Friday, December 31, 2004

The One Purpose of God

Jan Bonda’s The One Purpose of God (Eerdmans 1998) is the third book-length monograph in defense of universalism that I’ve reviewed, the other two being Adams’ Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God, as well as Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God.

I’ve chosen these three books because they present the most astute defense of universalism on the market. Adams is more philosophical, Talbott philosophical and exegetical, while Boda is basically exegetical, with a certain amount of historical and pastoral theology thrown in. It is striking that Talbott and Boda both hail from the Dutch Reformed community. This bears out Chesterton’s old quip that universalism is an optimistic form of Calvinism!

Although conditionalism was the initial alternative favored by "evangelicals," it is being overtaken by universalism. This is not surprising. Conditionalism is a compromise position transitional to universalism. Anyone who finds everlasting torment to be morally or emotionally repugnant will find annihilationism about as distasteful, for the difference is a difference of degree, not of kind.

Conditionalism is a negative position, a reactionary position. But universalism entails a drastic deconstruction and reconstruction of traditional Christian theology. It presents a positive, albeit radical alternative to the traditional reading of Scripture.

Bonda’s book comes highly recommended. Of course, the author can’t be held responsible for what they say, but they’re an important barometer of the theological climate.

On the back cover, Michael Bauman tells us that "what Charles Chauncy did for Rom 5, Bonda’s volume does for the entire epistle." Ah, yes, good old Charles Chauncy, the gadfly of Christian revival and Presbyterian turned Unitarian. Not all of us would regard that historical endorsement as altogether auspicious.

John Hick pipes in with the admonition that "the traditional doctrine of eternal punishment shatters the Christian conception of a limitlessly loving God. Many of us have rejected the doctrine for that reason."

But given Hick’s Kantian religious epistemology, how is he in a position to know what God is like? To know that God is a loving God--much less a limitlessly loving God (whatever that might mean)? Isn’t it essential to Hick’s pluralism that God be unknowable? We may know "that" there is a God, but not "what" he (she? it? them?) is/are like?

For his part, John Sanders informs us that this is "easily the most biblically grounded case for universalism to appear in some time." For that reason alone, the book is worth reviewing.

The book comes with a foreword by Sierd Woudstra. His foreword doesn’t add anything substantive to the argument, but merely highlights certain strands in the body of the text.

Bonda also has a preface. He and Woudstra indulge in a bit of name-dropping as they mention their encouraging correspondence with Herman Ridderbos and Hendrikus Berkhof. This is a telling commentary on the sorry state of the church in Holland.

As you might expect, Bonda’s book was originally written in Dutch. I’ll be referring to the English translation by Bruinsma. It is possible that this will result in my seizing upon certain words or connotations thereof that do not reflect the original text.

However, the audience for the English edition is not the same as the audience for the Dutch edition. And the audience for the English edition is, potentially, at least, far wider than the audience for the original text. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, to review the English edition on its own terms, as it stands. My only interest is with the argument, and not its degree of correspondence with the original. Whether the argument is identical with the case made by Bonda is irrelevant. For convenience, I’ll attribute the argument to him. And I’ll confine my comments to what I regard as the leading strands of his argument.

Bonda begins with a couple of tearjerkers. This is a softening-up exercise to win the reader’s sympathy in advance of any argument.

One is the case of a parishioner who was heartbroken over the fate of her brother, who had died outside the faith. Says Boda,
"Did this mean that all she could do was accept God’s judgment? Was that what I was to say? I could not bring myself to do that" (2).
This is, of course, one of the most wrenching situations in pastoral ministry. We see a person in pain. We’d like to offer some words of consolation, but we can’t. Yes, any reader can empathize with that situation.

But this is not a problem for pastoral ministry alone. There are many professions where you must be the bearer of bad news, where you are called upon dispense devastating, soul-crushing news. The oncologist who must tell the parents that their five-year old has terminal cancer. The policeman who must tell a widow that her husband was just shot to death. The commanding officer who must write a letter of condolence to grieving parents. The doctor who must go into the waiting room to tell the parents that their only son died of an overdose. The fireman who must tell a child that her mommy didn’t make it out of the house in time. The detective who must tell the parents that their abducted daughter was raped and murdered. And the list goes on.

Tragedy is a fixture of life in a fallen world. We can’t put a happy face on everything that happens just to make the orphaned and the abandoned, the victims and the bereaved feel better. Not every story has a happy ending. You can’t rewrite the ending if you don’t like how it comes out. Turn every tragedy into a comedy. The knight rescues the princess from the dragon, and they live happily ever after. The princess breaks the spell with a kiss, and they live happily ever after.

Of course, there’s a sense in which universalism is a fairy tale come true–if you believe it. But that’s a separate argument. My immediate point is that terribly things happen every day. If a pastor can’t bring himself to state a hard truth, he should leave the ministry.

And suppose, for the sake of argument, that her brother were a convicted killer. Everyone is related to someone. What would he say to the mother of the victim? Would what is comforting to a relative of the convict be comforting to a relative of the victim? It isn't possible to make everyone happy all of the time.

Bonda also introduces the case of a life-long friend who broke with the faith. His friend found the text of the baptismal service especially offensive: "O almighty, eternal God. Thou who hast according to Thy severe judgment punished the unbelieving and unrepentant world with the flood, and hast according to Thy great mercy saved and protected believing Noah and his family; Thou who hast drowned the obstinate Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea and led Thy people Israel through the midst of the sea upon dry ground--by which baptism was signified... (5)"

This his friend characterizes as "unashamed sadism" (5). And what is the reader to make of that reaction?

To begin with, there’s nothing wrong with our having a soft spot for a friend or family member. That's only natural. Such fellow feeling goes with being a member of the human race, with our emotional codependency as needy creatures.

We don’t have to feel the same way about everyone. At the same time, there are limits–even to friendship. It’s one thing to fix a parking ticket for a friend, quite another to buy him an airline ticket so that he can skip the country if he’s complicit in a fatal hit-and-run. Friends and family do not command our ultimate allegiance--or if they do, then our loyalties are seriously skewed.

God is not kin to us. God is not subject to emotional arm-twisting. This is one reason that God is a just judge. And that is why, by the same token, a human judge must recuse himself if the defendant is a friend or family member.

