April 21, 2011

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?

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