Universalism: Scripture and Tradition

The last seven posts in my series on universalism (beginning here and going to here) were intended more or less as a coda to the series.  My idea was that they would in summary fashion deal with all the major objections to universalism–both those that in my judgement missed the point and those that at least legitimately took on the issues at hand–and show why they were unworkable or problematic.  So I thought, anyway.  Alas, nothing ever ends–nor, in a sense, would I expect it to.  Strong partisans of what I have called the traditional view of hell (or TVOH, as I abbreviate it) are not likely to be moved by any arguments.  Conversely, strong universalists will likely also remain unmoved.

This week I have participated in a combox discussion at Rod Dreher’s blog, and as sometimes happens, the issue of universalism arose.  There was a bit of back-and-forth between me and some supporters of the TVOH.  For those who are interested, the exchange is over here.  It’s actually much shorter and less detailed than previous blog discussions I’ve had on the issue, both there and at other blogs.  It does induce me to make more explicit some points that I have not, perhaps, elaborated on enough here.  Mostly, I’ve been looking at the philosophical underpinnings of the arguments for the TVOH, and trying to show why those underpinnings are problematic, as well as trying to make a philosophical argument in favor of universalism.  As often happens in combox discussions, though, the discussion in question brought back the issue of authority.  I have never really explicitly dealt with that issue in this series, though I’ve touched on it several times.  Therefore, I decided it would be a good idea to dedicate a post specifically to just those issues, which I will now deal with.

So, the basic question in determining whether or not a given belief or doctrine is compatible with Christian belief is, “Why do Christians believe what they believe, anyway?”  Or, more precisely, “What authority determines what Christians are to believe?”  The answer to these questions varies according to the particular Christian churches to be considered.

The traditional Protestant answer is that Christian belief is to be determined solely by the Bible, i.e. the doctrine of sola scriptura.  The Catholic and Orthodox Churches hold that orthodox belief is determined by Scripture and Sacred Tradition.  Sacred Tradition, it is important to point out, is not any arbitrary tradition of the Church, but rather the body of beliefs, teachings, and revelations, originally oral, that have been handed down from the Apostles through their successors and which were later written down and developed over time.  This Tradition is held to be as much of Divine origin as is Scripture, and it is expressed in the teachings of Ecumenical Councils, Church Fathers, Popes (for the Catholic Church), and to a lesser degree bishops and local assemblies of bishops.  Finally, some Protestant churches take a view called prima scriptura–“Scripture First”–in which Scripture is privileged as the main source of Divine revelation, but Church tradition is held to be useful in interpreting it, though only in a secondary fashion.  This is sort of an intermediate view between sola scriptura and Scripture/Holy Tradition.

I have said before that universalism can be neither affirmed nor denied in a conclusive fashion solely on the basis of Scripture.  Some verses of the Bible seem to imply damnation, and for a large percent of humanity (e.g. Matthew 7:13), whereas other seem to imply universal salvation (e.g. John 12:32).  Heck, there are quite a few passages in the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 38:18, Psalm 30:9, and Psalm 115:17, for just a few examples) that imply there is neither damnation of many nor universal salvation after death, but mere nonexistence.  Proof-texting gets us nowhere.  One must read the whole Bible and consider the overall context.  The problem here is that both upholders of the TVOH and universalists read the Bible as a whole and still come to contrary conclusions.

This is an illustration, in my view, of the fatal weakness of the whole concept of sola scriptura.  Such a view in effect assumes that Scripture is somehow self-validating and self-interpreting; or at least that it’s so transparently clear that no interpretation is necessary.  This, it seems to me, is prima facie false.  Were Scripture as clear as is sometimes asserted, there would not be numerous denominations, each with its own interpretation of Scripture.  Moreover, I’d assert not only that (as I said way back here) no religion is self-evidently true, with the corollary that no religious scripture is self-evidently accurate; but moreover, in the particular context of Christianity, I’d assert that the doctrine of sola scriptura isn’t even coherent.

That assertion could take up a post of its own.  Suffice it to say that Scripture nowhere teaches the doctrine of sola scriptura; that the doctrine does not make, and is not capable of making, distinctions among various interpretations of Scripture; and finally that Scripture by itself doesn’t even give us a method of determining what even counts as Scripture!  Aside from giving this link for those who want a more detailed rebuttal of sola scriptura, I’ll leave it at that.