This is a book in defense of universalism, but notice what his friend finds so very outrageous. There is nothing in the text of the baptismal service–at least the portion seized upon by his friend, that addresses eternal punishment. Rather, the punishment in view is a historical judgment. Do Bonda and his friend take equal exception to any form of divine judgment whatsoever? Does Bonda deny the historicity of the Flood and the Exodus?

Bonda is incensed at a God "who did not show his goodwill toward humankind" (5) in general. So be it! But I don’t see Bonda’s friend in the same light that Bonda does. Instead of waxing indignant that God didn’t save everyone, his friend ought, instead, to be humble and thankful that God favored him with birth and life and length of days in a Christian land. Indeed, the damned will judge Bonda’s friend all the more harshly for doing so much less with so much more (Mt 11:21-24). It is often the blesséd who take their blessings for granted. Those that lead a charmed existence within the walled garden of the church, shielded from the full fury of the wilderness, bite and spite the hand of a loving providence–like a pardoned offender who lashes out at the judge because the judge did not pardon every other offender. To be such an ingrate does despite to the very marrow of mercy.

From there, Bonda switches to a primer in historical theology, with many interesting quotes from Augustine. Bonda finds the Augustinian argument downright "shocking." I, however, find the argument to be, in the main, reverent and reasonable. It is true that one can pick apart some of the detailed exegesis, as well as his privative theory of evil, but his theodicy is broadly and deeply Scriptural.

It is not as though the Reformed are unacquainted with the Arminian side of the argument. This is very well trodden ground. In every generation, the same threadbare criticisms are voiced, as if they’d never been answered before. For what it’s worth, I myself have written lengthy reviews of books by Geisler, Picirilli, and Walls in which these men marshal their best arguments against Calvinism and in favor of Arminianism.

It is funny to see Bonda take Augustine to task for his Neoplatonic theory of evil when he goes on to oppose Origen to Augustine–even though Origen is far more indebted to Neoplatonism than Augustine ever was.

Bonda takes umbrage at the idea that
"God uses this lostness to reveal how, through his grace, he freely gives them his salvation. Does this mean that salvation is bought with the lost state of the doomed; that it is enjoyed at the expense of their lostness?...What would we think of someone who would bring happiness to others in such a way? And what would we think of people who want to be made happy in such a way?" (24).
By way of comment:
i) This is the wrong question to ask. The first question to ask is not, "What would we think?" but, "What does God think?" Reality is not a designer dress, cut-and-tailored to suit our personal prejudice.
ii) Salvation is bought by the blood of Christ, not the lost state of the damned. To say that God uses the state of the damned to reveal the gratuity of grace does not attribute redemptive value to their demise.
iii) Bonda disregards the crucial distinction between innocence and guilt. God does no wrong to sinners by damning them. Their damnation is just punishment for sin.
iv) The eschatological reversal of fortunes in a common theme in Scripture. The godly who suffered in this life will prosper in the afterlife, while the ungodly who prospered in this life will suffer in the afterlife. If Bonda has a problem with that, he is at war with a major theme of Scripture.

Bonda tells the reader that Barth convinced him of the unbiblical character of Calvinism (25, n.33). Needless to say, a number of Reformed theologians (e.g., Frame, Klooster, Van Til) have indicted Barth for an unbiblical doctrine of election.

Even a very sympathetic mediating theologian like Berkouwer has leveled many of the same criticisms. For that matter, Jürgen Moltmann, who’s the greatest living universalist, has this to say:

"Calvin wrote disciplined commentaries in addition to his Institutio. Barth’s Epistle to the Romans does not fit into the category of scholarly New Testament commentaries...Barth’s dialectical doctrine of predestination cannot be found in this form in the Bible, nor can the magnificent structure of his doctrine of reconciliation," God Will Be All in All, R. Bauckham, ed. (T&T Clark (1999), 231.
Bonda summarizes, with evident disdain, the view of Dante that "here piety can exist only when there is no more compassion and vice versa: No one can have faith if he allows himself to be compassionate" (26).

This calls for a couple of comments:
i) What Dante has in view is the state of the damned, not the state of the living. Yes, there comes a point at which continued compassion is out of place–when continued compassion is a synonym for sympathy with evil. In hell, there is no distinction between the sinner and the sin.
ii) Again, this is not about compassion in general, but compassion for the damned. Even if this life, mercy or empathy for the wicked can be out of place. It is morally deranged to feel the same way about Stalin and his innocent victims.

Bonda summarizes, with palpable disapprobation, the view of Aquinas that "the saved will in fact rejoice at the pains of those who are condemned" (26). It should be unnecessary to point out that you can find exactly that same sentiment expressed at length in holy scripture (e.g., Rev 16-19).

But, of course, universalism is committed to this amoral attitude. Like the übermensch and the psychopath, the universalist is beyond good and evil. For the universalist, morality is a vice, not a virtue, for too much morality is judgmental. To be a universalist you must gouge out your eyes and cultivate a state of moral blindness. Once you repudiate the principle of retributive justice in favor of remedial punishment, you are wedded to moral relativism.

He goes on to say:
"We have grown up with Augustine’s arguments...we listened to this teaching and accepted it. It was horrifying, but nothing could be done about it. Who were we to argue with God...You had no option but to accept it passively. But it kept churning in your thoughts. You could not voice it because to do so was sinful. Nonetheless, it was always there: How marvelous would it be if God were different!" (27).
Notice the sudden shift from the autobiographical third-person to the compulsory, inclusive second-person. This is so characteristic of the moral conceit of the universalist. He assumes that everyone feels the same way as he does, only a universalist has the courage to cast off his shackles.

Unlike Bonda, I didn’t grow up in the Reformed church, much less a Reformed culture and country. I do not find the Augustinian picture to be at all horrifying. Sobering? Yes. Humbling? Yes.

Actually, we need not be passive recipients of the Word. To the contrary, we should follow the motto of Anselm: I believe so that I may understand. We happily and trustfully submit to whatever God tells us, and then proceed to seek out the wisdom of his ways.

If you can’t trust in God, if God is not trustworthy, then the game is up. If you can’t bring yourself to trust in God, then you're not a believer. It’s a simple as that.

