• Does the ELCA believe in Universalism?

    Is the ELCA universalists [sic]? was a question I was asked on twitter last weekend. And the answer I tweeted back was “no, but its fairly easy to misinterpret our theology in such a fashion, Braaten explains it well here http://tinyurl.com/2g3durv

    In hindsight, not knowing the fellow asking the question, sending him to a book by a high powered theologian such as Dr Braaten may or may not have been the right way to answer such a question. Most certainly, while doing so was expeditious and correct, it was not by any means stepping up to the plate personally. As a result, here would have been a more appropriate answer, albeit being its far too long to fit within 140 characters…

    The answer is no, we are not universalists. However, in the eyes of many US evangelicals, we might appear to be. The reason is that many US evangelicals hold to a model of the destiny of the unevangelized called exclusivism or restrictivism. It is the narrowest model, and pretty goes much narrower than just “No one comes to the Father but through me“. It holds to the belief that only those who actively respond in faith to the explicit preaching of the Gospel are saved…. but in practice, few actually hold to such a hard core restrictivism, especially when it concerns children or the unborn. A couple common workarounds are the age of accountability, and/or a re-definition of original sin in other than a view of total depravity from conception… such that children and or the unborn are saved, even if they have never heard the Gospel explicitly preached. Ultimately, it would be correct to say that the ELCA does not ascribe to restrictivism.

    Going to the other extreme is a view held by some unitarian universalists, which states that all are saved, and that Christ has nothing to do with such. As a result, it would be correct to say that the ELCA does not ascribe to the views of the above unitarian universalists either.

    Rather, my view, which is close to the ELCA’s, is that its in God’s hands, and His grace is huge, we know He desires that all be saved. Scripture leans towards universalism, that God’s work in Christ was done for all, yet we must also be aware of God’s judgment. We hold to a universal hope that all will be saved through the grace and love of Christ… but ultimately, we do not know. We do not put absolutes around God and put Him in a box to our liking, whether it be restrictivism on the one hand, or universal salvation for all apart from Christ on the other.

    For further reference:

    Principles of Lutheran theology Carl Braaten

    What we believe from the ELCA website

    ******** added at 12:05PM CDT 19 August 2010 ********

    One thing I forgot to add last night was a reference to the first edition of the ELCA’s Lutheran Study Bible. There was a lot of fuss over Dr Priebe’s commentary on the great commission being it came across as a type of universalism. Its well worth reading the background on the commentary from Dr Priebe It makes a whole lot of sense, and no it is not universalism.

13 Comments


  1. Very timely. My own congregation is going nuts, printing garbage off the internet and misquotes from Braatan prooving the ELCA is Universalist. I have no hopes of keeping them from leaving the ELCA but today I had just decided to write up a paper on what is universalism (people don’t even know that basic question) and what the different traditions have taught about it. Too many Lutherans are pretty darn Calvinist on this issue (when you come down to it, lots of them don’t actually believe Jesus died for EVERYONE)

  2. Brant says:

    Nicely done.

    It seems to me that the charge of Universalism is used by the anti-ELCA forces when they find that sexuality issues don’t give them enough traction. It is a scare tactic.

  3. Katelyn says:

    Great post. I especially appreciate your last paragraph. “…ultimately we do not know.” I couldn’t agree more. I trust that all people are saved, but I realize there’s no way I could possibly know for certain. When I bring this up to some people, they generally ask me how I can believe something so unbiblical or so “out of line” with “traditional teaching.

    And others kind of give me a funny look and say something like, “Hey, you know…I’ve kind of always thought that, too.” The ELCA Lutherans I’ve encountered have predominantly responded in this way.

    Whatever we believe, it’s all theology, and as much as I enjoy theology, I recognize only God knows. We should spend less time throwing theology at one another and more time focusing on what unites us, Christ.

  4. Brant says:

    FYI, I linked to this post on my own blog, here: http://saintandcynic.blogspot.com/2010/08/this-just-in-obama-is-not-muslim.html

    Thanks for writing it!

  5. Ron Amundson says:

    @Pastor Joelle sorry about your congregation… its so frustrating how many folks are closet Calvanist’s. I sort of wonder if Christian Bookstore “pop” Christianity is a contributor? Also, looking forward to your paper breaking down theories by tradition.

    @Brant I think you may be right. In a lot of ways, things seem s near repeat of the late 1800’s, where many things were used to strike up fear. Election was not the end all, as slavery, high church-low church, Haugianism also entered in. I also think your blog entry is spot on… the title did throw me for a loop initially, but it does connect for sure.

