Were the Church Fathers Universalists?
By Paul Helm–
I’ve read more than once the claim that most early Christians were universalists. And this is occasionally supported by the further opinion that several early (first six centuries) theological schools were universalist in their teaching. This seems implausible to me. However, I’m certainly not someone who is a student of the history of the early church. So what am I to do? I’m to look for evidence.
What is clear is that there is a steep, sharp decline from the theological writing of the New Testament and what one finds among early Christian writings. ‘Rabbi’ Duncan once amusingly said ‘It is a mistake to look to the Fathers as our seniors. They were our juniors. The Church has advanced wonderfully since its foundation was laid. Polycarp would have stood a bad chance in an examination by John Owen. I think I could have posed him myself.’
Still, this belief in a decline in theological quality in the immediate post-Apostolic church is rather different from the claim about universalism, which seems much more dubious.
To start with, it would seem that the opinion that most early Christians were universalists is impossible to test. Who are these Christians? Where have most of them left any traces of holding such beliefs? Is this evidence written? Do these Christians themselves make the claim? In making the claim, do they explicitly controvert the non-universalist sentiments of the NT? Is there evidence in the liturgies of the early church that they embodied or gave expression or tacit assent to universalism?
Here is some readily available evidence that points in the opposite direction, of clear particularism.
Clement of Rome
‘Let us fix our thoughts on the Blood of Christ; and reflect how precious that Blood is in God’s eyes, inasmuch as its outpouring for our salvation has opened the race of repentance to all mankind. 25-6
38 Again, God says to Him, Sit down at my right hand, until I make your enemies a cushion for your feet. Who are these enemies? Why, wicked persons who set themselves against His will. 38
‘Regarding the rest of mankind, you should pray for them unceasingly, for we can always hope that repentance may enable them to find their way to God’. 64
’…..how much more when a man’s subversive doctrines defile the God-given Faith for which Jesus Christ was crucified. Such a wretch in his uncleanness is bound for the unquenchable fire, and so is anyone else who gives him a hearing.’ 65
‘….the Cross which so greatly offends the unbelievers, but is salvation and eternal life to us’ 65-6
‘To profess any other name than that is to be lost to God….’72
‘Flee for your very life from these men; they are poisonous growths with a deadly fruit, and one taste of it is speedily fatal.’ 81
‘His passion was no unreal illusion, as some skeptics aver who are all unreality themselves. The fate of those wretches will match their unbelief, for one day they will similarly become phantoms without substance themselves.’101
‘For let nobody be under any delusion; there is judgment in store even for the hosts of heaven, the very angels in glory, the visible and invisible powers themselves, if they have no faith in the blood of Christ’.102
‘All things in heaven and earth have been made subject to Him; everything that breathes mays Him homage; He comes to judge the living and the dead, and God will require His blood at the hands of any who refuse him allegiance’ 119
The Martydom of Polycarp
‘The other said again, “If you do not recant, I will have your burnt to death, since you think so lightly of wild beasts”. Polycarp rejoined, “The fire you threaten me with cannot go on burning for very long; after a while it goes out. But what you are unaware of are the flames of future judgment and everlasting torment which are in store for the ungodly. Why do you go on wasting time? Bring out whatever you have a mind to” ’.128
‘For when the Lord judges the world there is going to be no partiality; everyone will be recompensed in proportion to what he has done. If he is a good man, his righteousness will make the way smooth before him; but if he is a bad man, the wages of his wickedness will be waiting to confront him.’163
‘For the man who does this, there will be glory in the kingdom of God; but one who prefers the other Way will perish together with his works. 181-2
‘After that, all humankind will come up for their fiery trial; multitudes of them will stumble and perish, but such as remain steadfast in the faith will be saved by the Curse’ 198
[These extracts are from Early Christian Writings, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, revised and provided with Introductions and new editorial material by Andrew Louth. (Penguin Books, 1987)]
This looks reasonable evidence regarding the general outlook of the Apostolic Fathers. No doubt some of the expressions, taken in isolation, are consistent with universalism by way of a speculation about purgatiorial cleansing, and none of them has been formed within debates about particularism and universalism which at that time does not seem to have been an issue at all. Was this general outlook overturned in the first centuries to follow? Is there evidence for this?
The same questions can be raised about the alleged positions of the theological schools of the Patristic period. How do they treat those New Testament routinely appealed to by universalists? Isn’t it extremely odd that a controversially-minded writer such as Augustine, writing in the fifth century, did not spot any such deviancy of the theological schools of his day or of the past from what he, at least, regarded as Christian orthodoxy, particularism and a clear teaching regarding heaven and hell?
Origen’s widely-noted universalism appears to have been the thought of one individual with a few followers, and (in the words of N.T. Wright) ‘seems to have been more Platonic than biblical.’ But one swallow does not make a summer. The view was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553.
Of course none of this evidence provides a powerful argument against universalism. But it does carry a presumption about the early church, not only its writers, but also, presumably, its rank and file. In the face of such data it cannot plausibly be argued that what we may now regard as traditionalist teaching on particularism, and on heaven and hell, flies in the face of the universalist teaching or attitude of the early church. For it clearly does not.
The trouble with these claims that we have been examining, vague and insubstantial as they appear, is that once they get into print that fact alone provides credibility to the view, at least to some minds. But printer’s ink is no substitute for evidence. Another reminder of the importance of primary sources, and the danger that what may count as ‘scholarship’ may in fact be nothing other than the retailing of opinions that no-one ever takes the trouble to check.
Paul Helm was educated at Worcester College, Oxford, and was for many years a member of the Philosophy Department of the University of Liverpool. From 1993-2000 he was the Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London. In 2001 he was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Helm is the author of numerous journal articles and books. Some of his most well-know books include Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.