Why I am not a Universalist – 5 initial reasons against Universalism

I'm about to read The Evangelical Universalist. A dear brother and friend gave me a copy this morning, asking me to consider it carefully and prayerfully, for both his sake and us all. Before doing this, I though it would be good to give a 'calibration' zero point for future reference: this is where I'm starting from before I begin reading. That way when I post reflections throughout and a proper review after, we can refer back to this.

Before I being let me stress, as I've commented elsewhere, that I realise this is a very serious subject, sensitive to many as it should be to all, involving deep complexities for some. It comes with my sincere prayerfulness and genuine heartfelt sorrow over the fate of the wicked, but even more so a passion for the truth and God's glory and holiness to be seen in all his judgments.

I have no formal theological training. I'm just a Christian and a prolific reader of the Bible and have been so for many years.

With this in mind, here are 5 reasons why I am not a Universalist; these are my initial reasons against Universalism and the things this book at the very least needs to correct me on if it is going to make any proper case for Universalism:
1.The Bible really does teach 'eternal' punishment

2.The Bible really does teach 'eternal' sin

3.Jesus taught a hell of 'permanency' and 'finality'

4.There is no textual evidence of any 'reversal' of the last judgment

5.Universalism cannot be justified from the texts that Universalists take support from
What follows is a brief (and rushed, 'last minute') description of each argument, as I'm about to go away for 4 days to spend time with family and read, pray, read, pray.

1. ‘Aionion’ (eternal) punishment

Re: ‘Aionion’ (eternal) punishment and Mt 18:8; 25:41, 46; 2 Thes 1:9

‘Aion’ means ‘old age’ and is used of the never ending ‘age to come’. This lead to the derivative adjective: ‘aionion’ - which means “eternal” or “everlasting”. The certainty of this adjective meaning ‘endless duration’ is unquestionable because of the following:

1). These words are used to describe God. This same adjective denotes God as “eternal” king (1 Tim 1:17), “eternal” God (Rom 16:26), God “forever” (Rom 11:36), and God blessed “forever” (2 Cor 11:31). If this adjective is fit for describing God it cannot possibly have the meaning of “limited duration”.

2).The same adjective is used for both eternal punishment and eternal life (Mt 25:46). Neither can be more limited than the other. If the state of the reward of the righteous in Mt 25:46 is an endless duration so must it be describing the duration of punishment of the wicked.

2. Eternal sin

Re: Eternal sin and Mark 3:29; Matt 12:22-32; Heb 6:4-6 & 1 Jn 5:16

The unforgivable sin in Mark 3:29 is explained by Jesus thus: “he is guilty of an eternal sin”. The very oldest manuscripts have this translation. This is actually far worse than some translations that inadequately translate this as “in danger of eternal damnation/judgment” (The ESV and NIV are right to translate this as “guilty of an eternal sin”): This is a sin committed as an event at one point within time, for which there is no forgiveness forever beyond that point. That is the meaning of “neither in this life or in the life to come” : he has committed an ETERNAL sin.

1 John 5:16 adds to this also. In the context of praying for the sins of others, and God granting forgiveness: “there is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.” There are two examples within the NT that describe this specifically: The unforgivable sin of Mt 12:22-32 & Mk 3:29, as well as the sin of Hebrews 6:4-6 of which it is impossible to bring back to repentance. In these instances the Holy Spirit is so outraged that no further access to his forgiveness will be granted.

Therefore John tells us in 1Jn5:16 in these situations not to pray for that sin or that sinner. Why? Because it is against God’s will. God will not ever forgive that one sin once committed. It is impossible for him to bring them back to repentance because that would require a second crucifixion of Jesus.

So let me ask you, how could you believe that this person has still a possibility of salvation in hell, with the following being plain in the Bible about these people:

  1. Eternally sinful – since their unpardonable sin puts them in a state of permanent rejection of God’s spirit
  2. No one praying for them (in this life or the next)
  3. God never to forgive them for that one sin of the past & present so they will be eternally unforgiven for it
  4. God unable to bring them back to repentance (he has no second son to crucify; no second spirit to offer them) so that they are eternally unrepentant

3. Jesus intention to describe a hell of permanence and finality

The intention of Jesus’ descriptions, his metaphors and his explanations of hell, together with the gospel writers, is to communicate both 'permanence' and 'finality', and they give nothing to the contrary. Below is just a sample:

A. Jesus descriptions:

  • Mk 9:43; cf Lk 3:17 “the fire does not go out”
  • Mk 9:47-48 “their worm does not die & the fire not quenched”

B. Explanations:

  • Mk 3:29; Mt 12:32 “he has committed an eternal sin”...”will not be forgiven neither in this life nor the life to come”
  • John 3:36, “whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him”

C. Jesus’ metaphors

  • Mt 25:10 the “door is shut”
  • Mt 8:12, Lk 13:28 they are “thrown out” and “thrown outside”
  • Lk 16:26 the chasm is impassable
More references could be given. Again, the intention of these Gospel references to hell, mostly from Jesus, is to communicate both 'permanence' and 'finality' in God's sentence on the unrighteous, and these references also at the same time communicate neither anything to the contrary, or anything additional to temper this.

