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The Recognition of Universal Reconciliation - Part 3
Page 4

By David Sielaff, August 2008

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These passages from Augustine indicate that the belief in universal reconciliation was widespread in the Latin African churches of the early 5th century as well as the eastern Greek churches of Alexandria, Palestine, Asia Minor and Antioch. Augustine even says,

“... some, indeed very many ... say they do not believe it [eternal torment] shall be so; not, indeed, that they directly oppose themselves to Holy Scripture.”

• Augustine, “The Enchiridion,” ch. 112, p. 273

Conclusion

“Universalists” in the Schaff Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1912, gives another measure of the extent of belief in universal reconciliation,

“In the first five or six centuries of Christianity there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea and Edessa) were Universalist, one (Ephesus) accepted conditional immortality; one (Carthage or Rome) taught endless punishment of the wicked.”

There was no condemnation of universal reconciliation by the early church. In fact the absence of criticism on the topic is deafening. The obvious answer was that the belief was so widespread no one wanted to criticize such a widely-held doctrine.

Second, the as the statements of Origen, Jerome and Augustine demonstrate, there was a system of “double teaching” where one set of teachings was presented to the mature in the deeper things of God and another set of teachings for the immature. Many believers and church leaders believed in universal reconciliation but did not preach or teach it. Those who taught it did not preach it to new believers.

Finally we have the combined testimony, however tenuous, from Basil (that “the many men” or “most men”), from Jerome (“most persons”) and from Augustine (“very many”) that universal reconciliation was widely held during much of the late 2nd through the 4th centuries. This belief was likely held to strongly from the 1st and 2nd centuries also. Historian Charles Bigg notes that the belief in universal reconciliation was widely diffused throughout the monestaries of Egypt and Palestine during these same centuries (Bigg, Christian Platonists, p.293). The concept of “mercyism” with its varying degrees of salvation for different classes was strongly in the beliefs of the common people as evidenced by Augustine’s handling the subject with great care.

In Augustine’s western church the doctrine of purgatory gradually displaced the teachings of “mercyism” and the biblical teaching of universal reconciliation while allowing for the terrors of hell to keep the common people in line. One of the factors in this displacement was the publishing of Origen’s teachings with the portions about universal reconciliation edited out. Jerome wrote to Hilary the Confessor,

“We are both at one in this that while we have rendered all that is useful, we have cut away all that was harmful. Let him read our versions for himself.”

• Jerome, “Works of Jerome,” Letter 134, p. 179

The teaching of eternal torment had a value, even for those who may have believed in universal reconciliation—that of hindering sin of unbelievers and new believers by means of threat of punishment. NOT teaching universal reconciliation may have been reasoned in this manner, “If universal reconciliation is fact, then telling people otherwise will do no harm. If it is not true, then all who believe it may sin without repenting and be in danger of eternal torment, and we also who are pastors would be liable.” Such a cynical view would indicate little faith in God to change lives.

Belief in universal reconciliation was found extensively throughout early church history. It was held by prominent Fathers of the Church who considered the doctrine dangerous to unconverted outside, and new believers inside the church.

Those who did not believe in universal reconciliation did acknowledge its widespread acceptance, and they did not look harshly on those who advocated. No one called the other a “heretic” for believing the holding the belief.

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