Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top post of 2011--"On universalism, heresy, and the 'Rob Bell controversy'"

According to the stats provided by Blogger, the most frequently viewed post at Ecclesial Theology in 2011 was "On universalism, heresy, and the 'Rob Bell Controversy'" posted on March 9 (1,207 pageviews as of December 29). For those who mised the original post, here it is again:

On universalism, heresy, and the "Rob Bell controversy"

A confession: before an intra-evangelical controversy erupted late last month after promotional materials for Rob Bell's forthcoming book Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived made some suspect that Bell would endorse a doctrine of universal salvation, I'd never heard of Rob Bell. I now know that many, many other people have heard of Rob Bell, the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan and a popular speaker and author whose previous books include Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith (the title of which I do recall registering in my mind sometime since its 2005 publication).

A disclaimer: I am not a universalist. Exegetically, a settled doctrine of the ultimate salvation of all persons seems difficult to reconcile with the clear teaching of many passages of Scripture. Theologically, a necessarily universal salvation seems to contravene both the freedom of God and the freedom of humanity. I will not be surprised if I discover in heaven that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has indeed in the end reconciled all people to God, but I cannot presume that.

While I am not a universalist (and won't be able to determine whether Bell is a universalist until Love Wins is published on March 15), I have written a few things about early Christian expressions of universalism, some (but possibly not all) versions of which have historically been deemed heretical by the church. I've also written a bit about what actually qualifies as heresy, a charge made by many contemporary Christians against other Christians without proper nuance or care. In this post I'll restrict myself to calling attention to some of what I've already written along these lines that may be of relevance for determining (1) what sort of concept of universalism Bell may prove to be at least entertaining, and (2) whether it actually constitutes heresy.

My first book Every Knee Should Bow: Biblical Rationales for Universal Salvation in Early Christian Thought (2003) explored the manner in which Clement of Alexandria (ca. AD 160-215), Origen (ca. 185-ca. 251), and Gregory of Nyssa (331/340-ca. 395) appealed to Scripture in developing rationales for their concepts of apokatastasis, the hope that all rational creatures will ultimately be reconciled to God. I revisted my work on Gregory of Nyssa--whose March 9 feast day happens to be today--in the chapter on Gregory I contributed to the recently published volume "All Shall Be Well": Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann (2011) edited by "Gregory MacDonald." The paragraphs below excerpted from the final couple of pages of that chapter (pp. 61-63) offer my theological evaluation of the hope of universal salvation as maintained by Gregory of Nyssa and others:

In its efforts to clarify this not insignificant ambiguity in the plot of the biblical story of God’s salvation, early Christian theology offered three major readings of the manner in which the story concludes for those who have not responded positively to the divine work of salvation during their earthly lives. The majority reading, represented by Tertullian and Augustine, understands the eschatological punishment of such persons as eternal in duration—the everlasting torment of separation from God. Some of the second- and third-century apologists, represented by Justin Martyr and Arnobius, offered what was ultimately a minority reading in which punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration—following the resurrection, the wicked are destroyed, evil therefore ceases to exist, and God is “all in all.” The other minority reading is represented by Clement, Origen, and Gregory—punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration, but its effect is not destruction but transformation. It is possible that these three early Christian readings of the biblical portrayal of the destiny of the impenitent might not be mutually exclusive. If we may theorize that it is possible for God in the eschaton to save, say, Adolf Hitler (or any other fallen human being)—and “for God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26)—such a salvation would require the destruction of the evil person he had become in his earthly life (cf. Justin Martyr and Arnobius), the painful transformation of who he had willingly become into what God intended him to be (cf. Clement, Origen, and Gregory), and the torment of knowing for eternity the tragedy of what was irrevocably lost in his refusal to participate in God’s salvation during his earthly life (cf. Tertullian and Augustine).

