Friday, February 20, 2009

Three Positions on Salvation

First let me thank Victor Reppert for the excellent link to the first explanation of Exclusivism, Inclusivism and Pluralism, the one with the questions I've used here. I should also thank Ben Schwarting for being the guy who wrote those excellent questions.

Warning: this is a large post. Please don't let that turn you off from reading it, but don't necessarily expect to finish it in one sitting.

The explanation is
here, and features several interesting questions for each viewpoint. An alternative explanation of the topics being discussed can be found at Theological Studies. Both pages discuss the three basic positions on salvation as they pertain to Christianity.

If you don't want to hit any of those links (I'd recommend at least the first one; the second gives a better sense of where and how the theological/philosophical currents run) here's the basic rundown:

Exclusivism in a particular religion is the position that said religion's truth is superior to that of all others, and must be arrived at explicitly in order for 'salvation' (I use the word that is prevalent in Christian circles, thus it is quotation-marked, in recognition of the fact that transcendence or the successful seeking of Ultimate Reality is not thought of as 'salvation' in all religions) to take place.

Inclusivism is the position that said religion's truth is superior to that of all others, but does not have to be accepted explicitly in order for 'salvation' to take place.

Pluralism is the position that said religion is but one of many paths that are equal, or roughly equal, in terms of potential for 'salvation' and the successful seeking of an Ultimate Reality.

So a Christian exclusivist and inclusivist both believe that Jesus is a necessity for salvation; they disagree as to the exact mode of reception required on the part of an individual. A Christian pluralist believes that Jesus is not actually a necessity for salvation. Obviously, the beliefs and sentiments of particular individuals are a tad too fluid to fit neatly into these three categories, but they are helpful in providing a basic characterization of a given individual or religious group's stances.

So I will now attempt to answer the questions found on the first link for each viewpoint. Note that these questions assume we are working theologically, within Christianity; therefore they are discussed, well, with respect to Christ!

For several years of my life I was in this camp, and so I will probably be second-most-faithful in answering questions about exclusivism. I hope that A. Scott takes the opportunity to answer these questions as well, and possibly let me know if I have misrepresented the Calvinist viewpoint at any turn.

1) What about those who have not heard the gospel of Christ?

The book of Romans says that all persons are without excuse for failing to give glory to God (1:20-21) and in my understanding, in exclusivist circles the common interpretation of this passage is that the truths necessary for salvation have all been made available to all men; logically it seems that this must extend to, at the very least, the truth of a savior who died for one's sins. I had a conversation once with an exclusivist who stipulated that for someone who had not heard explicitly of Christ to be saved, they would have to know that someone had died for them. And he seemed to believe the truth was self-evident.

Following that, the best answer is that God's justice is above our own, God's ways above our own; therefore, even if the answer is “they are damned,” it is not for us to question; there is a higher justice at work that we do not know.

2) What about those who have wanted to believe, longed for faith, greatly sought after God, and yet have never received the light, inward peace, or assurance of forgiveness?

I find the qualifier of inward peace kind of odd for Christianity. However, the 'light'--which I assume means the ability to believe—does pose an interesting question. The best answer I can give is that they ought to believe to the best of their ability.

Now for circles where a conversion experience is considered essential for someone to be considered 'saved,' the picture gets a little more complicated. In Calvinism or other circles accepting foreordination, one might simply have to answer that the person is not among the elect. Though I stress that election and the predestinate are by no means concepts exclusive to Calvinism, this response does still bring with it all the problems associated with Calvinism. In Methodism or other circles accepting free will, the answer may be a similarly awkward "well, I guess you're not saved, then," and brings all the equivalent problems for free-will standpoints.

Note that I would hold that if one's particular brand of exclusivism does not hold to necessity of a conversion experience or 'enlightening' experience, one is free to believe that a will to believe can stand in for belief even when one's ability to maintain a faith is severely limited.

3) Does the doctrine that ‘salvation is only possible through Jesus Christ’ stay consistent with the belief that God wants all to be saved?

Yes, absolutely. There is nothing inconsistent about these two beliefs held concurrently. There's not much of an answer to this question except to say that I don't really see where the supposed inconsistency is. The Great Commission, which tells us to go out and “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:16-20, New American Bible, italics mine), seems the natural biblical countertext for such a claim of inconsistency.

4) Is it true that in the end times, God’s grace will triumph completely and all will come to a faith in Christ?