This is not a choice between a questioning or unquestioning faith. It is because we have an unquestioning faith in the goodness of God, in his wisdom, veracity, and justice, that we are free to ask questions. But we ask questions the way a child will ask a question of his father. You don’t question someone you don’t trust? If you can’t trust him, you can’t trust the answer. We never question God’s answers; rather, his answers supply the raw material for our follow-up questions.

I do not wish that God were other than he is. The assumption here is that if I were God, hell would not exist. Now, there are many men who feel that way. This is a great dividing line.

There are people who never get it. For them, sin is not a big deal. No matter what they see, no matter what they hear, they can never bring themselves to take sin all that seriously. They are a little too nice for their own good. This is the dividing line between Augustine and Pelagius, Erasmus and Luther, Salodeto and Calvin, Butler and Whitefield, Chauncy and Edwards.

The stranger to grace is oftentimes a more likable man than the champion of grace. He oozes with charm. He’s magnanimous and gregarious. He has a deep and unshakable faith in the goodness of man. If you were sharing a dorm or ship cabin, poor old Jeremiah wouldn’t make the cut!

The nominal Christian is a half-breed–having the church for his mother and the world for his father. If he were a purebred pagan, he wouldn’t be half so gentle and generous. But as a half-breed, he’s used to living off the fat of the Motherland, basking in the radiant warmth of maternal grace, dining on the tender morsels and juicy appetizers from the oven of Mother Church. It is easy for this cornfed freeloader to be easy-going because he’s had it so easy all the days of his life. But by the same token, it only takes a little adversity to scratch the pretty coat of paint and instantly expose a very cold and steely frame beneath.

It’s like the life of a rich man. When you’re rich, everyone goes out of their way for you--but as soon as you loose your fortune, you loose your fiends.

No one really wants to see everyone saved. Ironically, the appeal of universalism is far more provincial than that. The only people any of us care about at a personal level are those close to us. Everyone else is an abstraction. We project our feelings for our loved ones onto strangers, but this extension is purely intellectual, for we don’t truly feel the same way about a stranger as we do about a friend or family member–not unless we get to know them, to befriend them.

Not only do we not wish to see everyone saved, but as Wouldstra is candid enough to admit, "all of us can think of individuals we would ‘hate’ to see go to heaven" (xviii). So let us, once and for all time, drop all the mock sentiment, all the false piety, all the perfunctory and hypocritical cant about how hard it is to stomach the doctrine of hell.

It is important, here, to distinguish between guilt and modesty. A Christian is very self-conscious about being an object of grace. That is good. We ought to feel self-conscious, even to the point of embarrassment, about how God visited his mercy and grace upon the likes of you and me, of all people.

But we should not, on that account, feel survivor’s guilt. We should feel infinitely humbled by grace. We should feel our guilt. We should sense how undeserving we are of grace. But we should never act as though we were in the wrong to be favored by God when others were passed by. A Christian is a trophy of God’s grace. This reflects badly on us, but well upon God.

Bonda introduces the nonsensical charge that hell is blasphemous. Nonsensical, I say, because hell and blasphemy are both Biblical categories to begin with. This is just a rhetorical ruse–a calculated ploy to put the Bible-believer on the defensive by charging him with heresy before he can charge you with heresy.

Bonda takes issue with Piper’s contention that there are two types of divine love. This is, however, a separate issue from either reprobation or damnation. Not every Calvinist would agree with Piper’s bifurcation. It depends on how you define common grace.

Bonda also trots out Talbott’s objection that a parent can’t love a God who would predestine his child to hell. I’ve already written a lengthy review of his book, so I’ll just confine myself to a few brief comments:
i) As a practical matter, countless Christian parents do love God despite the fact that some of their errant children may well be hell-bound.
ii) Conversely, there are parents to spoil their kids rotten; who lie, cheat and steal for their kids; who will brook no discipline or breath of criticism, who will sue if their delinquent kids are expelled from school, who will buy a plane ticket if their kids commit murder. Surely we need to draw a distinction between good parenting and bad parenting, between godly love and godless love.
iii) In addition, is this an objection to hell, or to reprobation? Since a universalist would take exception to hell whether or not you plug the fire and brimstone into a predestinarian scheme, it’s a red herring at this point for Bonda to bring Calvinism into the argument.
iv) Actually, predestination makes hell easier to defend, because it means that hell serves a purpose in the wisdom and the justice of God.
v) The universalist is committed to a deterministic scheme of some sort himself–otherwise he cannot guarantee the salvation of all. So predestination is not the salient issue.
vi) Everyone is someone’s "child." Charles Manson was someone’s child. To be someone’s child is hardly exculpatory. If a grown man commits rape and murder, can he hope to be acquitted by lifting his shirt and pointing to his navel? Innocent by reason of a belly-button? If this is the best that a universalist can do, he does more damage to the credibility of his cause than anything I could ever hurl at it.

Bonda says that we should ditch the doctrine of hell because it induces anxiety in insecure believers. To this a couple of replies are in order:
i) This is a perfect illustration of just how mindless and childish univeralism really is. You might as well say that we should stop believing in natural disasters or fatal accidents or terminal illness or violent crime for fear the belief in such a dire possibility might give us bad dreams, panic attacks, depression, hypertension, and the like. And, indeed, some people are plagued by irrational worries and crippling phobias.

But that has nothing to do with the reality of the risk. These dangers do exist. Whether the peril is great or vanishingly slight is quite independent of my anxieties. And whether there is a hell is quite independent of my blood pressure or insomnia. Is a cliff not sheer because I’m afraid of heights? For better or worse, the world I inhabit isn’t all that accommodating!
ii) The solution is to put fear into its proper perspective. Some professing believers have good reason to fear, for they are only nominal believers. Some true believers lack the assurance of salvation because their theology is defective. As with a disease, the cure is not to pretend there is no illness, but to correctly diagnose and treat the disease.

When Bonda says that some believers become so despondent over hell that they kill themselves, this evinces their unreasonable state of mind, for if you’re really afraid that you might be hellbound, then suicide would be a fate worse than death! A real pastor would talk them through their confusion and despair.

This is all before Bonda gets around to exegesis. One methodological flaw in his analysis is the way in which he jumps about. Instead of interpreting each author on his own terms, he will start with one author, then insert material from another author. Frankly, this looks like a way of caulking the gaps where his argument breaks down.

