cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
After spending two posts in a discussion on orthodoxy and heresy inspired by an exchange between Roger Olson and Eric Reitan on the orthodoxy of universalism, it seems that it makes sense to say a little bit, however briefly, about that particular test case.

First off, no, universalism is not a heresy--at least not by any meaningful standard. (Which is to say, "doctrine that Roger Olson thinks is wrong" is excluded as a workable definition of heresy, for the reasons given in my post Orthodoxy, Heresy, and Truth and in Reitan's On Heresy and Universalism. Although Olson does gives a more comprehensive and coherent, if still not totally persuasive--is there really a consensus, even just among evangelicals, that universalism is heresy?--account of his position from which universalism counts as heresy in a more recent post, Some random thoughts about that awful but necessary word "heresy") Robin Parry does a good job of working through the question of whether universalism is heretical in a series of posts (1 2 3 4 5), and persuasively comes to what seems to be the unescapable conclusion that the Church Catholic has never denounced universalism as such, although it has denounced the teaching of some particular universalists, such as Origen, while praising others, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa.

For reasons about which I've posted before, I am not a universalist, or at least don't identify as such. Indeed, my reasons are more or less the same as Olson's (rooted in an account of human freedom), so it could be said that we share the same position: that universalism can be put forth as a "pious hope" but not a "confident belief." But Olson comes off as almost stridently anti-universalist, while I am deeply sympathetic to universalism.

Why the difference? It seems to be a disagreement over what, exactly, a "pious hope" looks like. For Olson, it almost seems to be little more than wishful thinking:
Of course, someone might argue that, in the end, every creature will freely offer love to God and be saved (e.g., Moltmann). I would just call that optimism. There’s no way to believe that true other than a leap of optimistic hope.

Whereas I would find that claim quite likely, given what we know about God's nature from scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, while at the same time agreeing with Olson that asserting as fact that everyone will be saved goes beyond our possible knowledge. But I'm a skeptic in general: asserting as fact that the sun will rise tomorrow goes beyond our possible knowledge. (For one thing, we might blow up the world in the meantime.) As the great author Robert Anton Wilson said, "I don't believe anything, but I have many suspicions."

So the question becomes: how confident is overconfident?

Do I believe that, if there is a an afterlife, then everyone will experience salvation within it? At the end of the day, the answer to that question depends upon an epistemological dilemma: what separates a belief from a mere suspicion on the one hand and an overconfident assertion of knowledge on the other?
cjbanning: (Default)
Over at The Piety That Lies Between, Eric Reitan responds in two posts (On Heresy and Universalism and On Heresy and Universalism, Part 2) to Roger Olson's question How serious a heresy is universalism? by deconstructing the question through examining Olson's understandingh of heresy and orthodoxy. In the first post, Reitan writes:
Olson does offer a brief definition of heresy in a parenthetical remark, saying that heresies are "theologically incorrect beliefs," but he doesn't consider the adequacy of this definition in the face of alternatives. A "theologically incorrect belief" is presumably a belief about God that doesn't correspond with the way God really is.
Now, it's not actually obvious that this is right. It might seem like an unnecessarily pedantic quibble about grammar, but a "theologically incorrect belief" does not mean the same thing as an "incorrect theological belief." The latter noun phrase simply calls out a belief which is both incorrect (under some epistemological understanding of "incorrect") and theological. As Reitan points out, if this is what heresy consists of, there are some rather strange conclusions to be drawn:
But the reason why this definition of heresy (and the contrary notion of orthodoxy) has these implications is because it makes the objective nature of reality the standard by which beliefs are judged heretical (or orthodox)--and it seems inevitable that each of us will, in our beliefs about ultimate reality, get some things wrong. But I think this way of understanding heresy has deeper implications that Olson (and other evangelical Christians) would be unhappy to accept. Consider: on this definition, if atheists are right about the nature of reality then all Christians of every stripe are heretical in all their theological beliefs, since all their theological beliefs would then be wrong.
But in the actual phrase Olson uses, "theologically incorrect belief," theologically isn't an adjective modifying belief, but rather an adverb modifying incorrect. Which is to say, there could be a special of type of (in)correctness distinct from "objective (in)correctness," called "theological (in)correctness," and it would be by this standard (not our regular epistemological criteria, whatever they may be) which theological claims would (and/or should) be judged. I think this is actually the much more intuitive reading for many of us, precisely for the reason that, as Reitan shows, the alternate reading leads to an absurdity.

However, there is actually some support for Reitan's reading, because Olson goes on to say:
Strictly historically speaking, any universalism is heresy--according to all major branches of Christianity. The Catholic church allows hope for universal salvation but not confident affirmation of it. But, of course, as Luther demonstrated, all branches of Christianity can be wrong. That is why I reject paleo-orthodoxy and any appeal to absolute authority of tradition. Tradition gets a vote but never a veto. The Bible trumps tradition.
By allowing (through an overconfidence in Luther) that "all branches of Christianity can be wrong," Reitan seems to be assuming a standard by which the theological correctness of a belief can be judged which is extrinsic to the discipline of theology itself. He's even quite clear what that standard should be: the Bible--and of course, if the Bible is perfectly perspicuous and inerrant in all things, or at least all things pertaining to faith and/or morals (and I don't know if Olson thinks it is these things or not, but obviously many Christians do), then the distinction between "biblically correct" and "objectively correct" actually collapses in upon itself.

Yet as Reitan notes in his second post:
Scripture, by virtue of its tensions and complexities and ambiguities, is a much more slippery standard that may require an interpretive hermeneutic in order to be applied effectively (which may mean that what is really operating as the standard isn't Scripture as such, but Scripture as read through a particular interpretive lens).
"A similar problem arises," Reitan notes, "when attempting to test a belief against a theological tradition."

Now, for the theologicall liberal, be they Emergent ex-Evangelical or Mainline Protestant, this apparent problem really isn't. Whether using the Anglican formulation of scripture/tradition/reason (the "three-legged stool") or the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture/tradition/reason/experience (and I think the distinction between the two is ultimately one without a difference), we understand scripture, tradition, and reason (and experience) to be in dialectical conversation with each other (as modeled by the perichoretic dialectic of conversation which is the the Triune God) and the fact that this cannot provide us with any hard and fast, final and ultimate answers to our questions is seen as a feature rather than a bug. There is always room for the Spirit to move us further in our understanding. Or as Reitan says using even bigger words (impressive, isn't it?):
this serves as part of a broader Hegelian project of preserving the internal integrity of a system of beliefs so as to make it possible for it to evolve in the face of the lived encounter with ultimate reality.
But that's dealing in abstraction. What does it mean in practice to evaluate the orthodoxy or hereticalness of some particular claim, such as universalism?

what IS heretical )

what is orthodox )

the value of orthodoxy )
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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