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Evangelicals, World Religions, and the Destiny of the Unevangelized: What Is “Inclusivism"

Updated: Feb 10, 2023

Some years ago–actually, a quarter-century ago, I first ventured into print on these subjects by way of a review article of new books by the late Clark Pinnock and John Sanders. Since the original publication is very hard to obtain now (it doesn’t even show up in the archives of the magazine), I’m putting it up here for those interested in orthodox inclusivism, the belief that the work of Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation, but knowing about it may not be. Here goes:

Original publication: “Evangelicals Reconsider World Religions: Betraying or Affirming the Tradition?” The Christian Century110 (8-15 September 1993): 858-65.

Under review: Clark H. Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 217 pp. John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), xviii + 315 pp.

“Sit down, young man; when God wants to convert the heathen, He’ll do it without your help and mine.”

In 1785, a senior Baptist pastor thus rebuked young William Carey at the local ministerial meeting. But the 24-year-old clergyman persisted in his musings. A few years later he put his thoughts on paper, and in 1792 published An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. Within months he had set sail for India, and what K. S. Latourette called “the Great Century” of modern missions had begun.

Carey had encountered a kind of hyper-Calvinist inertia that espoused a comprehensive doctrine of the sovereignty of God, and from this inferred a minimalist view of the responsibility of human beings in advancing God’s purposes. If God is willing and able to save, so it went, why ought human beings to exert themselves? Exactly two hundred years later, ironically enough, North American evangelicals are confronting the question of missionary effort from the Arminian side of the divide.

While the predestinarian argument tended to emphasize God’s sovereign power to save, Clark Pinnock, noted basher of Augustine and Calvin, has championed God’s will to save—even those who do not espouse explicitly Christian faith. In either case, some people have wondered whether the characteristic evangelical commitment to evangelism is rendered superfluous.

It is not Pinnock’s book alone, however, that has caused old questions to be posed with fresh concern. John Sanders’s book appeared in the same year with at least the same prominence, and both authors addressed the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) on this subject in November 1992. Moreover, the 1992 Wheaton College Theology Conference took religious pluralism as its theme, and responses have already started to appear from other evangelicals to take issue with the proposal offered by Pinnock and Sanders.

What is at stake, however, goes far beyond the question of evangelical missionary work—although an enterprise that currently employs many thousands of people and spends many millions of dollars is hardly a trivial matter. What is at stake in this discussion are basic elements of evangelical theology as well as of evangelical praxis, and therefore the nature of evangelicalism itself. Disagreement over this question may serve to fissure yet again the already fragmented tradition of evangelicalism in North America. But it may also provide grounds for an emerging consensus of Protestants of both “mainline” and evangelical identities.

The rebuke of Carey by John Collett Ryland in 1785 provides some categories in which to set out the related issues.

God wants to convert the heathen But does God? This seems a preposterous question, but it is at the heart of this model of Pinnock, Sanders, and other evangelicals—like J. N. D. Anderson of a previous generation. The title of Pinnock’s book borrows a line from F. W. Faber’s hymn that declares, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy/Like the wideness of the sea.” These authors oppose what they call the “fewness doctrine,” a niggardly view of God’s mercy that results in the ultimate redemption of only a meager portion of humanity. And it is true that some evangelical positions on this subject suggest that God’s ambitions are rather small: to call out a faithful minority from a disbelieving and doomed majority.

Some evangelicals realize, though, that however much they themselves go along with Pinnock and Sanders to disagree with the “fewness doctrine,” the question here is not only that of the scope of God’s intentions. What about human responsibility and response? Unless one believes with predestinarians that God unilaterally impels humans into faith and so the extent of God’s saving will is all that needs to be determined, the human side of the relationship is very much at issue. The Christian Church historically has maintained that human beings have an element within us that bends us away from God. There is something in us that resists God and God’s ways. So while affirmation of much more generous divine intentions is encouraging, there remains the question of human intentions.

God wants to convert But what is conversion? Evangelicals, like most Christians in most times and places, typically have believed that conversion is the exchange of one set of convictions for another. More specifically, it is the transference of loyalty to God from whatever alternative had held it before. Pinnock, Sanders, and their company endorse this view. But they press it in directions that many evangelicals find troubling.

Most evangelicals believe that conversion involves the explicit recognition of Jesus Christ as God’s Son and the mediator of salvation. One’s loyalty and trust is placed in Christ himself as the one proper locus of faith. The alternative model, however, suggests that the key is not the conscious recognition of the figure of Jesus, but the disposition of the heart toward the true God, however God is apprehended. And, this model continues, since God has revealed Godself in a variety of ways throughout the world, one can hope and even expect that many will enter eternal life without ever hearing of Jesus Christ.

John Sanders’s own preferred title for his book includes an exclamation point at its end as a symbolic refutation of the pluralistic proposals by John Hick (God Has Many Names, 1980) and especially Paul Knitter, No Other Name? (1985). No Other Name! Sanders asserts, and the others agree.

What makes them “inclusivists” rather than “pluralists” is their retention of the evangelical conviction that God in Christ redeemed the world—not “God in general.” On the other hand, what makes this proposal different from the “exclusivist” or “restrictivist” views of other evangelicals is the openness to the idea of God’s accepting a variety of people as truly faithful without their ever having heard of, and therefore responding to, Christ himself. Old Testament saints, therefore, join with infants, “holy pagans,” and others in the happy category of “the saved.” Strictly speaking, that is, they are not “Christians,” but they are brought close to God on the basis of the atonement accomplished by Jesus Christ.

This conviction, however, only initiates the complex and necessary discussion of just what evangelicals make of the other world religions, let alone all other faiths and ideologies.

the heathen Who and what are the heathen? The nineteenth- and twentieth-century missionary movement among evangelicals envisioned a Niagara of souls plunging relentlessly down to a lost eternity. All those millions who had never heard of Christ were therefore beyond his saving influence. Their own religions could not avail. These were, at best, pitiful human gropings in the darkness of sin and ignorance that failed to grasp adequately even the light shone by God in general revelation, let alone the saving knowledge of Christ. At worst, other religions were Satanic counterfeits that confirmed the heathen in their blindness.

Pinnock, Sanders, and others protest against this condemnation. Many other faiths, they suggest, contain considerable truth, goodness and beauty. They do so because human beings carry the image of God, however distorted by sin, and because God loves all people and therefore has not denied knowledge of Godself to any. Yes, there are misapprehensions in other faiths that need correction in the light of God’s revelation in Christ. Yes, there are shortcomings that need completion by further grace. And yes, there are evils in these faiths that deserve criticism and repudiation according to the Christian message. But God is at work among all people and all cultures, and therefore God is at work—in blessing as well as in judgment—in other religions as well.

Indeed, however much Christians would champion the purity of the sources of their own religion, most would agree that terrible inconsistencies have cropped up in their own tradition later on. So this kind of critical appreciation of other religions stands in an important analogy with the action of Christian renewal movements, for instance, that judge the Christian tradition and community themselves by what they understand to be the essentials of the Christian gospel. If one grants, in other words, that the Christian church and the Christian religion are not themselves pristinely pure, but rather are mixtures of good and bad, then one is poised to consider other religions in a new light.

What is lacking from these evangelicals so far is an etiology of religions that sets out clear alternatives to the traditional stereotypes without jettisoning what may be valid elements in them.

At a general level, for instance, one may ask that if demons did not inspire (each of) the other faiths, and if there is much more to them than pitiful human gropings, then why is there yet so much that is evil as well as good in them and in the Christian religion? Ought not the negative dimensions of demonic influence and human perversity as well as the dimension of human finitude—each of which continue to be taken seriously in other areas of evangelical thought—to figure still in a more satisfactory theory of the history and nature of religions?

At another level is a more particular question. What are Christians to make of the claims of at least some religions to particular revelations or insights in history, not merely in some mythical past? Evangelicals characteristically defend the historicity of the revelation of God in Christianity. But what about similar claims elsewhere? Did Gautama really sit under a bodhi tree and become enlightened? And what or who was the source of his enlightenment? Did Muhammad receive the Qur’an from Gabriel? And what or who is the source of its ideas? Just where did Joseph Smith get his new religion? One can maintain one’s phenomenological distance (“Mormons claim that Smith received divine revelation”) only so long. To be coherent, an evangelical theology of world religions will need to address these questions.

In general, though, this new proposal affirms that the heathen are not to be seen by Christians as entirely and universally bereft of and resistant to the Word of God in Christ. Instead, many have responded in faith already to what they have learned of God through the means available to them. The Christian gospel, then, comes to them as the gift of further light to lead them on the path already taken. For others, to be sure, the Christian message comes as a stark alternative, and radical conversion stands as the only acceptable response. But this traditional image simply will not suffice to account for the complex realities of Christian encounter with other faith communities around the world.

On the other hand, Pinnock, Sanders, and others clearly resist what they see to be the watering down or selling out of Christianty by pluralists like Hick, Knitter, John Cobb, and others. “Theological pluralism is not what it appears,” Pinnock declares. “As with Hindu tolerance, it can be a covert from of monism” that dissolves all religious particularity into the cosmic soup of the One True Reality” (72-73). So Pinnock and company want stoutly to affirm the supreme revelation of God in Christ that stands as completion, correction, and even condemnation of other faiths. Indeed, they contend, it is precisely on the basis of this standard that they can meaningfully esteem qualities of other faiths. And they believe that this standard, this guide, ought to be offered to others without compromise for their own good.

He’ll do it God will do what? Convert all? Evangelicals like Pinnock and Sanders resist the charge (or opportunity) of universalism, the doctrine that God will bring all creatures back into right relation with Godself someday. They acknowledge (although begrudgingly at times) that a number of biblical passages depict judgment and hell awaiting at least some who remain adamant in their resistance to God’s goodness. To be sure, scriptures that speak of God’s will that all should be saved correlate, for them, with Scriptures that affirm God’s great power to save. With the will and the power, surely many therefore will be redeemed. Universalists would then wonder why this does not lead them to a logical conclusion along universalistic lines. But Pinnock, Sanders, and others stop short because they affirm the mysterious judgments of the biblical apocalypses. Pinnock, at least, would also stop short because of his resistance to any sort of divine determinism—even a beneficent one.

In fact, it is precisely Pinnock’s championing of an Arminian view of human freedom that has led him to second-guess his own book. At the AAR meeting, Pinnock confessed that he needed to give more thought to his confidence that there would, in the fullness of time, be a “large salvation.” Affirming God’s will and power to save was not enough, he recognized, to undergird confidence in a “manyness” hope (rather than a “fewness doctrine”), since human response remained a giant question mark.

without your help and mine Are Christians “helping” God? If God is active in revelation to people all over the world in their own religions, what is the nature of the Christian mission? Calvinists like Carey believed that simple obedience to Christ was enough to warrant missionary exertion. Christ had issued Great Commissions, and his prayer had petitioned that God’s kingdom come. Grateful service to God motivated him to make the “means of grace” available to others as occasions for God’s purposes to be fulfilled. Arminians, like all Christians, had this motive as well. But they had the additional impetus of believing that human beings needed the gospel message proclaimed to them in order to decide to convert. And since God had indicated that the normal means of proclamation was human preaching, humans had better be active in that preaching.

Obedience to the command of Christ continues to impel this model as well. But it is precisely the nature of the command that is understood differently. What is it that Christians bring to others? A saving message without which all is lost? No, for others can be saved by trusting God according to the light of revelation already extended to them. Instead, Christians gladly bring further blessings: truth in the Bible and church teaching; fellowship of resources in linking up with the church worldwide; and encouragement to proceed further down the path already chosen. Some, of course, have refused the light rendered to them so far and will need to hear the Christian message as a decisive presentation of God’s goodwill toward human beings. But many others will be found by Christians to be fellow believers who yet need what Christians have to offer.

What I, and doubtless others, hope to hear from such authors is the affirmation that Christians themselves have something to gain from this encounter, and such readers hear it to some degree. Other faiths remind Christians of what they have forgotten in their own tradition, for instance, or re-present divine revelation in new contexts and therefore with fresh power. What remains for evangelicals in this regard to consider, though, is just what God has revealed to others that lies beyond the Christian tradition, what divine blessings await Christians in other faiths. Inter-religious dialogue, therefore, as well as interfaith worship and interfaith service to others, may offer to evangelicals more than opportunities for evangelism—a view that has dominated evangelical understandings of interreligious dialogue to the present. Deep and appreciative contact with others may yield new light from God to Christians.

* * *

North American evangelicalism faces a number of serious questions in what Darryl Hart has recently termed its “mid-life crisis.” No question, however, stands as a more central challenge to evangelical identity and activity than the issue of Christianity and other faiths, for it is difficult to imagine a single evangelical doctrine or organization that would not be affected by this sort of change of view.

Historian Grant Wacker, among others, has traced the encounter with world religions of the American “Protestant establishment” over the last century, and his observations give strength to criticism of Pinnock, Sanders, and their ilk. What, indeed, happens to the missionary impulse in the church when these views predominate? By the mid-1980s, Wacker writes in one essay, “something like terminal ambiguity had come to shroud the Protestant establishment’s relation to the foreign mission enterprise.” Between the extremes of conservatism/exclusivism and liberalism/pluralism, the center/inclusivism had not held, and missions had diffused into humanitarian projects like the Marshall Plan, Peace Corps, and world famine relief. One may well ask whether this present evangelical alternative is simply another example of the “cultural lag” noted among evangelicals before, as evangelicals repeat the history of their “mainline” counterparts a generation or two later.

The real danger of such a possibility ought not, however, to blind evangelicals and other interested Christians from the opportunity this new approach offers. In particular, rather than erode the character of evangelicalism to a pabulum of decency and good works, this alternative viewpoint can help purge the evangelical tradition of extremes that are not in fact intrinsic to it. And in doing so, it may position at least some evangelicals in proximity to Christians in “mainline” Protestantism who share these fundamental concerns.

English historian David Bebbington offers four helpful categories that can bring this suggestion into focus.

Crucicentrism Evangelicals maintain the centrality of the atoning work of Christ, typified especially in the cross, and no compromise to this conviction is suggested in this alternative model. Only through the mediatorial work of Christ in his earthly and heavenly careers are human beings reconciled to God. The question, then, is not whether Christ’s work is central and necessary, although some evangelicals already are castigating Pinnock and Sanders precisely on these terms. The question is rather how the benefits of this work are mediated to others. As evangelicals have questioned the efficacy and necessity of sacraments as media of salvation, so this alternative model questions the efficacy and necessity of what might be called an evangelical sacrament, namely, propositional knowledge of Christ and the “plan of salvation.” As George Marsden and many others have shown, evangelicals—for all of their anti-intellectualism in some respects—prize propositional knowledge, and the traditional view insists upon it as a condition for salvation. Pinnock, Sanders, and others now freshly raise the question of the definition of saving faith, of an authentic experience of God. Is the traditional evangelical view far too indebted to the Enlightenment birthplace of evangelicalism, and can new views make more sense of the salvation of Old Testament believers, “holy pagans,” and others?

Yet all of this remains anchored in a sturdy commitment to evangelical crucicentrism. For, such evangelicals might ask of others, how can we believe that so many different people, believing and acting in so many different ways, and all affected by and practising sin, can possibly be reconciled to God? By their religious earnestness? By their good works? No, these evangelicals might maintain, for the bewildering variety of faiths and ethics frustrates any attempt to distill out a common denominator of religious goodness by which such things could be measured. And whatever goodness is there cannot remedy the presence and effects of sin. Only the atoning work of Jesus Christ, the one mediator between God and human beings, can bridge the chasm. Having been established, then, it stands available to all. This evangelical model thus deals coherently with an important dimension of religious pluralism and poses an alternative to other models of Christian pluralism propounded today.

Conversionism If the work of Christ can be mediated without propositional knowledge of that work per se, what then does it mean to be converted? It cannot mean following along with the “Four Spiritual Laws” or even praying just the “sinner’s prayer.” What this alternative model does, again, is to raise fresh questions about the nature of faith. And in this, it can serve to reinforce what in fact has been a mainstream evangelical tradition for centuries, namely, that there is not just one paradigm of conversion, but a range of conversion possibilities. Billy Graham himself testifies that many (including his mother and his wife) have never experienced a definitive, conscious moment of conversion, but instead have grown up in the faith. It is another step, but perhaps not a large one, to suggest that people in other cultures may grow up in authentic faith too. The stereotypical “conversion experience” thus is shown to be simply that, a stereotype, and evangelicals and others can get on with the more basic questions at hand.

Yet the evangelical commitment to conversion is not thereby diminished. Whatever the trajectory of conversion, each person is directly called to decide between the true God and alternatives. Sincerity and hard work are not virtuous in just any cause, but only if properly directed toward the kingdom of God. What this model does in this respect is to set this question of commitment squarely before each person at each moment. Is one on the path of continual conversion toward God’s light, or is one turning or turned away? The model, if anything, universalizes the evangelical belief in the imperative and possibility of conversion: each may convert, whatever one’s ostensible religion, and each must keep on converting, whether one is “born again” or not.

Biblicism Does all of this undermine the importance of the Bible? Yes, it does, if the importance of the Bible is tied to believing a particular set of propositions as a condition of saving faith. But, in fact, such a set is nowhere to be found as such in the Bible, but rather must be inferred and lifted out from its various texts. And this action of abstracting such a set is not obviously more true to the Bible than the alternative reading of its teachings about faith rendered by Pinnock, Sanders, and others. Indeed, the alternative model attempts, in good evangelical fashion, to be more true to the Bible than the traditional one is.

Furthermore, this alternative model highlights the fact that, however much some evangelicals might aver “the Bible alone,” God gives truth through a variety of media. Indeed, the Bible is always an interpreted arbiter of such truth, however perfect it is in itself because of its divine inspiration, and these other media in fact inform the matrices of Biblical interpretation. So if God mediates truth to Christians through reason, experience, and tradition, why should God not have revealed truth in these ways to other people in other places and times? This alternative model brings evangelicals squarely before the complex matters of hermeneutics and of epistemology in general as few other issues can.

Nonetheless, evangelicals might continue to champion the Bible as the unique, indispensable, and authoritative norm against which to measure all other sources of truth. In the storm-tossed seas of modern and postmodern doubt and amid the welter of competing religions’ claims about their own texts, it would be well if there were such a guide and standard, such a useful tool in the hands of God’s Spirit. As Christians both inside and outside the evangelical community have suggested for some time, acknowledging difficulties in the interpretation of the Bible does not inexorably lead to denying its value.

Activism Finally, what are evangelicals to do? William Carey, like most evangelicals, believed that the church’s primary task is to carry the light of the Gospel to pierce the darkness of heathenism. Without such evangelistic work, the torrent of lost souls continues incessantly. In fact, many of the subcultures of evangelicalism in the centuries since have been deeply structured by this conviction. Missionaries to other lands therefore are the spiritual heroes of the community; pastors remain a distinct level down the scale; and finally the rest of us compromisers follow, hoping perhaps to evangelize workmates or clients as a way of legimitizing our otherwise “worldly” work.

Inclusivists challenge this view in several respects. Pinnock puts it in his characteristic way: “I object to the notion that missions is individually oriented, hellfire insurance. Sinners are not in the hands of an angry God” (177). Pinnock probably overdoes his polemic: there’s a lot more about sin and judgment in the New Testament proclamation than Pinnock suggests. But evangelicals, as well as others, can appreciate his positive affirmation that the church helps to bring in the kingdom, to strengthen the hands—and hearts and heads—of others elsewhere who also are—or could become—part of the broad kingdom project.

Indeed, one can raise the impertinent question: was the nineteenth- and twentieth-century missionary effort that was fuelled by this belief in fact all that successful? Could the “Great Century” have been more successful along inclusivist lines? Historians and missiologists have probed into the issue of “contextualization” for some time, and their conclusions ought now to be brought into the theologians’ seminars.

Beyond this lies an even more comprehensive question. What is our appreciation of the benefits of knowing God in Christ in this life—the benefits of the church, the Bible, and the other offerings of Christianity per se? Would someone even walk across the street to gain the Christian experience of so many North American Christians? Would someone travel across an ocean to bring it? The ever-more-obvious irony is that in many instances the church is more vital, more powerful, and more important to Christians over there than it is here.

More broadly still, this model raises sharply the issue of Christian vocation, both individual and corporate. Perhaps a semantic shift—already taking place—should run its course as evangelicals stop saying “missions” (with its connotation of evangelism per se) and say instead simply “mission,” the general term for the work of the church in the world. And this shift is part of the broader transition from the stereotypical evangelical preoccupation with evangelizing toward the afterlife—”stereotypical” in that it is in fact untrue to the historic mainstream of evangelicalism, which was characteristically active in a much broader program of societal transformation—to participating vocationally in the multi-dimensional inbreaking of the kingdom into this one. Indeed, it is the move away from a sectarian mentality, but not necessarily toward an imperialist one. Instead, this model best avoids the extremes of both separation and domination and seeks participation instead.

Proclamation doesn’t disappear, therefore. But it is recast pretty importantly: what are we proclaiming, what is the situation of people to whom we are proclaiming, how are we proclaiming, and to what end are we proclaiming? And it is relocated as one part of a complex of tasks in the broader calling to “kingdom work.” The challenge, then, is for evangelicals to maintain their traditional passion for evangelism over a much wider range of concern: a range as wide as God’s whole world.

* * *

A considerable variety of observers, from James Davison Hunter to Bob Jones Jr., have remarked on a “leftward” movement among evangelicals over the past generation or so. Some of this has been praised as a moderation of the extremes of fundamentalism and a greater and fuller engagement in the work of the kingdom. But some of this evangelical movement has been condemned as a fatal embrace of, or perhaps just a mindless slide into, the confusion of theological liberalism and the apostasy of worldliness. So where does this move take evangelicals?

It is likely that evangelicals will part company with each other over this issue. But some, like Pinnock and Sanders, are already finding new company among theologians like Lesslie Newbigin, Jürgen Moltmann, Carl Braaten, and even those of Vatican II who have addressed these questions. The old “conservative-liberal” dichotomy is giving way to a three-fold typology of pluralists on one end, various kinds of exclusivists on the other, and a middle ground of inclusivists. And out of this middle ground of agreement might well grow cooperation in mission—perhaps issuing even in a new “Great Century.”

If the zeal of previous generations was badly misguided, one wonders, then will there be corresponding zeal, however now well-guided, among such inclusivists for mission, however now better-defined? Or will this careful theological alternative end up as mere “ideology,” the rationalization of stay-at-home, self-centred worldliness? Last year saw the anniversary of William Carey’s book and mission. This year sees the anniversary of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Between these two approaches to other faiths, evangelicals of this alternative model and their inclusivist kin yet have good reason to refuse the call, from any quarter, to sit down.

[See also the following post on clarifying terms in this discussion.]


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