Boda devotes the first two sections to the intercession of Abraham and Moses in order to show that the final judgment is not the final word on the fate of the lost. But there are several problems with this line of argument:
i) His examples involve historical judgments, not the final judgment.
ii) His examples illustrate the value of intercessory prayer. But in Scripture, as well as church history, you also have the phenomenon of unanswered prayer. Just as God is sovereign in judgment, so is he sovereign in prayer.
iii) As a matter of fact, God did visit his judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah, and in quite spectacular fashion, as a future deterrent.
iv) Bonda tries to get around this by appeal to Ezk 16:53,55. However, this appeal falls flat on two counts:
a) It disregards the allegorical character of Ezk 16.
b) It would, in any event, have reference to future "Sodomites," and not to those who perished in the past. If anything, this allegory is prophecy of the New Covenant.
v) As a matter of fact, Israel did incur the judgment of God, many times over. What survives is a remnant. A remnant survives the flood (Noah’s family). A remnant survives Sodom (Lot’s family). A remnant survives the Exodus (Caleb, Joshua). A remnant survives the Assyrian deportation. A remnant survives the Babylonian captivity.
vi) Intercession has its limits (e.g. Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14-15).

Boda then spends a few pages on the parable of the prodigal son. But, once again, he’s grasping at straws:
i) Even if this parable were consistent with universalism, it is hardly a prooftext. It doesn’t imply universalism.
ii) For that matter, it is equally consistent with Calvinism. The prodigal is the backslider. The elect can backslide. But by the grace of God, the backslider, if elect, will be restored.
iii) And although the younger son is reconciled to his father, the older son is estranged from his father–and for the very same reason. The action of restoring the younger son results in the equal and opposite reaction of the older son, who is alienated by reception accorded his younger brother.
iv) Such a one-sided appeal turns a blind eye to the parables of judgment (Mt 24-25; Lk 12:35-46).

In passing, Bonda takes the distinction between many stripes and few stripes (Lk 12:47-48) to indicate a temporary punishment. But how does that follow?
i) If you take "few" stripes to indicate temporary punishment, in contrast to "many" stripes, then you would have to infer that some of the damned suffer for a while, while others suffer forever. But if you soften the contrast, then you no longer have an argument at all. This illustrates the limitations of figurative language.
ii) Why not cash out the contrast in terms of degree rather than duration? As intensive rather than extensive? The duration is the same, but the severity is not. Surely this is a familiar distinction. Some forms of punishment are sterner than others. A shorter punishment may even be harsher.

He then turns, as he must, to Mt 25:46. His interpretation is nothing short of remarkable:
"Yet it is clear that the sins Jesus lists in this passage do not constitute the blasphemy against the Spirit. Assuming that Jesus did not utter this severe word with the intention of contradicting what he said moments before, we must accept that the sins mentioned in this passage will eventually be forgiven. This means, however strange this may sound to us, that this statement of Jesus about eternal punishment is not the final word for those who are condemned," 70.
Strange indeed! By way of reply: to single out the unpardonable sin, committed in this life, does not imply that everyone will be forgiven of every other sin even if they die impenitent. To say that sins are forgivable is not to say that sins are forgiven. That is to confuse a necessary condition with a sufficient condition. In Scripture, remission is contingent on contrition and atonement.

Bonda then tries to shore up his assertion in a footnote:
"the Greek word for eternity (aion) is translated both ‘age’--’this age,’ and the ‘future age’ (Mt 12:32)–and world ‘the end of the world’ (Mt 13:40,49; 28:20). In both cases a time period is intended that has an end" (70).
By way of comment:
i) This would not be an argument for universal salvation, but universal annihilation. Based on the symmetry of Mt 25:46, "eternal" life as well as "eternal" damnation would each enjoy a limited shelf-life.
ii) Bonda offers no semantic evidence that "aion" bears this singular import. He says he consulted a number of reference works, but it doesn’t show. All the reference works that I consulted (BAGD, DNTT, EDNT, Louw-Nida, Turner: Christian Words) boil down to much the same thing: you have a handful of occurrences of the aion/aionias word-group where the it bears a past temporal sense ("ages ago"); another handful where it bears a past atemporal sense ("before the world"); and yet another handful where it bears a spatial sense ("world without end").

In most occurrences it either bears a future temporal sense ("never ending"), or an eschatological sense ("the age to come"). In Johannine usage, the future temporal sense ("eternal life") takes its inception in the present. Now the future temporal sense is operative in at least some of the traditional prooftexts for everlasting punishment, while the eschatological sense is operative in the others.
iii) Even if we limit the force of "aion" to the "age" or the "world" to come, that only pushes the question back a step, for we then must ask, how long is the age to come? And surely one of the distinguishing features of the two ages, in Biblical eschatology, is that the present age is characterized by mortality, as over against the future age. The future age is ageless.
iv) In the Apocalypse, you even have a duplex form ("to the ages of the ages"), which is repeatedly applied to God as well as creaturely agents.

The universalist is in a bind. Unlike the conditionalist, the universalist must affirm that the hellbound will live forever, but disaffirm that they will live forever in hell. He needs the eternality, but not the fixity, of the afterlife, to make room for postmortem conversion. There are, however, no passages of Scripture, whether individually or in combination, that drive a wedge between fixity and perpetuity, or teach, or even permit, a postmortem reversal of fortunes.

Sensing, I guess, the inadequacy of his exegesis, Bonda takes another bite at Mt 25:46 later on:
"Now his blood will be given as a ransom for many (Mt 20:28). His blood will be poured out for many (26:28). Twice we read ‘for many.’ who are these ‘many’? They are the many who have entered the wide gate and walk the easy road that leads to destruction (Mt 7:13; cf. Mt 22:14). These are the same people of whom he just said that they will end in ‘eternal punishment’" (218).
By way of reply:
i) This interpretation is nonsensical on its own grounds. In Mt 7:13-14 & Mt 22:14, the "many" are relative to "the few." But in universalism, such a contrast is meaningless. In universalism, the choice is not between the comparative contrast of the many over as against the few (a la Calvinism), but between the superlative contrast of the salvation of all (inclusivism) as over against the salvation of some (exclusivism).
ii) It clearly does violence to Mt 7:13-14 to turn two divergent roads into one convergent road.
iii) The "many" is Mt 20:20 & 26:28 is not an antonym for the few or a synonym for all. Rather, it is a literary allusion to Isa 53:11-12. In this chapter, "many" and "all" are interchangeable designations for the covenant community. The Messiah lays down his life for his people.

