Saturday, May 22, 2004

The Inescapable Love of God

Now let's examine Thomas Talbott's The Inescapable Love of God. His treatment is quite different than Adams'—more popular, more expository, more confrontational. I can imagine the receptive swept away by his arguments, and the uninitiated left speechless.

It is striking that although Talbott and Adams have both been publishing articles on universalism for a number of years, and wrote both books in the same year, that they never quote each other—not even once. One would think that if the argument were so clear and compelling, there would be some measure of agreement on what form such an argument should take.

Talbott opens his book with an autobiographical section explaining how he arrived at his belief in universalism. I ordinarily avoid ad hominem judgments, but since Talbot includes this material as part of his overcall case, it calls for some comment.

He explains how he grew up in a large, loving, tight-knit Christian home, and attended a fundamentalist church. He will return to his familial experience time and time again. This is, for him, a principal point of reference. He says,
"I knew instinctively that I could never worship a God who is less kind, less merciful, less loving that my own parents…And I could not imagine my parents refusing to will the good for anyone…There were no favorites, period; we were all equal objects of our parents love and equally precious to them. So it is perhaps not surprising that I should have found myself unable to worship a God who, unlike my parents, was quite prepared to play favorites" (8-9).
I'll have more to say about this later on, just as Talbott will have more to say about this later on. But for now I'll confine myself to the following observations:
i) Why should I or anyone else accord canonical status to Talbott's home-life?
ii) Talbott never bothers to compare and contrast his experience with the Biblical model of the family. Hebrew culture was a tribal culture and a shame culture. They had a sense of corporate responsibility. Misbehavior by one member of the clan brought dishonor on the entire clan (cf. Gen 34; Judges 20; 2 Sam 13; 21). Parents could have incorrigible teenagers executed for insubordination (Exod 12:15; Lev 20:9; Deut 17:12; 21:18-21). Moses ordered the faithful Levites to execute their faithless kinsmen (Exod 32).

Talbott, by contrast, operates with a Mafia ethic: my son—right or wrong. He treats it as axiomatic that a grown child can never cross a line of no return. He treats it as self-evident that parental duty is absolute in its unconditional allegiance to any family member.

Talbott never defends his Mafia ethic. He never discusses the Biblical theology of the family. He simply takes his personal experience for granted as the norm in all other matters.
iii) But even if, for the sake of argument, we play along with his Mafia ethic, it is easy to imagine situations that force a choice, for family loyalty is no criterion when one family member abuses another. Suppose a brother rapes a sister? Suppose an older brother is a drug dealer, and tries to recruit his younger brother? The question is how you protect one family member against another? If you are merciful and forgiving to an impenitent victimizer, you are unloving, unjust, and unmerciful to the victim.
iv) One of the occupational hazards of having had a sheltered and caring Christian upbringing is that it can foster a sense of spiritual entitlement and blind you to the breadth and depth of human depravity, beginning with your own. Talbott acts like the spiritual equivalent of a spoiled rich kid who's always had it easy and feels deserving of his lavish standard of living.

And, of course, that's what universalism is all about. In universalism, no one is ever lost.
So a universalist has no sense of what it means to be saved.

As Talbott makes abundantly clear, on more than one occasion, he will only believe in God on his terms, or not at all. Is that supposed to be some sort of threat? "God, if there is a God, I double dare you to be just what I want to you be, otherwise I'll have nothing to do with you!"

To polish off this section, Talbott takes the side of Bertrand Russell in attributing Christian persecution to belief in hell. And what are we to make of that accusation? The obvious thing to be said is that persecution respects no creed but its own, whether the creed be religious or irreligious, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Marxist, Maoist, Nazi, or what have you.

The OT had holy war. The OT classified some religious offenses as capital crimes. Does Talbott affirm or deny the inspiration of the OT? One thing is for sure, Jesus and the apostles affirmed its full inspiration.

Talbott says that belief in hell "has had disastrous consequences in the life of the church" (30). But as a matter of church history, churches that deny the doctrine of hell are dead or dying denominations. Like Talbott, they may begin by paying lip-service to a residuum of evangelical piety and quaint liturgy, but ere long they become Christ-denying denominations, draped in musty cobwebs, the haunt of screech owls and other creatures of the night.

In the next chapter, he accuses Augustine and Calvin of indulging in ad hoc interpretations of 1 Tim 2:4 and Ezk 33:11 (49-52). And I'll grant that their reading savors of special pleading. But it's a simple matter to redress these passing lapses.

In 1 Tim 2:4 and like passages, we need to ask ourselves who Paul's opponents were. Paul indicates that his opponents were the Judaizers who limited salvation to Jewish bloodlines (1 Tim 1:4; Tit 1:10,14; 3:9). In that event, Paul's point is that salvation is not a birthright, is not a matter of Jewish pedigree.

As to Ezk 33:11, this was addressed to backslidden Israel. Israel does not stand for the world. Indeed, Israel's calling was to stand apart from the world. Her sin was when she fell in with her pagan neighbors.

In the next chapter, Talbott treats the witness of Paul as the leading evidence of universalism. Talbott has a habit of repeating himself and jumping back and forth between one argument and another, so let us cite one line of argument:
"To all appearances, Paul here [Rom 5:18] identifies one 'all'—that is, all human beings—and makes two distinct but parallel statements about that one 'all'; and to all appearances, the second of these statements implies that all human beings shall receive 'justification and life' and hence shall eventually be reconciled to God" (56-57).

"Every time he uses 'all' in the context of some theological discourse, he seems to have in mind a clear reference class, stated or unstated, and he refers distributively to every member of that class" (58).

"This 'all' (Rom 3:23) may not include dogs and birds and unfallen angels…but it does include all the descendants of Adam" (59).

"In each of these texts, we encounter a contrast between two universal statements, and in each case the first 'all' seems to determine the scope of the second" (59).