Is belief in an ultimately universal salvation heresy from the perspective of the tradition of the community of faith across the ages? One certainly cannot claim with J. W. Hanson, a nineteenth-century Universalist (of the American denominational variety), that universal salvation was the consensus position of the patristic church. While it remained a minority viewpoint throughout the patristic period, one may argue that in its basic outlines universalism contradicted neither creed nor council. It affirmed belief in the coming of Christ “to judge the living and the dead,” “the resurrection of the body” (the speculations of Origen excepted), and “the life everlasting.” Even in the anathemas against Origen associated with the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the objection seems not to have been with a universal
apokatastasis per se but rather with the protology presupposed by the Origenist version of the apokatastasis, as Anathema I suggests: “If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration (apokatastasis) which follows from it: let him be anathema.” It is significant that Gregory of Nyssa, who developed a concept of apokatastasis virtually identical to that of Origen sans Origen’s protology, was never condemned by council or synod, was revered by the later church as a staunch defender of Nicene orthodoxy, and was canonized as a saint with a feast day on March 9 (although doubts of later copyists of Gregory’s works about the orthodoxy of his eschatology are reflected in their emendations of a number of passages in which these ideas are expressed).

Implicit in this traditional criterion of a proper protology for assessing the orthodoxy of eschatological proposals is a healthy aversion to deterministic theologies that negate divine and human freedom, for “the monstrous restoration which follows from” a doctrine of the pre-existence of souls is deterministic in its requirement of a cyclical return to the beginning. This concern is the rationale behind Karl Barth’s denial of dogmatic universalism, even though the logic of his doctrine of election points in that direction: if God must save humanity and humanity must be saved, then neither God nor humanity would be free.

Those who find themselves attracted to Gregory’s hopeful eschatology must also consider Origen’s own reservations about making it the customary public teaching of the church (c
. Cels. 6.26). In this connection there is much wisdom in the words of the nineteenth-century German pietist Christian Gottlieb Barth: “Anyone who does not believe in the universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass.”

The church is right to guard against a dogmatic universalism in light of its experience. Universal salvation as a foregone conclusion can lead, and has led, to indifference toward evangelistic endeavors and easy cultural accommodation rather than transformative engagement with culture. On the other hand, a hypothetical outcome of universal salvation ought not to detract necessarily from the urgency of the mission of the church. In such a case, failure to experience God’s salvation in one’s earthly existence would be an eternal tragedy both for that person and for all those to whom that person relates, a tragedy that the church should be urgently concerned about preventing. As I sometimes tell my students, “I will not be surprised if I discover in the resurrection that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has saved all people, but in the meantime we should not count on that.”

In the meantime, God does wish to save all people (1 Tim 2:4). Whether all will be saved must remain a mystery of divine and human freedom—as it seems to have remained for Gregory of Nyssa.

In my most recent book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (2010), I address the question of precisely what qualifies as heresy in the course of discussing the relation between early Christian debates over heresy, the loss of the church's unity, and efforts to repair it:

A heretic is not merely someone who holds ideas that the powers that be in the church consider wrongheaded. It’s not quite that easy to be a heretic. In 1 Corinthians 11:18-19 the Apostle Paul addresses the “divisions” that have occurred in the church at Corinith. In verse 19 he uses the Greek word haireseis, which in transliteration supplies our English word “heresies,” as a near synonym for the “divisions” mentioned in verse 18 (Greek schismata, the source of the English word “schisms”). The nearly identical meaning of the two words is reflected in the translation of schismata in verse 18 as “divisions” and haireseis in verse 19 as “factions” in several English versions, but there is also a shade of difference in meaning so that heresies qualifies the nature of the schismata. The Corinthian divisions resulted in part from heresies, which are self-chosen opinions that divide the church when they are introduced into the teaching that takes place within it.

In light of the Paul’s use of the Greek word for “heresies” in this passage and in light of the nature of early heresies in the first few centuries of the church, it seems that one has to fulfill three criteria in order to be a heretic in the fullest classical sense of the word.

