A Tame Lion

universalismThere is a new product on the theological market, Universalism, which advertises a new and improved deity, one much better than the old deity offered by such men as John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards—and John Chrysostom. The old deity could be wrathful, and would consign impenitent sinners to an eternal hell, an unquenchable fire. The new and improved deity is much nicer: he would never damn anyone eternally, and offers the good news that all will eventually be saved, no matter what their choices during their life. (One version of this deity declares that, well, it is true that not everyone will be saved, but at least no one will suffer eternally, for the non-saved will be incinerated into non-existence shortly after their resurrection and condemnation. This view shares with Universalism the conviction that a God of love would never damn anyone or allow them to suffer eternally.)

The new deity is marketed as a “more Christlike God”—meaning presumably more Christlike than the God proclaimed by the Church in the previous two millennia. This God, whether or not more Christlike, is certainly nicer and safer than the deity previously proclaimed. His only concern, seemingly, is love, which has eclipsed any concern for justice to the point of its effective obliteration. St. Paul would have us behold both the kindness and the severity of God—those who fell into apostasy who know His severity, but those who believed in Christ would know His kindness (Romans 11:22). In the new deity one finds only kindness. This Aslan is an emphatically tame lion.

I suspect this deity is popular with many in our generation because he bears a striking resemblance to ourselves. That is, this deity is tolerant, patient, loving, peaceable, accepting, all-embracing, all-forgiving, and emphatically non-judgmental—the very virtues at which our own generation excels and specializes. Wrath and vengeance against evil are foreign to his nature; he is not concerned with justice but only that his children enter into Paschal joy. He fits in well with our secular culture because, in fact, he is a creation of that culture. Universalism has remade the Biblical God into its own image. Naturally we find this God more congenial—we invented him and made him to look like ourselves.

But this deity bears little resemblance to the God of the Old Testament. That God was a man of war (Exodus 15:3), one who would wrap Himself in the garments of vengeance and go forth to wage war against the ungodly of the earth, staining His raiment in their justly-shed blood (Isaiah 59:17, 63:1-6). Though He did not desire the death of the wicked, but rather their repentance, He would mete out death to the wicked if they refused to repent (Ezekiel 33:11-13).

It is no good at this point invoking the long-exorcised spirit of Marcion, in an attempt to oppose the merciful deity of New Testament to the blood-thirsty one of Old Testament. All the pages of the Scriptures, both New Testament and Old, declare both the severity and the kindness of this God. Christ is no different than His Father, and Universalist attempts to be more Christlike than Christ can only do so by ignoring much of the New Testament picture of Jesus.

For the Universalists not only must discount the picture of God portrayed throughout the Old Testament, but must also discount much of the New Testament picture of our Lord as well. Christ is not only the one who welcomed and refused to condemn the penitent sinner (Luke 7:36f, John 8:2f), He is also the one who emphatically condemned the impenitent Pharisees. He called them sons of Gehenna, and said that the devil was their father, and that they could not hope to avoid the sentence of Gehenna themselves (Matthew 23:15, John 8:44, Matthew 23:33). The cities that rejected Him He condemned to be brought down into Hades, where they would find the fate of Sodom preferable to the one awaiting them on the day of judgment (Matthew 11:23-24). At the Second Coming He will deal out retribution in flaming fire to those who do not know God and who disobey the Gospel, as they pay the penalty of eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). In His revelation to the seven churches of Asia He declared that He would wage war with the sword of His mouth against those who fell into worldliness, killing them with pestilence so that all the churches might know that He was the one who searched the minds and hearts, rewarding each one according to his deeds (Revelation 2:16, 23). It is unlikely that those who offer a more Christlike God are thinking of these parts of the New Testament picture of Christ. They prefer to excise such verses from their Bibles, and dwell only upon the verses which present Christ as the friend of sinners.

