The National Catholic Review

There was an interesting post at Scot McNight’s Jesus Creed blog on September 14, 2011 dealing with “universalism” in the New Testament.  Basically McNight wanted to know why the texts speaking of “all” finding salvation in Christ were not taken as seriously as those texts dealing with salvation and hell, or if that was the case. His concern is not primarily with theological truth, but with exegetical considerations: why do we seem to value the literal sense of this one group of passages more than these other passages? It may be, however, that one cannot discuss exegetical questions without entering the realm of theological belief. How we interpret seems to reflect what we believe, so even in the posing of questions, certain choices, conclusions and decisions are made. I found the comments at the end of the post challenging in some cases and fascinating in others, as quite quickly it became clear, to me at any rate, that positions regarding Scripture, Tradition, the Church would inform one’s view of how to exegete the passages which McNight lists. Here is an excerpt from his piece:

On a flight recently I was reading a book about hell, and one of the chapters was devoted to examining the so-called “universalism” texts in Paul’s letters. Sometimes Paul says things like “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all are made alive.” The issue is how “all” that “all” is! What I observed is that the author focused on showing that the “all” didn’t really mean “all.” This, undoubtedly, is the traditional view in the church.

But it got me to pondering this question: Why do we use the judgment/hell texts to trump the “all” texts? Why don’t we use the “all” texts to trump the hell texts? This is a question about method today, and not a question about which one to believe. I’m curious what you think about the proper method: How do we know which group of texts has the priority? What criteria do we use to choose between the two?

Is it as easy to say “all” doesn’t mean all as it is to say “in the end salvation will conquer all” (after the judgment, after hell)? How do we decide?

After this, McNight lists a number of passages dealing with “universalism” and a number considering “hell/eternal damnation,” without analysis or discussion, just to put them before readers to ponder. I think this is an excellent lesson in interpretation and hermeneutics, as you will see in the responses to the post.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens

Comments

Anonymous | 9/21/2011 - 5:15pm
Biblical exegesis is distinguished from proof texting fundamentalism by one chief reason: exegesis includes the WHOLE of scripture, not just a part or single letter.

Thus, to figure out what Jesus meant when in Matthew's Gospel he is recorded as saying "call no man Father", one must read the whole of Matthew's Gospel. Take notes all the times in the Gospel that human beings are called "Father" by the author, by others, and by Jesus himself, in ways that are not 'negative'.

Once you do this it becomes swiftly apparent that Jesus was not condemning the word "father" or the concept of fatherhood, but a particular abuse of the term by particular people who vested in men some value and authority that was not theirs to have.

Your daddy is still your father and you still owe your father obedience under the 4th commandment - and a St Paul or John can genuinely be spiritual fathers by vocation without the wrath of God.

Similarly, the use of "all" by Paul is rhetorical - in that obviously Jesus and Mary are not included in the "all have sinned, all have fallen short". It's like when someone says "the American people want X" - that's not a statement of democratic fact, it's an expression of political art that really means "my supporters want X". Or "most people I've polled want X".

The Bible has clues and one must piece them together to figure out what some words or terms mean - not by going into wild theories necessarily but first and foremost by just reading that passage in light of all the rest of scripture!