"Following Charles Hodge, a number of commentators have sought to avoid the clear universalistic thrust of Rom 5:18…by pointing to at least one exception—namely the man Jesus…But a little reflection will reveal that this entire line of reasoning is spurious because it attributes an unwarranted theological significance to a perfectly familiar way of talking…In most contexts I would have no need to state the…obvious exceptions" (60-61).

"If anything, the second 'all' of 1 Cor 15:22 is less restrictive than the first; for in the following verses Paul immediately expands the second 'all'" (64).

Now, let's go back and see where Talbott goes wrong. He goes wrong in two respects. Actually, we could readily accept his distinctions, but apply them quite differently.

To begin with, he rightly draws attention to the use of parallelism in Paul's argument. So what about parallelism? Does that ring a bell? Any precedent for that mode of argument? This is typically Jewish. It goes back to the dialectical rhetoric of OT ethical discourse. It is pervasive in the Book of Proverbs, but also a regular feature of the Psalter, and scattered throughout the whole of the OT.

As a rabbi and lifelong student of the OT, Paul was steeped and drilled in this method of reasoning. In some cases, the pairings are synonymous, in other cases antonymous. But what we need to keep in mind for the moment is that this is, after all, just a rhetorical device. In balancing one party off against each other, either by way of comparison or contrast, we need to avoid a wooden handling of literary conventions.

Many simple believers make this mistake when they come to Proverbs. Because of the absolute form of the statement or stated antithesis, they are inflexible in their expectation of what is taught.

The other thing we need to be clear on is the nature of a universal quantifier ("every," "all"). Talbott sometimes draws the right distinctions, but then proceeds to slip and slide and swing back and forth between clarity and confusion.

On the one hand, he correctly says that a universal quantifier designates a general reference class. This is very important to fix in our minds. "All" doesn't denote "everyone" or "everything" whatsoever, but all of something in particular, all the members of a given class of individuals.

The mere use of the quantifier does not spell out the concrete range of reference. It tells us "that" all of such-and-such are covered, but not "what" all are covered. That is a blank to be pencilled in by the surrounding context. Taken by itself, the quantifier is simply neutral on the specific scope of the claim.

This is clear from his own caveats. He himself denies that "all" denotes dogs and birds and angels. Notice, though, that the mere use of the word "all" does not discriminate between one class and another. This is supplied by the context, not the quantifier.

But if the quantifier doesn't tell you what is excluded, neither then does it tell you what is included. By itself, the quantifier doesn't favor any particular position, whether Arminian, Augustinian, and universalist.

Many people seem to think that the quantifier has a maximal default setting. The presumption of an unrestricted domain can only be overcome if the text or context supplies specific lines of demarcation. They therefore accuse the Calvinist of tampering with the plain sense of Scripture.

But this is muddle-headed. Taken by itself, the quantifier merely flags a general, unspecified class. You need to plug in other words from the text or context to fill in and delimit the concrete content.

Everyone does this. The Calvinist does it, but so does the Arminian or Lutheran or Roman Catholic or universalist.

But having rightly stated and rightly applied the distinction in some instances, Talbott then goes back on his own words and confuses the issue. On the one hand, he informs us that the first use of the quantifier determines the scope of its second occurrence. The first class is coextensive with the second.

On the other hand, he informs us that, in 1 Cor 15:22, the second "all" is more expansive than the first. And he also admits that, as a matter of idiomatic usage, folks often indulge in generalities that allow for unstated exceptions. Indeed, he himself makes exceptions when he exempts dogs and birds and unfallen angels.

By his own definition, admission, and inconsistent practice, the universal quantifier does not control the scope of the parties in question. Hence, his leading line of evidence dribbles away into nothingness. On this point, the main difference is that the Calvinist is consistent, where the universalist is inconstant, in theological method.

The basic distinction drawn in these Pauline parallels is between the fate of Adamites and the fate of Christians. Whether the second class is conterminous with the first, or else a subset thereof, must be determined by other considerations—and to two other considerations in particular: (i) the doctrine of reprobation and (ii) the doctrine of final judgment.

Now, it may be objected that my own distinctions prove too much. For if the quantifier is that indeterminate, then I cannot prove the universality of sin. This charge is both true and false. It cannot be proven by the quantifier alone. But Paul has many other ways, besides the quantifier, to establish the universality of sin. Just reread Rom 1-3. And the fact that all men are descended from Adam is a presupposition of his argument, deriving from the creation account (Gen 1-2).

But although that breaks the back of his case, Talbott has a few subsidiary arguments. He appeals to "all Israel" in Rom 11:25-26. But one problem with this appeal is that "all Israel" is an idiomatic phrase that Paul has lifted from OT usage. And if you study the Septuagintal occurrences you will see that it can stand for representative units: elders, chieftains, tribes, or some other part/whole relation, rather than every member of the clan (e.g., 1 Chron 9:1; 12:38; 21:5; 2 Chron 1:2; 10:16-17, LXX). The solution to the problem of Jewish unbelief is to be found, not in universalism, but double predestination.

Second, Talbott appeals to passages such as 1 Cor 15:28, Phil 2:10-11 & Col 1:20, which talk about the subjection and confession of God's enemies, as evidence of universal reconciliation. But the problems with this appeal are several:
i) The imagery is taken from OT warfare. But when a people were conquered by the Egyptians or Assyrians or Babylonians, there was no cultural expectation that captives would love their captors, or vice versa. Did the Jews love life under Roman occupation and domination?
All that Talbott has done is to define the triumph of good over evil as universalism draws the lines, then read that back into his prooftexts, in utter disregard for their historical horizon. Because of his own charmed existence he can fantasize about the reaction of subjugated people without respect to their actual experience.
ii) Talbott is very selective in what he chooses to quote. He cites Phil 2:10-11, but ignores Phil 3:18-19: "Many walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction." He cites Col 1:20, but ignores Col 1:23: "If you remain in the faith," and Col 2:15: "He put them to open shame." He cites Isa 45:23 (69), but ignores Isa 45:24: "Everyone who was incensed against the Lord shall come to him and be ashamed."
iii) Indeed, his prooftexts ought to be correlated with the tradition of taunt-songs in Scripture (e.g., Col 2:15; Ps 2:4; Isa 14; Ezk 28), where the defeated forces are demeaned and exposed to public humiliation.
iv) In Isaiah, general statements of final vindication can stand right beside specific statements of final judgment (cf. 66:23-24). Indeed, the two go together. The faithful are vindicated by the subjugation of the faithless—a pervasive theme in the Book of Revelation.

