Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Inescapable Love of God

I'm reading, on Alex's recommendation, The Inescapable Love of God by Thomas Talbott.  It is in Talbott's words "a real book, by which I mean that in it I have tried to reach the most demanding audience of all: that of non-educated specialists.  The book is in part an intellectual autobiography , in part the elaboration of an argument, and in part an attempt at persuasive writing." (pi) This is promising start, readable and clear, I know where he's going and what he's trying to achieve.  The book has three sections, Part One "Some Autobiographical Reflections", Part Two "Universal Reconciliation and the New Testament" and Part Three "The Logic of Divine Love."

I've just finished part one.  Positively, I appreciated the candor and directness of his writing. He also weaves theology, church history and personal anecdote together well in a way some American books don't.  However one third through I remain unpersuaded and a little unimpressed.  The essence of Talbott's argument in this section is an appeal to our emotions, which might make us feel one way or the other doesn't advance the argument for universalism.  For example he retells how during summer work he had a horrible boss, saying "And we have, I believe, a parable of the twisted gospel, the message of fear, that I encountered in the churches of my youth" (p36)  In fact the entire section reminded me of the that quote from The West Wing when President Bartlett says an argument he encounters during the show commits the "post hoc ergo propter hoc" fallacy which basically means correlation does not equal causation. Clearly the torture of the Donatists or the execution of Servetus doesn't automatically make Augustine or Calvin's theology wrong, that would have to be shown by theological reasoning not by an emotional appeal.  But this didn't make me unimpressed, I'll employ emotional tactics, rhetoric after all includes both logic and pathos.  It was Talbott's misuse of history that left me unimpressed. Hasn't he read Brown's magisterial biography of Augustine? The Donatists gave as good as they got, sweeping down in raiding parties from the mountains, terrorizing the Catholic coastlands.  Isn't he aware of Calvin's sometimes prickly relations with the civil authorities of Geneva and why doesn't he mention that Servetus would have probably faced the death penalty for his views on the Trinity under the Roman Catholics as well?

I'm worried this doesn't bode for the next two sections while I'm happy for Talbot to argue for God's "expression of love, ... a love that is both all-pervasive and in the end, inescapable" (p14).  I wonder if at some point Talbott will make "love" (what it *really* means) the essential attribute of God.  He then implies traditional theology makes God capricious but I think this is both a misrepresentation of  Augustine, Calvin, Edwards etc and a reading back into the doctrine of God by Talbott. I was also disappointed by his glib disposal of so-called "hyper-Calvinism' (p6-7) which puts him outside of traditional Reformed theology.  But he writes well and I look forward to the next two sections.