Implicit Christians: An Evangelical Appraisal
K. Neill Foster
The theme of this paper centers on the concepts of implicit faith and implicit Christianity. Supported by analogical arguments and fueled by the modern revulsion to the severity of orthodoxy's traditional pronouncements on hell and judgment, implicit faith ideas seem to hold a certain fascination for evangelical scholars. The whole discussion relates directly to another major theme, the lostness of mankind.
The implicit terms are new; the ideas are not.
But first, a brief definition of implicit Christianity. Its positive assumptions are commendable: Jesus Christ is the only Savior. Mankind, being eternally lost, is in need of a Savior. Its negative assumptions produce anxiety: Some will gain eternal life without ever expressly confessing Jesus Christ, perhaps without even knowing His name. Some “holy” pagans may be saved without ever hearing the name of Jesus Christ. The formal label for this belief is inclusivism.
Sociologist James Davison Hunter's work, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation predicts trends in the coming generation of evangelicals. The Virginia-based academic has warned, surprisingly, that salvation by works among the untold millions was seen, in 1987, as an increasingly viable option by a large percentage of evangelical students, perhaps as high as thirty-three percent. His work is based upon an attitudinal survey called the Evangelical Academy Project that surveyed the attitudes and views of faculty and students at sixteen well-known evangelical institutions of higher learning, nine liberal arts colleges and seven seminaries.1
Sharply Modified Universalism
If Hunter's research on this issue is as accurate as it has already demonstrated itself to be on the emerging openness of evangelicals to some hope for the untold, then what he says about the coming damage to the missionary motive is chilling:
. . . only 67 percent [of evangelical collegians and seminarians] agreed that “unless missionaries and others are successful in converting people in non-Christian lands, these people will have no chance for salvation.”2
Also take note: Hunter saw something else coming and early on caught the essence of salvation by works within the postulation of salvation for special cases among those who have never heard. The “virtuous pagans” who never hear of Jesus Christ but still would be saved under inclusivism are clearly to be “exemplary people whose lives were characterized by extraordinary good will and charity.”3
As improbable as it may seem, Hunter in 1987 was describing an emerging evangelical propensity toward salvation by works among the children of the Reformation.
For a substantial minority of the coming generation, there appears to be a middle ground that did not . . . exist for previous generations. For the unevangelized and for those who reveal exceptional Christian virtue but are not professed Christians [emphasis added], there is hope that they also will receive salvation. . . . Needless to say, this posture would, and in fact does lessen substantially the sense of urgency to evangelize the un-reached.4
D.A. Carson thinks inclusivism is “not far removed from the qualified universalism of Neal Punt.”5
Hunter does not use the term implicit Christian to describe what he sees coming in the next generation of evangelicals. And though his primary illustration of the implicit tendency is the “second chance theory,” he does, as we have just said, accurately describe emerging implicit faith concepts in the evangelical milieu: “For the unevangelized and for those who reveal exceptional Christian virtue [emphasis added] but are not professed Christians, there is hope that they also will receive salvation. ” This he terms “universalism in a sharply modified form.”6
John Sanders estimates that the percentage of evangelical students with affinities to inclusivism at InterVarsity's 1975 Urbana conference at twenty-five percent.7 A more recent estimate suggests penetrations of inclusivism as high as fifty percent among denominational leaders and professors in “mainstream evangelical colleges and seminaries.”8
The Pluralistic Tandem
Marching alongside the evangelical interest in inclusivism are some of the writings of John Hick9 and Paul F. Knitter10. These men are pluralists who protest the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only Savior of the world. Sometimes the evangelical lurch toward inclusivism is propelled by their pluralistic arguments. And, indeed, evangelical inclusivists often try to legitimize their advocacy of implicit ideas as a response to Hick and Knitter.
Evert D. Osburn
Osburn has written one of the seminal essays on the new inclusivism. He says “. . . it seems unfair to many that millions of unreached people would be condemned by a just and loving God even though they have never had a chance to hear of Jesus.”11 And he clearly understands what he is saying. “If such a person were to subsequently [emphasis added] hear the gospel he would instinctively realize its truth.”12 Likewise, his summary is very clear, “. . . a sincere believer in the one true creator God may possibly be saved apart from explicit knowledge of the gospel of Christ.”13
W. Gary Phillips
Phillips does not embrace the implicit concepts, but he has caught the essence of the implicit faith concept exceptionally well.
