Exerts from Gregory MacDonald’s “All Shall Be Well” – Draft Introduction, for and even against univeralism, that may be of particular interest to you, Luke.
“… Within the history of Christianity such a belief [Christian Universalism] has been a minority sport, and those who have embraced it have been, with some notable exceptions, not very well known. Indeed, it would probably be true to say that for most of Christian history the majority of Christians have thought that such a belief was outside the bounds of orthodoxy. In the minds of the majority it was simply a given that Christianity taught that the unsaved were consigned to suffer the never-ending torments of hell.”
“Before launching into the studies themselves it is important, in light of the common perception of universalism as “dangerous” and “heretical,” to take some time to locate these explorations [of univeralism] in relation to orthodox Christian faith. It is also useful to get some appreciation of the diversity of Christian universalisms before plunging into the depths of specific theologies.”
"… Universalism has often been labeled as heresy. It is considered by many to be unbiblical, unorthodox, unsavory, unhelpful, and unchristian—something to be avoided! Some universalists have attempted to strike back by arguing not only that their views are consistent with the Bible but also that universal restoration was the prevailing view of the church in its first five hundred years. The view that hell is an everlasting punishment is, they maintain, a theology that arose as pagan thinking infected the church! So the purer, more original Christianity is universalist, and those who affirm everlasting hell are the true heretics. The claim that all will be saved was believed by some universalists to be the gospel itself—the true heart of Christian faith.
I think that both of these approaches are unhelpful and that if we are to be true to the historic faith we need eschew both of these extremes and to relocate universalism somewhere between heresy and dogma."
“One not infrequently hears the claim that universalism is heretical. More often than not those making such claims simply mean that the doctrine is, in their opinion, both wrong and dangerous. But sometimes they mean that an ecumenical church council formally condemned the doctrine as heretical. As the declarations of early ecumenical councils were taken as binding by both eastern and western churches, they set the standard for orthodoxy in all mainstream Christian churches—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. If such a council formally condemned universalism, then it is, strictly speaking, unorthodox—not merely unorthodox in the sense of “unusual” but in the sense of “not conforming to Christian faith as understood by the church.” That might not worry some Christians, but it is a genuine concern to Christians who seek to remain within the bounds of orthodox Christian faith. Even Protestants, though they do not see the decisions of the councils as beyond question, will still seek to take them very seriously. So the issue does matter. Now I am not (by any stretch of the imagination!) a patristics scholar, but I will say a few words about how I currently see the issue. …”
"… the critical question is: what did the council intend to condemn? Universalism per se or a specific kind of universalism? Let us consider the options:
All forms of universalism? It seems that many thought that this was so. The fact that a lot of medieval theologians were very cautious about any affirmations of universal salvation suggests that the general opinion was that the church had condemned universalism.
The proposal that one can assert that all will definitely be saved? Some insist that all that the council rejected was the notion that we can assert universal salvation with absolutely certainty. They argue that while one may hope all will be saved, certainty is not permitted.
A version of universalism that taught a universal return of pre-existent souls to an original state? This was arguably Origen’s view, but its exclusion does not rule out different versions of apokatastasis. This interpretation of the anathemas was defended by Sergius Bulgakov (see chapter 12)."
“In defense of view 3 … [three good reasons]”
"Finally, we might add that none of the central claims of orthodox Christianity, as embodied in the rule of faith or the ecumenical creeds, are incompatible with universalism (It is interesting that no creed makes any reference to the punishment of the damned. While “the life of the age to come” is a matter of creedal orthodoxy, the precise fate of the lost is not). Universalism is, at very least, not unorthodox in the sense of being contrary to essential dogma, nor in the sense of entailing beliefs which are contrary to such dogma. Indeed some universalists have embraced universalism precisely because they feel that it enables them to better hold together important Christian beliefs which stand in awkward tension on more traditional notions of hell (e.g., divine love for creation and divine providence over creation).
So it seems to me plausible to suppose that theologically orthodox versions of universalism can exist."
“… So was J. W. Hanson correct in arguing that universalism was the prevailing doctrine of the early church? Is universalism in fact the more original, purer Christian doctrine, and are Augustine and his heirs the real heretics? No.”
“… And even once universalism appeared on the Christian scene and was embraced by several prominent believers it was never the majority view of the leaders of the church. To claim that universalism is the purer, original Christianity from which later Christians, under the influence of paganism, deviated is absurd. And when one considers the history of the church as a whole, universalism has clearly been a minority view even in its “popular” phases. It has never had the status of a fundamental Christian teaching—not even for those who, like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, believed it! Consequently to suggest that non-universalists are rejecting an important Christian dogma is just plain bonkers! (This is not to say that a universalist is not at liberty to argue that non-universalists might hold beliefs about hell that appear to be inconsistent with fundamental Christian teachings about, for instance, God’s love, justice, or providence.)”
“Universalism, I suggest, occupies a middle ground between dogma and heresy. It is neither a teaching that all orthodox believers are expected to adhere to (in the way that the Trinity, or the union of deity and humanity in the one person of Christ are), nor one that they must avoid at all costs. Perhaps the most appropriate category to employ is that of theologoumena. …”
“Theologoumena are pious opinions that are consistent with Christian dogmas. They are neither required nor forbidden. To see universalism in the category of theologumena means that one cannot preach universalism as “the [only] Christian view” or “the faith of the church,” but it also means that one may believe in it and one may also develop a universalist version of Christian theology.”
“Speaking for myself, I have no qualms about saying that I am a convinced universalist. I do believe that the proposition “God will save everyone through Christ” is a true proposition and consequently I think that those who disagree with it are mistaken. However, what I do not believe is that those who disagree with it (i.e. almost everybody) are unorthodox, unchristian, unkind, unspiritual, or . . . unclever. Similarly, while I have never preached or taught universalism in a church context, if I were to do so I would not claim, “This is the Christian teaching,” or “This is fundamental doctrine,” or “This is the faith of the church.” I would say, “This is an issue on which devout Christians disagree, but here is what I believe and this is why I believe it. You must judge for yourselves, before God.””
"None of this is to suggest that the issue is a matter of indifference, nor that Christians should not debate about the issue—even vigorously. It is simply to relocate the discussion from being a debate between “the orthodox” and “the heretics,” and to see it as an in-house theological disagreement; indeed to see it as an issue that Christians, while they might disagree about it, should not divide over."
I’m only 15 pages through, but I’ll leave it at that
P.S. Although I originally wrote this as an email to Luke, obviously here anyone can (and are encouraged to) join in the discussion