Friday, 14 August 2015

Boundless Salvation?

My experience of Boundless was strictly limited – very definitely not infinite! I was able to attend just two sessions of Boundless Theology, the one day event at William Booth College that closed the Congress’ activities on the Monday. From a range of options I chose a first session on teaching patterns in local churches - corps and SA ministries. It wasn’t strictly theological, being largely a discussion of how the pedagogical theory of “learning styles” can be applied in ministry.
The second and final session I was able to attend was on the doctrine of hell, with Phil Garnham. It was theological; it was well structured; it was strongly and persuasively argued. The title was “Endless Punishment – Is salvation really boundless?” What follows is a brief synopsis, with some verbatim quotes. 
Catherine Booth
The session started with some thoughts on Catherine Booth. Although there is a “massive weight of scripture against female ministry” she showed that this was not the only strand in the Bible. It was a shame, given her ability to show a counter argument in such a way, that she did not live long enough to engage with the doctrine of hell. (The fact that William outlived her by 22 years and never rethought the position was not mentioned.)
The main streams of Christian thought on the matter were then sketched out: annihilationists/conditionalists, for whom there is a final death as opposed to endless punishment;  universalists (though this term was not used, as I recall), for whom there will be an ultimate reconciliation of all people in Christ;  and those who believe in an eternal hell. William Booth was a passionate advocate of this last, traditional doctrine of hell.
There followed a brief discussion of the biblical language used to describe the destination of people after death. One conclusion was that, with regard to Gehenna, “there is no irrefutable evidence that can lead to any certain understanding of the meaning of the word.”
This opens the possibility of the burning rubbish dump being something akin to purgatory (although that word was not used). For restorationists there will be a “purifying fire that will prepare us for the coming life with the God of love.”
Jacobus Arminius
Reference was made to the SA's Arminian roots. “We are against Calvinism - the terrible doctrine. Calvinism can't speak of the God of love in any meaningful sense. A dark doctrine indeed.” But then we were told of the “dark side of Arminian theology” – that salvation is “utterly bounded by the choices of human beings. We stress the love of God but we lose the boundlessness due to our sinful choices.”
A way out of these theological black holes and into a truly boundless view of salvation began with the assertion that there is “no clear cut scripture to say you must decide for Christ before you die.” 1 Peter 3:19 was cited as hinting at post mortem evangelism. And where our sinful nature makes choosing the right path seemingly impossible, “what is impossible with man is possible with God.” God's sovereignty and human free will can be seen together in the illustration of the chess grandmaster, whose defeat of a novice is utterly certain, even as the novice plays his best using his own free decisions along the way. So God will universally outwit human choices that at present seem to thwart his grace.
The argument’s conclusion was that the strongest biblical case is for ultimate reconciliation of all in Christ, after the ‘purifying flame’ for those who do not accept Christ in this life. This really is boundless salvation. God has no dark side. The whole world really will be redeemed!
It was affirmed (as an approving answer to a suggestion from the floor) that the doctrine of hell was developed by the mediaeval church to control the masses. It is not Biblical at all.
Finally, William Booth’s understanding of hell as a place of conscious torment was criticised, humorously, on the grounds that “he didn’t even work out that dead bodies don't have nerve endings.” 
Now, much could be said about all of this. In the theological tradition from which I come, conditional immortality, or annihilationism, is a more common option than universalism, as we recoil from the appalling weight and horror of the traditional teaching, but debates have also frequently touched on the kind of universalism discussed at Boundless Theology. I found it fascinating. Universalism of the Barthian type, which marries the Calvinistic notion of the efficacy of the atonement (all for whom Christ died will certainly be saved) with the Arminian notion of the extent of the atonement (Christ died for all) seems to be what is in view, although what place does this “purifying flame” have in the light of grace? Unless the flame is instantaneous (perhaps 'in the twinkling of an eye’ as some have put it), or is simply a symbol of a purifying with no element of pain or suffering at all, it seems to reintroduce God as celestial Torturer at some level, even if not an eternal one. The Cosmic Chess player wins – by burning his foes till they inevitably submit? Too many questions were raised for me by that thought.
With regard to the exegetical questions, I had that feeling, as so often in contemporary theological discussions, that what we were left with was the summing of a number of “the word COULD mean this” arguments. In each phase, the understanding of a text is picked from one end of a spectrum of possible semantic options, and then a number of such similar results is brought together to form a conclusion. A “possible reading” on top of a “possible reading” on top of a “possible reading”. But the “sum” often seems so out of kilter with all traditional understandings of scripture, so utterly modern, that we are left gasping. In this case, I was left wondering how on earth Paul could ever have described the Thessalonians’ experience of the gospel in this way:
1 Thessalonians 1:9b-10 They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
That sure sounds like more than a benign purifying flame to me!
But the glaring issue for me is even more basic than the truth value of what was taught. The debate can and should be had, of course. But the context of the debate is everything. My concern has to do with the nature of the Soldier’s and Officer’s covenant within the Salvation Army. The lecture was given at William Booth College. I believe that similar material and arguments are brought to the attention of cadets who are candidates for officership at the college. Clearly a range of "options is taught, but there is no doubt that this kind of Universalism is in the air. The cadets who go on to officership (the vast majority) will stand in Central Hall, Westminster and affirm their belief in the following statement:
Statue of William Booth at the college
that bears his name
We believe in the immortality of the soul; in the resurrection of the body; in the general judgement at the end of the world; in the eternal happiness of the righteous; and in the endless punishment of the wicked.
What seems to me to be problematic is any implication that it might be possible to agree with the teaching of the lecture and still make such an affirmation. Whatever one makes of the session, and whatever one makes of the Eleventh Doctrine of the Salvation Army, to see them as compatible requires a degree of Orwellian doublethink (glorified now as postmodern deconstruction) that takes the breath away and leaves words, affirmations, vows and covenants with no real meaning or value at all. Someone who can believe the content of the Boundless Salvation? lecture and affirm Doctrine 11 seems to me to be in the position of a bridegroom who can vow “forsaking all others” while harbouring the express intention of sleeping around, starting with the bridesmaids. There is a catastrophic failure of integrity.
I know what it is to minister under the cloud of broken integrity. I left the ministry after a pressure built within me over a period of years that my words and thoughts and actions did not match up. I am not a Perfectionist (one reason why I am an adherent not a soldier), and I know that every preacher is a sinner, but I felt that I had reached the point where “the lie” was just too big and I could not in any way look to God to bless my ministry. I left the work I loved.
A significant proportion of SA cadets come from Corps where the Doctrines have never been stressed. Some have never read the whole Bible. Although a range of positions is taught at the college, I think it would be fair to say that the pervasive atmosphere is one of some hostility or at least mockery towards traditionalism and excited embrace of the new and radical. Cadets’ positions by the end of their time at college thus reflect a whole range of influences and “options”. A significant number are Universalists. (A thoughtful, and certainly not fundamentalist, friend from a recent Session put the proportion at perhaps a quarter “open” to this, with a handful fully convinced and keen to persuade others. The remaining 75% were a mix of Traditionalists and Annihilationists, with the proportions of those two groups hard to determine as in his Session it was Universalism which was more of a live issue.) As cadets prepare for commissioning, the issue of what to do with the Doctrines, and especially Doctrine 11, becomes pressing. How do the non-traditionalists, both Universalists and Annihilationists, deal with the moment of doctrinal affirmation in Central Hall?