4. There is no textual evidence of any 'reversal' of the last judgment in the NT

I cannot find one saying that plainly speaks of an end of punishment for those condemned to hell. Can you?

If Jesus wanted to teach anything other than eternal damnation and continuous punishment, why did he not leave one saying plainly indicating so?

In the NT there is no indication whatsoever that punishment of sin ever ceases. The last judgment of the wicked is permanent.


5. Universalism cannot be justified from the textual 'support' that Universalists rely on

There are leagues of verses that Universalists 'interpret' as implying that 'all' (meaning every person in existence without exception) will finally be saved, But from what I understand they fall into three categories:

  1. God’s good 'will' toward all (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9)
  2. The universal 'scope' of the cross (2 Cor 5:19; Col 1:20; Tit 2:11; Heb 2:9; 1 Jn 2:2)
  3. The 'wide' reach of the atonement (Jn 12:32; Rom 5:18; Eph 1:10)
But to interpret any of these references to use them to show that God will in the end save 'everybody' is clearly...

  1. Going beyond what the writers have actually said
  2. Going beyond their intention
  3. Ignoring the contexts of these references in which there are usually other references to either condemnation of the wicked or a final divorce of good and evil


Bibliography: New Bible Dictionary; Evangelical Dictionary of Theology; Dictionary of Biblical Theology.

Universalism - Whether to draw the line?

I've been having a great discussion with an Anonymous writer about Universalism, following this article, in which I pointed to three situations in which the Bible commands Christians to break fellowship: 1) with questionable 'Christians', 2) with false teachers, and 3) with disobedient but true Christians. In these situations the Bible calls for disunity.

"What about Christian Universalism?" was the question. Is Evangelical Universalism an example of something falling into the category of theologoumena (Something that is neither a teaching that all orthodox believers are expected to adhere to, nor something that they must avoid at all costs)?

I've got permission to publish the full dialogue to-date here on this blog. My reasons for doing this are two fold:
  1. I want to continue the conversation in a space dedicated to this question.
  2. I want to make this available generally for the benefit and contribution of others.
We pick up the trail here:

Anonymous said...

It's hard to know the best way to ask the question, I'll have a go.

I'm an Evangelical Universalist. I believe almost everything a Calvinist Evangelical believes, except that God will give people the opportunity in Hell to repent and accept Jesus as King. Therefore, eventually Hell will become empty and He will have permanently eradication Evil everywhere, including Hell.

I believe God tells us this in His inspired Word in many places, and that there are logical and biblical ways to view some of the passages that appear on the surface to teach otherwise.

To relate it back to your post, should I break fellowship with my mainstream church? Should my church break fellowship with me? Does this view of Hell fall into the category of Theologoumena?

December 14, 2010

Joe Towns said...

Re: Theologoumena, and Universalism

It's also hard to know the best way to answer your question, as I don't know your context, history, practice, involvement in church, to name a few important factors in giving a reliably and complete response. But I'll also give it a go.

Starting with the first aspect to your question which relates to theologoumena: 'Does Universalism fall into the category of something that is neither a teaching that all orthodox believers are expected to adhere to, nor something that they must avoid at all costs)?'

No the view of hell that is created by Universalism does not fall into the category of 'theologoumena.' All recipients of God's special revelation through his word are called to repent and trust in Christ now in this life in view of certainty of otherwise eternal judgment following death in the body. This is an elementary truth of Christianity (Hebrews 6:3).

And so universalism is something that should be avoided because followed it through to it's consequential conclusions, its endpoints distort almost every other doctrine of the Bible including every other aspect of the gospel: from creation to new-creation; from sin and evil to God's righteousness and justice; from the Bible's notion of pre-destination and justification to condemnation and everlasting judgment; from our understanding of the cross through to his second-coming and his eternal purposes which he accomplished in Christ.

As mentioned earlier all doctrine is interrelated and interdependent and we must humbly accept all of God's word as God's word, regardless of what we would otherwise believe and presently want to believe: hard bits and easy, likable and not, emotionally comforting and emotionally unthinkable, intellectually satisfying and intellectually torturous.

However, and it is a big HOWEVER: the same applies to Arminianism and for that matter every other common misunderstanding of any key vital gospel truth, as with every other man-made doctrinal system that has its origin in our history rather than His story.

These things are common and I have NOT in my article placed these types of general difficulties in doctrine and thinking among Christians necessarily into the category of 1. Questionable Christianity, 2. False Teaching, or 3. Disobedient but true Christianity. It's of course possible that belief in Universalism could and does spill over into one or multiple of those categories, but not necessarily.

