A Universalist Theodicy?

Whatever Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Church Michigan, America, intended with the publication of his book Love Wins, the resulting controversy highlights an issue that has been flickering on the edge of Evangelicalism for awhile. Robin Parry the author of The Evangelical Universalist and editor of All Shall be Well made the case recently at Spurgeon’s College, London for ‘Evangelical Universalism’. Parry’s argument is that everyone will eventually come to a saving faith in Jesus.

Essentially the argument for Universalism is that God’s primary characteristic of love means that he ultimately vanquishes sin, death and evil. All the parts of Scripture, the parables and teachings of Jesus, the flow of Biblical history and the all the various doctrines of Soteriology and Christology are understood in the light of this over arching idea, at the end of the cosmos, God is utterly victorious, in the end there is no sin or evil.

However at this point Blocher’s insightful monograph about theodicy, Evil and the Cross is very useful. In it he surveys a number of non-Christian responses and their Christian corollaries before offering a biblical solution. The Universalism as espoused by Bell and Parry, problematically teeters between “solution by universal order” and the “the solution by autonomous freedom”. Falling dangerously in other words between the idea that sin and evil are simply part of God’s larger plan or that sin and evil are the cost of our freedom.

The solution by universal order

The solution by universal order comes from the “optimism”, of the Stoics. Blocher writes: “[Stoics] like the slave Epictetus who was capable of smiling even while his cruel master deliberately broke his leg.” They see, says Blocher, the bigger picture of a universe striving towards “beauty” (page 14). The Christian variations come from Leibniz, the Continental mathematician, who asserted that God was sovereign and that evil was an imperfection that simply reflected a thing’s distance from God. Later Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist, saw evil as a by product of evolution, part of God’s creation process.

The solution by autonomous freedom

The solution by autonomous freedom, sees the difficulty in aligning evil too closely with God and so makes it a necessary cost of human freedom. Blocher writes: “According to his ‘consequent’ nature at least, God is limited, emergent, advancing with the universe, and can influence the agents of historical change only by persuasion.” (page 41) John Hick’s famous “vale of soul-making” (page 53) is an expression says Blocher of this solution. In Hick’s words “Man can be truly for God only if he is morally independent of Him, and he can be thus independent only by being first against Him.” In other words sin (and evil) are a “prerequisite of love” (page 54).

An ‘iron triangle’

As Blocher points out in his closing chapters the biblical solution is an ‘iron triangle’ of sorts, made up of three sides that when broken introduce non-biblical ideas.  They are according to Blocher the three ideas of a Scriptural theodicy: God is sovereign, evil is evil and God is good. Universalism of a more deterministic variation errs in making evil part of God’s ultimate plan, while the more freedom focused variation errs in either reducing God’s sovereignty to make space for human freedom or errs by granting evil a place in order to allow for human freedom.

It seems Parry and Bell in their eagerness to emphasize one of God’s primary characteristics, love, have overlooked the theological consequences. Evil cannot be simply subsumed into God’s love and neither can it be counted, in some sort of divine-cost-benefit analysis, for freedom.  Hell is an expression of God’s defeat of sin and evil, but also God’s moral and ontological separation from sin and evil.   I suspect as evangelical universalism is placed under closer scrutiny, it’s theodicy will not bear the weight and it will continue to be a regarded as a heresy.

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Burning Korans

A strange idea. I knew a man once who burnt all his Heavy Metal CDs – and his guitar – when he turned to Christ, because he saw them as part of a demonic dark period in his life from which he wanted to be free.  But they were his CDs.

But where would you go to find out about burning other people’s Korans? The Old Testament gives some suggestions about smashing and burning idol images, but that is for idols that find their way into God’s land. It is not as though there was a general world-wide mandate given to the Israelites to search out and destroy all idols world-wide.

The problem was that they polluted the land God had set aside for his people. Or perhaps more importantly lots of Israelites seemed to like them and tended to adopt them as their gods.

It is true that, at different times, various groups of Christians have taken iconoclasm seriously on the basis of some of these texts, but the practice hasn’t gained a widespread following.

Maybe Paul might help. There was that girl with a divining spirit at Philippi who kept on telling who he was. She was very annoying and eventually Paul got rid of the spirit (though not the girl). It is an interesting contrast to some kinds of Prayer Warfare that would have cleaned out all the spirits before Paul started work in Philippi. Paul didn’t know about that method – or perhaps he had a better way.

Paul had plenty of scope if he wanted to look for religious beliefs and practices that were abhorrent to him. The world he lived in was full of them. He did get into a few arguments and fights but not because he was looking for a fight. He had a much simpler approach.

He told people about Jesus. He thought that his message about the resurrection of the crucified Jewish Messiah was the way to change people’s religious beliefs and behaviours.

It is still the best method even though we may have to explain and defend ourselves as a result. But more about that another day.