The Church throughout the ages has preserved in its picture of Christ the Scriptural balance between severity and kindness. It knows He is both the friend and advocate of penitent sinners who desires the salvation of all, and is also the just judge who metes out divine vengeance upon those who refuse to repent. Christ, like His Father, is both severe and kind, the one who opens heaven to the penitent sinner and condemns to hell the evil man who refuses repentance. The Church has always known this, Origen and his few Universalist friends notwithstanding. St. Paul knew it. St. John the Theologian knew it. St. John Chrysostom knew it. The Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Council knew it. Even Mr. Beaver, (in the Lewis classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) knew it. They knew that Christ our God is not a tame lion and that He is not safe. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course He isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

 

8 comments:

  1. “one much better than the old deity offered by such men as John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards—and John Chrysostom”

    —A lot of us would have a problem with Chrysostom being compared to Calvin and Edwards, not least on the question of God’s love for mankind. And I am not sure that it is the Church’s role to attempt to rationalise the entirety of the Old Testament.

    Of course, I agree that outright Universalism is incorrect and there is a sort of balance between severity and what might better be termed generosity than kindness, but perhaps comparisons to the Calvinists do not help this argument?

    What is often termed as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” is a sort of generational disease, but like most such moralistic diseases, it is reacting against actual misdeeds and offences, namely the highly judgmental and yet self-assured and self-indulgent nature of American Protestantism.

    1. The comparison of St. John Chrysostom with Calvin and Edwards was intended to show that despite the tremendous differences separating them, even men as diverse as these still agreed about the existence of eternal punishment. These three were chosen precisely because they are so different from one another on the larger question of God’s love for mankind.
      I don’t quite understand what you mean about ‘rationalising the entirety of the Old Testament’. Could you elaborate?

  2. “…tolerant, patient, loving, peaceable, accepting, all-embracing, all-forgiving, and emphatically non-judgmental—the very virtues at which our own generation excels and specializes.”

    In rhetoric perhaps, but not in practice. The true “virtue” of this generation may be summed up in the words Charles Schultz placed in the mouth of Linus:

    “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.”

    One quickly discovers that these ideals have little actual substance and thus no “virtue” (power) when confronted with actual, real, concrete persons (neighbors) as opposed to the mere idea of other persons.

    1. I do love the line from Charles Schultz’ Linus; I have it on a plaque in my office which shows Linus sucking his thumb and holding his beloved blanket. And I quite agree with you that our secular society has the right words but little of the corresponding actions. Any culture which routinely slaughters multitudes of its unborn every year clearly is not loving, peaceable, or all-embracing.

  3. Fr. Lawrence,

    Thanks for commenting on this important topic. Having grown up (in my formative pre-teen to young adulthood years) as a church going Unitarian Universalist, and now an Orthodox Christian (20 years now), I have had my feet in both “camps” so to speak. I want to point out that the current fad (as it has been called by more than one priest here at Ancient Faith) of “Orthodox Universalism” (as preached by explicitly by David Bently Hart and Fr. Aidan Kimel, implicitly by Fr. Stephen Freeman and (possibly) Met. Kallistos Ware is of a different origin and species than the kind almost entirely than the kind arrived at by Protestant/RC of the last few hundred years. The Orthodox Universalism has its root in an Orgenistic (i.e. neoplatonic) metaphysic that is found particularly in St. Gregory of Nyssa. I have not decided yet if it represents a real crack in the very heart of the Church (at least as a dogmatic enterprise – Universalism of every variety is denial of Revelation as we have it), though I am leaning in that direction. The Protestant/RC variety (which is reflected now in our western secular(ist) culture and zeitgeist) has fundamentally different roots (i.e. historical western church metaphysics around “original sin”, nominalism, and the anthropology/eschatology that naturally follows).

    You will no doubt be chided for not pointing this out, but what your critics miss is the fact that this distinction is not all that *pastorally* relevant. Looking for possible reasons for their blinders in this area, I largely attribute it to the fact that they all appear to be “Calvinists in recovery” and (subconsciously? Some of them but not all of them) view Orthodoxy as a kind of 12 step program for these errors. Theirs is of course an over-reaction, and as D.B. Hart shows us so well (though he did not intend to do this) this kind of Universalism is simply the other side of the (metaphysical) Calvinist coin.

    Much could be said about this error (really, a whole whole lot – I am in the middle of writing an essay about this and my #1 problem is covering it adequately in a reasonable length) but allow me to pose some brain teasers:

    1) Universalism is the reflection (as in a mirror – the same but opposite) of a metaphysical conception of freedom/will, judgment vs. grace, death vs. pascha – all the typical and well tread dialectics that have been a complete disaster for western Christianity.

