Patristics is the study of the early church fathers, not in the very first century—strictly speaking, that’s the earliest church—but normally patristic scholars look from the second century (although they’re interested in the first) up to the ninth century. It’s particularly what the early church fathers taught, what the church was like, etc.
In particular, the debate has been looking at these leaders in the early church. “Gosh, some of them actually were Universalists!” Everyone knew that Origen was and so Origen tended to have a bad rap. He was generally looked down on—including by patristic scholars because they just inherited that way of looking at him—but as people began to study the text more, there’s been a real revival in Origen’s reputation. In the church too, I mean, the past few popes have really loved him—”He’s a dude!” There’s been a lot of work that has been sort of trying to revive his reputation.
There are lots of debates about Origen and you’d really want to ask Ilaria Ramelli about this because she is like a super expert on Origen—she’s a super expert on everything, it just blows your mind. There are lots and lots of things people say that Origen said that arguably he probably didn’t say. In fact, oftentimes he said the opposite of what people say he said. So there are ongoing debates about how you interpret specific church fathers and what they taught. This debate has been growing with Ilaria’s work. She’s arguing that lots more church fathers were universalists—or at least had inclinations that way—than people have often thought. I think there’s a growing consensus or trajectory within patristic studies that would go in that direction. There are still questions about, “Well, this guy, it’s not so clear—Ilaria thinks he was, so-and-so thinks he wasn’t.” You get these debates about those kinds of things.
Another debate—and this is one that has revived again very recently—is, “What are the origins of Apokatastasis?” Apokatastasis is just the Greek word that is usually used when we talk about patristic universalism—it’s just to do with the restoration of all things at the end—the final restoration. I just used the word now because that’s the word the patristic folks tend to use—I’m talking about universalism.
One of the issues is, granted that Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and so on, were universalists—or believed in the Apokatastasis—where did they get that idea from? One school of thought is, “Actually, it’s a pagan idea. Maybe it originates in Gnosticism and they kind of gullibly imported it into Christianity and baptized it?” In effect, infected the theology of the Church with this alien idea that didn’t really belong within the Christian theological world. Those on the other side, like Ilaria, argue, “No, that’s ridiculous! In fact, the very first universalists were Christians. Gnostic universalism was a very different kind of ‘universalism’, it wasn’t even universalism proper as not everybody got saved in Gnostic universalism.” Also, Origen was ferociously opposed to Gnostics, he thought they were really terrible and dodgy theological characters.
Origen got his ideas, Ilaria argues, from Scripture. Scripture was really important for Origen, he was a massive scriptural commentator, he wrote masses and masses of stuff on the Bible, he was perhaps the most erudite scholar of the early church—perhaps even more than Augustine, who was a super amazing scholar. So she says he gets it from the Bible. He also gets it from various strands of Christian tradition that precedes him. He draws on Irenaeus a lot. Origen systematizes key ideas in Irenaeus—very Christian ideas—and developed them in ways that go in Apokatastasis.
Also, a very interesting tradition (that you find in lots of 2nd and 3rd-century Christian texts within proto-Orthodox Christian circles—churches that later developed into what we now know as Orthodoxy) where the Saints are praying for those in the lake of fire. Jesus’s invitation in some cases is to pray for those in the lake of fire and Jesus draws them out of the lake of fire. So this idea that the lake of fire or death is the point of no return once you died—”You can’t change your destiny”—wasn’t at all clear to a lot of Christians in the early church. It wasn’t incomprehensible or nonsensical to them to imagine somebody going into the lake fire and coming out of it. Origen takes these kinds of traditions and synthesizes them into his more systematic account of universalism or Apokatastasis. This is then passed down in that tradition through many fathers, including she argues—and I’m persuaded—Athanasius, who was a really important guy in terms of who was Jesus, Christology, Jesus’s divinity, and so on.
Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below (for more transcripts see Robin’s Hope & Hell videos).
Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to travel there from Tasmania but one of my friends who attended gave a report, which I’ve condensed/edited slightly:
My overwhelming sense is that the conference was a success—a magnificent one even—though not as much for the reasons I’d expected…
I came with legal notepads ready to record more information, clever twists of favorite Universalism defenses, new ways of looking at old texts. I came with a readiness to engage my mind; less aware of my needs to bring heart into alignment with head. Almost instantly though, I realized I would likely take no notes (and I didn’t…) but just listen. Mind very much filled and engaged and alert yes, but Universal Reconciliation, and Restoration, and Recreation, as a reality for the heart just as much as for the mind. Real world in other words…
Strangely, I already knew this at some level… Six, perhaps seven years ago, when I tried to win my wife to Universalism, I met with failure. My arguments—solid as they seemed for me—simply fell on deaf ears. My son, then 17 or 18, listened to my arguments, challenged them intelligently and appropriately and in fairly short order embraced the truth of God’s Universal Victory through Jesus. And in something of a blow to my ego, it was he who convinced my wife of the reality of Universalism! Where I had employed what worked for me—reason and logic and irrefutably clever argument—he shared it in the realms of the heart and of relationships. The relentless pursuit of a loving Father going about reconciling His creation to Himself. Relationships…
What dawned on me then, in those first few moments of the Conference on Friday night, with the warm and genuine welcome by our host, Pastor Peter Hiett, and the first two messages of the evening—one by Brad Jersak and one by Peter—was that this was to be an affair for the heart. A moving beyond the wonderful facts and logic and intelligence of Universalism, to that place of pastoral concerns; where passionate and smart leaders, shepherds of real life drama flocks, bring the grace and compassion of Universalism into the world of heart and spirit and relationship. Yes—there was ample and generous portions of reason and logic and academic rigor. But it was in the service of nurturing and ministering to a church full of real people with all the drama and pain and dysfunction that uncamouflaged life brings.
And the greatest truth—logical, relational, head, and heart—repeatedly driven home with a joyous intensity by each and every speaker was a rediscovery, a reawakening, a rehabilitation, indeed a resurrection of the Truth about God’s very essence and character and being. A God whose wrath and justice are not counter to His love, but rather a redemptive reflection of it.
Further, and infinitely supporting and revealing of this great truth, stands the person of Jesus and the realities of the Cross. In fact, the entire Conference stands as a shattering rebuke to the craven and baseless assertion (one I’ve been subjected to countless times…) that we Christian Universalists minimize and marginalize Christ and His Cross and don’t take it seriously enough. For the essence of the Conference was worship. The triumph of God’s Love—demonstrated at such cost through the life and death and resurrection and person of His Son Jesus.
All I could think, and say, both as it was happening, and now, is WOW! The beautiful, but perhaps distant and intangible truth of Universal Restoration if left in the realm of reason, given richness and intensity and realness in the realm of Pastoral concerns and grateful worship. I went planning to be blessed, and encouraged, and my mind stimulated. And all those things happened. I didn’t expect to experience such profound worship though. What a gift that was for me!!
I’ve already noted how Christ and cross centered and worshipful the entire conference was. But other notable themes were woven throughout all the presentations as well.
Penal Substitutionary Atonement
First off was the general agreement on the enormous difficulties that penal substitution theology poses to people trying to grasp the love of God and it’s consequent Universal Reconciliation. Huge and perhaps complicated topic I know, but every speaker left little doubt that penal substitution explanations of the Cross are far more hurtful than helpful to understanding the True Love of God… Nuff said about that, except to say I rejoiced to hear that!!! (Yes, it’s a present image, but must be closely limited in how it is interpreted lest God quickly acquire the image of a monster—sated only by violence and innocent blood…)
Love That Judges
There was this relentless urge in all speakers it seemed, to spare no words in emphasizing the fullness and completeness of God’s eternal Love. Not a love that judges or saves, but a love that judges and saves. It was just wonderful to watch and listen as each speaker took—tirelessly—upon himself the mission of restoring and rehabilitating the reputation of God! Truly the forgotten goodness of the news!
