Quaker Theology #9 -- Fall-Winter 2003
If Grace Be True . . . 2
It is here, in fact, that J. Gresham Machen’s exposition of the doctrine loses its patina of simplicity and gathers most of its bulk. One of Machen’s Reformed colleagues, R.A. Finlayson, dwells at length on a specific set of terms to analyze it. He explains that Christ was a "representative" of all humanity, who took on an "identification" with us, and that the guilt of all our sins were placed on him by "imputation," so his death was a sacrifice by "substitution" for us, and this amounted to an "expiation" of the guilt, which in turn achieved "propitiation" of divine wrath and constituted "satisfaction" for the guilt of all humankind, and thus made possible "reconciliation" of God to humankind.
Finlayson has the perspicuousness we expect from good Scotch Calvinists. The trouble is, after he has explained these terms in all their various shades of applicability, it all adds up to no more than a very elaborate repetition of the remark in Hebrews (9:22) that "under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins," which is only a statement, not an explanation.
Moreover, "under the law," (that is, in the Hebrew scriptures) the notion of sacrificing innocent animals (doves, sheep, goats) as substitutes to expiate and atone for the guilt of actual people who committed actual crimes is deeply embedded.
But all this is no more than saying the idea is very old; it doesn’t make sense of why an innocent should suffer for the crimes of the guilty – nobody in the Old Testament evidently stopped to interview the goats about their fate. And on how all this wordplay adds up to anything resembling justice, Ballou is uncharacteristically biting:
Why the above ideas should ever have been imbibed by men of understanding and study, I can but scarcely satisfy myself; their absurdities are so glaring that it seems next to impossible that men of sobriety and sound judgment should ever imbibe them or avoid seeing them. (63f)
Ballou rejects these atonement notions as primitive ideas that reflect no more than the unredeemed shadow side of human nature.
His case goes like this: humans are finite, so their sins (like their virtues) are also finite. Finite evils, no matter how awful, are still finite, and thus do not deserve or justify infinite punishment. But eternity in hell is infinite punishment; hence it can’t be the intention of a good or just God. Instead, he argues that God will ultimately forgive and save everyone.
Jesus, who for Ballou was not divine but was specially sent by God, came to announce this divine intent to "happify" God’s creatures; that was the "good news" of the gospel. But this message was so shocking to many of the unredeemed that he was crucified. But God raised him, to show that his message was true
What about all the many biblical passages about hellfire and brimstone? Ballou says, "All these scriptures are written according to the circumstances of the creature, and the apprehensions which the unreconciled entertain of God."(103)
He points to many others which are universalist in import, such as Isaiah 25:6-8:
‘And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined. And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall be taken away from off all the earth: or the Lord hath spoken it.’ No one will doubt that the provisions here spoken of are those which are provided in the gospel of salvation.
In the first place, then, observe it is made for all people; this proves that it was the intention of him who made the feast that all people should share in its divine benefits.
Secondly. It is testified that the veil of darkness which was over all people shall finally be taken away.
Thirdly. That death is to be swallowed up in victory, and tears wiped away from off all faces. And,
Lastly. That the rebuke of God’s people should be taken from off all the earth. And the evidence given to prove it all would be done, is, the Lord hath spoken it.
It is of no avail for any to pretend that though the provisions of the gospel were provided for all people yet all will not partake of them, let the reasons be what they may; for if God wipe tears from off all faces, all must receive the benefits of gospel grace and peace." (204)
Gulley and Mulholland tread much the same path that Ballou marked out so well (and even cite him a couple times in an Appendix of universalist quotations.):
I grew up," they write (in their plural singular) "believing we were destined for either heaven or hell. I was taught that only those who confessed their sins and accepted Jesus as their Savior before they died would live with God forever. All the rest would suffer hell’s eternal torment. As a child, I’d never questioned this formula. It was simple and clear. As an adult, I’d held on to this belief despite life’s complexities. (5)
But pastoral work changed all that. They met too many people who didn’t fit into their traditional categories: flawed but struggling folks who died before they had "accepted Christ"; law-abiding, contented homosexuals; undeniably good people who believed other religions.
From this experience, they came to believe that "God whispered in my ear," the message that holds the book together. And this divine whisper is their touchstone. In its light, they say, they learned to "weigh Scripture" (Gulley & Mulholland: 51) Here again, they follow Ballou’s lead: the passages which speak of eternal damnation, or command genocide, slavery or death to gays, are seen as figurative or, more candidly, "inaccurate." (52)
But what about free will? Can’t humans reject God’s saving grace? Certainly: They can and they do.