    2) Universalism is the destruction/negation of repentance (as in “Repentant, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”) and thus it destroys the meaning of time – turning time and creation into a God created cruelty that Dostoevsky’s Ivan rightly condemns.

    3) Universalism destroys the Patristic understanding of human freedom/will, collapsing it into dialectic. This is revealed by D.B Hart and Fr. Aidan’s Kimel’s struggles with caricatures of the Patristic understanding – thus they have to attack human freedom as “libertarian”, “Pelagian” and the like. With the rehabilitation of Origen (supported by the presumed Orthodoxy of Nyssa in this area) this all has a certain academic acceptance and even cachet.

    4) No matter what the dogmatic imprecision in the Fathers concerning freedom/will/eschatology/anthropology, Universalism is such an obvious affront to Revelation and Tradition it can only be supported and given “life” on a dialectical level – and thus it is no accident that its main supporters are philosophers first and not theologians as understood in the main of the Tradition.

    I could go on. I for one appreciate your addressing this subject…

    1. Thank you for your valuable comments; I find particularly insightful your line about viewing Orthodoxy as a 12-step programme of recovery from Calvinism. I quite agree that the Universalism found in e.g. Fr. Aidan’s blog has different roots from that found in Protestantism(s). As you correctly note, my only point in the short blog piece is the commonality between all the modern versions, which is that from whatever the starting point and root, the resultant deity ends up looking like ourselves because he is in fact our own creation. We are going back to Origen after all these years, despite the Fifth Ecumenical Council’s condemnation and its liturgical integration into our church’s liturgy, because we moderns find the traditional doctrine distasteful, and are looking for any escape hatch. Origen promoted the teaching because he supped with the Platonists without a sufficiently long spoon; we embrace Universalism for different reasons. But the pastoral and practical result in people’s lives is the same today in all cases, whatever the roots and the motivation. In the present age the Enemy wars mightily against us all, urging us to give in to the temptations of sin and worldliness. It is surely foolish and harmful to embrace a view which (in defiance of Scripture and Tradition, no less) tells us that such a surrender ultimately will have no eternal significance.

      1. Father Lawrence,

        The Universalists will (and have since Origen at least) of course answered that the “eternal significance” of any mere “moral” Christianity is only relative (and indeed relativising – see Fr. Stephen’s extensive and excellent writings on this subject in the context of “modernism”, secularism, and modern Christianity in western civilization) and that at the heart of Orthodoxy is instead a deeper “ontology” and ontological answer and salvation/Eschaton. Actually, I don’t disagree – what I disagree with is that they then proceed from this truth to a methodology of understanding the implications (of said truth) that is rooted in the very *moral* dialectic that they found wanting in the first place. At root of their thinking is the dialectic of good and evil, and God and man. They end up aping the Fathers who sound like neoplatonists (which is to say, experts at dialectical metaphysics) but who in fact are not. Since they are not the equal of the Fathers or even the classical philosophers/neoplatonists they end up being good evangelists for…neoplatonism. As I have said before if these modern Universalists are “right”, then Christ died in vain and we should simply return to the source (God as the simplistic “One”, creation as a fall into evil, and salvation as an ontological return and “at-one-ment” with the God of “Love” – thought of in dialectical categories of course – no personal atonement and salvation needed) which is neoplatonism – they do this God much better than the superstitious Christians who look for a *personal* salvation (with its attendant dread and final *judgment*) with all the terrible freedom and moral *response* that entails.

        I say all this not to disagree with you at all, but simply as a warning that you will be accused of giving evil itself “eternal significance” and thus ontological reality/significance by not agreeing with the “unmoral ontology” of Universalism.

        As you say, this deity looks like ourselves – and on the level of D.B. Hart and Fr. Aidan those “selves” being reflected is what such men are good at (though they pale to the ancients), namely philosophy (i.e. dialectics). As you rightly point out this is (yet another) victory for the Enemy…

      2. There is something about this thread that calls to this strange mind of mine (one that manages to find humor in almost anything) a story – possibly apocryphal – told about the late W.C. Fields.

        Fields had a substantial library in his home. Although a staunch atheist—or perhaps because of it—he studied theology and owned several volumes on the subject. He was once asked by someone who expressed surprise when they found him reading a Bible.

        “What are you, of all people, doing reading that?”

        His reply: “Looking for loopholes.”

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