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].)

0 Responses to “Terminology Time: What Is an "Inclusivist"?”

  1. Kelvin

    Wow! The clarity I get from reading your blogs is amazing. This is especially good as I cannot afford most of your books, and the seminary library I borrow from does not have many of them.

    I thank God for people like you!

  2. Nathan

    And I thank God for people like Kelvin who keep Stackhouse appropriately humble…

  3. D.E. Washington

    In lieu of the latest news from the Vatican, this piece is very timely and in tune. Although we live in a pluralistic society, the gospel message is never something to be ashamed about for those who believe.

  4. Paul T

    As someone who considers himself a pluralist (and I appreciate the distinctions you have made in describing the various positions) let me attempt to offer a cursory defense of the position.

    One of the core Christian assumptions that lie beneath our doctrines is that God is a relational God who genuinely loves creation. If this is true why are we surprised that different people will have different, very different, relationships with God? If God really is a loving God concerned with us as real beings, and not some brutal dictator that sees humanity (and/or creation) as disposable tools created as a means to some other end, why does it not make sense that God adapts his/her/its self-revelation to both that which we are able to receive and that which addresses our concerns? I am a son, a husband, an employee, a friend, a brother and a father. I have very different relationships with people in each of these categories, and even with different people within these categories. A real relationship takes the others response to our initial self-revelation into consideration in the subsequent response. If this is true of human relationships in general, does it not make sense that this is even truer of the human/divine relationship?

    Do you remember the parable about the three blind beggars who came upon an elephant for the first time? The first one grabbed the elephant’s tusk and said: “An elephant is long and smooth and hard with a sharp point – like the strongest smoothest stick I have ever come across”. “No” said the second beggar as he grabbed the elephant’s leg. “An elephant is rough, textured and immoveable, like the trunk of a tree.” “You are both wrong”, said the third beggar as he grabbed the elephant’s tail. “It is thin, flexible and swings about like a rope tied to a tree.” All were right, yet all were contradictory.

    The bigger and more “other” we see God, the more plausible the premise that two (or more) contradictory statements about God can both be true. One of the traps that exclusivists seem to fall into is that there is only one valid question that addresses every human’s place in the universe and everyone’s relation to the divine and only one answer to that question. All religions recognize that we live in flawed world, but posit many different reasons why and responses to this situation. My question to exclusivists is why is the question underlying your religious experience and exploration by necessity the only valid question and your response to that question the only valid response? I forget who first made this observation but it seems awfully self serving for Christianity to both insist that it knows what is wrong with other cultures and that it then just happens to have the only viable solution, especially when we consider the devastation this has caused to both Jews in particular and indigenous cultures around the globe in general.

    One of my big concerns with orthodox theology is that they frequently take very helpful models of God and cast them in stone and then proclaim them with absolute language. In the process, models of God become descriptions of God and from there easily move into the realm of the denunciation of those who see God from a different perspective or through a different lens. From the very beginning, orthodox theologians have affirmed that God cannot be described. It seems to me that if we insist on making models of God into descriptions of God we are left with claimed factual statements concerning an eternal mystery that in itself is as wrong as the heresies it tries to counteract. By definitively stating God is… Jesus is… salvation is… sin is… in factually absolute terms we assert that God and ultimate reality can be contained within the constructs of human language and thereby reduce both God and Jesus to our own creation, which is the classic definition of idolatry and a heresy in itself.

    If God exists, God is almost certainly much more than just a bigger, better, stronger version of ourselves. God is beyond us and more than we could ever imagine. Without denying that God is frequently portrayed as a being (the models of parent and lover dominate both the Jewish and the Christian experience of God), the Hebrew Bible also says God is the “I AM”; God is existence or reality itself. The New Testament says that God is love. Not God acts lovingly, but God “is” love. This is an existentialist verb. In his book “God is a Verb”, (New York NY: Riverhead Publishing, 1997) Rabbi David Cooper explores the breadth of the Hebrew understanding of the divine through Kabalistic Jewish mysticism. While I certainly do not agree with all of his conclusions, I found this an enormously helpful book that empathized a principal that orthodox theologians have affirmed from the foundation of Christianity: God cannot be restricted to our arbitrary linguistic definitions. If God exists, then it seems a given that God is beyond our definitions of noun and verb let alone our attempts at actually “describing” God.

    However, as you observed in your original comments, pluralism does not necessarily mean that all views are equally valid. Even though all three of the blind beggars are both right and wrong, they would be completely wrong if they postulated that an elephant was a mosquito. There are some strands within almost every religion that affirm the flourishing of life and others again within all religions (including Christianity) that preach and act in ways that are destructive to life. Given the starting premise (God is a good God who genuinely loves creation) it is not a difficult stretch to affirm that religions that affirm life and creation are “good” religions and those who act and/or preach ways and theologies that are destructive to life are “bad”.

