Robert Farrar Capon's non-Universalist Universalism!


#1

I was reminded of this very interesting quote from my favourite modern theologian, Robert Farrar Capon, today while browsing his Wikipedia entry:

"I am and I am not a universalist. I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some — of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world — of every last being in it — and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: “There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .” All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.

“But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not — because Jesus did not — locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’ parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included in at the beginning.” (My emphases)

The fact that I have posted this under ‘discussion affirmative’ reflects where I *think *Capon stands. But what does everybody else think?

Peace and love

Johnny


#2

He sounds more inclusive Arminian to me, seeing all saved except those who continue forever to reject Christ. Boy, mistranslating Gehenna as Hell sure has messed up a lot of people!


#3

Hi Johnny
I’m with you on this one. I think he treads a very careful line and probably for good reason. However, his statement “But I will not — because Jesus did not — locate hell outside the realm of grace.” clinches it for me. If grace exists in the realm of hell, then there remains hope and opportunity. I believe that is all God needs.


#4

I am actually half-way through his book on the parables: “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus”. I was so excited about reading him, and he definitely seems universalist or very close. However, I finally had to put the book down, because he continues to take Scripture and cram it into his preconceived ideas of what it should mean. I was driving myself crazy thinking either this man is brilliant or he is terribly mangling scripture. Really what he does is take some good ideas about the primacy of Christ’s death and resurrection, and our participation in those realities, and tries so say that almost every parable is about that. It became quite maddening actually, because I so wanted to like the book.

Has anyone else had this frustration with Capon?


#5

honestly, i find the original quote quite frustrating, because he’s basically saying God saves everyone…but no He doesn’t. He gives up on some people because in their foolish blindness they reject Him.
people can talk about free will all they want, but i’m not letting my kid or the neighbour’s kid run out into a freeway or jump into a bonfire if i’ve got the power to stop him. i can’t imagine God being more helpless to prevent that than i am.


#6

outofthecollective.blogspot.com/ … alism.html


#7

Hi everybody

Thanks for all your stimulating comments. I pretty much agree with everything everybody says.

I think John is right to point out that Capon ‘treads a very careful line and probably for good reason’. I suspect it may be because, like Karl Barth, he is reluctant to put any limits or obligations on God. It may be because he does not want to alienate that section of his audience who will immediately switch off and stop listening to him if he comes out as a fully fledged Universalist. Or it may be just as he says, his commitment to the whole canon of scripture as he sees it.

James, I think perhaps you give Capon a bit less credit than he deserves. Personally I don’t think he ever - either in this quote or elsewhere - states *categorically *that God ‘gives up on some people because in their foolish blindness they reject Him’. In that sense I think he’s probably what Sherman says he is, ie an inclusive Arminian who ‘sees all saved except those who continue forever to reject Christ’. From this ‘brand’ of Arminianism, it is an infinitely small step to full blooded UR, if you ask me. A number of Universalist philosophers - Thomas Talbott and Eric Reitan, for example - have put forward arguments for how God will eventually ‘win everyone over’ without violating their freedom to reject Him.

As John so wisely says, ‘If grace exists in the realm of hell, then there remains hope and opportunity. I believe that is all God needs.’ Hear, hear.

Caleb - I too have found Capon frustrating at times. He does do what you say, attempt to fit all of the parables into his own theological framework. But grace is always paramount, and he is a brilliant and very funny writer who really makes you think.

Rob - great post. You and I have talked before about how Capon ‘bottles it’ at the last minute and puts our ultimate salvation back into our own hands, despite banging on endlessly about the efficacy of grace and God’s having already reconciled everyone and everything to Him in Christ. I’m with you on that. But see my comments to John and James above.

