P.T. Forsyth and Thomas Torrance in relation to universal salvation

These are my notes on Graham Watts’s talk at the recent Spurgeon’s conference:

In chapter 7 of The Evangelical Universalist, Robin Parry says that universalism offers greater theological coherence than the alternatives. This talk offers a challenge to that view.

P.T. Forsyth and Thomas Torrance were both evangelicals and share a lot of common ground. They both believe that because of the Incarnation, all humanity is represented in Christ’s life and death. However, Forsyth wrote pre-Barth; Torrance translated Barth and this led him to a different view.

Forsyth’s view – God is ‘Holy Love’. Forsyth was a ‘Barthian before Barth’. Sin is disobedience. The demands of a holy God must be met from the human side by holy obedience – Christ fulfilled this. It’s Jesus life as much as his death that carries atoning significance.

For Forsyth, Christ’s atoning work is for all humanity. He offers perfect human obedience. The significance of the cross lies in Jesus’ perfect obedience and holiness. So the cross has universal significance – but will all be saved? In earlier works Forsyth suggests that not all will be saved. Towards the end, Forsyth moves towards hopeful universalism – ‘to a holy God, the salvation of the world’s evil is a matter of conscience’. He tentatively suggests that evangelicals reconsider purgatory – that prayers for the dead can be scriptural and good. But Forsyth is only tentative/speculative about universalism. If Christ’s death is sufficient for all, is it possible to speculate that one day it will be efficacious for all? (NB he’s writing a theodicy in the context of the Great War.)

Torrance can find no sympathy for universalism at all. He opposes it on several fronts while affirming that Christ died for all. He believes that universal salvation is heretical. He thinks it fails in exactly the same way as limited atonement (Calvinism). In Calvinism the cross always achieves its purpose – absolute divine causality. But this implies a logical causal relationship between Christ’s atonement and [the forgiveness of all sins (?)]. Torrance thinks universalism does something similar – it projects onto the atonement a logical relationship found in this fallen world. Are we to construct our theology from a system of philosophy (cause and effect) or from the cross?

Torrance isn’t saying you can’t be rational but something more profound. The answer is in an earlier paper ‘Universalism or Election?’. Its theological foundation is Barth’s doctrine of election – ‘election means nothing more and nothing less than the complete action of God’s eternal love’. It is double predestination centred in the person of Christ. All humanity is in Christ. Subject to the action of the Holy Spirit, this becomes subjectively actualised in us. So it is the Spirit who actualises this salvation in us.

What’s at stake is God’s being. Election is about God’s nature as love. In Christ all are elect; Christ died for all. Yet to affirm universal salvation is to draw on the (flawed/fallen) logic of irresistible grace and absolute divine causality. Universalism replaces the God of love with the scholastic God of absolute will. Universalism is to deny the freedom of God. (Universalists can’t take refuge in the category of unfathomable mystery as God cannot be contained in human logic.)

To take Barth seriously, any human dogmatic assertion of universalism threatens to deny or compromise the freedom of God to be God. So universalism offers logical not theological coherence. The wisdom of the cross can’t be reduced to human wisdom. “Are we in danger of thinking our own moral preferences are better than God’s?” God will do that which is loving, faithful and just.

About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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4 Responses to P.T. Forsyth and Thomas Torrance in relation to universal salvation

  1. Dick Stone says:

    Ultimately Exclusivism is dependent upon there being a literal Hell. The King James Bible erroneously translates the word “Sheol” as Hell a total of 31 times in the Old Testament, thus setting a foundation for that doctrine in the New Testament as well as the majority of Bible translations to follow the KJV. Even so, most new translations have completely eliminated Hell from the Old Testament, as honest and better scholarship has demanded. The Jewish version of the Old Testament (the Tanakh) has no concept of Hell in it. The importance of this fact cannot be over-emphasized. If a doctrine does not appear as seed form in the books of the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms, it cannot fairly be taught as a major biblical doctrine, if indeed it can be taught as biblical at all!

    Since the concept of Hell doesn’t exist in the Old Testament, how could Jesus and his disciples teach that salvation was deliverance from a place that is not even found in their Scriptures? And if He was introducing the subject for the first time, why did He do it so casually, as though His listeners already understood what He was talking about?

