About Me

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Robin Parry is the husband of but one wife (Carol) and the father of the two most beautiful girls in the universe (Hannah and Jessica). He also has a lovely cat called Monty (who has only three legs). Living in the city of Worcester, UK, he works as an Editor for Wipf and Stock — a US-based theological publisher. Robin was a Sixth Form College teacher for 11 years and has worked in publishing since 2001 (2001–2010 for Paternoster and 2010– for W&S).

Saturday, 29 August 2009

What will become of my pets after the rapture?

OK - if you know me you'll know my view about the rapture (i.e., the idea of a rapture in unbiblical - end of story). However, certain Christians are big on the rapture and one current fashion is for a pre-tribulation rapture (a relatively new view on the Christian scene). You know, the kind of thing found in the Left Behind novels. Here is a funny site that deals with the worry, "What will happen to my pets after I am raptured?" It is called Eternal Earthbound Pets.

Thanks to Russ Rook for this link

I am the Evangelical Universalist


About 2002 or 2003 I wrote a book called The Evangelical Universalist. It was not intended for publication but was simply a way of helping me think through some issues. Anyway, I was advised by a friend to send it to a publisher for review with possible publication in mind. So I sent it to Wipf and Stock who accepted it in their Cascade list and published it in 2006. SPCK then picked it up (not knowing who I was) and published a UK edition in 2008.

But why remain anonymous?
- Not because I was embarrased about my views (I would have loved to be more open about them).
- Not because I feared losing my job

I kept my identity secret in the first instance to protect my employer. Sadly there are some Christians out there who would not be at all happy to know that the Editorial Director for Paternoster is a believer in universal restoration. For the most part this is simply because they do not understand the position that I hold. They imagine that if I am a universalist I must believe propositions such as the following
- that all roads lead to God (Jesus is a way but not the way)
- that it does not matter how we live as we shall all be saved anyway
- that we must choose the parts of the Bible that we like and reject the parts that we do not.
- There is no Hell
- etc, etc
Of course, I don't believe any of those things. I am a relatively conservative evangelical Christian who seeks to found his theology on Scripture. I believe that salvation is in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. But the problem is that it takes a while to explain the view that I hold and it is easier to rush to judgment. I noticed this the other day in an old online article in Christianity Today about people it called 'evangelical universalists'. In fact the people in question were pluralists that attended evangelical churches. This confusion of universalism with pluralism is sadly common (even though a little reflection would show that universalism and pluralism address totally different questions). When many evangelicals hear the word 'universalist' in one ear they hear the word 'heretic' in the other. So I am starting on the backfoot. All the traditionalist has to do to prove (to their satisfaction) that I am unevangelical is quote a verse about Hell. Case closed. The Bible says it, they believe it, that settles it. For me to make my case requires a lot more work to overcome prejudices and misunderstandings. Anyway, I digress...

So to avoid unnecessary difficulties for my employer I kept my real name out of it until enough people had read the book to say, 'Well, he may not be correct but his view is not unChristian.' In fact, some might even say, 'Goodness gracious me! The boy's right!' (which, of course, I am :-))

(As an aside, it has always been my policy not to use Paternoster as a vehicle for the promotion of my own ideas. Consequently I have not used it, nor will I use it, to promote universalism. I have worked for Paternoster for 8 years now and have been a universalist the whole time so I hope that my track record will calm any fears on this front. We willingly publish books defending annihilation and eternal conscious torment - in fact we publish both. Paternoster publishes within the bounds of broadly evangelical Christianity and does not have party lines on pet topics).

My other reason for anonymity was that one of my books, Worshipping Trinity , is a more important book than TEU and I am keen not to undermine its important message. I am pleased that it has been having a positive impact on various churches. Sadly, I know that there are people out there who would avoid that book like the plague if they thought it was written by a so-called 'heretic'. Everything I ever wrote or said would be untouchable. I do not care about that as far as my reputation goes (what reputation? not much to lose, eh?) but I do care if it stops churches hearing a word of the Lord that they need to hear (and I do believe Worshipping Trinity is a word of the Lord).

