A Fork in the Theological Road

I just finished a book entitled Perspectives on Election: Five Views (but don’t worry; this is not another post specifically about the doctrine of election). Thomas B. Talbott contributed a chapter to this book outlining a universalist doctrine of election. His view is that, in the end, all people (and presumably all fallen angels as well, though he did specifically say so) will be reconciled to God. God’s wrath is always temporary and redemptive, and it will finally lead everyone to repentance and faith, either in this life or in the life to come. Although I don’t think he specifically mentioned Hell, I assume that Talbott’s view of Hell actually turns it into Purgatory.

Each author wrote responses to the chapters of the other authors. In one of his responses, Talbott launched into a criticism of the Augustinian view of election (that it is unconditional, individual, and pertains to the eternal destinies of people) by outlining his own theological method. I think what he has to say is very telling. It indicates that there is a fork in the theological road, and all people who do theology will inevitably choose one direction or the other. Here is what he writes:

“My question, however, concerns those Christians who have no such advantage [of education and available scholarly resources]; it concerns, for example, a simple peasant woman who may have lived in the vicinity of Geneva during Calvin’s own lifetime. Having no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew no real understanding of the Bible’s historical background, and no reasonable way to counter Calvin’s superior scholarship, her only grounds for opposing a doctrine of limited election might have been her moral conviction that a worthy object of worship could not possibly be an unloving and unjust tyrant. So how, then, should she respond when told to suppress her own moral conviction and to bow humbly before the Scriptures (as someone else interprets them, of course)?*

“I know of no better answer to this question than the one that George MacDonald gave: ‘Do not try to believe anything that affects you as darkness. Even if you mistake and refuse something true thereby, you will do less wrong to Christ by such a refusal than you would by accepting as His what you can see only as darkness.’ So it matters not, according to MacDonald, what ‘affects you as darkness,’ whether a racist interpretation of the curse of Ham, an appeal to Paul in support of institutional slavery, or an appeal to Romans 9 in an effort to persuade you that the Christian God is something less than all loving and all merciful: If the teaching strikes you as morally repugnant, you should say, ‘either the thing is not what it seems, or God never said or did it.’ For given the complexities of any interpretation of the Bible as a whole . . . the facade of bowing humbly before the Scriptures is no excuse for accepting, in opposition to your own deep-rooted moral convictions, a seemingly blasphemous picture of God” (pp. 322-323).

Talbott has just outlined the liberal paradigm for doing theology. I would not call him a theological liberal in the classical sense of the term, but his methodology is the same. This is the fork in the theological road: will you bow humbly before Scripture or sit in judgment over it, refusing those things that strike you as repugnant and blasphemous? Conservatives bow before Scripture; liberals make Scripture bow before their own moral and logical presuppositions. This is why liberals have rejected all of the following at some time or another:

The Trinity (it is illogical); the Incarnation (also illogical); substitutionary atonement (illogical and morally repungnant); the wrath of God and Hell (morally repugnant); unconditional election (morally repugnant); Scripture’s prohibition of homosexuality (morally repugnant); Scripture’s teaching on the pattern of authority between men and women (morally repugnant), etc.

It all comes down to the question of whether God may tell us what is true and false or we may tell him what we will permit to be true and false, and he must then conform his will to our presuppositions. Talbott’s methodology completely ignores a number of Christian convictions. It ignores the Creator-creature distinction and the noetic effects of sin, assuming that we fallen creatures have the clarity of mind to know what is and is not “darkness,” “morally repugnant,” and “blasphemous” before we ever encounter the Scriptures. But this is to make God in our own image. In his own chapter, Talbott also repeatedly appealed to the idea that God cannot do anything that it would be wrong for a human being to do. Again, this is another liberal mistake. God can and does do lots of things that it would be immoral for human beings to do, precisely because human beings are not God. God kills and makes alive. He
judges all the actions of all people. He demands worship and absolute submission to himself. Of course it would be wrong for any human being to do these things, but that is because human beings are not God. In fact, this idea that God can only do what it would be right for humans to do is the flip side of the Adam and Eve’s sin. Instead of saying, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil,” as the serpent did, Talbott and others who share his liberal theological methodology are saying, “God is actually like you.”