Bonda goes on to claim that
"eternal punishment does not forever continue, since that punishment itself, is not his goal. When God’s purpose has been achieved, there is no need for further punishment--for sin no longer exists!" (219).
By way of reply: notice how this turns the word of God on its head. In Bonda’s interpretive alchemy, "eternal" punishment is temporary. "Unquenchable" fire is quenched. The "undying" worm dies of hunger. Bonda systematically converts Biblical affirmations into Biblical negations, and Biblical negations into Biblical affirmations. This is exactly how the Devil would rewrite Scripture.

"Let us review: The word ‘eternal’ has played a major role in the doctrine of eternal punishment. But what Scripture tells us about God’s purpose with this punishment remained a secondary concern. We have seen that this divine purpose must be our first interest in any Biblical discourse about the eternity of the punishment. Never is there any other purpose than that the unbeliever return to obedience to God. Nowhere in Scripture do we find a statement that tells us that God wants those who are punished to suffer without end–that is not the purpose for which God created humans! If we keep this singular purpose of God in focus, we understand that eternal punishment is punishment that has as its only purpose an obedience return to the God of love...When Jesus refers to this punishment as eternal, he simply underlines...the eternal seriousness–of God in pursuing his one and only purpose" (219).
By way of reply:
i) In what sense did the divine purpose remain a secondary consideration in formulating the traditional doctrine? Is the administration of justice not a purposeful activity?
ii) Even if it were a secondary concern, is there something wrong with deriving a doctrine from passages of Scripture which directly and primarily address the subject-matter of the doctrine in question?
iii) This is an ironic complaint to lodge against Calvinism, for no theological tradition shows the same respect for God’s inviolable purpose.
iv) Bonda is using this appeal as an inner canon and winnowing fan to demote and deny the witness of Scripture whenever it comes into conflict with "his" primary concern.
v) Nowhere in Scripture? Isa 66:24? Dan 12:2? Mt 25:41? Mt 25:46? Mk 9:48? 2 Thes 1:9? Jude 7? Jude 9? Rev 14:11? Rev 20:10?
vi) Isn’t it simplistic to insist that God can have only one purpose for what he does? Why can’t the revelation of his justice be one such purpose? Why can’t the revelation of his mercy be another such purpose?
v) It is difficult to divorce the temporal end of God’s creatures from the teleological end of his creatures. Their final destination in time answers to his final design outside of time. And their eternal destiny marks the climactic realization of any ends-means relation.
vi) To equate the threat of eternal punishment with eternal seriousness in God’s pursuit of every lost sinner is a form of words which bears no resemblance to the wording, import, or intent of our Lord’s usage. This is a wholly artificial gloss that fails to connect at any point with what our Lord ever said or ever meant.

In fairness, though, Bonda defends this reinterpretation by recourse to prophetic usage. By way of reply:
i) Once again, Bonda is confounding historical judgements with eschatological judgments. We need to distinguish preexilic prophecies that have reference to the Exile and Restoration from postexilic prophecies which have reference to the eschaton.
ii) We also need to distinguish oracles that pronounce a common judgment on the nation of Israel from those that pronounce judgment on one party, but deliverance upon another (Isa 26:14,19; 66:24; Dan 12:2)..
iii) On a related, we further need to distinguish judgment on the nation of Israel from the impending or eventual redemption of the remnant (Isa 1:9; 4:3; 6:11-13; 10:22; 45:20) .
iii) On another related note, also need to distinguish between the end of the old covenant and the inauguration of the new (Jer 31:31-40).
iv) Bonda pedals in half-truths. The logic of Isaiah is thus: just as there is but one Maker of men, there is but one Judge and Redeemer of men. Whoever would be saved can only be saved by the one true God.
v) Bonda is very selective in his citations. In Isaiah you can see inclusivity and exclusivity side-by-side. In Isa 45:22-23 you have a universal form of address, but this is immediately followed, in vv24-25, by a dichotomy between the enemies of God, who shall suffer shame (24), and the people of God, who shall be justified (25). Likewise, in Isaiah 66:23, you have a general expression, immediately followed by a dire pronouncement upon the damned (24).

It isn’t hard to relate the two: if there is only one true God, then there is only one true knowledge of God. The God of the Jews is the God of mankind. The saving knowledge of God disclosed to Israel must be revealed in due time to the Gentiles. But just as salvation did not extend to every single Jew, neither does it extend to every single Gentile.

v) Bonda divorces 45:23 from the taunt-song in 46:1-2. But it’s all of a piece. The ancient world was not a democracy. You bowed the knee before your lord and swore fealty to him because he was your lord. What you thought of him was quite beside the point. He was your sovereign, and you were his subject. Even the high "gods" of Babylon must bow before the Lord’s emissary (Cyrus). The kingdoms of Egypt and Mesopotamia were absolute monarchies. This is where we get the phrase "oriental despotism." And the God of Israel is the king of kings.

Bonda rushes by Dan 12:2 in a couple of sentences:
"The text does not deal with a judgment over all the dead...our interest here is limited to the term ‘eternal’" eternal life and eternal shame and contempt. Jeremiah mentioned redemption following eternal shame, but Daniel does not" (216).
By way of reply:
i) The comparison with Jeremiah disregards the fourfold distinction I drew above, viz., mass/remnant; old/new covenant; pre/post-Exilic perspective; common judgment/divergent destiny.
ii) Dan 12 is part of a larger oracle targeting the end-time (11:35,40).
iii) For the rest, one can hardly improve on Joyce Baldwin at this juncture:
"Hebrew rabbim, ‘many,’ tends to mean ‘all,’ as in Deut 7:1; Isa 22, where ‘all nations’ becomes ‘many peoples’ in the parallel v3; and in Isa 52:14-15; 53:11-12, where this key-word occurs no less than five times, with an inclusive significance. As Jeremias points out, the Hebrew word kol, ‘all,’ means either ‘totality’ or ‘sum’; there is no word for ‘all’ as a plural. For this rabbim comes to mean ‘the great multitude,’ ‘all’; cf. ‘Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth...’ (NIV). The emphasis is not upon many as opposed to all, but rather to the numbers involved.
In the light of this usage our author can be seen to be thinking of a general resurrection prior to judgment. Jesus almost certainly had this verse in mind in Mt 25:46 & Jn 5:28-29," J. Baldwin, Daniel (IVP 1978), 204.