So why confess my identity now? It was always my intention to reveal who I was when it seemed right. When the church might understand universalism enough to accept it as a Christian position (even if not the only one or even the right one). We're not there yet but we are closer than we were a few years back, so I thought, 'It's going to come out some time - better to reveal my identity myself than be 'exposed'.'

Of course, it may be too early. People may now avoid me, or stop inviting me to preach, or stop reading my books and Bible notes, or advise others to avoid me as dangerous, etc, etc. Well, so be it. God will have to look after me.

So let me concluse with the words I ended the book with:

"Let me ask you to hold in your mind traditional Christian visions of the future, in which many, perhaps the majority of humanity, are excluded from salvation forever. Alongside that hold the universalist vision, in which God achieves his loving purpose of redeeming the whole creation. Which vision has the strongest view of divine love? Which story has the most powerful narrative of God’s victory over evil? Which picture lifts the atoning efficacy of the cross of Christ to the greatest heights? Which perspective best emphasizes the triumph of grace over sin? Which view most inspires worship and love of God bringing him honor and glory? Which has the most satisfactory understanding of divine wrath? Which narrative inspires hope in the human spirit? To my mind the answer to all these questions is clear, and that is why I am a Christian universalist."

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Jerusalem in Acts

Here's a quick thought for the day from Mark Kinzer from his breathtakingly amazing book Postmissionary Messianic Judaism (seriously - it is currently my top book of the decade so if nothing better comes along before the end of the year it wins the Robin's best read 2000-2009 award!)

So here's the brief thought. It is often said that there is a geographical movement in Acts away from Jerusalem: From Jerusalem, to Judea, then Samaria, then the ends of the earth. This move is invested with theological freight (Acts starts in Jerusalem and ends in Rome - a move away from a Jewish-shaped faith).

Kinzer argues that the movement in Acts is actually complicated. "It does not begin in Jerusalem and then progressively and steadily radiate outward. Instead, the story continually reverts back to Jerusalem" (Acts 9:26-29; 11:2, 27-30; 15:2; 18:22; 21:17-23:11).

He suggests that the Acts 1:6-12 leads the reader to extect a narrative arc starting and ending in Jerusalem. "The drama would not reach its satisfying conclusion until the arc was again completed and the narrative returned to Jerusalem. Thus Luke deliberately composed an unsatisfying ending [Acts 28 is an odd end] so that we would know that it was not really the ending."

I think that this is a really interesting suggestion and my reading of Luke-Acts (which is not based on scholarly research but is based on lots of readings) inclines me to think that he is right.

Lifting Out Holy Hands

This is just a little thing but it struck me as slightly interesting.

The Odes of Solomon 42:1-2 reads
I extended my hands and approached my Lord,
because the stretching out of my hands is His sign.
And my extension is the common cross,
that was lifted up on the way of the Righteous One.
From this it looks like this group of early Christ-believers use to stretch their hands outwards in prayer to make the shape of a cross. I have never come across that before. Perhaps a new liturgical action for charismatics, eh? Although not if they are standing too close to each other - a few broken noses then ("And they'll know we are Christians by our blood").

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

"Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo."

Believe it or not "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" is actually a proper meaningful sentence (now adopted as my favourite English sentence).

To find out more read the most freaky article available on Wikipedia by clicking this link.

I'm not quite sure I follow all of it but it's certainly great fun for nerds.

Monday, 10 August 2009

"Plato's Cave Within A Cave" by Michael Thomson

Here's a poem from one of the talented Editors at Eerdmans, Michael Thomson. It is based on Plato's cave allegory.

A world of rock weeping water,
Limited light glistens on stone,
Longings for that which is other,
Resonates through flesh and bone.
Yet here we stare,
Our lives threadbare.
Plato's cave.

Ever the fires in the equations,
Kindle in lives and galaxies,
Yet manikin-marketer's persuasions,
Ever beholden to the orthopraxy,
Words without sight,
The day is the night.
Plato's cave.

As the blind speak of elephants!
What is grass, what is green?
Frail knowledge never recants,
Wispy certainties never seen.
Life without form,
In fiction adorned,
Plato's cave.

