Irreconcilable Inclusivist/Exclusivist Biblical Texts


I was reading a blog by DW Congdon (prominent theo-blogger) where he gives a recap of a presentation given by Bruce McCormack at the 2007 Karl Barth Conference. McCormack is a professor a Princeton Theological Seminary. The title of the paper is: “That He May Have Mercy Upon All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism”. Interested to hear the board’s take on this.

Here’s a recap of Congdon’s take on the presentation. Here’s the link, BTW. … recap.html

His thesis had a few different levels: first, the Bible is much more universalistic than past Christians have been willing to acknowledge; second, the tension within Scripture is a divinely ordained tension that must be maintained in church dogma (thus churches go too far if they present limited atonement or universalism—the only real options—as dogma); and third, theologians who seek to explicate the doctrines of the faith in a more logical way should be allowed to smooth out some of these edges in a direction that favors universalism. He spent the most time arguing for the first part of his thesis. In the second part, he explained that the tension is divinely ordained because we are sinful humans. If the Bible definitely told us that all would be saved, we would fall into complacency; and if the Bible definitely told us that only some would be saved, we would fall into despair. Instead, the biblical witness presents an eschatological vision that has a clear universal horizon but refuses to determine the end of the story for us in advance of Christ’s return. For now, we must live within the biblical tension while allowing universalism to be a real theological option that actually makes better sense of Scripture than the alternatives.


Do we know enough to say that we know that we can’t know?


I’ll have to read the paper and come back with comments. But my initial remark is probably going to be: if one or the other situation eventually actualizes (God saves all; God saves only some), then those “irreconcilable texts” can’t really be that irreconcilable. :wink:

Also, as a historical fact, the vast majority of Christians throughout history have held that the Bible clearly says that God will only save some sinners from sin (though they don’t usually get that particular about it what the claim entails–and from your summary I’m going to initially guess that McCormack doesn’t either… :mrgreen: ), without falling into the despair. (While also sometimes falling into a lot of complacency. :laughing: )


Followup: actually F&B already gave us the relevant parts of the summary of McCormack’s essay, from Congdon’s blog. (whew… :wink: )

So until McComack prints it somewhere, this may be all the info we have on his paper.

That being so, I’ve already remarked on the argument that this ostensibly “irreconcilable” tension should be recognized as “divinely ordained” because such-n-such historical results would follow otherwise. While several tragic results did follow from Christians most usually believing the Bible clearly teaches non-universalism, despair wouldn’t normally be how those results would be described. (Though in a roundabout way, maybe it could be called despair.)

But, to be fair, McCormack’s actual paper (which couldn’t be entirely read at the conference anyway, due to time constraints) might be better nuanced about that rationale, than the summary at F&R (not to be confused with F&B :smiley: ) is presenting.

I would comment on the “first part” of McCormack’s presentation, but other than it occurred (and the general shape of it), no further details are given. (Congdon reports “a large majority of the paper was devoted to [McCormack’s] own constructive exegesis of Paul rather than exegesis of Barth, in which he explained how Paul’s own letters have a clear universalistic horizon that classical theologies (whether Reformed or Arminian) generally silence”. But that’s it, regarding the first part.)


I don’t know how McCormack nuanced this, but I’d emphasize his 3rd affirmation: we should be allowed to favor universalism. It’s no wonder most theologies have not even tried to affirm both limited atonement and universalism. It feels like a schizophrenic contradiction which makes words meaningless.

Concerns about complancency are fair, but I can’t see how limited atonement effectively prevents it or produces love. Do we work hard and point to our achievments as the assurance that we are elect? Or more likely in my Baptist tradition’s eternal security, I affirm penal subsitution and conclude that I can complacently rest in a grace that guarantees that I am exempt from sin’s penalty. An alternative is to find damnation in some form like ECT motivating, but so morally repugnant that I join non-believers in not truly wrestling with the reality of judgment.

My bias is that Talbott and MacDonald’s type of universalism is much superior for allowing a healthy tension between God’s Fatherly love and God’s righteous judgment. And it may better invite skeptics to consider the apparent reality that evil has consequences that urge us to wrestle with the solution to the human predicament and our need for reconciliation.