First, a heretic is someone whose account of the Christian story is so dangerously inadequate that it’s really an altogether different story than the biblical story of the Triune God. One such radically different telling of the Christian story was Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis, “knowledge”), which by the second century claimed a secret insight into the true nature of Christianity that was really rooted in a Platonic dualism between the good realm of spirit and idea and the evil realm of matter and flesh. Gnosticism met this criterion of heresy because according to its version of the divine story, God could not have anything to do with an essentially evil material order and humanity could be saved only by escaping it. Arianism was a fourth-century heresy that maintained that the Son’s divinity was of a different and lesser order than the Father’s divinity. The teachings of Arius (d. AD 336) and his followers also met this criterion because they too distanced the fullness of God from the work of redeeming humanity through the incarnation, delegating the work of salvation to that which is less than the fullness of God.

Second, one must also teach this alternative version of the Christian story as an authoritative teacher in the church—or at least as someone who wants to be recognized as a teacher. Many people entertain ideas that would be heretical if they were taught, but not everyone teaches them.

Third, to be a heretic one must insist that this dangerously inadequate telling of the Christian story be regarded by the church as acceptable teaching and through this insistence threaten to divide the church. Heresy is therefore not only about problematic theological ideas. It also involves divisive behavior toward the church. Heresy is therefore as much a matter of ethics as it is of doctrine
(pp. 19-21).

I hope everyone with an interest in the "Rob Bell controversy" keeps these things in mind. And that's all I have to say about that (apologies to Forrest Gump).

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"A New Creed," apostolicity, and ecumenicity

The current issue of Touchstone, a journal related to (but not officially published by) the United Church of Canada, includes an article by William Haughton, one of my former M.Div. students at Campbell University Divinity School who went on to earn a Th.M. from the University of Toronto and is currently a minister in the United Church of Canada serving the Port Rowan Pastoral Charge on the north shore of Lake Erie. Haughton's article "'A New Creed': Its Origins and Significance" (vol. 29, no. 3 [September 2011], pp. 20-29) engages the story of the origins and reception-history of "A New Creed," a statement of faith adopted by the United Church of Canada in 1968, in light of contemporary questions about the relation of the United Church of Canada to the apostolic faith and to the church in its ecumenicity. The full text of the article is available online along with the entirety of the issue in which it appears in Flipbook format (click on hyperlink and see pp. 20-29). An excerpt from the article's conclusion appears below:

...[h]as "A New Creed" discouraged corporate confession of faith in the United Church and, in a sense, actually preserved the widespread sense of individual isolation which occasioned its writing?

More troublesome is the way "A New Creed" is being used, by all accounts, within the United Church as a fully adequate replacement for the Apostles' Creed. As Paul Scott Wilson has warned, a willful rejection of the latter means "we would cease to be ecumenical." Publication in The United Methodist Hymnal and occasional use by congregations outside Canada notwithstanding, "A New Creed" is not a catholic statement. Its pervasive use by our denomination may signal, ironically, that within the wider church, we are alone. The future legacy of "A New Creed," and its impact on the United Church, will be determined in large part by our ability to confess and to celebrate both our distinctiveness and our catholicity. (p. 29)

It occurs to me that, mutatis mutandis, the same questions Haughton addresses to the United Church of Canada may be asked of my own Baptist tradition and its contemporary efforts to confess the faith.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Advent, peace, and the temptation of realism

With a few days remaining in Advent, here's a brief devotion I contributed to the Advent devotional book published this year by Ross Grove Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina (see entry for December 5). For what it's worth, it reflects my growing awareness that the realism of Reinhold Niebuhr (often referred to as "Niebuhrian realism") has served as the default philosophical/theological framework that has provided moral justification for American foreign policy since the 1950s, regardless of which party occupies the White House, and the resonance with me of Stanley Hauerwas' reflection in his recent memoir on his mid-career change in perspective on Niebuhr: "I began to think that Niebuhr had seduced me--and "seduction" is exactly the right word--to assume that the way things are is the way things have to be" (Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah's Child: A Theologian's Memoir [Eerdmans, 2010], p. 85).

