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Clarity, charity, and semantic ambiguity in theology

In a recent blog post, Christian philosopher W. Paul Franks argues that Tyndale’s Statement of Faith is incompatible with annihilationism (a theological position concerning final judgment). He does so while promoting a notion of conceptual integration. Franks writes,

A genuine commitment to [conceptual] integration will go much further than simply affirming various biblical or theological ideas. It will also include a careful examination of what those ideas entail and what is entailed by one’s non-biblical or non-theological beliefs.

He continues,

In endorsing [a statement of faith] I ought to be doing more than simply say, ‘Yes, I assent to what is written in the statement itself.’ I’m also saying I accept that which is entailed by the items in the statement and I reject beliefs whose entailment would contradict the statement.

In so far as Dr. Franks recommends living life contradiction-free, I am in full support. My beliefs inevitably bump into one another upon reflection. I try to reconcile them, but sometimes I can’t. This forces difficult epistemic decisions.

That said, Dr. Franks chosen theological example provoked some thoughts (and concerns) that I’d like to sketch below.

Annihilation and eternal separation from God

Dr. Franks affirms the Tyndale Statement of Faith, which affirms that “Jesus Christ will appear again as judge to raise the righteous unto eternal blessing and the unrighteous unto eternal separation from God.” As an example of conceptual integration, Franks argues that eternal separation from God is incompatible with annihilationism, the view that the unrighteous ultimately cease to exist.

The incompatibility argument

In his brief argument, Dr. Franks makes the key semantic claim that separation is a relation between two things that exist simultaneously — i.e. between God and the unrighteous damned. Or so I gathered. He claims that,

to use ‘separation’ correctly it will always take the form of x is separated from y. . . . Non-existent persons are not separated from anything at all because they do not exist at all. . . . That which no longer exists cannot continue in the ‘separated from’ relation.

Furthermore, Dr. Franks takes “eternal” to mean “never ending.” Taken together — and so defined — eternal separation entails that those eternally separated from God exist without end. As such, Dr. Frank’s notion of eternal separation cannot be reconciled with annihilationism.

Conception integration and the relevant biblical notions

It is unclear to me that Dr. Franks’ notion of eternal separation is the relevant one, namely the biblical one. Consider the case presented by Edward Fudge — a leading evangelical proponent of annihiliationism. In his excellent book The Fire That Consumes, Fudge surveys the scriptures in search of a biblical meaning of eternal separation. The notion he discovers is quite different from that of Dr. Franks.

First, the biblical notion of “eternal” (αἰώνιος) denotes more than mere duration, although it entails duration (see below). Rather, it carries a distinct “qualitative sense”, indicating “a relationship to the kingdom of God, to the age to come, to the eschatological realities that in Jesus have begun already to manifest themselves in the present age.”[1] That which is “eternal”, in the biblical sense, is never-ending because the coming age will never end. As such, the never-ending aspect of “eternal” supervenes on this qualitative sense.

Second, “separation from” simply requires the existence of both parties at the moment of initial separation. “Separation is consistent with extinction so long as the person who is separated from Christ still exists when the separation takes place, regardless of how long that one continues to exist afterward.”[2]

Third, when the adjective “eternal” modifies a noun such as “separation”, it describes the eternal result of an act of separation rather than the act of separation itself. Fudge writes,

We have seen this in regard to eternal salvation (not an eternal act of saving), eternal redemption (not an eternal process of redeeming), eternal judgment (not an eternal act of judging), eternal destruction (not an eternal process of destroying), and eternal punishment (not an eternal act of punishing). This punishment, more specifically identified as this destruction, will last forever. Those who are punished with everlasting destruction will cease to exist.[3]

Accordingly, the destruction of the wicked is fully compatible with Fudge’s notion of “eternal separation from God”. The relevant notion of separation requires the existence of both parties at the moment of separation. The relevant notion of eternal points to the permanent result — binding in the age to come — of an act of separation. Ongoing existence (or non-existence) plays no role in eternal separation, so understood.

Clarity and/or charity?

Having read Edward Fudge’s biblical case for annihilation, I am quite confident that Fudge would affirm the following portion of Tyndale’s Statement of Faith, that the “teachings of Holy Scripture are apprehended through the careful study of the text in all its dimensions, together with prayerful theological reflection, under the guidance of God’s Spirit.” Furthermore, I suspect that Fudge could do so while embracing both Dr. Franks’ conceptual integration and Tyndale’s present statement about “eternal separation from God”. Fudge and Franks will simply disagree about their notions of eternal separation.

Semantic ambiguity

This raises an important question. Should a good Statement of Faith clarify all of its notions to the point that either Franks or Fudge (or both) will be unable to sign it? Or should a good Statement of Faith leave semantic ambiguity so that both Franks and Fudge could sign it? It will depend I’m sure. Although analytic philosophers and theologians crave clarity, perhaps we should leave some semantic space open in documents that draw ecclesial or institutional boundaries. Failure to do so may invite unnecessary division in the body of Christ.

[1] Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd ed (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), Kindle edition, chap. 4 “Aionios: Duration, Quality, or Both?.”

[2] Ibid., chap. 18 “Thessalonians.”

[3] Ibid., chap. 4 “Aionios: Duration, Quality, or Both?.”

Originally published at on December 12, 2014.

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