Thomas Talbott is a professor of Philosophy at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. He is best known for his work The Inescapable Love of God, which biblically and systematically argues the case for Universalism. In this post I will explain what is known as "Talbott's Triad."
Traditionally there have been two dominant positions within Christian thinking about salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (to learn more read here). Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God (God is God so God can and will do what God desires), while Arminianism emphasizes the free will of humankind and the love of God to respect that freedom. Arminianism also emphasizes that God desires the salvation of all. However, both of these traditions agree that not all people will be saved. The question then becomes, why not? Let's break this down into the 'Triad.'
Talbott explains in very simple terms the basic tenets of each view:
- #1 - God desires the salvation of all because God is benevolent (Arminianism)
- #2 - God is sovereign so God will achieve what God desires (Calvinism)
- #3 - some people will be 'lost' or 'unsaved' (both)
Calvinism accepts #2 and #3, but rejects #1.
Universalism accepts #1 and #2, but rejects #3.
"At this point, Talbott expresses bewilderment at the fact that Calvinists and Arminians are often united in regarding universalism as heretical - or at least, unbiblical/inadequate - while regarding each other's positions as merely mistaken. How can universalism be heretical, he asks, if it is entailed by accepting two propositions, neither of which are heretical in themselves? Yes, universalists reject #3, which both Calvinists and Arminians consider the 'plain teaching of Scripture' but Calvinists reject #1 which is 'a clear and obvious teaching of Scripture, at least as clear and obvious as a doctrine of everlasting separation' for Arminians, and Arminians reject #2 which is the same for Calvinists." (Holy, 14)
What's clear is that each view is giving something up. And that something can be found in and supported by Scripture. There is ample support for all three claims in the 'Triad.' That God is loving and desires the salvation of all can be found throughout the Bible (Luke 15:4, John 12:32, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Tim. 2:4). That God is sovereign and will accomplish God's desire is also plain in Scripture (Psalms 2, 22, and 24, Daniel 4:35, Luke 6:30, Rev. 6:10). And, yes, there are verses that appear to obviously teach the loss of many people (Matthew 25, Mark 9:47-48, Rev. 20).
Talbott notes that it would make complete sense to side with either Calvinism or Arminianism if the scriptural evidence for #3 was consistently and significantly greater than the evidence for #'s 1 and 2. However, such is not the case! He explains: "#1 and #2 seem to rest upon systematic teachings in Paul, [whereas] the texts cited on behalf of #3 are typically lifted from contexts of parable, hyperbole and great symbolism." (Talbott quoted in Holy, 14)Many people will argue that the weakness of the Universalist view is that it overlooks the 'clear teaching of Scripture.' But upon further inspection it appears that both Calvinism and Arminianism also overlook the teaching of Scripture, namely the texts that proclaim the scope and finality of Christ's victory. (Note: ideological sawdust in the mind's eye will blur certain texts) What Talbott makes clear is that there is no 'flawless' position on salvation and the Bible can be used to support multiple views.
The question that I share along with Talbott is Why do universalists get spurned when it seems that Calvinism and Arminianism are equally at fault for neglecting Scripture? The conclusion that Talbott draws is that something other than biblical exegesis is behind the visceral reaction against universalism. I will discuss this in post #5.
For now, let us summarize:
- Talbott's Triad illustrates that the traditional views of salvation must give up something in order to defend God as either good or sovereign. Therefore, each view has flaws.
- Talbott's Triad also illustrates that Universalism does not begin by arguing all shall be saved, but rather begins by affirming two essential, biblical theological claims about God, which then logically leads to the notion that all shall be saved.
About one year ago Scot McKnight - who is an awesome NT scholar and prolific author/blogger - offered a fairly deficient critique of Talbott's Triad. His only criticism to Talbott and Universalism is that it depends on the belief that human beings may be saved after death. You can read that post here.
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