Monday, March 1, 2010

The Universalist Heresy


One of the criticisms being leveled against the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America by the disaffected and dissidents who are storming the exits is that it has embraced the heresy of universal salvation. “Evidence” for the charge typically cites two sources, a page on the ELCA website dealing with salvation and a footnote on Matthew 28:16-20 in Lutheran Study Bible published by Augsburg Fortress.

An example of the charge can be found here. (Warning: Click that link at your own risk. Viewing the site requires a high tolerance for tiresome alarmism and shoddy theology).

The ELCA web page quotes extensively from Dr. Carl Braaten, who has written very critically of the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly decisions on homosexuality. As I understand Dr. Braaten’s statement, it is a declaration of the universal scope of Christ’s saving act, not an endorsement of a doctrine of universalism. That's a fine distinction. Let me see if I can make it clearer:

You who charge the ELCA with universalism, tell me, did Jesus die for all people or not?

As for the Lutheran Study Bible footnote, it was written by Dr. Duane Priebe of Wartburg Theological Seminary. Dr. Priebe himself gave a lengthy explanation of that footnote on Erik Ullestad’s blog. It is thoughtful and well-worth reading. Here is an excerpt to whet your appetite:

Christians have never assumed that only those who know and believe in Jesus in this life will participate in salvation in the next. On the most obvious level, that would exclude everyone in the Old Testament.

For myself, I have a strong commitment to the theology of God’s grace. I believe that Jesus died for all people. All means all, but there is one thing that keeps me from being a universalist. I believe just as strongly in God's sovereignty. I believe that salvation is God’s business, not mine. God can, and will, save whom God desires. I am no more a universalist than the man who wrote:

God forbid that I should limit the time for acquiring faith to the present life. In the depths of the divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future state.
Martin Luther, Letter to Hansen von Rechenberg, 1523

I understand that the rhetorical flourish of charging the ELCA with heresy is useful to those who wish to leave the church and take others with them. The charge of universalism, however, is plainly false. It’s time for the disaffected and dissident to adopt a new tactic. Spouting nonsense will not help your cause.

I'm still a big fan of the Augsburg Fortress Lutheran Study Bible. I still don't like Concordia's similarly named The Lutheran Study Bible. Don't be confused by the two. Look for the baby blue Bible.


  1. I LOVE THIS POST! I did not know Dr. Priebe wrote that footnote in question in LSB and thanks for highlighting that perhaps some Lutherans have problems with the universal language of Luther. Perhaps Luther was not "Lutheran" enough for some

  2. Thanks for your kind words. I am told that Dr. Priebe's footnote is being deleted from the second edition of LSB. Pity.

  3. Brant,

    I must have the second edition for mine just reads, "In contrast to 10:5-6, 23, Jesus now sends the disciples to make disciples of all nations. Disciples are students, called for the sake of the world to learn from Jesus and to bear witness to the kingdom."

  4. Is that the entire footnote? In the first edition the note is quite lengthy. It says, in part, "...In contrast to 10:5-6, 23, Jesus now sends the disciples to make disciples of all nations. That does not mean make everyone disciples. Most people who are helped by Jesus and believe in him never become disciples. Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or even know about him (5:3-10, 25:31-45) Disciples are students called for the sake of the world to learn from Jesus and to bear witness to the kingdom..."

    So, clearly a couple of sentences were omitted.

  5. Not the issue. The issue is whether all the people Christ died for will finally be saved. He Himself repeatedly denies this.

    As for the authenticity of the Luther letter, it seems strange that after five hundred years it should come to light now. Frankly, I would be very surprised were it to turn out not to be an invention of some contemporary "Lutheran." It contradicts too much that Luther wrote elsewhere.

  6. Hi, Bob.

    Thanks for your comment. I think that you have missed my point, so I appreciate the opportunity to clarify it.

    First, I am not a universalist. Martin Luther was not a universalist. I am quite sure that neither Carl Braaten nor Duane Priebe is a universalist. The ELCA is not a universalist organization.

    Frankly, I suspect that the specious charge of universalism has been brought against the ELCA by dissidents who, because of the "local option," were not getting enough traction from the sexuality issue. This false charge is being used to keep the people stirred up.

    My question "...did Jesus die for all people or not?" is, I think, precisely on point because this (and not universalism) is what the ELCA teaches. What I called "the universal scope of Christ's saving act" is what the ELCA's webpage and the now amended footnote in Lutheran Study Bible were expressing.