True Free Will
I was also very much pleased to note that each speaker took gentle but unmistakable jabs at the common Arminian misperceptions of free will. In fact it’s not free, really, until it is good—as Peter Hiett perhaps drove home best. The notion that instead what is happening is that God is slowly bringing us, teaching us, maturing us into a more and better and fuller freedom. It is only then that we really are free. This is of course utterly crucial in our responses to those believers whose main quarrel with God’s Universal Victory over sin is the “free will” clause.
The Relationship Between God and Creation
Another idea emphasized by many of the speakers was that the creation exists as wholly from and dependent on God. It’s not as if God is here (all holy and separate and protected from His dirty creation—as if it can exist all by itself…) and we are huddled over there, in complete isolation from God. Baxter Kruger was perhaps most gloriously and intensely insistent on this point. There simply is no creation apart from the community of the Trinity. Which of course plays centrally in the idea that a failure on God’s part to restore/reconcile/redeem all His beloved creation is unthinkable in the context of the completeness and fullness of the Trinity.
The Biggest Joy
All of which brings me to a sobering, and to varying degrees painful reality. And this hit home as I chatted with random folks during the conference. But for many (most?) of us—and [from] everything I could tell, all there were convinced Universalists—our home church worship environment and experience really can be marked by a festering and grating loneliness. We have this great conviction of God’s Universal victory through Jesus, and yet cannot share it meaningfully with others we worship with—lest we be ostracized and branded heretical. In fact several I spoke with said they have no home church—and instead have online fellowship experience where they feel more like they belong. This resonated deeply with me. And the sheer joy of just being together with so many who saw the same truths that I do, was a blessing unparalleled…
The biggest joy—and blessed relief—of this conference for me was the feeling that I was home. Yes, I go to church here, in my own little community, but I can’t just blurt out any time I want my convictions of these great Universal Reconciliation truths. I very much appreciated the speakers open recognition that, among themselves, they do have differences and don’t all agree on everything. That’s refreshing, because that’s real and honest. So Peter, if you’re reading this, I feel like I am a part of your church—even though I live in Florida!!!
For the sense that I’m looking at this whole conference with open eyes and constructive criticism—and not just giving it a rubber stamped thumbs up just because it’s right on my favorite topic—let me make a couple observations…
Annihilation. There was nary a mention of this possibility, which is unfortunate given that a growing number are finding their solution to the horrors and inconsistencies of an ECT hell in the answer of annihilationism. This is particularly important to me since I was raised in an annihilation tradition. Not a big complaint at all, but noted…
Speakers Q & A session. This was by far the biggest disappointment for me. It was tacked on at the very end, after a very hasty lunch on Sunday, and felt disorganized (a great contrast from the order of the overall conference) and rushed. Prime goal was to be out of the building by 2pm—which lent this abbreviated session a feeling of haste instead of reflection. It was good, don’t get me wrong, but could have been much better. There is an obvious camaraderie and even fondness for each other among the speakers; this needs time to flourish and be on greater display. Further, why not let this be the time and place to let us in on some of their theological differences—and in the process, model for us out here that all important skill.
My suggestion would be to put it in the afternoon Saturday and make it a bit more “formal” and organized. Have more time and emphasis spent on writing these questions as well on having the moderator more familiar with them before he reads them to us in the actual session.
Was just plain cool to meet these writers. Biggest highlight for me was meeting Tom Talbott! Dude kind of started it all for me—and it turns out quite a few others as well! He seemed genuinely happy to meet “TotalVictory”! Either that or he faked happy pretty well!! And of course meeting Paul Young and Brad Jersak and Peter and Robin Parry himself!! That was just great.
In closing, the idea of the church body, with her many different parts, gathered under One Head; Jesus Christ. I’d always heard that meant the different gifts within our church—as in our particular denomination!!! Well, actually no! I was so pleased to see all the streams of theological thought seen here, with Catholics and Orthodox and Calvinists and charismatics and multiple varieties of Arminians all gathered together celebrating the Lordship of the Christ—as a reflection of the true God. A God who is completely successful in Restoring and redeeming His entire Creation… Wow!!
So a truly blessed and wonderful conference. Would be a thrill to anticipate the next one!!!
All the best,
God's justice reforms all things—even hell—to the way He intended: wholeheartedly delighting in Him together, Shalom!