At some point, every person who thinks theologically must decide if he will approach the Scripture humbly, realizing that his own ideas (shaped by culture, experience, etc.) may or may not be correct and must be judged by the teaching of Scripture. I determined to do this a long time ago. I believe this basic commitment on my part is what led me to embrace, from the teaching of Scripture, the doctrines of unconditional election and the complementarian view of men and women. You can argue that my own interpretation of Scripture has been warped by my own experiences and presuppositions, but I disagree, at least on these two points. I had no prior motivation to come to these conclusions. I was at a moderate Baptist college, where everything I heard from men whom I highly respect went against these views. It would have been convenient for me to reject both views at the time, especially the complementarian view of the sexes, because who wants to be saddled with that in our present theological context? I have found Southern Seminary to be far more hospitable to these views, but keep in mind that I came to these views long before I came to Southern Seminary (and that is one reason I chose to come to Southern). I will not decide a priori what God can and cannot say and do. If God’s Word says he ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites, then I will not sit in judgment over God’s authority to do that. If God’s Word says homosexuality is wrong, then I will not sit in judgment over God’s authority to make that declaration. If God’s Word says God has mercy on whom he has mercy and that he hardens whom he hardens, who am I to question his justice, especially in light of the fact that mercy, by definition, is undeserved? If God’s Word says that the unrepentant will suffer in Hell for eternity, how can I say that my 3 pound brain understands and evaluates this issue better than God does? If God’s Word says that God is in control of all things, and that in some mysterious sense, even suffering comes from his hand, what right do I have to call such a view blasphemous? (I believe Scripture teaches all of these things, and I have made the case for several of them in other places).

Now that classical liberalism has been declining for many years now, theologians find it fashionable to say that they are now seeking to transcend the divide between conservatives and liberals. The late Stan Grenz made this claim, as does Brian McLaren. In some ways, perhaps these “postconservatives” are transcending the divide. But for the most part, I read their agenda differently. I see them taking the same direction in the theological fork in the road that the liberals took before them, only now they are accomodating the faith to postmodernism rather than to modernism. What else explains McLaren’s gymnastics on the issue of homosexuality except the fact that he personally cannot swallow what Scripture so clearly teaches, so he rejects it and creates a fog around the issue? This is the liberal methodology. As the winds of culture change, the theological conclusions will also change, and that is why postconservatives are not full-blown theological liberals, most of whom lived at an earlier time in history. Nevertheless, postconservatives arrive at their somewhat different destination driving the same car that liberals drove for years.

*By mentioning the poor peasant woman with no education or resources to counter Calvin’s superior learning, Talbott has overlooked some very significant circumstances of Calvin’s historical context, and in the process has been very unfair to Calvin. Calvin was concerned for the poor peasent women (and men) who were giving up money that should have been spent on food to buy indulgences from the Roman Catholic Church. He was concerned about the poor masses who had been held in darkness for centuries, being denied access to Bibles in their own languages, hearing masses recited in Latin, a language they did not understand. So Calvin promoted a return to the original languages of Scripture as a way of getting past the theological corruptions of the Latin Vulgate. The study of Greek and Hebrew was to serve as the basis for developing translations of the Bible in the vernacular. Far from reserving the interpretation of Scripture to himself, Calvin promoted reading of the Bible among the common people! And because he so longed for them to know the truth of Scripture in contrast to the Roman approach of keeping the masses in ignorance, he dedicated himself to a rigorous schedule of preaching and teaching expositionally from the Scriptures almost every day of the week in Geneva. This was something that was practiced virtually nowhere before the Reformers came along. So with all due respect, Dr. Talbott, I think you should can the emotional appeal to the poor peasant woman oppressed by the tyrant Calvin. Historically speaking, Calvin is one of the major figures responsible for the end of that kind of ecclesiastical oppression so widely practiced by the medieval Roman Catholic Church. The fact that we even know how to read today is likely traceable to at least some influences from Calvin.

