‘The Case for Inclusivism’: An Arminian Response

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I recently read a 2012 blog post written by Kevin Jackson over at Wesleyan Arminian on The Case for Inclusivism. This blog particularly interests me as a classical Arminian, as I am an Exclusivist, yet Kevin also believes, “All Arminians ought to reject [E]xclusivism for the same reasons they reject Calvinism.” His blog has so much to say about God’s love, grace, character and nature, the Bible, and Christian tradition. In the gentle and tender spirit of the original blog that is characteristic of Kevin (which I love so much), I’ll keep my thoughts and responses as charitable as I can. But I must confess that this will be a long post, as this subject is of such extreme interest to me.

Here’s the structure of this post: First, I’ll provide Kevin’s own definition of Inclusivism. Second, I’ll provide some brief comment on Kevin’s proposed reasons in favour of adopting Inclusivism. Third, I’ll present a very briefbiblical case for Exclusivism from Romans 10:14-15. Finally, I’ll provide a logical illustration of why this is perfectly in accordance with all those godly doctrines Kevin and I both hold dear as Arminians; namely, God’s goodness as most maximally expressed in his universal saving desire and intense agape love displayed for all through Jesus.

1. Kevin’s Definition. Here’s how Kevin defines Inclusivism:

“Inclusivism is the Christian doctrine that teaches it is possible to be justified through Jesus Christ without explicit or complete knowledge of who he is.  Specifically, [I]nclusivists hold that it’s possible that some who have never heard the preached word can still be saved through Christ.”

From this, I assume that Kevin defines Exclusivism as any position that rejects Inclusivism. Well, alright then. What are the reasons Kevin offers in favour of the Inclusivist view?

2. Kevin’s Reasons in Favour of Inclusivism. Kevin provides several thoughtful and important ideas for us all to consider when thinking through this issue. I like to characterise each one, and provide some comments.

2.1 Biblical Support.

Kevin starts by citing one text after another which indicate to him that Inclusivism is probable. I won’t go into them in detail. But all are of the nature or character somewhat as saying that God loves the whole world ad sent Jesus on behalf of the whole world.

This is in no doubt true. But it’s not obvious why this should support a thesis of Inclusivism.  How does it follow from the love of God for us that that love need not be consciously reciprocated by us toward Him in order to enter into a saving relationship with Him? If justification by faith is anything it is a relationship with the holy Father of the living Christ through indwelling of the Spirit of God who speaks to our hearts. It may be more charitable, then, to interpret these verses not as making probable Inclusivism, per se, as much as providing evidence for a premise that is a step in an argument supporting Inclusivism, that step being, namely, the love and grace and mercy of God that is directed toward the whole world, which I believe to be true. But Exclusivism can make sense even under this notion, as I hope to demonstrate below.

2.2 Every Tribe and Nation?

Kevin advocates the problem of the unevangelised as an argument in favour of Inclusivism. “People from every tribe and nation will be represented in heaven,” he says. The inference to Inclusivism seems to work by saying that there have surely been many tribes in existence in the past history of the world that never heard the Gospel. But since every tribe must be represented in order for the Scripture in Revelation 7:9 (and elsewhere) to be true, then it is necessary that at least one person from every particular human people group be saved.

I have two thoughts in response to this. First, how does Kevin know that there have indeed been tribes that have gone extinct outside the reach of Christ’s people and their message? Second, even if such tribal groups (such as the Teotihuacan people, whom Kevin cites) have gone out of existence as a full-blooded people, why couldn’t they be represented in their later progeny, who are known to God? Scripture often identifies descendants with their fathers (e.g. Matt. 23:29-31; Acts 7:51; especiallyEzekiel 16, etc.). Kevin’s argument would actually make necessary that at least one person directly from every people group must be saved. But that seems highly counter-intuitive.

2.3 Mercy Trumps Doctrine — The Good Samaritan

Kevin makes use of the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 and links it to Matthew 25:31-46 as a demonstration of Inclusivism from the fact that the Samaritan is apparently an exemplar of what it takes to be a saved, in that this semi-Pagan (which is what Samaritans were, hence, Kevin’s correct citation of even Jesus’ Jewish disciples’ hatred of them) is nevertheless person who, being judged according to what they have done, will receive mercy from God.

