An Interview with the Author of the Definitive Treatment on Christian Universalism

“Important issues require important books, and McClymond has produced what I suspect will be the definitive treatment of Christian universalism for years to come.”

From my study of historical theology, I was well aware of the intense controversies in the early centuries over Origenism, and of the pushback against Karl Barth’s position on universal election from Emil Brunner and others in the 1950s. This seemed like a question worth exploring: How and why had attitudes changed so decisively in such a relatively short period of time on the crucial question of the scope of final salvation?

 

Michael McClymond (PhD, University of Chicago) is professor of modern Christianity at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri. His latest work, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism (Baker Academic, 2018), is a 1,300-page history and critique of universalism.

Doug Sweeney calls it his “magnum opus . . . a tour de force of historical theology.”

Gerald McDermott writes, “This tome by Michael McClymond is a theological bombshell. . . . The first-ever complete history of the doctrine of universal salvation, this massive work is a devastating demolition of the supposition that universalism can be sustained with exegetical or systematic integrity.”

Kevin Vanhoozer says, “Important issues require important books, and McClymond has produced what I suspect will be the definitive treatment of Christian universalism for years to come.”

Professor McClymond answered a few questions from me about the book and the issues.


I suppose the first thing to say—besides “Wow”—is “Congratulations” and “Thank you.” What a massive achievement. Your book runs to 540,000 words, covers 1,376 pages, and cites around 2,500 sources (in Greek, Latin, French, German, and English). The bibliography alone runs to 90 pages in small print and double columns. What was the motivation and the process for investing so much of your scholarly life into a definitive treatment of universalism?

Isn’t this the ultimate theological question—i.e., the scope of final salvation? What could matter more? And if there is truth in the New Testament contrast between “momentary, light affliction” and the “eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17), then should not all Christian believers be deeply concerned with getting it right regarding these final outcomes?

I had first encountered the teaching on universal salvation in a New Testament course that I took as an undergraduate at Northwestern University. My attitude then (as now) was that the professor teaching the class certainly had the right to hold to universalism as a personal belief, but not to be teaching us that the apostle Paul taught universalism. (Simultaneously with that course, I was in a reading course with a professor of classics going through the Epistle to the Romans line by line.) So I became the pesky student in the back of the classroom who was often shooting up his hand.

When I later studied at Yale Divinity School, I wrote what proved—for me—to be a seminal essay comparing Origen and Karl Barth on the question of universalism.

I can’t say that I had universalism on the brain during the 1990s or early 2000s.

But several years ago what really surprised me was not Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins (2011), with its well-worn and hackneyed arguments. Instead, I was startled by the multitude of people I thereafter encountered holding that universalism was biblical and evangelical teaching. From my study of historical theology, I was well aware of the intense controversies in the early centuries over Origenism, and of the pushback against Karl Barth’s position on universal election from Emil Brunner and others in the 1950s. This seemed like a question worth exploring: How and why had attitudes changed so decisively in such a relatively short period of time on the crucial question of the scope of final salvation?

In what ways did Barth’s affirmation of universal election in Church Dogmatics II/2 help the train of universalism to begin accelerating?

Through studying the history of Christian universalism, and examining a large number of texts throughout the centuries, I concluded that ancient gnosis, Jewish Kabbalah, Christian Cabala, and Western esotericism played a decisive role in the development of universalism from ancient times up to the contemporary era. With the possible exception of some of the Anglo-American universalists in the late 1700s and early 1800s, this gnostic-kabbalist-esoteric tradition was central to Christian universalism. (Those skeptical of this claim should consult the book, which offers an abundance of evidence and citation—in nearly 4,000 footnotes.)

During the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the most overt Christian universalists were Russian thinkers such as Vladimir Solovyov, Nicholas Berdyaev, and Sergius Bulgakov—all of whom had been decisively influenced by Jakob Böhme and other thinkers of the Western esoteric tradition.

With Karl Barth in the 1940s, universalism seemed to be “skipping over” from esoteric thought into mainstream (or what I term exoteric) Christian theology.

Barth scholars are themselves divided as to whether Barth should or should not be seen as teaching universalism. Yet, on some level, this question of Barth exegesis does not matter much, since Church Dogmatics II/2 without any doubt made it much more acceptable among mainstream Protestant and Catholic thinkers to think of salvation as all-inclusive. John A. T. Robinson by 1950 was already affirming universalism, largely based on Barth’s premises. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “hopeful universalism” was shaped by Barth’s writings, as Balthasar himself admitted. Apart from Barth’s massive influence on Christian theologians of all traditions in the mid- to late-20th century, it is hard to imagine that more recent thinkers such as Jürgen Moltmann would so confidently and unapologetically assert universal salvation.