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12 Responses to “A Fork in the Theological Road”

  1. Luke Says:

    Dear Aaron,
    I am dissapointed by your analysis. You generalize and trivialize to no one’s edification. I do not disagree that there are liberals who have views that are not true. I think there are conservatives who have views that are not true. There are theological decisions that are made based more on pastoral concerns but that doesn’t mean that your approach will in anyway help resolve the underlying problem. I hope you are getting more from your PhD program than the typical five ways other people are wrong. Would you call Rahner a liberal? Would you call Talbot’s mentor a liberal…Wolfhart Pannenburg? Ladd thought highly of Pannenbrug. Have you read Pannenburg? Does Barth follow the same path as Schleirmacher (however you spell his name)? I hope you have a wonderful service on Easter. As for me I think any Christian group that proclaims the bodily ressurection of Jesus Christ…is at least in the ballpark.

    blessings,
    Luke Smith

  2. Friend Says:

    Dear Aaron,

    For the past twenty-eight years, I have wholeheartedly believed in Scriptural Universalism, after having been a Calvinist for the first thirty-eight years of my life and an Arminianist for the next eleven years.

    The first forty-nine years, I consider to have been preparatory for the intense appreciation and wholehearted belief in the salvation of all, through the work and sacrifice of Christ.

    I have read a number of books by Thomas Talbott, but my most valuable teachers of what constitutes God’s plan and purpose for all of mankind have been the writers associated with the Concordant Publishing Concern.

    Twenty-eight years ago, they provide the necessary study tools which enabled me to study Scripture on my own, apart from any denominational creeds and dogma.

    Of course, I am very thankful for what I have learned and experienced from my intense involvement with Calvinism and Arminianism, the first forty-nine years of my life. However, I am ever so much more grateful for what I have joyfully believed these past twenty-eight years.

    Based on Scripture, rightly divided (2Tim.2:15,) and having learned the importance of maintaining a pattern of sound scriptural words (2Tim.1:13; Ps.12:6), it is ever so liberating to know that there is no hell and that no one will be lose out on the wonderful fact that God will become ALL in all (1Cor.15:20-28), at the time of the consummation of the ages (eons).

    Yes, the elect have a special salvation, but not an exclusive one, because the living God is the Savior of all mankind (1Tim.4:9-11; 1Tim.2:1-7).

    Of course, it is of great importance that all of humanity, created in God’s image, will be saved. However, of immeasurably greater importance is it that God will become known, appreciated and loved as the Saviour of ALL.

    For God to lose, permanently, even one individual will be the proverbial fly in the ointment of God’s creative/redemptive work through Christ Jesus, the Son of His love!

    I recommend you take a look at the information available on the Concordant Publishing Concern’s website: http://www.concordant.org/

    Yours in Christ,

    Friend

  3. Baptist Girl Says:

    Aaron,
    Good post. I have my doubts about Talbot, how can a believer believe that all will someday be united with Christ? When we are saved we are enlightened with truth and this truth is an essential truth-to me. There is a hell, there is eternal punishment.

    Friend,
    Let me encourage you to go elsewhere then the Concordant Publishing Concern.It is not of God, it does not promote truth and it is leading you down the wrong path. There is a hell,there is eternal punishment.Hell is spoken throughout the bible and Jesus spoke of it more then anything.

    Cristina

  4. Friend Says:

    Hi Christina,

    You said: “There is a hell, there is eternal punishment. Hell is spoken throughout the bible and Jesus spoke of it more then anything.”

    “Hell,” as you have been taught, is not of God. “Gehenna,” of which Jesus spoke (Matt.5:29), refers to the Valley of Hinnom (Isa.66:23-24)

    It is very informative to take careful note of how God felt about the children of Israel burning their children to idols in that Valley:

    2Kings 23:10 And he defiled Topheth, which [is] in the valley of the children of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech.

    2Chron. 28:3 Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the LORD had cast out before the children of Israel.

    2Chron. 33:6 And he [King Manasseh] caused his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom: also he observed times, and used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards: he wrought much evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger.

    Jer 7:31 And they have built the high places of Tophet, which [is] in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; WHICH I COMMANDED [THEM] NOT, NEITHER CAME IT INTO MY HEART.

    Jer 19:5-6 They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire [for] burnt offerings unto Baal, WHICH I COMMANDED NOT, NOR SPAKE [IT]. NEITHER CAME [IT] INTO MY MIND:
    (:6)Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that this place shall no more be called Tophet, nor The valley of the son of Hinnom, but The valley of slaughter.