Blessings to all

Johnny


#8

#9

you’re right, of course, Johnny!
i guess i’m just frustrated when someone basically says all the stuff that UR hinges on, and then goes so far as to deny it right after?
but i’m one to talk! i don’t tell absolutely everyone that’s what i think, either, unless i feel the moment is right…
it’s like a friend that visited recently. the three of us were talking about God, and the visiting one said she reckoned God had everything in hand, and would sort everyone out “not in a universalist sense” :laughing:
i could only think “why NOT in a universalist sense? it’s not that much of a step!”

anyway i’m sure this guy has some pretty awesome stuff to say, and you are right to point out that progress is progress. it’s not essential that everyone sees things “our” way…but just good when there’s an equal footing from which to discuss things as siblings in Christ, Who isn’t that fussed about who is “most correct” in their theology…only that we love each other and those who don’t know Him yet. so far there is far from an even playing field, but thanks to people saying things like this…well there’s hope.

also, while i don’t hold to purgatorial universalism, the idea of hell not occuring outside God’s grace…yeah that rings true, especially when we see that God chastises those He loves…the punished are loved, therefore inside His grace. i’m sure we all have experiences that prove this.


#10

(my bold)
Thank you for airing your views Caleb. I didn’t want to say it earlier but that was exactly my experience too. I didn’t finish the book.
I loved the Spirit of the man and the message he was conveying but I thought his eisegesis was so extreme that it actually detracted from the message. I could imagine that (for someone so inclined) his book could alienate a number of possible “converts” to a more gracious and loving Father.

Funnily enough, there is even an example in the O.P. where he states:

If there IS a scripture to suggest that God has ‘shut up forever on the subject of guilt’ I doubt that it is the scripture which cannot be finished because (if anything) it implies that God’s grace may only be for those who are ‘in Christ’.


#11

Pilgrim,

Glad to hear I’m not the only one who had this experience with Capon. BTW, who is the picture in your avatar?

Caleb


#12

Hi Caleb. The picture is of the English actor Alastair Sim who is a favourite of mine.
google.co.uk/search?q=alast … 24&bih=653


#13

Just a couple of further reflections on Capon, subsequent to the observations made here by the other contributors (for which many thanks).

Capon really is a big of an enigma. At the beginning of his book on the parables, Kingdom, Grace and Judgement, he makes a big play about believing the Bible – the whole Bible, OT and NT – to be the inspired Word of God, calling it an “essential precondition of [his] biblical study”. He talks about how it is forbidden to neglect “even the oddest bit of Scripture”. He then goes on to say how we mustn’t impose our own preconceptions on the Scriptures, mustn’t “let our own mindset ride roughshod over what actually lies on the pages”.

He sums all this up in saying that “openness … is the major requirement for approaching the Scriptures”.

So far so fair, so sensible, you might say.

His central thesis in KG&J is that the Bible is really all about the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and how God doesn’t go in for straightforward ‘right-handed displays of power’ – the big stick, if you like – to achieve His ultimate purposes. Rather He chooses to use mysterious, ‘left-handed power’ – which is basically not power at all, in the sense in which the word is normally used – as exemplified in the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross.

I think he’s spot on here. Not only did Jesus preach non-violence, God clearly doesn’t – or rarely, at least – intervene in human affairs to prevent evil or suffering through displays of raw power. (This is precisely what we are discussing over on the ‘does God cause evil’ and ‘Q&A with Derek Flood’ threads.)

And Capon is brilliant on parables such as the Prodigal Son, for example, which he argues, quite correctly in my view, ought to be called the Forgiving Father, saying that we miss the point almost entirely (as Jesus said we would!) when we put the focus on the repentant son.

Likewise with the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. These parables are, to my mind, some of the strongest Biblical ‘evidence’ in favour of UR. In them, God is portrayed as somebody (a shepherd, a woman) who has lost something very valuable to Him (a sheep, a coin), and who goes out and looks for those things until he finds them! And of course, sheep and coins, being dumb animals and inanimate objects respectively, can do absolutely nothing to help themselves be found. Jesus’ message here is crystal clear – unless and until God comes to look for us, and finds us, we are lost. Perished. We can do precisely nothing to help ourselves.

But. But …

Not only does Capon then go on to employ, as John says, “extreme” eisegesis in places, to make every single parable conform with his hermeneutical framework. But worse, he puts our salvation back into our own hands, saying it is ultimately a question of our faith response to God’s finished work in Christ.