Here they strike a somewhat different note than Ballou. For the early Universalist coming to Puritan-shaped Boston, Calvinist predestination was the reigning orthodoxy to be challenged. In this formula, all men deserved to go to hell; but God freely chose to save a few, "the elect," for no particular reason, and definitely not their virtue.
Early Friends denounced this doctrine nonstop; Ballou denounces it too, but then turns it on its head, insisting that in fact God would "elect" to save all humans, irresistibly.
The theological context for Gulley & Mulholland, as Quaker pastors in Indiana, is thoroughly Methodist and Arminian; that is, it stresses the free will of each individual, the need to "personally" accept God’s grace, and the human capacity to reject this grace and thus spend eternity in hell. The pair remain highly individualistic in their outlook, but see God in the same terms:
I had rejected the image of a wrathful, powerful God anxious to punish the wicked in the fires of hell, but I was left with a benevolent but feeble God who had no choice but to destroy the ones he loved. Hell was another Holocaust, where once again millions would be thrown into the furnaces while God stood by powerless and defeated. When confronted with the inconsistency of an all-powerful God incapable of accomplishing his desire, I drew a careful distinction between what God wanted to do and what God was able to do. God was not free.
I defended our freedom to reject God–but denied God’s freedom to reject our rejection. acknowledged that God can have mercy on whom he will have mercy, and compassion on whom he will have compassion, but I quickly defined the persons and situations in which God could be merciful and compassionate. My God was shackled, powerless to act.
This shackled God was not the God of Jesus. (109)
And speaking of Jesus, Gulley and Mulholland also resemble Ballou here: they believe in the resurrection, and in a special role for Jesus. But–
His death was not God’s will. God didn’t send Jesus into the world to atone for sin. He was born to live, learn, and know God. He experienced a profound intimacy with God. Around the age of thirty, Jesus felt led to challenge the inaccurate images of God prevalent in his day, to introduce people to his Father, and to encourage them to live as people of grace. Jesus hoped the people of Israel would respond to his message and become ‘a light unto the Gentiles.’ What Jesus sought was not the establishment of a new religion, but the establishment of the kingdom of God–a kingdom of goodness and grace. . . .
Jesus died because the clash between unwavering love and unyielding pride and intolerance always result in a cross or an assassination or torture or imprisonment or persecution. The cross is simply one more sign of humanity’s consistent resistance to grace. We silence any messenger who challenges our quest for a favored position.
Calvary was not the fulfillment of a divine plan. It was not the final installment on a cosmic debt. It was not necessary to satisfy some bloodthirsty deity. The crucifixion was the cost of proclaiming grace. The more insistent Jesus was on God’s grace, the more likely was his eventual death on the cross. His death was a human act rather than a divine sign. People, not God, demanded his crucifixion. (136-7)
God did something glorious in Jesus. His resurrection settled once and for all the question of God’s attitude toward his children. God has determined to love and redeem. In the crucifixion we said no to God, but in the resurrection God rejected our rejection. This is the triumph of grace.(141)
And what about justice, what about criminals paying for their crimes? None of these three writers has problems with worldly justice; but once we’re all dead, they yet believe, rather vaguely, that God will take care of righting the moral balances. Ballou thinks the biblical passages "which allude to a dispensation of fire . . . are direct evidences to prove the destruction of sin and all sinful works, the purification of sinners, and their eternal reconciliation to holiness and happiness." (226) Gulley & Mulholland also seem to think there can be some moral improvement after death, because: "This work of reconciliation must continue until every last person is redeemed." (190)
As Ballou’s work shows, there’s little in If Grace Is True that is new, the hullabaloo among its evangelical critics notwithstanding, and the authors make no claim of novelty. Indeed, as they note in the introduction to their Appendix of theological quotes, "There is strong evidence that many in the early church believed in the salvation of every person." (212). So perhaps it is not so surprising that the review of their work in the moderate evangelical journal Christianity Today eschewed the pose of shock and awe at their temerity and, while still rejecting their thesis, acknowledged the reality of the issues it grappled with:
#From the time of the Church Fathers to the present, there has always been a minority tradition arguing for universalism . . . .