This solution [implicit faith] offers a form of inclusivism which reasons that the redemption of the Untold takes place in this life (not in the future or in other possible present worlds), even though there is no explicit choice for Christ. . . . Since God redeemed those who had not heard (who were ignorant of Jesus through no fault of their own), would not God be consistent to extend his mercy also to the Untold . . . ?14
Later, he further describes the theologians of the implicit concept:
. . . they believe that the weight of evidence plus inferences from the character of God (as both just and loving) favor “lenient” inclusivism. In the face of their Judge, some Untold will see their Savior.15
The question which immediately surfaces: Since these concepts bear little resemblance to the New Testament, where did these ideas come from?
The long answer is Pelagius, though there are traces of this in Justin Martyr and the Eastern Church.
In early Britain Pelagius began to postulate a form of salvation by works that roused the ire of Augustine. In a twenty-year polemic against Pelagius, Augustine followed the apostolic pattern set by Paul in his assault on Galatianism in the New Testament. Pelagius advocated “the idea that man can achieve salvation by cooperation with the divine will through his own efforts.”16 The word commonly used to describe Pelagianism is heresy.17
But, more directly, and more recently, where did these inclusivistic ideas now come from? The short answer is Vatican II.
Vatican II and Universalistic Inclusivism
What theologian Millard Erickson calls “universalistic inclusivism”18 is clearly spelled out in the Vatican II documents. Though the documents fall decidedly short “of the pope's unqualified soteriological universalism,”19 they still have had immense impact.
Those [who have not yet received the gospel] also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds [emphasis added] to do His will as it is known unto them through the dictates of conscience.20
It will be significant later in this paper to remember here that implicit ideas as part of what Erickson calls “universalistic inclusivism” and Hunter refers to as “universalism in a sharply modified form” and Phillips calls “lenient inclusivism” contain latent Galatianism, a propensity toward salvation by works.
Rahner is the Roman Catholic theologian who took some of the missiological ideas advocated in Vatican II and formulated a theology to accompany them.21 His concepts of “anonymous Christians” and “baptism by desire”22 became the forerunners of what is now being called implicit faith and implicit Christianity. Rahner's role is pivotal in that he took the latent universalism of Vatican II and popularized it.
Netland supplies an interesting bit of background to this discussion when he observes that implicit ideas first gained some kind of evangelical credence when the Lausanne conference failed to repudiate inclusivism. According to Netland, “the Lausanne Covenant was framed in such a manner as to allow for some diversity of opinion on this point.”23
The modern emergence of universalistic inclusivism among evangelicals has run an interesting route. Rooted in the Galatianism of the first century and the Pelagianism of the fourth, it was conceived anew in Vatican II. It was advanced by Rahner. It apparently escaped repudiation at Lausanne.
In recent times it has been embraced and advocated by Clark Pinnock and John Sanders.
Describing inclusivism, though not by name, among “current trends and ideas” that Hudson Taylor and A.B. Simpson would find amazing, David Hesselgrave, the missiologist from Trinity Divinity School, in a recent issue of Alliance Life offers a definition of implicit Christianity as follows:
The idea that all people who humbly and sincerely seek God [usually understood to be just a few] will be saved irrespective of whether or not they hear and believe in Jesus Christ.24
Erickson, for his part, specifically labels “implicit faith” as one kind of universalistic inclusivism.25 Phillips' term “lenient inclusivism”26 is a little weaker than Erickson's and fails to catch the universalistic nuances emerging from Vatican II and latent within the implicit ideas.
Clark Pinnock is the best known of the implicit theologians. His recent book, A Wideness in God's Mercy, argues against the biblical orthodoxy of past generations and for a much more relaxed view of the lostness of mankind.
We have now refuted the restrictivist view that says that only those who actually confess Jesus in this life can be saved. . . . On the contrary, the Bible teaches that many varieties of unevangelized persons will attain salvation.27
In an article supportive of implicit faith concepts, Pinnock argues, almost tongue-in-cheek, against the commonly held evangelical view of Acts 4:12, i.e., that there is no other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved.28
His solution: the text refers to physical healing as well as salvation (and salvation does include healing), but he remains silent on the must of the text.
There is a glaring omission in his [Pinnock's] treatment of this verse. Heresies are usually not so wrong in their admissions as they are in their omissions. Dr. Pinnock nowhere deals with the Greek word dei or “must” in this verse. Billy Graham says that many want to leave this same word “must” dei out of John 3:7, where our Lord says, “You must dei be born again.”29
Perhaps because of his admitted bias30 Pinnock adopts inclusivist hermeneutics and turns the words of Peter upside down. As Tozer observed on the subject of such zig-zag hermeneutics, “Casuistry is not the possession of Roman Catholic theologians alone.”31
As a student of Pinnock, Sanders has written one of the key books on the wider hope. We find him exulting that “inclusivism has representatives from a broader cross-section of the church than any other wider-hope view.”32
Several conceptual ideas travel with universalistic inclusivism.