Thus, to give a quick summation thus far:

  1.  Scripture nowhere unambiguously either affirms or condemns universalism.
  2.  Scripture cannot coherently be used as the sole basis for dogma, anyway.
  3.  Thus, we have to go beyond Scripture if we want to figure out the validity–or invalidity–of universalism.

That brings us to the idea of Scripture and Sacred Tradition.  For the purposes at issue here, we can consider the aforementioned prima scriptura as a sub-category of this, functionally speaking, anyway.  For the Orthodox Church, Tradition would consist principally of the teachings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils which it accepts.  There are other important teachings in the Orthodox tradition–for example, the teachings of the Church Fathers are held in high regard–but it would be fair, I think, to state that the only teachings that are universally considered as fully binding, in the Orthodox context, are those of the Councils.

In the Catholic Church, Tradition is vested not only in the teachings of Councils (of which it recognizes more than the Orthodox–twenty-one, in fact) but of popes and, more broadly, in the consensus of the faithful over time–quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (“that which is believed everywhere, always, by everyone”).  There are also different levels of authority of teachings, and different levels to which they are binding.  This is a complex topic which could take several posts itself, but I will confine myself, for brevity’s sake, to pointing out the highest level of binding authority, infallibility.  A doctrine which is held to be infallible is not only officially binding upon all believers, but it is definitive (if you don’t believe it, you’re committing heresy) and irreformable (it can’t be changed, ever).  There are doctrines that have not been infallibly defined which are nevertheless held to be definitive; but that gets into controversies about the nature of the Magisterium and so-called “creeping infallibility“.  For the purposes here, I think it’s fair to say that the only way, in a Catholic context, that universalism can be rejected out of hand is if it has ever been infallibly condemned.

That begs the question, “How does one know if something has, in fact, been infallibly condemned (or asserted)?”  To answer, a dogma is held to be infallible in the following cases:

  1.  If it has been taught by an Ecumenical Council (in this respect, the Catholic Church is in agreement with the Orthodox Church).
  2. If it has been taught ex cathedra by the Pope (more on this shortly).
  3. If it has been taught universally over time by all the bishops in union with the Pope.

Number three above is the most contentious, as it’s the most nebulous.  It’s what the Church refers to as the “ordinary Magisterium”; but its weakness is obvious.  Most controverted teachings have not, in fact, been held by every single bishop ever.  Moreover, unless all the bishops are gathered together at an Ecumenical Council (see number 1), it’s hard to pin down what they all agree on with regard to a given matter, let alone whether they’re in full union with the Pope on the matter.  Getting clear, unambiguous agreement in such cases is much like herding cats, and is difficult to prove.  There are certain things that have been asserted as having been infallibly taught by the Ordinary Magisterium, but the problem is that such assertions themselves, being usually made not by all the bishops worldwide but by theologians or offices such as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, cannot themselves be considered infallible, without getting into an infinite regress.  In any case, I have never seen any convincing demonstration that the Ordinary Magisterium has ever condemned (or promoted) universalism, so we will move on to points 1 and 2.

As to point 1, which is relevant both to the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, the only time any Ecumenical Council has come close to speaking on universalism was when the Second Council of Constantinople (the Fifth Ecumenical Council) ostensibly condemned Origenism.

We have encountered Origen, that most influential and yet most mysterious quasi-Church Father, previously.  He was head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria in Egypt, and the first systematic theologian in Church history.  He produced many books on the Bible in particular and theology in general, and his books were widely distributed and very much influential for some time.  He died as a result of the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Decius in about 253 AD.  Importantly, neither he nor his writings were ever condemned by the Church, or even by individual bishops, during Origen’s lifetime.*  He died, to all appearances, a loyal and orthodox son of the Church.

Some three hundred years after Origen’s death, the Second Council of Constantinople condemned both him and what it called “Origenism”, the beliefs and/or belief system supposedly stemming from Origen’s teachings.  The problem is that exactly what “Origenism” was, and exactly what beliefs Origen himself held, are obscure, not least because Origen’s writings, as we now have them, are fragmentary and (in some cases) have apparently been edited to change their content after the condemnations by the Council.  What we can say is that Origen seems to have believed in some form of preexistence of souls and that he appears to have held that in the end, all souls would be reconciled to God (apokatastasis), i.e., that all would ultimately be saved.  On that much, most historians would agree.