I have heard discussion of a number of possible solutions. Some would sidestep by saying that the affirmation is not one of personal belief but of “this is what the Salvation Army as a body teaches.” But that is not what the preamble says. Some may only soundlessly mouth the words at commissioning, or shut their mouths for the final phrase. Perhaps still others say the words, but with reservations or downright disagreement. 
Sometimes people say that Universalism or Annihilationism were not live options at the time the Army was founded – that Booth’s very strong emphasis on Hell was not tested by contemporary alternatives. This is akin to the Catherine Booth argument in the seminar – ‘if she had lived long enough... if he had known of other views... they would not have insisted on this doctrine, and we can make our “affirmation” knowing that the trajectory of the Army was towards a more liberal view.’ But the premise is wrong – the other options were very much alive back then. The intended meaning of the Doctrine is not in any debate. In a paper on “How to use the Bible” the General wrote:
There are plenty of arguments designed to lessen the importance of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, or to explain away its merit altogether, although the spirit of that sacrifice and the blessing it brings are the glory of the Bible. There is plenty of interpretation of the Bible which vainly attempts to explain away the punishment of the wicked, so clearly announced in its pages. Take away those things, and the Bible becomes not only ordinary, but an uninteresting book, to be neither feared nor cared for.
A frequent mantra is that “doctrine changes” or that “doctrines change”. But they don’t. People change – what they once believed, they no longer believe. Ditto, churches. Doctrinal statements remain, and people and churches of integrity who find that they have shifted theologically don’t claim to believe the same forms of words they used to affirm. Where the doctrines remain, unedited, in black and white, they should challenge the consciences of those who say they believe them, but think and teach otherwise.
To repeat, I am not saying that there is no cogency in the Universalist case as presented. Nor am I disputing the value of debate. Nor am I even defending the Doctrines of the Salvation Army as such – after all, I am not a soldier precisely because I cannot affirm some of them. But I am pleading for integrity in ministry – in teaching and at commissioning and in the ongoing preparation of soldiers and candidates.
When I was ordained, it was, I think, with integrity. I was a sinner, but there was no intrinsic lie built into the intentions of that day in and of itself. Over the years, of professionalisation and temptation, I lost that, and left. But it makes me tremble to think of building in a lie right at the very beginnings of ministry. For that is what it is: for every effort to deconstruct and mollify it, a person who affirms belief in Doctrine 11 while believing in Universal Salvation, or Annihilation for that matter, is telling a lie.

