Fire & Brimstone
poured forth as follows:
Interested to hear which authors/scholars/theologians have influenced you most aside from George Macdonald, whom you cite in your book as having a large influence.
Also, curious to know your opinion of Karl Barth. I understand you approach universalism from a dogmatic certainty, but do you begrudge others who are more of the hopeful strain, or are you simply satisfied that their view is an improvement over the traditional view?
Got a kick out of your handle, because it reminded me of my high school days when we referred to church as “the fire and brimstone”--as in, “Did you attend the fire and brimstone last Sunday?” LOL. Incidentally, although I expected this to be a very short post, it has turned out to be unforgivably long and is probably a bit self-indulgent as well. But it was fun to write, however boring it may be to read!
As for your questions, C.S. Lewis, especially The Problem of Pain
and The Abolition of Man
, had a huge impact upon my thinking during my high school and college days; indeed, I still regard him as one of the best writers I have ever encountered. It was Lewis who first exposed me to the world of philosophical theology, and it always bewildered me that my first philosophy professor, whom I regarded as the most brilliant man I had ever met, had such a low opinion of him. When I began reading the great philosophers of the past during my undergraduate days, I also began casting about for some evangelical scholars who might help me to put things in perspective. The first evangelical “philosopher” I read was the hyper-Calvinist Gordon Clark, and he too had a huge impact upon my thinking, though only in a negative way. I read both A Christian View of Men and Things
and Religion, Reason, and Revelation
. But the absurdity of what I was reading struck me as almost beyond belief; in particular, Clark’s tyrannical picture of God struck me, for reasons of a kind that I spell out in my debate with John Piper (see the Reformed Journal
thread), as utterly blasphemous, worse than anything I had ever encountered in any atheist. When I finished the second book, I furiously threw it against my bedroom wall, walked outside, and announced to my brother, who was shooting hoops in the backyard: “Guess what, I’m no longer a Christian!” To which he replied serenely, “That’s nice.” Many years later, in a moment of absolute hilarity as well as mild embarrassment, a very conservative member of my larger family pulled this book off my shelf and started browsing it. But you see, I had completely forgotten that it had a picture of Clark on the inside cover and that I had drawn a picture of a hand “flipping the bird” at his face. I had also written in bold letters across the front cover: “Beware: Mistakes on every page.” ROTFL.
I still regard this book as the worst piece of philosophical theology I have ever read, though my emotional reactions are very different now. For I now get a kick out of the whole thing and love to joke around with a brother-in-law who actually studied under Cark. But back to my undergraduate days. After reading Clark, I stumbled upon the writings of Edward John Carnell of Fuller Seminary. Like Clark and many other cloistered evangelical scholars of the day, Carnell did not so much engage the larger scholarly community as he typically wrote for his own evangelical community; for example, he did not, so far as I know, publish in any of the standard philosophical journals. I nonetheless owe him a tremendous debt because his book Christian Commitment
and other writings truly inspired me as an undergraduate and persuaded me that at least some evangelicals were capable of imaginative scholarship. I therefore decided to attend Fuller Seminary myself, where, not surprisingly, I read Augustine, Calvin, and other major theologians of the past. I had read Augustine’s City of God
and On the Free Choice of the Will
as an undergraduate. But it wasn’t until seminary that I read such later Augustinian works as the Enchiridion
and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
, which I poured over line by line. These also had a powerful negative impact on me in this sense: They cured me of any temptation to attribute special religious authority to the major theologians of the past. For the theological arguments I encountered in these texts seemed to me then, even as they do today, astonishingly (even embarrassingly) weak. (But for a more charitable interpretation, see Chapter 4 of The Inescapable Love of God
.) In seminary I also read many of the major 20th Century theologians: Barth, Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and the like. And as for my attitude towards Barth and his brand of universalism, I of course welcome it, although at the time that I read huge portions of his voluminous Church Dogmatics
I hardly noticed it. I now even suspect that Barth was far more of a dogmatic universalist than he sometimes admitted. Why? Because universalism seems to be a logically inescapable consequence of his understanding of election. And no, I do not “begrudge” others, such as Gregory MacDonald, who would classify themselves as “hopeful” universalists. Why should I? I think very highly of Gregory.
As a graduate student in philosophy, I came under the influence of G.E. Moore, Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Austin, and other “ordinary language” philosophers, though I never embraced their way of doing philosophy completely. I also encountered on my own the early works of Alvin Plantinga, and I probably learned more from him than any other single person about how to approach a philosophical problem and how to do philosophy of religion.
But note this: None of the influences I have just described will fully explain the sudden and radical shift of perspective that occurred about half way through my graduate education; it was something akin to a paradigm shift, as Thomas Kuhn has called it, or a Copernican Revolution in philosophy, as Immanuel Kant called it. It happened when my brother, who had come under the influence of George MacDonald while a student at Wheaton College, challenged me to make some sort of a biblical case for the idea of an everlasting hell. Everything I had previously read and studied had no doubt prepared me for that moment. In seminary I had already concluded that Augustine and Calvin were imposing a set of faulty philosophical assumptions on the Bible and had twisted almost everything to make it conform to these extra-biblical (and morally repugnant) assumptions; in particular, their attempts at explaining away II Timothy 2:4, II Peter 3:9, and Romans 11:32 just so they could restrict God’s mercy to a chosen few struck me as inept, to say the least. Beyond that, I was gaining more experience as a graduate student in the art of examining arguments more carefully, of setting them up in deductive form so as to make implicit assumptions more explicit, and of then reversing them as a way of testing them (simply deny the conclusion, deduce that one of the premises is false, and then compare the results). But still, I had never so much as questioned at this point my own assumption that, according to clear New Testament teaching, some people will be lost forever without any hope of future redemption.
So I turned to various theologians and evangelical authors with great confidence that they would help me build an overwhelming case for the doctrine that my brother was challenging. To my utter surprise, however, the few biblically based arguments I was able to uncover were so dreadfully bad that I dared not employ them against my brother; in virtually every case they seemed to lead directly to a much stronger argument in the reverse direction. Because I take up many of these matters elsewhere, I’ll not recount the details of such arguments in a post that is already too long. Suffice it to say that my search for a doctrine of everlasting punishment somewhere (anywhere!) in the Bible led me to question whether anything remotely like it is there at all. So in time I came to adopt the tentative hypothesis that a universalist reading of the Bible as a whole might be at least as plausible as either an Augustinian reading or an Arminian reading. But this hypothesis did not remain tentative for long. For like many Christians, I had for many years considered only two competing theological systems, the Augustinian and the Arminian, as if these exhausted the possibilities, which they clearly do not. And once I began to compare with an open mind the theological merits of universalism along side those of Augustinian theology and Arminian theology, its theological superiority seemed, if not literally self-evident, utterly clear and obvious to me
. Then too, when I turned to MacDonald and some of the older universalist literature, I quickly discovered that even major theologians in the Western tradition had no idea of how these universalists put theological ideas together, which perhaps explains why so many of their own arguments simply miss the target. In a word, the very nature of the arguments against universalism quickly persuaded me that something other than biblical exegesis lies behind the fierce opposition to it in the Western theological tradition. But all of that is, of course, a much longer story……