I have often wondered about the dynamics that inform the question of which ‘doctrines’ suddenly become ‘up for grabs’ within contemporary Baptist/evangelical life. Theological ideas that, in the past defined someone as explicitly ‘liberal’ become from time to time ‘legitimate’ areas of exploration so that to take the view that had previously been defined as ‘liberal’ no longer places you outside the evangelical fold but to the left-wing of it. We have seen this happen with e.g. the issue of biblical criticism, women in ministry, social justice concerns, open theism, models of atonement. I am interested in the question of who decides that it is now OK to talk about such things and to question established / received opinion, without getting drummed out of the brownies.
I suspect that, along with the homosexuality debate, the whole area of ‘universalism’ may be the next big thing. Of course it will take a Steve Chalke or equivalent to really set the thing running, but for those who might be interested in seeing how a universalist position might be compatible with orthodox Christian belief may like to check out a long running series of posts by D. W. Congdon at The Fire and the Rose (which is explicitly theological in focus) and the ongoing series of posts by Chris Tilling here and here with more to follow (which have a more exegetical approach). For me, there are three things in relation to the issue of which I am certain:
1. Addressing the issue is a matter of exegesis and theology combined. Those who argue for a theological approach sometimes give the impression that, due to the ambiguity of the biblical evidence, exegesis adds little to the debate; as if Barth’s theology, which tends in a universalist direction, was anything other than exegetical to its core. Those who want to be ‘biblical’ about this often assume that (a) the evidence is pretty straightforward and (b) that once we have interpreted the biblical evidence that ends the discussion. The key issue is what kind of exegesis, and it seems to me that it will always be exegesis shaped by some basic theological convictions, profoundly affected by contextual circumstances and explicitly detached from over-confident claims about what the Bible really teaches or what the authors (specifically Paul) really thought or meant. As I argue in a short forthcoming article on women in ministry this means that, ultimately, our responsibility as biblical interpereters today is not to adopt Paul’s contextually framed ‘answer’ to such issues, but to explore the implications of Paul’s story of God’s purposes in Christ for our own context.
2. Universalism, because it is about salvation, must in the end be a matter of faith and hope and not epistemological certainty. But faith and hope ought to be directed towards the ‘end’ that is the end of the gospel story, and not any other narrative.
3. If there were to be a move towards a greater faith and hope that ‘all will be saved’ it would be a tremendously liberating development. Mission could again become what it ought to be: our participation in God’s saving purpose in the world, rather than our attempt to populate heaven on God’s behalf by ‘saving the lost’. The church would be released to be authentically the church: the redeemed, peace-loving new humanity whose existence is in service of the reign of God, rather than its own self-perpetuation. Complex ethical issues could be placed into their appropriate perspective: that of God’s loving, inclusive purposes for the world rather than God’s exclusive rule-making and enforcing.
As you might be able to tell, I hope that discussion of universalism might be the next big thing.