Reviewed by Chuck Fager
Dissident Quaker Meetings in Indiana
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 man’s 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 Ballou’s 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 pastors’ “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, we’ll 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 judgment 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.
Controversial Quaker Theories on Atonement
What has thus stirred the pot so? It’s summed up the book’s 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, Machen’s 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 Jesus’ death free humans from this fate?
And what does this have to do with God’s 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. Christ’s 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 couldn’t 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 scheme’s 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.
It’s 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 doesn’t “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 God’s 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)
The Traditional View of Blood Sacrifice
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.
*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.