Volume 4 - Issue 2


By Robert Norris

As I take over this my first issue of Themelios, I am conscious of the debt that we all owe to Dick France for his work and dedication to the journal. His conviction, which is one that I share, is that all too often student and pastor alike are faced with theology which is avowedly anti-evangelical, and are told that anything else is either obscurantist or untenable intellectually. We believe that Themelios is one corrective to this sort of thinking. Dick has also maintained Themelios as a forum for the whole spectrum of evangelical theological thought. It is my conviction that this is its proper function and, in that it does it well, it provides positive teaching, stimulates evangelical thinking and acts as a legitimate critic of theological speculation. In this issue, we have concentrated all the articles upon the general theme of ‘Universalism’. Dick commissioned most of what appears and I have edited this material—though with no sense of reluctance.

‘Universalism’ as a theological position is all too often assumed within the context of academic and pulpit theology, and little critical evaluation is either made or listened to. In this issue, we hope to be able to stimulate students to confront the real problems that are involved and to provide a secure foundation from which to face the implications of what we teach. To do this we have four separate Articles—none of them too long—encompassing some of the most important aspects of the problem. In the fast, Richard Bauckham traces the history and development of universalistic ideas from Origen and the early church, down to present day advocates such as John Hick. He shows that all universalistic thought involves the ultimate assertion that ‘all men will be saved’. He recognizes that most modern theology that shares this emphasis derives its inspiration from Schleiermacher. He reviews much that has been asserted and sets it within its theological context and provides us with a proper perspective in which to see its growth and influence. Tom Wright presents us with a Biblical view of Universalism. In this article he examines the claims that are made, that Paul taught a form of ‘universalism’ and vindicates the apostle from the charge that for him salvation included ‘all men’. He also carefully considers those texts that are frequently adduced in defence of universalism and provides a careful exegesis, which leads to the conclusion that universalism inevitably fails to deal justly with the plainest meaning of scripture. A new contributor to Themelios then adds his different perspective on the general theme. Dr Blum has contributed an article considering the whole question of ‘universalism’ within the framework of a useful apologetic for the church. He shows how the whole concept of ‘universalism’ involves a denial of the essentially biblical emphasis and is derived from an interpretive principle of ‘sovereign love’ which is the deciding factor in humanistic thinking, rather than Christian and Biblical thinking. He is also clear in the way in which scripture teaches an inescapable doctrine of Hell and he makes clear the absolute sinfulness of sin. The final article in this symposium has been written by Bruce Nicholls and looks at the whole issue in relation to the position of other world religions. He examines the variety of theological influences that permeate Eastern Christian thought and produces a positive critique as well as a useful evaluation of the current state of affairs. He places the idea of ‘universalism’ within the very practical terms of Christian mission and the Christian message and shows the inadequacy and danger of a less than scriptural concept of what we are doing and saying. The idea of ‘universalism’ is one that in some sense can be seen as the division rod between evangelical and non-evangelical thought. Almost all the important issues that we face today are found to be tied up with this concept. ‘Universalism’ is not simply another point of theological difference, it involves so many of the teachings of the Bible. Sin, Hell, Redemption, are all interrelated and must be dispensed with if this position is espoused. Indeed we come to the point where we will be worshipping different Gods, for the universalist invariably wants nothing to do with the God of the Bible. In truth, the presupposition held by many teachers and pastors that in the final analysis ‘everything and everybody will be alright’ colours the thought and understanding of everything that they teach and preach. It leads to radical departure from the Biblical standards of doctrine and to an understanding of the world in terms that are singularly akin to that of the humanists. A concept of ‘universalism’ determines the emphasis and articulation of almost every other theological truth; it ultimately reduces the mission and effectiveness of the church to impotence and it reduces the God of the Bible to a mere caricature and idol, carefully constructed from basic ideas of man. It is difficult to over emphasise the far reaching effects of his type of thinking, or to over stress the urgency of the need to present a clear, biblical alternative. Often the debate is seen as yet another side-line of the doctrine of the authority of the scriptures, yet it is much more than that, for at essence it involves the uniqueness of Christianity, and the very integrity of the gospel.

Robert Norris

Robert Norris holds a BA degree from Kings College in London and dual doctorates in history and dogmatics from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He serves as pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland and has taught at Washington DC’s Reformed Theological Seminary, and in seminaries in Ukraine, Malta, Japan, and Sudan. He and his wife, Caren, have five children.