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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).

Friday, 11 June 2010

Postscript: Universalism as Theologumena

Universalism occupies a middle ground between dogma and heresy. It is neither a teaching that all orthodox believers are expected to adhere to (in the way that the Trinity, or the union of deity and humanity in the one person of Christ are), nor one that they must avoid.

Perhaps the most appropriate category to employ is that of theologoumena. Theologoumena are pious opinions that are consistent with Christian dogmas. They are neither required nor forbidden.

To see universalism in the category of theologumena means that one cannot preach universalism as “the Christian view” or “the faith of the Church” but it also means that one may believe in it and develop a universalist version of Christian theology.

It is common for theologians to suggest that if apokatastasis is a matter of theologumena then, although one is permitted to hope that God will save everybody one must not go beyond this tentative faith to believe that God certainly will save all. Why? Because, it is suggested, to do so is presumptuous. I must politely disagree.

There are plenty of matters which are theologumena about which a believer may hold strong convictions. For instance, if universalism is theologumena then so is its denial, yet I have rarely heard it suggested that a firm conviction that some people will be lost forever is presumptuous or in some way out of order. Indeed most Christians throughout history have had precisely such a conviction and have felt at perfect liberty to preach it.

When I say that universalism, like its denial, is theologumena I mean simply that it is an issue about which Christians can legitimately disagree within the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. So whilst I have no problem with some universalists affirming no more than a hopeful universalism I can see no good reason to suppose that Christian orthodoxy requires such hesitancy.

Speaking for myself, I have no qualms about saying that I am a convinced universalist. I do believe that the proposition, “God will save everyone through Christ” is a true proposition and consequently I think that those who disagree with it are mistaken. However, what I don’t believe is that those who disagree with it (i.e. almost everybody) are unorthodox, unchristian, unkind, unspiritual, or . . . unclever.

Similarly, whilst I have never preached or taught universalism in a church context, if I were to do so I would not claim, “This is the Christian teaching” or “This is fundamental doctrine” or “This is the faith of the Church”. I would say, “This is an issue on which devout Christians disagree but here is what I believe and this is why I believe it. You must judge for yourselves, before God, what you think . . .”

So none of this is to suggest that the issue is a matter of indifference, nor that Christians should not debate about the issue—even vigorously. It is simply to relocate the discussion from being a debate between “the orthodox” and “the heretics” and to see it as an in-house theological disagreement. Indeed to see it as an issue that Christians, whilst they might disagree over it, should not divide over it.


Micah Bales said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Micah Bales said...


Thank you for your posts about Christian Universalism and the difference between dogma, theologumena, and heresy. As a Quaker, my religious community doesn't talk about these distinctions very much; but, honestly, I think we might have more productive conversations if we did.

In friendship,

Micah Bales


Robin Parry said...

Thanks Micah.

BTW - have you read Carole Spencer's book "Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism." It was my book of the year a couple of years back - really inspirational.

Terry Wright said...

Thanks for this mini-series, Robin; I've enjoyed it.

David W. Congdon said...

Well said, Robin. An excellent conclusion to your series.

jflyhigh6 said...

