Evangelical Universalism: Oxymoron?

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Evangelical Universalism:
Oxymoron?
Robin Parry
S
Can an evangelical be a universalist?
S Universalists say that God will save all people
S Historically almost all evangelicals have denied this and
evangelical statements of faith seek to exclude it
S Surely “evangelical universalism” is an oxymoron!
S My claim: Evangelical opposition to universalism is
contingent and not an entailment of evangelical
commitment
What is “evangelical”
universalism?
S Aside from affirming orthodox Christian faith and holding a
high view of Scripture an EU holds two beliefs: EU1 and
EU2
S EU1: “in the end, God will reconcile all people to himself
through Christ’s atoning work”
S EU2: “EU1 is a biblical belief”
S My version maintains most of the normal evangelical beliefs,
with two adjustments: (a) a belief that people can be
redeemed from hell, and (b) a belief that, in the end, all will
be redeemed from hell
Why think universalism is
essentially unevangelical?
S Most evangelicals think that the Bible contradicts universalism
S But universalists believe that their view is biblical
S Even if they are mistaken their mistake would only exclude them
from evangelicalism if it involved them affirming something
incompatible with a central evangelical beliefs
S If it does not then it can be tolerated as an evangelical-compatible
error (like Calvinism )
S So does universalism entail a denial of key evangelical belief ?
1. Universalism undermines the
seriousness of sin
S “It does not matter what we do because God will save us all
anyway”
S EU has a strong view of human sin
S But a high view of grace
S “Where sin abounds grace abounds all the more”
2. Universalism undermines
divine justice and wrath
S Universalists sentimentalize God’s love and ignore God’s
justice and wrath (“it’s God’s job to forgive us; he is too nice
to damn anyone”)
S EU seeks to have a biblical, Christ-shaped understanding of
God’s love
S EU does not ignore divine justice nor divine wrath and
punishment
S EU arguably has a more theologically satisfying
understanding of the divine nature as holy love
3. Universalism undermines hell
S The “hell” of universalists “ain’t a bad place to be” (the
same objection is made to annihilationists)
S If hell is only fearful if it maximally horrible then this
objection stands . . .
S But that something is not maximally horrible does not mean
that it is not very horrible and to be avoided
S (as an aside, the ECT vision of hell is riddled with problems
so EU’s failure to affirm ECT is perhaps a strength)
4. Universalism undermines
Christ’s role in salvation
S Universalism says that “all roads lead to God—Christ is
only a way to the Father but not the way”
S EU maintains that Christ is the only way to the Father and
that salvation is only through union with Christ
S EU can be inclusivist or exclusivist
5. Universalism undermines the
importance of faith in Christ
S “Christ will save us all so it does not matter whether we
believe in him or not”—the significance the NT attaches to
faith is undermined
S If one is an exclusivist EU then faith in Christ is a necessary
condition for salvation
S If one is an inclusivist EU then faith in Christ is relativised
(though Christ’s role is not) but not unimportant (NOTE:
the inclusivism, not the universalism, is the issue)
6. Universalism undermines
evangelism
S “Why proclaim the gospel to people if they will be saved
anyway?” Universalism undermines evangelism
S The gospel is God’s means for saving people—so we
proclaim it (cf. Calvinism)
S Arminian universalists do have fear of hell as a motivation
for evangelism (hell is more of a motivation for them than
for the Calvinist)
S Fear of hell is not the only motive for gospel-proclamation
(indeed universalism adds its own motivations)
7. Universalism undermines the
doctrine of the Trinity
S Universalism is often linked with Unitarianism: one heresy
often leads to another
S The link is partial: Trinitarian Universalism is older and
longer-lasting
S The link is historically contingent: nothing about
universalism entails Unitarianism
8. Universalism was declared a
“anathema” by the Church
S Universalism was declared heresy by an ecumenical church
council so universalists are “unorthodox” and hence
“unevangelical”
S Only a specific version of universalism (Origenism) was
declared anathema by the church, not universalism per se
9. Historically evangelicalism
has rejected universalism
S True (almost)
S But I claim that this rejection is contingent and not necessary so
on its own it is not decisive
S Evangelicalism is a living tradition with capacity for healthy
development
S Which central evangelical beliefs do “evangelical” universalists
deny?
S EU arises from evangelical convictions: the saving will of God, the
redeeming power of the Christ’s atonement, the efficacious work
of the Spirit, a belief that in the end Christ triumphs, etc.
Elhanan Winchester
(1751–1797)
S Baptist—revivalist preacher in USA
S Came to believe in “universal restoration”
S Founded Universalist Baptist Church in Philadelphia and
another in London
S Remained evangelical in his theology of Trinity, atonement,
Bible, evangelism, etc.
S Remained active in gospel-preaching
EU grows from common
evangelical conviction
S Arminian: God loves all people, wants to save all people, and sent
Christ to die for all people to achieve this goal
S Calvinist: God will achieve all his purposes in salvation; all for
whom Christ died will be saved
S Both A and C are evangelical so are EUs unevangelical for
holding both belief-sets?
S A & C combined entail universalism . . .
S . . . or must evangelicals believe that either (a) cannot save all, or (b)
does not want to save all?
EU grows from the evangel
S Our eschatology must be grounded in God’s revelation in
Christ
S At Calvary we see hell (which turns out to be neither
annihilation nor eternal torment)
S In the resurrection we see new creation
S In the resurrection of the Second Adam, all humanity has
already been saved
S The eschaton—end of the story—is already revealed in Christ
(this is why I am not just a “hopeful” universalist)
EU and Bebbington’s
Quadrilateral
S EU is consistent with Bebbington’s quadrilateral:
S Biblicism
S Crucicentrism
S Conversionism
S Activism
Evangelical Universalism
S Creedal orthodoxy and high view of Scripture
S Christocentric
S Trinitarian
S Evangel-focused
S Missional
S Biblically rooted
S My Question: What else does one have to be to count as “evangelical”?

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