Ekman and Universalism

by Peter Sandstrom

It was an honor for Pietisten to be able to publish Runar Eldebo's article, "The Eschatological Dilemma: A Study in Some Problems in the Eschatology of Erik Jacob Ekman," in our Fall 1987 issue. It was also a great pleasure for those of us on the editorial staff to be able to meet with Rev. Eldebo on various occasions during his faculty exchange time here in America. We want to keep that conversation going and to use Pietisten to further discussions among pietists in America, Sweden, and other places around the globe. In that spirit I want to pursue some of the insights and questions concerning Ekman's universalism that were offered in Eldebo's article.

Eldebo pointed out that Ekman was a biblically oriented pietist theologian who was open to, and influenced by, the currents of his day. Ekman's writings, in turn-of-the-century Sweden, reveal a person who was directed to — and by — scripture, rationalism, anthropocentricity, and the human face of God. We are told that Waldenström also was influenced by these forces and that he and Ekman were, in turn, affected by each other. We witness this interaction in Waldenström's development of a theory of atonement, Ekman's adoption of Waldenström's theme of the human face of God, and in Ekman's centering his own theology on the love of God. "The face of God, here painted, and which is very much in contrast to the face of God in orthodoxy and church dogmatics, is certainly a rational work, not only a Biblical reading," (Pietisten, Vol. II, No. 4, p. 2).

It was with this perspective and cloud of influences that Ekman approached theology and, in particular, eschatology. Eldebo proposes that the central question for Ekman's eschatology is "the unsolved and never ending dualistic pattern — heaven and hell" (Ibid). Du al ism had been a primary philosophical problem since Descartes, and Ekman not only rejected it but brought his own philosophical monism back with him into the realm of theology and biblical interpretation. To have eschatology propose an everlasting state in which there were both saved and unsaved represented to Ekman a defeat for 'God, unacceptable dualism, and a poor job of interpreting scripture.

Runar Eldebo himself is not a universalist but he gives us a probing and sympathetic analysis of Ekman's eschatology. My own adherence to universalism stems from some of the same sources as those of Ekman but also draws on elements from process theology. Although these elements support a universalist eschatology, they challenge some of Ekman's rationales. Eldebo directed some of his own criticisms at several of these same points. I will come to these later.

Ekman utilized the concept and measure of time, known in scripture as "aeon" both to help justify universalism and to provide a means for its fulfillment. Briefly stated, the case is that there is no Greek word in scripture for eternity; instead, the word aionis is used, which translateds as aeon (eon) or age. Ongoing existence, even in "the next life," is not one continuous age but, rather, a series of ages. It is over the span of the aeons that God continues to do God's work of salvation until all are saved and none are left condemned. What is interesting here is that Ekman uses the theory of repeating aeons as a means for hi s universalism just as Origen of Alexandria, the first known proponent of universalism, did during the early third century. It is curious that, when Origen's theology was later condemned, it was not for his universalism, per se, but for his theory of repeating aeons. A little more than a hundred years after Origen's death, Gregory of Nyssa would also preach universalism but without using repeating aeons. He instead proposed that universal salvation was a single eschatological event. It is interesting that Gregory's universalism was never condemned by a church council. Whereas a long series of aeons may provide the time necessary for God to save all people, this is not as important to Ekman as the motivation and ultimate means for universal salvation which is the love of God. God, as love, is not only a theological proposition for Ekman; it is also a central scriptural theme and the basis of his hermeneutic ( interpretation). In centering his biblical interpretation around the love of God, Ekman does not ignore other scriptural themes or aspects of God's character, as may be witnessed in biblical history, such as the wrath of God; indeed, he seems to insist on them. What Ekman does, however, is to assign different values to these characteristics. It is Ekman's firm belief that God's love will outlast God's wrath. He assumes this will happen because, over the passage of the ages, God will eventually convert all humankind back to God's self and then there will be no more sin to which God's wrath to be directed. Hence there will be no more need for God's wrath and it will cease to exist.