Advent, peace, and the temptation of realism

A beloved children’s book we’ve been reading with our son since his very first Christmas is Can You Say Peace? by Karen Katz. Besides demonstrating the wonderfully varied ways children around the world say “peace” in their own languages, the book declares that “all around the world today, children will wish for peace, hope for peace, and ask for peace.” The children—and adults—of the world share in common a hope for peace because all people are created in the image of the God whose hope for the world is peace. The children and adults of the world also share in common a hope for peace because the world currently lacks the peace for which God created the world and toward which God is moving the world.

It’s appropriate that in the season of Advent the first week’s focus on hope is followed by the second week’s focus on peace, for the biblical word “peace,” Shalom in Hebrew, sums up the biblical vision of the world for which God and people hope. It’s a vision of the actively harmonious co-existence of all of God’s creatures: lions lying down with lambs, enemies embracing, implements of warfare that destroy life re-fashioned into tools of agriculture that sustain life.

The already-but-not-yet nature of the Christian hope for the world means that our hope for peace is not directed only toward the age to come when Christ returns and God’s reign is fully realized. While it is true that our hope for peace is fully realized in the age to come, we must not succumb to the temptation of realism, the temptation of resignation to the regretful necessity of war and other forms of violence in the present age. The future peace for which we hope is also a present reality and real possibility, for Christ the Prince of Peace has already made possible a different way of life for those who follow him. Following Jesus means taking Jesus’ teachings about non-violence seriously, beating our own swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks even while the powers that be refuse to do so, and working for reconciliation in all our relationships.

As we join God in wishing, hoping, and asking for peace this Advent, let us also join God in working for the peace for which we hope. We won’t have to look very hard to find where God is working for peace: wherever there is war, violence, division, and interpersonal conflict—in short, wherever there is broken relationship—God is already at work to realize the divine hope of peaceful community. Let’s seek to be open to opportunities to join in during this Advent season.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Baptists and Pentecostals Plan Dialogue

The Baptist World Alliance has issued the following press release regarding last week's exploratory conversations between representatives of the Baptist World Alliance and international Pentecostals:
December 19, 2011

Baptists and Pentecostals plan dialogue

Lagos (BWA)-- Representatives of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Pentecostal World Fellowship (PWF) met from December 13-15 to set guidelines for an upcoming international dialogue between Baptists and Pentecostals.

BWA General Secretary Neville Callam, who led the BWA delegation, said he "was pleased that the time had arrived in which Baptists and Pentecostals could meet to consider how they might work together in the spirit of Jesus' prayer for the unity of the church." Callam encouraged participants to think creatively about how, in future years, Baptists and Pentecostals might cooperate more fully in a number of areas, including mission and evangelism.

Cecil Robeck, Jr., representing the PWF and professor of Church History and Ecumenics at Fuller Theological Seminary in the state of California in the United States, co-chaired the planning session with Callam.

The meeting, held at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, in the US, issued a statement with proposals on how a future dialogue may proceed. "The purpose of the dialogue is to examine what it may mean for Baptists and Pentecostals to walk together in step with the Holy Spirit," the statement read. "Our intention is for the dialogue to be holistic in its evaluation of faith and practice."

A series of questions are to be explored in any future talks. "Are there areas on which we already agree? What can we offer to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ? Who are we (BWA - PWF) as we walk together? What does it mean for us to walk together? How do we walk together in the Holy Spirit?"

It is anticipated that teams will meet annually from 2012 through 2014, beginning in Quito, Ecuador, next August. Findings and recommendations for consideration by the two bodies are expected to be presented in 2015.

Members of the BWA delegation were Callam; Fausto Vasconcelos, BWA director of the Division on Mission, Evangelism, and Theological Reflection; Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, senior editor for Christianity Today, and host of the meeting; Bill Brackney, Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor for Christian Thought and Ethics at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada; and Curtis Freeman, research professor of Theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, in the state of North Carolina, in the US.

