Quaker Theology #9 -- Fall-Winter 2003
If Grace Be True: Why God Will Save Every Person. Philip Gulley & James Mulholland. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003. 220 pages, cloth, $22.95
A Treatise on Atonement, Hosea Ballou. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1986 (Reprint of 1832 edition) 254 pages, paper.
Reviewed by Chuck Fager
Almost two hundred years ago, Hosea Ballou foretold what would befall two Quaker pastors in Indiana, Philip Gulley and his good friend James Mulholland, in 2002:
To profess universal salvation," Ballou wrote, "will subject some to excommunication from regular churches; others to the pain of being neglected by their neighbors; others to be violently opposed by their companions . . . and a manís enemies will be those of his own house. (Ballou: 227)
Ballou wrote this about his own time, and the controversy generated by the ideas contained in his magnum opus, A Treatise on Atonement. In it Ballou, an early New England Universalist, made a case that Unitarian-Universalists today claim as one of their founding classics.
That was in 1805. But Ballouís words were indeed prophetic: Since Gulley and Mulholland put forth their work, all hell has broken loose in the Hoosier state.
Or at least, in Western Yearly Meeting, which includes most of the Quaker population in the western half of the state. Recent accounts suggest that this venerable body is essentially falling apart, with Meetings decamping left and right, and many of them citing toleration of the two pastorsí "heresy" as a major reason. (There has also been a concurrent, recurrent squabble over same sex marriage in Western; the two are more than coincidentally related, but for convenience weíll stick with universalism here.)
More of the public ire has been directed at Gulley, as the better-known of the two: he is the author of a very popular series of "front porch tales" books, published by Multnomah Press, a strongly evangelical house in Oregon. The series, drawn from pastoral work to which the phrase "homespun humor" is widely applied, has been a best-seller in many religious bookstores.
But when Gulley told Multnomah of his plans for a book favorable to "universal salvation," Multnomah dropped him (and it) like a hot potato. Best-selling authors need not starve in the wilderness, though; the blatantly "liberal" HarperSanFrancsico snapped it up.
Many reviews in journals favored by his former readers, however, have been stinging:
The authors, "jettison the whole structure of Christian conviction," thundered Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville KY, in a review entitled "The Theology of Wishful Thinking."
The judgement in Quaker Life was only barely more restrained, accusing them of using "straw men" and "misappropriated anecdotes" as the building blocks of a "radically speculative" theology that ends up "in the realm of fantasy," which the reviewer "cannot recommend." (Richmond: 22f)
Through the summer of 2003, at least, the Quaker Hill Bookstore in Richmond, Indiana was declining to stock the book for its heavily Quaker clientele. When they refused to send any copies for the United Society of Friends Women International convention, Gulley & Mulholland showed up at the meeting with one hundred and fifty copies direct from HarperSanFrancisco, which they autographed and gave away. And in the same issue of Quaker Life with the review, the bookstore ran a full page ad, prominently featuring Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, and Armageddon, the latest in the apocalyptic "Left Behind" series of novels.
The first online reviewer at Amazon.com echoed the other critics, but more bluntly, calling the book simply "A bunch of bull," and declaring, "I do not agree with anything these men say. If you are a Christian then you will NOT read this book . . . ."
More serious for Gulley were the threats of several evangelically-oriented churches in Western Yearly Meeting that if he and Mulholland were not disciplined, the dissidents and their flocks would bolt. But both Gulley and Muholland had the backing of their congregations, and the Yearly Meeting committee which oversees pastors declined to act against them. The dissident Meetings are reportedly on their way out. But even having dodged the bullet, Gulley told this reviewer that the turmoil in his base community was painful to endure.
What has thus stirred the pot so? Itís summed up the bookís refrain: "I Believe God Will Save Every Person." (The two co-authors write as a single "I".) This mantra opens every chapter, and is parsed out and exposited one word per chapter.
This thesis rises as a direct challenge to the more well-known "orthodox" theologies of atonement. One such theory was summed up well by the conservative Presbyterian writer J. Gresham Machen:
Christ took our place on the cross, paying the penalty of sin that we deserved to pay. That view can be put in very simple language. We deserved eternal death because of sin; Jesus, because He loved us, took our place and died in our stead on the cross. Call that view repulsive if you will. It is indeed repulsive to the natural man. But do not call it difficult to understand. A little child can understand it, and can receive it to the salvation of his soul.
Well, Machenís summary is concise enough (though he goes on for many more pages in his explanation.) Perhaps a little child can understand this doctrine, and perhaps it can thereby be considered simple; but his conclusion requires that one not look too closely at it, or ask very many questions about it.
When questions do begin to be asked, things quickly get more complicated, opaque, and lengthy. And so it was for the classic theologians who tried to make sense of "atonement" in Christian doctrine and theology. For openers:
Why exactly did the finite sins of mere humans deserve eternal, that is infinite, punishment, anyway?
