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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

A Criticism of Progressive Theology

Alvah Hovey

From Biblical Eschatology, 1888

In the book, Progressive Orthodoxy, a future probation for all the unprivileged is inferred (1) from the character of God, and (2) from the relation of Christ to all men. Under the first head may be brought such statements as these:

"We may go so far as to say that it would not be just for God to condemn men hopelessly when they have not known him as he really is—when they have not known him in Jesus Christ. The judgment does not come till the gospel has been preached to all nations. The gospel is preached to a nation, not when within certain geographical boundaries it has been proclaimed at scattered points, but only when in reality all individuals of all the nations have known it." (p. 64.)


"All this means that the supreme, final, absolute revelation of God to men is in the person and work of Jesus Christ; that, therefore, justice does not pronounce the word of destiny till love and mercy have gone forth to all those children who are partakers of the same flesh and blood of which he took part. If no man comest to the Father but by Christ, we conclude that without him—and almost as certainly we conclude that without the knowledge of him—no man can be brought back to God." (p. 65.)

According to these and other passages:

a) Sinners are not finally condemned because of their sins, but because of a particular sin because they do not repent when they know God as he is, know him in the clearest revelation that can be made to them of his character, which is love.

b) Such a knowledge of God is not given to all men in the present life, but those not receiving it here will have it given them hereafter, before the last judgment. For justice requires this. The offer of pardon on condition of repentance must be made to all in the most affecting manner possible.

c) This, however, requires the influence of the Holy Spirit in connection with a knowledge of the person and work of Christ.

Thus it is said (p. 116): "1. The work of the Holy Spirit, as a work in motive, fulfills and makes effective the method of salvation proposed by Christianity. 2. Historic Christianity alone offers sufficient material in motive, in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, for the natural and efficacious work of the Holy Spirit."

On this it may be remarked,

(a) That in so far as these statements are inferences from the character of God, they are inferences from that character imperfectly apprehended, and cannot, therefore, be accepted as conclusive.

(b) That they do not agree with the prima facie meaning of Holy Scripture as to the condition of men by nature (Luke 19:10; John 3:14-16), as to the grounds of condemnation in the last lay (2 Cor. 5:10; Matt. 25:26-30), and as to the method of grace. (Eph. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1: 9)

Under the second head may be brought such statements as the following:

"The Scriptures plainly teach the universality of Christ's work in its interest, its application, and its consummation...It is not incumbent on us to quote Scripture which shall show that the heathen do have the gospel before they are judged." (p. 102)

"We are not as positive concerning the times, seasons, or circumstances under which God will reveal himself in Christ, as we are that the principle is of universal application: that no man will be finally judged till he knows God in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and that no man will be hopelessly condemned except for the willful and final rejection of Christ. The sin against the Holy Ghost, which is thought to be that hostility to Christ which makes one incapable of redemption, is the only sin for which we are explicitly told there is no forgiveness in any world or age." (p. 105)

"The opinion, therefore, has reason in it that there would have been the incarnation even if there had been no sin. It is not easy to believe that the Word of God would not have become flesh but for sin…While sin may have had much to do with the conditions of our Lord's life and work, it may actually have retarded his historical appearance." (p. 45)

"Christ mediates God to the entire universe…Christ cannot be indifferent to the least of his creatures in its pain and wickedness, for his universe is not attached to him externally, but vitally. He is not a governor set over it, but is its life everywhere," etc. (p. 44)

On these extracts it may be remarked:

(a) Some of the language in them fails to discriminate properly between the pre-existent Word and Jesus Christ.

(b) Some of it affirms a closer relation of Christ to all created beings than the Bible suggests or reason teaches.

(c) Some of it favors the opinion that the incarnation would have taken place if there had been no sin, but this opinion is scarcely Biblical.

(d) Some of it denies that any man will be finally condemned except for the sin against the Holy Spirit—a denial not justified by the Word of God.

(e) Some of it appears to assert the universality of Christ's work, as though in the end all moral beings would be saved by it—an assertion which is opposed to strong Biblical evidence.

The trend of reasoning in man, passages of Progressive Orthodoxy is distinctly towards the final restoration of all the wicked to holiness and God's favor. Yet there are explicit rejections of this theory on the ground of Holy Scriptures. Moreover, the doctrinal equipoise of the work, as an exposition of Christian truth, is more or less disturbed by ignoring the justice of God. What justice requires him to do for sinners, and forbids him to do against them, is grasped far more firmly than what justice requires him to do against them. And finally in the argument for probation after death, the light which God gives to the heathen by reason, conscience, the order of nature and of providence, and by the Holy Spirit, is strangely undervalued.

But is there any evidence that human probation after death would increase the number of the saved? Is it probable that the conditions of moral life would be as favorable to repentance then as now? In hades as on earth? May we not justly surmise that the total silence of Scripture as to the recovery of evil spirits to holiness is due to the fact that sin in purely spiritual beings is a more willful and obstinate choice of self in place of God, than it is in human beings as now constituted? This is not expressly taught, but do not the revealed facts favor this view rather than the opposite? Assuming that a sinful choice in moral beings always tends to become confirmed and unchangeable, it may yet be true that this tendency operates more slowly under the conditions of our present life than it does in the case of unembodied or disembodied spirits. For in our present condition:

(1)  We have to spend much time, thought, and labor, in supporting and protecting the body. The law of nature and of God makes this our duty, and in performing this duty we are obedient to reason and conscience. How large a part of life is thus occupied in doing what is believed to be right and according to God's will! And, by so much, progress in evil is delayed. Says George Macdonald in "Malcom":

"He lacked labor, the most healing of all God's holy things, of which we so often lose the heavenly benefit by laboring inordinately that we may rise above the earthly need of it. How many sighs are wasted over the toil of the sickly—a toil which perhaps lifts off half the weight of their sickness, elevates the inner life, and makes the outer pass with twofold rapidity."