    As for the Rechenberg letter, you are right to question it. From my own reading, I believe that the letter is authentic, though the translation I quoted above may be incorrect. My point was not, of course, that Martin Luther was a universalist. It was exactly the opposite. If I were not a lazy scholar, I am sure that I could dig up other statements of Luther's which, taken out of context, would sound like an argument for universal salvation. This is precisely what has been done to the ELCA by those who charge it with universalism.

  7. Hi, Brant,

    Actually, I'm a former student of Dr. Priebe, and we used Braaten and Jensen in our classes. I think maybe part of the confusion might be in defining the word "universalist."

    I certainly do not mean to suggest that either Dr. Priebe or Dr. Braatan affirm that everybody will finally be saved. In fact, they are careful not to do that, and in that sense, neither are universalists. On the other hand, I don't think I'm doing either an injustice by suggesting that both hold out that possibility- one which Jesus repeatedly excludes in the Gospels, and which Paul repeatedly excludes in his epistles- that such will be the case. Holding out that impossible "possibility" has serious consequences for the authenticity of the proclaimed Gospel, whether one is technically a universalist or not.

    If the possibility Drs. Priebe and Braaten hold out turns out somehow to be justified, I would personally turn summersaults and join my former collegues in the ELCA ministerium, in the cheering. But I don't think an honest reading of the New Testament permits even their non-universalist position. That being the case, the concern their position raises is, I believe, quite legitimate. As a practical matter, what is involved here is precisely the quesiton which the reduction of Scriptural authority to the Gospel itself raises: what happens when the Gospel itself is modified in such a way that it is no longer the authentic Gospel? Does it retain its "living voice," and therefore its authority?

    My problem with the Luther quote isn't merely with the translation as translation, but the authenticity of the paragraph. This is not, of course, to say that you're making it up. It's merely to caution that there are quite a few inauthentic Luther quotes that have been circulated through the years by those with theological axes to grind, history of Luther quotations includes quite a few that are not authentic, and that the paragraph you quote seems to pop up mostly among those who, if they are ever burned at the stake for heresy, will not suffer that fate for being double predestinarians!

    In short, the question of whether the "large hope" of which Dr. Priebe and Dr. Braaten and the ELCA version of the Lutheran Study Bible (frankly, as you may have guessed, I myself prefer the Concordia version) is really a legitimate hope at all is a question of sufficient theological import that concerns about orthodoxy of the Preibe/Braaten position are not much removed by saying that they are not universalists. The question which remains is the one I could not find an answer for in the ELCA, and which retains its legitimacy whether one acknowledges it or not: does the Gospel have specific content, or not?

    Not an insignificant question, that.

  8. Hi Bob!

    If there are any Sadducees out there denying the resurrection, we can now refer them to this thread as proof positive that the dead can rise.

    But, don't for a moment doubt that I appreciate your response here. I do.

    You are a student of Priebe and I studied under Braaten. Obviously we have both left the nursery and gone our own ways. Even when I disagree with Dr. Braaten, however, I appreciate everything I learned from him.

    Let me address the Luther quote first. As I said before, you are right to question it. The authenticity of the quote was not really my concern in the original post. I would probably have done well to use the word "allegedly" in that sentence. My point would have been as well, or poorly, made.

    I used to have a book titled "The Wit and Wisdom of Martin Luther." It amused me because it was a *very thin book,* barely 60 pages. It was made up of quotes pulled from Luther's Works that made the good doctor sound like a born-again Evangelical and millenialist. I'm sure that authentic quotes could be culled from Luther that, apart from context, would make him sound like a universalist. And as we both acknowledge, Luther was nobody's universalist.

    As Lutherans, with our crazy Law/Gospel thing, we walk a razor's edge. Fall off to one side and we become works-righteous legalists. Fall off to the other side and we are purveyors of cheap grace. Falling to either side we deny God's sovereignty.

    If we deny the possibility of universal salvation, we make for ourselves a mechanistic god whose good will fails. If we deny the reality of judgment, we make ourselves a god of candy floss. Clearly neither of these is the true God, nor the God of Scripture.

    So, I agree with you (and Luther) that for the Gospel to be the Gospel, the Law must be the Law. But I insist that the reality of human sinfulness coram Deo does not bind God's judgment either way.

    God bless.