* In the Old Testament, the tendency is to consider Melchizedek a holy pagan, rather than someone who has had a direct revelation of God or has come to know Yahweh through Abraham.33
* In the New Testament Cornelius is thought to be the perfect example of a holy pagan. That Peter went to Cornelius and explained to him the words by which he was saved (Acts 11:14) is an unacceptable explanation.34 That the Scriptures clearly say that Cornelius had to receive saving words is repeatedly ignored by inclusivists. There is a distressing tendency latent within inclusivism to relieve the Church of its obligation to preach the gospel to the Jews, because if holy pagans can be saved, why cannot Jewish inquirers come to the Father under the Old Covenant? If a faith-path without the Savior can be found in the Old Testament, a mediator will not then be needed. Inclusivism has large regard for the Old Covenant but a deliberately fuzzy conception of the New Covenant.35
* There is a strong hope among inclusivists that natural revelation will have saving effect, that the lost may indeed be saved by looking at nature and concluding that there must be a Creator/Savior.
* The hermeneutics of inclusivism are indirect and elastic.36 The plain sense of many of the New Testament statements flies directly in the face of inclusivism.37 The imperative texts such as John 3:3-7; 14:6; Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:3, 8-10 and Romans 10 have to be softened, skirted or omitted to make inclusivism work.
* There are necessarily strong appeals made to rationalism made in inclusivism. If God saved people in the Old Testament before the advent of Jesus Christ, why will He not save in the same way today, especially when the persons involved have never heard of Jesus Christ? Analogy and logic, legitimate though they be, take precedence over exegesis in the framing of inclusivism's appeal.38
Cairns has observed that “Error is perennial and usually springs from the same causes in every age. Man's pride in reason and his rationalizing tendency can still lead to heresy as it did in the Colossian church.”39
* Sometimes inclusivist thinking suggests that allowing for implicit Christians is no different than believing in God's acceptance of the mentally retarded or children before the age of accountability. That “implicit Christians” are by definition accountable sinners who have broken God's law and are without excuse (Romans 1:20) is conveniently forgotten.
* Finally, in inclusivism rigid exegetical procedures must be abandoned since they will not carry anyone to an unbiblical result.40
Is Inclusivism Heresy?
Is it error to affirm the existence of implicit Christians? Is implicit Christianity heresy? A number of careful questions need to be asked about implicit Christians.
A third and highly significant question relates to the worldwide missionary enterprise. If there are possibly some who will be saved without ever hearing the name of Jesus Christ, is the cord of missionary urgency being cut? Hick, the pluralist, acknowledges one major result of inclusivism “is that it negates the old missionary compulsion. . . .”41 Hunter has already shown that such a negation is presently taking place.
Needless to say, this posture . . . [i.e., some hope for the Untold] does lessen substantially the sense of urgency to evangelize the unreached.42
When comparing seminarians who believe that “Jesus is the only way for salvation except for those who have not heard of Jesus” with those who believe that “Jesus is the only way period” on a number of items, a pattern was found to hold true. For example, the former were less likely to hold evangelism as the highest priority in the church, more likely to believe that social justice is “just as important” or “almost as important” as evangelism and much less likely to choose missions as a career pathby two to one [emphasis added].43
As this argumentation proceeds, the terms “implicit Christian” and “implicit faith” are used in synonymous ways, although the first tends in part to be Christological and the second almost wholly soteriological. The first is rooted in Roman Catholicism; the second is obviously a persuasive adaptation for Protestants and evangelicals who are thought to still value highly the results of the Reformation. The general subject, of course, is universalistic inclusivism.
Taking a Cue from Bowman
At this point, taking a cue from Bowman,44 my object is to cast a number of principles in bold relief against the concept of implicit Christianity. The procedure, I find, is very helpful in making a decision about the real danger and inherent nature of any kind of error.
1) The Protestant Principle. Is implicit Christianity supported by the Protestant Principle of Sola Scriptura? The answer is that analogical arguments and rational processes create implicit faith and implicit Christians. Apart from devious hermeneutics, Scripture does not. Nash properly calls it “biblically unsupportable opinion.”45 Inclusivists do claim Scriptural support, but the refutation of those claims is a book-length project in itself and beyond the scope of this paper.
