Friday, April 7, 2017

George Sarris on Universalism

I've done much study on both theological unitarianism and universalism as it relates to the era of the American Founding. Notable divines, both unitarian and trinitarian, influenced notable American Founders, again both unitarian and trinitarian. As the trinitarian Benjamin Rush put it:
At Dr. Finley’s school, I was more fully instructed in those principles by means of the Westminster catechism. I retained them without any affection for them until about the year 1780. I then read for the first time Fletcher’s controversy with the Calvinists, in favor of the universality of the atonement. This prepared my mind to admit the doctrine of universal salvation, which was then preached in our city by the Rev. Mr. Winchester. It embraced and reconciled my ancient Calvinistical and my newly adopted Arminian principles. From that time I have never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men. My conviction of the truth of this doctrine was derived from reading the works of Stonehouse, Seigvolk, White, Chauncey and Winchester, and afterwards from an attentive perusal of the Scriptures. I always admitted with each of those authors future punishment, and of long duration.
Rush listed most of the "big names" who influenced the universalism of the American Founding, but left one big one out: John Murray.

Today, George Sarris operates in that tradition. He has a book out on the matter entitled "Heaven's Doors: Wider Than You Ever Believed!" Theologians come to the universalist conclusion by using a combination of reason and revelation. What's distinguished about the more traditional universalism is the extent to which it takes the Bible seriously and seeks to justify its claims with biblical texts. We see this in Rush's above quotation.

Likewise, Sarris both believes in the inerrancy of scripture (in its original languages) and is a convinced universalist. And he can answer every single claim that is brought against him.

Something else that distinguishes the classical universalists is their belief in the seriousness of future punishment. The idea is there is a future state of rewards and punishments. And for the unsaved, they may be punished for ages before they are restored.

See the clip of the interview below with Eric Metaxas, who seems to have a great deal of respect for Sarris and his position. Listen till the end, whereas Sarris is a convinced universalist, Metaxas is hopeful that it is true. He even says he thinks all Christians hope this is true. I suspect most of them do. The decent ones. The ones who don't -- Pastors Sam Anderson, Fred Phelps -- make the religion seem like something not worth believing in. (In my opinion.)


Tom Van Dyke said...

My concern of late--especially with young historians seeking a "brand" [say being the world's foremost expert on the lesbian Zoroastrians of frontier-era Wisconsin]--is that the footnotes get elevate to status of the main text. "History" becomes no more than an undifferentiated laundry list of people and events, each achieving only subjective importance.

But this tells us nothing of the river. As the narrative of history gives way to the more fashionable method of "people" [read race, class, gender], we should at least be permitted to request at least some statistical rigor as befits a science and not an essay contest.

IOW, how many "universalists" were there, really? What effect did they have on anything?

If the answer is "few," and "none," that should be noted as well. The inescapable fact is that the twin fads of unitarianism and universalism were practically extinct when the two failing movements were forced to merge in 1961 as today's "Unitarian Universalist Church," which can no longer reasonably call itself Christian, since it rejects the Bible as Divine Writ and doesn't even require a belief in God.

The more interesting theo-social inquiry is how these liberal post-Protestant fads joined the liberal Protestant mainline itself in being absorbed and subsumed by the modern age, and indeed became superfluous as actual religions: One secures his own salvation by his works and politically correct opinions; The Cross and Resurrection are no longer needed.


Joseph Bottum, by contrast, examines post-Protestant secular religion with empathy, and contends that it gained force and staying power by recasting the old Mainline Protestantism in the form of catechistic worldly categories: anti-racism, anti-gender discrimination, anti-inequality, and so forth. What sustains the heirs of the now-defunct Protestant consensus, he concludes, is a sense of the sacred, but one that seeks the security of personal salvation through assuming the right stance on social and political issues. Precisely because the new secular religion permeates into the pores of everyday life, it sustains the certitude of salvation and a self-perpetuating spiritual aura. Secularism has succeeded on religious terms. That is an uncommon way of understanding the issue, and a powerful one.

A devout Catholic, Bottum may be America’s best writer on religion. He surely is the least predictable...

Jonathan Rowe said...

"The more interesting theo-social inquiry is how these liberal post-Protestant fads joined the liberal Protestant mainline itself in being absorbed and subsumed by the modern age, and indeed became superfluous as actual religions"

Potential point of agreement. I think Joseph Waligore noted that the heirs of the 18th Century "Christian-Deism" -- similar to Dr. Frazer's "theistic rationalists" and the Christian "unitarians" and "universalists" of the American Founding -- are today's liberal Protestants, the Emergent Church types.

As capital letter movements -- capital Us, official Churches -- you may be correct in terms of them never taking off and then merging into something that is so uncommitted that it's no longer discernibly "Christian."

But in the late 18th Century, they were small u's, part of existing Protestant Churches that were historically connected to orthodox creeds. Priestley's Presbyterianism, Jefferson's Anglicanism/Episcopalianism. Adams' Congregationalism, etc.

That's arguably where they still are today.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well, unitarianism is dead, except as a recurring heresy ala Arianism, which dates back to 300 CE, well before Luther let alone the post-Protestants of the modern age.

As for universalism, it seems shocking compared to Calvinism, but again, we need the Protestant milieu for context. In the history of the greater Christian religion--which is to say the Catholic Church--"universal salvation" [apokatastasis] as a concept is hardly shocking or exceptional.*

In fact, the universalists contemplated something like the Catholic "purgatory," of punishment for one's sins, although not eternal. This still preserved the theo-political utility of "a future state of rewards and punishments", and a requirement to believe in that future state is still in the constitutions of Pennsylvania and Tennessee!


*"This doctrine was explicitly taught by St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in more than one passage. It first occurs in his "De animâ et resurrectione" (P.G., XLVI, cols. 100, 101) where, in speaking of the punishment by fire assigned to souls after death, he compares it to the process whereby gold is refined in a furnace, through being separated from the dross with which it is alloyed. The punishment by fire is not, therefore, an end in itself, but is ameliorative; the very reason of its infliction is to separate the good from the evil in the soul. The process, moreover, is a painful one; the sharpness and duration of the pain are in proportion to the evil of which each soul is guilty; the flame lasts so long as there is any evil left to destroy. A time, then, will come, when all evil shall cease to be since it has no existence of its own apart from the free will, in which it inheres; when every free will shall be turned to God, shall be in God, and evil shall have no more wherein to exist."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Like I said I suspect that most devout Christians like Metaxas at least hope universalism along the lines that St. Gregory of Nyssa taught is true. A great deal of traditional Roman Catholics (Bishop Barron, Cardinal Dulles) have come to this position.

Likewise with the trinity, Jefferson has a quote where he said if most Christians were candidly introspective on the Trinity they would admit unitarianism to be true. That's probably not accurate. However, Trenchard and Gordon had a quote something along the lines of most Christians are agnostic on how the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit relate to one another.

I have a more respect for the UU Church than you do. Though it seems history has spoken that unitarianism and universalism worked better as doctrines that Protestants are free to endorse, ponder, etc., as opposed to doctrines on which to build entire Churches around naming them with capital Us.

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

At this point, with absolutely nothing in common with each other except being in the same room, this "church" cannot be spoken of intelligibly except as a social group.

"We are thousands of individuals of all ages, each influenced by our cultures and life experiences to understand “the ground of our being” in our own way. Unitarian Universalists are agnostic, theist, atheist, and everything in between."

And now that it's down to ~150,000 members, it's a footnote regardless.