By Israel Galindo, Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning
Ambiguity is the devil’s volleyball, said former President of Yale, Kingman Brewster, Jr. Robin A. Parry and Christopher H. Partridge’s book, Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003. 291 pp. $27.00. ISBN 0-8028-2764-0) gives us a well matched game of back and forth with the theological hot potato that is at the heart of the book’s “debate.” While the writers in this volume are articulate and responsible in handling this (again) current hot topic among evangelicals, if there is one null theme the critical reader may pick up is that the debate is fueled, in part, by the inherent ambiguity of the concept in the biblical text that all sides claim for their points of view. Biblical ambiguity is the one reality few seem ready to confess when conceding an opponent’s point on the issue.
The volume’s “debate” opens with three chapters (Part I) by Thomas Talbott, a professor of philosophy at Willamette University and an advocate of the universalist position (in effect, Talbott argues that Scripture teaches the ultimate salvation of all people, including those in Hell). His treatment and defense for this position is thorough, reasoned, and responsible. Though Talbott’s case for universalism includes arguments from theology and a Pauline interpretation of relevant texts, the strength of his argument is philosophical. His logical treatment of theological thoughts on the subject is exemplary and rigorous. Neither Talbott nor the writers who respond adversarial to his views shy away from claiming the authority of the Bible, or the primacy of Scripture to inform theology, tradition, and reason to put forth their arguments.
The remaining part of the book (parts II to V) consists of rebuttals to Talbott’s arguments by other evangelical scholars. The issue at hand receives treatment from biblical responses (I. Howard Marshall and Thomas Johnson), philosophical responses (Jerry Walls and Eric Reitan), theological responses (Daniel Strange and John Sanders), and historical responses (Morwenna Ludlow, David Hilborn, and Don Horrocks). In these rebuttal chapters the writers evaluate both the strengths and weaknesses of Talbott’s position, but also expand the conversation beyond the parameters of Talbott’s original arguments. They provide a case for their own position on the issue of universal salvation.
Some chapters bog down in minutia and pedantry, which is always a danger when treating a subject as complex as universal salvation—not to mention the ambiguous textual evidence for it. For those who are “set in their thinking” on the matter, exposure to that reality may prove unsettling—and indeed, these are scholars who are honestly wrestling with the ambiguity—though not silence—of Scripture on this issue of critical concern. But then, as Freud said, “Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.” Some of the authors fall on one side of the argument or another, and others offer a mediating stance, proof enough that there is room for more dialogue on the issue.
The book closes with a final chapter in which Talbott replies to his “interlocutors.” He is responsible, and gracious, in responding to the counter arguments and criticisms of his view from all fronts, theological, textual, historical, and philosophical, but takes full advantage in having the last word on the matter, at least in this volume. This is one of the most thorough and responsible treatments available of the issue of universal salvation—and its related issues—by evangelicals. A solid resource, highly recommended.