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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Universalism (2)

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UNIVERSALISM.—Three different, though connected, problems are raised by this word: (1) The universality of Christianity as a gospel for all races (as against the early Ebionism (wh. see) which confined Christianity to the circumcised); (2) the universal purpose of Christ’s death—for ‘all men’ (as against the Augustinian and Calvinistic doctrine of Christ’s death on behalf of those elected out of the mass of sinful mankind); (3) the ultimate salvation of all souls (as against the eternal suffering of the wicked; or, their destruction; or perhaps as against uncertainty—subjective uncertainty, due to our ignorance, or objective uncertainty, due to the indefiniteness of the sentence of the Great Day; see below).—A study of Christ and the Gospels is very specially concerned with the first problem.

I. Universality of Christianity.—1. There are two ways in which religions qualify as ‘universal.’ They may reveal the missionary impulse (Zoroastrianism? see Jackson, Zoroaster the Prophet of Ancient Iran, 1899, p. 92; Modern Hinduism, sucking up hill-tribes into its fellowship?). Or in addition they may simplify very greatly—in contrast with the legal or national character of developed systems of religion in the ancient world.

Buddhism went furthest in the way of simplifying. From the first, apparently, a proselyte might have the benefits of Buddhism without renouncing the practices of his former faith; and at this hour many of the population of China are said to practise concurrently the three religions—Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism. Muhammadanism is missionary and is simple, but it institutes a new legalism in the strictest sense. Pre-Christian Judaism, in its proselytizing, revealed the missionary impulse; but simplification of ritual—a simplified creed was hardly needed—could not be granted, unless to the σεβόμενοι (‘devout persons’); and their position was theoretically very insecure.

2. The Apostolic Church had the missionary impulse, but practised the OT law as inherited custom; was it also sacred duty? The question threatened to rend the new fellowship. Should the missionary impulse be given free scope? And should life be simplified—in the first instance, for those of Gentile birth—by abrogation of OT law? Or should the missionary impulse be slowly throttled by Jewish laws and customs? Both parties were pushed back, and led to define their principles more sharply. The Judaizers claim that the Law is necessary to salvation (Acts 15:1), or at least to full salvation (Galatians 3:3). St. Paul justifies his attitude of antagonism by declaring that the Gentile Christian, who accepts circumcision and the Law, renounces Christ (Galatians 5:2-4). On both sides, law is treated, not as customary, but as religious in value—good religion to the Judaizers, bad religion to St. Paul (though in mere custom he himself ‘became a Jew to win Jews,’ 1 Corinthians 9:20). In the end the various sections of Christian Jews all died out, or merged themselves in the rival camps—the Synagogue and the Catholic Church. It may seem as if universalism failed. Christianity has been known to history as a Gentile and non-Jewish institution—a strange state of matters, were we not blinded by familiarity. And in other ways, too, success has been very partial. No religion, not even the Christian, has ever attained the destiny of universal sway to which all the higher prophetic religions aspire. Yet Christianity persists in claiming that it is truly universal. It excludes none. The Jewish people excludes itself. (Individual Jews, of course, are entangled in hereditary custom, and can break away only by self-will or moral heroism).

3. The simplifying of religion, which was carried through in controversy by St. Paul, begins uncontroversially in the teaching of Jesus. He brings the Law to a principle (Matthew 7:12) or to a pair of principles, drawn from different parts of the OT (Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18), and recognized by the Master as connected by an inward likeness (Matthew 22:37-40 ||). All these principles, of course, are moral and indifferent to ceremonial. So, too, the religious life is brought to a single principle by the name which Jesus steadily uses for God. If God is our Father, religion is sonship. This is a simplifying of the highest order—a simplifying which is also a deepening, an ennobling, a perfecting of the religious life. Thus Christ’s teaching is universalist at the core. If religion consists in the belief of God’s Fatherhood and in love to man, there is no reason why a Jew should be preferred to a Gentile. Nor do corollaries from these principles fail to appear in the teaching of Christ. He rejects, as lacking Divine authority, that tradition (Matthew 15:3-9 ||) by means of which the Pharisees, morally the most earnest among the Jews, safeguarded the OT law and applied it to new details, at the cost of making it ever more and more a burden. He hints repeatedly that ceremonies, even those taught by the OT, are of inferior moment in comparison with moral duty (Matthew 9:16-17, Matthew 12:7, cf. Matthew 17:26, Matthew 22:21 ||). He speaks of sin and pardon (Matthew 9:6 ||, Luke 7:48), and of His own approaching death (Matthew 20:28 ||, Matthew 26:28 ||), in words which send us back to the prediction of a ‘new covenant’ (Jeremiah 31:31). And thus He connects the new body of principles contained in His teaching with His own Person and destiny.