And there is something else that Talbott leaves out of account. Paul's gospel was a cross-centered and Christ-centered Gospel. But when Talbott denies penal substitution, when Talbott denies retributive justice, and when he instead says that God is obliged to save everyone as a parental duty, then what Talbott is really telling us is not that everyone is saved by the cross of Christ, but that no one is saved by the cross of Christ. The cross of Christ is simply and wholly unnecessary.

Finally, Talbott invokes the hardening of Pharaoh, which he glosses as a case of God giving him the courage to sin so that he would perceive his own sinfulness (74-75). But this is devoid of textual warrant. God hardens Pharaoh as a witness to the Egyptians (Exod 7:5; 14:17-18). Pharaoh is just a pawn on God's chessboard.

If chapter 5 represents his best case for universalism, chapter 6 represents his major case against the opposing position. One of the most striking features of this chapter is the thinness of his coverage. He seems to have not the slightest idea of what-all the traditional prooftexts are for the doctrine of hell. No doubt that makes it much easier for him to be a universalist.

Much of what little Talbott does address in chapter 6 is simply beside the point, and fails to establish his own position. Although everlasting punishment would disprove universalism, it isn't necessary to prove everlasting punishment to disprove universalism. On this score, all that is necessary to disprove universalism are passages clearly affirming an eschatological judgment resulting in two final, divergent destinies. The passages don't have to say in detail what happens to both parties. They only have to say that, in the end, everyone will not be saved. Although an Augustinian will affirm and defend the stronger thesis (everlasting torment), this is not the place in which he needs to do so, for the weaker thesis is sufficient to falsify universalism.

Now Talbott's argument falls short on a couple of counts: (i) he fails even to address all the verses that specify the endless duration of torment (e.g., Mk 9:43,48; Rev 14:11), and, what is more, (ii) he fails to address the many verses that lay out two divergent and permanent destinies. These can be found both in the OT and NT.

Talbott begins by faulting Leon Morris for, as he sees it, arbitrarily blunting the scope of Jn 12:32 (82). But there are several reasons why Morris might wish to do so:
i) Morris wrote a whole book on The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment.
ii) In context, Jn 12:32 has reference to the inclusion of the Gentiles. Reference to a people-group does not necessarily cover every single member thereof.
iii) The Fourth Gospel alternates between themes of salvation and judgment. The advent of Christ is a decisive and divisive event, by turns redemptive and damnatory.
iv) There is, indeed, a predestinarian and eschatological dualism running the length of the Fourth Gospel. (We find the same thing in yet another Johannine writing—the Apocalypse. )This is documented in the magisterial commentary on John by Ramsey Michaels.

Turning to the parable of the sheep and goats (Mt 25), Talbott says that these stories were intended to awaken the spiritual imagination rather than providing final answers to theological questions (84). But this is, on the face of it, a false dichotomy, and he offers no supporting argument to prove otherwise.

He next says that the parabolic details are not to be taken literally (85). That is true, but irrelevant:
i) Not all parabolic details are picturesque details. There is nothing inherently figurative about time-markers and the nouns they modify (eternal life, eternal punishment). These are not metaphors, like the sheep and the goats. They don't stand for anything.
ii) Not all picturesque details are incidental details. Even a metaphor has a literal referent, and some metaphors are not merely window-dressing, but vehicles of moral and doctrinal significance.
iii) How can a universalist be so very literal about his own prooftexts, but so figurative about opposing prooftexts? Heaven is literal, but hell is figurative; reconciliation is real, but separation is picturesque.

Talbott then tries to limit the didactic content of the parable to the "main point" (85). But every parable is not reducible to a single point." Parables vary in their length and complexity.

Talbot says that "the issue of temporal duration is not at issue here and not relevant to the point of the parable" (90).
i) But the duration of the punishment is highly relevant in a parable on the last judgment, especially at a time when conditional immortality was a live option in some Jewish circles (e.g., Mt 22:23ff.; Acts 23:8).
ii) Mt 25:46 is not the only passage that has a divergent destiny of parallel duration. For this has its OT counterpart in Dan 12:2.

Talbott glosses the adjective to mean that "both the fire and the punishment are eternal in the sense that they have their causal source in the eternal God himself" (88). By way of reply,
i) Talbott offers no argument from Greek syntax or semantics to demonstrate that the adjective refers to the subject of the action (God) rather than the object of the action (the damned). When Isa 1:18 says that God will wash Israel whiter than snow, are we to infer that the color white is a divine attribute?
ii) Let's plug his convoluted redefinition back into the passage and paraphrase it accordingly: "these will go away into a form of punishment that has its causal source in the eternal God."

What sort of sense does that make? Is that how any of the Greek Fathers construed the passage?

Moreover, it doesn't sound like much of a threat. If duration has nothing to do with the punishment, then surely human tormentors have devised methods of torture that are at least a severe, if not more so. Yet Christ says that we have more to fear from God than man (Mt 10:28).

In fact, Talbott doesn't appear to have much confidence in his own rendering, for he offers a fallback definition: "both in the sense that its causal source lies in the eternal God himself and in the sense that its corrective effects last forever."

Okay, let's plug this roundabout redefinition back into the passage and paraphrase it accordingly: "these will go away into a form of punishment whose corrective effects last forever."

