Universalism in the
Christian and Celtic Tradition
by the late Bishop+ Taoiseach Thomas Faulkenbury
Modern labels can divert, dilute, or even distort ancient understandings. A clear example would be "universalism" as hotly bantered about among today's Christians versus its relatively stable meaning extending back to some of the earliest recorded Old Testament writings. Bishop Faulkenbury defines the two major notions of "universalism" held in Christendom and traces forward to modern times the concept's perceptive evolution or, perhaps more accurately put, devolution.
The word "universalism" has been used in two senses in Christian theology. In the context of biblical thought, universalism frequently denotes the view common to the Old Testament and New Testament that the purposes of God are not limited to any one nation or race, but extend world-wide. This idea comes to expression in the world-wide promises to Abraham [Genesis 12:3], to the welcome afforded those from other nations [Rahab, Ruth, etc.], and above all in the frequent prophetic vision of the nations of the world coming within the scope of salvation for all people.
The second use of the word "universalism" is the logical extension of the first but has suffered from controversy. It is the belief that all human beings, without exception, will eventually attain salvation. This view has foundation in the New Testament [John 1:29; 2nd Corinthians 5:19; Colossians 1:18-20]. It was the view held by many in the early Christian Church.
To find the roots of universalism we must go back to the prophets of ancient Israel. The spiritual truth of Jonah was that God was a universal God for all people, not just the Israelites. Then later, universalist Christian origins are anchored in the moral teachings of Jesus, as exemplified in the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. Early Christianity was neither Trinitarian nor Unitarian. But it was overwhelmingly universalist.
The New Testament writer St. Paul himself preached a definite if often muted doctrine of universal salvation. One of the great Christian Church Fathers, St. Clement of Alexandria (150- 220), the first Christian philosopher and president of the Catechetical School at Alexandria, advocated universalism on the ground of the remedial character of all souls. His pupil and successor in the school following St. Clement, Origen (185-254) became the next president of the Catechetical School at Alexandria. He was generally considered the greatest theologian and biblical scholar, scientist and mathematician of the early Eastern Church and until Augustine was the most influential theologian of the church. He taught about a universalism (apokatastasis or 'restoration of all beings'), by denying a perpetual hell, preaching instead a progressive purging of the soul by spiritual fire for a limited time. When the soul is purged of all sin, evil, and ignorance it shall be rehabilitated and purified in its resurrection into heaven. Each and every soul including the devil shall be restored and returned to a knowledge of and presence with God.
Origen advocated universalism on the ground of the ever-continuing freedom of the will, the deep mental and spiritual anguish occasioned by the light and knowledge of the truth until it leads to repentance, and then the harmony of the soul with God.
More than a few of the most notable Church Fathers were outspoken universalists, including, St. Athanasius, (296-373), St. Basil (329-379), St. Gregory Nazianzen (330-390), and St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-390), and Pelagius or St. Morgan of Wales (354-440).
In 553 A.D. at a local council meeting in Constantinople, later called the Fifth Ecumenical Council, called by Roman Emperor Justinian to specifically condemn universalism and some other of the doctrines falsely ascribed to Origen. The Council failed to concur with the Roman Emperor, his queen, and a groveling bishop. No doctrines resembling universal restoration were anathematized. Origen's name appears in the 11th canon of the Council, but scholars think the insertion of Origen's name to be a forgery.
Based upon the popularity of Universalism among the numbers of significant saints and in 5 of the 7 catechetical schools for teaching of Christian beliefs, it is very easy to conclude that a large share of the Christians thrown to the lions in the Coliseum in Rome were universalist Christians. Universalist martyrs were multitudinous.
After 500 AD the tables, with the assistance of Augustine and the Roman emperor had shifted, and the strident minority had taken the political and religious majority to over-rule of the more gentle philosophy of universalist Christianity. From a Hellenic (Greek) enlightened rational faith of freedom and love, these orthodox minorities subdued the Christian church and plunged backward into the Dark Ages brought on by Roman political and religious legalism. Universalism was eclipsed though never formally anathematized. Furthermore, if universalism were declared a heresy, most of the early Church Fathers, Popes, and Saints would have been denounced. The anathematizing of Universalism was inconceivable.
In truth, during the first 500 years of Christianity, universalism was the predominant religious philosophy of the age. Today, we receive a revisionist history which not only defames and minimizes, but nearly eradicates universalism. The revisionists progressively took command of Christianity, reshaped it by declaring every unwanted belief as "heresy" and ran these believers out of the churches. Even to this day, this is a practice visited upon universalism using more subtle methods with a more genteel style.
847 A.D.,the Celtic theologian St. John Scotus Eriugena was invited by Charles II, later the Holy Roman Emperor, to head the court school in Paris. He was one of the most learned individuals of his time and taught that everything emanated from God and would be restored to God.
Universalism was abroad in England as demonstrated by the Protestants, who drew up their Forty-two Articles of Religion, in 1552, condemned universalism. Ten years later, when the convocation revised the doctrines of the Church, the number of articles was reduced to thirty-nine, omitting, among others, the one condemning universalism. Since that time universalism has not been a forbidden doctrine in the Church of England.