© Baptist World Alliance 2011

Update: Associated Baptist Press has published an expanded story on the Baptist-Pentecostal conversations: "Baptists, Pentecostals seek common ground"

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Baptist-Pentecostal conversations underway

It's a busy week for ecumenical encounters in the form of bilateral ecumenical dialogue (ecumenical conversations between representatives of two Christian communions at the national or international level). Earlier this week a blog post at Ecclesial Theology called attention to Jane Stranz's blogging from the national bilateral dialogue in France between the Catholic Church and the French union of Lutheran and Reformed churches in which she is involved this week. Yesterday exploratory conversations between representatives of the Baptist World Alliance and international Pentecostals began at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama and will continue through December 15.

The Baptist-Pentecostal preliminary conversations will explore the feasibility of holding a multi-year series of formal conversations between representatives of the two traditions. Representing the Baptist World Alliance are Timothy George, chair of the BWA Commission on Doctrine and Christian Unity and dean of Beeson Divinity School; William Brackney, director of the Acadia Centre for Baptist and Anabaptist Studies in Nova Scotia, Canada; Curtis Freeman, professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke University Divinity School; Fausto Vasconcelos, director of the BWA Division of Mission, Evangelism and Theological Reflection; and Neville Callam, BWA General Secretary. (I do not have access to a complete list of Pentecostal representatives as of this post.)

I invite readers of Ecclesial Theology to pray for the participants in the Baptist-Pentecostal and French Catholic-Lutheran/Reformed conversations this week, that their efforts might further the quest for the unity of Christ's followers for which our Lord prayed.

Update: Pentecostal representative (and Facebook friend) Jean Daniel Plüss has supplied information about the Pentecostal delegation: Dr. Celcil M. Robeck, Professor of Church History and Ecumenism, Fuller Theological Seminary; Dr. Leonard Lovett, Ecumenical Officer of the Church of God in Christ; Dr. Miguel Alvarez, President of SEMISUD Theological Seminary, Quito, Ecuador, Church of God, Cleveland; Bishop Daivd Ramirez, Latin American Field Director of Church of God, Cleveland; and Dr. Jean Daniel Plüss, Chair of European Pentecostal Charismatic Research Association. Absent due to illness: Dr. Byron Klaus, President of Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, MO.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

New publication: encyclopedia articles from Clement to Universalism

My contributor's copies of The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization (4 vols.), ed. George Thomas Kurian (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) arrived in the mail yesterday. I contributed to the encyclopedia seven articles on various patristic and theological topics, as follows:
  • Clement of Alexandria
  • Desert Fathers
  • Dogmatic Theology
  • Gregory of Nyssa
  • Liturgical Theology
  • Patristics
  • Universalism
The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization may be ordered from directly from Wiley-Blackwell or via Amazon.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Blogging a bilateral

In what might well be a first in the history of ecumenical dialogue, Reformed ecumenist Jane Stranz, a minister in the United Reformed Church in the U.K. and the Eglise Réformée de France who until recently headed the language service of the World Council of Churches and now works with the  Fédération Protestante de France in Paris, began blogging (but not live-blogging, it should be noted) today from Day 1 of a national bilateral dialogue in France between the Catholic Church and the French union of Lutheran and Reformed churches (the cover of the report from the previous ten-year series of conversations between the two communions in France appears at left). Check her blog Of life, laughter and liturgy... throughout the week for other posts that may follow.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Ecumenical dialogue clarifies Baptist distinctives

The Religious Herald, the newsjournal of the Baptist General Association of Virginia, has published the feature story "Ecumenical Dialogue Clarifies Baptist Distinctives, Says Gardner-Webb Prof" by managing editor Robert Dilday. The story is based on the Gardner-Webb University press release "GWU Instructor Participates in Expoloratory Conversations between Baptists and Orthodox" but incorporates additional quotations and draws from other stories by Dilday about Baptist World Alliance ecumenical dialogue. Here's the opening of the Religious Herald story:

Ecumenical dialogue clarifies Baptist distinctives, says Gardner-Webb prof
By Robert Dilday, Managing Editor
Thursday, December 08, 2011

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. -- Ecumenical dialogue between Baptists and other Christian traditions clarifies Baptist distinctives rather than dilutes them, says a Gardner-Webb University professor who participated in recent preliminary conversations between Baptists and Orthodox Christians.

