Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

30 May 2011

Hell: temporary punishment?

In the wake of the controversy over Love Wins, someone recently suggested to me that perhaps hell is not eternal after all and that those sent there might one day complete their sentences, much as a prisoner serves for a certain period and is then released. It’s an intriguing and hopeful thought, but it raises two difficulties, as I see it.

First, my understanding, following that of the historic church, is that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin for all those who are in Christ. Mere human beings could never pay the price for their own transgressions. To suggest that they could — by, in effect, serving time — would seem to imply that there is a second path to salvation other than through the only begotten Son of God. But, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “no mere creature can bear the weight of God’s eternal anger against sin” (Q&A, 14), and “Only those are saved who by true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his blessings” (Q&A, 20).

Second, would not a non-eternal, temporary hell be tantamount to purgatory? Article XXII of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion definitively condemns belief in purgatory, but if one conceives of the possibility of completing one’s sentence in hell, then it seems to me that the distinction between purgatory and hell fades away.

Incidentally, the Rev. Wes Bredenhof has discovered something interesting about the author of the Belgic Confession: Guido De Bres and His Belief in Purgatory.

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27 May 2011

Why I am not a ‘red-letter Christian’

Having come across the Red Letter Christians blog of Tony Campolo and others, I am reminded again of why I am not a red-letter Christian. There are two basic reasons:

1. It effectively and improperly privileges a canon within the biblical canon, implicitly elevating Jesus’ words above the rest of inspired scripture.

2. As I age my eyes have difficulty reading red letters against a white page. I prefer to read the Bible without straining my vision.

I suppose this makes me a black-letter Christian. So be it. Case closed.

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14 May 2011

A church in decline

The fading of the mainline protestant churches over the past two generations has not been limited to the United States. North of the border, in the True North Strong and Free, a similar phenomenon has occurred. Canada’s National Post carries this article in its weekend edition: The split in the United Church. One of my Redeemer University colleagues, Dr. Kevin Flatt, is quoted here, as is Michael Van Pelt, head of the Hamilton, Ontario, think tank, Cardus, for whose publication, Comment, I write on occasion.

The United Church of Canada was formed in 1925 with the union of the former Congregationalist, Presbyterian and Methodist churches into a single national body. (A third of the Presbyterian churches, including our family’s congregation, remained out of the union, retaining the name, Presbyterian Church in Canada.) Since its high water mark in the mid-1960s, the United Church has gone into a precipitous decline in membership and attendance. However, the title of the article is not quite accurate: there has been no “split” as such, only a haemorrhage of members away from the United Church.

Incidentally, while we’re on the subject of Flatt, I would strongly recommend his Comment article, Cross-Border Evangelicals: Americans and Canadians, an astute analysis of the differences between evangelicals on each side of the 49th parallel.

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02 May 2011

Smith takes on 'new universalism'

I have not thus far weighed in on the controversy surrounding the publication of Rob Bell's Love Wins. But I will call attention to an astute analysis of the "new universalism" by Calvin College's James K. A. Smith: Can hope be wrong? On the new universalism. I was especially struck by the following paragraph, addressed to those who persist in believing that "I-can't-imagine-a-God-who-[fill in the blank]" is a persuasive argument:
The "I-can't-imagine" strategy is fundamentally Feuerbachian: it is a hermeneutic of projection which begins from what I can conceive and then projects "upwards," as it were, to a conception of God. While this "imagining" might have absorbed some biblical themes of love and mercy, this absorption seems selective. More importantly, the "I-can't-imagine" argument seems inattentive to how much my imagination is shaped and limited by all kinds of cultural factors and sensibilities--including how I "imagine" the nature of love, etc. The "I-can't-imagine" argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of "my" imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation. I take it that discipleship means submitting even my imagination to the discipline of Scripture. (Indeed, could anything be more countercultural right now than Jonathan Edwards' radical theocentrism, with all its attendant scandals for our modern sensibilities?)

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