What is Inclusivism and Why Does It Matter?

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lead_basilica.jpgNot a week goes by that someone in their 20’s or 30’s asks me the perennial question: “Is Jesus the only way to God?” I believe that the question of Jesus as the only way to God is the defining question for our generation. 

America has quickly become a pluralist society. The number of religious options for American citizens has grown considerably in the past two hundred years, and immigration ensures that this trend will continue in the future. Often tethered to American pluralism is a philosophical pluralism that relativizes all religious truth claims and fights vehemently against any religious “monopoly” on truth.

Though evangelicals have largely avoided the philosophical pluralism that plagues the mainline denominations, several prominent evangelical scholars have begun espousing a “middle way” between the exclusivist claims of traditional Christianity and the relativistic doctrines of today’s pluralism. Over the next few days, I will seek to define this evangelical “inclusivism” and then show how evangelical inclusivism represents a capitulation to the current culture by adopting Western individualistic notions of “fairness,” by emptying saving faith of its biblical content, and by sharing the culture’s high view of human goodness.

Defining Inclusivism

In evangelicalism, no monolithic movement of “inclusivists” exists. Each inclusivist scholar will define and describe the inclusivist position with different nuances.

Yet, most inclusivists will agree with the basic points of Clark Pinnock’s proposal. Pinnock is a leading proponent of evangelical inclusivism who believes that Christians should take seriously the doctrine of God’s omnipresence. God’s presence in the whole world indicates that God’s grace is also at work “in some way” among all peoples.

The inclusivist position rests upon two axioms: particularity and universality. Regarding particularity, inclusivism differs from pluralism by stating clearly that salvation is found only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Regarding universality, inclusivism differs from exclusivism by claiming that God intends his salvation to be available to all humans everywhere. These two axioms lead Pinnock and other inclusivists to “entertain the possibility that religion may play a role in the salvation of the human race, a role preparatory to the gospel of Christ, in whom alone fullness of salvation is found.”

Inclusivists join with exclusivists in proclaiming that God’s salvation is always grounded on the person of Jesus Christ and the work he has accomplished for human redemption. Inclusivists also stand with exclusivists against universalism (the belief that all human beings will be saved) due to the frequent biblical references to hell and punishment.

But inclusivists are quick to agree with pluralists that God’s salvation must not be and cannot be restricted to only those who hear the gospel and consciously put their faith in Christ. After all, the practical implications of such a restriction would necessarily mean that the vast majority of human beings who have lived never even had an opportunity to believe in Christ and are therefore doomed to hell.

Though inclusivists claim to offer a “middle way” between pluralism and exclusivism, John Hick, a well-known pluralist who rejects Christ’s divinity, the inspiration of the Bible and other essential Christian doctrines, claims that “Pinnock’s inclusivism represents an enormous advance on Christian exclusivism.” Hick’s enthusiasm for the inclusivist position indicates the proximity of the inclusivist and pluralist views. Exclusivists tend to be much more reserved in their appreciation of evangelical inclusivism.

The inclusivist affirmation of salvation for people apart from conscious faith in Christ is what separates the inclusivists from exclusivism and this crucial difference will be the main focus of the remaining posts in this series. Stay tuned.

written by Trevin Wax  © 2007 Kingdom People blog

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