2) The Grace Principle. The New Testament, evangelicals believe, teaches that salvation is not of works, but by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Earlier we observed that sociologist Hunter was predicting the evangelical abandonment of the grace principle on the basis of studies done in various colleges. If implicit Christians are those who turn from their idols to serve the God whose name they do not know and need not know, are they not receptors of grace through explicit works? Is implicit Christianity anything other than latent Galatianism?
A common trait of inclusivists is a persistent failure to see that their advocacy of implicit ideas ultimately involves salvation by works. Good works are expected from holy pagans who have never received the life-changing gospel and who have never had more than general revelation to guide them.
Nash observes essentially that about John Sanders.
Once again we confront an issue on which it appears the inclusivists want to walk down both sides of that street at the same time. On the one hand, John Sanders takes the historic evangelical position that no humans “are saved by their own moral efforts.”46 On the other hand, he ignores inclusivist implications to the exact opposite.47
Pinnock likewise has fallen into the same error of trying to embrace, at once, both evangelical doctrine and universalistic inclusivism.
Surely God judges the heathen in relation to the light they have, not according to the light that did not reach them. Of course God condemns those who really are his enemies. But his judgment will take into account what people are conscious of, what they yearn for, what they have suffered, what they do [emphasis added] out of love, and so forth.48
Nash observes that “Pinnock is suggesting that a person who lacks New Testament faith but produces good works of a certain kind may still be saved on that basis.”49
John Sanders demonstrates this tendency again in a recent issue of the Christian Scholar's Review. Since implicit Christians do not confess Jesus Christ, we find him affirming that “effective action is the proper response to God's grace” for implicit Christians but wishing for “public badges” which he admits remain “elusive.”50
When the agenda ideas of universalistic inclusivism play themselves out, the advocacy of implicit Christianity and implicit faith involves salvation by works. The implicit Christianity of inclusivism is contrary to both Galatians and Ephesians. It is just as error-laden as Galatianism or Pelagianism ever were.
Interestingly enough, some inclusivists seem not to realize that implicit Christianity ultimately includes salvation by works. One of the reasons may be that in 1990 inclusivism took the field first. Pinnock and Sanders were published first. Richard has argued against them effectively, but Nash is really the first to take them on in a public collision. As Brown has observed, orthodoxy may be expected to take the field of battle late in any case.51 The emerging attacks on inclusivism will assault the implicit ideas. Once it becomes clear under the pressure of critical scrutiny that implicit Christians have to become holy pagans to be saved by works, the violation of the grace principle will be seen as well.
3) The Name Principle. After Pentecost, Luke observes in Acts that the disciples began to minister in the name of Jesus Christ. At the gate of the temple Peter and John healed in the name (3:6). The religious authorities were aware that the lame man, more than forty years old, had been made whole in the name of Jesus (4:10). Peter's sermon includes the classic words, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (4:12). When threats were issued to the empowered Church, they were told to desist using the name (4:18). Their decision was to continue to use the name because the Holy Spirit, they had already learned, was given to the obedient (5:32). They risked their lives to use the name.
By way of contrast, the implicitists who follow the universalism of Vatican II at a distance tell us that the name of Jesus Christ is not important for at least a few. Some will be receptors of grace and saved whether or not they ever get to know the name (Sanders, Osburn, Pinnock, etc.). Implicit faith for implicit Christians rides roughshod over the name. Worse, when exceptions are made which supposedly allow some to circumvent the name and still be saved, the name of Jesus Christ is by that measure diminished.
4) The Covenental Principle. One of the key ways that implicit faith advocates advance their arguments is through appeals to the Old Testament. And this is not bad in itself since Christians are to learn from what happened in the Old Testament (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11). However, to ignore the New Covenant (and the whole book of Hebrews) is surely serious business. Christ is the mediator of that covenant (Hebrews 9:15). Are there not at least two different ways God deals with man? The Old Testament and the New Testament? The Old Covenant and the New Covenant? The Old Covenant was made obsolete by the New Covenant (8:13). Jesus said at the last supper, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20).
Implicit faith advocates are immensely attracted to the ways God worked before Christ came. Those arguments are summoned to support implicit faith and implicit Christianity. Is despite (Hebrews 10:29, KJV) being done to the blood of the New Covenant at the same time?