    If you are interested in understanding one particular defense of pluralism I would recommend Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki’s book Divinity and Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003). It is available from Regent’s library.


    Paul T

    “There is a God. There is no God. Where is the problem? I am quite sure there is a God in the sense that I am sure that my love is not an illusion. I am quite sure that there is no God in the sense that I am sure that there is nothing that resembles what I can conceive when I say the word” — Simone Weil

  5. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for these comments, friends. Paul T raises a bunch of issues, too many for a blog–or even for a lecture! I may return to one or more of these in future blog posts, Paul, since they are good questions.

    For now, I’ll just point out that your position is not, in fact, pluralist, but inclusivist–according to the definitions I suggest in my article. Like John Hick and his “Ultimately Real” or the mystic with her “unknowable God” whom she enjoys experiencing, you think there really is a (single) elephant in the various partial apprehensions of the blind men.

    Furthermore, you somehow know that it is a single entity, that it is an elephant, and that descriptions of it that make it a mosquito are erroneous. This position isn’t genuine pluralism, as I suggest, namely, that there really are several paths that lead to several destinies. It is (unorthodox) inclusivism: there are many efficacious versions of the same thing.

    So then the question arises: How do you know all that? How do you know that there is a single abiding essence behind (your selection of) the world’s religions?

    And how do you know that it should properly be identified as a single, benevolent deity you call “God”? How do you know it isn’t more like Brahman, or Kali, or T’ian, or the Dao, or (my personal favourite) Baxbakbalinuxsiwae (cannibal god of some West Coast Indians)?

    I don’t see your proposal getting beyond John Hick’s agenda, and Hick’s has been unconvincing in its various permutations for a long time to most other scholars of philosophy of religion, let alone most religiously-inclined persons.

    Such proposals, I aver, founder on their epistemological incoherence: “You orthodox types think you know about Reality, but you’re too narrow and conceited, failing to appreciate the vagaries of human knowledge. We know better (somehow), and have grasped the Truth behind the particulars.”

    I don’t think you can have it both ways, Paul!

    One last thing: Please don’t misunderstand my remarks as defending a naive realism, let alone a dogmatism, that implies that we orthodox have figured out God entirely and can accurately delineate the divine nature and history. No, of course we can’t. But we can try to testify to what God has chosen to reveal, and do that with more or less accuracy. That’s what theology properly does, and it’s a good thing to do. Otherwise, we’re left with mere human projections on the universe, as Feuerbach warned, with no knowledge (that can be called knowledge) of God at all.

  6. PaulT


    Your response is an excellent example of the difficulties in communication even when all parties in the conversation are genuinely attempting to hear the other. It seems to me that your definition of pluralism is indistinguishable from complete relativism (we can’t know exactly so any answer is as good as any other. A religion that advocates cannibalism is just as good as one that advocates love and mercy) and in that case I agree that I am not a pluralist and that a “non-orthodox inclusivist” may be a better label. But in that case I’m not sure that even Heim would fit your criteria. Methodologically speaking, if no one is arguing for the position you are critiquing are you not creating a straw man?

    I understand inclusivism to be based on the metaphor that there are many paths up the mountain, but they all converge at a common peak. Pluralism contends that there are different paths to different destinations (different paths up different mountains to continue the metaphor.) If the three blind beggars died convinced that an elephant was indeed that which they experienced and not that which their neighbours had claimed, did they not end up with different destinations? Do you expect that in the afterlife we will be able to fully comprehend God (all beggars will see the whole elephant)? If that is the case, how is it that we are not equal to God? Or will our partial understanding continue in the afterlife simply because we are a created being and God is not? If that is the case is it not possible that we, like the beggars, continue on with the path we began? I’m not so sure that different final outcomes (and I’m not talking about heaven/hell) are not part of the possible eternal equation. What I am fairly certain of is that how we live here and now really matters. I’m content to leave what happens after death to God.

    As to your question “How do you know all that? How do you know that there is a single abiding essence behind (your selection of) the world’s religions?” my reponse is “I don’t”. All I can say is “This is what I have seen”. I believe that doubt is a form of humility and that faith is the willingness to act, to live, on the basis of less than certain knowledge. I have some amount of evidence (both personal evidence and what I have evaluated to be reliable testimony of others, both from the Bible and elsewhere) but this evidence is not proof. At best it is circimstantial evidence that may be subject to various intepretations. So I remain open to other interpretations. But in the meantime, I live in faith that God is walking beside me. If others see credibility in my testimony they may journey with me. If they don’t, they may still relate with me in disagreement. But if they find my answers wholly contradictory to their experience of the divine I would expect that they would journey a different way. Likewise, I am open to others experiences and to reevaluating mine. Not every mystical vision is a connection to the divine. Metaphorically speaking, sometimes we must accpet that we just ate some bad mushrooms. Ultimately, I try to judge both my and others theological claims by the relational fruit they bear.