4. On the other hand, the universalist corollary itself seems strangely absent. For Christ conceives His calling upon earth as confined to Israel (Matthew 15:24 ||). His intercourse with Gentiles (Matthew 8:5 ff.), or even with the half-heathen Samaritans (John 4:9, Luke 9:52; Luke 17:16), was but casual. He bids His disciples, at their first going out, confine themselves to Jews (Matthew 10:6). All this, as we can see, was involved in His recognition that God called Him to be Messiah—Israel’s king. If ‘anointed’ to ‘preach’ (Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:18), He must direct His prophetic message to Israel. The shaping out of His royalty depends, under God, on the attitude of Israel in response to His appeal. These things are plain to us; still, there was room for doubt under the historic conditions of the early disciples. It was plausible for Jewish Christians to hold that the Master’s example sanctioned particularism rather than universalism. Very Possibly Matthew 10—as borrowed by the author of our Gospel from an older document (the Logia? one version of the Logia?, see Logia)—was originally a gathering together in a single context of sayings that might throw light on the permanent duties of an evangelist; if so, the original draft of the chapter confines the itinerant preacher to an audience of Jews. (We must not expect that Evangelists should write like critical historians, with exact notes of time and circumstance). On the other hand, our Gospel of Mt., as a whole, certainly presents a different outlook. Yet it is only after the Resurrection—and, in all the Synoptics, with a very definite contrast to the past—that we have the record of a positive command to preach to all men. Not that the mind of our Master is really uncertain on this point. OT prophecy had extended hope to Gentiles (Is 2:2, e.g.); and Jesus stands higher, not lower, than His prophetic forerunners. Could He—speaking in the light of such promises; or could He at all—preach a gospel universalist from its centre outwards, and not know what He was doing? He knew it well. And so the principles of His teaching come to their rights through the witness of St. Paul, who—in forms of his own, or, at any rate, in forms which owed to him their full and sharp development—vindicates the universal religion which has succeeded to the Old Covenant through the atoning death for sin. See also artt. Cosmopolitanism, Exclusiveness, Gentiles, Missions.

Literature.—The present writer’s Christ and the Jewish Law, 1886, quotes older literature. Interesting recent statements, from a position of some theological latitude, in Harnack’s What is Christianity?; Wernle’s Beginnings of Christianity, and Weinel’s Jesus Christus im 19ten Jahrhundert [the last not yet translated].

II. Universal purpose of Christ’s death.—1. Granted that Christ is the Saviour of all races, did He die for all men in all races, or only for such as actually reap the benefits of His sacrifice? The question may seem somewhat academic. It is admitted on both sides of the controversy that the merits of Christ suffice to redeem all men; and it is [or was; but see III. below] admitted on both sides that only a certain number of souls are advantaged by the Christian salvation. Still, it seemed—e.g. to Wesley—a new and ugly particularism to affirm that, by Divine decree, the salvation, professedly offered to all, was confined to some, chosen arbitrarily or upon unknown grounds.

2. In our Lord’s Synoptic teaching, or in the very simple theology of the first three Evangelists, the point now before us is hardly touched on. Christ is to give His life a ransom for ‘many’ (Matthew 20:28 ||); and so, too, His covenant blood is shed for ‘many’ (Matthew 26:28 ||). The contrast in view is between the One suffering and the many saved. In Jn. the phenomena are more various. The shepherd gives His life for the sheep (John 10:11). Christ loves His own (John 13:1). He prays for them and not for the world (John 17:9). On the other hand, the ulterior aim is ‘that the world may believe’ (John 17:21 (23)). Lifted up, He is to draw ‘all men’ (John 12:32). And, when we turn from the Johannine teaching of Christ to other parts of the Fourth Gospel, we find strong emphasis laid on the fact that Christ is the Saviour of the whole world (John 1:29, John 3:17, John 4:42). A Gospel so penetrated with the thought of universalism (I.) was not likely to lend itself to a new particularism as against universalism (II.).

