I appreciate Bill’s ongoing interaction on this subject. In one of my previous posts, Bill gave this comment:
Why do you interpret Bell’s traditional inclusivism as “radical” inclusivism? He doesn’t say anything about the saving value of other religions themselves. If a Muslim is saved, for Bell, he or she is saved because of Christ, and not Islam, based on what Bell has said in the book.
Secondly, do you think it’s wise to apply the Elijah/prophets of Baal story to the present-day issue of religious pluralism? Not to mention, the reading you’ve just given could literally be flipped around to justify Islamic fundamentalism and violence in the name of religion. The major difference between our views of truth –yours and mine, that is – seems to be that you confidently locate yourself in the “truth” camp, and designate other religions in the “false” one. I on the other hand, see truth on a spectrum that we as humans cannot fully grasp. At the highest point of the spectrum is Christ/God, and following biblical revelation is the best way to move in that direction. Insofar as other religions may or may not conform to the spirit of Christ, however, in broken and fragmented ways, they also could contain saving truth, because it’s Christ’s truth, and Christ COULD save them through this – not because they achieve anything. This is still traditional inclusivism.
An example of course would be that Islam teaches its followers to love God and love neighbor – something Jesus gives as the answer to the question of how to be saved. “Do this, and you will live.” This grants enormous common ground. Your remark about coffee and interfaith dialogue was cynical and careless in my view. It’s politically irresponsible, if nothing else – and I say that because, based on your facebook posts, you agree that Christians should be involved in politics. I’m interested in peace-making and bridge-building. This post gives off the impression that you are not. A black/white understanding of true worship vs. idolatry is so dangerous – it practically guarantees Pharisaic tendencies. There are bound to be moments in my life when I’m idolatrous, and my Buddhist brother or sister is closer to a “true worshiper,” whether he or she even knows it
It looks like there are several issues here:
(1) Why do I say Bell advocates radical inclusivism as opposed to a more conservative form of inclusivism? It is because of the scope of what he is saying. “There are rocks everywhere,” he argues, meaning that Christ is revealed in salvific ways throughout all of creation, including non-Christian religions. Yes, all who are saved are saved on the basis of Christ’s redemptive work, but according to Bell, the mediation of that work to the individual can come from virtually anywhere, so that non-Christian religions are instruments of God’s saving work.
I agree that Christ’s eternal power and divine nature are revealed in all things (Romans 1:18-20), but nowhere does the Scripture say that Christ is revealed in salvific ways apart from special revelation. Such a theological move has more affinities with a de-historicized gnostic Christ than with the Christ of Scripture.
(2) Regarding the Elijah story, I do think it is wise to apply it here. The reason is because it is one vivid example of the single most pervasive conflict within Israel: the conflict between pure worship and idolatry. The lines are drawn very sharply throughout the OT on this point, and the distinction continues into the NT (see, for example, 1 Thess. 1:9; Gal. 4:8-9). In fact, Paul goes so far as to say that believers can have no part of idolatrous feasts because to do so is to share in the cup of demons! (1 Cor. 10:1-22) Ironically, this is the very passage Bell selects as his main illustration for his chapter. Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 10 could hardly be more opposed to what Bell is trying to do.
(3) Regarding our differing approaches to truth, I appreciate your clarification here. Yes, I do see Christians inhabiting the “truth” camp, and unbelievers inhabiting that of falsehood. Of course, no one knows the truth exhaustively, as God knows it, and unbelievers certainly know some degree of truth. You can’t help but know truth to some degree simply by virtue of the fact that you are a human being. Paul says so in Romans 1:21, but he has previously said in v. 18 that men suppress the truth that they know and fashion false gods to replace the true God. So while all people have some knowledge of the truth, unbelievers suppress that truth out of an attempt to annihilate God and replace him with something else. Sin really is a huge problem!
Believers, however, have received the inward illumination of the Spirit that comes in conjunction with the preached word. Through God’s powerful, effective call, the light has come on, and they are enabled by grace to behold the beauty of God revealed in Christ crucified (2 Corinthians 4:1-6). The distinction between believer and unbeliever is one that runs right through the New Testament.
(4) With regard to saving truth coming from Christ and through other religions, I would consider that to be a radical form of inclusivism. To take your example of Islam, there are two problems with the example you give. First, Islam may teach its followers to love God and neighbor (though I would be interested to see how most Muslims define the word “neighbor”), but this “God” that it teaches them to love is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one revealed supremely in the Christ event, but rather Allah, the god of whom it is said that he has no son. Muslims do not love God, nor are they taught to do so. They reject him in favor of an idol.
Second, you are correct that Jesus said that if we love God and love our neighbors we will be saved. But Jesus was speaking here about the promise of the Law to give eternal life to all who obey it. The whole of the New Testament indicates that no one can attain eternal life by this means, but only by faith in the one who has obeyed the Law perfectly (Galatians 3:10-14). Jesus makes a similar statement to the rich young man who comes to him, but the whole point of that episode is to prove that the rich young man has NOT, in fact, kept the Law as he believes that he has (Matthew 19:16-30). Paul is explicit: by works of the Law no flesh will be justified before him (Romans 3:20). That is why justification must come apart from the Law (Romans 3:21). So, even if Muslims were taught to love the true God and to love their neighbors, that would not rise above the level of Pelagianism, which is clearly outside the bounds of saving truth.
(5) Regarding politics and peace-making, I am not opposed to being co-belligerents with those who have different religious convictions than I do. I would gladly partner with Mormons, for example, in a common fight to end abortion. But I will never compromise theological conviction for the sake of socio-political action. I will never consider a Mormon, a Buddhist, or a Muslim my brother in Christ. They are outside of Christ, and I think they would be rather offended by my presumptuous categorizing them as anonymous Christians (except for the Mormon, of course, though he would doubtless chafe if I called him an “anonymous Trinitarian”). Lisa Miller raised this issue with Rob Bell recently, indicating how deeply offended she was at his subsuming all salvation into Christ. Inclusivism does not promote interfaith dialogue. It represents Christian imperialism, a refusal to accept non-Christian religions for what they are, namely, non-Christian Religions. Only liberal adherents to other faiths would be interested in the kind of inter-faith dialogue you are advocating. Traditional adherents would, I think, be deeply offended at such a move and would appreciate far more some kind of clarity in acknowledging our genuinely incompatible theological differences.