By Paul Helm–

I’ve read more than once the claim that most early Christians were universalists. And this is occasionally supported by the further opinion that several early (first six centuries) theological schools were universalist in their teaching. This seems implausible to me. However, I’m certainly not someone who is a student of the history of the early church. So what am I to do? I’m to look for evidence.

What is clear is that there is a steep, sharp decline from the theological writing of the New Testament and what one finds among early Christian writings. ‘Rabbi’ Duncan once amusingly said ‘It is a mistake to look to the Fathers as our seniors. They were our juniors. The Church has advanced wonderfully since its foundation was laid. Polycarp would have stood a bad chance in an examination by John Owen. I think I could have posed him myself.’

Still, this belief in a decline in theological quality in the immediate post-Apostolic church is rather different from the claim about universalism, which seems much more dubious.

To start with, it would seem that the opinion that most early Christians were universalists is impossible to test. Who are these Christians? Where have most of them left any traces of holding such beliefs? Is this evidence written? Do these Christians themselves make the claim? In making the claim, do they explicitly controvert the non-universalist sentiments of the NT? Is there evidence in the liturgies of the early church that they embodied or gave expression or tacit assent to universalism?

Here is some readily available evidence that points in the opposite direction, of clear particularism.

Clement of Rome

‘Let us fix our thoughts on the Blood of Christ; and reflect how precious that Blood is in God’s eyes, inasmuch as its outpouring for our salvation has opened the race of repentance to all mankind. 25-6

38 Again, God says to Him, Sit down at my right hand, until I make your enemies a cushion for your feet. Who are these enemies? Why, wicked persons who set themselves against His will. 38

Ignatius

‘Regarding the rest of mankind, you should pray for them unceasingly, for we can always hope that repentance may enable them to find their way to God’. 64

’…..how much more when a man’s subversive doctrines defile the God-given Faith for which Jesus Christ was crucified. Such a wretch in his uncleanness is bound for the unquenchable fire, and so is anyone else who gives him a hearing.’ 65

‘….the Cross which so greatly offends the unbelievers, but is salvation and eternal life to us’ 65-6

‘To profess any other name than that is to be lost to God….’72

‘Flee for your very life from these men; they are poisonous growths with a deadly fruit, and one taste of it is speedily fatal.’ 81

‘His passion was no unreal illusion, as some skeptics aver who are all unreality themselves. The fate of those wretches will match their unbelief, for one day they will similarly become phantoms without substance themselves.’101

‘For let nobody be under any delusion; there is judgment in store even for the hosts of heaven, the very angels in glory, the visible and invisible powers themselves, if they have no faith in the blood of Christ’.102

Polycarp

‘All things in heaven and earth have been made subject to Him; everything that breathes mays Him homage; He comes to judge the living and the dead, and God will require His blood at the hands of any who refuse him allegiance’ 119

The Martydom of Polycarp

‘The other said again, “If you do not recant, I will have your burnt to death, since you think so lightly of wild beasts”. Polycarp rejoined, “The fire you threaten me with cannot go on burning for very long; after a while it goes out. But what you are unaware of are the flames of future judgment and everlasting torment which are in store for the ungodly. Why do you go on wasting time? Bring out whatever you have a mind to” ’.128

Barnabas

‘For when the Lord judges the world there is going to be no partiality; everyone will be recompensed in proportion to what he has done. If he is a good man, his righteousness will make the way smooth before him; but if he is a bad man, the wages of his wickedness will be waiting to confront him.’163

‘For the man who does this, there will be glory in the kingdom of God; but one who prefers the other Way will perish together with his works. 181-2

The Didache

‘After that, all humankind will come up for their fiery trial; multitudes of them will stumble and perish, but such as remain steadfast in the faith will be saved by the Curse’ 198

[These extracts are from Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, revised and provided with Introductions and new editorial material by Andrew Louth. (Penguin Books, 1987)]

This looks reasonable evidence regarding the general outlook of the Apostolic Fathers. No doubt some of the expressions, taken in isolation, are consistent with universalism by way of a speculation about purgatiorial cleansing, and none of them has been formed within debates about particularism and universalism which at that time does not seem to have been an issue at all. Was this general outlook overturned in the first centuries to follow? Is there evidence for this?

The same questions can be raised about the alleged positions of the theological schools of the Patristic period. How do they treat those New Testament routinely appealed to by universalists? Isn’t it extremely odd that a controversially-minded writer such as Augustine, writing in the fifth century, did not spot any such deviancy of the theological schools of his day or of the past from what he, at least, regarded as Christian orthodoxy, particularism and a clear teaching regarding heaven and hell?