3. It is to St. Paul that the Augustinians and Calvinists look back as their explicit master. All that happens, happens by God’s will. All that fails to happen, fails just because it was no part of God’s purpose. Salvation, especially, is efficacious; grace is ‘irresistible.’ Predestinated—called—justified—glorified—the stately sequence moves on without pause or uncertainty (Romans 8:30). (We omit the initial term ‘foreknown’ as somewhat difficult—difficult perhaps to both schools of theology). What God plans, He accomplishes. The necessary obverse of this doctrine—unless transformed by universalism (III.); so Hastie, Theology of the Reformed Church, 1894—is that neither God nor Christ meant any blessing for those who are in the issue unsaved. Christ died for some, not for all. But the NT writes differently. Even St. Paul joins in the common confession—‘He died for all’ (2 Corinthians 5:15). Language which in later theology is found characteristic only of transition Calvinism—i.e. of Calvinism in a state of decay, like Amyraldism—is the natural expression of the faith of St. Paul and of all the NT writers. True, A. Ritschl (Justification, vol. iii., translation H. R. Mackintosh and A. B. Macaulay, ch. ii. § 22) contends that this form of expression is of inferior scientific value to the other set of expressions—noted by us in the Johannine teaching, and in Romans 8—according to which grace is destined to the Church. Ritschl’s peculiar doctrine—the Elect = the Church and not = a body of individuals—has found few supporters, and probably will find fewer in the future. His preference for Calvinism is noteworthy, though he was no genuine Calvinist.* [Note: Universalism (III.), Ritschl dismissed as ‘sentimental.’ His own inclination was towards a doctrine of conditional immortality, but he left his eschatology somewhat in the dark.] Yet we feel bound to hold that it is deeper spiritual vision and not simply lowered logical acumen that makes the NT writers—conceivably, sometimes, at the cost of systematic coherence—hail Christ as Saviour of all men. Otherwise, Universalism (I.) seems emptied of moral meaning. In point of fact, the Calvinistic limitation is little heard of now in Great Britain, except among some of the Evangelicals in the Church of England and some of the Baptists. And few would now rank it as a burning question. The controversy has gone to sleep. Or judgment in the cause goes by default.

Literature.—Besides Ritschl and Hastie, referred to above, the attentive reader will find fossil marks of the controversy in some of the hymns of the Evangelical Revival, both Calvinistic and Wesleyan.

III. Universal, ultimate salvation.—1. At the present day, ‘Universalism’ most naturally suggests to the reader the doctrine of the final restitution of all souls (there are Universalist churches in America in this sense). The doctrine is not, indeed, a novelty. It is found, qualified by his extraordinary insistence upon individual freewill, in Origen’s closely-knit speculative system; also in Gregory of Nyssa, and others. And Ritschl (Gesch. des Pietismus) notes, with scorn, among the symptoms of post-Reformation ‘pietism,’ that, ever and anon, hope is expressed even on behalf of condemned and lost souls. The most earnest and ardent supporters in Great Britain of the universalist doctrine have been Thomas Erskine of Linlathen (in his later years; d. 1870), Samuel Cox (Salvator Mundi, 1877), and Caleb Scott of Manchester. But Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1849) has perhaps done more than any formal theological work to move opinion in this direction; and there has been a great break-up of the old unhesitating belief in literally unending punishment. Some have taught conditional immortality (E. White, Life in Christ, 1875; Petavel [French-Swiss], The Problem of Immortality, 2 vols. 1890–91 (English translation in one vol. 1892); W. D. Maclaren), others a mitigated punishment (F. W. Farrar, Eternal Hope, 1878, Mercy and Judgment, 1881; hinted also in J. R. Illingworth’s Reason and Revelation, 1902, ch. xii.). Others plead for uncertainty (E. H. Plumptre, Spirits in Prison, 1884, with full and interesting references; Plumptre’s brother-in-law, F. D. Maurice (Theological Essays, 1853), had stated philosophic doubts as to the meaning of ‘eternal.’ Present writer’s Essays Towards a New Theology, 1889). An original and very curious suggestion is found in A. M. Fairbairn’s Christ in Modern Theology, 1893, p. 467. Deity ‘cannot annihilate, but the sentence of condemnation is indeterminate rather than eternal (like sentences of committal to Elmira reformatory prison, N.Y.). Repentance always remains possible. If or when the damned repent, they shall emerge. Besides all these changes or innovations in belief, the growing reticence, and one may say reluctance, among those who maintain full traditional orthodoxy is even more significant. Few would now write as Charles Reade did (1856) in his brilliant novel, Never Too Late to Mend (ch. 21), as if the last moments of life on this side the veil were necessarily the last moments of hope for the soul (‘Never’ too late?).

