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 ideas are supposedly 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