Jewish ministries have been appalled at implications by “evangelical” theologians that it is no longer necessary for Jews to believe in Jesus Christ to be saved.52 Arthur F. Glasser believes that Wilson, in his book, Our Father Abraham, creates a “mood that will increasingly overtake the reader's consciousness as he or she presses on deeper and deeper into this book: The church has no business evangelizing Jews” [emphasis added].53
Like implicit faith and implicit Christianity, the “evangelical” retreat from salvation for Jews apart from an explicit faith in Jesus Christ seeks to find its rationale in a Messiah-free faith-path supposedly still found in the Old Testament. Not incidentally, salvation for Jews apart from Jesus Christ shares one common feature with the inclusivism of implicit faith and implicit Christianity. Both circumnavigate the bulwark texts in John 3, John 14, Acts 4, Ephesians 2 and Romans 10 and in the case of Jewish ministries, Romans 1:16, “to the Jew first.”
The validity of the New Testament and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only mediator between God and man are antithetical to the message of salvation for Jews apart from Jesus Christ. These same concepts are likewise, in a very close parallel, antithetical to the implicit faith and implicit Christian concepts of universalistic inclusivism.
5) The Consequential Principle. Is the implicit Christian concept error in view of its consequences? Krumm suggests that differences in viewpoints are often held in the Church, until it is perceived that a viewpoint has consequential peril. Then it becomes heresy.54 Can implicit faith be a dangerous view? All one has to do is apply small doses of rationalism, logic and philosophy and one has annulled the great evangelistic texts and compromised the missionary mandate. The result is what Radmacher calls “hermeneutical leakage.”55
At risk in the implicit-Christian view is the authority and integrity of Jesus Christ and Scripture, the declarations of Peter and Paul, the lostness of mankind and the necessity of obedience to the Great Commission.
At risk, ultimately, is the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
If inclusivism finally and fully gets the heresy label, it will get it first from the evangelical missiologists. Universalistic inclusivism is at its roots, in destructive collision with the missionary mandate.
It is important to observe that these issues are not static. The evangelical appraisal of inclusivism is ongoing. Likewise, heresy, as it leavens and expands itself, is finally self-condemned according to Scripture (Titus 3:10-11), i.e., there is betraying movement inherent in it. That is why universalistic inclusivism bears watching. That is why waiting is necessary (2 Timothy 4:2-4). In the seven years that I have been focused on this issue, and coincidental with an expanding interest in the subject, I have become aware that in some parts, at least, there is a stiffening evangelical resolve against inclusivism. We are finding out what it means and where it takes us.
The consequential principle may be the principle which finally pins a heresy label on this kind of universalism in miniature. The price of allowing it free flow as a valid “evangelical option” may have already become too high, i.e., the “negation of the old missionary compulsion.”56
6) The Hermeneutical Principle. Implicit Christianity advances on novel hermeneutics. If one holds to the grammatical-historical method of interpretation, if one clings to the Protestant hermeneutic of the Reformation, i.e., comparing Scripture with Scripture, the traditional evangelistic texts hold. Implicit faith and implicit Christian ideas get nowhere with these texts resolutely blocking their advance.
However, if these texts must be circumnavigated (and they must be for universalistic inclusivism to be embraced), then the hermeneutical dance begins. There are cultural hermeneutics, anthropological hermeneutics, archeological hermeneutics, even unconscious hermeneutics. There is certainly the hermeneutic of inclusivism. The more frenzied the hermeneutical dance, the more distant from truth the interpretation becomes. Note carefully, implicit faith and implicit Christian interpretations require elaborate dances, the artful explaining away of the bulwark texts. Pinnock's exercise on Acts 4:12 where he ignores the obligatory power of the Greek dei57 illustrates the hermeneutical dance exactly.
Arnold L. Cook, president of The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada, recently addressed the hermeneutical issue as it relates to the biblical understanding of hell. His comments on “tampering hermeneutics” are equally appropriate when the subject is inclusivism.
On this slippery slope, these theologians are tampering with the clear teaching of the Scriptures. They are trying to prop up God's justice while yielding to the subjectivity of their feelings.
. . . These proponents, well-intentioned though they be, are unknowingly embracing a low view of Scripture. They are moving the church backwards into the pre-Vatican II days of 1962-1965, and perhaps even back to pre-Reformation days. I refer to those times when ordinary Christians supposedly could not understand, [even] with the Holy Spirit's help, the plain truth of Scripture. These theologians are allowing scholarship to obscure the clear views of Scripture on these subjects. Ordinary believers are intimidated and question, “Can we no longer understand the Bible by just reading it with the Spirit's help, comparing Scripture with Scripture?”58
An illustration of the hermeneutics of inclusivism is offered by Erickson, who is citing Knitter.
