I Smell Universalism

Universalism has been in the airs these days. No doubt the raised awareness is due in part to the fact David Bently Hart recently published a book on the topic. Adam, my friend and co-blogger recently read Hart’s book, and that has provoked conversations between us. My book published in September contains an essay that briefly touches the subject. I recently interviewed Keith Giles and Thomas Jay Oord on the matter. Giles also recently published a book on Universalism. Lastly, I have listened to a couple of episodes arguing for the doctrine on Heretic Happy Hour and You Have Permission. Consequently, universalism has not only been in the air but also on my mind.

This post will be more academic in nature than many of my other posts. It might be inconvenient if you’re looking for something short!

Not a Calvinist Nor A Universalist

I want to address the freedom of God and the freedom of humanity. If your a regular reader, you know I’m not a Calvinist. I affirm freewill and reject all five of the “doctrines of Grace”, commonly known as the acronym TULIP. But I have many friends who are faithful Christians and Calvinists. From what has been written, readers may have assumed I am a Universalist. I do think Universalism is within the boundaries of Orthodoxy. I don’t think it is heresy and one may hold it in good standing within the Christian faith. But I do not hold the doctrine myself. I hold to a doctrine known as Essential Kenosis formulated by my friend Thomas Jay Oord.

Essential Kenosis Defined

While this post isn’t directly about Essential Kenosis, it will be helpful to give a brief definition. as this is the theological standpoint I am coming from and one that prevents me from accepting Universalism. Essential Kenosis otherwise known as the “Uncontrolling Love of God” or “God Can’t” theology. It claims that God’s very nature is uncontrolling Love. That God is bound to act as God. God cannot be anything other than God. In other words, what ever comprises God’s nature is the only way God can behave or act. Evil for instance is outside of God’s nature, therefore God cannot be evil or do anything remotely evil.

More to the point, this theology claims God’s nature is love and that love is inherently uncontrolling. Therefore God can never control or coerce but can and does influence and persuade, always. One of the benefits to this thinking is that God is not responsible for preventing atrocities like the holocaust. God could not control free creatures like the Nazis or Hitler. He could only persuade and influence them towards the good. God could not override their freewill, a freedom that God necessarily gives as it’s part of God’s very nature.

Because of this prior theological commitment I cannot affirm universalism. If humans are truly free in the sense that they can choose alternatives options (commonly called libertarian freewill) then there will always be the possibility, although not a guarantee, that humans can forever reject God’s good offer of salvation.

While both God and creatures are free in some senses, Essential Kenosis says God’s freedom differs from our freedom in an important way. I realized the importance of this difference while considering Maximus the Confessor’s (An Orthodox Patristics Universalist) view of human free will, which Brad Jersak explained in a recent You Have Permission podcast.

God’s Freedom and Human Freedom

For God to be compelled to always act a certain way due to his nature is not a limit upon him, He is not truly being compelled. For there is no outside force that made God to have such compulsions. If however, human beings are compelled by their nature to always act in a certain way they do not act in true freedom, for they are not self existent. Their nature is not self contained, but was given by an outside force [God].

So whereas God may have true freedom in acting in one way always according to His nature, since it is a self-contained nature (that is not one given from an outside force) He is always truly free. But for creatures, who do not find their existence in themselves, to truly be free they must be given a nature which is able to be either in accordance or discordance with that given nature. Otherwise they are compelled from an outside force to act in a certain way and thus are not truly free. If a mad scientist controls one’s mind to always act in one particular way no one in their right mind would say the victim is truly free, even if that victim was an addict way in which they are being forced to act is in non addictive and therefore healthy ways. We may quarrel in such a case as to the merits and ethical implications of such a scenario but most would send convict the mad scientist and suggest freedom to act in negative behaviors with the ability and possibility to act in positive behaviors is still better than only ever being able to act positive behaviors.

For God there is not an outside force compelling God to be this way. God’s nature is simply this way because God has always been this way. He is the ground of being, existence itself, no body made God this way, and therefore no body outside of God is compelling him.

Maximus’s Viewpoint

Maximus the confessor believe that God created the human will as totally and wholly inclined towards the good (almost the opposite of total depravity, total goodness we might say). During the fall however the Will as originally created by God inclined towards the good was broken, and since then has vallicilated back and forth between the good and evil (not total depravity yet not total goodness). However, as Brad pointed out, according to Maximus Christ has come to heal the human will, and once the Will is completely healed, it will again be like it was in its original state, that is totally inclined towards the good. And therefore everyone having a healed Will will all eventually choose the ultimate Good which is God, for they will have no other option. But according to Maximus they will freely choose God because it will be a choice in congruence with their healed Will.

This is what is called compatibilist freewill. The notion that says we are truly free when we choose that which is according to our own nature. (Interestingly enough Universalists and some Calvinists share this definition of freewill, Jonathan Edwards, was for instance, a Calvinist who believed in compatibilist freedom.)

Freedom defined as the freedom to act according to one’s nature is only really freedom if that nature is self-contained, that is self given. God may have this kind of freedom and indeed I believe from the standpoint of Essential Kenosis God does have this kind of freedom. If however, as a creature you are created and find your existence in an outside force, to be forced to act according to that nature would be coercion. (As we saw in the mad scientist exercise.)

True Freedom For Humans Requires Vulnerability on God’s Part

Free creatures must be given the choice to act or not act according to their rational nature. The ability to do so was not a result of the fall, thereby resulting that once our will is healed we will always act in accordance with our rational nature. Rather this ability to choose whether or not to act in accordance with our God-given rational nature is itself a part of our God given nature from the beginning. Otherwise how did we act against our rational nature in the first place if we were once totally inclined towards the good? And if we could at once have acted against our nature (one totally inclined towards the good and rational) can we actually say that it was totally inclined towards the good in the first place? Is it not possible that we will once again after our Will is healed act against our nature of total goodness? Is it not better to say that God has given us from the start the ability to freely choose alternatives, that is the ability to choose or reject the good and the evil? If not then from my perspective God is at some level a coercive God.

Thomas Jay Oord was kind enough to take a look at this for me. Any mistakes or theologically complicated phrases that make no sense are my own. Thanks Tom,

G.N. Gordon