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.