Earlier this year I featured an interview with Gregory MacDonald, pseudonymous author of The Evangelical Universalist: The biblical hope that God’s love will save us all (9780281059881, SPCK, 2008).
In my introduction to that interview I said that, given the struggle many evangelicals have when it comes to thinking outside the box, it’s hardly surprising that this book has attracted a certain amount of controversy and criticism. But the following review by Brian Kerr in this month’s Christian Marketplace, which gives the book a one star rating out of a possible five, struck me as a splendid example of how not to engage with a book:
If you ask me, the title of this book is an oxymoron and shows how the term ‘evangelical’, which means a Christian who believes in the supremacy of scripture, has been devalued. It is surely significant that MacDonald (not the author’s real name) begins with philosophy rather than scripture. It seems to me that he had reached a universalist conclusion before he even opened his Bible! The book illustrates that when one comes to the scriptures with one’s theological position already worked out, one will be able to find support for it there! It seems to me that MacDonald reads universalism into scripture rather than reading out what is there. MacDonald believes in redemption from hell, i.e. that people will have a chance to repent and believe after death, and that even the devil will ultimately be saved, and wants to convince his readers that his universalism is a legitimate evangelical option. He hasn’t convinced this reader! I couldn’t recommend this book to anyone.
“It seems to me,” says Kerr, “that he had reached a universalist conclusion before he even opened his Bible!” — which seems, unfortunately, to be the very approach that Kerr has taken to this book…
Taking umbrage at the title’s bringing together of two concepts that he finds mutually incompatible, rather than engage with the issues raised Kerr dismisses the entire book by reiterating this assessment:
The book illustrates that when one comes to the scriptures with one’s theological position already worked out, one will be able to find support for it there! It seems to me that MacDonald reads universalism into scripture rather than reading out what is there.
Steady on, old chap: I think you’ve already said that! MacDonald’s arguments may fail to convince and his re-reading of scripture may or may not stand up to scrutiny, but the questions MacDonald seeks to draw to our attention deserve serious attention. Is it possible that evangelicals have misinterpreted scripture? Is it possible, as per the subtitle, that “God’s love will save us all”?
Kerr is not convinced and concludes that he “couldn’t recommend this book to anyone.” Why not? Are the arguments poorly constructed? Is the book badly written? Has MacDonald genuinely failed to engage with scripture? Does he offer us a selective reading that ignores difficult passages? Is he allowing woolly thinking to prejudice his conclusions, taking an ‘if only…’ approach that presupposes where it ends up? Has he abandoned any other supposedly essential tenets of evangelicalism?
When you have a very tight word limit — as Christian Marketplace reviewers do — it’s impossible, of course, to address all the questions one might in a longer review. But in the case of this particular review, I suspect that the one star rating has more to do with the reviewer’s prejudices than with the merits or otherwise of the book.
If you, gentle reader, are a Christian bookseller trying to decide whether or not to stock this particular title, I invite you to read my interview with Gregory MacDonald before you make up your mind: given the tone of Kerr’s review, you may be in for a pleasant surprise…