March 10, 2011

Is Universalism a Heresy?

Continuing our reflection on heresy and Universalism, we come to the question as to whether Universalism is itself a heretical teaching. In the previous post, I defined heresy as a teaching that knowingly contradicts an established doctrine of the Church. And I said that universally recognized doctrines are typically established through the creeds or by one of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. So, in asking whether Universalism is a heresy, I'm basically asking whether Universalism has ever been addressed and condemned by an ecumenical council.

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.

Let me finish by saying that I am not a scholar on the ecumenical councils, and I welcome anyone who knows them better than I to correct any error that I may have made in this post. This issue is both sensitive and important. Let's treat it that way.

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?

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11 comments:

Kevin said...

Well, I spent about 10 min. typing a response just a second ago just to be told "my request could not be sent". Suffice it to say though, that these 7 councils (of which I have studied) sound a lot like the Pharisaical councils must have sounded leading up to the time of Christ. There is so much non-biblical stuff put forth in them, and we nowadays (especially as protestants) just seem to cherry pick what we like and don't like out of them. I'm not sure I understand exactly to what degree we actually observe them as any kind of real authority (and I'm not sure we should).

Kevin Flannagan

Matt O'Reilly said...

Sorry to hear your post didn't work. That's happened to me before, and I get frustrated when it does.

With regard to the councils, there is certainly some question as to how Protestants ought to approach them. That's one of the points I want to raise with this post. I tend to think also, though, that we should not quickly discount the councils. Given the time and thought that were put into them, along with the wide ecumenical acceptance of their authority, we should excercise great care before simply writing them off. Perhaps they could function for us as warning signs on some of the important issues.

Tom 1st said...

I have learned recently that there's a difference between universalism (all people will go to heaven via whatever religion they are a part of) and 'Christian Universalism' which teaches there is a Hell, but eventually it will be completely emptied by people who repent and turn to Christ - Christ, in this version, is still the only saving agent.

Christian universalism is distinct from Inclusivism because Inclusivism holds that NOT ALL WILL EVENTUALLY BE SAVED, but that some will be saved (through Christ) as they respond to general revelation (or postmortem conversion).

Were you aware of the distinctions between these three until recently?

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Tom,

I'm familiar with the distinction b/w Universalism and Inclusivism. I suppose I've been working with what you term Christain Universalism. Your first option there might be helpfully termed "Pluralistic Universalism" to highlight the "whatever religion" part.

Matt

Larry said...

Matt, regarding the ecumenical councils, there is one aspect we tend to forget: collective memory. Many of those who participated in these councils, especially the early ones, remembered the severe persecutions heaped upon them as early as a generation earlier. Some of these men came to the council with scars, physical and emotional, from that persecution. They were not a collection of denominational bureaucrats or detached theologians. They recognized that heresy threatened the very substance of their faith, both in terms of doctrine and community. They were careful and thoughtful in their deliberations. This does not mean they were perfect, nor infallible. But I think their own experiences contributed to the seriousness of the tasks before them.

Kevin said...

I guess my feeling is that a lot of thought went into the inquisition as well. If we went to a conference where everything was decent, but it was actually put on by someone who doesn't really have anything against Christianity, but is a practicing pagan, and there were pagan themes throughout, would we feel the same way? It appears that that is pretty much what went on in the councils. More than one of them were called by a practicing pagan emperor, and really only served to make new laws by which to condemn people. Seems like what Jesus came to change in the Jewish system. And, as best I can tell, by the end, they began okaying catholic idolatry. Seems like they pretty much went downhill from the beginning. I don't know. I think just because a lot of thought went into them, it doesn't necessarily mean we should consider them valid. A lot of thought went into the forming of the Klan (with scripture to back it and everything...as misinterpreted as that scripture was by them). I don't think that just because it was "ecumenical" it was necessarily good. In my opinion, "ecumenical" just means accepted by different systems withing the body...I don't think there should be systems in the body.

Kevin said...

It occurs to me that making an anti-denominational comment on a Methodist ministers blog does not really help my case LOL!!! Disregard the last sentence or 2 in my last comment =)

Derek said...

I always try and distinguish between heretical ideas and "heretics" proper. I don't think someone is a "heretic" just because one of their ideas falls under the category of "heresy".

Matt O'Reilly said...

Kevin, Don't sweat it. I don't get to stressed out about denominations.

Derek, I think that's an interesting and helpful distinction.

Kevin said...

I think that is a really good point Derek.

Craig L. Adams said...
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