The exclusivity of Christ and a Christian theology of religions

A God of Many Understandings?

Todd Miles

 

 

 

 

 

 

The western world is increasingly diverse religiously, and so it has become more urgent that we have a well formulated understanding of how we should view and relate to the religions of the world and their adherents. This fact has not escaped the attention of either theologians or missiologists, so books have addressed it from various Christian perspectives. Todd Miles has come at the subject as an evangelical with a gospel exclusivist understanding of salvation, and I am working my way through his book, A God of Many Understandings?: The Gospel and the Theology of Religions. In his first chapter, he defines his perspective on Christ’s exclusivity and introduces us to the framework this provides for his theology of religions.

Miles’s gospel exclusivist framework

Todd believes in one supreme God, who is sovereign over all, who justly condemns rebellious humanity, but who has mercifully reached out to us in Jesus Christ (2). He also believes that “conscious faith in the gospel, defined as the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ” is necessary for salvation (3, 16). So Todd’s exclusivism is not only objective, affirming Christ’s role as the world’s only Savior, it is also subjective, insisting that one must know about this work of Christ in order to be saved by it. He is, in other words, a gospel exclusivist (in terms of my typology). In support of this perspective, Todd cites the focus of the ministry of the Spirit on the glorification of Jesus (3), to distinguish his position from the “relative independence of the Spirit from the Son,” which he considers to be a necessary postulate of “inclusivists” (4). Todd wants to convince his readers that they need not conjecture about the fate of the unevangelized but should proclaim the gospel, and he is “concerned that if an inclusivist understanding of salvation in a pluralistic world wins the day, the heart will be cut out of the motivation to missions” (5).

Todd is keenly aware of the “enormous cultural pressure, masquerading as a commitment to the ‘value’ of tolerance, to reject any truth claim that assumes superiority to alternatives,” but he believes that “the gospel makes just such a claim” (7). That gospel is summarized by Paul in 1 Cor 15:1-8, and it is “normally disseminated” by the proclamation of those who have been saved by it (11-13). This gospel produces a conception of salvation that is “irreconcilable with the conceptions of all other religions in the world” (14). “Other religions do not save because they do not tell this story” (15, citing Christopher Wright, Salvation Belongs to Our God, [108]).

In his definition of “exclusivism,” Todd asserts that “the normal means of bringing the gospel to those who have not yet heard is proclamation by human messengers” but other means of particular revelation, “such as dreams and visions, are certainly not precluded by exclusivism.” The important thing is “that we bow before Jesus Christ and embrace the gospel of life” (16-17). This allowance for abnormal means of gospel proclamation might put Todd within my 4th type, “qualified gospel exclusivism,” but his description of the content of revelation that is sufficient for saving faith calls this into question. Few of the people I have heard about who come to trust in Jesus through dreams and visions have as full a theological knowledge of Christ’s work as Todd’s 4th criterion of exclusivism calls for (21).

Todd enunciates 4 criteria for exclusivism (21), but he acknowledges that only one of these would not also be affirmed by “inclusivists,” because the first three describe the objective exclusivity of Christ, and only the fourth criterion asserts a subjective exclusivity, that knowledge of “Christ’s cross work” is necessary for saving faith.