It's amazing how much meaning Talbott can extract from one temporal adjective. But he can only unpack that much meaning because he overstuffed the word in the first place. This has nothing to do with the dictionary definition of the word.

Talbott justifies his rendering by his gloss on Jude 7. But this is merely to prop up one misinterpretation with another. The point in Jude is that temporal punishment is a type and token of eschatological punishment, and in Biblical typology the antitype intensifies the type. Talbott further disregards the corroborative evidence of Jude 13.

Talbott says that "eternal" is a qualitative rather than quantitative term, based on Jn 17:3.
By way of reply:
i) This commits an elementary semantic fallacy by investing one word with the cumulative content of all the surrounding words. Yes, there's more to the Johannine doctrine of eternal life than sheer duration, but that is derived from his whole teaching, and not from isolated word-studies.
ii) To say that there's more to it than mere duration is not to say that there's less to it.
iii) In any event, it is illicit to map Johannine usage back onto non-Johannine usage.
iv) To describe annihilation as "everlasting" is nonsensical. A time-marker is a property of an existent, not a nonentity. Even an effect is only an effect of something. It must inhere in something—take an object.
v) If the NT writers intended to teach the annihilation of the wicked, they would just say that the damned are "destroyed," and leave it at that.

On the next page, Talbot says that the Christian hope of immortality turns, not on the meaning of "eternal," but on the doctrine of the Resurrection (Jn 6:40). But unless the glorified body is eternal, it is not immortal.

Talbott cites William Barclay as saying that "in all of Greek secular literature, kolasis is never used of anything but remedial punishment" (91).

But that doesn't automatically mean that "kolasis" is a technical term for remedial punishment. And even if it did, isn't NT and LXX usage more pertinent at this point? When, for example, Jeremiah talks about the punitive measures which his enemies to plotting to take against him (Jer 18:20, LXX), are we to view this as remedial therapy? That is assuredly not how Jeremiah understood it! His creative lexicography is also at odds with 1 Jn 4:18, where punishment (kolasis) is productive of fear rather than love.

Moving onto 2 Thes 1:9, Talbott takes issue with the traditional rendering of the preposition (apo=away from). But as one scholar explains:
A second reason for thinking that “destruction” refers to the end of any prospect of a meaningful relationship with God is that Paul expands the concept of “destruction” with just this idea: People are “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess. 1:9b). This tniv translation, it must be pointed out, reflects a key decision about the meaning of the Greek preposition apo that occurs at the beginning of the phrase. The tniv translators, following most commentators, take the preposition to denote separation and thus translate as “shut out from.” To be sure, other options are possible; it could denote source (“destruction that comes from the presence of the Lord”), cause (“destruction because of, or through, the presence of the Lord”), or even time (“destruction when the Lord comes”). But apo is most often used in the New Testament in the sense of separation. Confirming this meaning is the almost certain dependence of Paul on Isaiah 2:10–11. . . . Three times in this passage, the wicked are said to hide “from the dread of the Lord and the splendor of his majesty.” The wording of the lxx is almost identical in each case to 2 Thessalonians 1:9 (the only difference is that Paul drops phobos, translated “dread” in the niv). The point, then, is this: Paul elaborates the meaning of “eternal destruction” with the idea of being separated from the presence of God. Not only does this suggest that our interpretation of “destruction” is on the right track; it also implies that the people who are the objects of destruction continue to exist in some form. It makes little sense to describe people who have been annihilated as being separate from the presence of God. D. Moo, “Paul on Hell,” in Hell under Fire (Zondervan 2004), 106–8.

He also glosses "just penalty" in terms of penance and purgatory. But he can only justify his interpretation with the following disclaimer:
"It is not that every biblical writer saw clearly the deeper meaning in the symbols of divine judgment, or even that Paul saw this clearly all of the time…And though the author of this letter, particularly if it were someone other than Paul, may not have had the idea of purification explicitly in mind at the time of writing, that is irrelevant" (98).
Is it now? This last-ditch disclaimer is a backhanded admission that Talbott has given up trying to do serious exegesis. By waiving aside original intent, Talbott is making the verse say something that the author didn't mean it to say. And he would only resort to this desperate and duplicitous expedient if the verse were irreconcilable with his own position.

Everyone understands that fire is a flexible metaphor that can either signify cleansing or destruction. Which is operative is a question of context. It is illicit to say that because a given metaphor is flexible, we can choose or substitute any import we please in studied defiance of the setting or original intent.

In 2 Thes 1:9, the image of punitive fire goes back to Isa 66:15. That this does not imply annihilation is clear from 66:24: "their worm will not die, nor their fire be quenched."

Commenting on the unpardonable sin (Mt 12:31-32), Talbott once again tries to turn this into a prooftext for penance and Purgatory. But, of course, the key to the passage lies not in the abstract meaning of the verb, but in its negation and in the extension of that negation to the afterlife. It does not open up the possibility that the debt will be paid off at a future date. To the contrary, it expressly forecloses that option.

In chapter 7, Talbott begins by scattering a number of verses to prove the universality of divine love: 2 Tim 2:4; Mt 5:43-48; 18:14; Rom 2:11; Eph 6:9; Col 3:25; Acts 10:34; 2 Pet 3:9.

One is struck, first of all, by the random quality of the evidence. Is this really the best he can cobble together? Apparently so.