Dale Appleby

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Why is some evangelical preaching so boring? By Peter Corney

Evangelicals have rightly always placed a high priority on preaching and in particular expository preaching, the expounding and explaining of the Bible. We do so because we believe in the authority of the Word of God for our belief and practice – for our life. We believe that it is the spiritual food of the people of God. As Jesus said, “We do not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (We have seen what happens to churches that have been starved of its food, when Biblical preaching and teaching has been downgraded; their emaciated bodies are waiting for the body bags.) We believe that it is powerful and as the instrument of the Spirit of God can change and reshape us.

But out of our convictions and concerns there has developed among some evangelicals a style of expository preaching that is frankly boring! It is boring because it often lacks application to people’s lives and so, unintentionally, is not nourishing. It often sounds like little more than a reiteration of the text with some minor and obvious commentary. It’s a bit like having the Bible reading again with some explanatory notes.

This style of preaching has come about because of a conviction and a fear:

(a)    A conviction that believes that the scriptures will do their own work of application to the hearers without too much human interference. All the preacher must do is study them carefully in preparation, explain their plain meaning and pray. This high respect for the text fears that too much comment by the preacher will detract, distract or deviate from its message.

(b)   There is also a fear that too much attention to creative application and cultural relevance will overpower the plain meaning of the text or at worst distort it by amplifying the preachers own concerns and preoccupations or infect it with the preachers imagination.

Now there is substance to these concerns. We have all sat through sermons that used the text as a springboard to dive into a pool of ideas only vaguely related to the meaning of the text. Some of us have listened to preachers who had read somewhere that Karl Barth said the preacher should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, except that there always seemed more attention was paid to the Murdoch news than the Good News! We have probably all experienced the Entertainer, where the sermon is a collection of anecdotes strung together with a series of jokes and seasoned with a text or two. Some of us have had the misfortune of sitting under preachers of a very liberal theological persuasion whose attitude to the text was that it was an interesting religious resource to be dipped into for the odd quotation, or alternatively, to be the subject of detailed deconstruction or demythologizing. This really is stones for bread.

So evangelicals are right to be concerned and cautious about preaching that departs from the text or places the focus somewhere else. Nevertheless preaching that does not apply the text to life is not evangelical preaching either and it will not feed the people of God nor challenge the enquirer.

Evangelical Preaching is a dynamic experience that involves the following elements:

(1)   The text and its priority. The preacher’s first task is to approach the text with great respect and prepare thoroughly through prayer and study to understand what it means.

(2)   To explain that meaning clearly. This will often require developing illustrations, metaphors and examples. This will require imagination and creative thought.

(3)   To ask and answer the question; how does this apply to our lives now? What does it mean for the way we are to believe, live, think and act today and tomorrow?

(4)   The preacher themselves. The whole process passes through the mind and heart of the preacher, their personality, their gifts, abilities and limitations. Preaching is proclaiming Christ, the Word made flesh, through the flesh and words of a human person, the preacher. It is, unavoidably, truth conveyed through personality, which is both its strength and its weakness. Because God has instructed us to convey his Word in this way our role and involvement is not marginal.(Romans 10:14-15)

(5)   The cultural context. All preaching takes place in a particular culture at a particular time by an enculturated person to a group of enculturated people. It is never culturally neutral. The preacher must ask themselves; who are the listeners? The closer the language, idiom, humor and culture of the speaker to  those of their listeners the greater will be the attention, understanding, learning  and acceptance. The greater the distance the greater will be the loss of attention and the failure to accept, understand and learn. (This is obvious with ethnically    different groups when the cultures and languages are radically different, but it is  also true between the sub cultures of a shared dominant culture. eg; the difference   between a person from a well off private school background who has a university          education and a job and lives in Kew and someone from a low income family  who didn’t finish high school, has been unemployed for two years and lives in  Dandenong. These differences also exist between age cohorts of  people in the same overall culture.) Preaching, like publishing the scriptures into a new language, is an exercise in translation, the greater the differences between the  preacher and the listeners the more challenging is the process of translation.

(6)   Communication skills. The preacher must ask themselves; why will people listen? Why will they pay attention? Even when the culture of preacher and listeners is similar it does not guarantee communication! Unless preachers understand the basics of communication they will fail to gain a hearing. Gifted preachers have an intuitive feel for this but all preachers can learn the basics and greatly improve the hearing of the Word of God. Relevant application is an important issue here.  The following books offer very helpful insights into the communication issues.

Three very helpful books are:

Inductive Preaching – Helping People Listen. By Ralph L Lewis and Gregg Lewis Crossway Books 1983.

Preaching to a Post Modern World. By Graham Johnston Published by Baker Books 2001.

Why Don’t People Listen. Republished as The Good Listeners. By Hugh Mackay published by Pan MacMillan 1998

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Welcome to the EFAC Blog

Welcome to The EFAC blog site. This will be an occasional offering by various members of EFAC.

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