1. Talbott’s Triad


[This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled “Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It.” While some of the series’ content is adapted from Holy’s worknot all opinions expressed in this series are Holy’s. Please check out all the posts in this series!]

Thomas Talbott is a professor of Philosophy at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon.  He is best known for his workThe Inescapable Love of God, which biblically and systematically argues the case for Full Salvation. In this post I will explain what is known as “Talbott’s Triad.”

Traditionally there have been two dominant positions within Christian thinking about salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism (to learn more read here). Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God (God is God so God can and will do what God desires), while Arminianism emphasizes the free will of humankind and the love of God to respect that freedom. Arminianism also emphasizes that God desires the salvation of all. However, both of these traditions agree that not all people will be saved. The question then becomes, why not? Let’s break this down into the ‘Triad.’

Talbott explains in very simple terms the basic tenets of each view:

  • #1 – God desires the salvation of all because God is benevolent (Arminianism)
  • #2 – God is sovereign so God will achieve what God desires (Calvinism)
  • #3 – some people will be ‘lost’ or ‘unsaved’ (both)

Arminianism accepts #1 and #3, but rejects #2.
Calvinism accepts #2 and #3, but rejects #1.
Full Salvation accepts #1 and #2, but rejects #3.

From Holy:

“At this point, Talbott expresses bewilderment at the fact that Calvinists and Arminians are often united in regarding [Full Salvation] as heretical – or at least, unbiblical/inadequate – while regarding each other’s positions as merely mistaken. How can [Full Salvation] be heretical, he asks, if it is entailed by accepting two propositions, neither of which are heretical in themselves? Yes, universalists reject #3, which both Calvinists and Arminians consider the ‘plain teaching of Scripture’ but Calvinists reject #1 which is ‘a clear and obvious teaching of Scripture, at least as clear and obvious as a doctrine of everlasting separation’ for Arminians, and Arminians reject #2 which is the same for Calvinists.” (Holy, 14)

What’s clear is that each view is giving something up. And that something can be found in and supported by Scripture. There is ample support for all three claims in the ‘Triad.’ That God is loving and desires the salvation of all can be found throughout the Bible (Luke 15:4, John 12:32, 2 Peter 3:9, 1 Tim. 2:4). That God is sovereign and will accomplish God’s desire is also plain in Scripture (Psalms 2, 22, and 24, Daniel 4:35, Luke 6:30, Rev. 6:10). And, yes, there are verses that appear to obviously teach the loss of many people (Matthew 25, Mark 9:47-48, Rev. 20).

Talbott notes that it would make complete sense to side with either Calvinism or Arminianism if the scriptural evidence for #3 was consistently and significantly greater than the evidence for #’s 1 and 2. However, such is not the case! He explains: “#1 and #2 seem to rest upon systematic teachings in Paul, [whereas] the texts cited on behalf of #3 are typically lifted from contexts of parable, hyperbole and great symbolism.” (Talbott quoted in Holy, 14)

Many people will argue that the weakness of the Universalist view is that it overlooks the ‘clear teaching of Scripture.’ But upon further inspection it appears that both Calvinism and Arminianism also overlook the teaching of Scripture, namely the texts that proclaim the scope and finality of Christ’s victory. (Note: ideological sawdust in the mind’s eye will blur certain textsWhat Talbott makes clear is that there is no ‘flawless’ position on salvation and the Bible can be used to support multiple views.

The question that I share along with Talbott is Why do universalists get spurned when it seems that Calvinism and Arminianism are equally at fault for neglecting Scripture? The conclusion that Talbott draws is that something other than biblical exegesis is behind the visceral reaction against [Full Salvation]. I will discuss this in post #5.

For now, let us summarize:

  • Talbott’s Triad illustrates that the traditional views of salvation must give up something in order to defend God as either good or sovereign. Therefore, each view has flaws.
  • Talbott’s Triad also illustrates that Full Salvation does not begin by arguing all shall be saved, but rather begins by affirming two essential, biblical theological claims about God, which then logically leads to the notion that all shall be saved.
About one year ago Scot McKnight  – who is an awesome NT scholar and prolific author/blogger – offered a fairly deficient critique of Talbott’s Triad. His only criticism to Talbott and Full Salvation is that it depends on the belief that human beings may be saved after death. You can read that post here.
– jmw

2 thoughts on “1. Talbott’s Triad

  1. Baiba says:

    I’ve always maintained that yes, there are Scriptures that support the eternal damnation of some (or most!) and yes, there are Scriptures that plainly state that everyone will be saved (eg “God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Tim. 4:9-11)…but then there’s a key prescription that God gives as a standard for our behaviour — “Mercy triumphs over judgement” as well as forgiving one’s *enemies* (!)…so according to His own Word, God has two choices…Which do you think He will choose? I say Love Wins.

  2. Giles says:

    I am always astonished at those who place so much weight on the alleged impossibility of post mortem salvation. Consider this. Paul says Christians will be raised at Christ’s coming. He says they will judge the world with him. Yet we are clearly told that some of those judged (the sheep, those written in the book of life) will be saved. Those can’t be Christians (leaving aside that the sheep clearly don’t know the parable of the sheep and the goats!) as Christians are doing the judging. QED.
    Ok that’s salvation from Hades not Gehenna but its post mortem. And Jesus points to salvation from Gehenna (“you won’t get out till you have paid the last penny”).
    Against that the antis have Hebrews 9:27 which says nothing to the point. It can’t even be made to refer to the judgement at Christ’s coming without invoking the unorthodox doctrine of soul sleep. And Dives and Lazarus which is set in Hades, which gets thrown in the lake of fire.
    And the antis must also pretend Peter is speaking obscurely in talking of the Gospel being preached to the dead, and the spirits who formerly did not repent.
    Yet the same critics rarely wish to affirm that all babies who die go to Hell. But if they don’t then which is true, that babies don’t need a saviour or that they are saved post mortem. The former is clearly heretical, the second was so widely held by the fathers that the phrase “he descended into hell” was added to the apostles creed.
    There’s a good case against universalism, but not from the denial of post mortem chances.

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