This is a continuation of a blog entry that was begun several weeks ago. It was prompted by a question that was asked of me at a recent “Connecting Our Faiths” event where I was part of a panel with a Rabbi and an Imam to talk together about the place of Abraham in our sacred texts. At the end of a very civil and constructive conversation, I was asked if I thought that my conversation partners were going to hell because they don’t believe as I do that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and the Lord and Savior of the world. The “on my feet” ~ “off the top of my head” answer that I gave there on the spot is more complex than the setting allowed me to fully explore, and so I’ve been thinking out loud about it here on my blog ever since. I welcome you to this exercise of “Scriptural reasoning” – and I hope that it engages you in a similar process.
Universalists tend to coalesce at the universality end of the continuum that the control beliefs that are drawn from Scripture create for those of us who are wrestling with the question of the destiny of the unevangelized Biblically. Fully affirming the particularity pole of the continuum – that Jesus Christ is the only Savior – we have to hold this conviction while simultaneously trying to hang onto the truth that is at the opposite end of the continuum – that God really wants to save everybody, everywhere and always. Just as I was able to anchor the particularity argument in last week’s posting in a series of Biblical texts, so I can anchor the universality argument in a series of Biblical texts as well.
As a Biblical Christian I cannot overlook texts like John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son,” or I Timothy 2:3-4: “…God our Savior… desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth,” or 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow about His promise… but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to a knowledge of the truth,” or I John 2:2: “And He Himself (Jesus Christ the righteous) is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” Reformed Christians have ways of narrowing the scope of the divine salvific intent that these verses describe, but this is where I must respectfully part company with them. I believe that God in Jesus Christ wants every wandering prodigal to come home (Luke 15:20). God waits and watches for us all to come over the crest of the hill, but its more than even that. The Divine posture is not just that of someone who is passively, patiently waiting, but is also that of someone who is actively, aggressively seeking. Like a shepherd who goes in search of the lamb that has wandered away from the flock (Luke 15:3-7) or the woman who sweeps out her house in search of the one lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), so God in Jesus Christ came “to seek and save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10). This is the truth that we who have gathered at the “universal- saving-intention-of-God” end of the continuum assert the loudest. God wants to save the whole world. But just as those at the particularity end of this Biblical continuum get into real trouble (last week’s blog) when they don’t keep a good grip on the universalist end of the continuum, so we on the universalist end of the continuum can get into real trouble when our grip on the particularity end of the continuum is not firm as well. Unbalanced by the particularity end of the continuum, one-sided universalists often experience what the theologian Gabriel Fackre called “Christological heart failure.” In the affirmation of the Biblical truth that God wants to save everybody, everywhere, the Biblical truth that it’s in Jesus Christ that God’s saving work has actually been undertaken and accomplished can get lost.
There are some who insist that we must end our “obsession with Jesus” if we are to truly affirm the biblical truth that God wants to save everyone, everywhere and always. In fact, this is exactly what the Rev. Dick Ficca told the delegates at the Presbyterian Peacemaking Conference meeting in 2000. He compared evangelism to “ethnic cleansing.” He explained that when the church sends missionaries to people around the world with “the sole purpose of converting them to Christianity,” that what we are really saying is, “your religious identity is not acceptable, and my job is to eliminate it from the face of the earth.” And he said that how the church got itself into this unacceptable position was through a fundamental misunderstanding of who Jesus Christ is and what salvation means. If Jesus were “the sole and only instrument of God’s salvation” he said, then the only way for people to be saved would be to believe in Him. And this is what the church has traditionally taught and believed. John 14:6 with its affirmation that Jesus is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” and its conclusion that “no one comes to the Father except through Him,” has been one of the core convictions that has impelled the missionary effort of the church from the very beginning, that in Jesus Christ God’s salvation is both announced and accomplished. But Rev. Ficca says that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Jesus was really about. Rather than thinking that salvation comes to us through Jesus Christ, Rev. Ficca argues that what Jesus Christ does is to make us aware of how God is at work at all times and in all places to bring all people to salvation. The “good news is not the good news so much about Jesus, but the good news of Jesus: the good news Jesus preached.” And according to Rev. Ficca, what Jesus preached was since that God wants to save everybody, Jesus Himself becomes unnecessary. He can be can be jettisoned and the evangelistic mission of the church can be abandoned, after all, everybody is going to heaven anyway. This is “Christological heart failure.”
By making Christianity less Christocentric, as ludicrous as that sounds — less “Christ” in “Christ”-ianity — there are some who believe that the universal saving intention of God is better served. But it seems to me that this is just as Biblically misguided, or at least as Biblically unbalanced, as the hardline restrictivists I wrote about last week who wind up limiting the access that most people have to the saving work of God in Jesus Christ out of their high estimation of the person and work of Christ. Dissatisfied with both extremes, I have gone looking for voices that speak from the middle, I am, after all, a big “D” Disciple – a member of and minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — where as a general rule, we are a constitutionally and incurably moderate people. While others eagerly stake out their territories on the edges of a position, we instinctively scramble for the middle. We want to be able to say to both sides, “well, you’ve got a point,” and then to be able to quickly follow it up with a, “but on the other hand.” N. Graham Standish in his book Discovering the Narrow Way: A Guide to Spiritual Balance (Westminster John know – 2002) described perfectly where I invariably find myself spiritually –The narrow path always lies in the tension between the extremes. When we walk the narrow path, we are able to hold different ideas, beliefs, and perspectives in tension, even if it seems they are mutually exclusive of each other. At the same time, it is not merely striking the middle ground between these extremes. It is deeper than that. The narrow path is a path of integrating different ideas, beliefs, and perspectives because we recognize that God is not limited to a particular theology or approach. God can speak through different belief patterns and structures, even when they seem incompatible. For example, is God a conservative, a liberal, a traditionalist, a progressive, a Pentecostal, a Protestant, a Roman Catholic, an Eastern Orthodox, a scientist, or a rationalist? God is all of them and none of them. God is the “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). Walking the narrow path means seeking this God who integrates and transcends all human understanding and thought. The narrow path is not only the walk between the extremes; it is the path that maintains balance. In many ways, walking the narrow path involves walking a tightrope through life. This is why it is so uncomfortable. When walking a tightrope, we constantly lurch to the right or to the left as we try to maintain balance. It is difficult and tiring. It would be so much easier to simply let ourselves fall to the right or the left and to land comfortably in the net that lies below. The problem is that the net is just an illusion. As we lie in the net, we are unable to progress and move forward. We may feel as though we are safely in God’s hands because we have given ourselves over to an extreme, but we aren’t. We are lying in the hands of a false god, an idol we have created. We have chosen a stagnant pool instead of the living streams of God’s water. As Christians, we are called to constantly walk forward on a tightrope set before us by God the Creator, while holding onto Christ as our balancing pole. As we walk, we are to follow the light of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit leads us forward. When we find ourselves lurching one way or the other, we need to let God in Christ be our center of gravity, keeping us on the rope. (22-23)
And so, it’s time to step out… (To be continued…)