In a new IVP Academic book entitled Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism, editors Christopher W. Morgan (Associate Dean and Professor of theology at California Baptist University, and senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Barstow, CA) and Robert Peterson (Professor of systematic theology at Covenant Theological Seminary and a teaching elder in the PCA) offer a new spectrum for classifying responses to the important question, “Is there any basis for hope that those who do not hear of Christ in this life will be saved?” The traditional classification puts responses into three categories:
Exclusivism: Jesus is the only Savior of the world, and one must believe God’s special revelation culminating in the gospel of Christ to be saved.
Inclusivism: Jesus is the only Savior of the world, but one does not have to believe the gospel to be saved.
Pluralism: All paths are valid and lead to God.
In an early chapter, Morgan traces the origin and development of this classification system, followed by a discussion of its inadequacies. One problem with the traditional taxonomy is that “it is used to provide perspectives on two separate questions: the salvation of the unevangelized and world religions.” It is one thing to say that someone can be saved by the means of general revelation. It is quite different to argue that a person can be saved through the practice of another world religion (because, allegedly, that religion contains some kernels of truth).
By making such distinctions, Morgan identifies nine distinguishable responses to the question “Is there any basis for hope that those who do not hear of Christ in this life will be saved?”
1. Church exclusivism: “No, outside the church there is no salvation.” This is the traditional view of the (pre-Vatican II) Roman Catholic Church. It would not be right to lump Protestant exclusivists into this camp.
2. Gospel exclusivism: “No, they must hear the gospel and trust Christ to be saved.” John Piper argued along this line in Let the Nations Be Glad!, although he allowed for the possibility of general revelation serving as preparation for the gospel. (See my review of this book.)
3. Special revelation exclusivism: “No, they must hear the gospel and trust Christ to be saved, unless God chooses to send them special revelation in an extraordinary way–by a dream, vision, miracle or angelic message.” Many who hold this view (William Shedd, Bruce Demarest, Timothy George) hasten to add that such special revelations (dreams, visions, etc.) are highly unusual and by no means normal. Hence, the church “should be reminded that in the plan of God the customary means by which sinners should come to know and love God is through the preaching of the cross.” (Demarest, General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues)
4. Agnosticism: “We cannot know.” Within this view, those who are more pessimistic (J.I. Packer, Millard Erickson, and Harold Netland) sound more like exclusivists. Meanwhile, John Stott is more optimistic, writing:
“I have never been able to conjure up (as some great Evangelical missionaries have) the appalling vision of the millions who are not only perishing but will inevitably perish. On the other hand…..I am not and cannot be a universalist. Between these extremes I cherish the hope that the majority of the human race will be saved.”
(David L. Edwards and John R.W. Stott, Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal Evangelical Dialogue.)
5. General revelation inclusivism: “Yes, they can respond to God in saving faith through seeing Him in general revelation.” This is the traditional inclusivist view (which I’ve sometimes heard under the label “wider mercy”), and would include men like Terrance Tiessen (author of Who Can Be Saved?: Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions). This view is distinguished from #6:
6. World religions inclusivism: “Yes, they can savingly respond to God through general revelation or their religion, since their religion contains truth from general revelation and possibly remnants of special revelation.” Unlike position #5, in this view world religions are also a sufficient means of God bringing people to saving faith. Morgan places Karl Rahner and Hans Kung in this camp.
7. Postmortem evangelism: “Yes, they will have an opportunity to trust Christ after death.” J.P. Lange, Donald Bloesch, and Jerry Walls propose variations on this view.
8. Universalism: “Yes, everyone will ultimately be saved.”
9. Pluralism: “Yes, those who never hear of Christ may experience “salvation” as they understand it because each embraces their version of it.” Those who maintain a pluralistic view, however, see the question posed as itself erroneous because it assumes that Christianity represents ultimate truth. Whereas universalism maintains the uniqueness and finality of Christianity, pluralism views all world religions as equally valid.
I hope to have an interview with Christopher Morgan in a future post.