March 30, 2011

Thoughts on Love Wins (2): Is Consistency a Virtue?

Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, got a lot of attention before it ever hit the shelves. Now that it is available to the masses, the reviews are going up. This post is the second in a series of reflections on the book, which I hope will make some small contribution to an important conversation. In my last post, I commended Bell's expansive vision of God's ultimate plan for new creation. I hope this commendation established an ethos that I was not merely lobbing grenades as Bell but attempting to set my criticisms within a context that includes helpful points. Despite the positive focus on new creation, I was deeply concerned by his surprising lack of serious biblical exegesis, which was not the only problem.

One other issue is Bell's apparent lack of consistency in what he thinks will ultimately happen with regard to human salvation. He wants to say that God ultimately gets what he wants, namely the salvation of everyone who ever lived or will live: "Which is stronger and more powerful, the hardness of the human heart or God's unrelenting, infinite, expansive love? Thousands through the years have answered that question with the resounding response, 'God's love, of course,'" (109). Okay, so it looks like God's love will ultimately overcome all resistance and win everyone over. But then he goes and says: "Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God's ways for us. We can have all the hell we want" (113). So, God's love is unrelenting and irresistible, except, of course, when people resist it. And love wins, except when it doesn't. Come on, Rob. Which one is it? Sounds a bit like he wants to be a Calvinist when talking about universal salvation and an Arminian when talking about real love relationships. Can you have it both ways? Not if consistency is something you value.

I tend to think Bell really goes with the second option affirming that love does not ultimately compel and that those who are perpetually resistant to God's grace go on to an experience of a perpetual Hell. But I think that is inconsistent with what he said about God's love overcoming the hardness of every human heart. And if Bell does actually think that God's love is resistible, then love doesn't always win, does it? If I'm missing something, then help me out!
Thoughts on Love Wins - Part 1
Thoughts on Love Wins - Part 3

March 29, 2011

Thoughts on Love Wins

Let me say up front that this is not my typical book review. Reviews of Love Wins are available aplenty, and if I were to try to deal comprehensively with Rob Bell's new book, it would require more time than I presently desire to devote. So, that said, here are a few reflections on the book, a few thoughts on what I like and what causes me concern. My goal is not simply to repeat all over again what has already been said,  though I will certainly echo other reviewers, but to offer a few points that I hope will contribute to the larger post-publication analysis of a volume that has drawn a lot of attention.

Let me begin with what I like about Love Wins. I really appreciate Bell's call to embrace a much larger biblical vision of redemption than is often communicated in the truncated better-hope-you-escape-this-world-and-go-to-heaven-when-you-die message. I absolutely affirm that when a believer dies they are "with Christ which is far better" (Phil 1:23), and I'm happy to call that Heaven, but I am deeply concerned when that is portrayed as the goal of the Christian life and the aim of God's purposes in creation. Scripture speaks of a day when all creation will be liberated from bondage to decay (Rom 8:21), when the Savior from Heaven returns to subject all things to himself (Phil 3:21-22), when the dead will be raised never to die again (1 Cor 15:20-26), and when God himself will make his home among his people in a newly recreated heaven on earth (Rev 21:3). Bell has a vision of this new creation, and I appreciate his rejection of the absolutely unbiblical idea that creation is a sinking ship just waiting to be abandoned. Salvation is cosmic. That's what the Bible says, and Bell gets that right.

Despite this significant positive for the Bell book, there are also problems, and perhaps the most important is his exegetical method or, I should say, the absence of any serious exegetical method. Two examples will make the point.

First, in dealing with the phrase "aion of koladzo" (as Bell phrases it, 91), which is usually translated something like: "eternal punishment," Bell concludes that it should be translated as: "a period of pruning", "a time of trimming", or "an intense experience of correction." He authoritatively asserts these translations providing no detailed interaction with the biblical text, no consideration of the context, which ought to include an analysis of structural relationships within the text that help us get at the meaning of terms, and no citations of ancient sources that support his proposed translations. He doesn't even cite a lexicon (which still isn't exegesis but would have, at least, been something) to justify his preferred revisionist translation. For all the reader knows, he is just making it up as he goes along, and that's kind of the way it looks. The point I want to make is that Bell attempts to overthrow a generally and widely accepted translation and provides absolutely no exegetical evidence as to why his view is to be preferred. Every first year seminary student knows that context is everything. Evidently Bell forgot that lesson when he sat down to write Love Wins.

Second, Bell takes the well-known quote from Jesus in John 14:6, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me," and goes on to conclude that "What he (Jesus) doesn't say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him" (154). Again, the problem is that there is no argument from the larger book-of-John-as-a-whole context that legitimately allows this conclusion. Bell doesn't make an argument from John; he simply doesn't provide a reading of John. If he were to read John, he might very well find evidence that contradicts his assertion. I was a grading assistant in grad school, and if one of my students had turned in something like this, I would have recommended a failing grade. This sort of stuff would be a laughingstock in the real world of serious biblical interpretation, a laughingstock.

The thing that bothers me the most about this glaring methodological deficiency is that Bell should know better. And if he does know better, then he should do better; if he doesn't know better, he shouldn't be publishing books. The reality is that most of the people who will read this book will not have had the technical training to know what is being done to them. They will simply know that this guy is pastor, and that he should, therefore, know what he's doing when he discusses the Bible. When people who know the rules don't play by the rules when they write for people who don't know the rules, they are taking advantage of their influence, abusing their power, and, I would say, abusing their readers. Some will say that these are harsh words, but I believe they are adequate, accurate, and spoken out of love for those who are the object of this shenanigan posing as biblical interpretation. Indeed, what Bell has done is unfair, unjust, and deceitful, and, when you treat people like that, love certainly has not won.

Well, I had originally intended to go on and discuss some other aspects of Love Wins, including whether or not some of the conclusions are consistent and the understanding of God that is developed in its pages. But this post has already become far too long. So, keep an eye out later this week for some thoughts on those topics. At this point, the problems are more severe than the benefits are redeeming; we will see if things get better.
Thoughts on Love Wins - Part 2
Thoughts on Love Wins - Part 3

March 28, 2011

Should United Methodist Funds Be Limited to Official Schools?