I've already dealt with 2 Tim 2:4. For the rest:

i) Mt 5:43-48. Two points:
a) Not everything that holds true in the church age holds true in the world to come. In this life, the wheat and the tares share a common field and are so ingrown that one cannot dig up the tares without uprooting the wheat. But there will be an end-time harvest and winnowing process (Mt 13:24-30,36-43).
b) By that same token, God sends his sun and rain on the wheat and tares alike, but for the benefit of the wheat, and not the weeds.
ii) Mt 18:14. Talbott glosses this to mean that "God is unwilling that a single child (and hence that a single human being who ever was a child) should perish." But this subverts and perverts the proper force of the passage. In dominical usage, "children" do not stand for anyone and everyone. Children are set over against child-abusers, who are the objects of divine judgment (18:6). And children symbolize believers, not unbelievers.
iii) Rom 2:11. God is a just judge. No one will get worse than he deserves. But some get better. Equal treatment presupposes equal claims. No one has a claim on divine mercy. Mercy, unlike justice, is inherently inequitable. The standard of judgment is quite different from the character of salvation, just as law and grace differ in kind.
iv) Acts 10:34. The passage is concerned with the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Gospel. But that represents a change in the status quo. It presupposes the prior exclusion of most Gentiles. So Talbott's appeal either proves too much or too little.
2 Pet 2:9. Two points:
a) Talbott misses the OT background. As one commentator—not a Calvinist— observes,
"God's patience with his own people, delaying the final judgment to give them the opportunity of repentance, provides at least a partial answer to the problem of eschatological delay…The author remains close to his Jewish source, for in Jewish thought it was usually for the sake of the repentance of his own people that God delayed judgment. Here it is for the sake of the repentance of 2 Peter's Christian readers," R. Bauckham, Word Biblical Commentary: Jude, 2 Peter (Word 1983), 312-313.
b) Let us also not overlook the fact that Peter has a doctrine of reprobation, in tandem with his doctrine of election (1 Pet 2:8-9).

Talbott goes on to say,
"It is hard to avoid the conclusion that those Christians who would restrict God's love and mercy to a chosen few really have no clear idea of what to do with 1 Jn 4:8,16…If this expresses a truth about the essence of God, then it is logically impossible that the person who is God should fail to love someone" (113).
By way of reply:
i) At most, this would not be a question of what is logically impossible, but ethically or ontologically impossible.
ii) By this "logic," if a man is naturally loving, then he must make love to every woman he meets. Is Talbott a loving or unloving man? If loving, is he a polygamist? Does he maintain a harem?
After all, it's not enough, on Talbott's score, to be merely loving. You must be equally loving.
iii) Isn't marital love an exclusive love? And isn't marital love an exemplum of divine love (Isa 54; Ezk 16; Hosea; Eph 5; Rev 19-22)?.
iv) If essential love means that God must love everyone, then does essential omnipotence mean that God must do everything?
v) Isn't there a logical relationship between loving good and hating evil, or loving evil and hating good? If we love one thing, is it not natural to hate its antithesis?
vi) In the Johannine epistles, love is a closed circle: the Trinity loves itself, the Trinity loves the elect, the elect love each other, the elect love the Trinity. It is not a love that breaks out of the exclusive circle. It is not love of the world. Love of the world is antithetical to Johannine love.
vii) Talbott deliberately omits the oft-repeated faith-condition, as well as the emphatic dualism, in 1 John.
If Talbott is going to stake his claim in the Johannine epistles, then he has chosen hardpan for planting the seeds of universalism.

Talbott also tries to sneak Heb 12:29 into his brief, as though that were a prooftext for universalism: "If God is love and his purifying love, like a consuming fire (see Heb 12:29), destroys all that is false within us…" (118). Now Talbott has done nothing whatsoever to lay the foundation for this equation.

I assume he brings in Heb 12 by this sideways maneuver because it is a powerful passage of judgment, and so he has to do something with it to deflect its force. And he is evidently unable to presents a serious exegetical finding. And so he slips it in under the cover of a common metaphor, with the innuendo that if one writer writes about fire, and another writer writes about fire, then they both mean the same thing, and they both mean just what the universalist means. Of course, this inferential chain breaks down at so many points that it's hardly surprising if Talbott declined to lay out, much less weld together, each little link. But if he has so little confidence in his own argument, why should we have any higher confidence?

In addition, to foist a universalistic spin on the eschatological threats in the Book of Hebrews ill-accords with the author's a fortiori style of argument, in which the postmortem punishment awaiting unbelievers is even more unremitting than their premortem punishment.

Moving on to Mal 1:1, Talbott regards the love/hate language as anthropomorphic. I agree with him. However, it is a vivid way of expressing election and reprobation, which are quite literal.

Talbott tries to dodge this by laying stress on the reconciliation of the two brothers. But that's beside the point. Talbott is reading narrative theology against the grain of the intertextual commentary supplied by Malachi and Paul.

To say that "the remnant is always a pledge on behalf of the whole" (121) suffers from a fatal equivocation. There is a collective remnant distributively represented in every generation. But that is not identical with the entire mass of humanity. As one theologian has said, commenting on Isa 6:9-13,
"He has the promise of a remnant, a remnant which will in turn be eaten away, but of which the holy seed shall be the substance. In other words, the real object here is the remnant and that holy seed. But precisely for the sake of the salvation of that holy seed the preaching of Isaiah must serve for the blinding and hardening of the reprobate shell. If you keep in mind the organic idea, you will understand this very well. There come times in Israel's history when the ungodly segment of the nation gets the power and has the upper hand; times when it becomes well-nigh impossible for the elect kernel to exist within reprobate shell. In such times judgement must come upon Israel: Israel must be eaten away, precisely in order to save it from the domination of the ungodly. However, if this is to happen, if a portion of that reprobate shell is to fall away, then it must first become ripe for judgment. And Isaiah's preaching must serve exactly to accomplish that ripening process. Then the tenth part will be preserved, and the remnant of which the holy seed shall be the substance," H. Hoeksema, Believers & Their Seed (RFPA, 1977), 129-30.
Talbott tries to reduce Rom 9-11 to an ad hominem debate over Jewish exclusivity. But the problem in Rom 9-11 is not the inclusion of the Gentiles, but the exclusion of the Jews. It is the problem of Jewish unbelief. How could God's chosen people reject God's chosen Messiah? Does their rejection of him imply his reject of them? And how does that comport with his promises to Israel? Has God gone back on his word? That's the problem. And Paul's answer is found in double-predestination, which he traces all the way back through the prophets and the patriarchs. There is an inner elect.

