UR and the New Perspective on Paul


This post appeared on my blog today, an attempt to show how the New Perspective on Paul informs how UR understands the atoning work of Jesus on the cross:

In discussing the doctrine of universal reconciliation in Christ one of the objections you often hear is that this doctrine rejects the cross of Jesus, rejects the atoning work of Jesus’s death. This is a huge misunderstanding.

The issue, in my opinion, boils down to this: Is forgiveness actual or potential?

Ponder the relationship between God and those who, at this moment, stand in a place of rebellion toward God. Are these people, in light of Jesus’s death for them, already forgiven? Or is God currently withholding forgiveness, waiting for the person to respond and repent? In the former forgiveness is actual–the death of Jesus created a new state of affairs, a new reality, a reality where the wall of enmity between God and humanity has been eradicated. In the latter view forgiveness is potential–you’re not yet forgiven. The death of Christ, in this view, merely opens up the possibility for forgiveness. But as things stand right now you are not forgiven.

This contrast–Is forgiveness actual or potential?–goes to the heart of the debates of what is called the “New Perspective” on Paul. Some of this debate swirls around how we render Paul’s use of the phrase Pistis Christou.

What we all agree on is that pistis means “faith” in Greek and that christou means “Christ.” So far so good. But in the Greek there is some genitive ambiguity concerning how the two nouns–faith and Christ–are to relate to each other. Martin Luther, and those who followed him, translated Pistis Christou as “faith in Christ.” But a growing number of scholars (e.g., Richard Hays, N.T. Wright) have argued that the proper translation of Pistis Christou should be “faith of Christ.”

Theologically, the translational differences go to the issue of the actual versus potential nature of forgiveness. In Martin Luther’s rendering–faith in Jesus–forgiveness is potential. Forgiveness is contingent upon the act of faith. You need to believe and then, once you’ve done that, you are forgiven. By contrast, the New Perspective rendering–faith of Jesus–focuses upon the faithfulness of Jesus in creating a new reality. Because of the work of Christ on the cross the wall of hostility and accusation between God and humanity was finally and decisively broken down. Forgiveness becomes our new reality. A new world has been created. Everyone has already been forgiven in Christ. The call is to recognize this reality and live into it. To trust (have “faith in”) what the faithfulness of Jesus has accomplished for us “while we were yet sinners.”

All this to say that the doctrine of universal reconciliation is richly informed by the New Perspective in seeing forgiveness as a currently existing reality.

Because of the atoning death of Jesus on the cross forgiveness is actual. Because of the cross a new reality has been created between God and humanity. Faith is recognizing that reality and rejoicing in it.


very interesting! thanks for sharing this :slight_smile:


In one of the comments on my blog I added this which, I think, makes more clear how the New Perspective work informs the UR argument. Here’s my comment:


I am familiar with this perspective and translation; and it of course fits in perfectly with UR, as well as Christus Victor perspectives. It seems to me that this understanding is more faithful to the thrust of the witness of the Pauline scriptures.


I think the idea of phrasing it actual v. potential is brilliant. As far as I could tell, universalist interpretation always lent the death and resurrection of Christ more rather than less significance–what it obliterates is human self-importance.

As usual, Richard, you’ve made me go digging into things I’ll add to my impossibly long reading queue! You’ll be the death of me.

It’s also neat to see that Hays is involved, because I’ll be taking classes from him at Duke in the fall. :exclamation:


I drank a beer with Hays with some others when he visited ACU a few years ago. He wouldn’t remember me particularly. But after a while, during a lull in the conversation, I asked him, “Richard, do you think Paul was a universalist?” He immediately said no, he didn’t think so. But then he leaned back and thought out loud, musing: “But, when you step back and look at Paul, there does seem to be this deep logic at work, ‘God being all in all’ and passages like that.”

I smiled inwardly and said to myself, “Exactly.”


Actually, the way I’ve seen it for a long time now is that forgiveness has always been God’s stance towards us; the Cross simply unmasks and reveals what’s already there. I’ve seen it that way since back in the days when I decided Penal Substitution is a deeply flawed model for the Cross… …that God does not “need” a sacrifice in order to be effected into forgiving me…

If the problem

is actually not located with God then, it seems that many labor under the idea that the actuality vs potentiality lies within each of us. “Sure, God’s forgiven me, but it doesn’t really ‘matter’ until I ‘accept’ it” sort of thing.

So what changes with the addition of the Christ story…

Well, it’s almost as if God goes along with the illusions of men (ie He’s harsh and arbitrary and demanding and unforgiving and unreasonable and vengeful and exacting; ie the lies of Satan – be he a literal being or the “satan” within each of us…) knowing that He intends, “in the fulness of time” to enter our world Himself and demonstrate Himself who He is and what He’s always been about. From this point onward, there is no excuse.

This then drifts toward the question of free will and choice, but I just don’t see that God, after the Cross, has any obligation whatsoever to indulge forever the illusions that He previously tolerated. It’s simply not in the realm of choice to live in the former flawed reality forever. So I see the faith OF Jesus being a way of describing the truth that it’s no longer an option to choose illusion. At great cost to Himself, God, at the Cross and through Jesus, fully revealed Himself and forever swept away the falseness that had shrouded His Glory. Faith “IN” Jesus, always seems to allow room for me helping to save myself by making it MY faith. But Paul keeps insisting it’s a gift. Thus faith OF Jesus makes much more sense to me…

And of course paves the way for UR…



Dude, that’s gorgeous–well put!

Richard, I’ll have to draw out further universalist concessions from Richard with the aid of alcohol. :wink:


Well, I’ve heard it said that the reason for the later morning services on Sunday was because Saturday nights were “beer and theology night” for Martin Luther… :laughing:


I told a friend the other day that I believed that all were saved, some just didn’t know it. I guess I could see too how some might reject grace. Seems to me that these are the folks that Jesus got on to.