My reflections

The necessary scandal of Christian particularity

I share Todd’s commitment to the objective exclusiveness of Christ’s saving work, and I joyfully affirm all that he has said about the nature of the gospel and the great importance of its proclamation by the church, as God’s normal instrument in salvation. Anyone who has ever been saved, or ever will be saved, lives in fellowship with God because of Christ’s atoning work and the inner work of the Holy Spirit. Like all religions, Christianity is an ambiguous response to divine revelation, but it is distinctive because it is responding to God’s fullest revelation in Christ and in the scriptures inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Christian church is ambiguous in its testimony because it is composed of sinners not yet glorified, but it is the corporate body which God has raised up as his instrument in the world, and this can be said of no other religious group. In a relativistic cultural and religious context, this message is bound to be unpopular, but this is part of the inescapable scandal of the cross. I am not a “world religions accessibilist,” and so I share Todd’s perspective on, and goal, for the theology of religions to a very high degree. I firmly believe that an accessibilist soteriology can foster “a theology of religions that is at once Christ-honoring, biblically faithful, intellectually satisfying, compassionate, and that will encourage Spirit-empowered mission,” which is Todd’s goal (7). I am happy that Todd drew on Christopher Wright’s work on the uniqueness of the Christian religion and its gospel because in Salvation Belongs to Our God, from which Todd quotes appreciatively (15-16), Chris has been explicit about his accessibilist understanding of salvation. I wonder if Todd noticed this; if so, he does not mention it!

Regarding gospel exclusivism and the critique of inclusivist soteriology

In my typology, I have identified various kinds of accessibilism (which Miles would call “inclusivism”), but Todd does not nuance his references to “inclusivism,” so I need to mention points at which I do not fit into the position he describes. Whereas he criticizes inclusivists because they “have to postulate a relative independence of the Spirit from the Son,” I agree completely with Todd that “the roles of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are inextricably linked” (4). It has always been the Spirit’s work in salvation to apply to the lives of individuals the redemptive work accomplished by the Son. Like Todd, therefore, I deny “an independent work of the Holy Spirit in world religions” (4).

I believe that I am no less committed to the urgency and priority of gospel proclamation by the church than Todd is. In describing my own accessibilist understanding of salvation and laying out a theology of religions coherent with it, I was particularly concerned that nothing I said would demotivate Christians from the costly effort of world evangelization in every generation, and so I used a chapter to explain why we should send missionaries, even though we have biblical reason to believe that God will save some people unreached by the church’s evangelistic work (chapter 12 of Who Can Be Saved?). Naturally, I am disappointed that Miles thinks that the implications of my proposal “run contrary to the heart of the biblical message and mission” (5n11), but I disagree that such is the case. I grant that gospel exclusivism does provide a strong motivation to evangelistic missionary work, but if it is erroneous, as I think it is, then we can be confident that the motivations actually described by the apostles themselves will suffice to keep the church active in fulfilment of its “great commission.”

It is worth noting that a qualified gospel exclusivism reduces somewhat the evangelistic motivation which is one of Todd’s major concerns, since it is not possible for qualified gospel exclusivists to assert that no one beyond the reach of the church’s evangelistic reach may be saved. At this point, the difference between qualified gospel exclusivism and particular revelation accessibilism (type 8) is not great, lying only in the extensiveness of the information God communicates through abnormal means of revelation. But earlier I expressed doubts that Todd fits in the “qualfied” category, despite his affirmation of abnormal means of saving revelation.

Todd’s case for gospel exclusivism makes the common errors that I have identified in my writings. It ignores the context in which biblical statements of the necessity of explicit faith in Jesus for salvation are made, namely, that they speak about people who have that explicit revelation but reject it (cf. 21-22, 24-25). It hears New Testament exhortations to urgent proclamation of the gospel, taken together with statements of the objective exclusivity of Christ’s work as the world’s only Savior, as statements that the unevangelized can not be saved (22-26). This comes out in the way Todd cites Christopher Wright (15) even though Wright is an accessibilist. We are all inclined to hear and read others’ statements through the grid of our own position, and this probably explains Todd’s inclusion of an essay by Alister McGrath among “summaries of exclusivism by those committed to the view” (21n38), even though McGrath clearly affirms accessibilism in that essay. McGrath wrote:

 We are assured that those who respond in faith to the explicit preaching of the gospel will be saved. We cannot draw the conclusion from this, however, that only those who thus respond will be saved. God’s revelation is not limited to the explicit preaching of the good news, but extends beyond it. We must be prepared to be surprised at those whom we will meet in the kingdom of God. (“A Particularist View,” in More Than One Way?, 178).