    Thanks again for your comments


  7. John Stackhouse

    Paul, thanks for persevering with me! I agree with your second paragraph, and I like your phrase, “sometimes we must accept that we just ate some bad mushrooms.” Groovy, dude!

    As for the previous paragraphs, however, I don’t think I’m making a trivial point about inclusivism and pluralism. Indeed, I’m making the point you see me making: true pluralism (multiple paths to multiple ends) is actually quite rare (I maintain that Mark Heim does teach this). Hick does not, and most people don’t, and thus one of my agenda items is to show that they, too, are inclusivists, and simply (!) disagree about what is the essence of true religion, the nature of our final destiny, and so on. They are not, in other words, quite as “accepting” of other faiths as they say they are, but instead they reduce them to various versions of the One True Faith which they perceive to lie at the heart of the various approximations represented by the various religions of the world. Okay: but now they’re just arguing for one particular version of inclusivism, as I am, except mine is orthodox Christian and theirs is something else: a kind of moralistic, mystical monotheism, I think.

    So if we have to choose among apprehensions of God as being more or less accurate, then let’s do so as well as we can, realizing that we can never simply and fully comprehend God, but also being grateful that God has given us both the revelation and the capacity to receive revelation such that we can make some statements with high confidence: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” “You shall have no other gods before me,” “Jesus is Lord,” and such like.

    We simply must steer between the Scylla of dogmatism (“We know it all”) and the Charybdis of cynical relativism (“Who knows? I guess everyone has some grasp of Reality”). That’s what I’m trying to do. And maybe you are, too, and we’re not disagreeing as much as we maybe think we are…

  8. Charles Tysoe

    Dr. Stackhouse:

    Regarding the “Common Word” letter and the “Christian Response” at the Yale Center for faith and culture. What were you thinking?

    What Muslim land honours freedom of assembly and worship for Christians?

    The future of the world and of world peace depends on this “dialog”?

    And Christians and Muslims worship the same God now? The Father of the Lord Jesus Christ? Those to whom it is anathema that God should have a Son, their Allah is our God too?

    And protestant Christians share guilt for the Crusades called for by Roman Catholic Popes?

    It is hard to conceive of a more horrific and absurd conflation of all the most dangerous, grovelling, disingenous flatter and liberal wish fulfillment to be found in one place.

    I thought you were a historian or a theologian or something along those lines. Seminaries full of bloated ivory tower fantasies and sycophantic mutual admiration and dreaming eggheads are becoming so disconnected from reality as represent a menace to Christian discipleship. Why don’t you and your Yale colleagues go and do something safe like play with plutonium?

  9. Charles Tysoe

    “We simply must steer between the Scylla of dogmatism (”We know it all”) and the Charybdis of cynical relativism (”Who knows? I guess everyone has some grasp of Reality”). That’s what I’m trying to do. And maybe you are, too, and we’re not disagreeing as much as we maybe think we are…”
    Dr. Stackhouse, I met you some years ago at a God Uses Ink Conference at Redeemer College. You spoke on the need for good expostitional writing. I admired your clarity. In your columns you spoke of your guarded loyalty to evangelicalism. It is clear now that both you and evangelicalism have both moved away to some third nexus that has nothing whatsoever to do with apostolic Christianity. You teach at a seminary that was founded on a better hope than it now represents, seeing that RJ Neuhaus has attended and been richly applauded and praised by James Houston and the Regent Community, for telling you all that Rome is the one true church. What do Canadian Christians have to look foreward to in this bleak and Gospel unfriendly world the seminaries are creating in this country. We need bread and you give us Brian McLaren and Len Sweet. We crave the milk of the word and you give us new age feminism and recylcled relativism. We hunger for truth and you say “what is truth?” We thirst for the Living Water of Christ and you choke us us with “inter-religious dialogue”, “lectio divina”, contemplative mysticism, and ecumenical unity bearing scent of eau de morgue. We gasp for the clean air of our freedom in Christ and the worship of God Most High, and you suffocate us with Open Theism and Emergent Witchcraft. Men like Brian McLaren, not worthy to snuff out the candles of the Knox’s, Spurgeons, Tyndales and Polycarps at the end of their day’s labours, are welcome at your high tables and academic confabs.

    Esau, when he sold his inheritance to his devious brother, received at least in return a nourishing and tasty stew. What you are giving us is as nourishing as dust, as refreshing to the spirit as a mouth full of quicksand. That famous rhetorical question of Jesus has now been answered: “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? OR if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?”

    May the LORD rebuke us all for our betrayal of the Gospel, and bring us to our senses.