Official United Methodist Schools of Theology that train more ministerial candidates will now receive more denominational funding than schools that train less. This is the result of a new formula, approved by the Directors of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), for dispersing money from the Ministerial Education Fund (MEF). Rev. Sharon Rubey, an executive with the GBHEM's Division of Ordained Ministry explains the rationale behind this change: "We want to reward the United Methodist seminaries that educate more United Methodist students for ministry in the church."

My question is this: If the goal is to reward seminaries that train higher numbers of United Methodist students, then why limit the disbursement to official United Methodist Schools of Theology? I understand that the goal as stated is not actually to reward any seminary that trains more United Methodist students but to reward United Methodist seminaries.

My question intends to point to the inequity within the United Methodist educational system. The UMC has thirteen official seminaries; many other seminaries are approved for the training of UMC ministerial candidates, but since they are not official denominational schools, they get no denominational funding; this despite the fact that some of them train more United Methodist students than many of the official United Methodist schools.

Take my own alma mater, Asbury Theological Seminary, a school approved by the denomination for the education of ministers but not an official United Methodist School of Theology. It is my understanding that Asbury Seminary trains and graduates more United Methodist ministry candidates than any official United Methodist seminary, yet because they are only approved and not official, Asbury Seminary gets zero funding from the United Methodist Church despite the significant service rendered in providing clergy to the UMC. You heard that right. More clergy; zero cash; none; zilch, nada, nothing. In that light, it's amazing how many United Methodist students still choose Asbury Seminary even though there is no denominational support for scholarships!

Another way to frame this issue would be to consider whether the money should go directly to the schools or follow the student. It has been pointed out to me that if UMC ministerial candidates got equal funding for the official or approved school of their choice, then that would certainly be more fair and equitable. Also, the schools that are in high demand would thrive while those institutions that are faltering in their task would become irrelevant. You would get to see which schools are really doing a good job and which ones are presently being propped up for other reasons. Shouldn't there be equal funding opportunities for all UMC ministerial candidates?

So, if the UMC were really interested in rewarding schools that serve the denomination by training more clergy, would we not also reward those approved but not official seminaries that  train the most clergy? If the money followed the students, the whole system would seem much more equitable.

What do you think? Should there be a way of rewarding non-official but approved schools who serve the UMC by training more of its ministers? Is the distinction between official and approved seminaries even helpful? If a school is good enough to be approved, why shouldn't they get funding? I'd like to hear what you think!

March 26, 2011

United Methodist Student Pastor Wasn't Fired; Left Willingly

Earlier this week, I offered some reflections on the reports that United Methodist pastor and student at Duke Divinity School, Chad Holtz, had been dismissed from his pulpit for his controversial views on, among other things, hell. It has now come to my attention that Holtz was not removed from his pulpit; he left willingly and on his own.

The North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church released a statement explaining that Holtz was asked to leave his role as pastor after breaking an agreement with Marrow's Chapel that he would not post on controversial topics. Holtz's District Superintendent commented on the Holtz's decision to leave saying: "Both Chad and the committee agreed that he would not post controversial topics online. He broke the agreement and the committee members felt betrayed. The committee asked Holtz to leave the church and he agreed."

This adds a number of interesting elements to the discussion, not least the integrity (or lack thereof?) of the journalists who made the initial report either without all the information or purposefully leaving it out. I'll be curious to see whether those news agencies will correct their erroneous reporting.

Beyond that, how does this affect the role and responsibility of the pastor to speak biblically and prophetically on issues on which others may disagree? Elders in the United Methodist Church are charged with the ministry of the Word, and oftentimes that ministry challenges those who hear, indeed it challenges those who preach, to grow and rethink some things we've held onto for a long time. I know I've had to change my mind on some tough issues after seeing the biblical evidence in a fresh way. I'm in no way suggesting that Holtz was right to break his agreement; he shouldn't have. But we need to ask: how will the denomination ensure that the prophetic office of the pastor is protected and preserved? Would this situation have been handled differently if the pastor has been an ordained elder rather than a licensed student pastor?
Image Source: Associated Press

March 25, 2011

Don't Leave Clergy Vulnerable

The good folks at the United Methodist Reporter were kind enough to publish my article on the issue of the "guaranteed appointment." Here's the opening paragraph:
The so-called guaranteed appointment for ordained United Methodist clergy will become a matter of increased debate as General Conference 2012 draws near. In some corners it seems to be the church’s whipping boy and the source of every ill in our denomination. But is the matter that simple? Does the guaranteed appointment play no positive role in United Methodist polity? And what is the potential for damaging consequences were the provision removed? These are important questions which must be carefully considered as we discern the future course of our denomination.
Read the whole thing at the UM Portal.

March 24, 2011

UM Pastor Loses Pulpit for Views on Hell

The Associated Press is reporting that United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School student Chad Holtz was removed from his appointment to Marrow's Chapel in Henderson, NC, for statements which include support for Rob Bell's controversial new book Love Wins. Holtz went on record saying: "I think justice comes and judgment will happen, but I don't think that means an eternity of torment. But I can understand why people in my church aren't ready to leave that behind. It's something I'm still grappling with myself."

The article says that Gray Southern, Holtz's District Superintendent, declined to comment in detail on the matter but suggested there was more at issue that Holtz's views on Hell. Holtz indicated that his support of Bell's book was probably the last straw in a series of controversial statements.

Honestly, I'm a bit surprised that a UM pastor was actually removed from appointment for apparently not believing in an eternal Hell. Methodists are not known for leveling heavy consequences on doctrinal issues.

What I do want to raise is the serious issue of protecting the prophetic voice and role of the pastor. Pastors have a challenging role to teach and preach what they believe to be faithful to scripture even when others disagree. How do we ensure that pastors are protected to speak faithfully and in accord with their conscience?

As a student pastor, it is unclear to me whether Holtz had the same protections that an ordained elder would have, which include the requirement of official charges, due process, and ultimately a church trial. Perhaps someone could help me out on that. How does the Book of Discipline address complaints and disciplinary procedures for local pastors? Are the procedures different from that of elders?

