Guest: What is Ballou’s Treatise about?

The Rev. Derek Parker — a good friend and frequent commenter — wrote me an email this morning that summed-up my feelings about the Rev. Bill Sinkford’s most recent letter as the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. (I’ve been slammed with other work, thus my non-posting.) You can see it here.

With his permission, this is his note (lightly edited) and it the first ever BitB guest blog entry:

Bill Sinkford, in his www.uua.org posting on atonement and social activism brought up Hosea Ballou. He implies that the Treatise on Atonement teaches that we are saved through our good works. That wasn’t Ballou’s point.

Ballou wrote that we were all saved because of the supreme power and good moral character of God. Good deeds are merely our inspired response to God’s goodness.

There’s just something odd to me about citing Ballou’s text, but trying to by-pass the main point of Ballou’s theology. Universal salvation is not the result of our own self-righteous works; but the result of Divine sovereignty and Divine character. Sinkford’s implications seem to me, to be an attempt to pave over Universalist soteriology with a humanistic-Unitarian (and very American) theology of salvation via our own good works. At the very least Sinkford has terribly misunderstood Ballou, and reversed the cause-effect relationship in Ballou’s writings on atonement. And this only begs the question for me, how many good works do I then need to do in order to be in some sense saved? Unless you answer zero, most of the other answers to that
last question are hardly Universalist. As a Universalist I know I was born saved, by the grace of God.

What do you think?

My only difference with Parker is that I don’t think the Unitarian theists and Christians would have said much different, seeing as they come from rationalist Arminianism. In time, you get a works morality and a works meritocracy, neither of which is properly Universalist. (I’m certainly no Unitarian any more.) Indeed, Sinkford’s comments fit better with his observation of Yom Kippur, and had he left it at that I wouldn’t have thought to comment, but this interpretation of Ballou beggers reason.

11 thoughts on “Guest: What is Ballou’s Treatise about?”

  1. Well that is odd. It does seem strange, don’t ya think, that “we” (the UUA theological culture) seem to have missed the message? We don’t have to necessarily agree with Ballou today but, for gosh sake, let’s get him right!

    I don’t think we should solely blame Bill for this, however, it does seem to be a part of the dominant culture of our movement right now. We like to tied up the loose ends regardless of whether we are being accurate or not. Sometimes we have trouble accepting the truth when it gets in the way of our point. This incident reminds me of more than one UU meeting where I have been ugred to declare the “Good News” or the “Saving Message” of UUism and I had to stop myself and wonder if the speaker had given any thought to Jesus. In a couple cases I doubt that they knew where those expressions came from…

    Thank you Scott and Derek.

  2. Hi fellas, thanks for this. I confess to being scrambled in my head about faith and works because I’m reading a biography of Anne Hutchinson and all that salvation by grace vs. salvation/justification by works controversy is very hard to keep straight as it moves “forward through the ages” and gets taken up by different folks.

    I think you might like that I snuck in some Universalism to the very humanistic church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana this morning by saying that “original love and original blessing” is the source of all resiliency, and that the GOOD NEWS is that this love is unearned and inviolable.

    Would Ballou have agreed or would he have given me the Bronx cheer? And more importantly, what would he have eaten at coffee hour?

  3. One more thing, as I think of it.
    Unitarian Universalists like to go around saying that we’re all so possessed of inherent worth and dignity and all, and utterly blow off the Universalist origins of that beautiful notion which is that IT IS BECAUSE GOD LOVES US that we HAVE that inherent worth and dignity.

    It just kills me, and it’s the crux of Bill Sinkford’s well-meaning blunder, and it is the irritating, work-my-last-nerve foundation of UUs smug superiority about how they’re gonna change the world all without needing to have any theological foundation whatsoever underneath their activism and advocacy.

    PeaceBang, very tired and incoherent on Sunday evening in Baton Rouge

  4. Rev. Wells, I’d be interested in hearing about your journey from Unitarian- to Trinitarian-Universalist. Unless, of course, you’ve already written about it here, in which case just point me to the archive.

    On another issue, I like to consider the UUA as the only entity that has “apostolic” connection/succession to American Universalism (as well as American Unitarianism). However, (and I hate to resort to this tired complaint) I feel that the UUA has failed in safegaurding and promoting these two traditions (despite the efforts of the UUCF). I think this explains why we have splinter groups like the American Unitarian Conference and the Universalist Christians Association. (maybe “splinter group” is the wrong phrase, but what I mean are groups completely independent of the UUA that nonetheless promote ideals and activities that have the appearance of being UUA-related)

    If we have UU ministers and leaders like Sinkford publicly misrepresenting historical Universalism (as well as historical Unitarianism), how on earth can we expect either of the two traditions to retain their meanings and relevance in the generations to come?

    Despite periodic growth through the internet, are the two traditions in their dying days? How much longer will “Boy in the Bands,” for instance, be relevant? How much longer will other preachers of American Universalism be relevant?

    If people like Sinkford are ignoring the real points of their historic heritage, doesn’t that imply something? Doesn’t that imply that those points are dead? And if so, then why bother even trying to discuss such a thing as “UU history” if “UU history” is nothing but “what we used to believe but got over.” And why even bother trying to relate “UU history” to contemporary social justice issues?

    Just a few thoughts from a fellow religious seeker. —peace be with you—

  5. Peace Bang – I’m fairly confident that H. Ballou believed in sin, but I’m uncertain if he believed in original sin. Was he more universal election Clavinist, or more Matthew Fox? Or something else entirely. His emphasis, however, was more towards eschatology than towatds origins of sin (in other words more future focused than past focused). His point was that the love of God would eventually end our alienation from each other and God.

