Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Is Universalism Heretical?

Is universalism outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy? That is, can a Christian believe in universalism and still be considered a good and faithful Christian? To answer this question, we first need to be clear on what we mean by "universalism." The kind of universalism I am interested in defending in my book also goes by the names "Christian universalism," "universal salvation," or "ultimate reconciliation." According to this perspective, all people will ultimately be saved through Christ. This perspective still has a place for judgment and punishment in the age to come (potentially severe, yet temporary in duration and restorative in function) and holds that Christ is the only savior of humankind. 

This distinctly Christian universalism stands in sharp contrast to pluralistic universalism (or "pluralism"), which holds that there are many equal paths to God, disregards any uniqueness in Christ's role in our salvation, and denies or downplays any role for divine judgment. It seems correct to me to say that this kind of pluralism is in fact heretical, in so far as it denies the uniqueness of Christ's revelation of God and Christ's mediation of God's salvation to humanity. In saying that, I do not mean to imply that people who hold pluralism to be true are wicked or stupid, or anything of the sort. I just mean to make the judgment that this perspective does not seem to be within the bounds of orthodox Christian faith. 

Another distinction that is important within Christian universalism is between what theologians usually refer to as "dogmatic" and "hopeful" universalism, or "necessary" and "contingent" universalism, as contemporary analytic philosophers of religion call it. Dogmatic/necessary universalism declares strongly that God will in fact save all people, while hopeful/contingent universalism simply claims it is possible that God will save all people. It is usually the dogmatic/necessary type of universalism that Christians tend to label heretical. It is ok to hope in universal salvation, but to believe in it and proclaim is taking it too far. 

From my theological perspective, I do believe it is inevitable that all will be ultimately saved by God through Christ.  So, I am more than just hopeful, in the sense of just wanting it to be true but not thinking it is likely to happen. However, I do not claim to know with certainty that my theological perspective is true. So, my view is more than merely "hopeful," but it also falls short of being "dogmatic." In my system of theological belief, I do think it is necessarily true that all will be saved. Yet, I do not claim to know with certainty that my theological system is true. I hope it is, and I think I have good reasons for thinking it is, but I could be wrong.

When Christians label a belief system as "heretical," they may mean to say that the church at an early ecumenical council made such an authoritative declaration and we are bound by it, or they may mean to say that as a theological judgment (regardless of what previous councils have said) it is false and dangerous for Christians to believe. I will respond to both senses of the charge of heresy.

I have often hear Christians say that the church has condemned universalism. What they are referring to is the 553 Second Council of Constantinople (the fifth of the seven ecumenical councils). There is a great deal of historical debate about exactly what was stated at this council. There is no doubt that the council condemned Origen (an early Christian universalist) in its eleventh anathema, yet the precise reason is not stated. There is no reference to universal salvation in this anathema or in the other thirteen. However, there are fifteen additional anathemas stated against Origen that may have come from this council, or they might have been appended later, and, if so, do not have the authority of the council's decision. Even if we assume that the fifteen anathemas against Origen do have the authoritative backing of the council, it is clear that Origen's belief in universal salvation is inextricably bound up with his understanding of the pre-existence of human souls and their destiny to return to a purely spiritual state. So, the council doesn't claim to condemn belief in universal salvation as such; it only condemns the particularly Origenist view of what universal salvation entails, namely, a return of souls to a pre-existent state. 

Complicating factors is that in addition to the council's fourteen historically certain anathemas, and the additional fifteen anathemas against Origen that are historically uncertain, there are also nine anathemas against Origen by the Emperor Justinian in 543 that were made in a more local meeting of bishops. The ninth anathema clearly condemns belief in a universal reconciliation of "demons and of impious men." It is sometimes assumed that this declaration of Justinian carries the authority of the fifth ecumenical council, but this anathema is not repeated at the ecumenical council of 553. If Justinian intended to condemn belief in universal salvation as such, then the authoritative council a decade later did not carry this forward. 

One of the central pieces of evidence that the fifth ecumenical council did not intend to condemn belief in universal salvation as such, but only Origen's particular version of it, is that Gregory of Nyssa was never condemned for his belief in universal salvation. Gregory's universalism was not related to any notions of human beings pre-existing in a purely spiritual state in heaven, and so his type of universalism was never condemned. That he was never deemed heretical is high significant, given his authority and stature in the early church. Gregory of Nyssa was a key formulator of orthodox doctrine, and had a large role in the production of the Nicene Creed. He was so highly revered that at the seventh ecumenical council in 787, he was given the title "father of fathers" and is still revered as such today. Since we can reasonably suppose an ecumenical council would not give such high honors to someone who held a view that was  deemed heretical by a previous ecumenical council, we can safely assume that the fifth ecumenical council did not intend, and was not later understood as intending, to condemn belief in universal salvation as such. 

