CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A review of Faith Comes by Hearing. Edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson.

Jul 24, 2008

IVP,  2008. (Available in Australia from Koorong Books.)

It goes without saying that in the secular, pluralistic West, values such as inclusion, tolerance and acceptance are greatly stressed. Conversely, anything which smacks of exclusiveness, intolerance and rejection is strongly deplored. This can make the proclamation of the Christian Gospel especially difficult.

Biblically Christianity is clearly exclusivist in its insistence that Christianity is the one true religion, and that Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation. This is not exactly what a multicultural, pluralistic society wants to hear. But it is what biblical Christians are obligated to proclaim.

While it is obvious that many non-Christians (whether religious or nonreligious) will find the exclusiveness of Christianity’s truth claims to be burdensome and objectionable, there are some Christians who also question the traditional understanding.

Some evangelical Christians, for example, have sought to widen the parameters when it comes to who can be saved and how. It is to these sorts of issues that this book is addressed. Eleven meaty chapters written by nine biblical scholars tackle the many complex issues involved.

Traditionally there have been three main approaches to these issues. The exclusivist camp argues that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour, and salvation only comes in response to the Gospel of Christ. The inclusivist camp argues that Christ is indeed the only Saviour, but people can be saved apart from hearing the Gospel message. Pluralism teaches that there are many religious roads to God.

This volume argues that the consistent Biblical position is that of exclusivism. It mainly interacts with other Christians who seek to argue for the remaining two positions, especially the inclusivists. Many of the leading evangelical inclusivists are those associated with the open theism movement. Thus open theists such as Clark Pinnock and John Sanders receive a great deal of attention in this volume, along with others. Terrance Tiessen, an inclusivist of the Reformed persuasion, also gets a wide hearing.

Morgan does a good job in his opening chapter listing the various details and nuances of the main positions involved. Indeed, he admits that the three traditional camps may be insufficient, and breaks things down into nine specific positions.

Daniel Strange offers a helpful overview of the claim that general revelation (God’s self-disclosure in creation and conscience) is sufficient to condemn sinners, but not sufficient to save them. The special revelation of God (his Word and Jesus Christ) is necessary to make salvation possible to fallen mankind. Key texts such as Psalm 19 and Romans 1-2 are carefully examined, along with inclusivist assessments of them.

Walter Kaiser looks at salvation in the Old Testament, and argues that so-called holy pagans or believing Gentiles were saved just as we are, by response to the specific revelation of God. True, the OT saints did not have a clear understanding of Christ and his work, but they did have Yahweh’s self-disclosure in general, and his specific revelation of a promised Saviour, going back to Genesis 3:15.

Eckhard Schnabel discusses how the Bible understands other religions. He reminds us that both Israel and the early Christians believed that competing religious worldviews were false religions and manmade belief systems. They both also recognised the spiritual dimension to other religions, which includes some elements of the demonic and satanic.

William Edgar examines the charge that exclusivism is unjust. In his discussion he covers a number of major issues such as theodicy, the nature of evil, the sovereignty of God and the entrance of sin into the world. He reminds us that if God saved no one, he would still be absolutely just and fair. But the fact that many are saved speaks to the great mercy and grace of God.

Other chapters examine such topics as the nature of saving faith, the necessity of preaching the Gospel, and the missionary heart of God. The authors here argue that the best thing we can do for those who are worried about the fate of those who have not heard the Gospel is to encourage them to be more active in proclaiming the Gospel to all mankind.

A concluding chapter deals with notable objections to the notion of exclusivism, such as the fairness and justice of hell, and various pastoral concerns.

In sum, there is a wealth of biblical, theological and hermeneutical material covered here, which is presented in a fair and gracious manner. Extensive quotations from, and arguments by, the inclusivists are presented and carefully dealt with. The authors meticulously and graciously interact with the inclusivists, but make it clear that the exclusivist position seems to best do justice to the biblical data.

And they make clear the priority of the Christian Gospel, and the urgency and importance of worldwide evangelisation. While a number of other volumes have covered these topics, this is perhaps the best recent volume to present the biblical and theological case for exclusivism. An important and vital volume.

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13 Responses to A review of Faith Comes by Hearing. Edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson.