  10. John Stackhouse

    I can’t imagine how to begin responding to such a tissue of partial truth, outright error, bombast, oversimplification, and vitriol.

    And as for your last sentence, it’s unclear to me how you can write in the first person after all the “you versus “us” talk that precedes.

    This blog is for literary conversation, as it says right at the top. It isn’t for diatribes, so either converse or take your writing elsewhere, please.

  11. Charles Tysoe

    Dr. Stackhouse,

    I will do as you ask, and move on, asking only that you indulge a little more bombast:

    I find it ironic that so many christian public figures, such as yourself, who have worldwide audiences and corresponding influence, so frequently respond to this kind of criticism by immediately questioning the motives of the speaker/writer as either or unchristian or just wrong without remainder. You have a worldwide pulpit, which brings you honour and praise. I doubt you get much response along these lines at your speaking engagements. And your immediate reaction is to alert the ushers to prepare to remove the annoying presence. Do you imagine I’m the only person in Christendom who thinks these kind of thoughts? You have gone to help speak for Christendom by making yourself a signatory to the Yale Declaration. Right here on your blog you say you “admire Islam”. Do you really think you can do all these things on such a large stage without it affecting people you will never meet in ways you cannot conceive?

    As for “first person”, I have no problem considering myself as part of the problem. Wtih your immense audience and priveleges, Dr. Stackhouse, can’t you afford to indulge the little people who occasionally ask people such as yourself about the madness in Christian higher education; which, as I’m sure you must be aware, ends up trickling down upon us “people of no account”

  12. John Stackhouse

    Brother Tysoe,

    I don’t think I said a word about your motives, did I? I commented instead on the sort of discourse you’re engaged in: diatribe. This blog shows that I am happy to engage with critics, even fairly fierce ones. What I cannot engage with is a long stream of various charges, each of which would take some care to address.

    I am sorry you are so afraid and unhappy about what seems to be happening around you. I am sympathetic with that: I’m afraid and unhappy about a lot of things, too, and some of them are the same things that concern you.

    But simply having at me for a long list of things you are angry about, some of which I have literally nothing to do with and many of which are not accurate characterizations of me or my views strikes me as not even trying to speak the truth in love, but instead just getting something off your chest.

    So you have. And that’ll have to be it, unless you really want to pose a particular question or make a particular point.

  13. Charles Tysoe

    Dr. Stackhouse, please forgive me for not making myself clear.

    I DO strongly object to the position you have taken with respect to the Yale declaration.

    The rest of my comments,beginning with Regent, have to do with seminaries. Many of the things which come from seminaries, including Regent College, and indeed Canada-wide, are making me, as you put it, “afraid and unhappy”.

    As a christian, I am very afraid and threatened by what is coming from them, and what is not coming from them; and the cumulative influence of both in the life of churches in our country.

    The Yale letter is one more symptom. It comes from the community you inhabit,and you support it.

    The other items I mention are observations and interpretations on my part.

    Please forgive me in that by not making myself clear I created an impression for the reader that was false regarding your views.

    That was grossly unfair of me.

    Regarding my fears; I will say it again, yes I am very afraid and very unhappy to see a leading canadian evanglical such as yourself sign on to a document so devoid of honour for the Lord of Glory and his church and her mission, one so craven and syncretistic, one so based on fundamentally flawed premises. A good friend of mine has, within the last two years had occasion to be in Egypt, Bahrain and Dubai; he has an aunt and uncle who have been missionaries in the middle east for some fifteen years. Collectively they say there is no evidence to be found of the fantasy represented by the Yale letter, in those locales. There may be very good reasons for wishing it to be true, but this kind of document with its wide support can do nothing, I fear, but create an “Emperor’s New Clothes” enviroment; after all, how could so many learned people be wrong? I have read that a Dean of the Church of England, Hewlett Johnson I think, is supposed to have said that Stalin was creating a society as close to New Testament Christianity as the world had ever seen; Malcolm Muggeridge was villified in England for reporting on the forced famine of the 1930’s, his stories representing a serious threat to the dreams of many of England’s left wing intellectuals. It would seem that the great Western Liberal Death Wish, as Muggeridge liked to characterize it (loud and often!) has never died; it has been rather reborn as neo- and now post-evangelicalism.

    Here then is my question/point: What do you hope to gain for yourself, or for the church, or for the cause of Christ, or for the ordinary christian in the pew, by supporting this document?

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    […] Fourth, The Shack skims briefly over the surface of theology of religions, raising the question particularly of whether God reveals himself to and saves people of other religions. I am glad for Brother Young’s concern to expand our horizons. I am strongly inclined myself to a theological conviction that God’s salvation is extended beyond the range of those who have heard the Gospel, understood it, and accepted it as true. I have blogged about that here. […]

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