What MacDonald aims to do in The Evangelical Universalist is set up an overarching narrative of scripture to show how the universalist picture fits. What he is doing is setting up a sytematic theology, which uses
theological grids, or stories, or doctrines that are taught clearly in some biblical texts and are broad enough to serve as organising categories for considering the teachings of other biblical texts (without doing violence to them).” (p. 39, emphasis his)
Setting up such a grid, says MacDonald, allows him to deal with a wide range of themes and texts while at the same time admitting (“without embarassment”) that some biblical authors are not universalists. By way of example, he notes that the Christology of the Gospel of Mark is quite low, that the book of Mark would not have us believe that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity. The Gospel of John, on the other hand, has a very high Christology, in which there is no doubt that John believed him Jesus to be divine. Systematic theologians will argue that John’s Christology is broad enough to encompass the Gospel of Mark as well, even if Mark himself did not write from such a position.
MacDonald begins to set up his theological grid with a look at Colossians, particularly the “Christ hymn” in Colossians 1:15-20. In a nutshell (even though that won’t do his argument justice), the parallel wording of v. 16 and v. 20 are of particular importance to MacDonald:
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. (v. 16, ESV — the author uses a different translation)
…and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (v. 20, ESV)
What is of particular interest for our subject matter
is that the [hymn] is quite unambiguous about the extent of the reconcilliation Christ has effected through his cross. The “all things” that are reconciled in v. 20 are, without any doubt, the same “all things” that are created in v. 16. In other words, every single created thing. It is not “all without distinction” (i.e., some of every kind of thing) but “all without exception” (i.e. every single thing in creation). (p. 45)
I won’t get into all the counter-arguments and defenses right now, but I will mention the argument that vv. 21-23 make it clear that salvation is conditional on faith. MacDonald “happily” shares this view, arguing that in the end all will be in Christ through faith. From Paul’s perspective, Christ’s work has already been accomplished and yet “is only experienced as a reality by those in Christ by faith” (p. 51)—the Church is the “‘forerunner of a reconcilation that will be cosmic and universal in scope'” (p. 51.)
At this point, MacDonald puts forward a view of the Gospel and salvation remarkably similar to N.T. Wright’s vision I blogged about in March (N.T. Wright isn’t a universalist, but did I see this connection coming, or what?)
Gospel proclamation and living (“walking worthily of the Lord, wholly pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work” [Colossians] 1:10) are ways for the Church to bring about the goal of universal reconciliation. The Church must live by the values of, and proclaim the coming of, the kingdom age in the present evil age as a sign to a hostile world. Here is a vision of the people of God according to which the future reconciliation of creation is already (beginning to be) worked out and in which the members of the community need to live out, in the social relationships, the model of the future. (p. 51.)
In an appendix to the book, which I have not yet read, MacDonald argues that the book of Ephesians holds a similar theology.
This is a long post already and it hasn’t even touched half of what MacDonald had to say (so order the book already), but it hopefully gives you a brief overview of MacDonald’s argument. His argument takes into account the whole book of Colossians, but the two verses I quoted are the focal point around which everything else revolves in his argument.
Chapter 3 will look at “Isreal & the nations in the Old Testament”. Hopefully I won’t allow as much time to pass between this post and the next as I did between this post and the previous one.