Terminology Time: What Is an "Inclusivist"?

A friend recently read my piece mentioned below, “A Bigger–and Smaller–View of Mission,” and asked this good question:

“You say you are an inclusivist (salvifically speaking). Isn’t the inclusivistic position really a gentler approach of the exclusivistic position (in the eye of a non-follower) since, at its core, it really believes that only through Christ people are ultimately saved even if they come through another religion (akin to J.N. Farquhar’s position on Christianity being the crown of Hinduism)? Or are these salvific positions to be viewed on a spectrum of pluralist, inclusivist, exclusivist? I would consider myself an exclusivist because I believe that only the true and living God ‘saves’.”

There is much confusion about terms here in the scholarly literature, so no wonder my friend isn’t sure what is meant! Let’s see if what follows can help:

Evangelism/”Restrictivism” This view asserts that only by the explicit preaching and reception of the gospel can someone come to saving faith. Whatever else God might do for the unevangelized is mysterious at best and ominous at worst. What is clear, so it is thought, is that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17).

This position breaks out into at least three versions distinguished by the chronological question of just when someone might hear the gospel and thus have the opportunity to respond in faith. Most widespread of these versions is that of evangelism before death: The gospel is preached by Christians to their neighbors and only those neighbors who respond to this proclamation have the opportunity to repent and be saved.

A second version of this emphasis upon evangelism suggests that those who do not have the opportunity to hear the gospel in the normal course of their lives will have it declared to them directly by the Holy Spirit at death. No one will be left bereft of the gospel message, that is, as he or she faces judgment in the world to come.

A third version also ensures that no one can accuse God of withholding the gospel from him or her. It affirms that after death each person receives the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel that was not available in life.

This group is sometimes termed ‘exclusivists’ because of their emphasis both upon the unique and necessary work of Christ and upon the necessity of preaching and responding to the gospel message, thus excluding all other options—at least as far as we know. (Again, God might have mercies to bestow on others outside this economy of salvation, but we have few clues as to what these mercies might be.)

But I suggest that ‘exclusivism’ is best reserved for the more general belief in just one basis for salvation, which is a belief held by restrictivists but also by (orthodox) inclusivists, as we shall see presently. ‘Restrictivists’ would then be those who believe that salvation is restricted to those who hear and respond in faith to the gospel message.

Inclusivism  This term applies to those who believe there is one basis upon which human beings reach religious fulfillment, but there are several means available by which people may access the benefits of that one basis.

In orthodox Christian terms, inclusivists share with restrictivists the exclusivistic belief in the central and necessary place of Christ’s work on behalf of humanity. Orthodox inclusivists, then, are those who believe that God applies the salvific benefits of the work of Christ to those who have not heard the gospel, but who nonetheless are granted the gift of saving faith as they respond to what light of the Holy Spirit they have been granted–which may or may not include information about Jesus.

Inclusivists point to Old Testament saints as examples of people who did not know of Jesus but did know of God and responded to him with saving faith (Hebrews 11). So too, they say, might people elsewhere in the world who do not (yet) know of Jesus nonetheless have knowledge of the true God, however hazy it might be, and respond (by God’s grace) to that knowledge with saving faith.

It is worth noting in passing, however, that there are at least two unorthodox versions of Christian inclusivism available as well. The first is the pattern set out by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, John Hick, and other ostensible “pluralists.” These theorists suggest that there are multiple paths to human fulfilment, many of them having nothing to do with Jesus Christ, explicitly or implicitly. In Hick’s formulation, one can be rightly oriented toward the Ultimately Real with or without the assistance of Jesus. Such a view, however, rests on the fundamental conviction that there is only one basis upon which people can reach their summum bonum. Smith, Hick and their ilk say that this basis is not the person and work of Jesus Christ, but instead is the revelation of God abroad in the world, the correct response to which is “other-mindedness,” charity, and moral rectitude. There are not really multiple paths, but multiple versions of the same path to the same end.

So, too, does mysticism offer multiple versions of the same path to the same end: union with the divine. Whether the Christian mysticism of Meister Eckhart or the Society of Friends, or the non-Christian mysticism of Sufi Muslims or bhakti Hindus, mysticism around the world is understood to have the same basic ethos and trajectory, which are expressed in multiple forms.

Pluralism   A rigorous version of pluralism is actually quite rare: the idea that there really are distinctly different and independent religious paths. This view doesn’t shut one up to endorsing any and every religious option, to be sure. Perhaps some are truly shams, or inadequate in some respect, or simply evil. But some are authentic and deliver what they promise.

It is hard, however, to suggest what pluralism really means in detail. It’s not even clear that this is a coherent concept. What sort of universe would it be in which Buddhists, Jains, Hegelians, Daoists, and Maoris all pursued such different paths, each of them real and valid on its own terms? What sort of God or Ultimate Principle would be behind all of these in order for them to be efficacious? Yet this is what espousal of true pluralism of religious “means” would entail. Mark Heim is the only theologian I know who has offered a substantial defense of this view.

I trust, then, that my friend will see that his belief that salvation requires the work of Jesus Christ is, of course, orthodox Christianity, and thus is shared by both restrictivists and (orthodox) inclusivists.

The next question is to decide between restrictivist and inclusivist understandings of how the benefits of that work are applied to individuals. But perhaps this is enough theology of religions for today!

(This posting is adapted from my Editor’s Afterword to No Other Gods before Me? Evangelicals Encounter the World’s Religions [Baker Academic, 2001].)