Universal Salvation Book Review

Book Review on behalf of Dew Magazine/ezine, published by Tentmaker Ministries and Publications:

Universal Salvation? The Current Debate , ed. Parry and Partridge
Paternoster Press , Cumbria , UK and Waynesboro , GA USA , 2003
Review by Dr. Bruce A. Gerlach
Chair, Division of Performing and Professional Arts,
College of the Ozarks, Point Lookout , MO

The book Universal Salvation? is quite an unusual collection of essays. As the subtitle indicates it is actually a type of intense debate as argued by “evangelical” theologians from various opposing camps including Universalists (Thomas Talbott, Thomas Johnson, Eric Reitan and others), Arminians (Howard Marshall, Jerry Walls), a Calvinist/Augustinian scholar (Daniel Strange), and the views of Open Theism (John Sanders). Also included are two chapters outlining universalist thought through Church history (Morwenna Ludlow, David Hillborn and Don Horrocks). The reader is certainly confronted with a multiplicity of views on the topic. The writing is careful, cogent, logical, scholarly, at times pedantic and at other times passionate. It is impossible to agree with everything one reads in this book. The views expressed are quite divergent.

The general thrust of the book comes through via the thoughts of important evangelical scholars from a variety of belief/faith traditions as highlighted above. The word evangelical, above in quotes, is an important distinction. In chapter 11, titled “Universalistic Trends in the Evangelical Tradition: An Historical Perspective,” by Hillborn and Horrocks, the issue of mutual compatibility of the terms evangelical and universalist is discussed. These authors highlight the high regard for the scriptures and need for personal salvation through the finished work of Jesus Christ as hallmarks of the evangelical tradition. Certainly all of the authors in this volume make their position clearly known on these issues. Since many evangelicals will cry foul with the pejorative term “liberal” racing from their lips as soon as they hear an inkling of the concept of universal salvation, the reader can be assured that the authors of the essays in this book are far from the camp that calls into question the authority of the scriptures, the Deity of Christ or the veracity of the resurrection. To the contrary, it is clear to this reviewer that the foundations of evangelical thought are clearly adhered to and represented.

Most conservative evangelicals have been immersed in “hellfire and brimstone” to such an extent that the mere suggestion of the possibility that God may, or perhaps in the end, will pardon all is, in fact, seen as heretical or at least a sacrilege. In the first section of the book, Thomas Talbott, a conservative, evangelical universalist demonstrates logically that there are three main streams of thought among Christian theologians, the Calvinists/Augustinians with their belief in election of some to heaven and others to hell, the Arminians with their belief that God's will is for all to be saved but that many choose by free will not to be and are then consigned to hell for their ill choice, and Universalists who believe that God will at some point in time allow everyone to enjoy His presence in heaven. (Editor's note: It should be noted that most Christians who believe in universal salvation through the work of Jesus Christ not not call them selves “Universalists,” they simply call themselves Christians who believe in the many passages of Scriptures proving universal salvation.) Though the above is somewhat oversimplified from the careful treatment in the book, Talbott asks the questions why Calvinists do not believe that the Arminian view is heretical, and visa versa, but generally both believe that universalists are guilty of great heresy. Later in the book theologians from both camps address this and other questions raised by Talbott.

Since the subject of the book is “Universalism” the opening section by Talbott lays out very succinctly and logically his defense from a biblical perspective for his belief in “absolute universalism.” Besides being a meticulous and astute biblical scholar, Talbott also demonstrates his prowess as a logician and philosopher. His points are clear and persuasive. He (as well as all of the authors of this volume) uses copious and helpful end-notes to point bibliographically to other's work, to his own work in other places or to more fully explain the point being made. Though I did not read every end note in the whole volume, (this would have significantly increased the reading time) I frequently found the notes I turned to very helpful in comprehending the point or position being discussed.

Following Talbott's brilliant apologetic, the polemic of universalism is divided into four categories and each is treated by two authors with diverging views. The first is a set of biblical responses as authored by biblical scholars. The second approaches the topic philosophically. The third looks at the issue theologically and the fourth from a historical perspective. Even though there is some overlap of disciplines in the writing, this reviewer found the above organization of the subject matter quite beneficial to the understanding of the many and varied approaches to the topic.

In the first section of responses to Talbott, “Part II – Biblical Responses,” two are given, one opposed to Talbott and one in favor of his views with some alternatives. The arguments against his view (I. Howard Marshall, University of Aberdeen ) are at times strong and equally convincing and persuasive as Talbott's and at other times are rather weak and seem to be merely maintaining the traditional position without carefully explaining it.

In the next section, “Part III – Philosophical Responses,” the question of human freedom is debated. Human free will is a complex issue as it relates to soteriology (This term is used many times by nearly all of the authors who assume that the reader knows that this is the branch of theology that deals with salvation through Jesus Christ). Though unschooled in higher philosophical method, I certainly appreciated the careful and incisive writing in this section.

The section titled “Part IV - Theological Responses” gave the reviewer the most difficulty. Being from an evangelical background with some moorings in Calvinism and some in Arminianism, I have always appreciated when theologians give some leeway for various ways of understanding difficult texts. It is in this section that the reader is confronted with the defiantly absolute nature of Calvinist/Augustinian theology that this reviewer finds so severe and vindictive. While most of the authors in this volume were graciously resolute in their views, I found Daniel Strange's “A Calvinist Response” to be excessively dogmatic and unyielding. It is this attitude that divides rather than unites the Body of Christ. On the other hand it is highly praiseworthy that the editors of this volume included Strange as a representative for the many believers who hold his view. It is also noteworthy that Talbott's response to Strange in the last chapter of the book and on the book's website ( http://universalsalvation.net ) is neither incendiary nor arrogant, it is, rather, a gracious and convincing rebuttal in both logic and in biblical interpretation.

The fourth section with its historical perspective is quite helpful in that it traces universalist thought and belief from the earliest church fathers to the present. It especially highlights the progression of thought since the Protestant Reformation.

The last chapter of the book gives the “last word” to Talbott, which, as was mentioned above, was eloquent and convincing. Though the editors make no claim in the introduction or anywhere else in the volume to being partisan in this debate it seems clear that the emphasis of this book is on the viability of the doctrine of universalism and its ability (through the help of gifted thinkers and writers) to hold its own next to the more widely held views of Calvinism and Arminianism. I learned a lot from this book. It is neither an “easy read” nor overly difficult. The introduction by the editors is particularly full of uncommonly used terms and lofty rhetoric so I found it somewhat daunting and a little discouraging as I began to read. The remaining chapters, however, the real meat of the book, was at times quite engaging as well as compelling without being overly obscure. At other times, admittedly, the finer points of philosophy or theology are intricate and complex. But it is well worth the effort.

I highly recommend this book to readers who would like to consider in a rational way the position that God will be all in all and bring the entirety of creation back to Himself, who would like to consider the problems and explanations of this view and would like to grow in their love for and appreciation of the Father of us all. In the end, I believe that this view comes to us as Father reveals it to us in our spirit-man. The rational approach of this book only goes so far. It is a valuable and important contribution. The rest is between the reader and her or his Father in heaven.

Review on behalf of review committee at:

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