The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Interpreting the Bible as a Whole, Part II

Part II

One of the first things I learned as a young graduate student in philosophy was how easy it typically is to reverse an opponent’s argument; it is often a simple matter of knowing how to perform the trick. What do I mean by that? Well, consider a slogan that I first heard during my graduate school days: the slogan that one person’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens. That may initially seem like a mouthful, but the idea it expresses is really quite simple and especially relevant, I want to suggest, to the issue of interpreting the Bible as a whole.

Modus ponens is merely a fancy Latin name for the following argument form: if p then q; p; therefore q. And modus tollens, by way of contrast, is the Latin name for the following argument form: if p then q;* not-q*; therefore, not-p. Note that both argument forms have an identical conditional as a first premise, namely if p then q, where p is called the antecedent and q is called the consequent. Note also that both argument forms are valid, which means that, for any argument of either form, its conclusion will follow logically from its premises; that is, no argument of either form could possibly have true premises and a false conclusion. But the two argument forms also proceed in opposite directions. Whereas modus ponens affirms the antecedent of the first premise and then deduces the consequent, modus tollens denies the consequent and then deduces a denial of the antecedent.

Now this is all very elementary, to be sure. But suppose now that two single women, having met a man named Smith in a bar and having both found him attractive, should find themselves disagreeing over his marital status. We might suppose that one of them explicitly asked Smith about his marital status and received an assurance that he was indeed a bachelor, whereas the other thought she might have observed him removing a ring from his left hand and placing it in his pocket as he entered the bar. Suppose further that in an utterly deluded effort to persuade herself of Smith’s unmarried status, one of the women should invoke the following instance of modus ponens to support such a belief:

(1) If Smith is a bachelor, then Smith is unmarried.
(2) Smith is a bachelor.
(3) Therefore, Smith is unmarried.

As almost anyone can see in a flash, that argument has no power whatsoever to settle the issue of Smith’s marital status. For in the absence of additional evidence, one has no more reason to affirm that Smith is a bachelor (step 2) and thus to deduce that Smith is unmarried (step 3) than one has to deny that Smith is unmarried and thus to deduce that Smith is not a bachelor. Indeed, whenever a valid deductive argument has a controversial conclusion, chances are that one of its premises will also be controversial, often for the same kind of reason that its conclusion is controversial. And that simple point explains why so many exegetical arguments in so many of the Bible commentaries are so easily reversed. Even first-rate Bible scholars, it seems, too often make exactly the same kind of mistake that our single woman above just made. The mistake often occurs when someone cites a standard proof text for a traditional understanding of hell, a text such as Matthew 25:46 or 2 Thessalonians 1:9, against a universalist interpretation of another text from a very different context.

Here is an example of what I mean. I personally doubt that one could find any Reformed New Testament scholar better than John Murray, formerly of Westminster Theological Seminary. And despite his Calvinism, he effectively showed in his commentary on Romans why nothing in the immediate context of 5:18 and 19, including the expression “those who receive” in verse 17, can undermine a universalist interpretation of this text. But as a Calvinist, he nonetheless rejected the seemingly plain sense of the text with these words: “When we ask the question: Is it Pauline to posit universal salvation? the answer must be decisively negative (cf. II Thess. 1:8, 9). Hence we cannot interpret the apodosis in verse 18 [of Rom. 5] in the sense of inclusive universalism …” That argument, however, is no more cogent than the argument of our single woman above, as I said. For Murray here adopted the following premise:

(1a) If 2 Thessalonians 1:9 teaches that some humans will be lost forever, then Romans 5:18 does not teach that all of them will eventually receive justification and life.

Because Murray and I both accept this premise, we need not here worry about the theoretical possibility of someone challenging it. But whereas Murray affirms the antecedent of (1a) and thus also affirms its consequent (modus ponens), one could just as easily deny its consequent, as I do, and therefore deny its antecedent as well (modus tollens). Despite his expertise in New Testament Greek, moreover, it is surely fair to ask why Murray thinks his reasoning is any more cogent than this: “When we ask the question: Is it Pauline to posit that some will be lost forever? the answer must be decisively negative (cf. Rom. 5:18, 19). Hence we cannot interpret ‘eternal destruction’ in the sense of some individuals being lost forever.” For even as Murray was quite prepared to adjust his understanding of Romans 5:18 in light of a traditional understanding of 2 Thessalonians 1:9, one could just as easily adjust one’s understanding of 2 Thessalonians 1:9 in light of the plain sense of Romans 5:18.