Moving from the prophets to Paul, he cites Rom 14:10-11 & Phil 2:10-11. Yet is hard to see how the passage in Romans is a prooftext for universalism. To begin with, it is on the theme of judgment. In addition, it takes the Christian as the object of divine judgment. But if even the believer must stand before the tribunal of God, what hope is there for the unbeliever?

Although the judicial role is unstated in Phil 2:10-11, that is implicit from the parallel passage in Rom 14:10-11. The person and work of Christ in Phil 2:6-9 have qualified him to be the judge of all the world. I’ve already discussed the Isaian background of both passages. This is what is meant by the Lordship of Christ.

We have gone from the age of absolute monarchy, to constitutional monarchy, to titular monarchy, to popular sovereignty. We have forgotten what it means to "reign." But the dominion of Christ is the antitype of the oriental despotism. Either submit willingly or be forcibly subjugated.

You can see this theme in the Messianic Psalms (2:9; 110:1-2), which is, in turn, picked up in the NT (1 Cor 15:24-28; Rev 12:5; 19:15). Indeed, the Apocalypse is a NT version of OT holy war. Christ is a warrior-God and conquering king (Rev 19). Hell is a permanent POW camp. His enemies are vanquished and taken captive. The camp has an entrance, but no exit.

In the section on Revelation, Bonda says the following:
"All nations will come and will worship God (15:4)...In other words, the ‘forever and ever’ of 14:11 was not the final word! Just as the prophecy about Edom in Isaiah 34:10--from which this imagery of the eternally ascending smoke is borrowed--was not the final word. Isaiah’s prophecy and this vision are both related to the destruction of Sodom (Gen 19:24,28). We saw that God’s judgment over this city did not imply the end of his compassion for it" (230).
By way of reply:
i) He maunders the meaning of Rev 15:4. As Beale remarks,
"’All the nations’ is a figure of speech (metonymy) by which the whole world is substituted for a part of it in order to emphasize that many will worship, which is in line with 5:9; 7:9ff.; and 14:3. The whole for the part is clearly the meaning where pas (‘all’) occurs with ethnos (‘nation’) elsewhere (5:9; 7:9; 13:7; 14:8; 18:3,23)," G. Beale, The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans/Paternoster 1999), 797-98. Cf. Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy (1993), 238-337 (esp. 312-13.
ii) I’ve already dealt with the judgment upon Sodom.
iii) The last word on the fate of Edom is Mal 1:1-4, which is decidedly less than sanguine!
iv) The fate of the damned (14:10-11) presents an antithetical parallel to the rest of the saints (14:13). The saints are forever at rest while damned are never at rest.
v) The fate of the damned (14:10-11) presents an antithetical parallel to the adoration of the angels (4:8). As long as the angels shall praise God, the damned shall suffer.
vi) The same time-maker ("forever and ever") is applied to the very life of God (4:9-10; 10:6; 15:7). As long as God shall live, the damned shall suffer.
vii) The fate of the devil and his minions (20:10) presents an antithetical parallel to the reign of the saints (22:5). As long as the saints shall reign, the damned shall suffer.

For better or worse, the state of all parties is fixed for all time. The timeline is isochronic for God and Christ, saints and angels, devils and idolaters. And once the die is cast, there is no reversal of fortunes.

Bonda then says that those outside the New Jerusalem (22:11) are invited to come inside (22:17). But this commits a level-confusion. The invitation is directed, not to the narrative characters, but to the reader, the audience, the congregation (of the seven churches of Asia Minor) to whom the prophecy is addressed.
"God has created man with the intention that all should love one another, as he loves them. This love allows of no exception: One is even to love one’s enemies, since God loves them all (Mt 5:44-45)...In God’s law the single command of love, given to all human beings, we find the answer to the doctrine of eternal punishment. This law makes it crystal clear that we are dealing with a doctrine that clashes with God’s commandment" 102.
By way of reply:
i) Mt 5:44-45 doesn’t say that God loves everyone. Rather, the point of Mt 5:44-45, like the parable of the wheat and the tares (note the same agricultural setting), is that God dispenses common grace to all as a way of dispensing special grace to the elect. Because the elect and the reprobate inhabit in the same world, living under same roof (as it were), sun and rain cannot discriminate. All must prosper to some degree for any to prosper at all.
ii) It is illicit to invoke Mt 5:44-45 in order to negate everything else the Bible might have to say on the subject.
iii) This is not the only command that God has given to man. He also commanded the Israelites to execute the Canaanites.
iii) Mt 5:44-45 does not address the destiny of man, but rather, the Christian code of conduct for the duration of the church age.
iv) A divine command is not equally binding on God and man. God is the judge. He bears a different relation to man than man to his fellow man.
v) Bonda has a very flat-footed concept of love. There are different degrees and species of love. Conjugal love is not the same thing as neighborly love. Love can be exclusive as well as inclusive, intensive as well as extensive.
"What has this doctrine of Israel’s rejection brought about? The great catastrophe of our century tells us: The murder of almost six million Jews from 1940-45 in post-Christian Europe would not have been possible without the preparatory work of this ecclesiastical tradition. The genocide was not committed by Christians, but by pagans who had rejected faith in Jesus. However, this would not have happened in Europe if through the centuries the church had been taught to see Israel as the apple of God’s eye," 132.
By way of reply:
i) This is a form of emotional extortion: either interpret Romans my way or else you’ve got the blood of six million Jews on your hands! That brand of blackmail is irrelevant to the meaning of Romans, and given that the Book of Romans was penned by a devout Jew, no authentic interpretation could possibly be anti-Semitic, so we should follow the text wherever it takes us, without fear of consequences, without dragging in extraneous anxieties or imposing extraneous filters on the material.
ii) It would take a lot of documentation to substantiate Bonda’s charge–none of which is forthcoming. What is the relation between church and synagogue in Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Orthodox theology? Is it all the same? Is it all anti-Semitic?
iii) Even if the church had been more philosemitic, how would that have restrained the Nazis?
iv) What about the effect of German Bible criticism, with its evolutionary view of religion, which necessitated a low view of the OT and OT piety?
v) In what sense is the Reformed tradition anti-Semitic? Wasn’t Holland a haven for the Jews? Weren’t the Jews well-treated by the Puritans? Doesn’t Reformed theology stress the continuity of the covenants? Doesn’t Reformed theology speak of OT saints as well as an OT church?