Clearly there is an appeal to this account of the "great banquet" that awaits everyone who has ever lived, joyfully assembled in the presence of the God of grace. Yet there are two reasons why many Christians will not be able to accept it. First, as Gulley & Mulholland readily acknowledge, there is much in Scripture–not just an isolated passage here and there–that flatly contradicts their understanding of grace, salvation, and judgment . . . ..
Second, in their desire to emphasize the power of God's grace, they end up trivializing human freedom. . . . Ultimately theirs is a world in which human action has no real consequences, a distorted mirror image of Calvinist predestination.
But Gulley & Mulholland have done what many evangelicals and orthodox Christians more generally have failed to do: they have honestly faced the church's traditional doctrines of salvation and eternal justice, even if only to reject them. In many congregations, these teachings are emphatically affirmed on paper yet rarely preached or even discussed. There's a deep double-mindedness at work here.
For my part–as for many others, I suspect–the questions that tormented me so many years ago were never completely resolved. What gave me a measure of peace was the faith that God is both just and merciful, that he can be trusted. I couldn't answer all the questions, but I could turn them over to him. (Wilson)
These two books offer a rich resource for reflection, and plenty of striking anecdotes questioning received doctrines. For this reviewer’s part, my doubts about the universalist theology developed in these books are of a different sort. I don’t mind their "weighing Scripture"–everyone does that; some just don’t admit it. It doesn’t bother me that they think Jesus was not God, and dismiss the trinity. And I won’t miss hell at all.
Rather, I come away from these pages with three concerns. First, I’m unpersuaded by their sunny, Mister Rogers-like portrait of God as the all-beneficent Nurturing and Accepting Father. I’d like to believe it; but my experience points in another direction, toward a part of the Bible that they tend to leave out: the books of Job and Ecclesiastes, where God is shown treating the creatures with just the capricious indifference that they so reject when it’s turned into doctrine. Life, alas is a lot like that; and if God is behind it, He/She has much to answer for.
What about the suffering of the innocent? What about the wicked who prosper? That we’ll all be fine in the Universalists’ sweet bye and bye–well, if we’re to go by the divine track record here, I’m just not so sure, and will bring back the words of Isaiah when God reminds him, (55:8): "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD." If these books have even the scent of the tragic in their theologies, I could not detect it.
Then there’s the matter of history. As offensive as many of the Old Testament tales of mass murder and conquest may be, I still resonate to a venerable the idea drawn from them, namely that history has a direction and a purpose, even if we don’t know exactly what that is or where it’s going. It’s not clear that these three writers reject that idea, but their single-minded focus on the individual and her/his salvation puts it very much at the margins. If it has any meaning at all, it would appear to be a ratification of a completely individualized and ahistorical one-to-one relationship between me and God. That may be real, and even necessary; but it’s not complete.
The third issue is related: as part of this "salvation history," groups as well as individuals matter. In the biblical saga, the people Israel was "elected" by God as a special people; various other nations filled divinely-assigned roles. The church is often spoken of collectively. Early Friends, for that matter, considered themselves a "peculiar people," in the sense of being a specially called group as well. This theme, as far as I can tell, is absent from these books, and that too, seems to me incomplete.
Nevertheless, they succeed in restoring some substance to concepts which this liberal Friend, like Lucretia Mott in her time, generally dismissed as "all the nonsense that is preached of Trinities & Atonements–Divinities and Satanities–Depravities & Regenerations," and support her at least grudging sense that even so, "there is after all so much of good mingled with it . . . ." (Palmer:159) That, and stirring the pot in Indiana, is no small achievement.
Finlayson, R.A. "A Reformed-Calvinist Summary of the Atonement," posted at: http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/full.asp?ID=323
Kent, W.H. "Doctrine of the Atonement," Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907 edition, online at:
Machen, J. Gresham."The Doctrine of the Atonement: Part II." Posted at: http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/full.asp?ID=264
Mohler, Albert. "The Theology of Wishful Thinking" Posted on
www.crosswalk.com, August 15, 2003:
Palmer, Beverly Wilson. Selected Letters of Lucretia Mott. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Richmond, Ben. "Grace Is True But Theological Speculation Won’t Save You," Quaker Life, June 2003, pp. 22-23.
Wilson, John. "A Distorted Predestination," Christianity Today,. September 2003, Vol. 47, No. 9, p. 73.