*If these texts are truly irreconcilable *(i.e humans cannot make a definitive judgment on the fate of mankind strictly from the Biblical evidence presented) then we’d have to conclude one or more of the following:

  1. The Scripture is just an account of what communities in those days believed (kind of a process theology) and is not truly God’s word since the inclusivist/exclusivist texts cannot both be true
  2. The Scripture is God’s revealed word and the texts were deliberately inspired by God through various writers to prevent either complaceny or presumption (much like McCormack asserts)
  3. We’ve interpreted/translated the “exclusivist” passages incorrectly
  4. We’ve interpreted/translated the “inclusivist” passages incorrectly
  5. The “exclusivist” passages may have been true “pre-Easter” but now are overshadowed by the new “post-Easter” paradigm following the objective salvation achieved for all at the cross

Feel free to address any points I may have missed. I would suggest #2 and #5 are correct


F&B: I don’t personally consider option 1 to entail non-inspiration. Since the scriptures are certainly not themselves a work of systematic theology, and especially since it is obvious that even within a single scroll of the OT not all theological claims are represented in a single statement, a “process” theology of some kind is inevitable. (Not to be confused with what is sometimes called “process theism” where God is non-sentient Nature slowly becoming sentient.) The narratives themselves, OT and NT, routinely involve process revelation; some obvious examples being the survival of souls after death, the resurrection of the righteous (and the unrighteous) in the day of YHWH to come, and the beliefs of Jesus’ disciples on various topics (such as what exactly the Messiah was supposed to be accomplishing once he arrived).

Option 2, which is a rather different kind of explanation, is not mutually exclusive to option 1; and has, I think, a lot going in its favor, since one of the constant prophetic topics (OT and NT authors both) is the presumption and/or complacency of the people of God (usually Israel and/or the church, but the pagans get tagged on this, too, of course.) Warnings against presumptive judgment are commonplace; and are sometimes so surprising that Christian exegetes may simply ignore or overlook their existence and relevance (such as St. Paul’s quotation from Isaiah in Rom 9 concerning the man answering back to God. In the original context, God is chastising people for teaching that God will abandon wholly ruined sinners and never save them from both their sins and the results of their sins! But good luck finding a Calv or Arm theologian who takes that into account… :wink: )

In my experience Option 3 occurs with some frequency (RevJohn chps 19-22 being a major example of this). But it isn’t impossible for apparently “inclusivist” passages to be mistranslated (or misinterpreted), too. Reading a universalistic meaning into the parables of the Mustard Seed and of the Leaven in the Dough, for example, is tempting because of the use of the term “whole”, but is probably unwarranted; because neither parable defines the nature of the scope (so to speak) sufficiently for this purpose.

In my own experience I don’t find much support, either internally or in principle, for option 5, although I’ve met some people who go this route; typically (though not always) following the notion that the OT rules (more like guidelines :mrgreen: ) have been superceded.

To your set of options I would add #6: when one of two otherwise irreconcilable sets of data must be interpreted in light of the other set, a third arbitration standard should be appealed to for deciding which set takes the lead; and this will probably be an outside standard compared to scripture.

Relatedly, we can also have option #7: when two otherwise irreconcilable sets of data are given, the solution might be to take both sets of data and have each set adding something to the resulting understanding. (i.e. the situation may be a paradox, not a contradiction, and the resolution might be perceived if both sets of data are accepted.) This also happens with some regularity in scriptural interpretation, both in regard to theological doctrines, and in regard to historical harmonization analysis.



Thanks for responding so quickly! Let me clarify a couple of things about my original post, then add a couple of points:

  1. I meant to say presumption and despair, not presumption and complacency when I referenced the notion that God divinely inspired writers to produce a mix of inclusivist/exclusivist texts

  2. Referring to #1 (Scripture being an account of how those particular communities saw God), I wrongly leaped to necessary non-inspiration when after considering that claim, the texts could very much be all inspired; my underlying point is that I find it difficult to believe that God would inspire writers to pen something that was untrue (thus living under an illusion) just to avoid presumption or despair in that and future generations; however, if the exclusivist texts do indeed teach eternal torment, could it be that those books (primarily just RevJohn, so just that book) are uninspired? I know Revelation is one of the more controversial books of the canon. It seems to me that people are aghast at the suggestion that one would question the inspiration of a particular book, especially since man has screwed up nearly everything in history. Are we to believe the selection of books to represent the canon should be any different? But I suppose I’m veering just a bit off topic now, huh? :wink:


I’m not going to read the entire thread right now, just wanted to comment on this:

The Bible actually does say that all will be saved. Take Romans 5:19, for instance.


He would need perfect middle knowledge to make this declaration about what “we would” do with any real confidence. :wink:

I do wonder how much we can trust this. Of those who do believe that the Bible teaches that only some will be saved, how many actually live in despair as a result?


Agreed. Though maybe they ought to live in despair. :mrgreen:

Welcome to the board, by the way!


Hey Glenn,
What is that “Beretta” gun picture and the “little friend” reference, I’m lost?