  • Thanks Bill

    Sounds like a good read. It seems to me, as one who personally fits into the ‘exclusive’ camp many of us Christians often ‘apologise’ for the fact that Jesus is the only way… we find ourselve on our ‘back foot’ trying to defend God and his way of dealing with humankind and our ‘sin problem’. My pastor said something pretty profound this week … “Just like you dont need to ‘defend’ a lion – just let it out of it’s cage and it can defend itself..” Jesus is like that lion.. we dont need to apologise for what he taught or did… when someone genuinely wants to find Truth and seeks him, they will ‘find’ him. He claimed black and white to be the “only” way to God (Jn 14:6)… so in my humble opinion, when we soften that claim we make him out to be a liar (deliberate deceiver of people) or lunatic (deluded with his own ‘grandeur’)… when He actually is the only Lord.

    Kerryn Zwag

  • Interesting, I’ll have to get the book. One problem with the unreached is that we don’t know how many failed attempts there have been. We see only the result of the successes and a few famous cases of martyred missionaries. When missionaries do out reaches with unreached cultures there are in many cases some who come early. These are often seekers, nominal members of the local faiths or what a Hindu or Buddhist would call an atheist in their midst. How many have been seeking the lords name in private we don’t know. The secret church in Islamic countries and the hidden church in china indicates that you can have millions of believers in a society that appears lost. There are accounts of Moslems that saw the flaws in Islam and sought the truth. We only know of those that made contact with the church, missionaries or obtained a bible, mostly men. How many died trying and is the attempt enough? How much of the gospel is enough for salvation? Is the realisation that what the mosque or temple teaches about Jesus might be wrong enough to seek him? Is that enough truth to set you free? As someone that works with the intellectually handicapped I know that there are many Christians that know little else but that Jesus was good and other things are bad. Anything more complicated is and will always be beyond them. Is that enough? We know that many rejected the gods of the Aztec and Incas. When Christianity arrived these millions rose up in open rebellion. We know what the catholic priests taught, the false Christianity of the Mariology, the inquisition and the counter reformation. How much was accurately translated is also debatable. How did God create real churches in such a context where even the missionaries were often preaching false gospels. The same happened in China with Nestorian missionaries. When missionaries preach to some tribes and peoples they resist yet when the same message goes to other tribes they convert on mass. How much preparatory work has the holy spirit been doing and how many generations has that preparation taken? Is only the last generation saves in that process? Hope fully the book deals with these questions.
    Wesley Bruce

  • Thanks Wesley

    Yes most of your very good questions are covered in this book.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The Gospel is not fair is it? The only way to the Father is as little children. The Gospel message is simple and clear, Jesus stated that He is the way and when we have seen Him we have seen the Father. It is an uncomfortable message. As humans we try to find the loophole but there isn’t one.
    If we believe Jesus to be who he says he is, then we must accept what he says.
    Many will not see eternity. Fairness is not the point. A funeral is a sad event as people cling to the hope that loved ones who are not saved will go to Heaven.
    Steven Eldridge

  • Bill,

    To add to the debate I put part of the Catholic position to you. The Catholic Catechisim states “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of His Church, but seeks the Truth and does the Will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. Such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.

    Also those who suffer death for the sake of the Faith without having received Baptism are baptised by their death for and with Christ ie Baptism of Blood.

    As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God.

    John McMahon

  • Jesus said whoever comes to him he will not reject – whether we disagree on details of theology or not – apart from him being the only way. Those who never hear an explicit gospel, and it seems that there will be many of them, are presumably covered after death when at the judgment when their consciences will either accuse or defend them – and, after all, will not God do justice. Nevertheless we are commissioned to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.
    Peter Newland

  • Thanks John

    To be honest, I did not even have Catholicism in mind as I wrote this article. As I said in my review, non-Christians will certainly have problems with the ideas that Jesus is the only Saviour and that the Gospel must be embraced. Of course I and the authors of the book are evangelical Protestants, so that is the perspective we are coming from. And we all were mainly engaging with fellow evangelical Protestants on this issue.

    But yes, I am aware of Catholic thinking on this issue, and it is obviously one area in which Catholics and Protestants tend to differ theologically. That is why there are Catholics and Protestants.

    As to what persons might have chosen (or as you put it, “if they had known”), there is a position known as God’s middle knowledge which speaks of God knowing what choices people might have made under different circumstances. This concept arose from the Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, and so is sometimes referred to as Molinism. Some Protestant philosophers have been interested in the concept, and are willing to entertain that notion to some extent in certain discussions about philosophy of religion. So there is some common ground here.