Ekman's method here speaks to some issues of how we might go about doing theology as pietists. His concerns, as Eldebo clearly points out, are both with scripture and with the philosophical and theological issues of his day. When Ekman declares that God' s love is that characteristic of God that is to be most valued and that will outlast all the others, he is making a judgment that may be supported by scripture but which is not necessitated by it; a hermeneutic based on God's wrath can also be and usually has been — made. In making his theological decision for universalism, a perspective that has not fared well with orthodoxy, Ekman insists on something that is inherent in pietism's beginnings: the recognition that interpretation of scripture, whether it be for theological , ecclesiastical, or devotional purposes, is always value-laden. It is my sense that Phillip Jacob Spener, listening to the work of Johannes Arndt, shared in this perspective when he wrote in Pia Desideria that differences in theological propositions should not stop us from coming together to consider scripture. Differences do not have to be settled before the reading begins because differences will always be a necessary part of the interpretative process.

When I proclaim a hope in universal salvation, and do so saying that I find foundation for it in scripture, I am using that same method as Ekman, in that I put the highest value on the love of God rather than on God's wrath. This is a value that comes from my reading of scripture, my human experience and my philosophical perspective; they all influence each other. Like Ekman, I cannot read scripture without the point of view that the prominent theme is God' s love working among human beings. When this is coupled with the scriptural witness to the steadfastness of God, I find it a very persuasive argument for the universalist perspective.

There are differing texts and events in scripture that may be able to speak to either universalist or particularist salvations. Among those I find favorable to universalism are: Jesus' parable of the lost sheep, his parable of the woman's lost coin, Paul's arguments concerning God's work in Christ and its relation to the unification of Jews and Gentiles (Romans 8-11), the prologue to the letter to Ephesians, and the hymn, or baptismal vow, in Colossians 1:15-20. %hen it comes to eschatology, however, I think that individual texts, verses, or stories, all take a secondary place to the events of Christ's death and resurrection — the primary question here being: How is the Cross to be interpreted' This is the question we then take to the texts. Universalists and particularists, and those on the wide spectrum of thought between and around them, all come back with varying answers to that question. I side with Ekman when he proposes that the work of the Cross was not taken on so that a fortunate few, or many, would come to faith, but rather that the whole world, through Christ, would be reunited with God — no matter how long it takes.

Eldebo tells us that Ekman is wrestling with the independence of God: "If God is God then no one and no thing can stand in his way" (Ibid, p. 3). So it is in Ekman's thinking that if God simply decides that there will be universal salvation, then it shall come to pass, or God is no longer God. It is Eldebo's perspective that this is the place where Ekman loses sight of the very sovereignty of God that he is trying to respect: If God is already committed to save everyone, then God has lost some of God's own freedom for future decisions. I also contend with Ekman at this point of God's sovereignty, but for different reasons. Process theologians have long held out for an understanding of God which emphasizes God's interrelatedness with all things. It is a theology which sees a philosophical necessity in God's being affected by every element of creation, from atomic particles to human experience. Sovereignty of God cannot include any absolute separation between God and human beings. Process thought also focuses on God's power as primarily persuasive instead of coercive.

Taken together, these ideas can support an eschatology that envisions God providing a universal salvation, but not because God is independently sovereign and therefore nothing can stand in God's way. Rather, there is a recognition that God is connected to all things and that any or all of those things can stand in God's way if they choose to. If God provides a universal salvation, it will be because God will never disconnect from creation and will never cease efforts to persuade God's own to come back. This process point of view also speaks to Eldebo's final critique of Ekman in which he states that what he did was to "oppose a doctrine of never ending punishment with a doctrine of universalism for sure" (Ibid, p. 5). It is to this "for sure" that Eldebo objects, and so do I. Process theology presents a more open-ended future in which any eventual outcome is unknown, even to God. Any sense of certainty rests more with the expectation that God will never give up trying to persuade all creatures to choose God's path. Universalism of this sort incorporates process thought and scriptural witness. It establishes ground, not for a sure thing, but for hope.

In closing, I want to praise Erik Jacob Ekman for his willingness to test a scriptural and theological insight to its limits, examining it for truth and conformity to God as witnessed in both scripture and in human experience. His courageous personal and public efforts on behalf of the eschatology of universalism is a model for those still seeking to do theology in a pietist spirit.

Peter Sandstrom teaches education and is an editor of Pietisten.

See all articles by Peter Sandstrom