Patristic Universalism by David Burnfield

I was kindly send a review copy of David Burnfield's Patristic Universalism: An Alternative to the Traditional View of Divine Judgment (Boca Raton, FL: Universal-Publishers, 2013) by the publisher.

Burnfield helpfully sets out the outline of what he means by "patristic universalism" in a number of key ideas:
1. Sin will be punished
2. Salvation comes only through faith in Christ
3. God continues to evangelize people even after they die
4. Everyone will be judged when they die
5. The purpose of hell is remedial not retributive
6. The duration of hell is not eternal
7. Everyone will eventually be saved
The book is an attempt to defend that view by means of Scripture, reason, and tradition.

Chapter 3 seeks to make a case from reason. This is not, for the most part, by means of the "traditional" kinds of philosophical arguments such as one would find in the work of Thomas Talbott and Eric Reitan. (Although a couple of such arguments make an appearance.) Rather, the reflections spin out of various issues of Christian praxis. If the traditional view of eternal torment is correct then why, asks Burnfield, do we not see Jesus and the apostles rushing around in a panic trying to get everyone saved before they die? What do we say about those who have never heard the gospel or those, such as some of the mentally handicapped, who cannot "make a decision for Christ"? Such issues problematize the traditional view. I thought that Burnfield had some good points to make in this chapter but his reflections were not knock-down arguments against traditionalism. Indeed, some of them are matters that traditionalists have long pondered and have some sensible things to say about. Personally, I believe that the case from reason against the traditional view of hell is even stronger than Burnfield suggests. I am in basic agreement with the author but I would be interested to see the thumb screws turned even tighter.

Chapter 4 seeks to make a biblical case. It does so by considering key texts grouped around certain themes
1. Texts about the salvation of "all" (Ps 22:7; John 12:32; 1 Tim 2:3–6). Burnfield argues that "all" means all.
2. The promise that "Every knee will bow" in Isa 45:22–23 and Phil 2:9–11
3. The "one" and the "many" in Isa 53:11–12; Rom 5:12–21; 1 Cor 15:21–22
4. God's desire to save all (Matt 18:12–14; Rom 11:25–26a; 1 Cor 15:23–28; 1 Tim 4:10; Titus 2:11; Heb 2:8–10; 1 John 4:14)
5. Texts about the restoration of all things (Matt 19:28–30; Acts 3:19–21; Col 1:20)
Burnfield had a lot of sensible things to say about most of these texts and he is certainly right that they do lend themselves to universalist interpretations. This approach to texts is quite helpful, especially for those with evangelical backgrounds who are very focused on the wording of texts. It is not quite the way that I would approach organizing the material in that I tend to try to understand things from the perspective of the biblical metanarrative and doctrinal loci. This however, is simply a difference in approach. I was in agreement with a lot of Burnfield's exegetical conclusions.

Chapter 5 seeks to make a biblical case for the claim that God offers mercy to the dead and that the moment of death is not a point beyond which one's fate is sealed forever. Burnfield is very helpful in showing how the traditional case is based on a far flimsier basis than is often thought. Heb 9:27 ("it is appointed for all men to die once, and after that to face judgment") looms large in traditionalist arguments and Burnfield helpfully shows that this text simply cannot support the theological house that has been built upon it.

He then launches a range of arguments from reason, Scripture, and tradition to try to show the possibility of salvation after death. From the side of "reason" Burnfield worries that many people do not accept the gospel for a range of reasons that are very understandable (they may not have heard the gospel, they may have been misinformed about the nature of the gospel or the case for it, they may have heard the gospel from Christians who were abusive, etc.). Surely, he reasons, God would not stop seeking such people simply because they have died. The biblical arguments are a bit of a mixed bag. There is some very interesting and insightful reflections on a range of texts but most of it falls short of a strong biblical case for post-mortem evangelism. There are some of the usual suspects (1 Pet 3:18–20; 4:6) but also some unexpected texts brought into play. The upshot is that while Burnfield does show that the biblical case against mercy beyond the grave is weak and that there is a biblical case for it, it is a less than clear case. The author is aware of this and does not claim to have knock-down arguments. In the end the Bible itself cannot break the deadlock on this one — wider theological issues will always be playing a fundamental role in how people assess and weigh the evidence. Personally, I agree with the author's instincts on mercy beyond the grave.