“The purpose of ecumenical discussions is not to water down core Baptist doctrines, or to sacrifice congregational autonomy,” said Steven Harmon, adjunct instructor of Christian theology at the Baptist-affiliated school in Boiling Springs, N.C., in a university press statement. “Rather, ecumenists strive to clearly understand what other traditions believe on their own terms, rather than relying our own caricatured images of them. That also involves more clearly understanding those doctrines and practices that make us different, even as we search for the convergences that will help us establish unity. (read more)

The Gardner-Webb press release includes a link to additional quotations from me regarding the nature and purpose of ecumenical dialogue excerpted from two interviews I gave during this year.

UPDATE: Associated Baptist Press has issued the Religious Herald story as an ABP release:

Monday, December 5, 2011

Neville Callam on "Baptists and Church Unity"

My last blog post called attention to a summary of an address on "God's Gift of Unity" by Neville Callam, General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance. The October 2009 issue of The Ecumenical Review, a peer-reviewed journal published by the World Council of Churches, includes an article by Callam on "Baptists and Church Unity" that offers a detailed historical treatment and theological analysis of Baptist perspectives on the modern ecumenical movement and positive Baptist practices of ecumenical engagement. (I am currently working on a chapter on Baptists and ecumenism for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies, and thus far it seems to me that Callam's overview is the best such treatment to date.) Readers of Ecclesial Theology affiliated with institutions whose libraries subscribe to The Ecumenical Review and/or have electronic subscriptions to databases that include Wiley-Blackwell journals will be able to read the full text with accurate pagination (full reference: Neville Callam, "Baptists and Church Unity," The Ecumenical Review 61, no. 3 [October 2009]: 3-4-14). Others can read the text of the article on

This issue of The Ecumenical Review also includes other informative articles about particular Christian traditions and their relation to the ecumenical movement:

by Odair Pedroso Mateus

Baptists and church unity
by Neville Callam

Anglicans and ecumenism
by Sarah Rowland Jones

Friday, December 2, 2011

Baptist World Alliance General Secretary on "God's Gift of Unity"

Neville Callam
The current issue of the Baptist World Alliance magazine Baptist World includes an article summarizing an address on "God's Gift of Unity" delivered by BWA General Secretary Neville Callam at a Christian Unity Dinner during the American Baptist Churches USA biennial meeting in Puerto Rico this summer (vol. 58, no. 4 [October/December 2011], p. 27). Below is an excerpt from the first portion of that article:

Christian Unity is both a gifts given by God and a demand placed upon the church, declared Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Neville Callam.

Callam made these claims while delivering the keynote address at a Christian Unity Dinner during the American Baptist Churches (ABC) USA Biennial meetings in Puerto Rico in June. "It is Christ who unites us and sets us free," he said. But "the church has an abligation to manifest the unity that is given in Christ 'so that the world may believe.'"

It is important, the BWA leader stated, that this unity is visible within the church. "The church's vocation to unity [must] faithfully be pursued" through "honest and deep work to discover convergences in understanding of the Christian faith, life and witness." The church, Callam claimed, should be clear on the points on which there are agreements, where there are differences, "and the perspectives that could serve as a bridge over differences...not regarded as church dividing."

Callam indicated that there are several rubrics through which Christian unity can be viewed--spiritual unity, a unity that all Christians and churches share; conciliar fellowship, where churches are "reunited" to their historical base; koinonia, which is "given and expressed in a common confession of the apostolic faith;" and reconciled diversity, where "churches strive to recognize in themselves and in others the one holy catholic and apostolic church in its fullness," penetrating "behind their differences to discover the space where they co-exist in Christ." (continue reading the full article on p. 27 of the linked PDF copy of the magazine)