Universalism - Some Hermeneutic Concerns
As I mentioned five biblical passages yesterday that underscore the theme of universalism, some hermeneutic and exegetical work is necessary to really flesh out the concerns. While there are many other references to universalism in the accepted biblical canon, these five are, in my opinion, the most obvious and lucid. There are several theological themes going on here that I wish to elaborate on - but again, I emphatically state that this is a forum and not my summa (again, look for that in about 20 years).
While I consider myself thoroughly postmodern in worldview (our world is one that is done with the modernist project), I do tend to look for larger themes in texts such as these. So, my point is that while my worldview is postmodern, my exegesis still searches for unity, for sense, for some kind of unifying theory. While there is value in deconstructing biblical passages, I think that if we as Christians are to take scripture seriously as "scripture," we must continually look for narrative themes. That said, let's delve into some (admittedly simple and concise) exegesis! (This is, by the way, my exegesis, not someone else's.)Romans 5:15-18 and 11:32
I consider Paul's letter to the Romans his most advanced theology. The themes of other "authentic" Pauline letters are all emphatically stated in Romans. This passage is a segment from Paul's attempt to flesh out the scandal of the cross. Paul, like other early Christians, sought to explain (theologically) the meaning behind the crucifixion of Jesus. Paul's reflection of the Old Testament theology of redemption has come full-circle in his theology of the cross. The narrative of Jesus' death and resurrection climaxes in this pen-ultimate meaning of reality: we are saved through a dead-and-resurrected Christ. This is best illustrated through Paul's comparison to Adam - the fall of one man is made right again by one man, Jesus. This, I believe, is the earliest form of recapitulation, or that humanity is made right again (literally, the "head" is put back on the "body") through the actions of one man. Irenaeus would later deveolop this theology, but it seems to me that Paul lays the groundwork for such a doctrine. What we are left with is the question of Paul's wording: "for all." Is this for all believers, or for humanity? I think the question we need to put to the text is the extent of grace - is it limited for unlimited for sinful humanity? Look at the final sentence (v.18); Paul's logic would have us conclude that he is talking about all of humanity. The logic is pretty simple: one man condemns us, and one man saves us; if Adam's action condemns all of humanity, then wouldn't Jesus' action save all of humanity?1 Corinthians 15:21-22
The themes here are similar to that of Romans: death through one man, life through another man. There is one subtle difference that I'd like to bring attention to: there is an emphatic emphasis on the "made alive in Christ." What does this mean? Well, following the aforementioned logic, it means that we are dead in Adam, but alive in Christ. But there is a deeper meaning here. Throughout the NT, and indeed in this text, there is a very clear theme of the destruction of death. Here, the defeat and finality of death is radically altered. Think in graphic terms: Jesus becomes a lifeless corpse like all of us - and yet, he is "made alive" again. The message in this passage is one of awesome hope that we, too, survive our death through the recapitulation of Christ.1 Timothy 4:10
This verse carries the same implicit theme as the Corinthians passage: hope of life. However, we are left with one nuance that is, in my opinion, hopelessly ambiguous: "especially those who believe." What does this mean? I haven't a clue, honestly. Does God save some more than others? That's the implication. The ambiguity points to those who don't believe: they're saved, but only because of the actions of Christ. There is a positive aspect of this, though. It implies universal salvation , even for those who don't believe. Why do I point out this ambiguity? I'm trying to be fair to the text: the theme of hope is clear, but the implication is strange - that salvation for believers is somehow intrinsically different than salvation for those who don't believe. Colossians 1:20
To me, this is the most theologically advanced statement in all of the aforementioned texts. Here we have the point of God's work on earth: total and utter reconciliation. It also contains the mode of such salvation: the blood of Jesus as shed on the cross. Now, this kind of imagery is seemingly distasteful to contemporary ears. While I have a hard time with a blood-thirsty God, I do think there is a deeper meaning to be had from the text. God is a God of justice - and mercy would not be God's radical mercy without justice. While the blood imagery is entirely appropriate (Jesus did die on a cross....), I think the point is that God was willing to sacrifice everything
to reconcile humanity. The peace spoken in Colossians is not the pax Romana
of Caesar, it is the peace of God who is willing to do whatever it takes to make things right with humanity. Hermeneutic Remarks
I hope I've provided a short, insightful exegesis. While I know it may be simplified, I wish only to give context
the debate on universalism. This exegesis is how I approach the text. While it is certainly a theological hermeneutic, that is the angle I chose to take. I think the debate of universalism is a theological one. Theological exegesis is necessary to contextualize the passages in a way that we can do justice to those passages that present an opposite point of view (there are many!).
Tomorrow we'll move into the theological implications of universalism: the pros and cons. What does it mean to say radical grace? What about mercy? What about justice? Is God's justice demeaned if God chooses to save everyone, regardless of any other consideration? Feel free to post your remarks!