Origen’s widely-noted universalism appears to have been the thought of one individual with a few followers, and (in the words of N.T. Wright) ‘seems to have been more Platonic than biblical.’ But one swallow does not make a summer. The view was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553.

Of course none of this evidence provides a powerful argument against universalism. But it does carry a presumption about the early church, not only its writers, but also, presumably, its rank and file. In the face of such data it cannot plausibly be argued that what we may now regard as traditionalist teaching on particularism, and on heaven and hell, flies in the face of the universalist teaching or attitude of the early church. For it clearly does not.

The trouble with these claims that we have been examining, vague and insubstantial as they appear, is that once they get into print that fact alone provides credibility to the view, at least to some minds. But printer’s ink is no substitute for evidence. Another reminder of the importance of primary sources, and the danger that what may count as ‘scholarship’ may in fact be nothing other than the retailing of opinions that no-one ever takes the trouble to check.

 

Paul Helm was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, and was for many years a member of the Philosophy Department of the University of Liverpool. From 1993-2000 he was the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London. In 2001 he was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Helm is the author of numerous journal articles and books. Some of his most well-know books include Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed. 

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7 Comments

  • One strong argument that I’ve found helpful against the notion that the early church was composed of universalists is Tertullian’s and Irenaeus’ discussions of the Rule of Faith. Both state as basic to the rule of faith that God will condemn the wicked to eternal suffering.

    Tertullian writes,
    Now, with regard to this rule of faith—that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend—it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen “in diverse manners” by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics. (On Prescription against Heretics, ch.13; emphasis added)

    Irenaeus writes,
    1. The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess”to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,”and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. (Against Heresies Book 1, ch.10.1; emphasis added).

    Irenaeus is very clear in the section following this quote (1.10.2) that this is church doctrine taught throughout the church wherever it has spread. Including Germany, Spain, Gaul, the East, Egypt, Libya, etc.

    The strength of appealing to the Rule of Faith, I think, is the authors are defending a set of beliefs common to all the church and they routinely and almost as a mere matter of fact include the judgment and eternal condemnation of the wicked. They aren’t focussing on defending this issue of hell per se against specific opponent (e.g. a universalist). They are just as a matter of course arguing true church doctrine is consistent and outlining the center of that doctrine.

    I suppose a weakness of appealing to the rule of faith in Tertullian and Irenaeus would be one could argue that Tertullian and Irenaeus are just applying their beliefs to the church at large, but then such statement reveals more about the person making the argument. Of course, reading church history through the lens of 20th century conspiracy theories is not way to do solid historical work.

    Blessings,
    Tim Bertolet

  • I’d never, ever suggest that pious martyrs like Polycarp and Ignatius are our “juniors” – that is Protestant arrogance at its worse. Somebody is going to be blushing when he greets these saints in heaven!

  • Don’s comment makes an unfortunate category mistake. Giving them the benefit of the doubt, neither Helm nor “rabbi Duncan” are questioning the spiritual devotion and faithfulness of these early church fathers (which puts us all to shame), only their theological precision. Even a Catholic would recognize the sharp difference between the robust Trinitarian theology of the 4th-5th centuries and earlier writers. The church fathers were not “stupid” in that regard, they were just not confronted with the same sense of urgency to settle the Trinitarian questions of a later day.

  • As per usual a Biblical doctrine is “proved” by quoting men. The Bible tells us in Luke 6:27 But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Then you tell me God hates all mankind and will torment them for all eternity, except for a few that go to your church? See tentmaker.org

  • There are variations of what is called “Universalism”. Scripture makes it clear that hell exists (or will exist) and it will not be empty. The question as to who goes there is one worthy of careful consideration.

    Those who willfully reject Christ will be condemned (John 3:36, Acts 13:46). “Pagans” who persist in disobedience will be condemned (Romans 1:28-32).

    The main issue for me is what about the “good pagans” who did not have the opportunity to respond to the Gospel? I think that an intelligent argument can be made that they will only be held responsible for whatever “light” has been made available to them. God is responsible for when and where a person lives (Acts 17:26). Romans 10:18 (which quotes Psalm 19 about the heavens declaring the glory of God) states that everyone that “hears” because of God’s creative work. If one can hypothetically be condemned for rejecting what the book of nature has to say about the Creator then the converse must be true as well; one can obtain salvation by positively responding to what nature reveals about the Creator.

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