Talbott makes the very odd statement that Exod 33:19 "is an idiomatic expression that stresses not the indeterminacy of God's mercy, as some Augustinians have supposed, but rather its intensity and assuredness" (126).

To begin with, what Augustinian ever construed it along indeterminist lines? Does Talbott know what he's talking about? The question is not whether it's determinate, but whether it's discriminate rather than indiscriminate. Does God enjoy sovereign discretion over the objects of mercy. Paul says "yes," Talbott says "no."

In the next chapter, Talbott tries to generate the paradox of exclusivism. God cannot love me unless he loves my loved ones, and I cannot love God unless he loves my loves ones, otherwise I'd be torn in two opposing directions.

This calls for several comments:
i) It reeks of emotional blackmail. A sinner is hardly in a position to extort concessions from God, as though he'd be doing God a big favor by allowing God to love and save him. This is just another instance of Talbott's petulant and prideful self-absorption.
ii) There is some truth to what he says, but its logic is reversible. Sometimes it does come down to a choice of opposing loves and ultimate loyalties.
iii) Nothing is more striking, in this regard, than the complete omission of Mt 10:21,34-37 to Talbott's discussion.
If Talbott had his way, Abraham would never have left Ur since, in so doing, he undoubtedly left many kinfolk behind. Ruth should have stayed behind with Orpah rather than left with Naomi.

And while we're on the subject of dominical omissions, on several occasions the author employs the phrase "chosen few" as an invidious characterization of Calvinism. But there are a couple of problems with this tactic.
i) The notion of a chosen few that are saved goes directly back to the words of our Lord (Mt 7:14; 20:16; 22:14). So to whom does the odium belong—Calvin or Christ?
ii) There is no official position within Calvinism on the proportion of the damned in relation to the redeemed. That turns on separate questions, such as eschatology (amil/postmil) and the salvation or not of all who die before the age of discretion.
iii) Even if only a faction of humanity is ultimately to be saved, a fraction of a multiple billions is still a large absolute number.

As to the question of how heaven will be heaven without all of our loves ones, Talbott is indulging in a diabolical game in which it puts the reader to the test and tempts him to defy God.

This may be a natural enough question to ask, but a Christian is under no obligation to answer it. We simply entrust the matter to God's surpassing wisdom and leave it there.

But one can venture a couple of comments. Whatever good we find in others is but a shadow of God's goodness, and in heaven we will see the sun in all its glory.

Many believers have found that the family of God took the place of their natural family. It is not that they rejected their family, but their family rejected them. And the company of the like-minded is the final foundation of love and fellowship.

Talbott anticipates and endeavors to answer an obvious objection to this "paradox."
"At this point, however, one might begin to wonder about those who are not our loved ones…If my capacity for love is not yet perfected…and God wants me to experience supreme happiness, then he must continue to teach me the lessons of love until it is perfected" (138-39).
Talbott says more than this, but you get the point. Although this way of putting the matter represents a skillful modulation from one key to another, it is not a natural modification or logical extension of his original premise. To the contrary, it represents a flat contradiction, but conceals the sleight-of-hand like a deft magician.

The original principle was the so-called paradox of exclusivism, according to which heaven would not be heaven for me unless all my loved ones join me there. Now he addresses the question of whether heaven would be heaven if those who are not my loved ones were missing.

Now, on the face of it, it seems pretty obvious that this is a completely different question with a completely different answer. And he has disguised the difference by putting it so blandly. But let's rip of the mask.

It isn't just a question of those I don't love. What about those I positively despise? We can upend his whole paradox and ask if heaven would be heaven if a rape victim finds her rapist in heaven. And one can multiply many other examples of the kind.

At a merely intuitive level, what makes heaven heavenly is the company we keep, not merely who is there, but who is not. That's a traditional difference between heaven and hell, is it not?

Talbott papers over the contradiction by saying that God makes us more loving, and makes our enemies more loving in return, so that, eventually, even our enemies are our loved ones, and vice versa.

And I don't deny that this sometimes happens. In heaven, there will sometimes be the victim and victimizer side by side, owing to the miracle of grace and redemption.

But that has nothing to do with natural affections and the logic of internal relations. That is an extremely unnatural and counterintuitive state of affairs.

One more time, let us contrast the two questions and two answers. The original form of the paradox was predicated on the idea that I have a natural affection for some people, and that would come into conflict with my love of God God unless I was saved along with all my family and friends.

That is utterly different than saying that some people are not my loved ones,  people I dislike or intensely despise because they wronged me or my family or my friends, and that God must teach me how to love them.

What we have is not a paradox but a vicious circle. Heaven wouldn't be heaven unless everyone makes it to heaven. Why, because heaven wouldn't be heaven for you and me unless our loved ones were there. But what if my loved ones are not your loved ones? What if having your loved ones in heaven would make heaven a living hell for me? What if what makes heaven heavenly for me is having my loved ones, but not yours? Then God must make me love your loved ones as well. Instead of a preexistent condition generating the so-called paradox, the condition has to be generated to generate the paradox in the first place. Premise and conclusion trade places. But this is sheer sophistry.

His book has four more chapters, but I'll only review the next one because the remaining three involve quarrels between the Arminian, universalist, and Molinist which are of no immediate interest to me, seeing as all three positions are wrong and wrong-headed. They are more than welcome to attack one another's positions.

In his next chapter, Talbott begins by saying a couple of strange things. On the one hand, he regards the Scholastic doctrine of divine simplicity as incoherent. On the other hand, he endorses a doctrine of moral simplicity. And guess which moral attribute comes out on top? Love, or at least his pet definition thereof.