The United Methodist Confession of Faith does affirm belief in "the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation" (2008 Book of Discipline, par. 103, Article XII). Is it clear that Holtz's position is inconsistent with that? Is it fair for him to be removed without some sort of extended investigation by the District Committee on Ministry? Maybe there was. The article doesn't say.

I'm raising questions at this point, and I'm curious to get some feedback from my fellow UM clergy. How does this strike you? Is it being handled properly? Do we need to hold off on too much comment because we don't have all the information? Are you unsettled by this story? Or did you have some other reaction? I'm interested in hearing some different perspectives.

I feel saddened for Holtz. This guy was a student pastor. This is a role that should provide some experience and opportunity for learning. I would hate for his ministry to be ruined because the issue might have been mishandled. Maybe it wasn't. I don't know with certainty. What do you think?
Image Source: Associated Press

March 21, 2011

Penal Substitution: Theological Innovation or Ancient Doctrine?

Is the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement a novel idea held mainly by the Reformers and their theological offspring? This is indeed the charge that is sometimes leveled against the argument that penal substitution is an essential element of a biblical view of the atonement. But can the historical evidence bear the weight of the charge? In this post, I want to draw your attention to a few major historical figures whose writings reveal that substitutionary atonement has been an important part of the Church's understanding of the work of Christ since its earliest years. I intend to offer little in the way of commentary. My aim is primarily to draw attention to a few representative sources to counter the suggestion that substitution is not a truly ancient Christian understanding of the atonement.

The citations below are drawn from Pierced for Our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Crossway, 2007) by Steve Jeffrey, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach. Chapter 5 provides a thorough survey of historical figures which demonstrates that substitutionary atonement has characterized all periods of church history. This is a highly important work with which any serious critic of penal substitution must reckon, and I commend it as a thorough and persuasive defense of a biblical understanding of the atonement. And now, ad fontes.

A key figure from the early second century is Justin Martyr, who was one of the most important Christian writers from that period. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin writes:
For the whole human race will be found to be under a curse. For it is written in the law of Moses, 'Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.' And no one has accurately done all...If, then, the Father of all wished His Christ for the whole human family to take upon Him the curses of all, knowing that, after He had been crucified and was dead, He would raise him up, why do you argue about Him, who submitted to suffer these things according to the Father's will, as if he were accursed, and do not rather bewail yourselves (Ante-Nicene Fathers I.247, emphasis added).
For Justin, then, the whole of humanity is under the penalty of the curse of God that is the consequence of their sin. The work of Christ is to bear that curse on their behalf.

Eusebius of Caesarea lived and wrote in the late third to early fourth century. While he is best known for his Ecclesiastical History, his penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement appears in his Proof of the Gospel:
And the Lamb of God...was chastised on our behalf, and suffered a penalty He did not owe, but which we owed because of the multitude of our sins; and so He became the cause of the forgiveness of our sins, because He received death for us, and transferred to Himself the scourging, the insults, and the dishonour, which were due to us, and drew down upon Himself the appointed curse, being made a curse for us (10.1, emphasis added).
Note the precise use of penal substitutionary language: Christ suffered a penalty on our behalf. That penalty was itself death, and Christ's bearing of that penalty is the cause of our forgiveness. Here we have evidence from none other than perhaps the most well-known church historian writing in the early fourth century using the precise language of penal substitutionary atonement.

Not to be overlooked is the influential Athanasius, who also wrote in the fourth century. In his all-important work On the Incarnation, Athanasius developed the consequences of sin in terms of corruption leading to non-existence. In light of this problem, Christ "surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father" (sec. 7, emphasis added). He then says further:
He assumed a body capable of death, in order that, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all...when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required (sec. 9).
As the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions point out, the notion of substitution is present in the use of "in place of all" and "exchange", while the Son's offering of himself "in death" establishes the penal element (172).

The fourth century preacher John Chrysostom likewise demonstrated his affirmation of penal substitution in a sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:21:
If one that was himself a king, beholding a robber and malefactor under punishment, gave his well-beloved son, his only-begotten and true, to be slain; and transferred the death and the guilt as well, from him to his son, that he might both save the condemned man and clear him from his evil reputation; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment: would not that man, if he had any sense, have chosen then a thousand deaths rather than appear guilty of so great ingratitude? This then let us also now consider with ourselves, and groan bitterly for the provocations we have offered our Benefactor; nor let us therefore presume, because though outraged He bears it with long-suffering; but rather for this very reason be full of remorse (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, set 1, I.12).
Chrysostom's story of a king who transfers the guilt of a criminal to his own son is a perfect illustration of the doctrine of penal substitution, which, he asserts, should shape our understanding of how God relates to us.

One final quote will firm up the case. The following is from Augustine's Against Faustus:
But as Christ endured death as man, and for man; so also, Son of God as He was, ever living in His own righteousness, but dying for our offences, He submitted as man, and for man, to bear the curse which accompanies death. And as He died in the flesh which He took in bearing our punishment, so also, while ever blessed in His own righteousness, He was cursed for our offences, in the death which He suffered in bearing our punishment (14.6, emphasis added).
Augustine could not be more clear; Christ died to bear the curse for our transgressions.

The authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions also draw on the work of Hilary of Poitiers, Gegory Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, Cyril of Alexandria, Gelasius of Cyzicus, and Gregory the Great, who all wrote between the second and seventh centuries, to make their case that penal substitution is not only ancient but an ongoing way of understanding the biblical doctrine of the atonement. While penal substitution is certainly not the only way of speaking of atonement, it is certainly one of the most ancient ways the Church has thought about the atoning work of Christ. The idea is neither new nor novel. Rather, some of the greatest minds in the history of early Christian thought have seen in the scriptures the truth that God allowed the penalty of death for human sin to fall upon Christ who stood condemned as a substitute in our place. And those who maintain this truth today do so in accord with the Church through the ages.

March 18, 2011

At One though Forsaken? Further Thoughts on Dividing the Trinity

Does Jesus' cry of forsakenness from the cross point to a division within the Godhead? Or could it surprisingly point to an even deeper union and communion between Father and Son in the work of redemption than we might typically imagine?

