring the sixty-eight authors noted above. It is also striking that there are no unambiguous cases of universalist teaching prior to Origen among the acknowledged church teachers (i.e., not the teachers of gnosis). If, as Ramelli suggests, universalism had been understood as the correct biblical teaching on eschatology during the first century, then one might have expected the second-century Christian authors to transmit this teaching. And they do not.

Moore: What kind of impact both on the scholarly community and the church would you like to see from The Devil’s Redemption?

McClymond: Books are like children that grow up and leave one’s house, and then have an independent life of their own. One may be surprised, delighted, or appalled at what happens along the way, but the outcome is beyond one’s control. The Devil’s Redemption is written for the entire global church—Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, Evangelical, Nondenominational, and Pentecostal-Charismatic. There is something in it for self-described Christians of every category and subgroup. So my hope is that the different subgroups of professing Christians would take notice of the sections that are most pertinent to themselves.

I hope that those who read my work will see a need for Christian theological recalibration in light of my argument, and especially pertaining to the doctrine of God (see pp. 1000-04, 1013-24). Another broad point concerns the impact of gnostic-kabbalist-esoteric ideas on academic theology as well as popular Christian literature (e.g., Carlton Pearson, John Crowder, Francois du Toit). If humanity during the twenty-first century undergoes religious as well as economic globalization, then I anticipate that notions of a divine humanity or human-divine selfhood will become increasingly popular, and that forms of gnosis or esotericism will be on the rise. Some today are calling for a unification of historical religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism), and such a move would almost certainly involve some kind of neo-gnosticism. My historical analysis and theological critique of gnosis, kabbalah, and esotericism might serve as a help to understanding future as well as past developments.

Regarding the church’s evangelistic challenge: Christ’s followers will not be faithful to Christ unless they are willing to speak not only of the benefits of being a Christian, but also of the consequences of deliberately rejecting Christ. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 7:24-27), Jesus didn’t say, “look, there were two builders, and both of them turned out okay, but one of them had a stronger foundation.” Instead Jesus said: “If you build your house on sand, the outcome will be devastation.” The Sermon on the Mount was thus not “good advice for successful living,” but a wake-up call and a warning. The longer I have spent in studying and meditating on the gospels, the more the urgency of Jesus’ sayings and parables has come through to me. God’s spokesperson must be willing to give warning as well as consolation. The Lord commissioned Ezekiel: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me” (Ezk. 3:17). Then Ezekiel received the solemn warning that if “you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and…his blood I will require at your hand.” As any reader of the Book of Jeremiah will know, the false prophets of Judah were known for giving false consolation: “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14; 8:11). May the church be kept from false prophets!

Faithful preaching of God’s Word today, I believe, has to convey the boldness and urgency of Jesus’ message, and later manifested in the classic evangelical preaching of Whitefield, Wesley, Edwards, Finney, and Spurgeon. One can differentiate these figures theologically, but it may be more important for us today to realize how alike they were as bold preachers of the gospel. One Greek word for gospel preaching is parrhesia, variously translated as “freedom,” “boldness,” “candor,” “openness.” The final verses of Matthew 5 tell us that Jesus spoke boldly: “The crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Mt. 7:28-29).

The point is not to replace a message of love with an overemphasis on judgment. Love has priority. The scripture does not say that “God so hated sin that he sent his Son,” but rather that “God so loved the world…” The Father’s actuating motive is love. To highlight the centrality of God’s love it is important above all to preach the cross of Christ. Here we find revealed God’s holy offense at sin and God’s loving initiative to bring salvation. Last year, when I met with a group of about fifty local ministers, I asked them to come up with a pastoral response to contemporary Christian universalism. Collectively they arrived at the same point that I did—i.e., the necessity of preaching Christ’s cross and his atoning death. I have found John Stott’s book, The Cross of Christ, to be an excellent resource for preachers, and I would recommend it to Christian ministers and teachers who might want to focus on the cross but not know how to do so. Stott’s multi-dimensional perspective on the cross serves as a corrective to deficient understandings of God’s love and God’s holiness.

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