    But of course three of the chief guiding principles of the Reformation were sola scriptura, sola fide and sola Christus (by Scripture alone, by faith alone, and Christ alone). These of course have been Protestant distinctives for around half a millennium, and this means that on some of these issues Catholics and Protestants will of necessity see things differently.

    As to infants, Protestants take a similar line, arguing that they lack knowledge of God and the Gospel, and so avoid judgment, since judgment is based on the knowledge that we have. So God will be merciful to them, as they lack the ability to reject God.

    But the main discussion here is adults who do have knowledge of God through general revelation (the created order without, and the moral law within). That knowledge is sufficient to condemn them, and they need to find a way out of that condemnation. Protestants believe that salvation comes from responding to the Gospel, repenting, and placing one’s faith in Christ. Catholics of course have a somewhat different understanding of the nature of salvation. But that is where we may have to agree to disagree.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • When was I saved? 2000 years ago! Who saved me? The Son of The Father, Jesus Christ in The Holy Spirit! When did I realise this objective fact? When my subjective experience came into alignment with the objective reality(repentance) Was my salvation dependant on my repentance or the saving vicarious work of Jesus? My repentance was simply a recognition and ACCEPTANCE that I was loved unconditionally and had been included in THEIR life from before the foundation of the world. The Christain life is just that. A loving descriptive response to being loved, not a prescriptive set of rules by which we get in! That is religion! You accept the free gift (Heaven), or reject it (hell). Your choice, but unless you allow THEM to love you, you are being like the older son-refusing to come into the party that is already going and you don’t even have to clean up afterwards!
    Be blessed,
    Lou d’Alpuget

  • I fall unambiguously on the side of the inclusivists but not the pluralists.
    The recent debate on your website on the reality of Hell appears to me be a good argument against the exclusivists.
    We can only get to Hell through freely choosing to reject Christ/the Father/the Spirit.
    Salvation only exists because of the sacrifice of Christ and salvation is something that we could never have achieved through our own human efforts.
    Christ died to redeem all of mankind, including everyone who ever lived since the beginning of creation or who will ever live in the future.
    So what happens to those for whom Christ died but who have never heard of Christ or his message but who at the same time have never freely rejected God?
    If they haven’t freely chosen to reject God then they wouldn’t meet the essential test for going to Hell for all eternity.
    However not having heard of Christ and his salvation message their lives are lacking in an important way.
    Given that so much of the message of Christ as summed up in his 2 great commandments can be lived out by people who have not heard of Christ then it has always seemed to me that those who genuinely and freely choose to live lives consistent with Christs 2 commandments must experience some sort of eternal happiness.
    With Christ’s reminder to us that ” there are many rooms in My Fathers house”; then I’ve taken the view that the good people of this world who have never understood the message of Christ because they never heard it are given a room in His Fathers house but it may very well be a small room far away in the East or West wing of the house.
    They will live for eternity in the presence of God but their perception and understanding of the nature and presence of God may be less than others in Heaven but still be more than enough to create an eternal paradise.
    Exclusivism must logically accept that Hell has more tormented souls in it than Heaven has joyous souls.
    What a sad and I think unChristian thought that is.
    Maybe I better start praying for the exclusivists as their view appears to belittle the greatness of God.
    I might also try reading the book!
    John Ryan

  • Thanks John

    As mentioned in another comment, Catholics and Protestants do have differing views on this subject, because they have different understandings us such things as natural law, general revelation, the nature of sin and salvation, and the like. So in one sense I understand your point of view, but of course as a Protestant I do not accept all of it.

    But just a few thoughts if I may to help explain where I am/we are coming from. Yes, if you read the book, you might gain a better understanding of why most evangelicals hold to exclusivism. Protestants find that many biblical passages push them in that direction. For example, there are a stack of Scriptures which say we are condemned already, we are already dead in our sins, and we are already guilty in God’s eyes. Consider just a few. Ephesians 2:1 says we are “dead in our trespasses and sins”. Dead people don’t need reform, they need resurrection.

    Jesus himself made this clear. He said “whoever does not believe stands condemned already” (John 3:18). Indeed, if one simply just reads all of John 3, the exclusivist position would pretty much seem to be the only logical option. Indeed, that is why Jesus said we must be born again (John 3:3)

    As to those living before Christ, the meritous effects of Christ’s atoning death is what saves people, but the actual response of people is to whatever God has revealed of himself. People living before Christ of course could not respond to Jesus, but they could respond to God’s revelation at the time. Thus Abraham believed God’s revelation of himself, and that faith saved him.