However, there are issues here.  As detailed here by David Bentley Hart, the anti-Origen condemnations (or anathemas) originally appeared, not in the acts of the Council, but in an earlier (and non-universally binding) synod.  The condemnations later appear in the acts of the Council, but modern scholarship holds that these condemnations are a later interpolation, not actually published by the Council itself.  Furthermore, the various doctrines placed under the catch-all term “Origenism” do not, by and large, seem to accord with what we know of what Origen actually held.  From Hart’s article:

In themselves, the fifteen anathemas are an odd relic of disputes of which we can now glimpse only the shadows. Few of them are even remotely reminiscent of ­Origen’s actual ideas, except in almost comically distorted form, and he in fact is never named in any of them. Perhaps some of the ideas denounced vaguely echo aspects of the thought of Stephen bar Sudhaile (late fifth century); others have a faintly “gnostic” or “orphic” hue; still others might have been concocted by Aristophanes and Edward Lear during a long night’s assault on a distillery; but they all emanate from schools that have left no other historical traces. Even if the anathemas had actually been approved by the council, they no more constitute a serious condemnation of Origen than they do a recipe for brioche.

And I am not entirely certain why anti-universalists cling to them so pertinaciously, since they do not even really condemn universalism as such at all. The first anathema speaks of the idea of a “monstrous restoration” (apokatastasis), but only the version of that idea that logically follows from a particular “fabulous” account of the soul’s preexistence. And the succeeding anathemas fill in the details of the tale: an undifferentiated substantial unity of all rational natures at the beginning and then, identically, at the end; the spherical shape of resurrected bodies (Christ’s included); christological speculations that more parody than promote Origen’s beliefs; caricatures of ­Origen’s views of angels and demons; and so on.

To elaborate on what Hart touches on, the particular type of apokatastasis that the anathemas condemn is a sort of cyclic view of the cosmos in which pre-existent souls are incarnate, fall, are redeemed, and then return to an undifferentiated unity.  Even if the anathemas were properly pronounced by the Council–which, as Hart argues, is unlikely–they do not condemn universal reconciliation as such, but merely a particular form of it.  Thus, in neither case can it be said that the Second Council of Constantinople condemns universalism across the board.

To be perfectly fair, in this article, author Tim Staples argues that Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 teaches that some are in hell:

Indeed, having suffered and died on the wood of the cross for the salvation of the human race, he descended to the underworld, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. He descended in the soul, rose in the flesh, and ascended in both. He will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, to render to every person according to his works, both to the reprobate and to the elect. All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, (Latin text reads quae nunc gestant—which they are now bearing or wearing) so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment with the devil, for the former eternal glory with Christ.

According to Staples, in this quotation from the First Constitution of said council, “The present tense indicates that some folks then living—now wearing their bodies—would go to hell. Thus, the Church is here teaching there are souls ‘in’ hell.”  I don’t read the phrasing as narrowly as Staples, though–it says, “All of them will rise with their own bodies, which they now wear, so as to receive according to their deserts, whether these be good or bad; for the latter perpetual punishment with the devil, for the former eternal glory with Christ.”  Note it says “whether these be good or bad”–it doesn’t say that there actually are any whose deserts are definitively bad (or good, for that matter) and who thus will merit “perpetual  punishment with the devil”.

Put it like this:  I’m a teacher.  If I say in my syllabus, “All who receive a grade above 59% will pass, and those receiving a grade of 59% or lower will fail,” this is fine as far as it goes, but it does not mean, obviously, that anyone in the class actually will receive a failing grade!  “Will” in this sentence is not descriptive–it doesn’t actually predict the future, that some definitely will fail the course.  Rather, it’s implicitly prescriptive–it means that if one or more students make 59% or below, then they’ll fail.  It does not imply that this will actually happen.  Likewise, I’d argue that the “will” in “All of them will rise in their own bodies…so as to receive according to their desserts…” is similarly prescriptive.  If any of them do, “according to their desserts” merit “perpetual punishment with the devil”, then so it will be; but this does not mean that anyone necessarily will so merit “perpetual punishment”.  Staples tries to squeeze more out of this statement than is actually there, in my opinion.  Thus, I still maintain that no Ecumenical Council, either of the first seven recognized by the Orthodox, nor of the fourteen others recognized by the Catholic Church, definitively teaches that anyone is actually in hell; thus, no Council definitively condemns universalism

We have thus dealt with points 1 and 3 above–Conciliar teaching and the teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium–and found that neither condemns the possibility of universalism.  That leaves only 2, Papal ex cathedra statements.