This is the first time I've posted anything on this website, I just want to thank Robin for his book The Evangelical Universalists, I have read Tom Talbott's book, Jan Bonda's book, Stetson's book (Stetson has some BAD THEOLOGY and reads too much into things), also read Her Gates will never be shut, Every knee will bow by chamberlain and some other things. I had a problem with God sending the majority of people on earth to hell (even though we do deserve it) but the degree of the punishment seemed so bad too. (even though I still believe in an everlasting punishment of some sort) So that's when I got The Evangelical Universalist book and read it. It was good to see some hope about hell, NOT an assurance or even a pretty sure but a little hope because for me my faith is weak. I still strongly lean towards an everlasting punishment due to Daniel 12:2, Matthew 25:46, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Revelation 20:15 and so on. I have to take the worst case scenario in what Jesus says and go with that because I'm pretty sure that's what he means. However thanks for you're hope and concerned for the damned, Robin. I have just one question, the theory of CDU states that even if nobody buys its arguments and it turns out to be true (because we agree I'm sure that truth isn't based on majority opinion, most people don't buy into Jesus is God and they're wrong) that everyone at some point will trust Jesus as their Savior. My point is since that seems clear enough in the theory why do we even talk about the possibility of Christian Universalism because if it's true then no worry but if it's wrong what about people that by into it too much and make it an assurance? Because to make Christian Universalism an assurance could lead some people easily in the wrong direction and if it's even "One" person (as far as I'm concerned about the one person that buys into it and even Jesus I'm sure would say the same) who leans toward Christian Universalism as an assurance and they say to themselves I don't need Jesus now I'll repent in hell then even if it leads one person astray then it is too much! However I know you aren't assured Robin that it's 100 % going to happen in your opinion I just want to know what you think of that question? It's kinda like the Blaise Pascal Believe in Christianity and if I'm right I've earned everything and if I'm wrong and it doesn't turn out to be then I haven't lost anything. Only it's the inverse for CDU what do I have to gain to even talk about it since it could lead others astray? and if I'm wrong about believing that CDU won't happen then it turns out to be true then good. Do you think that CDU is either the greatest Truth, The Greatest Heresy or neither? Thanks for your concerns Robin, May the God of Grace be with your soul and mine-Always, John

jflyhigh6 said...

universalism is just a heresy bottom line, Jesus last words to his deciples before being crucified was watch out for the teaching of the pharisees and universalism is a pharasitic teaching in the sense that it's not biblical at all, you have to distort God's word and play philosophical games to justify yourself, it's something that Christians should divide about,universalism is not true

Robin Parry said...

jflyhigh6 #1

Thanks for your kind words

Good Q. I deal with the "is it dangerous if it is wrong?" question right at the end of my book. Let me know if that does not answer your concerns.

jflyhigh6 #2

Are you a different person now? I am confused. Your first comment and question were helpful and sensible ... but this one is a little silly. I am unsure if you are a different person using the same account or whether you are joking. Or ... dunno.

jflyhigh6 said...

im the same person, i was watching John McArthur the other night and he was talking about false teaching and the emergent church and cdu hit me hard and I just said, biblically, yep it's wrong then i went and posted my second comment

Robin Parry said...


I don't mind that you think it wrong but I think some wisdom is called for in deciding when an incorrect teaching ought to be denounced as heresy.

All of us hold theological beliefs that will turn out to be wrong. Christians disagree on all sorts of things but we tend to be patient with each other and reserve the word "heresy" for the very worst teachings that contradict something fundamental to Christian faith.

My point is that universalism might be mistaken but whether it is heresy is a different question.

All of us could pick out beliefs held by other Christians (including John McArthur) that we think are demonstrably unbiblical. We should be happy to say that to them and to discuss the issues but I would not call them a heretic unless they denied something fundamental to the faith.

So I guess my question is what I have denied that makes me a heretic?

Have I denied the Bible or the teaching of the creeds? If I have misunderstood some biblical teachings by all means tell me but misunderstanding parts of the Bible would not make me a heretic (unless all Christians are heretics).

Such are my thoughts at any rate.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article I really enjoyed your thoughts. At worst universalism is heterodoxy at best well we have a whole lot of brothers and sisters. To the brother who listened to MacArthur and was convinced of conscious eternal punishment my heart goes out to you. The convincing point for me is that NOWHERE is eternal punishment warned of in the Old Testament. Warnings of judgement are often seen but never hell fire. From this we can only draw three plausible conclusions. That all those who were in covenant with God were saved posthumously by God and the rest sent to hell or reserved for judgment. Or, that Jesus Christ offered them salvation or will offer them salvation at some later date (who would not accept this). Or that there is no warnings due to the fact that after some age God will bring about the restoration of all things and hell fire never came into God's mind Jeremiah 32:35. As far as universalism and the emergent church I agree with MacArthur on this (one of the few things I do by the way), they are highly questionable from a doctrinal standpoint. Blessings

Samuel Maynes said...

If you are interested in some new ideas on universalism, pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at www.religiouspluralism.ca. It previews my book, which has not been published yet and is still a “work-in-progress.” Your constructive criticism would be very much appreciated.

My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universe Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or "Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the "body of Christ" (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

* The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

For more details, please see: www.religiouspluralism.ca

Samuel Stuart Maynes