Supercessionism isn’t a racist doctrine. It doesn’t mean that Gentiles replace Jews. It doesn’t even mean that the church takes the place of Israel. There’s a very real sense in which Reformed theology regards an OT saint as a Christian. To be a Messianic Jew is to be a Christian, whether Abraham, Asaph, Moses, or David; Isaiah, Daniel or Zechariah; Peter, James, or John; Paul or Matthew, Simeon or Anna, Mary or Elizabeth, Zecharias or John the Baptist.
vi) What about Jews who are not Messianic Jews? you ask. What about gentiles who are not Christian gentiles? I ask. It's all the same.
vi) I get a little tired of all the complaints about the gentile complexion of the church. No doubt the church would be better off if it were more Jewish. But let us remember that the church is mostly gentile because most Jews chose to opt out. And let us not write off two thousand years of church history as very large and very long mistake. To do so dishonors the plan and providence of God.

In dealing with the imagery of damnation, a couple of cautionary notes are in order.
i) There is not a great deal in Scripture on the eternality of hell. And yet the eternal duration of hell is far better attested than, say, the Virgin Birth. There are many "evangelicals" who affirm the Virgin Birth, but disaffirm the eternality of hell. For example, John Wenham, in his autobiography, uses this statistical approach to minimize the Biblical witness to everlasting punishment. Yet he would never employ that same methodology to minimize the testimony of Scripture to the Virgin Birth--even though that is built on a much thinner database than hell.

ii) It is important not to over-analyze the imagery. Scripture doesn’t speak with technical precision. The imagery is intended to convey a general impression. The attempt to break down the general impression into atomistic word-studies and isolated images does violence to the authorial intent. The general impression which popular as well as scholarly imagination has always taken away from these passages is one of unending misery.

These passages were never meant to be subjected to minute analysis. They don’t demand much in the way of interpretation. To overinterpret is to misinterpret. The broad brush, and not the fine brush-stroke, is what counts. This is not the time and place for finesse, nuance, or sophistication. Blunt, brutal, graphic and primitive picture-language was used to drive home a dire and unmistakable admonition. And it succeeded, for century upon century.

Those who construe the passages otherwise always do so, not because the imagery is suggestive of another interpretation, but because the conditionalist and the universalist find the idea of eternal punishment intolerable. What they give us is not the exegesis of the text, but a hermeneutic of emotion.

Bonda tries to find univeralism in Paul. One obvious objection to this construction is that faith is, in Paul, a prerequisite for salvation. Bonda attempts to get around this by positing postmortem conversion on the basis of Rom 4:17; 5:15; 14:9! That is certainly a novel interpretation of the verses in question. If nothing else, we must give Bonda some credit for ingenuity!

But the point of these passages is that God will save those who die in faith, such as Abraham--the paradigm of sole fide. Everyone dies, including the faithful. What happens to us when we die? If death is a penal sanction for sin, then salvation must apply to the living and the dead, but not all the living and not all the dead. The God who saved the OT saints shall save the NT saints. To die in the Lord is to live in the Lord.

Bonda denies original sin. Instead, he reverts to the old Pelagian position. He blames original sin on Augustine’s use of the Vulgate rendering of Rom 5:12. By way of reply:
i) It is unclear to me why Bonda rejects Federalism in favor of individualism. If, after all, you were going to concoct a doctrine of universal salvation, then some form of corporate solidarity would afford a more promising mechanism than radical individualism.
ii) Is it a fact that Augustine relied on the Vulgate rather than, say, the Old Latin version or Ambrosiaster? For that matter, Augustine was conversant with the Greek text of Rom 5. (See the commentaries by Cranfield and Fitzmyer.)
iii) It is inexcusably ignorant for a Dutch-Reformed pastor to allege that the Reformed doctrine of original sin derives from the Vulgate. Even if Bonda has left his hereditary tradition far behind, he should at least know what he has left behind.
iv) His interpretation of Rom 5:12 disregards the five-fold emphasis, in Rom 5, on the one sin of the one man (Adam) as the basis of common condemnation. (See Murray’s commentary.)

Borrowing yet another page from Pelagius, Bonda says,
"it is utterly impossible that God reveals his will to human beings, and simultaneously wills that they should not reach the point of doing God’s will. Yet, this is what tradition tells us. It suggests that he would reveal his will to people who were destined not to comply with it" (101).
By way of reply:
i) Needless to say, the Calvinist has heard all this before. It is not in ignorance of this objection that Reformed tradition can exist. The objection has been addressed on numberless occasions.
ii) In Reformed theology, revelation is the rule of faith. The God who reveals his preceptive will is the same God who reveals his decretive will.
iii) Whatever the common sense appeal of this objection, it has no force in theology, for we can only know the will of God insofar as God has made his will known to us.
iv) The objection equivocates over the identity of God’s "will." Bonda is really talking about God’s "law." No doubt God wills his law, as well as the revelation of his law. But that does not, of itself, tells us what purpose is served by the law of God. The law may be instrumental to an ulterior purpose, as a means to a higher end, rather than an end in itself. The revelation of the law brings with it the revelation of sin. The law can serve to harden as well as soften. The law teaches us right from wrong, but by that same token, you can choose to do wrong, to go out of your way to make the wrong turn and go down the wrong road or the wrong lane, just to be spiteful and rebellious. This contentious and contrarian spirit is on display throughout the pages of Scripture.
v) The law is a moral guide, but more than a moral guide. It is also a tool used by God to exhibit the depravity of sin and the gratuity of grace.

