Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #1: Talbott's Triad

[This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's worknot all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!]

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)
Arminianism accepts #1 and #3, but rejects #2.
Calvinism accepts #2 and #3, but rejects #1.
Universalism accepts #1 and #2, but rejects #3.

From Holy:

"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 textsWhat 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.


Next Post: Alternatives to Traditional Hell


  1. Just a quick note and observation: The italicized font you're using is kind of hard to read...

    Also a note about the criticism that universalism requires post-mortem salvation:
    It's really not much of a criticism. The notion that we cannot be saved after death has even weaker scriptural support than #3 of the triad (to the point of being practically non-existent.)

  2. Shhh...Don't blog this stuff, you'll get in trouble!

    But great post though.

  3. I'd say the reason why universalism is untenable is because salvation is open to human creatures, open for their participation.

    This is the problem when a particular theology (soteriology) is isolated from the broader Biblical trajectory. We can't talk about salvation without talking about the story of the Living God who covenants with his people.

    I'd be interested in reading your later post on Orthodoxy. The Orthodox push this understanding of participation farther than most Western Christians would (i.e. synergy), but it goes to the point that salvation is not simply some sort of static enterprise that is closed off to humans and simply imposed upon them through what would have to be a coerceive God. No. Salvation is dynamic, and open to human creatures. Therefore, we must as Barth suggests hold on to the impossible possibility, that some could be confronted with the love of God in Christ and chose to live apart from that in madness and insanity.

    ps - do you plan to look at Barth's impossible possibility in this series? I find it very informative.


    pps - what are you doing on blogspot?! ;)

  4. What up J-Turtle. Yes, blogspot sucks. I can't tell you how much time I spend messing with stupid text formatting. It's so inconsistent and weird.

    ANYWAY, I must confess that I am not very familiar with Barth. I've only read tiny bits and pieces. What I've read about his theology from secondary sources seems to conclude that, while he didn't affirm "dogmatic" universalism, he was genuinely open to the possibility and certainly hoped for it. From what I understand, Barth emphasized God's freedom and therefore did not wish to presume universalism. I think this is what his "impossible possibility" is all about: the tragic possibility that some may refuse God's love. Is this right? I understand the importance of remaining open to this "impossible possibility" for the sake of epistemic humility and allowing God to be God (and not universalism to become God, etc.) I think I'll touch on some of this stuff in future posts.

    I totally agree with you that we can't talk about salvation without speaking of the God of Abraham and Jesus who makes covenant with his people... and remains faithful to his covenant *even when his people do not!* This, I contend, is the heart of universalism.

    Again, I'm in agreement with you about salvation cannot simply be "imposed upon" human beings. Indeed, the nature of salvation is participatory. I am going to try to tackle some of this in a post on freedom (#9 I think). I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks for the comment. Hope you are well. PEACE!

  5. @ jonathan; while I can sympathize with your concerns (along with jmw), have you ever read Eric Reitan on this? He either has or will come out with a book entitled God's Final Victory, in which he addresses the issues you've raised. I believe he has bits and pieces of previous stuff out on the net as well.

  6. @Josh. Yes, the impossible possibility is basically, "the tragic possibility that some may refuse God's love." This is an important concession, because even if it is only *possibly* true (and I'd say it is, logically, hermeneutically, etc.) then universalism is untenable. Anyways, I'll wait to hear you out further in later posts on this.

    @Unknown, I haven't read Reitan, no.

    Oh, one more thing, and more directly the point of your post here and Talbott's Triad. If each part of the triad attempts to flush out some aspect of Scripture that is *really there in scripture* then perhaps we ought not rush into dismissing *any* of them. Here, I would make a more direct contention with the line of argument, because if it's a choice between three options each of which emphasizes some portions of Scripture to the detriment of other portions then this all seems like something of a false dichotomy. Arminianism, Calvinism, and Universalism are things readers import in the Scriptures. The Bible is not "Arminian" or "Calvinist" or "Universalist", yeah? These are categories we impose on the text, not categories that arise from within the text themselves. Of course, we are uncomfortable with the Scriptures so we emphasize some bits over others (and thus, we have a triad of choices!). I say, let's not short-circuit the Scriptures by trying to reconcile matters that we personally find uncomfortable or that we would personally want to distance ourselves from.

    There is a tension in the Scriptures. At times it sounds Arminian. At times, Calvinist. At times, Universalist. But it is none of these things. Our desire to reconcile this matter says more about US than it does about God, at least that much is true. I see a tension in Scripture, and I'm OK with that tension. To disregard it is to misread the text.

  7. @JonathanTurtle: YES. I totalllllly agree that our task is not to pick which of the three to dismiss, but rather to hold them all in tension and prayerfully seek what is true about the God revealed in Christ.

    My fear is that Christians have traditionally de-emphasized the so-called universalist texts and it is the basic task of this blog series to point out that they deserve an equally important place at the table. Yeah?

    Let's hold them all in tension. The universalist texts AND the hell texts. And let us work out our faith together in fear and trembling!