Because of this the answer to the second aspect of your question -- about whether or not you should in good conscience break fellowship with your mainstream Evangelical church -- depends a lot on a number of things you need to consider, some of which I will try to briefly list (not comprehensively) in a follow on comment.

December 15, 2010

Joe Towns said...

Re: Whether Universalists should break with mainstream Evangelicals

There are a number of factors that need to be considered together and held together within the one decision, like separate arcs of the one circle:

(1). It depends on your direction

Are you on the way in or on a journey directed outwards; that is, are you working through these questions and struggling through with these difficulties and wrestling with concepts of universalism that you can't help presently entertaining, or are you becoming increasingly set in that paradigm and becoming further entrenched in a new mindset that is leading you to further revisions of doctrine? I know you'd want to say neither, but if forced to put yourself on one side of the fence, which would it be?

If your on the way out in your thinking, then leave. If you're on the way in (albeit ever so struggling and maybe never getting there but always trying), then stay.

(2). It depends on your fruit

Are you displaying in good conscience the fruit of the spirit, and increasingly so, so that the Holy Spirit testifies with you and reveals to others that you are more and more being given over to abounding love that comes from a certain faith in Christ's work for you to give you the hope of eternal rescue from everlasting damnation; or are you increasingly being given over to divisiveness, contention, dischord and questioning of the faithful work of evangelists and preachers who hold unswervingly to Jesus' warnings about a hell whose torment does not die?

If you are growing in the fruit of righteousness and the obedience that comes from a love of the truth, then stay. But if you are becoming a threat to the faith of others and potentially endanger the work of good teachers by your universalism, then leave.

(3). It depends on your self-control

Are you able to recognise that universalism is serious and so outside what others you respect consider to be an acceptable reading of the New Testament that you have enough doubt in yourself to at least be happy to remain silent in your views in this area; or are you resolved to spread your ideas and increasingly passionate about their importance, determined to voice them and possibly even convert others to universalism?

If you've got the self-control of the former, then stay, but if the latter, then go.

(4). It depends on whether you're a leader, let alone a teacher.

Leaders are required to give account for all of their beliefs and should be open to question by the Christian community let alone their church members; teachers even more so will be judged more strictly and must like all elders and senior leaders in the church conform to a full soundness of doctrine, regardless of whether they are required to teach on every point of 'orthodox' belief.

If you're a leader let alone a teacher, and not prepared to step down in that role, then go. If your not in that role, or you're prepared to step down temporarily until you work it through, or indefinitely if the end is not insight with your struggles in this area, then stay.


It's hoped that these variables will help you to form a framework for how you might assess that decision and evaluate what you should do. It's still not a complete answer. I'd like to talk about the examples of C S Lewis, John Stott, Mark Driscoll, because those things help get practical with real scenarios. I'd of course like to talk more directly about the subject of Universalism with you to find out whether you're convinced that you've considered that position adequately and are open to a re-think. But tempted as I am, I won't go there. You've not asked me that question, and I've said enough already for now.

December 15, 2010

Anonymous said...

I appreciate you taking the time to explore this with me. Like you, I'll break my response into the two issues.

"the view of hell that is created by Universalism does not fall into the category of 'theologoumena.'" Not surprisingly, I disagree. However, I'm not surprised that you say that, as I think it right to question things, particularly things that aren't mainstream :)

"All recipients of God's special revelation through his word are called to repent and trust in Christ now in this life in view of certainty of otherwise eternal judgment following death in the body. This is an elementary truth of Christianity." I totally agree, except for the "in this life" restriction of God's mercy. Where do you find this restriction in the bible?

"its endpoints distort almost every other doctrine of the Bible" That's a very big statement, remembering that I hold mainstream Evangelical views, as far I know, on almost all other doctrines. Please give me an example, of what and how another doctrine is distorted?

"we must humbly accept all of God's word as God's word, regardless of what we would otherwise believe and presently want to believe: hard bits and easy, likable and not, emotionally comforting and emotionally unthinkable, intellectually satisfying and intellectually torturous." I totally agree, although I humbly suggest that there are many passages that Calvinists don't accept on face value. For example, "we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe."(1Tim 4:10b ESV) Note the Greek word translated "people" is anthropos, i.e. humans. This is a good passage as it also shows God is the only Saviour and that there's still a definite benefit of being a believer now.

"as with every other man-made doctrinal system that has its origin in our history rather than His story." Please show me how Universalism has it's origin in our history whereas somehow Calvinism doesn't?

"These things are common and I have NOT in my article placed these types of general difficulties in doctrine and thinking among Christians necessarily into the category of 1. Questionable Christianity, 2. False Teaching, or 3. Disobedient but true Christianity. It's of course possible that belief in Universalism could and does spill over into one or multiple of those categories, but not necessarily." Sorry I don't understand what you mean here?

December 15, 2010

Anonymous said...