But there are a couple of problems with this. It isn't clear that one can affirm moral simplicity but deny metaphysical simplicity. Ultimately, all God's attributes are mental attributes, for God is a spirit.

In addition, what is the Scriptural warrant for ranking the divine attributes, and then reducing all the moral attributes to one, and then choosing love as the standard of reference. There are several steps in the process of abstraction, none of which Talbott tries to justify, either exegetically or philosophically.

As far as I'm concerned, each attribute characterizes every other attribute. I don't prioritize the divine attributes.

As is his wont, Talbott also parodies the opposing position. He suggests that the traditional view sets the justice and mercy of the Father is a state of tension, which the Son must relieve.

But this is no part of Calvinism. All the members of the Trinity share the same attributes. All were party to the plan of redemption. And different attributes take different objects: mercy takes the elect as its object while justice takes the reprobate as its object.

Talbott also claims, as he did once before, that the purpose of the atonement was not to change the attitude of God towards man, but man's attitude towards God (145). As usual, this distorts the opposing position. A Calvinist does not maintain that the atonement "changes" the attitude of God. Rather, the atonement supplies the judicial grounds for our justification with God. The atonement presupposes the love of God for the elect.

In addition, there are exegetical arguments for the theological paradigm Talbott rejects. Cf. Simon Gathercole, Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul (Baker 2015).

But this is just a warming up exercise. Talbott's target is the principle of retributive justice. In an opening volley, Talbott levels the following charge:
"If an action were so heinous, so dire in its consequences for others, that its perpetrator would deserve to suffer everlastingly in return, then a loving God would never permit it in the first place; his love for the potential victims would require him to protect them from such irreparable harm" (150).
Well, I don't wish to come across as ungenerous, but it seems pretty presumptuous for a universalist to get on his high horse about the problem of evil. His own theodicy tries to justify the existence of evil by the eschatological defeat of evil. But one of the primary problems with his theodicy is not only the way it relates the present to the future, but the present to the past. Why does the present need to be balanced off by the future?

The world we live in looks very much like the sort of world predicted by a Calvinist. It doesn't look very much like the world predicted by universalism. For if God is such a tenderhearted fellow as all that, surely he could and should and would intervene much more often than he does on behalf of the innocent.

Here we can turn universalist reasoning in on itself. There are many occasions when we would intervene if given the opportunity. How can we be so much more merciful than the God of universalism?

From the standpoint of a universalist, why must a little girl suffer at the hands of a child molester so that she can get a celestial lollipop in the world to come? Or share a celestial lollipop with her one-time rapist in the world to come? To repeat his own choice adjectives, would that "make amends, make up for, cancel out, undo the harm, and repair the damage" (157)?

How does this really square with Talbott's stated ideal of fatherhood? Would he stand by if his five-year-old daughter was raped—as long as she'd be rewarded with a bigger birthday party in heaven?

Adding insult to injury, Talbott faults the retributionist for his adherence to original sin. Now, let's be clear on this. Talbott appeals to Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15 to prove universalism. But, of course, each text is also a locus classicus of original sin. So what is his own position on original sin? Is this consistent or inconsistent with universalism?

Underlying his criticism is the apparent assumption, for which he offers no justification, that an Augustinian begins with an abstract theory of retributive justice, which he deploys to defend the doctrine of hell. Talbott then takes issue with what he regards as the nature of retribution, more by way of assertion than argument, in relation to other Augustinian doctrines.

But the truth is otherwise. An Augustinian derives his theory of retributive justice from the witness of Scripture, especially in relation to the doctrine of hell, as well as OT law (with its 18 capital crimes) and penal substitution. This is not an artificial construct, but one which takes the witness of Scripture as its building materials.

There is, then, no tension between an Augustinian doctrine of retribution, hell, or original sin, for they were all developed in tandem, taking their respective demands into account and making the necessary adjustments. Of course, different theological traditions have different conceptions of what is fair, just, and equitable. But that goes beyond retributivism, per se. That is a separate debate, with is own supporting arguments and counterarguments. The theory of retributive justice has a philosophical as well as theological rationale:

Talbott is of the opinion that original sin would constitute a mitigating rather than aggravating offense. But although that enjoys a shallow, commonsense appeal, it is no part of Paul's argument. Paul does not treat original sin as an attenuating or exculpatory circumstance. Quite the contrary, he treats original sin as culpable.

And this goes to the burden of proof. For a Bible-believing Christian, he is justified in believing as he does if his belief is exegetically well-warranted. He needs no extra-canonical reason to justify his article of faith. Sola scriptura is the sufficient condition and necessary criterion.

It may be useful, in the field of apologetics, to have supporting arguments from natural reason. And some articles of faith are susceptible to rational defense. But arguments independent of Scripture are not necessary to verify the doctrine in question, or faith in said doctrine. If the Bible is divine revelation, then revealed truths are self-validating. The word of God is reason enough, for God is supreme reason.

Talbott's objection runs deeper than a theory of retribution, as such. Rather, he's raising all the stock Arminian objections to the Reformed doctrine of spiritual inability. Here the moves and countermoves are well-rehearsed. If he was interested in a serious debate, he could engage the Edwardian distinction between moral and spiritual ability. He could also field a libertarian theory of freewill against Edwardian objections.

In addition, the current debate has moved far beyond the 18C framework. Consider the work of John Martin Fischer. For more philosophically up-to-date defenses of theological determinism, cf. Guillaume Bignon, Excusing Sinners and Blaming God: A Calvinist Assessment of Determinism, Moral Responsibility, and Divine Involvement in Evil (Pickwick 2017); Heath White, Fate and Free Will A Defense of Theological Determinism (Notre Dame 2019).

But all his contention really boils down to boasting that "my intuitions are better than your intuitions"! This makes it difficult to rebut much of what he says in chap. 9, because he doesn't give the reader much to rebut. Much of what he says does not take the form of reasoned argument, but is nothing more than the venting of his personal feelings and tendentious opinions. There's nothing to disprove because there's nothing to prove.

