Thursday, April 09, 2015

Oliver Crisp on universalism

In his interview with apostate Dale Tuggy, Oliver Crisp says there are NT passages that seem to press in the direction of universal salvation and other passages that seem to press in the other direction. So there's a kind of tension in the NT concerning which set of data you use to privilege the other.  Do you use the universalistic passages as your control to understand particularistic passages or vice versa? What hermeneutical decision is a work there?

That raises a legitimate question of systematic theological method. What's the proper starting-point? By way of response:

i) The way he frames the alternatives is too generic. If you had some passages which prima facie affirm that all will be saved and other passages which prima facie affirm that some will be saved, you could fold the latter into the former. If all are saved, then that includes some. The whole includes the part. 

ii) However, the Biblical descriptions are more specific. They don't merely say that some will be saved, but that some will not be saved. They don't merely affirm the salvation of some, but disaffirm the salvation of others. So that precludes a facile harmonization in which you simply make the universalistic passages as the frame of reference. For Scripture frames the relation in antithetical terms. 

iii) In addition, although passages which specify the eternal damnation of the lost are not especially numerous, there are many more passages which simply deny that everyone will be saved. Even if a universalist could somehow neutralize the passages which explicitly say the lost will suffer eternal damnation, that wouldn't clear the field for universalism–for you still have all the other passages which deny that everyone will be saved–even if they don't use certain adjectives (e.g. "eternal"). 

iv) Finally, universalism poses a much greater threat or challenge to Arminianism (and variations thereof) than Calvinism. Arminians and universalists quote the same passages to prooftext their respective positions. As such, Calvinists don't have to devise new arguments or new interpretations to refute universalism. Rather, they have ready-made arguments. They can redeploy the preexisting arguments they use in response to Arminians.

Calvinists are used to fielding appeals to universalistic passages. Arminians do that to prooftext universal atonement, universal provision, God's universal redemptive desire. So that's part and parcel of the traditional Calvinist/Arminian debate. 

By contrast, Arminians can't very well deploy the universalistic passages to counter a universalist, for a universalist lays claim to the very same turf. Indeed, a universalist enjoys a certain advantage over an Arminian in that regard, for he can accept the universalistic passages as is, whereas the Arminian must introduce some qualifications. 

Arminians can try to parry the universalist appeal by quoting passages about eschatological judgment. But Calvinists occupy the same ground in that respect. So it's very hard for Arminians to find any prooftexts they don't share with one opposing side or another. 


  1. Steve,

    How do you respond to the argument about the Greek words "kolasis" and "aionios"? Universalist say that this words mean "corrective punishment" and that "aionios" does not necessarily mean "forever" or "eternal".