At the heart of this endeavor is Knitter's hermeneutic. He follows Hans George Gadamer's concept that every text has two horizonsthat of the author and that of the reader. In Knitter's adaptation, it is not sufficient to interpret a text within its historical context. Both the text and its context can be understood only “within the `horizon' of experience and meaning” as that horizon expands through history.59
Knitter himself argues, “Unless the text and its context are continually being reheard in the ever new texture, one is really not hearing what the text means.”60
This elasticized hermeneutic fails to recognize any deposit of faith, any message “once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).
If the idea of implicit Christians is further advanced, look for elasticized hermeneutical maneuvering and novel interpretations on Romans 10:9-15 to appear in the implicit literature. Sanders has already begun the elasticizing process on that passage.61 Itinerant hermeneutics, always flexible, are the essential tools of the universalistic inclusivist.
The early creeds of the Church, which have hermeneutical implications as well, were theological constructs meant to keep heresies at bay. While we cannot attribute scriptural authority to the creeds, they offer no comfort to the inclusivism inherent in implicit faith and implicit Christian ideas.
7) The Soteriological Principle. Salvation comes in some way to mankind. Universalistic inclusivists do not deny that salvation comes through Jesus Christ. What they deny is that the name of Jesus Christ must be known by the lost person (cf. Acts 4:12). They also deny that the lost person must openly call upon the name of the Lord (cf. Romans 10:9-13). Just a very few will enter the kingdom of God without these biblical prerequisites. But, they say, a few will. If any kind of repentance takes place it would apparently be implicit as well. This form of “lenient” inclusivism must circumnavigate the bulwark evangelistic texts.
8) The Inclusion/Omission Principle. Error is often known for what it fails to say, for what it leaves out and omits as much as for what it does say. Adherence to implicit faith requires certain omissions, notably the bulwark texts we have been discussing.
In describing Satan's selective quotation of Scripture to Jesus Christ, A. B. Simpson astutely observes,
Satan . . . left out seven words in the quotation of the 91st Psalm. . . . You may always distinguish between the right and wrong use of Scripture by this text. The devil uses the Bible too, but he uses it dishonestly to establish some special theory and without regard to the other Scriptures which appear upon the same point. We must remember always, not only that it is written (Matthew 4:4), “but that it is also written” [emphasis added] (4:5).62
Inclusivist literature tends to omit key biblical passages. Romans 10 is frequently omitted since it is the most difficult to bend to inclusivist theory. John's Gospel and his epistles are also uncomfortable territory for inclusivists.
9) The Gospel Principle. Universalistic inclusivists decline to focus intently on Jesus Christ. Implicit faith, it is assumed, may be directed to something or someone other than Jesus Christ. “People can receive the gift of salvation without knowing the giver or the precise nature of the gift.”63 For his part, Pinnock says openly, “According to the Bible, people are saved by faith, not by the content of their theology.”64
These affirmations, and many like them, run aground on such passages as First Corinthians 15:3-4 where the gospel is enunciated as belief in Christ's death, burial and resurrection. If faith is unfocused, then inclusivism seems to posit faith in faith, reminiscent of the word of faith teachers of today. If indeed universalistic inclusivism is preached as a gospel, then the apostle Paul must be reckoned with. In Second Corinthians 11 he warns against another Jesus, a different spirit, a different gospel from the one accepted by the Corinthians. Universalistic inclusivism qualifies rather well as an alternate gospel. Nash believes J.I. Packer, in a veiled reference, is calling Pinnock's universalistic inclusivism exactly that, “a new gospel.”65 Also note, the false apostles' gospel of Second Corinthians 11 goes down rather well with some of the Corinthians. It was smooththey put up with it “easily enough” (11:4). The smoothness of inclusivism ought to raise doctrinal alarms quickly. Sound doctrine, after all, has sharp edges to it and has to be endured (2 Timothy 4:3). Universalistic inclusivism is too, too plausible, too, too reasonable to qualify as truth or sound doctrine. Rather, it sounds uncomfortably like another gospel, another Jesus (if ever his name be really known) and another spirit.
10) The Heresy Principle. Heresy, as we realize, means a party spirit, disunion, to divide (2 Timothy 4:2-4, KJV). Also, Paul makes clear, heresies serve the purpose of showing who is who in the Church. Some have God's approval and some do not (1 Corinthians 11:19). Heresies “must come” and of course they do, everywhere the gospel is preached. Paul's Philippian references to the defense of the gospel demonstrate that as soon as the good news lands, the defense must begin (1:7, 16, 27; 4:3). The apostle also reminds us that heresy is a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:20). And for his part, Peter calls heresies “destructive” and “damnable” (2 Peter 2:1, NIV, KJV).