That's a good question, but I'm not sure if it's relevant to exclusivism alone. In terms of eschatology, especially if speaking as best I can on exclusivists' behalf, I am sort of forced to answer yes; it seems impossible for God to truly win in any manner even close to that described in the Revelation (yes, it's singular!), there's going to have to be a big reveal that Christ is truly God. This leaves us either to the askwardness of people coming to a knowledge of God when it is too late for them to be saved (a problem faced by most Christian soteriology, I would venture), or the awkwardness of having turned a faithful logical implication of Revelation into universal reconciliation. So this really creates problems for exclusivists and inclusivists alike.

5) Is it true that Christ must be acknowledged as Lord and Savior in this life, or otherwise those that don’t will be condemned to Hell? If yes, then how can you reconcile that with the biblical view of a God of love?

In traditional exclusivism, to say the least, it is my understanding that the answer for part (a) is yes. The answer for part (b) runs along the same lines as the answer to question 1, in particular the paragraph beginning with “Following that...”, with the addition that just as we do not know as well as God what justice means, we will not know as well as God what is meant by love.

I will be able to answer these questions most effectively, as my current position is a somewhat exclusive inclusivism (though it is based in part on things not common to all exclusivists.)

1) What about those who do not cling to any faith? If they lead a good life, are they saved through the ‘unknown Christ’ as well?

See the answer to question two.

Regarding viewpoints not mine, I would find it difficult to conceive someone who I would not say is in any sense seeking the Ultimate Reality even though they are striving to live the 'good life.'

2) Where are the boundaries? What determines a religion that ‘saves’, and one which does not? Or should we just look at elements within each faith? If so, which elements?

For my personal view, these two questions are sort of the same, because I guess I don't place the definition of what it means to be an anonymous Christian on whether the person has been raised in the correct religion; rather I look at it in terms of the individual's faith. Have they accepted what of the truth has been revealed to them, or at least put themselves on the road to doing so? Are they truly seeking the truth, such that if missionaries (and I mean good missionaries, mind you) came, they would be open to the message? Leading a good life plays into things insofar as good works play into any Christian's salvation: they are to say the least a sign of the inner workings of the heart even from the perspective of faith alone; thus the individual in question might not lead a perfect life, and in certain respects (for not all the moral code of Christianity is equally intuitive) more excusable for a non-Christian than a Christian, much moreso a non-Christian who has not been exposed to the fullness of the Truth. So in my view, I suppose the thing depends primarily on openness to God. Now for those who "do not cling to any faith" as the question asks, it would work similarly, as a function of the openness of their hearts to God.

3) What is the importance of missionaries if people can be saved through other faiths?

The answer to this is twofold. First, the Great Commission commands that we make disciples of all nations. It seems to be a fairly clear commandment, and commandments from the Incarnate Logos are pretty hard to ignore. So that's the first response.

The second response comes from my personal reasoning on the matter. We have two options, A and B. (In both of these responses, since the question works on "if people can be saved through other faiths," I am assuming inclusivism.) In option A, Ted is saved in the afterlife because he meets whatever criterion he must meet under exclusivism, even though he does not believe explicitly in Jesus Christ. But his understanding of the truth, even his ability to live fully as intended by the Divine, is hindered in this life. In option B, Joe is saved in the afterlife because he meets explicit criterion that would satisfy even a staunch exclusivist (explicit acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.) But in this case Ted has access, at least more ready access if not more access, to the fullness of truth and the full experience of the Divine. In other words, it's a case of earthly searching (however joyful it might be) and heavenly salvation versus earthly salvation and heavenly salvation. What is the greatest good for Ted?

Of course it's option B! If we can bring him Jesus now, we ought to do so!

There also may be persons who might not meet the inclusivist criteria for salvation and have never heard of Jesus. The role of a missionary in their lives might be so vital as to be used by God to change a soul's course from the path to hell to the path to heaven, in whole or even in part. In other words, missionaries still fill a massive need with respect to those souls that may not have been ultra-inclined to seek the Divine in the first place.

The importance of missionaries is to take the commandment of the Great Commission seriously, and bring people to Jesus, whether that means bringing them to Jesus sooner or bringing them to Jesus period.

This is easily going to be the hardest one for me to cover, as it's not a perspective I've ever really held, at least not in full and for very long. I kind of wish I could be one at times; I feel like it would make religion easier to embrace, in a sense.