I've spent a couple of recent posts reflecting on whether a division between the trinitarian persons of the Father and the Son is conceivable or even possible. The first post defended the uninterrupted union of Father and Son exegetically while the second approached the topic theologically. I want now to return to return to the biblical text and propose that, not only were the Father and Son not divided when Jesus hung on the cross, they were surprisingly and paradoxically more at one than we might previously have suspected!

As already argued, Psalm 22 should govern our interpretation of Jesus' cry from the cross. In lamenting his own forsakenness, Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1. Some suggest that Jesus may have quoted the whole Psalm, and that we are given the first line as a signal to that. But it seems unlikely to me that anyone nearing death by crucifixion would be physically able to quote the whole of the Psalm. At any rate, that text was certainly on Jesus' mind, and I agree that the whole text of that Psalm should shape our understanding of Christ's cry from the cross: Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?

The key observation about Psalm 22 is that it is not exclusively the literature of lament. It certainly begins as such and continues that way through v. 18. Then comes a shift in tone. The Psalm becomes a prayer of hope, a petition that the Lord be not far away (19). The Psalm declares the faithfulness of God and calls for others to praise him and stand in awe (23). The Psalmist continues by remembering that the Lord has heard his past cries and did not hide his face, which is a way of saying his presence (24). As the Psalm moves toward its conclusion, it becomes a word of prophecy declaring that the poor will one day be satisfied (26), those who seek the Lord will praise him (26), the ends of the earth will turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship him (27). And the dominion of the Lord over the nations is affirmed and celebrated (28). Then in v. 29 there is the assertion that all who go down to the dust (that is, the dead) will bow down and worship him. And the Psalmist declares: "I shall live for him." It would seem that the Psalmist, who is near the point of death (22:20), believes in the God who brings life from the dead. The earlier lament is never separate from, nor should it be interpreted without reference to, the later expressions of hope and faith in the God who is uncompromisingly present with his own.

If it is the case that Psalm 22 should govern our understanding of Jesus' cry of forsakenness, then the path is paved for a fresh reading of Jesus' words. And if Jesus does indeed have the larger content of the Psalm on his mind, then he is hardly simply mourning his forsakenness by the Father. I've already addressed the question as to what precisely Jesus has been forsaken and concluded that he was forsaken neither ontologically nor absolutely but that the Psalm suggests he was forsaken unto the pain and suffering of the cross. I want to suggest now that though Jesus was forsaken unto the cross, he and the Father were deeply united both in purpose and plan. Instead of merely crying out in desperation at being left to his fate, Jesus' takes solace in the Psalm that speaks of God's faithfulness and the hope of life from the dead. Instead of being absolutely forsaken by the Father, Jesus cries out in faith relying on his union with the Father despite being forsaken to the shame of the cross. Thus, the cry of Christ from the cross is not about some great chasm between the Father and the Son. To the contrary, when read in the context of the Psalter, it points to the Father's perpetual faithfulness and the Son's hope for vindication, which will certainly come. And it did, because the Father did not forsake the Son absolutely but accepted his sacrifice. The cross then points not to the separation of the divine persons but to their unity as they work to bring to pass their shared and single plan of redemption.

Some might say I'm twisting the text to make it say the opposite of what is plainly there. I would, of course, disagree. I think the authors intentionally emphasize a quote that gives us something much different than we might have originally expected. They want us to realize that there is much more than is initially apparent. They want us to dig into the scriptures and into the purposes of God in the cross and single the purpose of God who approves and accepts the sacrifice of the Son who has done his Father's will.

To sum up an already lengthy post, Jesus is quoting a Psalm that speaks of the abiding faithfulness of God despite the presence of pain and suffering. Jesus expresses his faith and hope in his Father in the words of this Psalm. The gospel account of Jesus' cry of forsakenness paradoxically points to the deeper reality of the Father's faithfulness. What on the surface appears to be a division of the divine persons actually signals their deepest unity.

Do you find this interpretation compelling? Could Jesus really be praising the faithfulness of God though forsaken to the shame of the cross? Should the whole Psalm shape our reading of this text even though we only get the first line? Let me hear from you.

March 17, 2011

God is love. But is that all? And other questions...

So, with the release of Rob Bell's controversial new book earlier this week, along with his Livestream interview with Lisa Miller and various appearances on cable news shows, the hoopla continues. Early in the aforementioned interview, Bell claimed that he was primarily interested in helping people understand the truth of 1 John 4:8, 16 that God is love. And that's good! I want people to understand and experience that truth as well. But this whole thing has raised some other questions for me. So, at the risk of trespassing on Rob's favorite literary form, I've got a few questions of my own:

So, God is love. I'm with you. But what else does God say about himself? Doesn't the Bible say that God is holy (Lev 19)? And what does that mean? And how does it relate to "God is love"? Does one take priority over the other? If so, which one? And how do we know? How does anyone know? Is God holy love? Or lovingly holy? Or both? Is there a difference? What interpretive principle ensures we pick the right emphasis? And what would people rather hear about? Holiness? Or love? Do popular preferences affect what books get written? Published? Purchased? Read? Doesn't the Bible also say that God is just (Deut 32:4)? What is the relationship between love and justice? Justice and holiness? All three? What if someone wrote a book called Holiness Wins? Or Justice Wins? Would a book like that get published? Purchased? Read? And how do our presuppositions shape the way we raise and phrase our questions? And the way we read the Bible? Are questions neutral?

But hey, I'm just asking questions.

Or am I?

March 16, 2011

More Thoughts on Dividing the Trinity: A Zizioulian (!) Approach

Is it possible for the Trinity to be divided? And if it is, what would be the consequences? Yesterday, I posted briefly on whether Mark 15:34 could be interpreted as positing an essential division between the Father and the Son; today I want to consider the issue theologically through the lens of the work of John D. Zizioulas, Metropolitan of Pergamon and significant theologian in the Greek Orthodox tradition.