If, as we insist, orthodoxy is preached here in North America, is it not reasonable to expect also that heresies will emerge? The answer is self-evident in the land of Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, the Family, the Branch Davidians and more. How about universalistic inclusivism for the academically inclined? Surely it appeals to the flesh as much as it divides. For damnation potential, how about billions who may never hear in a post-missionary era ruled by “evangelical” inclusivism?
Fortunately, and in correct order, since orthodoxy weighs into the battle after heresy begins to flower, the apologists are emerging to defend orthodoxy.66 If there is no peril, why the alarm?
11) The Christological Principle. What do the implicit faith and implicit Christian concepts do to Jesus Christ? How does universalistic inclusivism relate to Christ? Is His absolute uniqueness at all eroded? Harold O.J. Brown's definition of heresy is that it “undercuts thievery basis for Christian existence.” He goes on to add: “Practically speaking, heresy [involves] the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Christlater called `special theology' and `Christology.'”67
Do these new concepts minimize open belief in His name? When implicit faith says that some of those who have never heard do not have to actively profess faith in Christ, can they be saved without knowing Him? And if so, do not then the words of Christ become of no effect? Is He any longer the only way to the Father?
If for some, the knowledge of His sacrificial death will not matter, does Jesus Christ still matter quite so much? Has His person, uniqueness and character been shrunken just one iota? Do not the implicit faith and implicit Christian ideas undercut the very essence of the missionary mandate?
Has not Christ's blood been “slightly” discounted? Has not “moderate” despite been done unto the Spirit of Grace (Hebrews 10:29, KJV)? God forbid.
Is the urgency and necessity of His sacrifice quite as imperative as it was before Karl Rahner68 postulated anonymous Christians? If the implicit Christian idea clearly tampers with the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ as it certainly does, is it not then Christological error? The implicit brand of inclusivism is not kind to Jesus Christ.
J. Christy Wilson, Jr.'s unpublished discussion of implicit faith ideas zeroes in on the Christological issue:
In facing a similar heresy in Galatians, the apostle Paul writes, “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing” Gal. 2:21b. The descriptions of “implicit Christians” . . . say that they have to live good lives. What is this but a form of salvation by works? Thus it makes the cross of Christ of no effect and involves Christological error [emphasis added].69
An Enormous Issue
Evangelicals are facing an issue of incalculable importance. Phillips was surely understating when he admitted that inclusivism might “become a watershed issue among evangelicals.”70 Nash observes that “The acceptance of this biblically unsupported opinion [inclusivism] carries an enormously high theological cost.”71 Netland likewise says, “The implications of this question are staggering.”72 Richard Ramesh even wonders if evangelicalism can survive inclusivism.73
William Carey once stood and declared that something should be done for the heathen. Though perhaps no one at the time realized it, the two greatest centuries of Christian mission in the history of the world had begun.
Similarly, Vatican II and the evangelical softness which has followed it may mark the end of the parenthesis we call the modern missionary movement. If our Lord delays His return, the twenty-first century may be the first century of the post-missionary era. We dare not forget that Hick is assuring us that inclusivism will certainly “negate the old missionary compulsion.”74
Evangelicals have had some difficulty labeling implicit Christian ideas. Some earlier material75 seems to welcome the camel of inclusivism into the evangelical tent. However, as time has gone on, the number of influential evangelicals willing to call implicit Christianity and universalistic inclusivism heresy has grown. The evidence is clearly overwhelming and multiplying. Hopefully, the result will be the wholesale abandonment of error.
Implicit Christianity is an heretical idea. It is unbiblical at its core. It is a Christological error. It is a soteriology driven by rationalism and suspect hermeneutics. It strikes at the vital nerve of missionary endeavor. Once the existence of even one implicit Christian is affirmed, implicit Christianity has moved from heretical thinking to heresy. Holy pagans invariably are going to have to exhibit good works to be saved. Galatianism, the undeniable heresy, will have re-emerged, among evangelicals no less, as universalistic inclusivism.
1 James Davison Hunter, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 9.
2 Ibid., 36.
3 Ibid., 37.
4 Ibid., 47.
5 D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 280.
6 Hunter, Evangelicalism, 47.
7 John Sanders, No Other Name (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 216.
8 Ronald H. Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 107.
9 John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, eds., The Myth of Christian Uniqueness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987).
10 Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name? (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989).
11 Evert D. Osburn, “Those Who Have Never Heard: Have They No Hope?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 32/3 September 1989, 367.