But, clearly, Jesus’ parable is not supposed to be a demonstration of what it takes to be saved. Rather, Jesus’ parable rather seems like demonstration of what genuine love of neighbour should look like. In response to the question “Who is my neighbour?” in Luke 10:29, Jesus takes to task this so-called “expert” in the Law with the story, and shows that our being lovingly neighborly to someone consists in our showing love to them in practical and self-sacrificial ways. But it’s not obvious that Jesus’ teaching is supposed to have the implication that anyone who is a good person in this way will receive mercy. Indeed, that seems like a works-righteousness error, which Kevin rightly wants to avoid. And indeed, from an Exclusivist point of view, surely such love of neighbour flows out of a living faith in God! We ought to love our neighbour because we first love God as a proper mode and expression of that love. Hence, the command to love our neighbour is secondary to the first and the greatest commandment which is to love God. And, certainly, the Lord Jesus preached to many Samaritans who believed (John 4:1-42).  So maybe Jesus was pointing to a believing Samaritan and not one of “the heterodox heathens” of Jesus time, purposefully order to contrast him anunbelieving “expert” in the Law! In any event, it doesn’t seem this story strictly supports Inclusivism as a thesis.

2.4 The Shortcomings of the “Biblicist” Argument

Kevin seems unconvinced by arguments which say Inclusivism is false because there is no explicit biblical reference that indicates something like it is true. There are other doctrines, he says, that are not explicit but that we infer from other passages; e.g., the doctrine of the Trinity, or the doctrine of prevenient grace, or salvation for those die in infancy.

Well, I take great issue with this. It is true that we can infer that which is not explicitly stated based on other principles. But does Kevin seriously thin something as fundamental and foundational as the Trinity has no explicit biblical backing? Try sharing that with a Jehovah’s Witness. Or does Kevin really think that Prevenient Grace — which just is the name we give to the calling, convicting, enabling work of the Holy Spirit through the preached Word of God prior to salvation — not explicitly affirmed? (Maybe Kevin has a slightly different view to me about what prevenient grace is, as a Wesleyan and not Classical Arminian.) Surely it is. No, I don”t believe you can derive a formulation like three hypostases (or persons) in one ousia (oressence)” from the Bible. But I do think you can get monotheism, three distinct persons, coequality, coeterinity and complete love and unity in one Godhead; and that’s all we need in order to get a doctrine of what we call a triune godhead.

I do, however, agree with the general spirit of what Kevin says. Of course you can infer doctrines form general biblical principles. That’s mostly how I infer and believe in infant salvation. I do believe scripture teaches that children are not held morally guilty for their fathers’ sins (cf. e.g. Ezekiel 18). But I also infer it from my knowledge of the love and mercy of God revealed more broadly in Scripture, reason, tradition and experience (a quadrilateral Wesleyan flavour there!). God would not damn children who have not consciously sinned and rejected him of their own accord.  The problem is that I also think heathens who are outside the present ‘range’ of the preaching of the Christian people do indeed consciously reject God out of their lives. More on that below in section 4. Furthermore, I do think there is some explicit biblical indication that people need to hear, being convicted by and repent and believe the Gospel to be saved from their sins. More on that below in section 3.

2.5 Inclusivism in the Early Church

Kevin also finds support for Inclusivism among certain early church fathers. Certainly the classical world was very reprobate at that time, and they would have been conscious about the extent of the unreached. I doubt the modern world is less reprobate; perhaps even more so.

Well, I don’t have much to say to this given my ignorance of the patristics. Save except two thoughts. First, surely, the vast degree of heathenry is the very reason for the urgentness of spreading the message. Why travel all over the Mediterranean like Paul and why go to India like Thomas, being battered, bruised, abused and ultimately murdered, if you thought people could be saved without hearing of Christ? Why travel over the Atlantic Ocean to the American Indians, like Wesley did, if you thought they could be saved despite worshiping their Great Spirit and who knows what else? Second, even if some of the fathers did say it, what if some of the fathers were in favour of a literal body-and-blood Eucharist, or the veneration of icons, as the Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox allege to support their practices? It seems to me that if any ancient bishop said anything, the first thing we ought to do is challenge them to show it to us form the Word of God. And if they couldn’t do that, because they didn’t have a Bible, then how could we agree with them in conscience? I certainly couldn’t.

2.6 Exclusivism is Synonymous with Calvinist Thought

Last, Kevin provides a real stinger for an Arminian: Exclusivism is Calvinist in character. There is no practical difference, he says, between God’s not giving grace to everyone (Calvinism) and God’s justly leaving someone in their sins outside the Gospel-word (Exclusivism). “All Arminians ought to reject [E]xclusivism for the same reasons they reject Calvinism,” he says. “Our view of God’s character demands it.”

