*This series may be a little too academic for some. But it will be here for anyone interested. This first post will also be the longest, as it introduces the topic and reviews the book. *
I’ve wanted to tackle the issue of Christian “exclusivism” for awhile now. Is Jesus the only way? If yes, what about people who have never heard? What about people who faithfully follow other religions? These are tough questions, and there are different viewpoints in answer to these questions. I thought the easiest way to do this would be a series of posts as I interact with a book. The book is:
Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. Editors are Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillip. Zondervan, 1996.
Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World is another book in the Counterpoints series by Zondervan. (This series of books provides a forum for advocates of various Christian views to both share their view and critique others. I highly recommend the Counterpoint series by the way, and have read about 5 or 6 books in the series.) In this volume four perspectives on salvation are presented by major advocates of the following views: pluralism by John Hick, inclusivism by Clark Pinnock, agnostic exclusivism by Alister McGrath, and exclusivism by R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips. With four views presented in one book, this can only be considered an introduction or brief survey of the issue. This is perhaps both the strength and weakness of the Counterpoints series.
As an introductory book, I wish the editors had insisted on more uniformity in terms to describe the various views. For example, Alister McGrath’s view was referred to as everything from salvation in Christ to optimistic agnostic to particularism to nonrestrictive exclusivism! The varied terminology could prove confusing to someone new to the debate. However, this is partly due to the nature of the debate. In the introduction, the editors stated that the terms exclusivism and restrictivism have a negative connotation and preclude a fair hearing, and thus they proposed the term particularism be used instead. Nevertheless, the various contributors to the book used the term of their personal preference or the term that they felt best advanced their viewpoint.
Pluralism is the only view that would not be considered an option for an evangelical Christian. Pluralism is essentially the view that all ethical religions lead to God. This view is clearly at odds with orthodox Christianity, as the Bible proclaims Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation. However, questions remain. What about those who have never heard the gospel? If God is merciful and gracious, is it possible that his grace and mercy could cover some who have not heard? Here, evangelicals divide between inclusivism and exclusivism. Inclusivism is the view that although salvation is indeed only through Christ, it is possible for those who have not known Jesus during this life to nevertheless be saved by Him. Exclusivism is the view that salvation is only through Christ, and only available to those who have both heard and had a faith response to the gospel.
Naturally, there are continuums along the spectrum of these views. For example, this book actually presents two exclusivism views. One is by Alister McGrath who presents what could be called nonrestrictive exclusivism. McGrath is agnostic, yet optimistic, toward the unevangelized. In his view, we should not tie God’s hands. God is not dependent on his creatures for achieving his purposes.
Geivett and Phillips present another exclusivist view that is more restrictive. They could be referred to as pessimistic agnostics regarding the unevangelized. In their view, the Bible presents a pattern of “fewness” in redemption and “wideness” in judgment. They emphasize that explicit faith in Christ is what the New Testament teaches is necessary for salvation, and they are hesitant to speculate where the Bible is silent.
The more restrictive exclusivism of Geivett and Phillips has been the view of most orthodox Christians. However, there are exceptions, and inclusivism seems to have gained some favor in recent years.
Where do I stand? Well, my view has changed a little since I first read and wrote a paper on this book in 2009. In 2009 I said this: “I think I am primarily in agreement with Geivett and Phillips, yet I appreciate McGrath’s slightly more optimistic outlook.” Now my view is basically that sentence in reverse. I agree more with Alister McGrath’s view, yet I am still sympathetic towards the restrictive exclusivism view of Geivett and Phillips. Jesus is clearly the only way, but perhaps God can bring some people to salvation in ways that we are not aware of…
In a total of 5 posts I will interact with each view as presented in the book. I hope this “works” – if you have not read the book my thoughts may not be completely coherent to you. But hopefully the basic ideas and perspectives will be understood! Next post: here.