Just how did Jesusí death free humans from this fate?
And what does this have to do with Godís justice?
One early explanation, laid out among others by Augustine, reflected the saying of Jesus in Matthew 20:28 that: ". . . the Son of man is not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many." That is, these thinkers believed, humanity had been, as it were, kidnaped by Satan and held for ransom in a kind of dungeon of sin. Christís death "paid" the ransom and freed us. (For this historical thumbnail, I am depending on Kent.) This idea had roots in ancient Hebrew practice, where persons could be sold into slavery for debt, and then "redeemed" or "ransomed" from this condition by others.
But now was Christ to pay a ransom to Satan? What?? This "transactional" notion was logical enough, and lasted a long time. But it eventually came to be regarded with horror by theologians, who couldnít tolerate the idea of the all-powerful and all-good God being obliged to pay off the prince of darkness.
By the medieval period, thinkers like Anselm were advancing a rival theory, which replaced the "ransom" idea with one of "debt" Sin was like a moral credit card, on which man ran up an enormous debt, far beyond the human capacity to repay.
But in the Christian schema, who was the creditor? In place of Satan, Anselm and his colleagues put God: we "owed" God repayment for sin, and were essentially bankrupt. So Christ stepped in and "paid" the debt for us.
In financial terms, this schema is plain enough. Many people have gotten in debt over their heads, and were bailed out either by the largesse of more prudent friends, or by bankruptcy, which socializes the debt, essentially dividing it up among the public at large.
But questions persist. Ballou here is concrete and biting:
I will state it as it is often stated by those who believe it, which is by the likeness of debt and credit. The sinner owed a debt to Divine Justice which he was unable to discharge; the Divine Being cannot, consistently with his honor, dispense with the pay, but says I must have what is my due; but as the debtor has not ability to pay the smallest fraction, Divine Wisdom lays a deep concerted mysterious plan for the debt to be discharged. And how was it? Why, for God to pay it himself!
My neighbor owes me a hundred pounds; time of payment comes, and I make a demand for my dues. Says my neighbor, my misfortunes have been such that I am not the possessor of the smallest fraction of property in the world; and as much as I owe you I am worse than nothing. I declare to him, positively, that I will not lose so much as a fraction of the interest, and leave him. A friend calls and asks me how I succeeded in obtaining my dues of my neighbor; I reply, my neighbor is not, nor will he ever be able to pay me any part of my demand. My friend says he is sorry that I should lose my debt. I answer, I shall not lose it. I have very fortunately, in my meditations on the subject, thought of a method by which I can avail myself of the whole to my full satisfaction; and I think it is a method which no person in the world, but myself, could ever have discovered. My friend is curious and impatient to know the mighty secret never before found out. The reader may guess his confusion on my telling him that as I have the sum already by me, I am now going to pay up the obligation before the interest is any larger! This has been called the gospel plan, which contains the depths of infinite wisdom.
I should be pleased to see, what I have never seen, professors following such example in obtaining what the poor widow, the fatherless, and the needy, owe them.(64-65)
But such "creative accounting" is only one of the debt schemeís problems, because in the biblical drama, the issue is not money, but moral debt, the kind of guilt incurred by law-breaking and crime: And the "payment" involved is not money but the blood and death of an innocent.
Itís easy enough to see how someone else could pay off my overextended credit card. But crime/guilt is not the same thing. And punishing someone who is innocent in my place doesnít "pay off" that kind of "debt."
But here we should let Hosea Ballou speak. Imagine, he says, that a foreign assassin comes to the US and gathers plotters intending to kill the President and the Cabinet. They kill some, but the President escapes. Then, Ballou continues:
The leader of these seditious murderers is taken and condemned to be executed; and the voice of every friend of justice and equity is against the criminal. But what would be the consternation of the good people of the United States on being informed that the good President of the Union, the man whom the people delighted to honor, was executed in the room [in place] of this seditious person, and the wicked murderer Set at liberty?(Ballou: 67f)
This is Ballou in fine form: he excels at putting theological arcana into concrete, down-to-earth examples. And here he gets to one of the deepest puzzles (weaknesses?) of orthodox atonement theologies: reconciling them to any notion of Godís justice. As he puts it:
Is it possible to conceive that there is a single person in the world who would call this a just execution? If it be said that the president freely offered himself in the room [in place] of the criminal, it alters not the case in the eye of justice. If an innocent man can justly be put to death because he consents to it willingly, a guilty one may be acquitted because he prefers it. (68)
Nor will Ballou be deterred by those who call on the resurrection to resolve the difficulty:
But it is further argued that the authority had power to raise the president from the dead, which done, renders the work just and glorious. I say, in answer, that if the authority had this power, it might as well have executed the real criminal, and raised him from the dead, as to perform this work on one who was not guilty.(68)