"(1). It depends on your direction" I've been a mainstream Evangelical Christian for about 25 years. About 10 years ago I came across Universalism but ended up leaving it in the too hard to prove basket. 6 months ago, I came across some very well written and biblically based books which presented the arguments for it. I've rigorously discussed and prayed about it with my family and an Anglican Minister. And briefly with one of my church leaders, who said he'd have to look into it more before giving me his opinion. The more I look into it the more bible passages leap out of the page as God reveals them. So obviously it's not something I've taken on-board lightly, but neither is it something that I would give away lightly now that I believe it to be biblically true.

"(2). It depends on your fruit" Well I'm glad you asked, because it's be really remarkable. I've found myself loving people more, praying more, reading the bible more, obeying God more and generally thinking about God more. Hopefully, people who know me see the fruits too. Obviously it saddens me when preachers teach endless conscious torment (ECT), but I realise they're probably doing so because that's what they have been taught/believe, and still love, pray and support them. If I knew them personally, I might have a quiet conversation afterwards but probably leave it at that.

"(3). It depends on your self-control" Obviously when I see people misunderstanding the bible or even worse misrepresenting God, I feel the urge to speak. However, so far I have restrained myself a lot, for the sake of harmony. It's only possible by God's Spirit for people to see His Truth, so I may try to explain things, like I'm doing here, but it's up to God what happens next. I try not to push it on people, if that's what you're getting at.

"(4). It depends on whether you're a leader, let alone a teacher." I'm not a leader or teacher, and never have been. I agree that they need to be held extra accountable.

"I'd like to talk about the examples of C S Lewis, John Stott, Mark Driscoll, because those things help get practical with real scenarios." Please do, as I am a fan of CS Lewis and Mark (I just haven't read much of John Stott).

"I'd of course like to talk more directly about the subject of Universalism with you to find out whether you're convinced that you've considered that position adequately and are open to a re-think." For now, anonymously is all I can do as I don't want my family to loose their community over my beliefs. Hopefully, one day we can talk more directly :)

December 15, 2010

Joe Towns said...

Can I first say well done for adopting your sincere approach and genuine questioning: As you say, it is right to question these things, particularly if you find you’re beginning to cease aligning with what has been mainstream Christian thought throughout church history.

And let me also so that I deeply believe the discussions on this topic (in particular) should always be given accompanied by a sincere sadness of spirit (if not weeping, at least a broken heart) as we contemplate God’s sentence on the unrepentant. And so in this regard I genuinely ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy as I approach this topic with a far from adequate godliness, remembering Christ who wept over Jerusalem and Paul who could have entertained the notion of being accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of his people.

December 16, 2010

Joe Towns said...

Re: Where do you find a “in this life” restriction in the Bible on the possibility of God’s mercy?

Throughout the NT but three quick examples for the sake of brevity:

1) Matthew 12:32. Whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven “either in this age or in the age to come.” The context is people’s response in the present life. The second reference to the age to come thereafter keeps this text from being ambiguous. All sins will be forgiven men except this one sin; in other words, this is the sin that condemns people to hell: despising the Holy Spirit. This is unforgivable because, as God has no other Son to offer for our sins if he be rejected, God has no other Spirit to make Christ’s work effectual to us if the Holy Spirit is despised.

2) Hebrews 6:2ff. It is impossible to bring back to repentance those who have fallen away after once being enlightened in this life, because they are crucifying Christ a second time. Although of course this verse does not apply directly to your ‘average Joe’ who simply continues in unbelief in this life up until his death, it does apply indirectly to all as a clear warning of the consequence of rejection in this life leaving no possibility for future repentance or mercy thereafter.

3) 2 Thessalonians 1:8. Those who do not know God or obey the gospel, at Christ’s coming (which is at a discrete finite time-event) will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction. The following reference to being shut out from the presence of the Lord unavoidably must go together with the notion of eternal punishment, so that this sentence is irreversible.

In the NT all descriptions of judgment – whether ‘fire’, ‘punishment’, ‘destruction’, or ‘judgement’ – are described as eternal and so irreversible.

December 16, 2010

Joe Towns said...

Re: An example of Universalism distorting other doctrines:

Please note that I realise that universalism is very diverse with as many different varieties as people writing about it. So this of course makes it difficult to give examples that are specifically true in all instances. While I’d want my criticism to take into account the complexities, the examples below are generalisations.

Two quick examples for now: (If all have the hope of eternal life both before and beyond death, then --)

1.The biblical doctrine of sin is leaked of its full gravity: instead of sins against an infinitely holy and glorious God being infinitely evil and so deserving eternal punishment, sin is less serious because regardless of the greatness of God sins against him are committed by finite and ignorant people and do not deserve the punishment that God in his justice has promised to deliver.

And rather than people being inescapably sinful except for the mercy of God to give them repentance and faith by his grace alone, so that those in hell continually refuse to acknowledge God and so deserve continual punishment, instead every person has the ability to turn to God and will do so if pressed hard enough, even if it requires preliminary torture in hell to cause them to change their minds.

