What about universalism? Before I say anything, I want to ask if you think the following proposal by Spencer is universalist or if it is not more accurately a (very, very) “generous inclusivism”? Here are Spencer Burke’s central theses, and I’ve gone back over these more lately and they have led me to change the direction of this post:
1. He doesn’t believe God is a “person” (195): “I’m not sure I believe in God exclusively as a person anymore either…. The truth is that seeing God as spirit more than person doesn’t destroy my faith” (195).
Instead, he is a panentheist — which means that “God is ‘in all,’ alongside my creedal view of God as Father, Son, and Spirit” (195). He emphasizes immanence, “radical connectedness” and “relational theology.” [Again, this is flat-out wrong: “panentheism” is not the view that God is in all but that all is in God, and there’s a big diference.]
[I will confess to you when I read that God is not a person, my blood boiled. To deny personhood to God, the hypostasis or “person”hood, denies the essence of Christian orthodoxy and the sole foundation for our personhood and the essence both of what the gospel is — restoring cracked (person-ed) Eikons to God, who is person — and what redemption is. This genuinely is what theologians have always called “heresy.” When he says he accepts the creedal view of Father, Son, and Spirit and then says he doesn’t believe God is “person” but “spirit” — frankly, this last statement completely undermines the former. What are the FAther, Son, and Spirit but the persons of the Godhead?]
2. He’s a universalist who believes in hell. He believes we are all in God but that we can opt-out but don’t have to opt-in. What he means is that “I don’t believe you have to convert to any particular religion to find God” (197). [Spencer, this is not universalism, and you can’t be both a “universalist” and believe in hell. The latter denies the former.]
3. The God he believes in does not assign anyone to hell but it is possible to reject God’s grace. Hell is a “choice and not a sentence meted out by God” (200). He anchors such in the parable of the wedding feast and the prodigal son, in which God remains faithful to the older son. [I’ll pick on this: If there is a hell, and if God has in some sense created hell, then by creating it, he has opened a place for sentencing those who have chosen to opt-out; in this sense, it has to be defined as a sentence.]
4. Evangelism is simply telling your story and to “invite them to follow Jesus as we learn to follow him” (207). [Friendship evangelism.]
5. His proposal is “mystical responsibility”: “living in sync and in tune with the sacred rhythm of grace” (209) and a “commitment to an evolutionary journey toward personal, social, and communal transformation, where we pay attention to life, listen to its messages, and discover its opportunities” (211).
I’d really like to know what you think of these ideas, and at one time I was going to end this series with your evaluations of Spencer’s ideas. But, I have a responsibility before God to be faithful to the gospel, so I have to say the following — and I don’t do so with anything but sadness.
The emerging movement is proud of creating a safe environment for people to think and to express their doubts. Partly because of what I do for a living (teach college students), I am sympathetic to the need for such safe environments. But, having said that, the emerging movement has also been criticized over and over for not having any boundaries. Frankly, some of the criticism is justified. I want to express my dismay today over what I think is crossing the boundaries. I will have to be frank; but I have to be fair. Here’s how I see this book’s theology as a Christian theologian. The more I ponder what Spencer does in this book, the more direct I have become — be glad I don’t have any more posts about this book.
Is Spencer a “heretic”? He says he is, and I see no reason to think he believes in the Trinity from reading this book. That’s what heresy means to me. Denial of God’s personhood flies in the face of everything orthodox. To say that you believe in the creedal view of God as Father, Son, and Spirit and deny “person” is to deny the Trinitarian concept of God.
Is Spencer a “Christian”? He says he is. What is a Christian? Is it not one who finds redemption through faith in Christ, the one who died and who was raised? If so, I see nothing in this book that makes me think that God’s grace comes to us through the death and resurrection of Christ. Grace seems to be what each person is “born into” in Spencer’s theses in this book. That means that I see no reason in this book to think Spencer believes in the gospel as the NT defines gospel (grace as the gift of God through Christ by faith).
I must say this: Spencer told me on the phone that he thinks all are included in God’s grace from the start solely because of Jesus’ death and resurrection; why not write that in this book?
Spencer, you’re a good guy. But I have to say this to you: Go back to church. Go back to the gospel of Jesus — crucified and raised. Let the whole Bible shape all of your theology. Listen to your critics. Integrate a robust Christology, a robust death-and-resurrection gospel, and a full Trinitarian theology back into your guide to eternity.