    People will be judged by their knowledge. The more knowledge or light we have of God, the greater our guilt. Thus the mentally impaired, or infants, who cannot have proper knowledge of God, will not be held accountable as those who do have knowledge of God yet reject it.

    And Romans 1-2 says that we all have enough knowledge about God based on his general revelation of himself in the created world around us, and our moral sense, or conscience. That is enough knowledge of God to make us guilty before God, and worthy of judgment.

    But they main thing is, if we are worried about those who have not heard the good news of the gospel, then we should be doing everything we can to tell them. That is what the Great Commission is all about (Matt 28:19). We are commanded to go and tell everyone the Gospel. That is our primary Christian responsibility.

    And a quick remark about the only biblical passage you do raise: with all due respect, you are simply reading things into the John 14:2 text (about many mansions). It says nothing there about people who have not heard the Gospel somehow still being welcomed by God. That may be a view one wishes to hold to, but one certainly cannot get it from that passage!

    Much more can obviously be said. But as I say, there are a number of areas where Catholics and Protestants differ, so that will result in differing views on inclusion and exclusion. For Protestants, the bottom line is what we regard as the plain teaching of Scripture on this issue. But I am aware that others will take a different approach to all this.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • There was a book sold some time ago by Koorong called “Eternity in their Hearts” which documented cases where peoples cut off from Christendom were able to arrive at an understanding of God and the necessity of sacrificial redemption, either through God sending a dream or through reason from general revelation.

    The ruling class of the Incas was one of these cases. Unfortunately, in this case, the Spanish put all to the sword before this knowledge was conveyed to other classes in their society.

    Also, Biblical history states that all cultures have descended from a true and accurate and detailed knowledge of God via Noah but have drifted away or corrupted the true knowledge of God (as Paul states in Romans). Thus, we all have some sort of race knowledge about God (which still could be argued as a form of specific revelation (as differing from purely from nature alone)) but cultures may have lost the specifics.

    God does act to preserve or re-initiate knowledge of Himself throughout history. Often He reveals Himself to a beacon or reformer (such as Martin Luther) who either points the way back to God or goes off in search of the truth to bring back to his people.

    I believe that the Holy Spirit pre-acts and prepares the hearts of individuals leading up to salvation or at least to a point when they can choose to reject or accept God and I also believe that he prepares cultures and peoples accordingly. A NT example of this is the huge numbers of Gentile adherents to synagogues (but who were not practicing Jews or converts but “God fearers”) who quickly responded to the Gospel just beginning to spread out among the Jews only.

    However these cases are rare, and the burden still remains upon us to spread the gospel. Otherwise those who God judges or who come to a knowledge of salvation have the just right to accuse us “But why didn’t you tell us?”

    Lennard Caldwell, Clifton QLD

  • Thanks Lennard

    Yes quite right. And this book mentions Don Richardson’s Eternity in Their Hearts on a number of occasions and interacts with it.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, I just watched a DVD tonight that I really found challenging and I thought you might be interested to see if you haven’t already. I don’t know if this is the appropriate place to comment. Sorry for the long post.

    It is available in Australia from Koorong. It is also available in book form. The true story about an African of Scottish heritage called Angus Buchan is called “Faith like Potatoes”. It is about a man, who got to the end of himself and reluctantly went to hear preaching about the gospel by a layman. Hearing this man’s heartfelt testimony, he gave his life to Christ… God’s hand is at work now. Faith may come by hearing, but God’s provision provides the encouragement for it.

    Angus felt led to hold a prayer meeting for farmers like him who were in desperate need. He was led to have it in a huge sports stadium, which amazingly he was able to use. At it he said he would plant a crop of potatoes, a crop which if it failed would bankrupt him, but if it succeeded would be highly profitable. He planted it despite the forecast of El Nino, despite the fact he did not have irrigation to pipes to provide the water needed for potatoes. Needless to say, when the time came to dig up the potatoes, there was a bumper crop.

    (There is much more to this story, like the Zulu workers he employed, miracles of healing…)

    If we put our faith in God, he will provide for us. What a challenge this message is to us in this land, where we have financial prosperity but spiritual poverty.

    Matthew Mulvaney

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