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Bauckham on Christian Universalism

For those who haven’t seen it: here is a great essay by Richard Bauckham on the history of Universalism in the Christian Church here: Universalism: a historical survey. Baukham is the author of several books including: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (2006), God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (1998), The Theology of the Book of Revelation (1993) and Bible and Ecology (2010). He says of himself: “Until 2007 I was Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. I retired early in order to concentrate on research and writing, and moved to Cambridge.”

On the question of whether Origen's Universalism was condemned by the 5th Ecumenical Council he says:

Origen's universalism was involved in the group of doctrines known as 'Origenism', about which there were long controversies in the East. A Council at Constantinople in 543 condemned a list of Origenist errors including Apokatastasis, but whether this condemnation was endorsed by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553) seems in doubt. At any rate the condemnation of Origenism discredited universalism in the theological tradition of the East. In the West, not only Origen's heretical reputation but also Augustine's enormous influence ensured that the Augustinian version of the doctrine of hell prevailed almost without question for many centuries. During the Middle Ages universalism is found only in the strongly Platonic system of John Scotus Erigena (dc 877) and in a few of the more pantheistic thinkers in the mystical tradition, for whom the divine spark in every man must return to its source in God.

Concerning 20th Century Universalism, he writes:

The transition from Victorian to more modern forms of universalism is marked by some changes of which the most important concerns exegesis. Almost all universalists before this century thought it necessary to argue for a universalist interpretation of those texts of the NT which seem to teach eternal punishment or final condemnation, and the standard approach to such texts was to deny the everlasting or final character of the punishment. Texts such as Matthew 25: 46 or even Revelation 14: 10f. were held to refer to a very long but limited period of torment in hell, from which the sinner will eventually emerge to salvation. The nineteenth-century debates always included extensive exegetical discussions, especially over the meaning of aionios. In this century, however, exegesis has turned decisively against the universalist case. Few would now doubt that many NT texts clearly teach a final division of mankind into saved and lost, and the most that universalists now commonly claim is that alongside these texts there are others which hold out a universal hope (e.g. Eph. 1: 10; Col. 1: 20).

There are two ways of dealing with this situation. One is a new form of exegesis of the texts about final condemnation, which acknowledges the note of finality but sees these texts as threats rather than predictions. A threat need not be carried out. This, as we shall see, is the approach adopted by the most persuasive of modern universalists.

The second approach to the exegetical problem is simply to disagree with the NT writers' teaching about a final division of mankind, which can be said to be merely taken over from their contemporary Jewish environment, while the texts which could be held to support universalism represent a deeper insight into the meaning of God's revelation in Christ. Here the doctrinal authority of the Bible is understood much more flexibly than by most nineteenth-century universalists. C. W. Emmet's essay, 'The Bible and Hell' (1917), is something of a landmark. After a survey of the NT material, showing that final division and judgment are clearly taught and hesitating to find full universalism even in Ephesians and Colossians, Emmet declares: ‘It is best in fact to admit quite frankly that any view of the future destiny of [unbelievers] which is to be tolerable to us today must go beyond the explicit teaching of the New Testament.... [This] does not really give us what we want, and it only leads to insincerity if we try to satisfy ourselves by artificial explanations of its language. And we are in the end on surer ground when as Christians we claim the right to go beyond the letter, since we do so under the irresistible leading of the moral principles of the New Testament and of Christ Himself.'

Thus the modern universalist is no longer bound to the letter of the NT; he can base his doctrine on the spirit of NT teaching about the love of God. The same principle can even be extended to the teaching of the historical Jesus, though some have been able to persuade themselves that the Gospel texts about final judgment are not in any case authentic words of Jesus.

Of course, to me what is important here is Bauckham’s point that the exegetical basis of arguments for universalism fail.

But, please (as I always say),
read the whole thing, which (once again) can be found here: Universalism: a historical survey. It has lots of footnotes, as well.

For more of Dr. Bauckham’s writings, check out his web site here:
Richard Bauckham - Biblical Scholar and Theologian.

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