An occasional series on doctrinal issues today
Evangelical Inclusivism. A growing threat to the traditional view of the destiny of the unevangelised
by Alan Howe
Those who have observed the wider evangelical scene over the past two decades will hardly need to be told that a massive defection from Christian orthodoxy has been taking place.
Around twenty years ago the battle was fought over the authority of the Bible, in particular the doctrine of inerrancy. In 1979, in his book The Bible in the Balance, Harold Lindsell wrote of the probable consequences of surrender in this area:
‘I do not think the scenario for the immediate future is too bright. If the children of Israel could and did turn away from God in unbelief again and again, there is no reason to believe that those who now claim his name cannot or will not do the same thing.’
Lindsell’s fears have proved largely correct. The move away from biblical authority has wrought theological havoc, with no doctrinal area unscathed.
In the past ten years, for example, even the traditional views of God and salvation have seen challenges from within the ‘evangelical academy’ in the form of Open Theism and Evangelical Inclusivism.
These views are starting to appear in a wide range of books in our Christian bookshops. Soon, they may become the new orthodoxy. This article is concerned with the second of these two departures from the historic evangelical faith.
Exclusivism and inclusivism
The debate within Evangelicalism over the doctrine of salvation is basically between traditional exclusivists and the new inclusivists.
Citing in particular Acts 4:12, Exclusivists affirm the long-held evangelical view that the unevangelised cannot be saved because, by definition, they have had no opportunity to believe on Jesus Christ. This applies specifically to adherents of non-Christian religions who reject Christ or remain ignorant of him.
Exclusivists insist upon a clear confession of Jesus Christ and so also upon the necessity of evangelistic and missionary endeavour. Thus, for example, The Heidelberg Catechism (Answer 20) says:
‘Only those are saved who by true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his blessings.’
Inclusivists, on the other hand, look back to certain writings of John Wesley and C. S. Lewis and proclaim a different approach to the matter.
Thus, theologians such as John Sanders and Clark Pinnock4argue that salvation, while found only in Christ, is actually accessible to all men, including the adherents of non-Christian religions who have no knowledge of the gospel5.
Roman Catholic influence
The past decade has also seen a considerable increase in Evangelical-Roman Catholic dialogue, epitomised by the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) process. Unsuspecting, traditional Evangelicals might think that this dialogue is with the Rome which once held that there is no salvation beyond her walls.
However, this has not been the official Roman position since the Second Vatican Council forty years ago.
6 as the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear:
‘Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart and, moved by his grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.
7 Thus, although the Catechism also affirms
8 that all salvation is in Jesus Christ, explicit faith in him is no longer ordinarily required – Rome has long moved from exclusivism to inclusivism.
Probably the best-known exponent of inclusivism was Karl Rahner (1904-84), the most influential Roman Catholic theologian of the last century.
He developed the idea of ‘Anonymous Christianity’ to describe the definite possibility of salvation for adherents of other religions. Any who have a fundamentally correct orientation towards God, whatever their ignorance of Christ, can be viewed as ‘anonymous Christians’.
To return to ECT, it has become quite clear that one of the goals of the Roman Catholic participants is to persuade the Evangelicals to abandon exclusivism and embrace the new inclusivism. (Of course, many Evangelicals have already taken this step unaided!)
Speaking at the conference Catholics and Evangelicals in Conversation, at Wheaton College, USA, in April 2002 (which also included contributions from Evangelicals J. I. Packer, Mark Noll, Timothy George and Gerald Bray), the Jesuit Thomas Rausch issued this call:
‘If God can be mysteriously present in other religions and cultures, a consequence of this is a need to re-think the way we have understood the doctrine of salvation. It is a fact that our soteriological language no longer works for many educated people today…
‘Catholics may have an advantage over Evangelicals who are too often locked into an Augustinian-Anselmian soteriology read through the eyes of the sixteenth-century Reformers, with its emphasis on substitution and vicarious punishment.’