12 Ibid., 368.
13 Ibid., 372.
14 W. Gary Phillips, “Evangelicals and Pluralism: Current Options” The Evangelical Quarterly 64/3, 1992, 236-237.
15 Ibid., 244.
16 Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954 ), 149.
17 Roger Nicole, “New Testament Use of the Old,” Revelation and the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1958), 43.
18 Millard Erickson, The Word Became Flesh (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 28-29.
19 <M%-2>David Wright, “The Watershed of Vatican II: Catholic Approaches to Religious Pluralism” One God, One Lord (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992), 213.
20 Walter M. Abbott, The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1966), 35.
21 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 6 (New York: Seabury, 1969), 340-398.
22 Erickson, The Word Became Flesh, 284.
23 Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 265.
24 David Hesselgrave, “The Alliance in the Spotlight” Alliance Life, May 26, 1993, 7.
25 Millard Erickson, “The State of the Question,” Through No Fault of Their Own? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 28-29.
26 Phillips, “Evangelicals and Pluralism,” 244.
27 Clark H. Pinnock, A Wideness in God's Mercy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 168.
28 Clark H. Pinnock, “Acts 4:12-No Other Name under Heaven,” Through No Fault of Their Own? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991), 107-115.
29 J. Christy Wilson (Unpublished paper, 1993), 5.
30 Pinnock, Through No Fault of Their Own?, 112.
31 A.W. Tozer, The Waning Authority of Christ in the Church (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1963), 2.
32 Sanders, No Other Name, 274.
33 Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior?, 128.
34 Bruce Demarest, General Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982), 191.
35 Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; Dayton, OH: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1989).
36 John Sanders, No Other Name (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 246-247.
37 Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior?, 145.
38 Pinnock, A Wideness in God's Mercy; Sanders, No Other Name.
39 Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, 73.
40 Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior?, 175.
41 John Hick, God & the Universe of Faiths (Rockport, MA: Oneworld Publications, 1993), 143.
42 Hunter, Evangelicalism, 47.
43 Ibid., 258.
44 Robert M. Bowman, Orthodoxy and Heresy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992).
45 Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior?, 175.
46 Sanders, No Other Name, 235.
47 Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior?, 169.
48 Clark Pinnock, Theological Crossfire: An Evangelical-Liberal Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 367-368.
49 Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior?, 170.
50 John Sanders, “Evangelical Responses to Salvation Outside the Church” Christian Scholar's Review xxiv: I, September 1994, 55.
51 Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1984), 4.
52 Marvin R. Wilson, Our Father Abraham.
53 Arthur F. Glasser, “A Review of Our Father Abraham,” for Lausanne Committee for Jewish Evangelism, 1991, 7.
54 John M. Krumm, Modern Heresies (Greenwich, CT: Seabury Press, 1961), 11.
55 Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Prues, eds., Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), xii-xiii.
56 Hick, God & the Universe of Faiths, 143.
57 Pinnock, Through No Fault of Their Own?, 107-115.
58 Arnold L. Cook, Remembering Those for Whom No Table Has Yet Been Set (Toronto: The Christian & Missionary Alliance, 1994), 9.
59 Erickson, The Word Became Flesh, 284.
60 Knitter, No Other Name? 172.
61 Sanders, No Other Name, 67.
62 A.B. Simpson, Christ in the Bible Commentary, vol. 1 (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, Inc., 1992), 28.
63 Sanders, No Other Name, 224-225.
64 Pinnock, A Wideness in God's Mercy, 157.
65 Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior?, 132.
66 Larry Dixon, The Other Side of the Good News (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1992); Richard Ramesh, The Population of Heaven (Chicago: Moody, 1994); Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior?
67 Brown, Heresies, 2-3.
68 Rahner, Theological Investigations, 340-398.
69 J. Christy Wilson, Jr. (Unpublished paper, 1993), 11.
70 Phillips, “Evangelicals and Pluralism,” 242.
71 Nash, Is Jesus the Only Savior?, 175.
72 Netland, Dissonant Voices, 277.
73 Ramesh, The Population of Heaven, 12.
74 Hick, God & the Universe of Faiths, 143.
75 Malcolm J. McVeigh, “The Fate of Those Who've Never Heard? It Depends.” Evangelical Mission Quarterly, October 1985.
Training Missionaries to Resistant Peoples, Timothy C. Tennent
Premillennialism and the Alliance Distinctives, Joel Van Hoogen
Approximating the Millennium: Premillennial Evangelism and Racial Reconcilliation, Douglas Matthews
Implicit Christians: An Evangelical Appraisal, K. Neill Foster
Elio Cuccaro, Ph. D., Editor
©2006 by K. Neill Foster