Carl Trueman has a helpful post, actually it’s the preface for a forthcoming book, at the Gospel Coalition:
We live in an age when the challenges to Christianity, theological and practical (if one can separate such), are pressing in from all sides. Perhaps the most obvious challenge is the issue of homosexuality. Given the high pastoral stakes in this matter, it is important that we make the right decisions.
What has this to do with the thought of a man who died nearly 350 years ago? Simply this: in our era much practical thinking is driven by emotions. Emotions are enemies of fine distinctions. And yet the ethical and practical issues facing the church today demand precisely such fine distinctions if we are to do our task as pastors and church members: comfort the brokenhearted and rebuke those at ease in their sin. And John Owen was of an era when fine distinctions were part of the very fabric of practical theology.
In the early twentieth century Ireland was a socially conservative, Catholic nation with significant laws against abortion. Women who became pregnant out of wedlock were shunned by society and turned to religious workhouses for shelter and sustenance both for them and for their children. Their children were given in adoption, often to parents in the United States. The mothers did not have the option to keep their babies and, further, had to “pay their debt” by two to three years of labor.
A scandal has erupted after the bodies of hundreds of children (actually 800) have been discovered in a septic tank at the site of one of these workhouses that was once operated by an order of Roman Catholic nuns. It seems that most of these children died before the age of one and with the major causes of death providing some evidence of abuse: malnutrition, measles, convulsions, tuberculosis, gastroenteritis and pneumonia. At the time the mortality rate in Ireland sat at or around 50%, which is something one never really picks up on simply by observing Tom Branson on Downtown Abbey.
Rod Dreher reflects on the horror of this tragedy in The American Conservative with a couple of paragraphs that really pack a punch:
…[T]his revolting monument to ecclesial and social evil does not obviate the importance of marriage, nor does it obviate the truth of Christianity. It does not make unwed childbearing good or desirable. But it does condemn a Catholic Ireland that saw sexual purity as more important than human life, or common decency.
To children. Children seen by Christ’s own consecrated brides as so filthy they deserved burial in a septic tank.
And it behooves people like me, who bemoan the cruelties and disorder of our own post-Christian era, to recognize that the order whose passing we mourn contains within it many things that are better off consigned to hell.
Dreher’s words are sobering. They are a stark reminder that theological orthodoxy is not a guarantee of common decency, let alone holiness.
“Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” This tricky little statement appears on the Presbyterian Panel Study, a statistical sample of responses to a set of questions posed to PC (USA) teaching elders, ruling elders, and members over a three year period.
Less than 50% of respondents typically agree or strongly agree with that statement. This often leads to the conclusion that the PC (USA) is functionally universalist in theology. Many attempting to be dismissed from the PC (USA) point to this as a central issue precipitating their departure. in 2010 Peter Chang, administrator of the survey, reached thatconclusion himself.
“There seems to be some universalist streak in Presbyterianism, where some Presbyterians are open to the idea of other paths that folks in other faiths might be taking.”
Is the PC (USA) functionally universalist? It’s understandable that many reach this conclusion, but probably not warranted on the basis of this survey question alone. In other words, to argue that the PC (USA) is functionally universalist, it’s necessary to point to evidence other than this survey.
In my view, it’s the question itself that is problematic. It forces the respondent to venture out into the realm of God’s possibilities stepping beyond Scripture into speculative theology.
Respondents who disagree may do so for a variety of reasons including the belief that God, in himself, is not limited in what he can do. The answer is technically true, but intellectually unsatisfactory because it poses a question whose answer tells us more about the nature of God in himself than it does about the way God acts in the world. It moves into the realm of speculative theology and out of the realm of biblical theology (i.e., theology that has the Bible as it’s evidentiary foundation). The response moves into the world of medieval-like theology where scholars discussed matters like, “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” To be sure, the nature of the relationship of the spiritual to the temporal and material is not unimportant, but I think we’d all agree that (at least superficially) the answer to this question has little to do with our experience of God today.
It’s sort of like another question–a perennial favorite of youth groups–“can God make a rock so heavy that He is unable to lift it?” The best answer I can come up with is, “why would God want to do this?”
Calvin had little time for speculative theology like this. His theological method was driven by appealing to the text of Scripture, which he read primarily in relationship to other parts of Scripture in consultation with the teaching of the Church Fathers. We do well to follow him.
In following Calvin, and in reading this question closely, we will likely be forced to be open to God’s ability to save those who are not followers of Christ, at least hypothetically.However, “can God save those who are not followers of Jesus Christ” is not the same thing as “will God save those who are not followers of Jesus Christ?” The former is a question of ability or power, the latter a question of intention.
In the end, we don’t know whom God will save other than to say–with the Scriptures–that he will save his elect. Wisdom is found in the Westminster Confession which notes:
The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened. [14.1]
Put simply: God ordinarilysaves those who (1) encounter the Gospel message, (2) are enabled by God’s Spirit to embrace it, and (3) respond in faith to the message they have heard, by (4) turning away from their sin, and (5) relying on Christ to be their surety and substitute.
To the extent that Teaching Elders in the PC (USA) tend to enter into speculative theological answers in reference to this tricky question and not the Confessional heritage of the church is really the central problem. As a result, I’m more comfortable saying that the PC (USA) is un-catechized than that it is functionally universalist. Both, to be sure, are significant problems.
[T]he creation of all good things in the world for the benefit and enjoyment of humans is not…an end in itself, but is rather the way God initially reveals to humankind that he is the author and fountain of every good thing. Our use and enjoyment of the good things of creation is not intended by God to be an end in itself, but is rather the way God allures and invites us to seek him as the source of every good thing.”
Randall Zachman, “The Universe as the Living Image of God” in Oliver D. Crisp, Retrieving Doctrine: Essays in Reformed Theology (IVP 2013).