The Historical Doctrine?
That position [Universalism] has consistently been held as heretical by the Church for two-thousand years … You can go back to Athanasius, you can go back to Augustine, you can go back to Huss, and Tyndale, and others. -Mark Driscoll (as cited by Distefano 2017)
The above claim by Mark Driscoll seems representative of the common misconception of many modern pastors and churchgoers. While it may be true that some of the four people mentioned above did not view universal salvation favorably, it is certainly not true that the Church has held the position as heretical for two-thousand years. In fact, Athanasius clearly and repeatedly taught universal reconciliation, so we know at least 25% of Driscoll's claim is plainly untrue (see here for proof in Athanasius' own words). It is not even clear that the other supposed ardent defenders of the hell doctrine mentioned above viewed universal salvation as heresy. Consider, for example, the words of one of the hell doctrine’s most staunch proponents, Augustine of Hippo:
I must now, I see, enter the lists of amicable controversy with those tender-hearted Christians who decline to believe that any, or that all of those whom the infallibly just Judge may pronounce worthy of the punishment of hell, shall suffer eternally, and who suppose that they shall be delivered after a fixed term of punishment, longer or shorter according to the amount of each man's sin (The City of God, Book XXI, Chapter 17).
In another translation of this passage, this amicable (friendly) controversy is translated as “a gentle disputation with certain tender hearts of our own religion” (Jukes 1878). This quite plainly tells us that Augustine did not view universal salvation as heresy but rather as a view held by other Christians. The disagreement on the subject was gentle and friendly, rather than contentious. Augustine himself admits that the number of believers who disagreed with him on this subject were “indeed very many” (Enchiridion, also known as The Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, Chapter 112). Therefore, by the testimony of Augustine, very many Christians (whom he regarded as such, and not as heretics), disagreed with him on the eternality of punishment. This disagreement was not, in any respect, grounds for breaking fellowship or maligning anyone as a false teacher.
We will shortly see that the primary reason why Augustine was incorrect in his exegesis was because he lacked sufficient understanding of Greek, the language in which the New Testament was composed. The “very many,” as it turns out, were actually correct in disagreeing with Augustine, and based their view on a deeper understanding of Greek language and culture that Augustine lacked. But this is a subject that we will examine in much more detail later. For now, it is simply necessary to point out that the church of Augustine’s time (and Augustine himself) did not view eternal punishment as indisputable dogma, nor did it view ultimate restoration as damnable heresy. Those errors arose later in history.
We will soon see that Driscoll’s claim that universal salvation has “consistently been held as heretical by the Church for two-thousand years” is indeed an enormous error that demonstrates little knowledge of church history. Such erroneous assertions seem to be made quite frequently. In the following pages, we will spend a great deal of time looking at actual textual evidence (including many primary sources written by highly respected Church Fathers and theologians) that undeniably refute these sorts of assertions. The church has held several different opinions on the matter throughout history, including universal reconciliation (especially in the early Greek-speaking church), as we shall soon see. So, buckle up and put on your thinking caps. Our tour through history is about to begin.
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Augustine. “The City of God (Book XXI).” Edited by Kevin Knight. Translated by Marcus Dods, CHURCH FATHERS: City of God, Book XXI (St. Augustine), www.newadvent.org/fathers/ 120121.htm . From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 2. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.)
Distefano, Matthew. “Indeed Very Many: Universalism in the Early Church.” Unfundamentalist Christians, 10 Apr. 2017, www.patheos.com/blogs/ unfundamentalistchristians/ 2017/04/ indeed-many-universalism-early-church/ #jDOCIJAAQAPEh1pF.99 .
Jukes, Andrew. The Second Death and the Restitution of All Things. 7th ed., LONGMANS, GREEN, AND CO., 1878, play.google.com/books/reader?id=V6ECAAAAQAAJ&printsec= frontcover&output=reader&hl= en&pg=GBS.PA181 .