And lo, the philosopher's quest,
A path oft hailed in hemlock,
Neither quite reaches the crest,
Nor finds the keys to unlock,
Souls in shackles,
Locked in manacles,
Plato's cave.

Seraphs, Saints bring a salve,
And shepherd into the real,
Of past darkness absolved,
Awakened walk free and feel,
Upon the grass,
A holy mass,
Outside,
Plato's cave.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

"One like a son of man" in Daniel 7 as High Priest.

I recently re-read Crispin Fletcher-Louis' article, "The High Priest as Divine Mediator in the Hebrew Bible: Dan 7:13 as a Test Case" (from the SBL 1997 Seminar Papers). It is a fabulous article and I confess that I was persuaded when I first read it and remain persuaded.

The mysterious figure of the 'one like a son of man' in Dan 7 has long been the centre of much scholarly debate. Who is this caped crusader? Is it Sarge? No. Is it Rosemary the telephone operator? No. (OK - I'll cut the Hong Kong Phooey reference there). But there remains no agreement as to whether he is an angel (and, if so, which one), a symbol for the nation of Israel, a Davidic king, a prophet (Daniel himself?), and so on and so forth.

Crispin wades into this debate with a suggested solution which, I suspect, represents the best of all worlds.

He proposes that the 'son of man' coming on the clouds before the Ancient of Days represents the High Priest coming into the Holiest Place on the Day of Atonement surrounded by clouds of incense. Here is why this might just be right (and this is no more than a super-brief, no-details sketch):

1. The son of man character in the vision clearly represents the nation of Israel (7:18, 22, 27). Whilst the Davidic King could certainly play such a role, the book of Daniel has no interest in the Davidic King. Daniel's interests are much more temple-focused. The High Priest also represented the nation before Yhwh (thus he wears the breastplate with the 12 stones and the names of the 12 tribes when he approached Yhwh). He is thus equiped to play out this role.

2. The High Priest, argues Crispin, played a role in the Israelite cult in which he represented Israel before God but he also represented God himself. He is a figure at once human and divine. The son of man in Daniel is much the same. He is clearly a human figure approaching God and yet he comes in clouds (something only God does in the Hebrew Bible).

3. The High Priest played a role in relation to Yhwh in the temple cult akin to Baal's role in relation to El in the ANE Chaoskampf tradition. This could explain the allusions to the Chaoskampf tradition in Dan 7 (sorry - yuo'll have to read about that elsewhere - space is short).

4. Dan 7-12 was written (so most scholars think) in 2nd C BCE during the Antiochene crisis. This explains Daniels focus on the temple, its desecration and restoration. It would also make a High Priest who could offer an atoneing sacrifice thereby delivering Israel a plausible candidate for the son of man character. (Also, a priest who had kingly dominion would make sense in this context in a way that it would not have done at an earlier period).

5. The Temple was the zone where heaven and earth met - where the wall bewteen the spiritual and the physical dimensions of reality was thin. A temple context for the son of man coming in the clouds resolves the scholarly debates about whether the location of the vision is heaven or earth. A = we don't have to choose.

6. A temple context also might explain some of the weird creatures (although I'm not committed to this idea). They are ritually unclean mixtures of animals representing pagan nations. That's possible.

7. Dan 7 also has clear alusions to Genesis (with Adam's dominion over the animals). Adam plays a high priestly role in creation (a claim that has been argued by more than a few people and I don't have time to do so now - my family are waiting for me to cook a meal) and the High Priest plays out an Adamic role in the temple. This Adam-Priest link makes the son of man = Adam = High Priest link make sense.

8. The Dan 7-Enoch links strengthen this idea as Enoch is arguably presented as an ideal High Priest.

9. Crispin argues that the High Priest was an angelomorphic figure in Israelite thinking and this would allow us to give some weight to the suggestion that the character seems in some ways like an angel.