9. We should be in no doubt that mainstream Roman Catholics today believe that the traditional orthodoxy (in which they once shared) is simply passé. Doctrinal development has moved the Church’s understanding on.
Thus, for example, Roman Catholic writer and Newman scholar, Ian Ker, can write:
‘The [Second Vatican] Council reasserted the Catholic Church’s rejection of … the narrowness and exclusivity of the Evangelical Protestantism which restricts salvation to Christian believers.’
10. Of course, we might wonder in what way the Council ‘reasserted’ the new inclusivism when it had never been officially taught before. Nevertheless, Ker’s assessment of the difference between modern Roman Catholic teaching and that of traditional Evangelicalism stands.
And we should be under no illusion – Rome seeks to persuade others to her novel and heretical view.
Inclusivism and popular evangelicalism
Beyond academia, inclusivism has made headway in popular evangelical circles. Readers may remember the famous (notorious?) interview between ‘Possibility Thinking’ teacher Robert Schuller and evangelist Billy Graham (available on ET website, February 1998):
Schuller: ‘What I hear you saying is that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they’ve been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you’re saying?’
Graham: ‘Yes, it is, because I believe that. I’ve met people … that have never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, and never heard of Jesus, but they’ve believed in their hearts that there was a God, and they’ve tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived’.
Schuller: ‘I’m so thrilled to hear you say this. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’.
Graham: ‘There is. There definitely is’.
The implication of these remarks on Graham’s part is alarming. Evidently, core evangelical teaching on the doctrine of salvation is under serious attack, both from without (Rome) and within.
Let us, then, be clear. Firstly, the Roman Catholic Church now teaches what she had never taught before Vatican II. This alone should render her suspect.
Indeed traditionalist, Tridentine Roman Catholics deplore the theological modernism into which their church has sunk through the espousal of the theory of doctrinal development.
Effectively, Rome has cast herself adrift from historic orthodoxy by setting her traditional teachings in the wider context of religious inclusivism and the universality of the experience of the Divine.
However, because she can give the appearance of conservatism (although Trent has not been repudiated), many conservative Protestants are being deceived into entering a dialogue which has one purpose only – to rid Protestantism of the last vestiges of biblical teaching.
Secondly, Evangelicalism is being penetrated at every level, from the academic to the popular, by inclusivist soteriology – especially as Reformation teaching has come under heavier and heavier attack from those with a Neo-Arminian background or understanding.
More than ever, we must call for a return to historic orthodoxy as articulated by the Reformers – and for its application in all its biblical rigour to the growing list of modern heresies, such as inclusivism.
Inclusivism in salvation is actually ‘another gospel’. Rome teaches it. Increasingly, many who call themselves Evangelicals are being seduced by it. Let true Evangelicals beware!
1. It was Wesley’s doctrine of universal, prevenient grace which led him to hope that the heathen are ‘taught of God by his inward voice all the essentials of true religion’ (The Letters of John Wesley, vol. 2, p.118). Wesley’s view seems to lead in an inclusivist direction: it is interesting that inclusivism has been espoused in our day by the growing phalanx of anti-Reformation, neo-Arminian thinkers such as Sanders and Pinnock.
2. Lewis’ final book in the Narnia series, The Last Battle, has probably been more influential than any other publication in moving Evangelicals in an inclusivist direction.
3. See Sanders’ book No Other Name! (Eerdmans, 1993).
4. See Pinnock’s book A Wideness in God’s Mercy (Zondervan, 1992).
5. I acknowledge here the interesting paper Whither Theological Inclusivism? The Development and Critique of Evangelical Inclusivism by Amos Young. Thoroughly recommendable also is Hywel Jones’ book Only One Way (Day One, 1996).
6. See the documents Nostra Aetate and Lumen Gentium.
7. Catechism, paragraph 847.
8. Catechism, paragraph 846.
9. Conference tape No.13, ‘Evangelising the Culture’.
10. Article ‘What has he pulled out of his bag now?’ in the Catholic Herald, 15/9/02
The author is Chief Researcher with the Christian Research Network