2. Much of what we have just mentioned concerns us only in so far as it represents a great swaying of opinion towards universalism (in the fullest sense). The three senses of the word which we have been studying form a climax—Christ for all races, Christ for all souls, Christ actually redeeming and winning all. In the theological discussion just noted—Fairbairn is an exception—the question is generally argued as one of NT interpretation. The present writer does not think that hopeful. He sees no ground for challenging the old doctrine on exegetical lines. Words often applied to the universalist hope—Apokatastasis, ‘restitution of all things,’ Acts 3:21 (cf. Matthew 17:11 ||, Acts 1:6)—do not really bear the meaning supposed. One passage teaches probation after death (1 Peter 3:19), but it hardly falls within the limits of this article. Eternal punishment had come to be the doctrine of the synagogue, and it passed into the NT with perhaps even sharper definition, as a witness to the unspeakable evil of sin. True, the doctrine was not rigorously formulated, and it is a question among interpreters whether St. Paul’s teaching is eternal punishment or rather a certain type of conditional-immortality doctrine. But generally the NT is clear, even the language used by Christ; although we note that what is freshest and most personal in our Lord’s words (Luke 12:47-48) goes to modify the dreadful wholesale dogma, and foreshadows, at however remote a time, the ultimate challenging of the letter of this article of the theological creed. Again, as a matter of exegesis, we cannot claim either the Johannine teaching of our Lord (John 12:32), or the culminating point in St. Paul’s great argument (Romans 11:32), as asserting universal salvation. Other plainer passages are decisive. There is a ‘son of perdition’ (John 17:12), and St. Paul denounces ‘eternal destruction’ on sinners (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Still, the question recurs here, too, whether the spirit and inner drift of such words—words spoken on the mountain-tops of spiritual vision—can be satisfied by anything less than their full meaning.

3. Recent change in theological opinion is largely a matter of moral recoil. We may sum up the moral postulate by saying that, as long as there is hope of rescuing the soul, any severity is a holy and even—though one trembles at the words—a gracious thing. But if character sets permanently in the ways of evil, can we credit long-drawn-out suffering? Our generation, from a sense of duty, puts even the cruellest of murderers to a painless death. We, who dare not torture, cannot conceive that God’s administration includes endless torment.

4. Passing from simpler moral considerations to a religious speculation, we note that optimism enters into every theistic creed. In some sense—in the deepest sense—what happens in God’s world is the best. It is best that evil should be permitted, should show what is in itself, should be conquered. Above all, when God’s providence and grace have reached their goal in history, we must be able to say, ‘It is best.’ Again, God is omnipotent. He cannot, of course, do anything formally impossible or inherently absurd; nor can He ‘deny Himself.’ But any lawful desire of His children He can and will supply. All that He has is ours, for we are ‘heirs of God.’ He acts in His own way, according to His own will; yet He grants what we desire, or something better. This is the key which unlocks the riddles of our private lives. Its grandest and most public application is found in redemption. God could not, or would not, ignore the world’s sin. He did what was far better, when He sent Jesus Christ. Now, here it seems incomparably the divinest issue of history that redemption should prove universal, and God all in all, not through slaughter of His enemies (‘Order reigns in Warsaw’), still less through chaining them in hopeless misery and hatred, but through winning in every heart that victory which, in some of the hardest and darkest of hearts, Christ has won already.

‘His blood can make the foulest clean;

His blood availed for me.’

Again, God is our Father. Men have said in the writer’s hearing,—some lightly, some with the profoundest gravity and tenderness,—‘I could leave no child of mine to endless misery. Can God do that?’ We, being evil, cannot but raise this question. Our Maker must answer it.

5. On the other hand, we cannot banish from our minds the tendency of character to set, for good or for evil. As we know it, this tendency remains incomplete. None are perfect, nor may we regard any as beyond rescue. But even a child learns how repetition facilitates either evil or good, and how a delayed reform grows harder and less likely to be achieved. It is no skirmish or sham fight for which we are enlisted. As right differs from wrong by the whole diameter of being, so the issues of the life that has been won for righteousness and love must differ from those of the life that has willingly preferred sin. Measured and limited ill-consequence is in no sort of proportion to the infinite evil of wilful wickedness; and the rhetoric of universalism in the minds of those who ‘eddy round and round’ is the lazy and lying assurance, ‘It will come to the same thing in the end.’ God cannot brook this. He must needs threaten sin with its wages; and we have no right to affirm that the most awful of all threats is but an empty or ideal possibility. So, longing with full hearts for a universal restitution of lost souls, we must leave this theme of mystery and terror upon the steps of the Redeemer’s throne of grace.

Literature.—Besides the works cited in the art., cf. Salmond, Chr. Doct. of Immortality, 628; J. A. Beet, Last Things, 203; Newman Smyth, Orthodox Theol. of To-day, 55; Alcott, ‘Universalism a Progressive Faith’ in New World, iii. (1894), 38.

Robert Mackintosh.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Universalism (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/u/universalism-2.html. 1906-1918.

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