But surely there is a difference. For in the Exclusivist case, God is being just in leaving people in their sins, even according to Kevin (“Godjustly [emphasis added] leaves them in their sin”). But in the Calvinists case, surely God is not just. On Calvinism, God calls people to repentance, but then specifically does not give them the grace sufficient for their repentance. But God then holds them accountable for not repenting, even though God knows that the only reason they do not repent is that eh doesn’t give them the grace necessary for that end. That isn’t just. That’s a foolish game. But on my story about Exclusivism, at least, God does give people grace, such that they can be held morally accountable before him for rejecting, though this grace is not of the kind such that, simply by responding to it in the right way, people can be saved by virtue of it. I will explain my story below.

Now let us move onto how I think Exclusivism is both biblical and makes sense, even in light of those doctrines about God’s universal saving desire and amazing free grace both Kevin and I hold dear as Arminians.

3. Exclusivism is Supported by Romans 10:14-15. For me, the question is not just what seems most right to say, but important, too, is what does the Bible also explicitly say. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding,” says the Lord (Proverbs 3:5). And: “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25). I’m sure Kevin would wholly agree with me on this point.

But it is here, on the Bible, where Inclusivism fails — so I will argue. With this in mind, then, let’s turn to Romans 10:14-15, which is, to me, a kind of foundation text for Exclusivism in the same way that John 3:16 is a foundation text for the love of God for the whole world through the Gospel. Here’s what it says:

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written,“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Romans 10:14-15; cit. Isaiah 52:7.)

Let’s place this passage in its proper context.  Immediately, it forms part of the Romans 9-11 discourse on the unbelief and justification of the Jews, so the object of speech here (“they”) will be the Jewish people and not people in general. This of course takes place in the wider context of the whole book of Romans, which is arguably a discourse on the whole of salvation from beginning to end: its reason, its cause, its grounds, its purposes or ends and its consequences, and so on and so forth. Historically, Paul was clearly writing to the culturally mixed church(es) in Rome, which was a metropolitan mixing pot of the cultures and languages and customs of about 1.5 million Greek, Hebrew and Latin (etc.) people. Paul’s concern seems have been to clarify so misapprehensions about both Jew and Gentile in God’s salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the whole world.

Well, alright then. How does this section make Exclusivism more plausible than not?

Notice how in Romans 9-11 how very concerned Paul has been to take the preached word to his own people. Why? Especially given 2:12-15 and 3:3:9-19, we have already seen that everyone breaks the law of the conscience or the written law by virtue of the rejection of the Creator who has revealed himself in the creation. Therefore everyone is under God’s judgement and needs to be justified by faith (Rom. 4). The purpose of the law, then, is to convict human hearts of their sinfulness and need for the saviour Jesus.

This seems incompatible with Inclusivism in this way: that faith is the instrument by which we become conjoined to Jesus Christ. What is faith? Is it not a confession of his Lordship, and a submission to the facts of the atoning sacrifice for sins and resurrection of Jesus from the dead by the  power of the Father? “For if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.: (Rom. 10:9). This salvation by faith is an active and consciousbelieving. So the belief is necessary for this salvation. This then serves as the motivator for our verse selection.  For Paul believed that it would not be possible for the Jews who had broken the law — that very same law of conscience that is broken by the Gentiles in Romans 2 — having never heard of the Christ, to have faith and be saved. For “faith comes by hearing” (10:17), and this is the reason the feet of the evangelist are called “blessed” (10:15). Paul characterises faith as a necessary requirement for justification, but he sees both the preaching and the hearing of the gospel word as a necessary condition for having faith. But it therefore follows that both the preaching and the hearing of the gospel word is a necessary condition for justification, and thus salvation. o you cannot be saved without hearing the preached word and, by faith, obeying it. But then it follows that what Kevin has defined as Inclusivism is false. It is not true that one can be saved through Christ without an explicit knowledge of who he is. For the clear proclamation of Christ is included in the preaching of the gospel word as its essential expression, such that there cannot be any gospel that is preached if there not be a clear understanding of Christ and his atonement and resurrection that is communicated.

Without this understanding of the passage in an Exclusivist sense, how can we make sense of the rhetorical force of Paul’s questions in Romans 10:14-15? For every question Paul asks, the Inclusivist has a quick-and-easy answer. But that’s a problem. The apostle is not looking for an answer that would defeat his point to motivate gospel-evangelism to the law-breaking and faithless Jews. “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” Inclusivist answer: They don’t need to. “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” Inclusivist answer: They can’t, but that doesn’t matter. “And how will they hear without a preacher?” Inclusivist answer: They don’t need one. The Inclusivist doctrine simply undermines Paul’s justification for motivating the preaching that he does. Therefore, we should reject the Inclusivist doctrine as contravening rather clear Scripture on this point. I, at least, cannot see how Inclusivism can fit with Paul’s point in Romans 10.

4. Exclusivism Makes Sense.

Despite what may seems to be a highly intuitive biblical case for Exclusivism, it may still seem unjust. So let me provide a story of how it may be the case that, when people perish outside Christ and faith in him in an unreached area, they may be plausibly wholly culpable for that state of affairs and God still remain wholly loving and just.

Imagine Exclusivism is true and there is an area in the world “R” that is unreached. It therefore follows that for any number of sinful people {1, 2, 3} at R, nobody can be saved. That seems unloving or unjust. But now imagine there is another continent “C” where the gospel is present. At C is a missionary named “M”. Now imagine that God reveals himself to all people everywhere in general revelation of nature and conscience. It follows that {1, 2, 3} and M all have an awareness of the Creator, and can be held accountable to their response to that revelation, as per Romans 1:18ff. Now let’s imagine God has the following disposition: For any person at all {1, 2, 3…}, if that person responds to general revelation in the right way, I will send a preacher to that person. Now imagine that at R, person 1 responds to general revelation in the right way. Therefore, God will send a preacher to person 1. Let’s say that person is M. God somehow moves M at C to go to 1 at R, and to preach the gospel to 1 at R. This may take place in various ways. But when M moves to R and preaches to 1, 1 is granted prevenient grace to believe and be saved. Furthermore, if 1, 2 and 3 are all in a single community at R, it may also follow from M’s being at R that 1, 2 and 3 hear the gospel and are enabled by prevenient grace to respond and believe even if persons 2 and 3 did not respond to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience in the right way. So it is still possible by God’s mere grace that complete unreached rebels hear his gospel, believe and are saved. Now, clearly,  when 1, 2 and 3 hear the gospel (say), perhaps 1 and 3 reject it but 2 believes. In that case, prevenient grace has becoming effectual saving grace, and 2 is born again. God has therefore saved 2 by grace through faith by the preached word, and justly condemned 1 and 3. But what if 3 never heard at all? What if he perished? I say he would perish justly. Why? Because he would have sinned and remained rebellious by rejecting the general revelation of God in nature and conscience. Who knows how constant and continual is the common grace of God in his general revelation to us that we may hear and respond to it, that he may send a preacher. But if we are so proud such that they will not even respond to that, then their condemnation seems just.

5.  Conclusion.

So I would counsel Kevin to rethink his thesis. His argument is not very strong, and it seems easy (a) how Exclusivism would work on an Arminian view, and (b) that the Scripture indicates that conscious faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. But let us now turn to a more pastoral note.

If Paul believed that the sending of a preacher was necessary to his own people of the Jews – those who had the written Law! — how much more those Gentiles on the outside, who do not even keep their own law of conscience that God has placed in their hearts? Remember, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Therefore, given our desperate sickness and sinfulness (Jer. 17:9), God has lovingly given common grace for all people around the world that they may respond to His general revelation in the right way, have a preacher sent to them by God, hear the Gospel of God’s love displayed for them, be convicted by that message through the Spirit, repent, believe and be saved. This story seems perfectly acceptable.

I do take very serious the Scripture in Acts 17:24-28 (and with this I end):

24 The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; 25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; 26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, 27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’

Here we see the glory and the love of God for every man. Paul, standing in the most pagan place, the Areopagus, speaks the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ to those who had never heard. He proclaims that God has made each and every single person in the whole world and placed each one in all their respective locations and circumstances that they might seek and know Him. For God wants to be known by each and every man He has created, and to be found by them. Nobody is lost due to accident of circumstance, or time, or geography. People are lost for rejecting God. And all have rejected God. All have sinned. Therefore, all need the Gospel. “How blessed are the feet of those who bring Good News.” This motivates us for mission in parts of the world we have never been to. This takes us to the corners of this dark world which is “without God and without hope” (Eph 2:12). Let us then take the news of the Lord to all the ends of the earth, and fulfil the great commission He has given us.