    @Katelyn Indeed,theology tossing games and the resulting disunity is not cool… but theology done in love, despite the disunity can be a good thing. I’ll elaborate in a blog post, as its a bit large to fit here. Thanks for stopping by.

  6. Bob Waters says:

    You”re right; technically, it’s not universalism (although I do recall Dr. Priebe once referencing “Lutheran universalism” in one of his lectures on the topic when I was in seminary). Folks like Dr. Priebe and Dr. Braaten always stop short of asserting that everyone will be saved, despite holding out a “large hope” for that outcome for which Scripture simply leaves no room, at least if the teachings of Paul and Jesus are each taken as a whole rather than cherry-picking individual texts and setting them against what the same source says elsewhere.

    The trouble is twofold. First, that it’s a great deal broader than either a great many passages of Scripture (John 3:36 comes to mind) or Luther, the Confessions, or Lutheran theology historically have permitted. Where the (biblically very remote) possibility of salvation apart from faith is not simply a footnote as something to be wistfully hoped for, but made the thrust of one’s doctrine of justification as a “very large hope” or a substantial possibility, what results is a defection from the Lutheran doctrine of justification, as well as from the teachings of Jesus and Paul.

    There’s another problem in practice. Where salvation is divorced from allegience to Christ in even rudementary form, the result is the seperation of Law and Gospel, practical antinomianism, and the very disasterous theology which moved Bonhoeffer to write The Cost of Discipleship. The tragedy is the degree to which that theology is, in fact, the theology of the ELCA.

  7. Ron Amundson says:

    I concede the breadth of the issue from a historical point of view, although if I remember correctly some of Luther’s earlier writings leaned in such a direction. I may however be wrong in this… I don’t have his works at hand, and its been a long time since I read such.

    As far as separation of Law and Gospel goes, I see this in the ELCA a great deal, but I’m not convinced of its causality. I tend to think this is more so a remnant of pietism, the events of syncretism 150 yrs ago, and the infiltration of pop Christianity within the leadership (outside of the ministry of word and sacrament). As far as antinominanism goes, I dont see it at all. If anything, it seems the first use of the law has near eclipsed the Gospel. A fast scan of a number of synod assembly minutes, by and large the focuses near everything towards first use. We’re addressing poverty, malaria, food, disaster aid…. all good things for sure, but such should not be the only or near only focus.

    Thanks for the comment!

  8. Someone says:

    I left the ELCA when I was informed it was a religion that supported those who defame the Holy Spirit, and torture Christians for belief in the Holy Spirit and God, because the ELCA wanted to keep the wealthy non-Christian homosexual child molesters in their churches. That was too “universalism” for my taste, but such support of Holy Spirit defamation and homosexual child molestation came directly from Bishop Hanson.

    I’m far from a Calvinist. It appears I may now have a gay child, due to this ELCA child abuse cover up, but of course still love my child. I used to believe Jesus should try to save all. But defamation of the Holy Spirit is the only unforgivable sin in the bible, so it is not my right to forgive ELCA employees supporting such sins and crimes against the Holy Spirit and innocent children. The ELCA headquarters “universalism,” no doubt due to their greed, has run amok.

  9. Ron Amundson says:

    If your child was sexually molested, I urge you to take this up with law enforcement. Even if you are told the statute of limitations has passed, such may not be the end of it. Here in MN, the 6 year statute for civil cases was just overturned, such that victims, some of whom have fought for years can finally have their cases heard in court. My personal view, is that anyone who has covered sexual abuse up should also be subject to criminal as well as civil proceedings, and there should be no statute of limitations on such crimes…

  10. Someone says:

    Ron,
    I keep trying. I just got an email from Barbara Keller who is a consultant to the ELCA for the prevention of child abuse. It seems she also has chosen to participate in the cover up, although I’m not positive yet. Do you know of a lawyer who might take the case? And I agree, when pastors and/or bishops cover up child abuse, they too belong in jail. I keep praying for justice some day. And I am seeing possible justice in regards to part of the cover up. Hope, hope, hope, pray, pray, pray. I don’t know what else to do. Religions that cover up child abuse are sickening, and of course it’s all about the ELCA’s worshiping money instead of God.

  11. Ron Amundson says:

    Sorry for the delay on getting back to you. Keep watch on your inbox for an email. I know a number of attorneys throughout the US, and a fellow at a national child abuse prevention org. I’ll do my best to find someone you can check in with.

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