In Catholic teaching, the Pope is said to be teach infallibly–that is, in a definitive way that is binding and unchangeable–only when

  1.  He teaches on faith or morals, and
  2.  He teaches ex cathedra.

Both conditions must be fulfilled.  The latter, ex cathedra, means “from the chair [of Peter]”.  That is, the Pope must explicitly intend to teach an infallible doctrine in his capacity as the leader of the Catholic Church, speaking with the full authority of the Successor of Peter.  As Pope Pius IX put it, this is “[W]hen, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, [the Bishop of Rome] defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.” (from here)

Thus, in determining whether a particular pope has taught a given doctrine infallibly, it is necessary to determine whether said teaching was indeed pronounced ex cathedra.  This is a bit more complicated than it seems.  The only occasions of papal teaching which almost all theologians agree to be ex cathedra are the teaching on the Immaculate Conception of Mary by Pope Pius IX in 1854, and the teaching on the Assumption of Mary by Pope Pius XII in 1950.  Beyond that, there is no definitive list of ex cathedra teachings, and theologians disagree on specific instances which may or may not be ex cathedra.  (A fuller discussion of this issue is here)

To cut to the chase, there is no Papal teaching regarding universal reconciliation which is conclusively considered to be ex cathedra, and thus infallible, with one possible exception.  That exception is the papal bull Unam Sanctam, promulgated by Pope Boniface VIII in 1302.  The particular phrase within it which is relevant to the matter at hand is as follows:  “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”  On its face, this seems to sink universalism, as it clearly states that anyone not “subject to the Roman Pontiff” can not be saved.

It is important to note two things here, though.  First, it has never, to my knowledge, been clearly determined that this statement in Unam Sanctam is indeed to be construed as ex cathedra (Boniface likely thought it was; but that of itself doesn’t necessarily make it true).  Second, Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, produced by the Second Vatican Council in 1964, has this to say in Paragraph 16 (my emphasis):

16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God.(18*) In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh.(125) On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues.(126) But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,(127) and as Saviour wills that all men be saved.(128) Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. (from here)

Clearly, this is in conflict with the words of Boniface VIII.  There are two possible ways of resolving this.

The simplest, and the one I’d take, is to deny that the teaching of Unam Sanctam is ex cathedra.  As I noted earlier, there is no generally agreed upon list of which papal statements are ex cathedra and which are not.  The second possibility is discussed here by Father Dwight Longenecker (with whom, I need to point out, I’m generally in disagreement).  The idea is that those who “through no fault of their own” do not belong the the Church but “sincerely seek God and…strive by their deeds to do His will”, when they arrive in the afterlife, are given full understanding of the Faith, and thus willingly become “subject to the Roman Pontiff”.  To me, this is a bit demeaning and gives more weight to Unam Sanctam than I would.  However, Fr. Longenecker is rather conservative, and even he allows an “escape hatch” from Unam Sanctam‘s rather odious statements.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Feeneyites made a similar argument–that no one outside the visible Catholic Church could be saved–and that their leader, Leonard Feeney, was excommunicated for his hard-core take on the issue.  Note well, this was in 1953, before the Second Vatican Council and Lumen Gentium.  Even at that time it was held that insistence that non-Catholics could not be saved under any conditions was excessive.  Later, Feeney’s excommunication was lifted and he was allowed to hold his view as a private opinion; but he was not allowed to teach that his view was the only acceptable view.  Certainly, Feeney’s view does not pass muster with the teachings of Lumen Gentium.

Thus, in conclusion of this section, I’d argue that no Pope has ever indisputably taught anything ex cathedra that could be taken as rejecting the possibility of universal salvation.

Finally, the takeaway from this rather long post:  For the reasons discussed here, I think it is manifestly true that neither Scripture nor Tradition (as understood either in an Orthodox or Catholic context) can be read as rejecting–or supporting–the idea of universalism, that is, the ultimate salvation of all.  There is nothing in Scripture or Tradition that unambiguously does away with the TVOH, true enough, and those who insist on the existence of hell (and that it is populated) can accurately argue that there are no definitive grounds on which to reject the notion that some–perhaps many or even most–are damned eternally.  However, by the same token, there is also nothing in Scripture or Tradition that unambiguously denies the possibility of universal salvation, despite what the “Hellfire Club”–as David Bentley Hart refers to the supporters of the TVOH–may argue.