1) What about faiths which have no place for a god, such as Advaitin Hinduism, or Therevada Buddhism – how do they lead to God?

All religions reflect the same Ultimate Reality; they simply reflect it differently. So there's no real difficulty in saying a given religion 'leads to God' because it's a reflection thereof. Therefore even in non-theistic religions or religions not including a personal God, there are still ideals set forth and paths to follow that lead the person closer to the Divine ethically, and more in tune with the Divine as it is expressed in themselves and others.

2) Is it possible to find salvation through something which is not true, even though it seems to satisfy its followers?

On this earth, it's not necessarily possible to find salvation proper on this earth, through things that are not true--but from a pluralist perspective it's not that it isn't true; it's just one more subjective interpretation of the same truth, a great Ineffability that we do not in this life know directly--even though some religions interpret it personally and others impersonally, it is still the same reality interpreted. Therefore in a sense all religions become true and all also become false; they all reflect the Truth, but they all reflect it falsely. So it is possible to find salvation through something which is not true; else we've gone straight from universal reconciliation to universal damnation (which I, speaking in these parentheses as a non-pluralist, would be forced to admit isn't totally unjust!). But this seems to eliminate part of the point of pluralism, which is to reconcile God's desire for salvation for all with the fact of many different religions and cultures, and many different individuals who seem to have no real control over the early formations of their religious beliefs.

3) Is a pluralist a Christian, or just a God-believer?

It depends on how you define Christian. Here I am working, as I have implied, from John Hick's idea of pluralism, which advocates in a sense the idea that all religions are simply cultural reflections of the same Ulimate Reality. So pluralist definitely believes in God, or at least in some Ultimate Reality that humanity is striving for. But the pluralist also believes that in their search, they themselves must follow Jesus--that the path for Christians is to take up one's cross and follow. So I would say a pluralist can indeed be a Christian, but only if their understanding of their religion includes following Jesus. Note that I am not claiming a pluralist is an orthodox Christian; I don't really buy that so much. But I do think there's a sense in which they can still be following Jesus.

4) Does the bible have any relevance to a pluralist? Is biblical truth only relevant for those who believe in that faith, and other faiths have other truths?

Everyone's truth is relevant to everyone's faith--we need to look at all the ways in which the Ultimate Reality is interpreted throughout the world and come to the best possible conclusions as to what the truest reflection ultimately is. (Pun intended.) It seems as though the basic truths that can be gathered this way are ethical; but what to do when the ethics of one faith run up against the ethics of another? I suppose the only real answer is to talk it out and try and figure out what is in the best interest of service to the Ultimate Reality, and argue for one's own faith only when one truly believes is in this best interest.

Whoohoo. That was a monster of a post. I know it took me like, three weeks since I've told some of you, maybe more like a month and a half, but there it is. Three questionnaires about sin and salvation answered from the perspectives of three different approaches in soteriology, to the best of my ability. All three have varying sub-perspectives, and I'm inviting the other people who might read this to comment and offer some ideas about what perspectives they take on the issue of salvation; I'm particularly interested in seeing people who consider themselves to fall into one of these camps and take a perspective different from the one I assumed when working from these camps; I am especially interested in other inclusivists who do not take inclusivism to be the same that I take it.

A Funny Bit of Dialogue from Awhile Ago

Xeirxes: Hi.
KKairos: Hey. What is up.
Xeirxes: Not much, Went to church and had to work in the nursery :-\
KKairos: Heh. Mixed blessing it sounds like.
Xeirxes: Heh, I’m not complaining really. The kids are great.
KKairos: Ah. That's good.
Xeirxes: Plus, complaining is a sin :)
KKairos: They taught you that complaining is inherently sinful? Or just that it leads that direction. ?
Xeirxes: Well, complaining is sinful depending on the context of course. Complaining about your arm bleeding is probably a good thing.
KKairos: Heh.
Xeirxes: Complaining about how hard you think your work is just causes strife.
KKairos: True.
Xeirxes: Or, complaining about a person. Or a situation. It says in Phillipians, "do all things without grumbling."
KKairos: I would say venting about a person can be okay, but it has to be watched [b/c] it very easily turns to gossip. yeah
Xeirxes: True, I don't mind talking about a person's attitude too much, as long as it doesn't become gossip