OK - the family are really complaining now so I must go. But I will conclude with this: if Crispin is right then in Daniel 7 we have a representation of a High Priest - an angelic figure who represents God, the people of Israel, Adam, etc, etc. It also means that when Jesus reappropriates Dan 7 as a reference to himself he may, against the majority view of scholars, have seen himself in a High Priestly role. That's a topic for another day (Crispin has written on this topic too and it won't surprise you to learn that I think he has some really interesting stuff to say about it also).

Saturday, 8 August 2009

God opens his life to his creation

I've often been stuck by this verse:
"Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." (Rev 22:1-2)

Here we see the river of life - the very inner life of Godself: the Holy Spirit - flowing out from the Father and Son into creation. When I give Carol flowers (if she read this she'd say, "Ooooh. My memory does not stretch back that far! Did it ever really happen?") my gift is distinct from myself. But the life that God gives to his creation is not something distinct from God but is God's own life. It is the Holy Spirit of God. The image in Revelation seems to be of God oepning up the inner life of the Holy Trinity and allowing some measure of 'participation in God'.

The Odes of Solomon puts this nicely:
"Fill for yourselves water from the living spring of the Lord,
Because it has been opened for you.
And come all you thirsty and take a drink,
And rest beside the spring of the Lord
Because it is pleasing and sparkling,
and perpetually pleases the soul.
For more refreshing is its water than honey ...
Because it flowed from the lips of the Lord..."
Ode 30:1-4a, 5a

God opens himself to us in Christ by his Spirit.

And as I listen to the news each day the vision in Revelation of healing for the nations fills me with hope. Make it soon, Lord. Make it soon.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

The Apathetic God

I have just started reading a new book (soon to be published). It is called The Apathetic God: Exploring the Contemporary Relevance of Divine Impassibility (Paternoster, 2009) by Daniel Castelo.

In a nutshell, the fashion on theology is to say, "Alas! Alas! How the early church sold the riches of dynamic, Hebrew-style, biblical theology for the rags of pagan, static, Greek philosophical theology!"

The bogey man is what is known as 'classical theism' (the view in which God is timeless, spaceless, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, etc, etc) and the example par excellence of how far theology fell from its biblical roots is the doctrine of divine impassibility. If I had £1 for every time I have heard someone slagging off the doctrine of impassibility I'd be a wealthy man.

Now it is confession time.

1. I have always had a soft spot for classical theism.
2. I find the idea of God as timeless, etc as rather appealing (though I am not persuaded that it is right).
3. And re: impassibility I certainly think that it is very arrogant of us to dismiss out of hand a doctrine that has been important in Christian theology since the early church. Were all these devout and intelligent believers utterly oblivious to the so-called pagan implications of their beliefs? At very least we should be highly suspicious of the claim that they were.

Impassibility is often understood as the claim that God is not affected by the world - that he is not moved by it. That he is cold and indifferent. It is said to be the exact opposite of biblical teaching. But perhaps we have misunderstood early Christian teaching.

I was first wised up to this when reading Paul Gavrilyuk's excellent book The Suffering of the Impassible God in which he shows that the early church did not simply download pagan notions into Christian theology. Of course, they drew on philosophical categories current in their culture in order to clarify and protect some biblical concepts but they did not allow those pre-formed concepts to lock the Bible up. Rather they allowed the Bible to modify the way in which those categories were understood. The doctrine of impassibility was used to defend divine transcendence and I for one think that the mysterious transcendence of God is still in need of defending.

This is where Castello comes in. His aim is to show that Christian theology must embrace the insights of both the passibilist and the impassibilist traditions. His focus is on defending the importance of impassibilism because that is the concept that is so untrendy.

For Castello much of the problem is rooted in numerous definitions of impassibility at play such that debates often end up with people talking past each other. He works with the understanding that God is impassibile in the sense that "God cannot be affected against his will by another force" (p. 16).

I have been looking forward to this for a long time and it looks to be excellent so far. I think that Castello has something important to say to contemporary theology - that we reject the classical tradition to our own loss.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Snowmen

Christian views with no foundation

Every now and then one comes across popular Christian views that lack both a biblical foundation and one marvels that they ever came to predominate (in some circles).

Here are two:

1. All sins are as bad as each other. I must confess that I find this view to be both uttely insane and also morally offensive.

