Thomas Talbott. Universal Salvation? The Current Debate. Ed. by Robin Parry & Christopher Partridge. Foreword by Gabriel Fackre. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003
In this work evangelicals are talking to one another about the controverted question of universalism. It’s a conversation worth overhearing by the wider theological world. Indeed, the authors are much in dialogue with those reaches already, for careful attention is given to the history of the issues in the church universal, and to the contemporary debate in circles beyond, as well as within, evangelicalism. -- Gabriel Fackre
The reason that mature thinkers root and ground themselves in the fullness of the Great Tradition of Christian thought is simple yet often ignored. There is an animated and thoughtful dialogue that has taken place within the history of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ about a variety of perennial issues, and the means used to reach conclusions and conclusions reached are not always one and the same.
The Great Tradition has many traditions, and each tradition can, sadly so, slip into a sort of mindless traditionalism. Many are either born into a tradition or come to the faith journey within a tradition that is merely part of the Great Tradition. The danger, of course, and it is a perennial one, is that many often shrink their understanding of the Great Christian Tradition to the tradition that they assume is the fullness of faith. This is like taking a leaf on a branch on a trunk on a tree in a forest and calling the leaf, branch and tree one sits under the forest. Or, to change the metaphor, many assume the watery stream they sit beside is the only river that flows from the great ocean of faith.
There are many streams of faith in the Great Tradition, and it is simply wrong to identify one form or theological tradition as the unquestioned and unquestionable monarch on the throne. The history of Protestantism is a sordid tale of disagreement and schism about interpretations of the Bible and theology, and the mother church traditions of Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox have their decided interpretive differences. So, before a simplistic confessionalism and Sunday School certainty comes to dominate the day, it’s best and wisest to sit, heed and hear the wisdom and reflections of the Great Tradition. It is by being immersed in the fullness and breadth of such a way, like sights seen from a mountains summit or high mountain ridge, we can see the lay of the land in a better and more meaningful manner. Those who merely see from a patch of land in the lowlands often do not see what is actually there. They only speak from their limited perspective that they often confuse with the larger perspective. It’s a case again of the idolatry of tradition that is blind to the Great Tradition.
The issue of ‘Universal Salvation’ is one of those perennial issues that have been part of the discussion of the Great Tradition. Those who live, move and have their being within a tradition often take a position on ‘Universal Salvation’ and reject other positions that don’t fit their agenda. Does the church have a consistent and creedal stance on the fate and future of humanity? Many within various and varied traditions answer with a resounding Yes to such a question. The evangelical community has tended to lean in one direction on the issue of ‘Universal Salvation’, but there are also dissenters in the tribe. The evangelical clan, in short, has different views on ‘Universal Salvation’, and much hinges on which evangelical tradition a person calls home and why.
Thomas Talbott grew up in a conservative evangelical ethos, and as he aged, he came to question the Calvinist and reformed tradition he inherited. Talbott has, to his probing credit, become one of the more thoughtful ‘universalists’ in the last few decades. The publication of Universal Salvation? The Current Debate is a tome worth reading, and Talbott is the main actor in the drama. The book is divided into six sections: 1) A Case for Christian Universalism, 2) Biblical Responses, 3) Philosophical Responses, 4) Theological Responses, 5) Historical Responses and 6) Talbott Responds to his Interlocutors. The strength and charm of Universal Salvation? is the way the issue is discussed in a subtle, nuanced and refined manner. There is no caricaturing of positions. There are a variety of ways of approaching the issue, and each approach much be honoured---lesser thinkers become locked and frozen in a position, nimbleness of thought lacking. It is by being in conversation with those within the broader evangelical family and, even more so, within the larger church, that we begin to hear positions that often shake our tradition that can become traditionalism. It is tragic, of course, when people of good faith confuse their tradition with the complex interpretive possibilities of the Bible and the Great Tradition.
Universal Salvation? The Current Debate is a must read for three reasons: 1) those who naively assume all evangelicals think the same about the fate and future of people after they die will come to see that there is a lively conversation about the issue of ‘universal salvation’. 2) the approach to the issue of ‘universal salvation’ is dialogical not dogmatic---it is also interdisciplinary—the Bible, philosophy, theology and history are brought into the conversation as is the complex insights from the historic church. 3) Thomas Talbott is offered ample space and place to unpack and unravel his thoughtful commitment to a notion of universal salvation. Universal Salvation? The Current Debate is a must read and A++ keeper for those truly interested in the wide ranging approaches to the issue and the obvious conclusions reached that lead to a parting of paths for many. Do read, internalize and ponder this gem of a book. Your path taken will be different and wiser because of the read, and the various traditions will be seen for what they are and why within the much grander and greater Tradition.
Ron DartAppendix: To hell or not to hell: Video dialogue with Ron Dart, Kevin Miller and Archbishop Lazar Puhalo