    As for the Concordant Publishing Concern, I have been checking it out for twenty-eight years and have found it to be most reliable and Scriptural.

    Yours in Christ,
    Friend

  5. Luke Smith Says:

    Dear Friend,
    I appreciate your sharing the development of your thought with regards the difficult question of eternal separation from God. I do not expect that I will convince you with a few references of scripture, but I will append some at the end of this brief reply. Passages i am sure you are familiar with.

    It seems like you are a person who considers these questions with a great deal of thought, and I hope prayer. There have only been a handful of Christian theologians who have come to a similar conclusion. And for those who have they have tended to arrive at this conclusion from philosophical syllogisms.

    When one looks at the world in which we live in the stuff of life I find the great warning of everlasting punishment to be a more truthfully resounding warning. I know people who persist in prideful rebellion to their hurt and to everyone else around them. Will they in some sense finally decide to submit themselves to God..? I certainly hope so, but I fear the warning of scripture that they may not.

    NRS 1 Corinthians 1:18 For the message about the cross
    is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who
    are being saved it is the power of God.

    NRS John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave
    his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may
    not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did
    not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but
    in order that the world might be saved through him. 18
    Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those
    who do not believe are condemned already, because they
    have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

    blessings,
    Luke Smith

  6. Ali Says:

    Another good post, Aaron. I agree with your analysis, with the following caveats – which I’m pretty sure you’ll agree with too.

    1. It is true that some doctrines in the Bible “affects you as darkness”, and while the answer is not to throw biblical doctrines away because of that darkness, it is important to work through your understanding of the doctrine until it no longer “affects you as darkness”. Does the darkness come because of rebellion on your part? Does it come through an unbalanced understanding of that particular doctrine? Are there unconscious intellectual/emotional assumptions that are accompanying your reading of the text (eg. male authority = female denigration)? Whatever brings that darkness – and it’s probably a combination of all the above and more – to leave it unacknowledged and closed to resolution is a dangerous thing.

    2. The distinction between what God and humans can do and still be morally blameless is not as stark as you stated it – I’m guessing you made such a sharp distinction merely to prove your point, not to provide a definitive description of the distinction. What I would say is that man can do the things you mention, but in a far more limited manner.

    For example, God kills and makes alive, but man also can kill and be blameless (eg. self-defense, governmental justice, wars) and “make alive” eg. decide when and whether to have children, use fertility treatments etc.

    God judges all the actions of all people. Again, we as humans are often put in the position where we are called upon to judge the actions of people – in the judiciary, on a jury, as a school teacher, or as a Christian (1 Cor 5:12-13).

    God demands worship and absolute submission. It is not morally wrong for men to expect respect and submission depending on their role in life e.g. a father or mother, a prime minister, a government official etc. How they demand such respect and submission is a matter of godliness or not.

    My contention is that the liberal and post-conservative problem is not that God can do these things and man cannot, it is that anyone can do them at all. It is the curse of unbridled individualistic egalitarianism that any non-consensual authority is considered morally reprehensible – at least when it doesn’t disadvantage those denigrating it. (I haven’t seen many liberals arguing for the abolition of the police!) Biblical authority is merely the highest form of non-consensual authority they are rebelling against.

    We all do it, but we don’t all recognise we are doing it, and we don’t all repent of it.

  7. Friend Says:

    Dear Luke,

    Yes, if Scripture really revealed that there is a hell, one would have no choiuce but believe it. However, in accord with the admonition in 2Tim.1:13, “to hold fast to a pattern of sound words” I have come to the conclusion, after proper study and prayer, that “hell” and its associated idea that people, when they are dead are still alive and sentient, is not a sound word and not a sound concept.

    The following texts show that God will save all: John 1:29, John 12:32, Rom.3:21-23, Rom.5:18,19, Rom.11:32-36, 1Cor.15:22, 1Cor.15:24-28, Eph.1:9-11, Eph.1:22-23; Phil.2:5-11, Col.1:20, 1Tim.2:4-7, 1Tim.4:9-11, 1John 2:2.

