In recent years, the criteria for identifying individuals or institutions as “evangelical” have been a matter of debate. Numerous issues have been identified as areas in which one’s credentials as an evangelical can be tested. But I was a bit taken aback, a few months ago, when a Southern Baptist leader of Calvinist convictions stated that inclusivism does not fit within evangelicalism. (Since I failed to record the location of his statement when I read it, I can’t give a verifiable citation, so I’ll leave his name unmentioned.)
CREDO magazine (a fine online publication) has a regular feature called “From the Horse’s Mouth,” in which a few people are invited to respond briefly to a question. The January issue sums up its content as an argument “for the exclusivity of the gospel, especially in light of the movement known as inclusivism.” Its question this month is: “Does inclusivism fall within the boundaries of evangelicalism?” (pp. 14-15).
I was invited to provide a response and I thought you might be interested in hearing all four of them right
From the Horse’s Mouth
Paul Helm, Research Professor at Regent College, but now living back in England, said:
“The claims of Jesus are clearly exclusive. But we are foolish if we attempt here and now to make a map of where the boundary lies: Many who are first will be last, and the last first. And, do not pronounce judgment before the time.”
Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, said:
“If to be an inclusivist means that one holds that people can be saved through the atoning work of Jesus Christ without having a conscious faith in Him, then all of us who hold that little children who die before that kind of conscious faith still go to heaven–all of us are inclusivists. For me, once you allow that category, it is best to allow some mystery about how Jesus gets ahold of people salvifically, while still insisting that His blood alone can save.”
Stephen Wellum, a theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said:
“Assuming that we define evangelicalism theologically, i.e., as maintaining a robust historic Christian theology as summarized by the Protestant confessions indebted to the Reformation, and assuming that we understand inclusivism as the position which contends that Scripture teaches that responsible people may receive salvation apart from explicit faith in the covenant promises of God which are now centered in Christ, the answer is no. Scripture teaches that salvation is only grounded in the finished, substitutionary work [of] Christ and applied to people in this life by grace through faith in Christ alone. Scripture knows of no salvation for responsible people who are surrounded by the revelation of God, whether in nature or Scripture, apart from hearing and believing the gospel and placing their faith and confidence in God’s covenantal promises now centered in Christ.
I brought up the rear, applying David Bebbington’s 4 criteria to the question:
“Yes. Inclusivism fits very comfortably within evangelicalism, where it has deep historical roots. Its conclusions are reached through regard for the unique authority of Scripture; it values the cross as God’s only means of reconciling sinners to himself; it asserts the necessity of salvation by God’s grace, through faith, and it teaches the urgency of the church’s gospel mission.”
Intriguingly, all the articles in the magazine are written by gospel exclusivists who make a case for that position, but three of the four people speaking to this little question are inclusivists. As some of you may know, I prefer to call the position accessibilism because it identifies clearly the conviction that distinguishes this perspective, namely the belief that God makes saving revelation accessible to everyone. I have identified six forms of accessibilism that differ from one another in regard to the revelation that saves, but all agree that no one is condemned who lacked such revelation.
It was certainly appropriate that at least one gospel exclusivist was invited to answer the question about evangelical credentials. But I would have been much happier if the gospel exclusivist voice among these respondents had granted that, though in error, accessibilists like Helm, Mouw and me are evangelical. The ground on which Steve excludes us is particularly puzzling. He believes that “robust historic Christian theology as summarized by the Protestant confessions indebted to the Reformation” rules out accessibilism. That is an extraordinary claim.
Should we ignore the Church of Scotland’s Declaratory Act (1879), which stated that “while none are saved except through the mediation of Christ . . . it is not required to be held that . . . God may not extend his grace to any who are without the pale of ordinary means, as may seem good in his sight” (Act 4, quoted in John Sanders, No Other Name, 143-44)? Like Mouw, the Westminster Confession (1647) allowed for the possibility that at least some infants may be “saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth,” and it went on to say: “So also are all other elect persons, who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word” (10.3).
In 1888, W. G. T. Shedd contended that “the electing mercy of God reaches to the heathen,” and he stated: “It is not the doctrine of the Church, that the entire mass of pagans, without exception, have gone down to endless impenitence and death. That some unevangelized men are saved, in the present life, by an extraordinary exercise of redeeming grace in Christ, has been the hope and belief of Christendom. It was the hope and belief of the elder Calvinists, as it is of the later” (Dogmatic Theology, 2:706).
Shedd cites a lengthy section from Herman Witsius (1626-1708) to illustrate “the hopeful view which the elder Calvinism took of the possible extent to which God’s decree of election reaches” (2:706). He also quotes Jerome Zanchius (1516-1590) who had commented on the many nations that never had the privilege of hearing the word: “It is not indeed improbable that some individuals in these unenlightened countries may belong to the secret election of grace, and the habit of faith may be wrought in them” (2:708, citing Zanchius, Treatise on Predestination, chapter 4).
Judging by the criteria that Steve has used, it is clear that Reformed confessions and major Reformed theologians have made generous room for accessibilism. If the boundaries of evangelicalism are so tightly drawn that only gospel exclusivists fit within them, a remarkable number of thoroughly orthodox theologians, both Calvinist and Arminian (including John Wesley himself), are excluded from the camp.