The Salvation Army is justifiably conscious of its own history as a church. There is much mention of the Founder, and his hymns are sung and his words are quoted frequently. But there is a certain hypocrisy in such fondness if the doctrine which was so central to his motivation to do all that he did is fudged in this way. What would Booth, who wrote “We have not developed and improved into Universalism, Unitarianism, or Nothingarianism, or any other form of infidelity, and we don’t expect to”, make of the Boundless lecture? What would WB make of WBC?
And more. There are many thousands who believe the Doctrines and who by their giving maintain WBC and support its ministry and the ministry of those who are trained there. Such people would be surprised by the assertion that there is no biblical support telling people that they must put things right with God in this life. They would be more surprised still by the idea that a Salvationist might teach a kind of purgatory, followed by universal salvation.  To accept support from such people and teach something utterly different is really a kind of theft. So long as one humble supporter believes the Doctrines as written, let our consciences bind us, or take us elsewhere.
The Salvation Army is dying in the UK. To quote a friend, who culled these figures: “in the 1960’s there were around 100,000 senior Soldiers in the UK Territory. By 1998 it had reached 48,000. Today it’s at 27,000.” There is a caveat: “the curve is getting less steep, and we weren’t as efficient in measuring stats in the 1960s. And in the UK soldiership isn't the best way to measure the size of the Army, as in many places attendance is on the rise, but people don’t commit to soldiership (or adherency) in the same way any more.” Even so, the situation is dire.
I personally believe that the only way ahead is to proclaim the old truths, graciously but uncompromisingly, and in contemporarily relevant forms; it is to stick to the gospel as preached by the founders with new fervour and prayerfulness. Others may think that a Universalist message is what is needed. In my opinion this has not helped the other denominations that have shrunk even further than we have as they have gone down the liberal route, and in any case, no one has the right to teach Universalism under the banner of the Salvation Army. But what is really clear is that we can’t go down both these paths at once and maintain any credibility. The Army and the UK need a clear and coherent message, preached with integrity.

Integrity in preaching is not a matter of doctrine only. The subject of Doctrine 11, as with other Doctrines, but particularity so, demands an integrity of the whole person. To “believe” Doctrine 11 glibly or flippantly is not really to believe it at all. Part of the recovery of doctrinal integrity in the Army will be the recovery of seriousness and earnestness. People of humanity, humour and warmth we may be, we must be, but people of flippancy or silliness about this doctrine we dare not be. To believe it is to tremble.  To believe it is to look on the world with concern and pity and compassion and love. To believe it is to take action. The doctrine is a call to arms - to preach and reach out and argue and persuade with all love and urgency. 

No challenge to cadets could be more worthy of the college that bears William Booth’s name than that.  

May God help us all. 


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