Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Universalism and United Methodism

In a previous post, I argued that there are no compelling reasons, historical or theological, to give the label "heresy" to the theological position known as "Christian universalism." While this position may be wrong, and while it certainly isn't so obvious that it commands the assent of all Christians, there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason why Christians shouldn't be allowed to hold such a view and still be considered to be within orthodoxy. You can affirm every line of the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed and still be a Christian universalist. After all, it was Gregory of Nyssa, an early Christian universalist, who was one of the final editors of the Nicene Creed.

In this post, I take up the question of whether Christian universalism is consistent with United Methodism. This is an important question for me as a United Methodist because even though Christian universalism may not be heresy, it could be reasonably argued that this position is not within the bounds of the United Methodist branch of the Christian faith. If I were trying to make the argument that United Methodists can't be Christian universalists, I would base my argument on the Confession of Faith, Article XII- The Judgment and the Future State:
We believe all men stand under the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ, both now and in the last day. We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation.
There are four distinct yet interrelated affirmations made in this article:
1) We believe in the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ. 
2) We believe in the resurrection of the dead. 
3) We believe the righteous receive eternal life. 
4) We believe the wicked receive endless condemnation.
Christian universalists can agree with the first three affirmations (and I do), but we would disagree, of course, with the last affirmation. Christian universalists do believe that ultimately wickedness will be forever condemned (in that all evil will be forever destroyed), but we do not believe that people will be subjected to condemnation without end. 

I am a Christian universalist and I am a United Methodist pastor, so I have a bit of an issue here. I clearly disagree with one of the four affirmations made in Article XII of our doctrinal standards.

While this might seem like an open and shut case, in that I clearly disagree with one of our doctrinal standards, the Book of Discipline itself does not offer a very clear and precise account of the nature of authority of our doctrinal standards. In the section "Doctrinal Standards in The United Methodist Church" (¶ 102), we are told that we stand "continually in need of doctrinal reinvigoration." Indeed, in principle, our doctrinal standards are open to change and subject to revision at every General Conference. 

Most importantly, though, is the fact that in "Our Theological Task" (¶ 104) we are clearly and specifically told that we should question our doctrinal heritage. These are some of the questions we are specifically told to ask of our expressions of the faith: "Are they true? Appropriate? Clear? Cogent? Credible? Are they based on love?" We are also told we "must appropriate creatively the wisdom of the past and seek God in [our] midst in order to think afresh about God, revelation, sin, redemption..." (italics mine) 

According to our BOD, our theological task as United Methodists is, in part, to be willing to raise important questions about out doctrinal heritage for the sake of renewal and even revision. So, one the one hand we have a collection of doctrinal standards that we say define us as a denomination, but on the other hand, we have in our official book of church law the clear and explicit charge to ask critical questions about our doctrinal heritage. 

One question I have is this: are we supposed to just ask questions so long as we end up agreeing with everything we already believe? And if that is the case, why question in the first place?

The theological position on the afterlife that I articulate in Flames of Love clearly goes against one of our doctrinal standards, yet it clearly accords with the instruction we are given in our theological task. I believe in Christian universalism primarily because I believe that is what the Bible as a whole teaches, and I use tradition, reason, and experience in the way I flesh out this view. The energizing center to my whole position is John Wesley's insistence that love is God's "reigning attribute." 

I should also be clear that I do not think United Methodism should change its official position to endorse Christian universalism, and I have no interest in working towards that goal. I believe that orthodox, biblical Christians can hold one of several views on hell. The early church was wise in allowing some diversity within orthodoxy on this issue. In the Nicene Creed and the Apostle's Creed, both products of the 4th-century church, we find affirmations of divine judgment and resurrection of the dead, but exactly how it all works out was left open and up to God. This seems like the path of wisdom to me. Believing that all people stand under divine judgment and that all people are surrounded by divine love is at the heart of our faith, but a particular view on how it all works out should be left open for discussion. 

I would like to see Article XII changed to reflect the openness of the early ecumenical creeds on this issue. Instead, it reflects the later Protestant scholastic tendency to want to nail down with precision official affirmations about virtually every theological idea. For the sake of "doctrinal reinvigoration," I think we need to be open to asking questions about matters such as this. I think there is a place within United Methodism for Christian universalism, not as an official position, but as one possible way of thinking about how to put together our belief in Christ's righteous judgment and in Christ's boundless love. I do not think that for United Methodists Christian universalism should ever become dogma that must be believed. But I do think there is value in presenting it as an orthodox, biblical option that can be believed, and that is what I am interested in. 


  1. The Scriptures actually do support the fact that Jesus is the Savior of the world. If God is love, and love never fails, will God lose any of His prized creation?

  2. I'm reading your book now for the second time. This time with a highlighter. Absolutely love it!!!