    These texts may not be dismissed because there are some other texts that seem to deny what is revealed in the above listed texts.

    God Bless!

    Friend

  8. Friend Says:

    Dear Aaron,

    You wrote, “God’s wrath is always temporary and redemptive, and it will finally lead everyone to repentance and faith, either in this life or in the life to come.

    I fully agree that God’s wrath is always temporary and redemptive.
    The elect have a special and advanced salvation, but not an exclusive one.

    During the ages (eons) the elect will be graciously given of the Spirit of God (1Cor.2;10-16; 1Cor.12:3; 2Tim.1;7), as well as the gift of faith (Rom.12;3; Eph.2:8-9; Phil.1;29).

    At the time of the consummation of the ages (eons), the same will be given to the rest of mankind.

    You also wrote “Although I don’t think he specifically mentioned Hell, I assume that Talbott’s view of Hell actually turns it into Purgatory.”

    I cannot speak for brother Talbott, but as I understand Scripture, nothing can cleanse us from sin, except the shed blood of Christ.

    Friend

  9. Friend Says:

    Dear Aaron,

    You also wrote: “At some point, every person who thinks theologically must decide if he will approach the Scripture humbly, realizing that his own ideas (shaped by culture, experience, etc.) may or may not be correct and must be judged by the teaching of Scripture. I determined to do this a long time ago.”

    For this I commend you, very much, and am happy to state that I could not agree with you more.

    Friend

  10. Friend Says:

    Dear Aaron,

    You wrote: “Historically speaking, Calvin is one of the major figures responsible for the end of that kind of ecclesiastical oppression so widely practiced by the medieval Roman Catholic Church. The fact that we even know how to read today is likely traceable to at least some influences from Calvin.”

    There is much in Calvin and in Calvinism that I appreciate, especially, the emphasis on the Supremacy and Sovereignty of God. Also, what you said in the above quotation.

    The thing that makes me shake my head in astonishment and disbelief is the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement.

    That presents God as being rather cold-hearted and arbitrary.

    As I have already stated, Scripture reveals that it is God’s purpose to save the elect during the ages (eons), and the rest of mankind at the consummation of the eons (1Cor.15:20-28; 1Tim.2:4; 1Tim.4:9-11).

    Since Scripture reveals God to be all-powerful, all-wise and all-loving, how can any of us really accept that this powerful, wise and loving God will fail to save all, but instead, will punish the great majority of mankind in a terrible hell, and that without any remedial purpose?

    And especially so, since no one of mankind, apart from the gracious gift of God’s Spirit and the gracious gift of faith is able to respond to Him positively (cp Rom.3:9-18; Rom.8:7,8; Eph.2:1-3)

    God Bless!
    Friend

  11. Aaron Says:

    Thank you everyone for commenting (how long has it been since I’ve had 11 comments?). I will try to respond to everyone:

    Luke,

    My point was not to say that Talbott is a theological liberal but that he does approach theology in much the same way, though he ends up with many different conclusions. I would not classify Pannenberg, Rahner, or Barth as liberals in the classical sense (especially not Barth; from my perspective, he was basically a conservative with a few out-of-the-ordinary positions). Keep in mind, I said in my post that classical theological liberalism has declined greatly in the last century. Most of the major figures in theology today would not fall into the category of classical liberalism (thanks in large part to Barth’s work).

    But since there is nothing new under the sun, I don’t think you should find it terribly surprising to find some of the same errors repeated again in different ways. Pannenberg and Rahner definitely exemplify the tendency I referred to in my post. Both held to unorthodox doctrines of God, and that makes a deep impact on one’s overall theology.

    Friend,

    Thank you for your comments and for your cordial manner of discussion. My intention was not to discuss universalism per se here, but I hope to dedicate a couple of upcoming posts to it. I hope you will stay tuned.

    Baptist Girl,

    I don’t think I have seen you here before. Welcome!

    Ali,

    Good thoughts, mate, as always.

  12. Aaron Says:

    Friend,

    You’re 77 years old? You may have the honor of being the oldest person ever to comment on my blog. Most people your age have never heard the word “blog”! I commend you for bucking the trend and wading into the sea of modern communications and technology.

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