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.