Zizioulas has controversially argued that God is not a necessary being; that is, God does not exist necessarily but instead continuously affirms his free will to exist by begetting the Son and bringing forth the Spirit. Here's a quote from his book, Being as Communion, in which he fleshes this out a bit:
Thus when we say that God "is," we do not bind the personal freedom of God-the being of God in not an ontological "necessity" or a simple "reality" for God-but we ascribe the being of God to His personal freedom. In a more analytical way this means that God, as Father and not as substance, perpetually confirms through "being" His free will to exist. And it is precisely His trinitarian existence that constitutes this confirmation: the Father out of love-that is, freely-begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. If God exists, He exists because the Father exists, that is He who out of love freely begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit. Thus God as person-as the hypostasis of the Father-makes the one divine substance to be that which it is: the one God (41).
Now plenty of theologians reject Zizioulas' claim that God is not a necessary being. In fact, all of my philosophy of religion textbooks from college and seminary argue the contrary, that God is indeed a necessary being (which is simply to say: if God exists, then he must exist; he is unable to not exist). I think this is often an Eastern/Western debate and isn't really what I'm interested in discussing here. But it is duly noted and now out of the way.

My interest is in applying Zizioulas' perspective to the comments by Marva Dawn discussed in my last post. She has claimed that when Christ cried out from the cross lamenting his forsakenness, that at that moment the Father and the Son were separated.

For Zizioulas, though, the very essence of God is bound up in the Father's eternal begetting of the Son. Indeed, the Father's ongoing confirmation of his free will to exist is bound up in his perpetual begetting of the Son. If the Father and the Son were to be ontologically divided, which is to say that the Father would cease begetting the Son, for their union is in this ongoing begetting, even if only momentarily, God would (freely) cease to exist. God the Father continually confirms his free will to exist by bringing forth the Son; if he were to cease and the two were divided, God would have freely chosen not to exist. The obvious implication of this is that everything that God continually upholds and sustains would also cease to exist, namely all creation including all of us.

So, could the Trinity be divided? From a Zizioulian perspective: yes. But then there would be no more Trinity, and God, along with everything else, would cease to exist. And we wouldn't be having this discussion. Since we're all still here, I guess we know what he would say to her proposal.

What do you think? Could the Trinity be divided? If so, what would be the consequences?

March 15, 2011

Dividing the Trinity? A Response to Marva Dawn

I gathered with many of my fellow clergy for last week to hear Marva Dawn speak on the topic of Sabbath. Her presentation was well-done overall, and I found helpful much of what she said regarding the Sabbath. However, at one point she made a stunning and, in my view, problematic remark regarding Jesus' cry to his Father from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). She suggested that at the moment of Jesus' cry, the Father and the Son were split; separated; held together only by the Holy Spirit. I made note of this peculiar statement, but didn't think on it much more until I learned that she said something similar today while giving the Theta Phi lectures at Asbury Theological Seminary. After further reflection on what I heard at the clergy gathering, I thought I'd offer a brief response in two points. I will focus on what I heard at the clergy gathering; Regarding what was said at Asbury Seminary,Isaac Hopper offers a theological response and Jeffrey Rudy a historical one with quotes from the patristics. 

First, the historic doctrine of the Trinity states that all three persons of the Trinity share one, single, divine essence. To say that the Father and the Son are split or divided is at best unhelpful in its vague ambiguity and at worst a wrecking ball to the central way the Church has spoken about God through history. A theologian is certainly welcome to argue as they desire, even when doing so in wrecking ball fashion; however, when a major doctrine like the Trinity is the issue, we should actually get an argument.

Second, there is nothing in the text of Mark 15:34 (and parallels) that comes close to suggesting that the ontological unity is in question in this text. Indeed, there is weighty evidence to the contrary. Jesus is quoting the opening line of Psalm 22, the first two verses of which read thus:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
The Psalmist here finds himself in a state of agony and suffering. His cry to God is for help in that moment of suffering. He pleads with God wondering why he is not delivered. In the context of Psalm 22:1-2, the notion of being forsaken by God is a way of expressing the pain in not being delivered by God from the pain of persecution.

Jesus' use of this Psalm should be taken in just this way. He is not lamenting a splitting-up of the essential unity that is eternally the heart of his relationship with the God he knows as Father. Rather, he is lamenting that God has forsaken him to the suffering of the cross. The text does not indicate that this forsaking should be taken in any absolute sense. Instead, we are guided by the quote from the Psalms; when Jesus cries out questioning why he has been forsaken, he means "Why have you forsaken me to the pain of this persecution?"

I propose that this interpretation makes better sense of the text than does the suggestion that the Father and the Son are here essentially divided. It seems much more likely the case that Mark has in mind the fact that Jesus has been handed over to the suffering of the cross rather than the essential relationship between the Father and the Son. 

How do you take this passage? Do you think Psalm 22 should guide our interpretation of Jesus' cry from the cross? Are there other elements in the text that suggest other interpretive options? How should we go about deriving theological conclusions from historical and narratival texts?

March 14, 2011

A Christ-Centered Doctrine of Hell?

In the church and seminary world, terms like Christ-centered and Christocentric get tossed around like stones in one of those little tumbler machines: Christ-centered preaching; a Christocentric hermeneutic; those of you who live in these worlds will know what I'm talking about. Don't take this as a criticism. I'm in favor of a Christocentric approach to, well, everything. I'm simply making the point that when I hear "Christ-centered" used adjectivally, I'm not usually taken aback due to the term's common usage. But I was recently introduced to a new application of this term in a way I not heard it applied before: Hell! A Christocentric understanding of Hell? Who'd of thought?

I encountered this idea in this lecture by Sinclair Ferguson: "Universalism and the Reality of Eternal Punishment: The Justice and Mercy of God." I was taken aback and unsettled. Typically when we think of Hell, we are thinking of separation from Christ. The idea that Christ is at the center of the doctrine of Hell is not something you hear everyday neither is it all that comforting. Ferguson commented briefly on the idea from Matthew 25:41. He basically suggested that we need to get our minds around the reality that the one who consigns people to everlasting torment is not some vague deity; in scripture, it is none other than Jesus, the man from Nazareth and the Lord of the cosmos. I was amazed. Such clarity. Such concreteness. Such biblical fidelity. Wow! I couldn't help but reflect a bit more on this passage. Those reflections will make up the remainder of this post.