For the moment, though, let us try to play the game by his own rules. Now Talbott seems to be extremely sure of his ethical reflexes. As a consequence, he is very sure of what he'd do in a given situation, such as how he'd deal with a wayward daughter.

So does his self-assurance undermine his freedom? If he knows in advance what he will do, is the future open or closed to him? Does his certainty rob his actions of moral meaning?

And if this first-order form of certainty is compatible with freedom or responsibility, why, then, should a second-order form of certainty be incompatible with freedom and morality as well? In other words, if his personal certitude is compatible with the above, then if God ensures his future actions, how would such supervenience undermine authentic freedom or moral incumbency? What difference does it make if second party renders the action of the first party to be certain, rather than the self-determination of the primary party? It doesn't differ at the level of the outcome. So wherein, if anywhere, lies the moral differential?

What is more striking, though, is the incongruous mix of moralizing and amorality in his defense of universalism. When he nominates Adolf Eichmamm, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer as his poster-boys for universalism, I rather doubt he'll be making many recruits to the cause. It is never survivors of the death camps who pen starry-eyed books on universalism. Rather, it's pampered and protected elites like Talbott and Adams who deny the victims their justice, their outrage, and—yes—their vengeance. How many victims are looking for the love of Adolf Eichmann?

Nothing is more immoral than an incapacity for moral indignation. Nothing is more unjust and cruel than telling the victim that she must forgive her unforgiving assailant. Imagine Adams or Talbott as crisis counselors at a rape clinic or safe-house for battered women.

Talbott's attack also suffers from a simple-minded quality. For instance, he fails to distinguish between sins and crimes. A crime, to be a crime, generally has a victim. It assumes the infliction of harm in one form or another. And that, in turn, determines the nature and scope of the punishment.

In the case of property crimes, some form of financial restitution may be appropriate, as we see in the Mosaic law. This admits a quantitative penalty.

However, certain religious offenses and crimes of aggravated violence do not admit gradations of punishment. A financial loss is measurable in a way that, say, the loss of a child to murder is incommensurable.

Even this has exceptions. Under the Mosaic law, it was a crime to curse the deaf (Lev 19:14). Although no harm is done to the deaf—since he cannot hear the abuse—yet such an act is disrespectful.

But a sin, to be a sin, need not have a victim. Some sins are crimes, and some crimes are sins, but they are not coincident. God can suffer no harm, but God can be wronged.

So there is a difference between criminal guilt and sinful guilt. Like cursing the deaf, it dishonors the offended party.

And there are degrees of dishonor, for social obligations are concentric. I have fewer obligations to a stranger than a neighbor, fewer to a neighbor than a friend, fewer to a friend than a parent, sibling, or child, and fewer to family than to God.

Every child is not my child. Jeffrey Dahmer is not my child. And if he were, I'd disown him.

Degrees of dishonor imply escalating degrees of guilt. Cursing a deaf father is worse than cursing a deaf stranger. Cursing God is worse than cursing man.

Because social obligations are concentric, they are also asymmetrical. Although a father and son share some mutual obligations, they do not share identical obligations. The paternal role is not interchangeable with the filial role. The father owes nothing to the son, but the son owes everything to the father. Yet Talbott's paternal role-models seem to be drawn from the ranks of Eli and David—men who failed in their paternal duties by being so very weak, permissive and indulgent.

Talbott also overlooks a truism in ethics: one act may be more harmful, but less culpable; while another act may be more culpable, but less harmful. Intent is the deciding factor. This is what distinguishes murder from manslaughter.

Talbott cites 1 Jn 1:9 out of context (163). In this verse, forgiveness is predicated on several conditions:
i) The subject is a Christian
ii) The subject is contrite
iii) Christ has redeemed the Christian (2:2; 4:14).

To turn this into a prooftext for universalism is a willful misreading of the text. Likewise, he says that the imago Dei renders the sinner deserving of divine forgiveness (161). But this is yet another example of brazen Scripture-twisting, for the imago Dei is expressly made a condition of punishment, and not of forgiveness (Gen 9:6).

In attacking retribution, and with it, the doctrine of hell, he says that the sinner must "see clearly the choice of roads, the consequences of their actions, and the true nature of evil" (154).

This brings us to a fundamental divide between two different conceptions of sin, and along with that, two different types of religion. Is evil a result of ignorance or ill-will? Eastern religion attributes evil to ignorance. Hence, salvation is a matter, not of redemption, but illumination.

Evangelical religion attributes sin to ill-will, to a spiteful and malicious hatred of the good. Hence, salvation is a matter of redemption and regeneration. Rebirth may bring enlightenment, but enlightenment does not bring rebirth. And rebirth, alone, does not right the scales of justice.

To take the paradigm-case, Lucifer sinned against the light. There was nothing deficient in Lucifer's theology.

This is also a running theme in the Fourth Gospel. The reprobate sin, not in darkness, but in the full light of day. They turn to darkness by turning their back on the light of Christ. This is not what makes them sinners, but exposes the true nature of sin. If they are ignorant, it is not for lack of knowledge, but due to their culpable and invincible ignorance.

The difference between Calvinism and universalism is not a difference of eschatology, like the difference between amil, premil, and postmil. No, it's nothing less than the difference between one religion and another. Universalism is a soul-brother of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Classical ethics (Plato, Aristotle), in which evil is a result of ignorance, in which evil-doers are misguided do-gooders, in which no one wittingly chooses evil over good. By contrast, the Christian faith views the sinner, not as an innocent child, but as a proud and stubborn rebel. He sins, not from love of sin, but hatred of God. Although this is radically irrational, even to the point of criminal insanity, it is a common place of human experience. Hell merely makes of them more of what they already are. The gates of hell are locked from both the inside and the outside.

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