Bonda rejects the Reformed reading of Rom 5 on the grounds that, in this event, "it is not true that Christ, through his obedience, more than compensates for the havoc wreaked by the first human’s disobedience" (105). By way of reply:

i) This objection is not distinctive to Reformed theology, but would, if valid, apply with equal force to any soteric system which falls short of universalism.
ii) The problem with Bonda’s truncated allusion to Rom 5:20 is that it omits the introductory reference to the law. The sin in view is not sinful mankind in general, but lawlessness, where the "law" is the Law of Moses. In other words, Paul has in mind the national apostasy of Israel. And yet, not only was there a gracious remnant, but Israel was host to the Savior of the nations as well.

Bonda rejects the idea of a "hidden election" on the grounds that "If that were true, no one in Israel would be able to depend on God, and the question would always be: ‘Am I like Esau?" (146). By way of reply:
i) It is illogical to reject something just because you don’t like the consequences. Many things are true regardless of the consequences.
ii) The short answer is that our warrant for the assurance of salvation should not exceed the warrant of Scripture. If certain Scripturally stipulated contingencies are met (e.g. repentance & faith), then we are entitled to the assurance of salvation. But if such conditions are flouted, then we are not entitled to the same assurance.
iii) Election is hidden in eternity, but revealed in time, in the mirror of faith.
iv) Given the eye-popping maledictions of Deut 32, as well as the dire forewarnings and forebodings of the preexilic prophets, the average Israelite had good reason to examine himself and not take his blessings for granted!

Bonda appeals to Isa 19:21-22 to prove that the hardening of Pharaoh is temporary. But this prophecy is about the future, not the past. It has nothing to do with the Pharaoh of the oppression. He had been dead for 600 years when Isaiah spoke, and its fulfillment awaited the Christian era–awaited the living, not the dead.

Bonda says that "if God destines most people to eternal perdition, it would have been better if he had not created the world at all" (151). By way of reply:
i) Better for whom? Better for the damned? Yes! Better for the redeemed? No!
ii) Within the Reformed tradition, there is no received view on the relative number of the elect and reprobate. Actually, the question of how many are saved or damned has less immediate relation to predestination than it does to the condition of faith. Is faith in Christ is a prerequisite of salvation? To do away with hell, Bonda must not only do away with reprobation, but do away with faith in Christ. Of course, he has his pet theory of postmortem conversion, but I’ve already dealt with that.

Regarding Rom 9:23ff., Bonda says:
"To whom does he want to reveal this [the riches of his glory]? To the objects of his mercy? He would not need these objects of wrath for that purpose...No...he wants to show these objects of his wrath something of his mercy for the disobedient, for the heathen [Rom 9:25-26]. Once they were "objects of wrath"--"children of wrath," as we read in Eph 2:3...He wants to do the same for those who are now the objects of his wrath" (151). 
By way of reply:
i) In this very passage, Paul expressly affirms what Bonda denies: the vessels of mercy are the object of his glorious riches (v23).
ii) The vessels of wrath are instrumental to this aim, for mercy and justice are correlative. To withhold mercy and exact justice is illustrative of the wholly gratuitous character of grace.
iii) The way that Bonda draws the contrast, Jews are to objects of wrath (albeit temporarily) as Gentiles are to objects of mercy. But that is not how Paul draws the contrast. For Paul says that God is calling a people to himself from Jews and Gentiles alike (v24). So we have a part/whole relation here. It is not Jews as over against Gentiles, but some Jews and some Gentiles as over against other Jews and other Gentiles.
iv) Eph 2:3 alludes to original sin, whereas Rom 9:20ff. is spinning off the OT motif of the potter and the clay (Isa 29;16; 45-9-11; Jer 18:1-6). They are not interchangeable ideas.

Bonda quotes Ridderbos as denying that Rom 9 teaches the reprobation of Pharaoh or Esau. By way of reply:
i) Citing scholarly opinion is no substitute for argument. Perhaps Ridderbos has a supporting argument for his conclusion, but, if so, Bonda doesn’t quote it. So all the reader is left with is a baseless assertion.
ii) The predestinarian force of Rom 9 has received a detailed defense by the likes of Murray, Piper, and Schreiner.
iii) Even if what Ridderbos says is true, it is irrelevant. The case for reprobation and/or damnation does not depend on Scripture naming every reprobate. All that is needed to draw a conclusion in any specific case is a general statement concerning the preconditions of salvation (e.g., grace, faith, regeneration), in conjunction with enough information about an individual to draw a reasonable inference regarding his compliance, or not, with the requisite conditions. To be saved, one must be a believer. The burden of proof is on the believer. What is needed is not positive evidence that the individual is damned, but positive evidence that he was in a position and disposition to meet the preconditions of salvation.
iv) Again, even if what Ridderbos says is true, it misses the point. It is sufficient for Paul’s argument that an Esau, Ishmael or Pharaoh should typify the state of the reprobate, whether or not they themselves were reprobate.

Bonda glosses Rom 9:20 as follows:
"The point here is not that God has the absolute sovereignty to do as he pleases with his creatures and that he tolerates no protest. It is rather: Who are you, a mere human being, that you should tell God what he ought to make all people, the living and the dead, want to come and be saved" (155). By way of reply:
i) The question at issue is not how God deals with his creatures, but how he deals with sinners.
ii) Bonda’s interpretation assumes that Paul’s was teaching universalism, and his sparring partner took offense at that. But what evidence is there that this is how Paul’s words were generally understood? After all, Bonda believes that the church as a whole is guilty of misinterpreting Paul. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this is so, then why presume that Paul’s opponent thought otherwise?
iii) And if, moreover, Paul did not teach universal salvation, then Paul would be correcting his theological opponent.

Bonda asks,
"Where does Scripture speak about…[a] God who punishes people, and continues to punish people who have repented and have ceased to sin?" (228). 
By way of reply:
i) This is a stawman argument. There are no penitents in hell.
ii) As a matter of fact, there are Scriptures in which men repent of their sins, yet still suffer the consequences (e.g., 2 Sam 12:7-12; 2 Kgs 23:26-27; Heb 12:16).

In my opinion, Bonda is no more successful in making a case for universalism than Adams or Talbott. And it isn't for want of scholarly sophistication. But they are handicapped by the falsity of their position. Ability, however great, cannot overcome the disability of a crippling error.

No comments:

Post a Comment