A Victorian Cause Célèbre

Frederick Denison Maurice was born in 1805 in Lowestoft and grew to become a much-loved man, but in his lifetime, a somewhat contentious theologian. His father was a Unitarian minister, but in his twenties Maurice chose to embrace Anglicanism; he was baptised in 1831 and later ordained in the Church of England. He is largely forgotten today, but some may remember this scholar for a notorious incident that occurred in 1853 when he was Professor of Theology at King’s College in London. Maurice published a book that year called Theological Essays, which was largely a refutation of his previous Unitarian beliefs and a passionate defence of Trinitarianism. However, Maurice closed the book with a chapter entitled: Eternal Life and Eternal Death, in which he denied the understanding of eternal punishment that generally prevailed in Victorian England, and still does today in many churches.

The King’s College Council feared that Maurice had become a universalist: someone who believes that in the end everyone will be saved. Fearing that they had a heretic in their midst, Maurice was politely asked to step down, but he refused, challenging the Council to show where in Scripture or the Creeds he was in error. This they did not do, choosing instead to sack him on the spot. His views, they said, amounted to a ‘dangerous tendency’ and were ‘calculated to unsettle the minds of the Theological Students of King’s College.’ It became a cause célèbre, subjecting Maurice to trial by the press, with papers split both ways over the issue. William Gladstone (the future Prime Minister) was outraged that the College Council had taken such a decision without reference to the bishops, and he called for an inquiry, but none was forthcoming.

The argument all hinged on the meaning of the Greek word aiōnios, which in the New Testament is usually rendered eternal. The College Principal argued that the simple meaning of the word was ‘everlasting, time without end’, whereas Maurice was saying this was a misunderstanding and that eternal was not a ‘temporal’ category. Citing Jesus’ words: ‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’ [John 17.3] he argued that eternal really suggests knowledge and completeness. Maurice concluded: ‘I cannot apply the idea of time to the word eternal.’ He was not denying the prospect of divine judgement and punishment, but he could not accept that it would be of everlasting duration: ‘Eternal punishment is the punishment of being without the knowledge of God, who is love, and of Jesus Christ who has manifested it.’

Maurice knew he was writing his own ‘death-warrant’ when he wrote the book but felt impelled to do it. However, in 1866 Maurice was elected professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge University, a post he held until his death. It is said that he was warmly received at Cambridge, where ‘there were no doubts of his sufficient orthodoxy.’ His wide-ranging theological writings would later prove to have a huge impact on Anglican thinking.

For the great majority of ordinary Christians today, the plain meaning of eternal remains everlasting, although ideas about eternal punishment vary greatly. There are three basic approaches:

i) Traditionalist: everlasting conscious punishment for the unsaved

ii) Annihilationist: cessation of existence for the unsaved

iii) Universalist: everyone will be saved

Biblical support can be found for each of these, but, of course, they can’t all be true. We are left with a mystery.

More recently William Barclay, of The Daily Study Bible fame, has cast more light on the New Testament’s use of the word aiōnios: ‘It is the word which can only really be applied to God. If we remember that, we are left with one tremendous truth – both the blessings which the faithful shall inherit and the punishment which the unfaithful shall receive are such as befits God to give and to inflict. Beyond that we cannot go. Simply to take the word aiōnios, when it refers to blessings and punishment, to mean lasting for ever is to oversimplify, and indeed to misunderstand, the word altogether.’ 1

Whilst I don’t believe we can be dogmatic about the future beyond the grave, I do believe in God’s unending love and ultimate victory, and hope that one day all will be saved.

1 William Barclay, New Testament Words, SCM Press 1964