2. You are an immortal spirit and God has to keep you around forever. The only question is whether that eternity will be in heaven or hell. Sorry but NO! I am firmly convinced that the Bible teaches that only God is immortal. Immortality is granted to humans as a divine gift but is not inherent in our nature. It is perfectly possible for a human to stop existing. If people do go to Hell forever it is not because God's hands are tied. It is because God keeps them in existence whilst they are in Hell (because, on the Anselmian view, justice requires it). But annihilation is possible.

So what are your pet hates amongst popular Christian views?

Divine Punishment (Take 3)

I was pondering divine punishment and whether it was possible that both retibution and restoration could be joint reasons for it. In so doing I considered the limit case of Hell. I presumed that sin warranted eternal conscious punishment but mentioned in passing that I was not convinced that it did. Ryan asked me to comment more.

So I will.

As far as I am aware there are two different justifications given for eternal conscious torment.

Reason 1 (the Anselmian tradition). As I recall, it looks something like this.

1. God has infinite glory and honour.
2. Any sin against God (which is, in the end, all sin) is an insult to his infinite honour.
3. To insult God's infinite glory brings about an infinite de-merit.
4. An infinite de-merit deserves an infinite punishment.

So any sin against an infinite God deserves an infinite punishment.

Maybe so ... and yet ... and yet ...

The standard objection to this is simply that no sin that a finite creature could commit could warrant a never-ending punishment. And whilst debate still swirls around this neighbourhood I must confess that this simple objection seems to me to be exceptionally powerful.

One unhelpful consequence of the Anselmian view is that all sins - from stealing a pencil to torturing children - are made to be the same (i.e., infinitely bad). This seems not only massively counter-intuitive but also massively unbiblical (as the Bible seems happy to consider sins to come in differing degrees of seriousness). On top of that the suggestion that all sins deserve an infinite punishment is not an argument given in the Bible.

So whilst the Anselmian tradition might be right my theological instincts claw at me like scared cats when I start to consider it. But my post was an attempt to ask the question: if the Anselmian tradition is right is it possible for divine punishment to be both retributive and restorative? I was wondering if perhaps it was.

Reason 2: the (?) tradition.
Here sins do not incur infinite demerit and do not deserve infinite punishment. God punishes sinners in Hell because they deserve it. However, having rebellious hearts, they react to this punishment with yet more hatred and rebellion. By so doing they incur yet more punishment. This, in turn, brings about further punishment and so on ad infinitum.

This avoids the problems with the Anselmian tradition but it, in turn, raises problems of its own. The chief problem is that God is effectively maintaining ongoing sin in his creation for all eternity! Nay, not only maintaining it - provoking it! That seems ... very odd.

But let's suppose that this model is right. We can ask, Could such divine punishment be retributive and restorative? I think so. As soon as the sinner repents (because I don't see why divine punishment has to compund sin rather than reveal its true nature) the Spirit unites the sinner to Christ in his death and resurrection and they are liberated.

Of course, against the mainstream Christian tradition Hell could be conceived as annihilation. Annihilation is not compatible with restoration - it would have to be purely retributive. So if annihilation is the final destiny of some then it is not the case that all divine punishments are simultaneously intended to be retributive and restorative.

I am not certain whether all divine punishments have this double-warrant. Perhaps some are simply restorative or simply retributive. Perhaps some are both. I guess I am just wondering whether all might have such a dual-rationalle.

Monday, 3 August 2009

Divine Punishment - Retributive or Restorative? Must we choose?

NOTE: this really is a thought off the top of my head. I have not checked it out with Scripture nor with much thought. It is a 'scribble' right and proper. Bear that in mind when you go for my jugular.

What is the reason for divine punishment? Does God punish in order to satisfy justice or in order to correct/restore people? Does God punish because people deserve it or to redirect them? Is divine punishment retributive or restorative?

Scripture seems to present both rationalles. So is some punishment restorative and some punishment retributive? Maybe, but I think I am right to say that some specific punishments seem to be presented as both at the same time (e.g., the exile of Israel is presented at times as retributive and at times as corrective).