McGrath correctly perceives that if we affirm gospel exclusivism, we

write off the vast majority of those who have ever lived, who are deprived of salvation by matters of geographical and historical contingency. But this is a flawed theology, which limits God’s modes of action, disclosure, and saving power. . . . A human failure to evangelize cannot be transposed into God’s failure to save. In the end, salvation is not a culturally conditioned or restricted human accomplishment; it is God’s boundless sovereign gift to his people. . . . Where the word is not or cannot be preached by human agents, God is not inhibited from bringing people to faith in him, even if that act of hope and trust may lack the fully orbed character of an informed faith. . . . Perhaps we need to be more sensitive to the ways in which God is at work and realize that, important though our preaching may be, in the end God does not depend on it. . . . God’s saving work must never be exclusively restricted to human preaching, as if the Holy Spirit was silent or inactive in God’s world, or as if the actualization of God’s saving purposes depended totally on human agencies (More Than One Way?, 178-79).

I certainly agree with Todd that the apostle Paul asserted the objective exclusivity of Christ as the world’s only Savior, and that Paul understood the urgency of gospel proclamation as God’s normal means for “bringing salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47; cited 23), but I have difficulty squaring the assertion that Paul also believed in the epistemological necessity of gospel proclamation (23-24) with Paul’s statements in Romans 2:12-16. It was Paul who expressed most clearly the principle that the response God requires from people depends upon the content of the revelation God gives them. Equally doubtful is Todd’s answer to his question “how had Peter and his Jewish colleagues been saved?,” which is: “They were saved by grace through faith in Jesus” (25). Does Todd mean to assert that none of Jesus’ disciples was saved before the Spirit revealed to them the identity of Jesus and the nature of his work? I very much doubt that to be the case, because most, if not all, of the eleven who came to believe in Jesus seemed likely to have been children of Abraham by faith before they reached that point in the Spirit’s revelation to them regarding Jesus’ identity. They demonstrated the sort of growth in faith that we must all have, as God continues to reveal himself to us.

Regularly, in Todd’s case for subjective exclusivism, he conflates rejection with Christ with not believing in Christ when one is ignorant of him. That is one of the most common exegetical misreadings made by gospel exclusivists, which is doubtless why McGrath addressed it in my first quotation from him (above). The New Testament states unequivocally that faith in Jesus saves, and that rejecting Jesus leaves people in condemnation, but rejecting him is not the same as not believing in him out of ignorance. As I pointed out in a paper at ETS and an article in ERT, that would raise the bar of saving revelation too high, making it necessary for one to know God’s latest covenantal revelation in order to have saving faith. The biblical accounts of God’s covenantal work and of his work of salvation do not support this.

Framework for my response to this book

Because I am an objective exclusivist, agreeing completely with Todd that God accomplished salvation only through the cross and resurrection of Jesus, I expect to agree with much of Todd’s work in the theology of religions, and I look forward to learning from him and to being encouraged, by him, in this regard. But at the subjective soteriological level, it is clear that he and I see things differently. Nonetheless, I want to read his work with a mind open to change, even though his case for gospel exclusivism in this first chapter has been unpersuasive for the reasons I’ve identified. In the religiously plural situation that is the human reality, gospel exclusivists and many accessibilists have large and important areas of shared conviction that make it possible for us to do evangelistic mission together. I do not want our differences regarding the extent of God’s saving work to prevent us from working together in evangelism, given the huge task before us. We both believe that God has chosen the proclamation of the gospel as his normal means of reconciling people to himself through Christ. What God may or may not be doing beyond the reach of our proclamation should not hinder our cooperation in the urgent task of proclamation. Even those whom God has saved by less complete revelation, people like Cornelius and the disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus, or like the disciples before the Spirit revealed to them the identity of Jesus, need the gospel so that they can be involved in the community of God’s new covenant people and be part of God’s new covenant missionary force in the world.

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