Chapter 6 picks up the issue of hell and offers a biblical case for seeing hell as having a restorative purpose. He considers texts that see punishment as divine correction and as provoking repentance. He also considers texts relating to the duration of hell. He makes a generic case on the basis of a range of divine punishment texts that divine punishment lasts for as long as it needs to to achieve its restorative goal. This one of the best chapters in the book, perhaps the best. There was some interesting and creative discussion of texts, some of which are often left out of the discussion.

Chapter 7 seeks to answer classic objections. In particular the classical texts used to "prove" that hell is everlasting. This is such well-trodden ground that it is hard to say anything new and creative. But Burnfield gives a good account of the case against traditionalist readings of the texts in question. While not original, it is, for the most part, a solid and helpful discussion. And I think he is spot on — these texts do not teach everlasting hell. The chapter then considers other classic objections (universalism violates freewill, it minimizes sin and divine holiness, it makes the cross of Christ redundant, it undermines evangelism, it is a recent theological idea without roots in the tradition). He has many helpful things to say on all these questions.

My expectations in reading the book were a little out of tune with the book that I read. The title led me to expect an exposition of Christian universalism that took its starting point from certain early church fathers and their theological exposition of Scripture. If that is what you are after then you will be disappointed. There was indeed an attempt to engage these venerable Christians, especially in the final section of the book. However, Burnfield was very clearly coming at the issue from an evangelical Protestant background and it is that evangelical theological heritage that is the dominant shaping force in the the book. (In this he is just like me.) The patristic material had clearly influenced Burnfield's thought but more as a seasoning introduced into the recipe at a later point, after the dominant taste of the dish had already been created. Burnfield's engagement with the Fathers does not come from reading the Fathers themselves but from secondary sources — books about what the Father's said about universalism. Every patristic quotation is lifted from a book that quotes it. This means that it is hit or miss whether the footnotes will provide the patristic references for the quotations. Sometimes they do but sometimes they simply provide the page number in the secondary source from which the quote was lifted (or, on one occasion the quote was from a book quoting another book quoting an early father). This can be somewhat frustrating if one wishes to trace down the quotations to read them in context. If one if wanting to get one's head around the teachings of the different Fathers then this book is probably not the place to go.

However, Burnfield makes no pretense to be a scholar of patristics. This book is a clear attempt at universalist apologetics aimed at thinking laypeople and not at scholars. And at that level it works fine. It brings into play a wide range of very instructive quotations from the Fathers that are well worth setting before thoughtful believers. And the fact of the matter is this — that a rigorous scholarly study of the patristic sources (as one will find in Ilaria Rameli's new Brill volume of almost 900 pages) would not yield a different result on the teachings of these Fathers than Burnfield offers. They really were universalists, just as he says.

All in all, this is not a flawless book but it contains much that is commendable and helpful to thoughtful Christians and serves as a good entry into a lot of the key issues in the current debate.


Victoria Gaile said…
Thank you for this very helpful review, particularly the caveat about the manner in which the patristic writers are engaged.

One often gets the impression from public discourse shaped by progressive Christians that universalism is a peculiarly modern innovation (evidence to the contrary such as the existence of an entire denomination with "Universalism" in its name notwithstanding), so it's good to see an argument made for the historical context. I found the praxis argument most interesting.
Anonymous said…
Over the last 10 years, Robin, do you know how many books have been written on this topic? And do you know how many universalist-related articles have been published in peer-reviewed theological journals? Has it been a slow and steady re-emergence? Or a bit of a 'big bang'?
Robin Parry said…
There has been a small bang of them. It has risen from a tiny trickle to a small but steady flow. However, most of them are not the kind of book that would get reviewed in academic theology journals because they are neither by nor for academics. This is one such book. But there are a growing number of academic volumes and they are reviewed in academic journals—pretty positively.
Anonymous said…
What would be the catalyst for a big bang then? Or, is it going to be more of a long term project? And besides academic articles, books, and lectures, do you think the arts could add an element of beauty to the overall argument?
Robin Parry said…
A big bang would be very worrying to me. One would hope that the church was more discerning that to leap quickly at something like universalism. Slow and long is best.

