The Perfections of Grace in Calvinism, Arminianism and Universalism

In the series of posts I just finished reflecting on John Barclay's book Paul and the Gift I used Barclay's perfections of grace to comment on different soteriological positions, mainly comparing and contrasting Calvinism and Arminianism, but also mentioning Universalism.

What I'd like to do in this post is show how Barclay's perfections of grace map onto Thomas Talbott's propositions as described in his book The Inescapable Love of God and his essays in the edited book Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate.

Long time and regular readers will have seen Talbott's propositions before, but if you're new to them Talbott has us consider the following three propositions:
  1. God’s redemptive love extends to all human sinners equally in the sense that he sincerely wills or desires the redemption of each one of them.
  2. Because no one can finally defeat God’s redemptive love or resist it forever, God will triumph in the end and successfully accomplish the redemption of everyone whose redemption he sincerely wills or desires.
  3. Some human sinners will never be redeemed but will instead be separated from God forever.
We start by affirming that each proposition has ample biblical support. But as Talbott points out, you cannot logically endorse all three propositions. You have to accept two of the propositions and reject a third. And depending upon which propositions you either accept or reject you end up with either Calvinism, Arminianism, or Universal Reconciliation.

Following Talbott, the various soteriologies end up looking like this:
  1. Calvinism: Adopts Propositions #2 and #3. God will accomplish God's plans and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of Proposition #1, that God wills to save all humanity. (The limited scope of salvation is implicit in the doctrine of election.)
  2. Arminianism: Adopts Propositions #1 and #3. God wills to save all people and some people will be separated from God forever. This implies a rejection of Proposition #2: God will fail to accomplish something God wills, to save all people. (An appeal to human freedom is usually used to explain this failure.)
  3. Universal Reconciliation: Adopts Propositions #1 and #2. God wills to save all people and God will accomplish God's purposes. This implies a rejection of Proposition #3, that some people will be separated from God forever. (Opinions differ in how this happens, but often a purgatorial view of divine justice is posited.)
So how does Talbott's propositions map onto John Barclay's perfections of grace?

Recall one of the main arguments of Barclay in Paul and the Gift. All of these soteriologies believe in grace. The differences between the soteriologies are found in which perfections they include in their theology of grace.

To recap, Barclay argues that grace can be perfected--as a vision of "pure" grace--in six different ways:
1. Superabundance
Grace is "perfected" if it is lavish and extravagant.

2. Singularity
Grace is "perfected" if it flows out of a spirit of benevolence and goodness.

3. Priority
Grace is "perfected" if it is unprompted, free, spontaneous and initiated solely by choice of the giver.

4. Incongruity
Grace is "perfected" if it ignores the worth or merit of the recipient.

5. Efficacy
Grace is "perfected" if it accomplishes what it intends to do.

6. Non-Circularity
Grace is "perfected" if it escapes repayment and reciprocity, if it cannot be paid back or returned.
And in my series I made an argument for a seventh perfection:
7. Liberality
Grace is "perfected" if it is given to more rather than fewer recipients.
As should be obvious, Calvinism, Arminianism, and Universalism all believe that grace displays the perfections of superabundance, singularity, priority and incongruity. God's grace is lavish (superabundant), loving (singularity), unprompted (priority) and poured out upon sinners (incongruity). All four of these perfections are found in Calvinist, Arminian and Universalist theologies of grace and salvation.

Where the views differ, as hinted at in Talbott's propositions, is in how each theology various perfects efficacy and liberality. Summarizing:
1. The Perfections of Grace in Calvinism
In Calvinism efficacy is perfected but not liberality. Grace accomplishes what it sets out to do (perfection of efficacy), but saves only the elect (no perfection of liberality).

2. The Perfections of Grace in Arminianism
In Arminianism liberality is perfected but not efficacy. Grace is given to all of humanity (perfection of liberality) but the gift of grace fails to accomplish its goal in saving all of humanity (no perfection of efficacy).

3. The Perfections of Grace in Universalism
In Universalism both the efficacy and liberality of grace are perfected. Grace is given to all of humanity (perfection of liberality) and grace will, eventually, accomplish the goal of saving all of humanity (perfection of efficacy).
If you go back to Talbott's propositions you can see how they are teasing out how efficacy and liberality are being variously perfected (or not) by the different soteriological positions.

Grace abounds, but is perfected in different ways.

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