Divine generosity

To begin with, a little Christmas quiz. Who wrote the following?

I am fully persuaded that the vast majority of the human race will share in the beatitudes and glories of our Lord’s redemption.

I’ve noticed a few Methodist friends who blog following a meme asking them to post five things they love about being Methodist. Obviously, we couldn’t do it as Baptists (how to get it down to only five?!), but it has struck me that they, and others they link to, all one way or another pick up on the Arminianism of the tradition, usually by contrasting the openness of Methodist soteriology with an imagined opposing view that salvation is limited to ‘the chosen few’.

Chatting with another Methodist friend, Tom Greggs, when he came up to give us an excellent paper on ‘pessimistic universalism’ last month, we began swapping notes on views on the extent of salvation amongst various Calvinists. It struck us that we could not, between us, think of a significant theologian in the tradition who was not convinced that those who God elects would far outnumber those who would finally be lost. Tom had done some research into Calvin’s own speculations about the number of the elect, which varied widely, but (he told me) in every case suggested a large confidence on Calvin’s part that there were many in his day beyond the nascent Reformed churches who God would save. I thought about the later tradition, where two factors – a dogmatic decision that all who die as infants are elect, and a postmillennial eschatology that saw a coming thousand-year period of such health and prosperity that the population of the world would vastly increase, and when virtually all would be Christian – led every theologian I know who asked the question to believe that the elect would significantly outnumber the reprobate.

This seems to me interesting, because it is a position that most dogmatic Calvinists today do not hold, and this different vision of God’s generosity (or otherwise) must seriously affect their theology and spirituality. To believe both in predestination, and that God’s election is limited to a few, seems to me enormously difficult to square with a Biblical presentation of God’s character, and with the seriousness and significance of Christ’s atoning work. If this were the only option, I could understand my Methodist friends’ commitment to their Arminianism (although I probably still couldn’t share it…)

The quotation I began with? A dangerous liberal revisionist theologian by the name of Charles Hodge. It is reported in his son Archibald Alexander Hodge’s Evangelical Theology, where AA acknowledges that much is uncertain about eschatology, but lists six points that he believes are certain and uncontroversial. The fifth begins:

Although heaven can only be entered by the holy, yet such, we are assured, is the infinite provision made for human salvation, and such the intense love for human sinners therein exhibited, that the multitude of the redeemed will be incomparably greater than the number of the lost. My father, at the close of his long life spent in the defence of Calvinism, wrote on one of his conference papers, in trembling characters, a little while before he died, “I am fully persuaded that the vast majority of the human race will share in the beatitudes and glories of our Lord’s redemption.” …(p. 401 of the Banner edition)

The five points of Dort can only be called ‘doctrines of grace’ if they assume this fundamental divine generosity; this is, to my mind, authentic Calvinism.

3 Comments

  1. Chris E
    Dec 23, 2009

    Perhaps it was easier in some ways in Calvin’s day because the full extent of the world wasn’t really known.

    The main problem that any orthodox Christian theologian of any stripe asserting ‘pessimistic universalism’ would face would be the inevitable questions about the mechanisms whereby millions of people believing in different religions end up in heaven (and I don’t think Arminianism helps this at all).

    • Steve H
      Dec 23, 2009

      Hi Chris. Yes. I’m very unconvinced by the universalist case (all the strong arguments for universalism come, it seems to me, from an inability to give a decently theological account of hell) – and no, Arminianism doesn’t help. I think you’re right about our knowledge of the world – I fairly often comment to my students that theologians writing between the fifth and the seventeenth century may well have never met someone who was not a baptised Christian.
      As I noted in the post, the classical Calvinist tradition solved the problem eschatologically (so Edwards and Hodge): the number of the faithful in the coming millennium will outweigh massively the unbelief of every earlier generation.

      • Chris E
        Dec 23, 2009

        Though in that case the Methodist thought that their soteriology is more open is a little bit of a conceit – they’ve just shifted the problem elsewhere – helped no doubt by the view of Calvinists as dour types.

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  1. Rob Bell’s A Heretic? Not So Fast My Friends…. « Reformed and Always Reforming - [...] will share in the beatitudes and glories of our Lord’s redemption.” Stephen Holmes, on his blog Shored Fragments, comments …
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