The arts—most certainly. I am no artist but I do believe that the arts "speak" truth in ways that theological and philosophical approaches cannot.
Anonymous said…
Hi Robin,
While we are on universalism....
There is a verse that I am wondering about with respect to universalism. It says something like "let he who is unjust be unjust still, etc"....22:11
Do you think that there is a good fit within the universalist interpretation?
Robin Parry said…

It is an odd text on any interpretation. It refers not to those in the lake of fire but to those who are currently sinning at the time of John's revelation. The message seems to be that those who have embarked on this course should now continue on it and reach the fate of those who travel that way—the lake of fire.

However one seeks to make sense of that message it does not have any direct bearing on the issue of universalism.
Anonymous said…

Wondering if you think Dr. Craig's third point in response to the Levitical laws is applicable to 'eternal' punishment in the New Testament. Seems like Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa took the position that such references to 'eternal' damnation were strictly pedagogical, i.e. an idealization (as Craig puts it) reflecting the grave consequences of sin, but in practice, not a sentence that would actually be enforced by God.
Robin Parry said…

Craig is correct that some biblical law functioned in that way. I don't know whether this insight would apply to eternal punishment. Sorry. Never thought about it.

Yours in ignorance

RDM said…
This is an encouraging endorsement of a book I discovered only recently and will order soon. I am continually baffled at the willingness of the evangeical tradition to assume the eternal outcome of the human race! John Stott's view on annihiltionism caused a stir but not a tsunami.

I am convinced the biblical text speaks of univeralism as espoused here, not popularly understood by "foaming-at-the-mouth-"orthodox"-evangelicals-who-believe-the Gospel", but it does also speak of eternal conscious torment and annihilation as eschatological possibilities.

My question is why does the evangelical tradition get so angry at the possibility of anything other than eternal conscious torment, when the biblical text and church tradition suggest there is a tension; this seems to me to be hermeneutical foreclosure at its most grotetesque.

BTW, really appreciate your writings and blog. Am currently reading 'All Shall be Well' and 'Hallowed be Thy Name' by Jason Goroncy. Both brilliant!

Richard Matcham
Robin Parry said…

I can understand why they feel that they need to defend an everlasting hell. They believe that it is what Jesus taught and that rejecting it would amount to rejecting his teaching. Furthermore, they worry that denying it would undermine the seriousness of sin and would mess up their theology of the atonement, etc.

Of course, I think such worries are misplaced, but I do get them.

However, like you, what I cannot fathom is why some are so riled abut the threat to ECT from annihilationism. Annihilation is no less eternal, so what is the worry (theologically speaking)? It makes no sense to me.

Anonymous said…
Hi, very late to this thread; found it long-ways by way of your post on Illaria Ramelli's survey of apokatastasis.

Does the author have much to say about preterist alternatives to conventional eschatology? Methinks that if one contemplates the possibility that Jesus' "hades" and "gehenna" warnings may be "near-term" prophetic warnings to Israel of impending national calamity, in the vein of prior Hebrew prophetic practice (I have been strongly influenced by NT Wright at this point), one is not left with a whole lot of unequivocal exegetical evidence for the traditionalist view.

Regarding Evangelical attachment to ECT, I suspect that there is fear that the Gospel, understood as "the good news that you don't have to suffer anguish forever" will not be appealing to people if the "bad news" is not as bad as ECT. Having for so long envisioned Gospel in terms of "rescue from ECT", we've become dependent on that for our sense of "what was the point of Jesus' mission." I regard that to be an enormous self-indictment. If Jesus, portrayed in word and deed by Evangelicals, is not attractive, ... then shame on us.
Robin Parry said…

the universalist who has done the most down the preterist route is probably Nik Ansell. He has an essay at the back of his "annihilation of hell" book which spells this out and I have a feeling he's working on a book on Revelation from this perspective.


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