In The Devil’s Redemption I analyze Barth’s biblical interpretation and seek to show that his defense of universal election is not supported exegetically. My question is not that of most other scholars—“Does universal election imply universal salvation?”—but the more basic one—“Why should anyone think that election is universal rather than particular?” When writing in the 1940s, Barth had essentially no precedent from earlier theological history for his assertion of universal election. So one has to ask: How could Barth be correct over and against all the earlier theologians? One must, I believe, adhere to a cult of theological genius to believe that a thinker who lived and wrote some 1,900 years after the completion of the biblical canon somehow “discovered” a major doctrine that no one had ever previously seen in the text of the New Testament. When one examines the particulars of Barth’s exegesis in Church Dogmatics II/2, one sees a lot of special pleading, and even some rather weird reasoning—though I would admit that Barth’s exegesis in various other parts of the Church Dogmatics has much to teach us.

Barth’s universal election doctrine does not allow him to accept the unique status of Israel as Yahweh’s “chosen people” in the Old Testament, and this leads him into some strange argumentation as he seeks to avoid the obvious implications of the texts.

Few theologians want to admit this point. It is intimidating to be up against Barth—not to mention all of the Barthians who fiercely defend their mentor’s name and reputation.

I should note that I appreciate Barth in many ways and have learned much from Barth, while at the same time I regard his advocacy of universal election as having been theologically disastrous for his own theological development and for the theological development of the global church since the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps that sounds like a schizoid approach to the Old Man of Basel. But I cannot escape the feeling that the valuable things in the Church Dogmatics are intermingled with things dangerous. For me this means that Barth’s ideas can’t simply be gathered but must be continuously sifted.

In the 20th century, it seems to me that we would have thought of universalism as mainly a liberal, white, Protestant thing. But in the 21st century, this is no longer the case. How and why did universalism “go global”?

As your question correctly implied, the 20th century rise of universalism occurred in stages.

While Russian theology is not especially well known in the West, in the 20th century prior to World War II one would have to say that universalism was “a Russian thing” (e.g., Solovyov, Berdyaev, Bulgakov).

Then, yes, from the 1950s through the 1970s, one might say that universalism became a “liberal, white, Protestant thing.” Prior to Vatican II (1962–1965), one finds some private musings on the possibility of salvation for all among certain Catholic intellectuals (e.g., Jacques Maritain), although one does not find official Catholic spokespersons affirming universalism.

The next step in the process occurs in the 1970s and 1980s, as Catholics discussed the question of the “unchurched” while evangelicals debated the question of the “unevangelized”—two ways of framing the question of inclusivism. In today’s retrospect, these debates of a generation ago look like a transitional period. Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope? launched a new discussion of “hopeful universalism” among Catholics, leading into more overt affirmations of universalism later on. Similarly, the tentative suggestions by John Stott regarding conditionalism or annihilationism triggered intra-evangelical debates over the final scope of salvation.

From the 1990s onward, the theological leading edge has left inclusivism behind and has become fully engaged with universalism. From this point onward, universalism has become a “Catholic thing,” and purportedly also an “evangelical thing” and perhaps a “Pentecostal thing” too.

The issue of final salvation seems to be as much a live issue today as it ever has been. In March 2018 the reported statement of Pope Francis (as recorded by Francis’s atheistic journalist friend Scalfari) that “there is no hell” but rather “the disappearance of souls” gives the impression that the pontiff holds to annihilationism—a position that earlier Catholic scholars rejected.

Even more recently, in the aftermath of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sex abuse (August 2018), and the media attention to the egregious misdeeds of Cardinal McCarrick, I have noticed essays appearing at websites appealing to conservative Catholics (e.g., First ThingsNational Catholic RegisterLifeSiteNews, and so on) discussing the “four last things” (death, judgment, heaven, hell) and asking why today’s Catholic Church is not preaching these doctrines, and whether the clerical malefactors believe that they themselves are subject to God’s postmortem judgment. It is too early to tell, but the unfolding scandals might cause some Catholics to focus more attention on God’s judgment of human individuals and the question of final salvation.

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