Saturday, October 10, 2020

Inverted Calvinism

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The chapter ‘Calvinism improved’ in The Universalist Movement in America, 1770 - 1880 really shed a lot of light for me on the nature of early Universalist soteriology.

“Soon afterward, a London preacher named James Relly became Murray’s mentor. Also a Whitefield convert, Relly had preached universal salvation to a London congregation between 1757 and his death in 1778. His Union or, A Treatise on the Consanguinity and Affinity between Christ and His Church proposed that because Christ bore the burden of human sin, his death was the salvation of all; humanity was one in redemption as well as in the fall. Both men believed that all souls were effectively “redeemed,” but all had not yet come to the realization that brought salvation itself, and to effect this transforming realization was the purpose of preaching the gospel.”
It seems that while ‘Arminianism’ was making inroads among the Congregationalist, eventually resulting in the Unitarians, a sort of reverse Calvinism was going to seed in the form of Universalism.
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” — Ephesians 2:4–7 English Standard Version

In Arminian theology, faith precedes regeneration. Faith is only possible because of ‘prevenient grace,’ which enables people to believe. The current United Methodist Book of Discipline describes it as "the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses. This grace prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding concerning God's will, and our 'first slight transient conviction' of having sinned against God. God's grace also awakens in us an earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death and moves us toward repentance and faith."
For Reformed (Calvinist) theology, on the other hand, regeneration precedes faith. That is to say, a person can only believe once God has regenerated them, and they’re regenerated simply because they’re part of God’s elect, chose since the dawn of time. If someone never comes to believe, it’s because they aren’t part of God’s elect.

To early Universalists in the United States, everyone was part of God’s elect, and therefore everyone was regenerated. They only needed to be told, and that telling is the Gospel.

Although I held to a Reformed faith for a time after leaving the Roman Catholic Church, for the majority of my 20 years as an evangelical Christian I held to a form of Arminianism. That being the case, I have a hard time now wrapping my head around the idea of a nonbeliever being forgiven, regenerated, and given the Holy Spirit before they even believe. The internal logic for Calvinism checks out, until I try comparing it to the New Testament.

The same sort of struggle happens for me with the inverted Calvinism of Universalist Christians in the 18th and 19th centuries. While in Reformed theology regeneration precedes faith, it’s usually not by a lot. Generally it’s understood that very near the time a person is regenerated they will believe and repent. Not so with classic Universalism, where most of humanity lives and dies without ever knowing they’ve been ‘saved.’

A lot of parts still don’t fit together for me, so hopefully I’ll have a UU theology course somewhere along the way. For example, there was a time among US Universalists that the question of whether ‘sinners’ would suffer for a time after death or not was the hot (pun intended) debate. If people never believed but were already regenerated prior to death, I don’t see how the viewpoint of those upholding post-mortem punishment could hold up. Perhaps, in reality, that was the core of the debate. At this point, I really don’t know but should probably find out.