Consequently God’s justice cannot demand eternal punishment because that would be ‘unjust’, because the sins of every person in this view do actually come to an end. Punishment, rather than God’s spirit, causes people in hell to eventually stop sinning. And where they stop sinning, God’s punishment must stop. By default then at that moment they must be admitted into eternal life by God.

2.The biblical doctrine of eternal punishment (Heb 6:2) is gutted: rather than it paralleling ‘eternal’ life (as in Mt 25:46), which all agree to be truly everlasting, ‘eternal punishment’ adopts a nullified definition of “eternal” (no longer actually meaning ‘everlasting’ as eternal life does) together with a demoted definition of “punishment” (no longer referring to deserved and ‘final’ justice without mercy, but instead it actually becomes another form of mercy because it serves to actually ‘discipline’ people in order to teach them and so cause them to repent).

December 16, 2010

Joe Towns said...

Re: 'Many Calvinists don’t accept many passages on face value'

Agreed: Already reaffirmed that point in previous comments related to Infant Baptism.

December 16, 2010

Joe Towns said...

Re: 1Timothy 4:10b, “God, who is the Saviour of all people”

Don’t make too much of ‘anthropos’, which may even be translated as ‘husband’ depending on context. From the little Greek I know, and checking back with my Gk-Eng dictionary anyway, ‘anthropos’ means when plural: People; mankind, humanity; husband; son; servant.

The verse just reads “all men,” similar to the way for example that Acts 2:17 speaks of “all flesh” receiving the outpouring of the Spirit, not at all meaning all flesh ‘on the planet’.

God is of course also elsewhere referred to as the Judge of ‘all’ and the Father of ‘all’, but in those situations we would not dare to conclude from those references alone a Universal ‘judgment’ on all nor a Universal ‘adoption’ of all. Only when we look at these texts with a broad view within their context, as we need to with all texts, including 1 Tim 4:10, do we keep ourselves from speculating about them from isolation. We see from the broader context what is intended by the reference to “all” and “saviour” (and “judge” and “father” of all):

There was only ever one Saviour for all Israel in the context of Israel’s history. The Prophets of Old declared that. But this fact did not result at that time in ‘salvation’ for all Israel, because the people of which God was Saviour rejected him as their Saviour. And the permanent destruction of the 10 northern Israel tribes by the Assyrians, only leaving Judah behind, is a grim picture (albeit on the temporary stage of his kingdom as revealed in Israel as nation) of the irreversibility of God’s final judgment when it falls.

That is the context and language that the New Testament picks up. This is why Paul adds the reference, “the Saviour of all men, and especially of those who believe” because they are the ones of whom he is not only their only possibility of finding a Saviour, but also the ones of whom he does in the end give salvation.

It may be, in my view, quite impossible from some of these references ALONE to know definitively which of several possible meanings of the word “all” is in view (whether it means ‘every instance without exclusion’ or ‘all categories/types without exclusion’ -- two example of different meanings of the use of ‘all’).

We need to start with verses that we can be 100% clear about, and work back from there to allow those to set the context for others that may on face-value be read in multiple ways.

For example the “all flesh” in Acts 2:17 can’t be read as meaning every single individual in existence without exception will receive baptism in the Spirit. Firstly we bring to this text a context that helps us see that it is immediately restricted to a subset: God’s people. And within that, Israel were excluded by default (‘no-one will see the KOG unless he is born again’) and included only when/if they believed, as did Peter himself. And of those who believed, then in context “all” without distinction were to be recipients. However, judging by in the immediate context of the reference itself, it seems that “all types” of people was most likely the type of use that is view: ‘all’ meaning women as well as men, young as well as old, servants as well as free, all types of people in this new age will have the Spirit.

December 16, 2010

Joe Towns said...

Re: 'How has Universalism had its origin in our history whereas somehow Calvinism hasn’t?'

Both do. You know of course about the origins of Calvinism as a Reformed system of Theology, and I agree that unfortunately it can and is often used to interpret the Bible, rather than coming to it in order to comprehend it in its own, and endeavouring to strip away those ideas that we bring to it in the first place.

And I assume you understand the origins of the doctrinal system that has emerged through history that is now Universalism. Until recently only a small minority have held to Universalism. I’m aware of Origen’s view which was later condemned at the 553AD Council. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Arnobius of Sicca and his defence in 300ish. And of course then came Aquinas’ views. By my reading, Universalism only emerged ‘seriously’ in the English world in the late 1800s and then into evangelical theology in the late 1900s, but now has very recently been defended in detail. Before that it was only a very small minority of writers, to my knowledge. And these views go against the very widely held views of the majority of writers & scholars throughout history.

