N.T. Wright on Biblical Universalism

Here’s another resource for those who might find themselves engaged in the recently revived Universalism debate. Also from Themelios 4:2, this one is by N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham and now of the University of St. Andrews. Wright is a widely known and respected New Testament scholar, who, I am persuaded, is able to write books faster than I am able to read them.
The article is called Towards a Biblical View of Universalism, and Wright’s aim is twofold. He intends first to dismantle universalistic interpretations of some New Testament texts that are commonly marshaled in favor of universal salvation for all people without exception. He intends second to interpret those same texts in light of their contexts as describing a salvation that is universalistic in that it is not restricted to a single ethnicity.
Wright argues that a major issue in early Christianity was Jewish particularism, the belief that God’s saving purposes were limited to their own people-group, and that one needed to become a Jew in order to become a follower of Christ. Another problem was Gentile snobbery, the belief that God was quite done with the Jews and had expanded his purposes beyond their borders leaving them all behind. Against both these views, Paul believed that the God revealed in Jesus Christ was God of Jews and Gentiles (Rom 3:29). So, biblical universalism is not the belief that salvation is given to all without exception, but that salvation is available in Christ to all without distinction.
Wright summarizes some implications of the distinction:
Biblical ‘universalism’, therefore, consists in this, that in Christ God has revealed the one way of salvation for all men alike, irrespective of race, sex, colour or status. This biblical ‘universalism’ (unlike the other sort) gives the strongest motives for evangelism, namely, the love of God and of men. (This itself is evidence that we are thinking biblically here.) This view specifically excludes the other sort of ‘universalism’, because scripture and experience alike tell us that many do miss the one way of salvation which God has provided. This is a sad fact, and the present writer in no ways enjoys recording it, any more than Paul in Romans 9-11 looked with pleasure on his kinsmen’s fate. Yet it cannot be ignored if we wish to remain true to scripture or really to love our fellow men. If the house is on fire, the most loving thing to do is to raise the alarm.
The article is not all that long and contains a great deal of help on how better to understand the passages often used to support Universalism of the usual sort. It’s well worth a read and will be helpful when you find yourself sipping a hot coffee and engaged in charitable debate.

Have you heard this alternative reading of the ‘universal’ passages before? Do you find it helpful? Unhelpful? Do you agree with Wright’s suggestion that Universalism undermines evangelism? Why? Why not?

Richard Bauckham on the History of Universalism

In light of the recent buzz over Universalism, I want to call attention to Richard Bauckham’s article Universalism: a historical survey. As the title indicates, it surveys the general approaches to and important historical representatives of Universalism. Bauckham, formerly of the University of St. Andrews and an internationally respected scholar of the New Testament (and many related fields), makes a couple of points that I have found quite helpful.
First, Bauckham opens the essay discussing whether Universalism has really been an orthodox option for Christians in previous centuries. In this discussion, he says that throughout history there were a few Christian theologians here and there who held to Annihilationism and even fewer that held to universal salvation. Eternal punishment even appeared in several creeds (e.g. Athanasian Creed, Fourth Lateran Council, Canon I), which indicates to Bauckham that “It must have seemed as indispensable a part of universal Christian belief as the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation.” Only since the 1800’s has this situation changed with many Christians adopting Annihilationism or Universalism.
Second, he argues that after the upheaval of the nineteenth century, the twentieth century brought general  acceptance that any case for Universalism made on the basis of the biblical text would be an artificial one. Universalists basically agreed that responsible biblical exegesis would conclude that scripture taught a final judgment and ultimate division of humanity into the saved and the lost. In short, Universalism is not a defensible biblical option. At this point, the Universalist’s strategy simply became to disregard those biblical texts which speak clearly of eternal punishment in favor of those which seem to support universal salvation.
At the end of the day, for Bauckham, Universalism is outside the bounds of historic Christianity and generally characterized by disregard for serious interaction with the Bible.
The article, published in Themelios 4:2, will benefit non-Universalist Christians who may feel themselves the minority in today’s cultural climate by showing just how insignificant is its number of adherents through history. Bauckham argues that Universalism has never been held by anyone in the main stream of Christian thought. For Universalist leaning Christians, the article will be of benefit in providing a broad scope lay of the land on which they can then place themselves, and it is helpful in recognizing that serious Universalists don’t try to make the case biblically. Either way, the article is well worth reading in full.

Do you agree with Bauckham? Is Universalism really outside the mainstream of historic Christianity? If it is, how important is that? Is Universalism biblically defensible? Or do Universalists need to admit that it isn’t?