Answering Bill’s Questions/Comments

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.

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2 Responses to Answering Bill’s Questions/Comments

  1. Bill says:

    Well Aaron, you have sure said a lot here. I wasn’t advocating any particular kind of interfaith dialogue. I’m well aware that the idea of anonymous Christians is offensive – rahner himself wasn’t using that term outside of Christian circles. Also, I know that Jesus wasn’t making a pelagian statement (excuse the anachronism). I’ll just say this: for a being a trinitarian, your historical view of Christ as limited by preaching is strangely narrow, and I will never understand it. Christ is cosmic, and to say that he can’t save beyond where have preached is unimaginable in my view. And sorry I haven’t responded to your last Romans 10 comment, but I doubt that we would get anywhere on that. I think your a priori association of Islam and other religions with pagan gods is highly problematic. It might be helpful to explain that one of my areas is theology of religions, so that might provide some context – people like mark heim or catholic on inclusivists like jaques dupuis, Gavin d’costa, Joseph dinoia, etc. And volfs recent book is probably another case, which I look forward to reading. I guess I’ll point the question this way to close, if you’re still wanting to respond: how is Christ co-substantial with the Spirit if Christ can’t be accessed except by hearing the word?

  2. I would not say that Christ cannot save outside the reach of the preached word. I would say that, according to the revelation we have from God, there is no reason for us to suppose that Christ does, in fact, save outside the reach of the preached word, and there is a long list of reasons to suppose that he does not, not least of which is Romans 10 (actually, I thought we were finally getting somewhere with that discussion). This is the classic distinction between God’s potentia absoluta and his potentia ordinata.

    How is Christ consubstantial with the Spirit if Christ cannot be accessed except by hearing the preached word? This question presupposes that the Holy Spirit is accessible in salvific ways apart from the preached word, a premise that I do not grant.

    Yes, Christ and the Spirit are omnipresent. The common divine nature they share is everywhere made evident in creation. But once again, we come back to Romans 1: humanity suppresses the truth revealed in creation about God. That means sinful human beings universally suppress the truth about Christ that is plain to them in creation, and they universally suppress the truth about the Spirit that is plain to them in creation. Through the proclamation of the incarnate Christ, the God-man, the crucified and risen Savior, the Spirit works to bring about faith. The Spirit’s role is to testify to Christ (John 15:26) and to make known to us the revelation of God that comes through the incarnate Christ (John 16:14-15). In the context of John’s Gospel, this cannot be construed as a generalized sense of a deity. It is focused on the historical person of Christ, the Word made flesh.

    Clark Pinnock once argued that we should think of the Spirit as having a mission of his own, one that is not subordinate to the Son. That is theologically disastrous. But just as bad is the view that would subordinate the saving mission of the Spirit, not to the incarnate Son (Jesus of Nazareth in all of his historical particularity) but to the divine nature of the Son alone. This way of thinking is an attempt to circumvent the incarnation and access the divine essence directly, a modern day theology of glory akin to the medieval theologies that Luther opposed.

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