All of this historical explanation, however, is not really necessary to respond to the charge of heresy from a Protestant perspective. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians consider the seven ecumenical councils as strongly authoritative, while Protestant denominations are divided on how many of the councils, if any, are considered authoritative. Even those Protestant denominations that do give them some level of authority clearly subordinate their authority to that of Scripture. For Protestants, Scripture is always primary in the formation of our theology. If Scripture is primary, then how can we use tradition (in this case, a decision from an ancient church council) as a theological trump card? 

For Protestants, the determination of what is orthodox and what isn't can never be decided solely by church tradition. Interestingly, the same council that many people (erroneously) assume declared that all forms of Christian universalism are heretical also declared, in its second anathema, for it to be heretical to deny the perpetual virginity of Mary. Protestants have tended to not take this as binding because it seems to go against some clear affirmations in Scripture that Mary and Joseph had marital relations after the birth of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 1:25). So, for Protestants, anything declared in an ancient ecumenical council is, in principle, open to revision in the light of better understandings of Scripture. 

Historically speaking, most Christians consider the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed to be the touchstones of orthodoxy. It would seem odd to me to apply the label "heretic" to someone (like myself, for example) who affirms both of these creeds. You can affirm these creeds and still be a universalist, as there are no affirmations of an everlasting hell to be found in these creeds. 

So, taken in the historical sense, the charge of heresy does not seem to be appropriate to all forms of universalism.

Theologically, some might argue that universalism is still heretical because it denies what most Christians throughout the ages have believed, namely, that there is an everlasting hell and that some will be forever lost. Here I will offer the response of an 18th-century Baptist universalist preacher (yes, you read that right) named Elhanan Winchester. Winchester argued that universalism shouldn't be considered heretical because it simply draws a logical conclusion from two orthodox premises:

1) God desires to save all people.
2) God has the power to accomplish God's redemptive desires.

How, Winchester argued, can you get an heretical conclusion by putting together two orthodox premises? Calvinists deny (1) and affirm (2). Arminians affirm (1) but deny (2). Universalists affirm both (1) and (2) and get the conclusion that God will ultimately save all people. Another way to put the point is to consider these statements:

1) God desires to save all people.
2) God has the power to accomplish God's redemptive desires.
3) Some people will spend an eternity in hell. 

Calvinists, Arminians, and universalists all affirm two of these statements and deny one of them. Since Calvinists strongly disagree with Arminians but do not label them heretics, and since Arminians strongly disgree with Calvinists but not label them heretics, then why should Calvinist and Arminian Christians think that universalist Christians are heretics? Why is it that some Christians are willing to allow for disagreement over (1) and (2), but not (3)? 

So, whether understood in a historical sense or in a more conceptual theological sense, I cannot see why Christian universalism should be given the label "heresy." 


  1. Great read, Heath. Been following your stuff from afar. (Currently studying at Duke Div.) I look forward to returning to ARUMC; it'll be nice to talk about your book and other theological interests. Grace & Peace. - Dane Womack

    1. Hi Dane! Thanks for writing. Hope you are having a good time at Duke. I look forward to getting to visit with you sometime.


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  3. I read the portions of your book available via Amazon's "Look Inside" feature. I admire how agilely you can weave about within the womb of orthodox Christianity -- as you must, of course, being a pastor -- and arrive at the only conclusion consistent with a Creator who IS LOVE. Your theological efforts remind me of the process Jesus must have used to bring forth the best and truest from the ancient Jewish faith of his time to inspire humanity to see a higher path, a higher Law, all without violating their sacred heritage.

    So far in my studies I tend more toward the pluralist version of universalism, but not entirely. Although I don’t feel constrained to uphold Christian orthodoxy, I have committed myself to follow Jesus.

    Looking forward to ordering your book and reading the whole thing soon. Congratulations on birthing this important contribution to spiritual thought.


    1. Thanks for writing Patricia. I love your image of squirming around in the womb of orthodoxy. That's exactly what I am doing, although she may feel like I am kicking too much! I also appreciate the analogy with Jesus' relationship with Judaism, in that he transformed a faith from within out of what he saw as the theological center. Not putting myself in the same ballpark as him, but that is that task I am engaged in as I see it. I hope to send out some more books to folks this week and I still plan on sending you one as a gift, so hold off on ordering. Take care.

  4. Just stumbled upon your blog via your guest post for Kurt Willems. This is a great post!

    I'm going to have to add your book to my reading list for this year.... Are there any plans to release an ebook version?

  5. Thanks, Benjamin. I think it will be another 4-6 months before released on Kindle.

  6. Awesome stuff, Heath.

    May I repost on my blog?