In our contemporary struggle to present Christ as the Bible portrays him, we should not work in a vacuum. We owe it to ourselves to look to the past and to learn from the church’s struggles. Perhaps in no area of theology is this more necessary or beneficial than in the doctrine of Christ in the early church. The first four or five centuries of the church’s existence witnessed the launch of nearly every possible challenge. Further, one is hard-pressed to offer a better response to those challenges than that offered by the early church leaders. We may be able to devise fresh and contemporary ways to illustrate their teachings and expressions, or we may have to think of new ways to relate their teachings to particular challenges that we face in our day, but there is practically no room for improvement on those teachings. What these early church leaders said and did is tried and true (14).
I’ll add that the essays are well-written, clear, and unburdened by lengthy footnotes. The chapters tend to proceed by introducing the theme to be considered in the passage from Romans (e.g. circumcision, salvation, the Law). This is followed by a short introduction of a relevant non-scriptural text. The remainder of each chapter is then given to putting Romans in dialogue with that text. The aim is to shed light on scripture by considering areas of agreement and disagreement between Romans and the additional text. For readers who find their appetites whet, the end of each chapter gives recommendations for further reading in relevant ancient texts and important secondary studies by scholars in the field.
*Many thanks to the good people at Zondervan for providing a complimentary review copy.
“Now I was able to hand over the freedom of my birth for the benefit of others. And should I prove worthy, I am ready and willing to give up my own life, without hesitation for his name…There would I be glad to pour out my soul even to the point of death, if the Lord would so grant it me, because I am so much in God’s debt. For he gave me such great grace, that many people through me were reborn to God” (§§ 37-38).
Balcomb asserts that the Creeds were never intended for public worship. I find this somewhat misleading because the early Creeds developed as part of the baptismal liturgy used on Easter Sunday. Baptismal candidates were asked to profess faith using statements that later solidified into what we know as the Apostles’ Creed. My point, however, has to do with context not development. If the Creeds were originally intended as part of the baptismal liturgy for new believers, then Balcomb’s assertion cannot be maintained, unless he is willing to argue that the baptismal liturgy was not intended for use in public worship. Admittedly, the Creeds may not have been originally used as a profession of faith in the weekly worship of the Church, but their occasional use in baptism in public worship as early as the second and third centuries is certain (cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed, chap 1). Given the use of creedal formulations in worship settings that marked entrance into the Church, should it surprise us that believers came to find it helpful to remember and renew their baptismal profession on a more regular basis by weekly recitation of the Creeds? The Creed was intended for use in baptismal worship; it was a natural step that it should find its way into the regular pattern of the Church’s liturgy.
Too many questions?
Balcomb’s worry about the questions raised by the Creed leads him to look for something more clear, and he asserts that we should not use the historic Creeds because there are passages of scripture that do a better job of summarizing the Christian position. He cites as an example, “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law,” in Matthew 22:37. But why should we set Creed and scripture against one another? Two points should be made in response. First, creedal language is largely drawn from scripture. As Timothy Tennent notes in his book of meditations on the Apostles’ Creed, “One of the wonderful features of the Apostles’ Creed is that it only uses language taken directly from the Scriptures” (This We Believe!, 12). At the start of each chapter Tennent cites passages of scripture that substantiate the creedal language. Second, the Church’s liturgy has historically used “Our Lord’s Summary of the Law” alongside the historic creeds. Take a look at the Book of Common Prayer and you’ll find both. The Church has seen no reason to create a false either-or in this case; I see no reason to start now.
Behavior over Belief?
I argue that the explosion of theological work claiming to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity that we have witnessed in recent decades in fact misunderstands and distorts the traditional doctrine so badly that it is unrecognizable (xv).
According to Pattison, the historical record of Pelagius’s contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire and their ecclesiastical dominance. “An understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition.”
As one considers the theologically inept accommodation to the secular world there should be no surprise that Pelagian doctrine of the will’s freedom without grace would be dug up again. A world losing its trust in God will compulsively trust in the human will to obey if it is sufficiently rebuked, exhorted, threatened and scolded. No wonder Richard Hooker and St. Augustine called it a ‘cruel doctrine’.
The Fifth Ecumenical Council, which is known as Constantinople II and met in 553, took up the issue of Origen’s teaching on apakatastasis, which is the belief that all humanity (and some would include all demons) will one day be reconciled to God and enjoy salvation. The council condemned this teaching as heresy and pronounced anathema, a curse, on all who teach it. So, according to our technical definition above, the answer to our question is yes. Universalism has been condemned by an ecumenical council as heretical teaching. Strong words, I know. But I submit that they are fair words from an historical perspective.
Let me remind you that this is not a pejorative use of the term heresy. It is, rather, a descriptive use intended to indicate when someone steps outside the boundaries of historic Christianity. Let me also say that ecumenical councils are not always neat and tidy things. The authority of the Seventh Ecumenical Council is sometimes disputed. Also, I am told that there is some debate over the text of Constantinople II with regard to the statements on Origen. But it does seem to be the case that an historical argument can be made that Universalism is indeed heretical.
Now let me be clear. I am not here saying that Rob Bell is a heretic! I have not read his book, and I’ve been careful not to cast aspersion on him without looking more carefully at what he claims. As I’ve already said, the language of heresy is strong language, and it should not be used lightly. What I am saying is that a defensible argument can be made that Universalism has been condemned as heresy by a church council. Thus, the recent claims that Universalism is heretical are neither overblown nor excessive, though leveling the charge of heresy pejoratively against someone without a careful consideration of their view certainly is.
What do you think? Should we look to the ecumenical councils for guidance on this issue? How should Protestants approach the statements by the ecumenical councils? Do you think Universalism is heresy? Why or why not? Is there a better term to use in this discussion?