    David – You make an eloquent point. There is a danger, as pointed out by UUCF president Cecil Bohanon, when we UU’s exclude in the name of tolerance the very faith of our “mothers and fathers”. And there is hypocrisy when we reject out of hand the theology of figures like Judith Sargent Murray, but laud her feminism. Her Christianity and her feminism went hand in hand. Can we call her mother, but be so unwelcoming of her discipleship to Christ? I don’t believe we honestly can.

    And that is where I wonder about how the UUA becomes so irrelevant to theological Unitarianism and/or Universalism.

    PS – The Universalist Christians Association is not really a splinter group, but a theological network that has a few retreats and educational programs, and networking.

  6. “It just kills me, and it’s the crux of Bill Sinkford’s well-meaning blunder, and it is the irritating, work-my-last-nerve foundation of UUs smug superiority about how they’re gonna change the world all without needing to have any theological foundation whatsoever underneath their activism and advocacy.”

    [insert applause here]

    “My only difference with Parker is that I don’t think the Unitarian theists and Christians would have said much different, seeing as they come from rationalist Arminianism. In time, you get a works morality and a works meritocracy, neither of which is properly Universalist.”

    As a Unitarian theist, I’d say you’re probably right. For me the idea of salvation makes no sense to begin with, if we mean by it as much of Christianity does, salvation from eternal punishment for earthly transgressions. But I ultimately reject the notion of damnation precisely because I affirm the “supreme power and good moral character of God.”

  7. I think the Universalist side of our heritage was originally very much in the Total Depravity/Unconditional Election/Irresistable Grace mold of Calvinist thought. Where they dissented from Calvinism was over Limited Atonement. They agreed with the Calvinists that we are all vile worms, but argued that God loves us all so much anyway that no one will be left behind. This position avoids accusations of works righteousness (like Sinkford’s if he knew he was making the accusation, which he apparently doesn’t) because all good works are understood to be the product of grace, just as in orthodox Augustinian theology.

    It’s the Unitarians, not Universalists, who were the Pelagians and taught “salvation by character”. They differed with the Congregationalists at first more over Original Sin than Christology, or so Channing tried to argue. Of the Five Pillars of Calvinism they denied Total Depravity, Unconditional Election and Perseverance of the Saints, and held that atonement was limited, not by God, but by our own willingness to contribute to the process.

    Sounds like Sinkford doesn’t understand the difference between Ballou and Channing.

  8. As to PeaceBang and her study of Anne Hutchinson, Mrs. H represents the very first time that this question came up in one of our congregations, you know. Hutchinson (correctly, IMHO) accused the Massachusetts clergy of preaching what amounted to salvation by works, even though their own theology ostensibly denied it. I think it was their indignation at being caught in hypocrisy more than any of the given charges that ultimately caused her banishment. Ever since, both Anne’s claim to the superior authority of direct inspiration and the clergy’s as-applied works righteousness have been recurring themes throughout the history of our denomination.

  9. Peacebang wrote:

    IT IS BECAUSE GOD LOVES US that we HAVE that inherent worth and dignity.

    This concept doesn’t make any sense to me. Are you saying that if there were no God, we would not have inherent worth and dignity? Why would that be? And what kind of God does it have to be–one who created us, one who loves us like a mother does a child, what? Can you say more?

    And am I violating netiquette by carrying on a dialogue this way? If so, I will hush. I’m used to LiveJournal and unfamiliar with blogging.

  10. Are you saying that if there were no God, we would not have inherent worth and dignity?

    I can’t speak for PeaceBang, but that’s not how I understood her remark.

    Both Universalism and Unitarianism grew out of dissent from strict Calvinist theology. In Calvinism, without the presence of God human nature is inherently worthless and corrupt, and incapable of achieving reconciliation with God through worthless human effort alone. It is only through God’s undeserved love and mercy, and not through any merit of our own, that God reaches down to us worthless sinners and “saves” us.

    In Calvinism, he saves only an elect few, and leaves the vast majority to their worthless misery. However, in Arminianism (from which Unitarianism developed), human nature is not deemed to be so thoroughtly corrupted as to be incapable of any good, and God’s love and mercy is deemed to be not limited to the few but universally available, so that all those who respond to God’s grace can be saved, and all have the inherent ability to respond. In America, Unitarians were originally Arminians who believed we respond to God’s grace by the conscious cultivation of good moral character, rather than by explicitly accepting Jesus as “Lord”.

    In Universalism, God’s love for us is not only universal, as it is in Arminianism, but also is seen to be so powerful that we are helpless to resist it. In the Universalist view, we are all redeemed by God in spite of ourselves, as opposed to the Calvinist view that except for the lucky few who receive God’s unmerited grace we are all damned in spite of ourselves.

    Despite their differences, all three views — Calvinism, Arminianism, Universalism — share the premise that whatever worth there is in human existence is demonstrated and confirmed by God’s gift of love for us. If we accept the existence of God, and the premise that God loves (at least some of) us, then we cannot faithfully believe that those whom God loves do not possess inherent worth. If God made us and loves us, that alone proves our worth. To find no worth in those whom God finds worthy is to deny the judgment of God.

    This is not the same as saying that if there were no God we would have no worth. If there were no God, our worthiness would have to be affirmed or denied by appeal to a different authority.

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