My question, then to you, is that if you had never read CS Lewis in the first place, much less the recent big defence you discovered 10 years and that you read only 6 months ago, would you honestly think that you would have arrived at these new beliefs, just by: 1, reading the Bible alone, and 2, getting it to bare on your thinking so as to, 3, continually revise your own understanding into conformity with it by, 4, a continual process of stripping away your own false understandings that come from natural presuppositions that we all unavoidably bring to the bible, which effecting our comprehension of it?

That’s why we need to take serious care to bring our presuppositions to the Bible in order for them to be stripped away, rather than allow them to sit over the Bible and change our reading of it, and so ‘interpret’ it for us; whether Calvinism or anything else. In fact, it is not our business to ‘interpret’ the Bible; our job is to ‘comprehend’ the Bible’s own self-interpretation of itself.

December 16, 2010

Joe Towns said...

Re: Not understanding what I meant reference back to my original 3 categories in my article.

What don’t you understand? The original article talks about: 1, Questionable Christians, 2, False Teachers, and, 3, Disobedient but true Christians. A sincere Evangelical Universalist (as you’ve described yourself) who is otherwise living as a Christian in fruitful obedience (as I believe you are from your description) does not fit into any one of these three categories unless of course you begin teaching Universalism, which I believe would begin opening you up to the charge of ‘false’ teaching.

December 16, 2010

Infant baptism - Open to opinion?

Have you heard of this noun, 'theologoumenon'? I hadn't the first time I came across it either (bad joke):

A theologoumenon is a theological opinion. This word is often applied to opposing arguments in a theological debate, where both sides are rigorously orthodox. This happens because we possess sufficient knowledge to assure our salvation, but we do not possess all knowledge, and we cannot satisfy our curiosity about every matter. For example, scripture does not teach us precisely what demons are, so theories about demons are theologoumena (
After posting an article Where to draw the line, about when the Bible calls for disunity, I was asked this question:
"What about things which fall into the category of 'theologoumena' (Something that is neither a teaching that all orthodox believers are expected to adhere to, nor something that they must avoid at all costs)?"
Do you think there are theological positions or practices in the church today that fit into this category?For example, would you say as some do that infant baptism falls into this category?

Differences in understanding

There are some practices by Christians and even in the church which may not neccessarily be against the gospel or out-of-line with it and they come from legitimate differences in understanding and belief. And here this diversity within the church is a display of the power of the gospel in allowing human difference in undestanding while still controlling the way we relate to one another in love.

There are examples of abstaining from things, other examples of practicing extra things. Three significant passages to consider which bare weight come to mind: Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 14 (not an exhaustive list). Whether abstainence from food and drink or observance of special days and seasons, or speaking in tongues: not everybody knows as much as everybody else (1 Cor 8:4-7).

The 1 Corinthians 14 example is of particular significance. Here Paul clearly regards their practice of tongues to be something quite different to what had been given on the day of Pentecost, and not a 'desirable' practice for and in the church. Yet he still regards is as a good gift from God if constrained in its use by love as powered through gospel-thinking. And he says, significantly, “do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:39). Something that helps Christians maintain a focused adoration on God and brings no mutual or individual harm is a good thing. However, this is not reason enough for a theological position teaching that 'every' body should follow suit. More here on that here.

Infant baptism

Infant baptism fits into this category I think. It cannot be justified from Scripture. It is a tradition that has been brought into the church and grown and institutalised and incorporated into denominational doctrinal systems. And unfortunately it is not uncommon to begin 'thinking' and consequently corruptly practicing infant baptism in a way that is counter-scriptural, unspiritual and against the gospel. And if Apostle rebuked Apostle when behaviour misaligned with the understanding of the truth (Galatians 2:11) then we should be doing it with one another.

However, that need not necessarily be the case. Many Christians think with respect to this and baptise their infants in a God-glorifying way that does edify the church. In a similar way even the Corinthians were able to speak in tongues in a way that could achieved the same. Though I personally would not baptise my children and do not understand baptism this way, I realise that “not everybody has this knowledge.” And so I do not and would not 'preach against' infant baptism, but only teach for understanding with the spirit of 1 Corinthians 8: "knowledge puffs up, but love builds up".

Recommended reading

If you're interested further in my understanding of baptism and what I empirically believe about infant baptism beyond this (baring in mind these comments above), refer to Beasley-Murray's excellent book, Baptism in the New Testament (Paternoster, 1972).
His treatment of the subject of baptism generally reflects my own understanding closely as does his final chapter “The rise and significance of Infant Baptism.” He's also got a postscript at the end on “Baptismal reform and Inter-church Relationships.” Would strongly recommend this book to be more widely read and understood.

What is Core versus Peripheral in the gospel and Christianity?

One of my readers has remarked, "Every denomination seems to have it's own set of core doctrines," and asked "How would you define the core Gospel?"

I replied with a question of my own, "What do you mean by 'core' Gospel?"