More generally, any interpretation of the New Testament as a whole must provide a perspective on two very different themes: that of Christ’s ultimate victory and triumph over sin, on the one hand, and that of divine judgment and God’s punishment of sin, on the other. One possible perspective might regard these two themes as simply inconsistent and therefore incapable of being harmonized; another might restrict the scope of Christ’s victory and triumph over sin in accordance with a conviction that divine judgment includes an everlasting hell; and still another—the most reasonable, in my opinion—might interpret divine judgment in accordance with a conviction that nothing short of inclusive universalism could possibly qualify as a true victory over evil. But the remarkable thing is how many of those who accept a traditional view of hell see themselves as simply reading the Bible just as it is, or merely “using Scripture to interpret Scripture,” and how many seem totally unaware of St. Paul’s explicit teaching in Romans 11 that even God’s severity—his blinding the eyes and hardening the hearts of the disobedient, for example—is but one of the means by which he is merciful to all.

An important task for Christian universalists, therefore, is to keep finding imaginative ways to understand this Pauline teaching and to understand the theme of divine judgment without limiting the scope of Christ’s ultimate victory and triumph over sin. Another is to keep pointing out that the traditional understanding of hell has an important implication: namely, that God’s redemptive love is either limited in its scope, as the Calvinists claim, or suffers an ultimate defeat, as the Arminians claim. And still another, which will be the subject of Part III of this series, concerns a persistent pattern of fallacious reasoning that seems to have prevented both Calvinist and Arminian scholars from appreciating the full extent, as depicted in the New Testament, of Christ’s victory on the Cross. I hope to post Part III sometime within the forthcoming weeks.


Hi Tom, my name is John and I regard myself as a hopeful universalist so I am still looking for solidity (if not certainty) in any defence of UR.
I would like to ask: is it true that “any interpretation of the New Testament as a whole must provide a perspective on that of Christ’s ultimate victory and triumph over sin”?
I mean, can we be sure that the NT guarantees victory over sin or does it just guarantee total elimination of sin - the latter being a lesser promise?
I recognise that 1 Cor 15 promises victory over death, the grave, **to the believer ** but where does the NT speak specifically of ultimate ‘victory and triumph’ over sin? Perhaps my memory is failing me.But if the NT only guarantees ultimate elimination of sin then, in addition to UR, annihilationism is surely an option?
Still worse, if Eternal Hell does not perpetuate sin (and I’m not sure why it need) then even the traditional view of ECT is still possible. The only scripture which I can bring to mind (relevant to this theme) is that God will be ‘All in All’. Well, unless Hell is ‘separation from God’ ( a popular though not universal view amongst ECTers these days) is it possible that some may even believe that Eternal Hell may co-exist with a God who is All in All?

Hi John,

Thanks for your question. You asked: “is it true that ‘any interpretation of the New Testament as a whole must provide a perspective on that of Christ’s ultimate victory and triumph over sin’”?

When I spoke of “any interpretation” here, I was not restricting my attention to a universalist interpretation. I had in mind instead the idea that any interpretation, whether universalist or non-universalist, must provide such a perspective. And, as you in effect point out yourself, both annihilationists and those traditionalists who accept the idea of an everlasting hell do provide such a perspective. I think most annihilationists, for example, would understand the ultimate elimination of sin from God’s creation as a kind of victory over it. This may not satisfy me, but it does seem to satisfy Edward Fudge and others who accept an annihilationist view. In any case, one need not be a universalist to accept a “Christus Victor” understanding of the Atonement.

I do make it abundantly clear, of course, that my own sympathies lie with a universalist perspective on “Christ’s ultimate victory and triumph over sin.” You therefore ask: “where does the NT speak specifically of ultimate ‘victory and triumph’ over sin?”

