Friday, September 24, 2010

How Evangelical is Universalism? A brief review of 'The Evangelical Universalist'

The Evangelical Universalist is by Gregory MacDonald, which is a puesdoynom for Robin Parry, who is also the author of Worshipping Trinity.  In many ways the book covers much of the same territory as Talbott's The Inescapable Love of God (overall argument and then key passages)  but without the negative straw-man critique, a more consciously biblical approach and I think a more coherently argued case.  However Parry is attempting two things at once and only pulls off one of them.  He is first and foremost making the biblical case for Universalism, so he looks at the larger argument across Scripture, key passages and then how a Universalist reading of Revelation makes the best sense.  Although I found the arguments unconvincing, he made a stirling effort at presenting the biblical evidence for Universalism. (This is essentially because I would qualify the "all" passages differently, plot the trajectory of the biblical meta-narrative with more of an emphasis on glory and sin, have a slightly different definition of God and be comfortable with predestination as a doctrine.)

Parry's second task is to self-consciously make the "evangelical" (MacDonald, 6) case for Universalism.  He asks "could a Christian theology that is grounded in the Bible be universalist?" (MacDonald, 34)  Here Parry stumbles more noticeably, it's far from clear if Universalism sits in evangelical Christian theology.  Clearly if one accepts unique salvation through Christ and a miraculous triune Godhead your an orthodox Christian.  If Universalism were ever to deny these things it couldn't be regarded as Christian (I'm curious now about Parry's other book.) but Evangelicalism draws a tighter circle.  Parry doesn't provide a definition so let me set some parameters although there is admittedly no definitive definition for this rather disparate movement.  Evangelism is both something doctrinal (bible, salvation, activity) and something observable through history (flowing out of the Reformation via the Puritans).  Alex was telling me that last century there was a groundswell of Universalists who sadly became Unitarians.  Parry it seems wants to carve out a place for Universalism not just within orthodoxy (by saying everyone will be saved, but only through faith in Jesus (MacDonald, 47)) but deeper within evangelicalism. For example unlike Talbott who attempts a more philosophical approach, Parry deliberately makes a biblical case linked carefully into a wider biblical meta-narrative.

Although I think this is only the beginning of a Universalist movement to make it a mainstream Christian idea, I think ultimately too much doctrine is changed by the premise of everyone being saved for Universalism to ever be regarded as Evangelical or even mainstream.  While I acknowledge the evangelical movement is a giant and fragmented tent, the Universalist changes to hermeneutics, doctrine of God, sin, predestination, judgement and eschatology will be too great for the Evangelical movement to sallow. Being a fan of systematic theology I find these changes very worrying and can already see the early signs of cracking in both Talbott and Parry's work.  In conclusion the lineup of famous Universalists from Parry's new book is very telling.  There aren't many Evangelical heroes in that list!

[My holidays are finishing soon so this will be my last post on universalism for a while, however I invite my readers to comment in this particular thread on the place of Universalism in Christian theology (and the possible future of universalism), but not get involved at this stage in verse-trench-warfare.]