And the reason is this: The Bible doesn't seem to encourage us to think in terms of what is 'core' vs what is 'peripheral' (Unless we're in the context of a Romans 14 discussion). Instead we're asked to think about that is 'true' Gospel or not; what is 'same' vs what is 'different'. E.g. Galatians 1:6-9. It's either in or out of the Gospel; on or off track; part of or not a part of and so against.

Of course the Gospel message is as big as Genesis to Revelation, but can be summarised as simply as "Jesus is King".

Paul's rebuke in Galatians 2:15-21 picks up the centrality of God's grace in justification by faith through the death of Christ. But it would be a mistake to look at key passages like these and relegate other doctrines, for example our doctrine of creation, to the 'non-core' bin. In 1 Timothy 4:1-6 we see that our doctrine of creation is pivotal to pure doctrine generally.

Every doctrine of the Bible is interrelated and interdependent. And so we're on dangerous ground as soon as we start taking any aspect of the Bible's teaching and putting bits into the 'essential' bucket and others into the 'optional' bucket. For example, if we say that the doctrine of creation is core but the Sovereignty of God not; or repentance is core but baptism is not.

If the Bible teaches it, it is core. All of the Bible's message is the Gospel and it is all essential.

Yes every denomination has differences and commonality in its beliefs compared to others. And if any of these teachings, as with any of our own beliefs, are contrary to the teaching of the Bible at any point, then we/they are in error at that point need to repent for being against God's word.

When I get to it I do hope to clarify what I believe the Bible's essential gospel message is: what I've phrased elsewhere, "the gospel of the Apostles of the New Testament" -- the message that was entrusted to the 12 apostles and to Paul, who even refers to it as 'my gospel'. Anything else was'another' and 'different' gospel and so false (See Romans 1:1-5; 16:25-26; cf. Rom 2:16; 2 Timothy 2:8).

Romans 1:1-5:11 is a brief unpacking but the whole book of Romans is a fuller explanation of the Apostle's gospel. Galatians starts with is a defense of Paul's apostolic authority and sets a good context for beginning to understand the uniqueness of the Apostles authority over the message and our dependence on them (Galatians 1:1-12ff.)

And hence the authenticity of the gospel is also strongly dependent on their Apostle's authorship of the New Testament, and so it's consequent authority. We need to go by it rather than denominational formulations or systems of doctrine constructed to sit over the New Testament.

Why Talking Christianity?

I've been asked the question. Why the sister blog to Talking Pentecostalism? I've got two big reasons and a dozen smaller less significant ones. I'll spare you the micro and go big picture:

1. Mapping a trajectory for foward growth for my original audience & providing more positively

Yes this blog has a broader focus, but is still related to my original blog. I wanted to provide in time something of a more staple diet for my readers to move on to, either because their interest in the topic of Pentecostalism has been exhausted, or because they want to see what I believe about the full spectrum topics relevant to current Evangelical discussion and thinking. I want to provide a full diet with diversity and richness as well as breadth. The goals of Talking Pentecostalism is to narrow for that.

What if somebody 'converts' from being a Pentecostal as I did? They can't read my apologetic and critique forever, which can tend to have more of a negatively constructive approach; they need to 'move on' to the positively constructive stuff I want to supplement with this blog.

Recent comments on my blog have helped me to realise I need to pick up a bigger goal:
"Every denomination seems to have it's own set of core doctrines. How would you define the core Gospel?"
Or again
"I was looking for a clarification of what you meant by "the gospel of the Apostles of the New Testament"
This is an example of something I might tackle and hope to answer on this blog, and point my readers of Talking Pentecostalism through too there.

2. Symbolising the division that Pentecostalism has created within Evangelicalism, and our inevitable disunity

Although Pentecostalism is part of the family tree within Christianity, I do see it as being a sick and suffering branch. Akin to the sort of situation that would warrant Paul writing the sort of letter of which the Corinthians, Galatians and Colossians were recipients.

I don't put Pentecostalism in the category of something like Catholicism or Eastern Orthoxody. These I believe to be corrupt forms of Christianity - these religions are more than sick. This is false spirituality, and dead religiosity, because their beliefs and practices amount to idolatry.

I also don't put Pentecostalism in the category of a cult, such as Mormonism and Jehovah's Witnesses. These are not sects that came from Christianity, but were wild derivatives from the very start; they did not ever have a true origin with the family of Christianity, but were separate adaptations from the beginning, similar to Islam. A cancerous cell that begins multiplying might be a more fit metaphor here.

But Pentecostalism sits firmly within the family of Protestant Evangelicalism. Many Pentecostals share much in principle with Reformed theology and share a vast array of agreement with Calvin (from my reading of the Institutes anyway).

But like shifting techtonic plates, there has been an enormous movement away from some core emphases that New Testament Christianity centres on; and of course, there have been some huge additions. All of these things warrant serious concern and would be why by my assessment Pentecostalism is in league with the gross immaturity and worldliness of the Corinthians.