The problem is that holding a single punishment to be grounded on both retributive and restorative bases raises problems. What if retribution requires a different punishment than restoration requires? Indeed, what if retribution ultimately requires eternal, conscious torment (as the classical tradition has held)? That is hard to square with restorative punishment (for obvious reasons). It might turn out that the same punishment cannot be both retributive and restorative.

But wait a mo! How about this weird thought? Suppose that God punishes someone because they deserve it (i.e., retribution is the grounding). Suppose further that in his infinite wisdom God determines that this punishment should also serve to correct people. That seems possible.

But what happens when there's a clash? To take the limit example, what if retribution requires eternal, conscious torment in Hell (which, for the sake of argument I shall assume, although I am not at all persuaded that it is the case). How can God sentence someone to eternal conscious torment and also use that punishment as restorative? Here's a crazy idea:

John is a sinner and is justly sentenced to Hell for eternity because it is what he deserves. However, God in his wisdom also determins that this punishment should provoke John to see the true horror of his sins, to repent, to turn to God for grace and mercy. Suppose that John does this. God, by the Spirit, unites him to Christ and saves him. So John is saved from Hell.

So John never actually lives out the full sentence of eternal, conscious punishment even though he deserved it and one of God's reasons for punishing him is to punish him forever because he deserves it.

But, some may object, if Christ has paid for John's sins on the cross then God cannot punish the same sins twice. John cannot suffer eternal conscious torment if Christ suffered it on his behalf. (This objection is based on a classical understanding of penal substitution). So if Christ died for John then God could not send him to Hell in the first place. Well, it is not obvious that the same sin is being punished twice because, as a matter of fact, whilst John is rightly (according to this theory) sentenced to eternal conscious torment he does not actually suffer eternal conscious torment. He only suffers temporary conscious torment.

But is it not unjust for God to rescue him from eternal conscious torment? No more so than it is for God to save anyone from this fate. He does it, on this model of atonement, by Christ suffering the punishment instead. So the punishment is metered out - to Christ in our place.

But wait! What if the punishment never has its intended restorative effect? What if John never comes to God (through Christ)? In that case John would suffer eternal conscious torment even though Christ had suffered this punishment for him.

Two thoughts. (1) Less significantly, there would never come a point at which John had suffered eternal conscious torment. The sentence would never be complete. (2) More significantly (and controversially), I just cannot see such a scenario ever being the case. Indeed, I might go as far as to say that it is not possible. I'm not going to try and justify that now.

So a punishment motivated in part by retribution can (maybe) also serve as restorative even in the limit case of clashes.

I may come to see that this is just total crap if I think about it a little more but as there's no fun in that I thought I'd throw the thought out whilst it was still stupid and interesting.

(Actually, reading it through I'm already seeing problems. Perhaps it really is rubbish)

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Union with Christ - our fate is not in our hands.

Union with Christ was a central reality for Paul's theology and for John's. It has also been at the heart of much Reformed theology (albeit understood in differing ways). And MAN ALIVE it is a glorious truth! It is breath-taking!

In Christ God-the-Son unites himself to our humanity. He lives our human story, bears the divine curse on sin and then is resurrected by the Father to new life.

In the body of the risen Lord God has already completed salvation. In Christ we have died, been buried, been raised and are now seated in heavenly places. In Christ we are already justified, sanctified, and glorified. In Christ we are chosen. The risen Lord is himself the assurance that God's cosmic purposes will be manifest.

That God will achieve his purposes for creation is not a mere desire, a wish, a hope. It is a certainty because the reality is already embodied in the Lord - our representative.

In the end, our fate is not in our hands. Thanks the Lord! Our fate is in the hands of the triune God. The Father has purposed our salvation from eternity past. The Father was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Redemption is complete in Christ. The Spirit is leading creation to participate in the glorious deliverance already accomplished in the Lord.

Sure we have free will but our freedom will never thwart the purposes of the soverign God. Speaking for myself I can say that I am unspeakably reassured by this. The future will see the manifestation of the glory of God in creation and that future is not under threat.