Matthew 25:41 comes as part of the well-known passage of scripture in which Jesus describes his own coming judgment of the nations during which he will separate people like sheep from goats - the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Those on his right are blessed by the Father and brought into God's kingdom. Those on the left are said to be accursed and sent away into the "eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (25:41). After Jesus provides evidence to substantiate his judgment, he concludes by saying, "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (25:46).

There are various exegetical question that can and should be raised with regard to this passage. But in a post that may already be too long, I only want to focus on one. Perhaps we can attend to others at another time. A key issue has to do with the Greek word aiōnios that appears three times in vv. 41 and 46 and is translated is typically translated into English as eternal or everlasting. A standard New Testament Greek lexicon (by Bauer, Danker, et al.) indicates that aiōnios can refer to (1) a long period of time, (2) a period of time without beginning or end, or (3) a period of unending duration. I've recently heard it suggested that the term can refer to intensity of experience, but I've seen no textual evidence to substantiate this claim nor have I actually found this as an option in any standard lexicon. Those who reject the eternality of Hell have to claim that aiōnios does not here mean eternal and usually opt for a definite and limited period of time or an intense experience of punishment or pruning. Outside of the New Testament, aiōnios often describes the perpetual nature of the Emperor's power. More important for our interpretive method is the actual context of the word in the text in question. As they say: context is everything!

In the passage in question, aiōnios describes fire and punishment which are set in contrast to aiōnios as a description of the life that is the reward of the righteous. Thus, if we take the reward of the righteous to be of unending duration or eternal life in the age to come, then the only legitimate move is to take the fire and punishment to be of an eternal nature as well, since they are set in direct contrast. To do otherwise would be to destroy the logic and thought flow of the passage as a whole and v. 46 in particular.

Further, in Matthew's gospel aiōnios is used twice in another passage to refer to the nature of the life that is the reward of the righteous (19:16, 29). I don't think there is evidence that this reward should be taken as limited in duration. Thus, neither should the punishment. At the end of the day, the context demands that the punishment of the unrighteous be taken as an eternal reality in contrast to the eternal reward of the righteous. Anything less involves a suspect interpretive approach.

The big thing to see, though, is that the one who says he will consign the unrighteous to eternal torment is not some vague deity or amorphous god; it is none other than the babe of Bethlehem who has become the resurrected Lord. It is the concrete, particular, and historical person of Jesus of Nazareth who says "depart from me into the eternal fire."

Popular presentations of the gospels often depict Jesus as the original flower child spouting of poems and nice pseudo-religious maxims. But the gospels present a very different portrait. In Matthew 25, it is Jesus who sends people to everlasting fire. Until we get our minds around that, we have not yet begun to grapple with the Jesus we meet in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Until we understand that the doctrine of Hell is a Christological doctrine, we have not yet understood Hell or the Christ who says he will consign the unrighteous to eternal fire. These are weighty things and deeply uncomfortable. But they are quite biblical and thus necessarily objects of our study and reflection. The Christ who is the only true object of our faith is the very same Christ who will determine the population of Hell.

Have you thought about Hell from a Christ-centered perspective before? Do you think this is a helpful way to come at this issue? Do you find this idea unsettling? Satisfying? Both?

March 11, 2011

Not Committing Idolatry, Resisting It: A Response to Rev. Sky McCracken

Has homosexuality become an idol for United Methodists despite what side of the issue they take? This is the charge leveled by Rev. Sky McCracken in his recent article at the UM Portal. McCracken writes:
It is sad to watch because homosexuality has become an idol in United Methodism—to everyone on either side of the ideological and theological fence. As if it is the most important thing in the Kingdom to debate!
He goes on to quote the suggestion of popular United Methodist blogger Allan Bevere that Methodists are "obsessed with sex just like the world." McCracken is certainly right that homosexuality is not an obstacle in most local churches where the pressing issues involve mission and discipleship. The issue unfortunately remains front and center on the denominational level, though.

I want to look more closely at the suggestion that United Methodists who defend the current biblical and historic stance of the UMC are committing idolatry. On one level, I agree. There are those who thrive on conflict whatever side of the issue they're on. They need the debate to have something to do. They don't want the issue to go away; they would be bored. So, I agree with the suggestion that there are those who get an unfortunate idolatrous satisfaction in attacking others who call for the full inclusion of practicing homosexuals in the life and ministry of the Church.

On another level, though, I think McCracken has oversimplified the issue. Not all United Methodists can be lumped into one big category of idolatry on this issue. I am quite persuaded that those who call for a change in this issue have fallen into idolatry (Romans 1:22-27), and, as indicated above, there are those on the right side for the wrong reasons. But not all who reject the proposal to change the current stand on homosexuality do so for the same reasons. I believe there are many in the UMC, like myself, who would like nothing better than for this debate to come to an end never to be discussed again. I'm tired of it. I would rather spend time in ministries of disciple-making than writing petitions to retain the current language of the Book of Discipline.

But as long as someone seeks to change that language in a way that is dishonoring to God, we must continue to engage in this debate. As long as there remains a significant number of clergy and laity within our denomination who seek to lead us down the path of unrighteousness, we cannot keep quiet, not because we are committing idolatry but because we are resisting it. Those of us who would like to see the debate come to an end are not the one's who continue to raise the issue. We are not the ones inappropriately interrupting the business of General Conference and rejecting the authority of scripture and the discipline of the Church. If actions like that were to cease, I think the debate would all but disappear. There may be some on the conservative side of the debate who are idolatrously obsessed, but not all of us are, and we would like the whole thing to come to an end. This is where Rev. McCracken's argument is insufficiently constructed.

I take one other (more brief) issue with Rev. McCracken's article. He claims that when United Methodists gather for General Conference next year, probably the same thing will happen as in the last thirty years of debating homosexuality: nothing. This is simply incorrect. Something has happened. For more than thirty years now, United Methodists have taken the increasingly counter-cultural stand that homosexuality is incompatible with a Christian life-style. To this point, a biblical perspective on human sexuality has been maintained. Against immense pressure we have stood firm, and that's not nothing.