As a universalist, I would argue that Paul spoke of it in Romans 5:12-21, where in verse 18 he explicitly stated (so it seems to me) that, as a result of Christ’s one act of righteousness, the very same “all humans” affected by Adam’s sin will eventually receive justification and life. That sounds like a total victory and triumph to me. And so does 1 Corinthians 15:22, where Paul explicitly stated (so it seems to me) that the very same “all” who died in Adam will be made alive in Christ. That, too, sounds like a total victory and triumph to me, especially given the following verses in 15:23-28. Others will no doubt interpret these texts differently than we Christian universalists. But frankly, I don’t know offhand anyone who would deny that Paul had in mind some kind of victory and triumph over all evil wills in 1 Corinthians 15 even if this should imply only their subjugation in some way or another.

Does that make any sense to you? Thanks again for you questions.


Hi Tom and thank you for your reply. I do appreciate those verses which point to UR (and I might also add that, having read several books on the issue I found yours to be the most helpful to me in my personal circumstances).
I am not very skilled at communication but I was trying to imagine future criticisms that may be thrown your way when you say that the most reasonable perspective on how to marry those two very different themes is that of ‘inclusive universalism’.
In order to agree with that conclusion we must first agree on the meaning, and agree on the NT declaration, of what you call “Christ’s ultimate victory and triumph over sin”.
My point is that ‘victory and triumph’ are very loose terms, eg we may say that the allies were ultimately victorious and triumphant at the conclusion of WW1.
But were they? Over here (in Blighty) we have just beem remembering those millions who died in that brutal carnage. They have not been brought back to life and yet few would argue that the allies were not victorious.
If I look at NT scripture, I don’t see those terms used regarding sin other than in the context of the believers’ walk with God.
What I DO see is that, ultimately, God will be ‘All in All’ and, to me at least, that implies that sin can no-longer exist. If it implies more than that, then I would have to have it expressed clearly, otherwise I can see (though I hate the idea) how many may regard it just as reasonable to marry your first theme alongside ECT or annihilationism.
So, I think I would need clarification on what we all mean by ‘victory over sin’, and whether we all mean the same thing, in order that I might see it as convincing that UR is the most reasonable way of harmonising those two themes.
I hope that has clarified my point and I wish you continued blessings and success in your work. You have certainly been a great blessing to me.

So 4 of the explanatory models we have are:

  1. Arminian ECT
  2. Augustinian/Calvinist ECT
  3. Annihilationism/Conditional Immortality
  4. Christian Universalism

All agree that there is some sort of both 1) victory of sin, and 2) divine judgment.

The question for me becomes, which of the four models is most convincing. (Unless there are other options that are not listed that are better explanatory models.)

And so does one model come out on top?

And if it does, how far can it be justified that it is true?

  1. Can we be merely hopeful?
  2. Can we be confident?
  3. Can we be certain?

Is a discussion among the wise and prudent, like most of those posting,
going to reach the truth? See particularly v25 and 26 below. The rest
is for context.

Mat:011:020 Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his
mighty works were done, because they repented not:

Mat:011:021 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if
the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done
in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in
sackcloth and ashes.

Mat:011:022 But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre
and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.

Mat:011:023 And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt
be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which
have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would
have remained until this day.

Mat:011:024 But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for
the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.

Mat:011:025 At that time Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O
Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid
these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed
them unto babes.

Mat:011:026 Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in thy sight.

Good point Nicholas. Ultimately the context of the Logos is revelation. It is what we think we know that prevents us from knowing what is yet to know. As children, we experience that the Logos is real, and the mind of Christ is not limited to what we think about it (Thank God!), but it is a magnificent matrix of thought, a “whole cloth” of interelated truths that all find their fulfillment in “Christ crucified”.

Children are open and spontaneous in their processes of discovery, instantly sharing in their amazement and synaptic joy- convinced by what they see and experience and share with one another.

And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God. But we do we speak wisdom among them that are mature: but it is not the wisdom of this world, and it is not of the rulers of this world, that have been nullified: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written, Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for them that love him.

But God has revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searches all things, yes, even the deep things of God.

For what man knows the things of a man, but the spirit of that man which is in him? even so the things of God no man knows, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.
Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teaches, but which the Holy Ghost teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.

But the natural man does not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? but we have the mind of Christ.

Comparing spiritual things to spiritual. Connecting the dots. Putting the building blocks together in the right order of priority. Understanding the elemantary principles of the oracles of God.

He 5:12 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil

The infant who ought to be mature. The wise who need to become children. The rulers who are passing away. The foolish and despised who are confounding the wise and mighty.

Man I love the Logos.

Just saw this, Tom. Very helpful; Thanks! :slight_smile: