February 3, 2010

Soteriological Inclusivism

Jeremy has an interesting discussion of soteriological inclusivism up on his blog. He argues, without necessarily endorsing inclusivism, that this view can be best accommodated by a Calvinist understanding of salvation. I want here to first clarify how we should understand inclusivism and why we should take it seriously, and then challenge the assumption that Calvinism is the best way to accommodate the view within a Christian framework.

Soteriological inclusivism, as I understand it, is an attempt to endorse both of the following claims:

(1) There is only one way of salvation.
(2) Some who do not explicitly/consciously/intentionally follow this way are saved.

This is a very generic and therefore somewhat unclear formulation. What it amounts to will be clearer if we give it a specifically Christian formulation:
(1') No one is saved apart from faith in Christ.
(2') Some who do not have explicit/conscious/intentional faith in Christ are saved.

A couple things to note about this: first, in order to maintain logical consistency, all you need to do is acknowledge the possibility of implicit/unconscious/unintentional faith, so there is not a logical problem here. Second, although Jeremy (following James Sennett) classifies this view as an alternative to universalism (the view that everyone will be saved), not only is inclusivism compatible with universalism but many Christian universalists, past and present, are probably best classified as inclusivists: they think that everyone gets saved by some sort of implicit reliance on Christ. (Others think that those who do not come to explicit faith in Christ in this life will come to such explicit faith after death.)

Now, there are two good reasons to take this view seriously. First, even if you think it makes sense for God to condemn people who hear about Christianity and reject it, there seems to be a problem for people who have never heard the message (especially people who lived before Jesus!). Second, Romans 2:12-16 might reasonably be taken to imply that there is some kind of difference in judgment between those who are and aren't directly familiar with the Law. This passage is far from clear, but its very unclarity counsels us to keep an open mind.

Now, as I said, what we need in order to make the inclusivist position consistent is the possibility of implicit, unconscious, or unintentional faith in Christ. Jeremy writes:

Finally, it occurs to me that inclusivism fits best with a Calvinist model of divine sovereignty. Sennett's way of describing who among other religions is genuinely on the path to salvation is that they're the ones God is working in to move them toward the right attitudes and practices, despite not having the right information to know what the gospel even is. Without that, and without the evidence of explicit faith in Jesus Christ, it's very hard for there to be objective criteria for someone to be saved. The easiest way around that is for the criteria to be simply whoever God is genuinely working in, a work that will always be brought to completion, but that requires Calvinist views of divine sovereignty over human salvation.

It is unclear to me what's going on here. First, the reference to evidence is spurious because God is the only one who has to judge who is or isn't saved, and he knows all the facts directly in virtue of his omniscience, without need of evidence. We should rather latch on to the claim that "it's very hard for there to be objective criteria for someone to be saved." I suppose the idea is that, according to the Calvinist view, people are saved in virtue of God's sovereign decree and God intervenes to bring about faith in those he chooses. Calvinists, like other traditional Protestants, believe that all and only those who have faith are saved; Calvinists are distinguished by denying that it is because of faith that God chooses to save those he chooses to save. Rather, on the Calvinist view, God brings about faith in the elect because he has already chosen to save them on some other basis which is (a) external to the individuals involved, and (b) unknowable to us. (As Leibniz insists, Calvinists should not claim that God does this for no reason at all.)

Now non-Calvinist Protestants claim that faith is a criterion for salvation. (See some of my previous reflections on this idea here.) If I interpret him correctly, Jeremy seems to be suggesting that once we allow implicit faith to count, it becomes a vague matter whether someone does or does not have faith, yet everyone must be either determinately saved or determinately condemned. The Calvinist picture escapes this because God's decree is not based on whether the individual has faith. So Calvinism has less of a problem with inclusivism than non-Calvinist views.

Here are some reasons for thinking Jeremy is mistaken about this:

  1. Calvinists agree that it is a truth of revealed theology that all and only the faithful are saved. Thus the vagueness worry comes up anyway. If God's intention is to bring about faith in all and only those he elects for salvation, why would he allow people to die who are neither determinately faithful nor determinately unfaithful?

  2. It's not clear to me that explicit faith is any less vague than implicit faith. What do you have to believe? How well do you have to understand the things you have to believe? How deeply internalized do these beliefs have to be? How much do they have to affect your actions? Perhaps this is a general problem for non-Calvinist views, but if that's so then Jeremy hasn't shown that combining a non-Calvinist view with inclusivism makes the view any less plausible than it was to begin with (and Calvinism has its own problems).

  3. All Christians ought to agree that God, by sovereign decree, chooses to save the faithful. It seems that any answer to the difficulty in (1) above will lead to an answer to the question of why God selected the cut-off point he did. (Or we could just plead ignorance.)

All this to say, whatever problems there are with inclusivism, I don't see why they should be either mitigated or exacerbated by detailed views about the individual's role in his or her salvation.

Posted by Kenny at February 3, 2010 4:30 PM
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Comments

this is not calvinism, as there is no evidence in either scripture of any calvinistic symbol of salvation outside of the covenant of grace. the chirstian understanding of faith involves assensus, notitia, and fiducia - none of which are unconscious. emeth is and remains a creation of cs lewis' imagination. inclusivism sounds more like god before the aclu than christianity.

Posted by: dr p at February 22, 2010 4:57 AM

dr p - If you read my post and Jeremy's, you will find that neither of us attribute inclusivism to Calvinists. In fact, Jeremy says that it is ironic that inclusivism (according to him) works better in a Calvinist framework, since most Calvinists will likely be strongly opposed to it (as you, evidently, are).

Posted by: Kenny at February 22, 2010 9:18 AM

@kenny: i did read the posts, and perhaps i could have been clearer, but inclusivism in no way fits into any system even remotely resembling calvinism. it more fits into the writings of cs lewis and perhaps some earlier writers sympathetic to the concept of the "noble savage" and hence systems denying total depravity (eg, certain strains of byzantine orthodoxy). perhaps jeremy should be clearer as to how inclusivism fits into a covenant-based framework like calvinism, and cited some examples by calvinistic theologians. have you such references? thanking you in advance, dr p

Posted by: dr p at February 23, 2010 9:12 AM

No one claims that inclusivism fits into the total system of 'Reformed Theology'. Jeremy said that it "fits best with a Calvinist model of divine sovereignty" - i.e. that in order to make it work you need the bit of Calvin's theology to which Arminians most object. This can be expressed by saying that it fits best with 'Calvinism' because the term 'Calvinism' is (perhaps unfortunately) most often used to refer only to the Five Points, whereas the term 'Reformed Theology' is more often used to refer to the total system of theology espoused by Calvin and his followers.

The whole discussion started from C. S. Lewis, who may well have actually accepted inclusivism, and you list some other groups of Christian thinkers who may have accepted this view. But no claims have been made here about what Calvinists do or should accept. Jeremy's claim (which I was disputing) was not that Calvinists do or should accept inclusivism, but that inclusivists should accept certain elements of Calvinism - specifically, a Calvinistic understanding of sovereignty. The Calvinistic understanding of sovereignty is logically independent of (i.e. neither entails nor is entailed by) the "covenant-based framework" to which you refer.

Posted by: Kenny at February 23, 2010 11:26 AM

@kenny: calvinism is entirely and completely dependent on a covenant scheme; ie the dichotomy between the covenants of works and grace. please see the host of calvinist symbols. calvinism is also more than "mere" soteriology. the inclusivism (i'm glad) you object to also questions definitions of faith (as i mentioned in my first post)and begs for any example from scripture. calvinism - and, for that matter, all theological systems - are integrated systems; the inclusivist must treat such a system more like a chinese menu, choosing what he likes form columns a and b without regard to integrity. his claim is as lame as that of the "calvinian" or less-than-5-point calvinist, and produces incoherence.

Posted by: dr p at February 24, 2010 4:46 AM

r. P, there are plenty of theological systems that are internally consistent. We're not talking here about fitting well with scripture. All I'm doing here is pointing out the inclusivism seems to do better with a model of divine sovereignty according to which God brings about people's faith. I'm making no claim about Calvinism being better with inclusivism. As a Calvinist who is a non-inclusivist, why would I do something like that? I do dispute your claim that Calvinism depends on the unbiblical distinction between a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, and I think there are plenty of ways of holding some of the 5 points without holding all of them (I happen to hold all, because I think they're all biblical). I believe my comment section links to that, but I haven't gone back to check.

To Kenny: For the record, I don't think inclusivism and universalism are exclusive alternatives. Keith DeRose is a good example of someone who holds both views. I was just working with Sennett's formulations, and he seems to treat them as alternatives. They're certainly distinct views, since you can hold either without the other, and that's all that mattered for my purposes. I didn't want people thinking I was talking about universalism, since people often confuse them.

As for evidence, I was simply thinking that the evidence would be the facts on which God's judgment is based. If he has all the facts, as I think, then he has all the evidence. None of the evidence includes explicit faith in Christ in the cases we're talking about, so other facts must be the basis of the judgment. Perhaps I didn't word it well, but I didn't mean to suggest that God has to look at evidence and make a less-than-100%-reliable inference the way we have to do with many things.

I wouldn't say that salvation choices in Calvinism require God to look only at things external to the person being selected. For example, surely Paul's abilities would have played a role in God's selection of Paul as an apostle, and why wouldn't they also have played a role in God's selection of Paul to be saved? What Calvinists won't say is that the basis is something that merits being saved, as if the person deserves it. But that's compatible with some of the basis being within the person.

I'll respond to the substantive arguments in a separate comment.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at March 12, 2010 2:31 PM

Sorry, my D got deleted at the beginning there.

1: Calvinists agree that it is a truth of revealed theology that all and only the faithful are saved. Thus the vagueness worry comes up anyway. If God's intention is to bring about faith in all and only those he elects for salvation, why would he allow people to die who are neither determinately faithful nor determinately unfaithful?

Exactly. That's my point. Under the Calvinist model of divine sovereignty, God could ensure that this doesn't happen. Without that, God could not ensure that someone who is about to die remains at a determinate state of faith or unfaith, and there would have to be all manner of miracles to postpone deaths, not necessarily because some good consequence comes of the person's continued life and not simply to bring the person to repentance, but because it's intolerable for the person to be at an indeterminate state. This is an odd result. It's not impossible, but I didn't say inclusivism is inconsistent with other models of sovereignty, just that it fits better with the model Calvinism contains.

But aside from that, I think the basis issue is more important than the result issue. On the Calvinist model, saving faith isn't about having enough faith or believing enough of the right things. Those are vague matters. Rather, it's about having been chosen by God, which is not a matter of vagueness. It's true that those chosen by God will have saving faith, and whatever you might call faith among those not chosen is not saving faith. It's all-or-nothing.

Not so on less-sovereign models. If God isn't sovereign over the free choice to trust in Christ, then the basis of God's salvation decision isn't what God does but what we do. That is then a matter of vagueness in a way that for the Calvinist model it isn't.

2. I think there are vagueness problems with any view that grounds salvation in choices not under God's sovereignty, and maybe you've helped me clarify them. But I think there's a further problem with implicit faith. Implicit faith is supposed to be something like being sufficiently close to what happens within a Christian, having enough beliefs like the Christian's (morally, in terms of realizing what God must be like, figuring out what sort of plan God must have based on a conclusion about what must be the problem with sin that affects us all). That's inherently a problem of vagueness is the decision whether to save is based on what we're like rather than God making a choice and then shaping people accordingly.

3. I'm not sure how the answer to 1 answers why the cutoff point is where it is. 1 is about whether God would allow people to die in a region where it's indeterminate. You could come up with an answer to that without any answer to why God would make the cutoff exactly where it is. Maybe an answer that removes the indeterminate zone (and makes vagueness epistemic, say) would also remove problem 1. But I don't think it would go the other way.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at March 12, 2010 2:52 PM

On the relation between (1) and (3): I should have explicitly stated an assumption I was making. The assumption is that insofar as faith is manifested externally, there seems to be a continuum of faithfulness, and, this seems to apply just as much to people at the end of their lives as to people at any other time in their lives. So, assuming that Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree on what faith is and only disagree on the cause of faith, it seems that some people, at the time of their death, approximate the ideal of faith very closely, while others are very far from it, and people occupy a lot of points in between. The question of whether God or the individual causes that faith, doesn't help to get rid of the vagueness. Calvinism alters the question slightly but doesn't answer it: the question goes from 'how faithful do I have to be to be saved?' to 'how faithful does God make those whom he chooses to save (on earth)?'

Now, you seem to be suggesting that Calvinism makes it easier to say that God just doesn't allow the vague cases to happen. That seems right. Another point is that Calvinists are not very concerned about apparent arbitrariness. But let me rephrase my question another way: if God wills that all and only the faithful be saved, and God is sovereign in the strong Calvinistic sense, and God wishes to save some individual, then why would he stop short of bringing about fully explicit faith in that person? This was the main point I meant to bring out by (3), and this is why I ended it by suggesting that Calvinists could easily plead ignorance on this point, since they don't profess to understand God's purposes in election.

Posted by: Kenny at March 12, 2010 4:51 PM

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