Let me conclude with a final point of agreement. McCracken concludes his article by calling for General Conference to pronounce a moratorium on the word homosexual and all derivatives. I could not agree more. Scripture is clear; the Church has spoken; let's move on.

March 10, 2011

Through Faith & to Faith: Pistis Christou & Redundancy in Romans 3:22?

Readers familiar with the field of Pauline studies will know that the Greek phrase pistis Christou has been hotly contested. Throughout church history the phrase has primarily been translated as "faith in Christ", though with the publication of Richard Hays' monograph, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11, the alternative translation of "faith (or faithfulness) of Jesus Christ" has gained a very significant scholarly following. The difficulty comes in the fact that both translations are grammatically possible. As a result, arguing for either translation is a matter of making the exegetical case from the contexts of the texts in which the phrase appears. 

One of those texts is Romans 3:21-22, which reads:
But now apart from the law, the righteousness of God (dikaiosunē theou) has been revealed, being attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in/of Jesus Christ (pisteōs Iēsou Christou) to all who have faith.
The debate is over whether Paul is saying that the righteousness of God (itself a contested phrase) is revealed through human faith in Christ or through Christ's own faithfulness in his life and obedient death.

One argument to which regular appeal is made claims that to take the phrase as "faith in Christ" would mean that Paul has come quite close to redundancy: faith in Christ for those who have faith. Would Paul make such an unnecessary and superfluous syntactical move here in one of the most dense and important arguments in the whole letter? N.T. Wright argues just this way in his Romans commentary in the New Interpreter's Bible:
A further reason why pistis Iēsou Christou here is likely to refer to Jesus' own faithfulness is that, if taken instead to refer to the faith Christians have "in" Jesus, the next phrase ("for all who believe") becomes almost entirely redundant, adding only the (admittedly important) "all" (470).
But is this appeal to redundancy really a fair reading of Paul's Greek? There was a time when I would have said yes, but now I would suggest that it is not. The reason is that I have become persuaded that the two prepositional phrases in v. 22 are functioning in two different ways.

The first phrase reads "through (dia) faith in Jesus Christ." And the preposition dia (through) suggests that faith is the instrument by which God's righteousness is revealed. That is to say God's righteousness is perceived or apprehended through the process of coming to faith in Christ. The second prepositional phrase reads "to (eis) all who have faith." The different preposition eis suggests that Paul is now making a different point which concerns the objects of the revelation of God's righteousness, namely all who have faith. This distinct point, that God's righteousness is revealed to all who have faith, is clarified and substantiated by the following statement "For (gar) there is no distinction" (3:22). No distinction between who? The answer is  no distinction between Jews and Gentiles. All people, both Jews and non-Jews, are objects of the righteousness of God. This is the concern of the second prepositional phrase, a concern substantiated in the following sentence, a concern quite distinct from that of the first prepositional phrase which speaks not to the object of the revelation but to the instrument of it. Paul is making the point that people do not qualify to apprehend God's righteousness because of their ethnic identity but because of faith, which is a related but different point from that made in the first prepositional phrase regarding the instrument by which God's righteousness is revealed.

So, to sum up, if Paul is purposefully making two distinct points with his two distinct prepositional phrases, then the redundancy argument falls. Paul's argument is not redundant; it is nuanced. And this is just what you might expect in Paul's Greek. He is piling up the prepositional phrases (as he is wont to do) to make multiple points. The compact and dense nature of this passage only supports this argument. Paul is packing a very full and nuanced argument into a very compact space. Thus, I no longer find the redundancy argument persuasive. I'm sure others have made the argument this way before, but its been a while since I looked at much of the secondary literature on this one. Personally, I find the argument for nuance to be good support for taking pistis Iēsou Christou in Romans 3:22 to refer to human faith in Jesus Christ.

Let me hear from you! Do you prefer the translation "faith in Christ" or "faithfulness of Christ"? What is the best argument for each rendering? Do you think Paul is writing with nuance or redundancy? Might he be using repetition to emphasize the point?

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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March 9, 2011

So What Counts as Heresy?

I've been hearing the word heresy a lot, as of late. In the wake of the controversy surrounding Rob Bell's yet-to-be-released Love Wins, heresy talk has been bouncing off the walls. Is it heretical? Some say yes; some no.This led me to consider: What is heresy, anyway? When should something be considered heretical? How does one go about being labeled a heretic? Can one person authoritatively pronounce another to be a heretic? Or is there some other authority to which appeal must be made?

Accusations of heresy have come with the current debate on Universalism, and so I'd like to explore these questions in two related posts. In this initial post I'll consider the question of what actually constitutes heresy. What are the criteria for spotting it? In the next I'll ask whether or not Universalism itself is rightly spoken of as heretical.

As best as I can tell, heresy as a term is basically used in two ways. The first is strictly pejorative rhetoric. This is when you call someone a heretic in order to cast aspersion on them. This usage is not necessarily based on some clear standard; just the biases or positions of the one using the term. An example of this usage would be when Calvinists and Arminians call each other heretics. It's really more of an insult than an accurate descriptor.

The second usage is strictly more technical and historical. In this usage, heresy refers specifically to a teaching that knowingly contradicts an established doctrine of the Church. Such doctrines are typically articulated in the form of the great creeds of the Church (e.g., the Nicene Creed) or in the statements of the seven ecumenical councils, which are typically universally recognized by all branches of Christianity.

Two observations need to be made here. First, because of their historical location and context, a limited number of doctrines have been addressed by the ecumenical councils. For example, the Arminian-Calvinist debate arose after these councils. Thus, if the councils are the standards by which heresy is measured, then that language is inappropriate in the Arminian-Calvinist controversy because those standards dealt with earlier issues that did not include the specific matters raised in Arminian-Calvinist debate. So, according to this definition, heresy is limited to issues that arose and were dealt with in the ecumenical councils. Second, it's also noteworthy that this definition of heresy involves a knowing contradiction. So, someone who is not educated in historic Christian doctrine should not be labeled a heretic. However, after learning what the Church has taught on a specific issue, if they then persist in teaching what they know to be a contradiction to Christian doctrine, then the language of heresy is appropriate. A heretic is someone who knows better.

