The first time I heard the name of Robert Farrar Capon, it was in this context1:

Reading Capon is like drinking something I know is going to mess me up, but I have to have just one more. I have a history with Capon, and it is not a good one. … I’ll have to decide whether to leave [Capon’s] book out where some other unsuspecting fool can fall into the hole or to do something constructive like burn it.

And also:

Publically acknowledging the corrosive effect of Robert Capon on my soul is a way of getting away from the stuff. One of his books (Between Noon and Three) did more damage to me than any 100 sins of the flesh. My thoughts are like Trains, and books are like tracks. Capon is a track that sends me over a cliff.

With glowing endorsements like that one, how could I resist? The pattern repeated it self so much that when I caught this same person quoting Capon, I asked, “Are you getting into another one of your depressed I-want-to-be-a-universalist states again?” Recently I found a copy of a few of Capon’s early works in one volume at Half-Price Books, so I picked it up.

All I’ve read so far is the introduction, and I haven’t yet decided whether to give it to the aforementioned fan or do something more constructive with it, like burn it. Of course, I could continue to read it.

The 34-page introduction was written in 1994, as Capon looked back on a career filled with some twenty theological works and on three of them specifically, written in 1967, 1969, and 1974. Reflecting on his life as an Episcopalian, an “old-fashioned high churchman and a Thomist to boot,” he touches on his love of cooking, his divorce and remarriage, and what seem to be his two major theological themes: his radical doctrine of grace that embraces universalism, and his rejection of salvation as a transactional event occurring at a fixed point in time.

Grace And Universalism

It is this belief in universalism that most disturbs me. Not because I wouldn’t like it to be true, but because I don’t believe that it is true. Of course, it is no good throwing around labels without justification, but Capon helpfully spells out his views briefly with this:

I am and I am not a universalist. I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some — of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sings of the world — of every last being in it — and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: “There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .” All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.

But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not — because Jesus did not — locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’s parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included in at the beginning.

Conveniently, Capon quits mid-sentence, and so doesn’t complete Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (emphasis added) I think that the specifier makes a difference, though admittedly right now I can’t mentally resolve the tension between universal salvation without belief and eternal hell for those who reject Christ, as Capon must in more detail outside of this introduction. Is it a fantastic understanding of grace, or a bizarre elevation of the human will that makes grace into something it is not while still repeating the errors of synergism? I may have to read more to decide for sure, but I know already the way I’m leaning.

To be sure, his straw-man argument for how his theological betters might describe grace is dreadful and worthy of ridicule. Nobody wants to understand grace as something which is earned by “the good, … the cooperative, or [those who] die as perfect peaches.” But one does not have to turn grace into a meaningless universalism to reject the idea that grace is earned by works.

Since we arrive at this point nine pages into a 34-page essay, I am worried, but capon mercifully retreats into fascinating descriptions of his life and his other books (I want to read The Man Who Met God In A Bar: The Gospel According To Marvin) before bringing up what just might be his most interesting point of all, and the only reason I must just keep reading. On page 21, Capon describes a reworking of the notion of sacramentality as a way to counter the notion of the action of God as a transaction, or an insertion into the world of some “gimmick” that wasn’t there before.

It is an intriguing notion that leads my thoughts into interesting places. While I am less than comfortable with the idea of appealing to an extra-biblical definition or tradition of “sacrament” since I am not a life-long Episcopalian, I think that tying the notion up with that of Covenant theology might indeed provide a fresh look at things.

I should be exegeting Mark, and here I am reading a wacky universalist and thinking I might learn something. I might be crazy, but reading Capon is fun at the very least. Even if he is flat-out wrong about a lot of things.

1 I originally left the quotes unattributed, for fear that the responsible party might object to their use in this context. However, he turns out to be quite open to the subtly implied criticism, and eager for the link. It was Michael Spencer, aka Internet Monk, commenting in the Boar’s Head Tavern. A closet antinomian, I fear.