(2)  We have to spend much time and toil in providing the comforts of life for members of the same family. Domestic ties are very close, and the duties which they impose peculiarly sacred. But they appear to be conditioned on our physical nature, and to belong especially to this period of our existence. Now most of the time and thought given to these duties is believed to be used in accord with the divine will. At least, they are performed without conscious opposition to that will, or to the law prescribed by it. Hence the spirit of rebellion is not directly fostered by them. Nay, more, they seem not to originate in pure selfishness, but rather in natural reason and affection. Hence their influence is preventive of rapid spiritual deterioration. Family ties have also a certain tendency to keep the heart gentle and susceptible to divine appeals. But these ties will be shorn of their power at death—if not wholly, yet in a great measure.

(3)  We have to spend much time and strength in social, civil, patriotic, and humane activity, which is prompted by reason and conscience. There is ground to suspect that men are less isolated now than they will be after death. Almost everything in this life links us in some way to other men. We are made to feel that no one liveth to himself or dieth to himself.

Thus patriotism grows out of a common soil and peril and hope; and philanthropy, out of a com-mon origin and destiny. The kinship of mankind generates a feeling that men ought to serve one another. To be a man is to possess the secret of human nature and the key to human hearts everywhere. And, therefore, a portion of our activity here, which may be described as social, patriotic, or philanthropic, tends to retard in some degree the growth of mere selfishness and conscious hatred of God, so that the heart remains for a longer time pervious to good moral influence. But after death, many, if not all of these ties, will be sundered, and the naked spirit dwell apart, or, if it have any society, it will be that of spirits morally akin to itself. Such, at least, is the impression made upon the mind by Biblical allusions to the state of wicked men after death. How much less favorable to their recovery from sin than their state here!

(4)  We have also in this life the advantage of hearing truth from men like ourselves, who have experienced its power to save. Consider the mysterious influence of human feeling when the speaker's whole physical being is penetrated and vivified by it—when the animated face, the glowing eye, the thrilling voice, and the irrepressible gesture speed the message on its way to a brother's heart! It is difficult to imagine any method of appeal surpassing this in moral effect. Consider also the countless emblems and parables of religious truth which are furnished by the works of nature and the lives of men.

Whether these illustrations would be as attractive and convincing in a life out of the body may well be doubted. Here they are natural, and their power is felt. Here they were employed by Him who knew the way to human hearts, and never spoke amiss. But it is hardly possible to believe that they would retain all their power and vividness for spirits that had passed into the unseen, bidding adieu to flesh and blood. Speaking with the utmost caution, it seems improbable that the condition of sinful souls after death can be as well adapted to the reception of the gospel as their condition now, or that the means of impressing it upon them there can be as effective as those employed by us here. And this must be cautiously weighed in seeking for the truth.

(5)  We therefore esteem a probation limited to this life more favorable to sinners than one that should be continued indefinitely beyond, even to the judgment day. But why, it may be asked, should there be any limit to the day of grace? Why must the door of escape from sin be ever closed? Because it would be useless to keep it open forever, since choice has a tendency to become irrevocable and character fixed. To a sinner repentance is an unwelcome duty. When urged to its performance, he is apt to say, with Felix, "Go thy way for this time; and when I have a convenient season I will call for thee" (Acts 24:25). Alas! How seldom does that season ever come! A selfish heart will put off the duty of turning to the Lord until the last moment. What, then, would be the influence upon such a heart of a knowledge that deliverance from sin would never be impossible? Or, what would be the influence of a presentiment that far on in the future for a "convenient season" for repentance?

There is reason to believe that such a knowledge or presentiment would lead multitudes to postpone repentance until their nature had become fixed in sin, and the call of God an empty message to the ear. So, then, there is reason to believe that a short period of grace may be far better, in reality, than a long one, and that the very mercy of God moved him to fix a limit to the day of salvation. That the spirits of bad men who had continued impenitent and in prison from the days of Noah until the death of Christ—above two thousand years—should then have repented, though Jews on earth would not, is equally without probability and without proof.

Again, that there will be no unprivileged men, no infants, and no imbeciles on earth at the final coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead, is utterly improbable. But the living are to be changed "in a moment" at "the last trump," and, according to the obvious sense of Holy Scripture, are to be judged without further probation. If then, we are constrained to believe that no injustice will be done to any of these, are we not bound to look upon probation in this life as sufficient for the earlier generations also?

From the fact that no account of the last judgment refers to the case of infants or of idiots, we think it rational to infer that, from the beginning of time, the effect of the fall upon their moral nature has been removed by the Saviour, through the work of the Spirit, before they enter the life to come. No other hypothesis agrees so well with the assuring silence of Scripture in regard to their destiny; for we are unable to find within the lids of the Bible any hint of their being lost hereafter, or any faintest suggestion of prayer for their renewal after death. It is therefore safe to trust that, in the case of those who are thus removed from the only hopeful state of probation, the second Adam has by his perfect grace destroyed the work of the first Adam.

In looking at their case we discover no ground for the doctrine of probation after death. It is a doctrine which lacks any solid foundations in the word or character of God.