This second usage of heresy language is not so much pejorative rhetoric as it is simply the way we describe teachings that contradict established doctrine. If someone rejects the doctrine of Christ's bodily resurrection and refuses to be corrected, then I would certainly be comfortable calling it heresy, though saddened as well that such a one had rejected the historic Christian faith. I would not mean it as an insult but simply as a way of making the point that this person had self-consciously removed himself from the stream of historic Christianity.

Let me conclude by saying that I try very hard to refrain from using the word heresy in the first sense. If you hear me call someone a heretic, then I'm not just trying to hurl an insulting ad hominem. I try to use the word to describe those who have knowingly rejected the established teaching of the Christian Church.

So, now that we've taken a look at terminology, keep an eye out for the next post on whether the language of heresy is appropriate with regard to Universalism.

What do you think? Are there other uses of the word heresy? Do you think this term is used too casually in contemporary theological discourse? If the meaning is unclear, is the term really useful anymore? Have you heard this pejorative-technical distinction before? Ever been called a heretic?


March 7, 2011

There Are Some Things that Blow Me Away

I preached yesterday on Peter's denial of Jesus from Mark 14:66-72. And even though the sermon is over, I keep going back to think about it. While Jesus was being interrogated by the High Priest, Peter was being questioned by a servant-girl; while Jesus spoke truly despite the danger, Peter called down a curse and swore that he did not know the Lord. Such a stark contrast between fidelity and faithlessness.

The thing that blows me away is the reality that Jesus went to the cross to bear the consequences of Peter's sins, the man who denied that he knew him and likely spoke a curse against him. Jesus died for Peter's sin of denying Jesus. I don't get that; it blows me away!

What could motivate the Lord to act with such profound and unfathomable kindness? What could cause him to act for the eternal benefit of this turncoat? Not long before Peter had stood before the others and declared Jesus to be the Christ; now he swears he knows him not. And Jesus was obedient unto death for him. Wow. The more I reflect on this portion of Mark's narrative, the more I realize I simply don't get the great and glorious grandeur of the majesty of the kindness of the One who alone is God. There is a richness to his mercy that confounds me. We speak of grace so often (and perhaps sometimes quite flippantly) that the word sometimes seems to lose meaning. When I pause to reflect on the grace of Christ that he would bear the wrath of God against Peter in Peter's place, I wonder if we should not use that word more carefully. He took the curse for the one who cursed him. And he took my curse. The pure selflessness of love like that is far above my feeble understanding.


March 4, 2011

More Thoughts on Hell

I know; it's kind of a depressing title for a blog post. But the reality is that with the ongoing back-and-forth over Rob Bell's forthcoming book, like many other Evangelical Christian types, I've been thinking a good bit about Hell for the last couple of days. So, here goes.

I have, from time to time, found myself sitting around with friends having theological discussions in which the topic turns to the destiny of the unevangelized. At times I have decided to bite the bullet, lay my cards on the table, and admit that I actually do believe that a person has to hear the Christian gospel about Jesus of Nazareth and respond in faith in order to gain the Heaven that is eternal life in God's new creation. My declaration sometimes receives a mixed response and has been met with some surprise that I believe a loving God would actually condemn untold multitudes of people to Hell simply for having never heard the gospel. Let me say that I appreciate it when friends and colleagues press me to think carefully and biblically about issues like this, and that I typically find such conversations to be stimulating and refining.

But the question remains: Why would I believe that God would consign people to everlasting Hell? In short, my answer is: As best as I can tell, that is what Paul thought. And if the apostle to the Gentiles thinks it, then I'm basically committed to it. But what exactly does Paul say?

One of the key texts that shapes my view on this is Romans 10:9-17, in which Paul basically says that justification and ultimate salvation come through confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in the heart that God raised him bodily from the dead. He goes on to substantiate his and all Christian mission through a series of rhetorical questions which are intended to make the point that the default position of all people is unsaved; therefore we need to send out preachers so that they can hear the good news, believe in the Lord, and call upon him for salvation, because "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (10:13). Paul is substantiating Christian mission with his belief that those who never hear the good news will never be able to call on the Lord and experience his salvation, which means they remain unsaved, which, for Paul, is a bad thing and is the same as condemnation.

I know someone (probably lots of someones) will disagree with this interpretation, but it really seems to me to be the plain reading of this text. Paul takes it as a given that the default human position is unsaved, by which he means condemned. He took the better part of the first three chapters of the letter to make the point that the common human condition, for Jew and Greek, is condemnation; falling short of the glory of God, and falling short of the glory of God is the Hell from which we need to be saved.

Here's the key point I want to make, and it is a response to the common suggestion that a loving God would not send billions of people to Hell just for never hearing the gospel. For Paul, people are not condemned because they never hear the gospel; they are condemned because they are unrighteous and have committed idolatry by worshipping created things rather than the creator who has made himself known in what has been made (see Rom 1:18ff.) People are not born in some sort of neutral default mode only later to become saved or condemned based on their response to the gospel. The default mode is condemnation; the possibility of salvation for even a few (or only one) is grace upon grace and mercy in abundance. And if we cannot see that, we would do well to spend some time reflecting biblically on the purity and holiness of God and his absolute hatred for sin, which is not inconsistent with his love.

One more thing, and I'm not the first to say this, if people will ultimately be saved having never heard the gospel, then, by all means, stop evangelizing! If hearing the gospel establishes responsibility where before there was none, then stop doing missions! If people are by default on their way to Heaven and telling them about Jesus opens the possibility of Hell, then never speak his name again! If people actually have to hear the gospel and reject it before they are condemned, then just keep quiet! You see; the very notions of evangelism and mission are inconsistent with an inclusivistic theology. People are better off never hearing.

So, let me sum up by saying that I don't believe that God will send anyone to hell just because they never heard the gospel. Rather, I believe that those who are ultimately lost will be lost because they have fallen short of the glory of God in their refusal to give glory to God instead giving the glory that, as Creator, he alone deserves to created things. There will be no scenario where an unevangelized person stands before God and hears him say, "You never heard the gospel; you're going to Hell." Scripture seems to clearly indicate something more along the lines of: "You exchanged my glory for a lie, and the consequence is that you may have no share in my glory."