It is true that many are suspicious of philosophy with regard to the teachings of the Church, with many taking the attitude of Tertullian, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”  My response to that is on the record.  As the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have (sometimes grudgingly) recognized, philosophy is a vital part of doing theology, like it or not.  Both Scripture and Tradition need to be understood and interpreted; and this is the job of philosophy.  In this particular case, since neither Scripture nor Tradition is dispositive of the issue of universalism, it is thus necessary to look at the underlying philosophical issues involved.  This is exactly what I have done over the course of this series on universalism.  As I’ve concluded in earlier posts, I think the philosophical and theological case for universalism is much stronger than that for the TVOH.  That, basically, is my defense of philosophy on this issue.

Thus, I think I have completed my arguments in favor of universalism, with one small exception, which I will discuss in the next post.

*Update: Let me add a slight nuance. After I originally wrote this post, an interlocutor in a blog discussion pointed out that Pope Demetrius of Alexandria (the Patriarch of the Church of Alexandria, now known as the Coptic Orthodox Church, like the leader of the Catholic Church, has the title of “pope”) condemned Origen during the latter’s lifetime.  The context is a little complicated (as Byzantine politics generally were), so I excerpt this from the Wikipedia article on Origen:

Origen repeatedly asked [Pope] Demetrius to ordain him as a priest, but Demetrius continually refused.  In around 231, Demetrius sent Origen on a mission to Athens.

While he was visiting Caesarea, Origen asked Theoctistus to ordain him as a priest. Theoctistus gladly complied.   Upon learning of Origen’s ordination, Demetrius was outraged and issued a condemnation declaring that Origen’s ordination by a foreign bishop was an act of insubordination.

Demetrius raised a storm of protests against the bishops of Palestine and the church synod in Rome itself.  According to Eusebius, Demetrius published the salacious allegation that Origen had secretly castrated himself, a capital offense under Roman law at the time….  Demetrius also alleged that Origen had taught a form of apokatastasis, which held that all beings, including even Satan himself, would eventually attain salvation.  This allegation probably arose from a misunderstanding of Origen’s argument during a debate with the Valentinian heretic Candidus.  Candidus had argued in favor of predestination by declaring that the Devil was beyond salvation.  Origen had responded by arguing that, if the Devil is destined for eternal damnation, it was on account of his actions, which were the result of his own free will. Therefore, Origen had declared that Satan was only morally reprobate, not absolutely reprobate.

Demetrius died in 232, within less than a year after Origen’s departure from Alexandria.  The accusations against Origen faded with the death of Demetrius, but they did not disappear entirely and they continued to haunt him for the rest of his career.  Origen defended himself in his Letter to Friends in Alexandria, in which he vehemently denied that he had ever taught that the Devil would attain salvation and insisted that the very notion of the Devil attaining salvation was simply ludicrous.

The following points are important to note:

  1. Demetrius was acting largely out of personal and political, not theological, motivations.
  2. Demetrius condemned Origen for doctrines that Origen himself insisted he never held.
  3. The condemnations by an individual patriarch, while not to be lightly dismissed, are not of themselves infallible.  Infallibility requires a council, for the Orthodox and Catholics, or an ex cathedra definition by the Pope (of Rome) in the case of Catholics.  Thus, Demetrius’s actions against Origen are not definitive from either the Orthodox or Catholic perspective.

Therefore, even if one wanted to argue that Demetrius was in the right (which seems unlikely), his condemnation of Origen is not infallible or definitive; nor does it cover all the varieties of apokatastasis.  We are still safe in saying that universalism has never been condemned.

A few centuries after his death, Origen was condemned by another Pope of Alexandria, Theophilus.  I discuss the issue in detail over here.  Suffice it to say that Theophilus, too, was driven by rather base political motivations; it’s unclear whether or not he condemned what the long-dead Origen actually said; and that, when all is said and done, Theophilus’s actions, like those of Demetrius, were not infallible or definitive.  Thus, I feel comfortable in asserting that the basic thesis of this post is still sound.

Part of the series Universalism (What the Hell?!)

Posted on 27/01/2018, in Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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