Here is the 3-minute video clip and transcript of Robin Parry‘s response to the question of whether Christians should call themselves “Universalists”? This was raised at Gospel Conversations’ Hope & Hell Conference.
As a case in point, James Relly—an eighteenth-century preacher in London—refused to call himself a “universalist”. He hated the word. So did John Murray—the pastor of the very first American Universalist Church and a follower of Relly. They hated the word “universalism” because it’s not in the Bible. Relly would always say, “I’m not a Universalist.” He thought everyone would be saved but he wouldn’t call himself a “Universalist” because it’s not a biblical word.
I don’t have that kind of aversion. I’m quite happy to use words that aren’t biblical words if it’s explaining a biblical concept. For example, “Trinity” is not a biblical word but I think it is a way of conceptualizing a biblical idea.
However, there are issues here. For example, TF Torrance—a very well-known 20th century Scottish Presbyterian Reformed theologian and a really fabulous theologian—was really opposed to “universalism”. He hated the term but it was the “ism” thing that he really didn’t like—and he’s not alone in this. I’m putting words in his mouth here but I think it felt to him like you’re trying to squeeze God into some preordained system—that God has to fit… It’s the connotations of “isms” that he didn’t like. I think that he didn’t think you could know or say whether God would save everyone or not. Maybe everyone would be saved but maybe they won’t—we can’t say. So he’s not a Universalist as such but I think his theology would be very sympathetic to universalism properly construed—definitely if you drop the term “universalism.”
Some eighteenth-century universalists didn’t talk about it like that. Some of them would talk about “universal restoration” and they’d use other phrases like, “we believe in the restoration”, “we believe in the restoration of all things.” I quite like that, in fact, the very first edition of these slides didn’t have “Universalism.” It just takes more space. Saying you’re a “universal restorationist” or something, just takes longer to say so I just think, “Oh, stuff it, I’ll call myself a universalist and just explain what I mean by that.” If you have a problem with the word, I’m very happy to drop it and just say, “I believe that God will save all people through Christ” or “I believe in the restoration of all things through Christ.” It just takes longer to say and it’s clumsy.
So my thought is: if you want to drop it, drop it. There are reasons it might disturb some people. It also has the problem of connotations because people think they know what it means. But on the other hand, that might be a helpful provocation to make them pay attention, “I’m gonna tell you something that’s gonna freak you out—here’s something you think is scary—now let me tell you that it doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means.” It might, in some cases, get people’s attention and serve to focus thought.