So there needs to be a degree of disassociation by Evangelicals generally with Pentecostals. It's in these situations that the Bible calls for disunity. I've described the sort of Biblical position behind this logic here: Where to draw the line.


And by the way Mikey, Pentecostalism is spelt with 2 'e's and only 1 'a', not the other way around (I know you love to be corrected on spelling!)

The 'Gospel Circle' - How the Gospel relates to the Bible as a whole

Some really helpful reflections here. Mikey Lynch picks up Phillip Jensen's comments in The Archer and the Arrow about how to avoid "making the gospel just one central part of the Bible on the one hand, and not making everything the Bible says the gospel on the other."

The gospel is likened to a circle because it's various elements ('arcs') are not only interrelated and interdependent, but self-reciprocating. And "for any true circle, one arc of the circle implies the whole."

So sin following creation leads to judgment because God is creator. And his judgment teaches us about what it means for him to be the Creator. And it teaches us what sin really means. And it also teaches us about salvation. And judgment leads to salvation because God is the judge. And salvation leads to new-creation.

Mikey I think your questions are important:

"If I just preached these arcs would they necessarily imply the rest of the gospel?" and "If I just preached these arcs, would I have preached the gospel truly, even if not fully?"

I think if we preach each arc properly without going beyond it we are preaching the gospel. Because as we teach that God is creator and judge, part of what we see when he brings his judgment is his commitment to creation, and his faithfulness to himself resulting in his ongoing grace and his purpose to bring renewal to creation - which is the message of the gospel.

Again if the arc we're dealing with shows the sinfulness of people, that same arc will bring out the righteousness of God more clearly, leading to him revealing his righteousness - which is the message of the gospel.
So each arc contains the same direction looking both forward and back as all the others. I think sermons can be the same: a sermon on judgment can contain the same forward and backward perspective as one on salvation, and give the gospel message on its own.

One test of this is to put ourselves back in to the shoes of an OT preacher, say Noah, and ask if we can still preach 'his gospel' today in a timeless way. He was a "preacher of righteousness" in his day. And the Ark (not intended pun) was a massive visible word-picture to his generation leaving them without excuse. As Noah spoke to people about what God was going to do and what he, Noah, was doing with the Ark, I think he was preaching the gospel - a message of good news for those who were being saved, and a message of bad news for those who were not.

Now of course if we today preach from that time in salvn history and stay on that arc re. sinfulness and judgment, when we apply it to people today with a correct understanding of what it means in a timeless sense and in a relative-to-now sense, I don't think we need to simply put '2 ways to live' over the top of it in order for it to become the gospel.

But by explaining to people fully what God did there in the past (Noah's time) and what that means about both God and us in a timeless way, I think we are not making a jump to appealing to people straight from that to repent and turn to God in faith. I.e. we can 'herald' the word of the gospel right then and there without a full exposition of Jesus' work on the cross to make their forgiveness possible.

Of course know that we can do that because of Jesus' coming, but because it's always been possible prior to Jesus' coming, there is this timeless element to the gospel in the Old Testament and throughout Scripture. Rahab's conversion with the spies prior to the judgment at Jericho is a classic example of course.
I'm not wanting to advocate for permission to cease making forced references to Jesus as a 'tack on the end' simply by leaving out Jesus altogether and worse forgetting the centrality of God's eternal plan for the cross and the natural climax of it in the unfolding flow of the Bible narrative.
I guess I'm just trying to reflect a confidence that I think it is possible to both at the same time preach the gospel truly and do as Jensen says, 'not preach the entire circumference of the circle, but just the arc(s) of the gospel that God puts in front of us in the passage.'

Or is this what you mean by "making everything the Bible says the gospel"? If it is, then I reckon it's fair game. Don't we want every sermon to be a heraldic exposition of the gospel from any and every part of Scripture?

The dangers of conversational preaching

Mikey posts here about the dangers of conversation brought out in Phillip Jensen's The Archer and the Arrow:  Ouch indeed!

I think this is really important. Preaching must always be 'heraldic' - it means to 'herald' or proclaim the message that God declares. So it carries his authority because by leaning on the authority of the Apostles and Prophets who authored the Scriptures, true preaching give a message that comes as the very word of God.

I think it's fair to say that the rise of the 'conversational' approach seen in the modern 'bible talk' can undermine the very act of preaching. I think a lot of this may have unwittingly grown on us undetected from within our culture of anti-authoritarianism.

More of my thoughts on preaching here where I've summarised some of John Stott's stuff.

The hardest thing I've had to do in my adult life

Was give the gospel talk at my Grandad's funeral in February 2006. I understand that Grandad had requested me, one of his many grandsons, to give a short gospel sermon, knowing that many of our family are not Christians.

Here is the script: JESUS' WORD OF ASSURANCE (Luke 23:38-43)

I pray that in time many more of our family will turn to Jesus as our King and Saviour.