Sunday, July 19, 2015

More on ethical universalism: prayer by faith

Some persons, when hearing for the first time about the doctrine of universal salvation, respond with incredulity, as if there could be no basis for such a thing in Christian scriptures and tradition. Of course, those who know better and are more informed are aware of the various arguments universalists of various stripes offer for their position. What I am lately interested by, however, is a different sort of argument and a different sort of universalism which is grounded solely in Christian ethics and spirituality -- more specifically, in the Christian practice of prayer.

I suppose I want to make my point by asking a few questions.

1. Is it a Christian duty to pray for the salvation of all people?

The answer for this, of course, is: Yes! This is what Paul tells Timothy in his letter: First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone [ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀνθρώπων] (1 Tim 2.1). Paul considers this sort of prayer a part of godliness (2.2), that is, a part of our development into the character and likeness of God, because "God our Savior" desires that all persons be saved [πάντας ἀνθρώπους θέλει σωθῆναι] (2.4).  We pray for the salvation of all people, in other words, because this is a part of being like God, who likewise desires that all persons be saved.

2. Are we Christians to pray confidently?

The answer, once more, is: Yes! James teaches us that a person who prays in a manner full of doubt and uncertainty can't expect to receive anything from the Lord at all (Jas 1.7-8). Indeed, the Lord Jesus taught us: Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive (Mt 21.22). Praying with confidence and faith is an essential element of Jesus' teaching on prayer, since his goal in everything seems to have been to urge people to trust in God above everything. Thus he teaches us on numerous occasions that we should be persistent in our prayers because God, more than we are aware, is willing to give us good things (Luke 11.13).

3. As Christians grow in godliness, do they desire the salvation of all more fervently?

This seems certainly true. One of the central elements of Christian ethics is selflessness and a concern for the other person in need -- in short, love. John makes the point all throughout his first epistle that the essence of the Christian message is the love of God in Jesus Christ, which motivates us to live in love. Consider, then, when John says: we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him (1 John 3.22). God's commandment was, first, that we believe in Jesus Christ his Son, who gave himself for the sins of the whole world (2.2), the savior of the world (4.18), and second, that we love one another (3.23). Recall, too, that John teaches us to understand love through Jesus' self-sacrifice on behalf of sinners inimical to him (3.16; cf. Rom 5.8). Suppose, then, that one has developed in the commandment to believe in Jesus, the savior of the world, and to love others, especially sinners whose spiritual poverty becomes all the more evident and devastating (cf. 3.17 -- who loves a poor person, who doesn't provide for her needs?). It would seem clear enough that such a person would be moved also, out of her great love for all sinners, to pray for the salvation of all persons.

4. Can Christians therefore expect this prayer to be answered?

The obvious inference from all that has been said thus far seems to be: Yes! Indeed, as James says, The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective (Jas 5.16), whereas John says that we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him (1 John 3.22). A righteous person prayers for the salvation of another, and not for his damnation, just as Jesus Christ the Righteous (1 John 2.1) intercedes for sinners.

This sort of argument, it seems to me, is exceptionally powerful, most specifically because none of the pieces of the puzzle can plausibly be denied, whatever your denominational affiliation may be. This is an argument drawn simply from ethical principles about prayer no one could reasonably deny, to my mind. Even a Calvinist such as Oliver Crisp answers 'Yes' to the first question, and I don't imagine he would deny anything else I've suggested in questions 2-4.

This is an ethical universalism, not a dogmatic one. It's not taught as an undeniable exegesis of any particular dogmatic passage, but it's prayed for and expected with faith, on the basis of the teachings of the scriptures. Of course, it has to say something about the various passages which speak of the future judgment, and it can also be strengthened by the typical texts which are supposed to affirm universalism (Rom 5, 1 Cor 15, Col 1, etc.). Still, on its own, it seems to me a reasonable enough position that one could hold, even in light of the ecumenical councils of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. St. Catherine of Siena, for example, Doctor of the Church, also prays for the salvation of all in religious fervor at one point in her works. It is an eminently Christian practice; why shouldn't the hope that our prayer will be answered be legitimate, as well?