    If Hell is real, since some English translations use the word Hell for the Greek word “Gehenna,” in the New Testament, why didn’t this same place (Gehenna) get translated Hell in the many places where it appears in the Hebrew form “ga ben Hinnom” in the Old Testament?

    If the Jews did not understand “Gehenna” as a symbol of everlasting torture, but rather as a place of shame, filth, and defilement (where Israel participated in the grossest form of idol worship), why does modern theology ascribe more to the word than the original meaning did? The teaching of Gehenna has evolved in Jewish teachings to include punishment in the afterlife; but even today, Gehenna still does not mean “endless” punishment to the Jews.

    If Hell is real how could the Apostle Paul (who was especially commissioned by God to preach the gospel to the nations) say that he had declared the entire counsel of God (Acts 20:27), when indeed he never warned of “Hell” in any of his letters? If Hell is real, wouldn’t Paul, of all people, warn of it repeatedly?

    If Hell is real, the sin/death of Adam has had a far more powerful effect on the world than the resurrection life of Christ! And yet Paul declares in Romans 5 that Christ’s victory is far greater than Adam’s transgression!


    • Thanks – it’s great to have a response to an old post that no-one else has commented on, and always lovely to have a new person contributing – welcome!

      I’m broadly in agreement with you about Hell, though I might not perhaps state the case against quite so strongly. Those who believe in a literal (though not necessarily eternal) Hell would doubtless support it from the Old Testament with the many warnings of divine wrath and judgement, of exile and being ‘cut off’ from God’s people. Of course these punishments may not be permanent, but they are still real and highly unpleasant, and they form part of what many people would understand by the term ‘Hell’. (I do certainly agree that there’s no evidence in the Old Testament for the kind of literal fiery eternal-conscious-torment hell that many evangelicals and fundamentalists propose.)

      I’m also not entirely sure that Paul doesn’t warn of Hell at all. He doesn’t use the term specifically, but he does speak of being ‘cursed and cut off from Christ’ (e.g. Rom 9:3), and talks of the punishment of ‘everlasting destruction’ and being ‘shut out from the presence of the Lord’ in 2 Thess 1:9. I’m not saying this because I believe in a literal Hell of eternal conscious torment – I strongly tend to the view that this kind of Hell is not in fact what these passages are trying to convey. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there’s no evidence for this view of Hell in scripture, just that on balance I don’t think this is what the authors are talking about.

      So I suppose my (tentative) view is that a form of ‘Hell’ is probably real, but that it’s perhaps best understood as temporary exile or being ‘cut off’ for a season, before ultimate restoration.


      • The Remonstrant says:

        It would be best to understand Paul’s understanding of the future judgement of the unrighteous in terms of final annihilation or permanent extinction. In 2 Thessalonians 1:9, aionion (age-lasting) qualifies the destruction (olethron) the wicked will undergo at the reappearance of Christ. The destruction pertains to the age to come, the age which never comes to an end. It is a permanent rather than temporary destruction that Paul has in view. In accordance with Paul’s theology, immortality is viewed as a gift given only to those found to be in Christ (cf. Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15).

        It is true that Christ died for all (1 Timothy 2:6), but the hearer of the good news only becomes grafted into Christ through faith.* God’s desire to save all persons is indeed universal, but only those who are reconciled to God through faith in Christ inherit salvation (or the benefits of Christ, if one prefers). The unrepentant remain estranged from Christ and do not inherit the gift of God which is zoe aionios (age-lasting life, everlasting life in the age to come).

        The basis for eventual universal reconciliation in Paul and endless conscious torment are both without foundation in the Pauline corpus. The lost inherit the legacy of Adam. They are temporarily raised in order to meet the Lord and Savior of the world whom they rejected and are judged according to their works. They are destroyed never to rise again, losing out on the new heavens and the new earth in the age to come. They lose out on the gift of eternal life and everlasting communion with God and his people in renewed creation

        • For my own purposes, I will leave aside the inclusivist-exclusivist debate.


        • Thanks for your interesting and informed comment! I incline to agree with you that the thrust of Paul’s teaching appears to be towards annihilationism. However, for myself I remain a hopeful universalist, rather than a dogmatic one – leaving open the possibility that God will ultimately achieve his desired goal of saving all, but also acknowledging that this may well not happen.


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