April 22, 2011

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?

2 comments:

Tom 1st said...

I like the idea Wright puts forth here.

And I'm not a Universalist...at all.

But I don't think this reading does justice to passages like Colossians 1:15-20 where the main thrust of the passage is a cosmic, not a particularist ethnic, view in mind. This is reinforced by the parallelism of Christ having created all things and then reconciling all things to himself.

With that said, I didn't read the article, so maybe he dealt with my objection.

And I understand that 1:21-23 may pose some problems to what I'm saying, but I don't think it's anything too major.


Again, I'm not AT ALL a Universalist. I just don't know that the ethnic interpretation does justice to this 'Universalist' passage.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Tom, thanks for reading and commenting. I'd have to check again, but I don't recall Wright interacting with the Colossians text.