Hence the ‘universalist but not universalist’ paradox in my original quotation. Capon is adamant that faith is not a work. But as others have pointed out, surely if there is anything, anything at all, that we have to do to be saved, then that thing is in fact a work. It is, in fact, despite all God has done for us in Christ, still our choice, our responsibility to save ourselves.

And I agree with John that Capon seems to want to say that there is no condemnation for anybody, anywhere, ever. But the Bible does indeed appear to say that this no condemnation applies to those who are “in Christ”. Okay, maybe because of what Christ did for us, as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, we are all already “in Christ”. Is this what Capon means? Is he correct? And if he is, whence the necessity of our genuine faith in Christ for salvation – surely a foundational Biblical concept?

Is it a question of the old three stages of salvation thing – ontological (actual, achieved once and for all for everybody everywhere by Christ’s sacrificial life, death and resurrection), noological (us coming to know that and believing it, and hence ‘activating it’ in our lives) and sacramental (it all coming to glorious fruition in the eschaton)?

Help!

All the best

Johnny


#14

Superb analysis Johnny. I love your posts and I admire your intellect. That’s why I wanted your input on the ‘Love not like’ thread.
I’m sure Capon has done us all a service with his study of those parables but there is something within me which makes me miserable (and yet I am glad it is there) because it makes me label Capon as “untrustworthy”. Yes this IS a judgement but let’s be honest we DO have to make judgements on this level and I believe we are called to do just that.
Take, for example, the “no condemnation” scripture to which you (Johnny) have referred and I am in full agreement with you.
I how I wish I could add it to my ‘UR’ texts. How I wish it meant an ‘end to guilt’. Similarly (like yourself) how I wish ‘in Christ’ perhaps is inclusive of all humanity in this context.
Truth is, as soon as I read you O.P. my heart leapt and I thought ‘Wow!’ maybe I’ve been mis-interpreting that text all my life! I then called it to mind and misquoted it as “To ALL who are in Christ” and thought - Hang on, what if we put a comma between ALL, and ‘who’? Could the Greek actually mean “no condemation to ALL, because ALL are actually now in Christ!”
Then I checked the text on ESword and immediately realised what a tosser I had been.

It is unfortunately absolutely clear that Paul is referring to “those in Christ” as a subset of all humanity. “Those who walk after the flesh” are an entirely separate subset.

Now, I can cope (just) with an author doing this once (maybe twice) but from what I recall, Capon’s work was littered with “What I wish the scripture said and what I’m going to make it say” rather than facing reality head on.

But perhaps none of this is as important as the point you raised. Either God chooses us, or we choose God. Capon cannot have it both ways.
It’s great to see you’re back on form Johnny and if YOU ever decide to publish a book, please can I have a first edition signed copy.


#15

Gehenna is the one thing that caused me to consider UR and the one thing that keeps me from diving in to UR headfirst. There are so many different ideas about it that I find it almost impossible to sort them out.


#16

Hi John

Thank you for those very kind words, sir. :smiley: :blush:

Agree with all your further analysis. To my way of thinking it is quite unequivocal that Paul is drawing a distinction between people who are “in Christ”, and hence not under judgement or subject to condemnation, and those who are not. However, the good news is that, as Dr Thomas Talbott explains very clearly in The Inescapable Love of God (have you read that, by the way?), this is not a problem for UR. Talbott is happy to affirm that people are only ‘saved’ through faith in Christ, and that there is a lot of stuff in Paul which distinguishes between those who possess this saving faith (and are hence in Christ) and those who do not (and hence are not). But all he - anybody - need do to progress from there to UR is to show that Paul allows that everybody will one day come to that saving faith - perhaps after being ‘destroyed’ first. And of course, we believe Paul does just that. :smiley:

But let us beware of throwing the Capon baby out with the bathwater, as it were. He may get it wrong sometimes (who doesn’t) but he preaches beautifully, and especially preaches grace beautifully. And he makes us think and wonder. Which is no bad thing.

Peace and love

Johnny

PS If I am ever fortunate enough to get my name into print proper, you’ll be one of the first to know, never fear!! :laughing: