Pluralism, Inclusivism, and Exclusivism – Are they all equally Christian? (Part 1)
Recently I have been reading on some of the Presbyterian blogs and web sites a discussion about whether there is such a thing as a “middle way” on issues that divide the PCUSA and most mainline churches in general. The current issue has to do with the ordination of homosexuals and the full acceptance of homosexual practice as good (not a sin). Many have indicated that the issue lies deeper in the differences in understanding the authority of Scripture. I agree that it has much to do with our view of Scripture, but the issues in my opinion are even deeper than this. I believe there is a fundamental difference in understanding what it means to be a Christian, and whether or not there should even be “beliefs” associated with Christianity. I will begin this series with a discussion in honor of Dr. Ronald Nash, who passed away two years ago, summarizing and reviewing some of the main points from Dr. Nash’s book “Is Jesus the Only Savior“ and interacting with those ideas. I recommend the book highly and hope that you will consider purchasing this wonderful book.
Is Jesus the only way to heaven?
(In a world where we are likely to have neighbors, friends, coworkers, etc., of differing faiths, is it not arrogant and intolerant to profess Jesus as the only savior?)
Pluralists answer the question: “NO. Jesus is not the only way.”
Inclusivists answer the question: “Yes, but….”
Exclusivists answer the question: “Yes, period.”
Let’s look first at the pluralist position.
Pluralists often begin with criticism of the exclusivist’s view of truth in the area of religion, by rejecting either-or language in favor of both-and. Pluralists believe that while it might be impossible to dispense with either-or language in the everyday world, in the area of religion, we must be rid of it. Here is an example: “either this mushroom is poisonous or it is not.” It would be nonsensical to say; “both this mushroom is poisonous and it is not,” yet that is precisely how pluralists believe we must think about religion. Pluralists want us to believe that fundamental laws of logic have no place in religious discussions. Therefore there is a major problem for this perspective right from the beginning, because those logical laws are not something humanly created, but are the foundation for “all significant thought, action, and communication” (Nash, p.55). For more on this topic I recommend Douglas Groothuis’ Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism.
“Philosophers often distinguish between two kinds of believing, belief that and belief in…In belief that, my act of believing is directed toward some proposition (Barack Obama [I took the liberty to update the reference] is the current president of the U.S.A)…If I believe in my friend, Joe Smith, it means that I trust him…when I believe in God, it means that I trust God and have committed myself to him…It is very important to see that belief in presupposes belief that. If I believe in God, it is because of all the propositions about God that I believe are true (e.g. He is wise, loving, kind, forgiving, holy, etc.)” (Nash p.57).
Many today believe that Christianity is a “belief in” religion and therefore does not require us to believe that…certain propositional truth statements are true. The idea is this: Christianity depends on a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and that is all. The rest has simply arisen from ignorance, or what-have-you, and not from the actual core of the faith. If we simply see Christianity as a belief in… faith, then we can dispense with the prepositional truths that have normally been associated with Christianity. What Ronald Nash points out in his book is that belief in… is meaningless without belief that… How can one believe in God or another person, without believing certain prepositional truths about someone? How can someone be asked to trust someone of whom you have no knowledge? Biblically, belief in God requires knowledge of the character of God. Therefore, I must believe that God is trustworthy, faithful, kind, loving, knowledgeable, full of wisdom, capable of accomplishing what he has willed, truthful, etc.
Here is the form of a religious pluralists’ argument:
1) All religions are ultimately myth.
2) Most adherents of those religions are ignorant of this, since they believe that their truth claims accurately reflect reality.
3) In actuality, reality is unknown (or for many a pantheistic worldview).
4) Therefore, language like, “Jesus is Lord,” is just as valid as saying that, “the only God is Allah, and Mohamed is his prophet.”
5) The experience of the divine of each adherent is what is important.
6) Ultimately each one has a legitimate experience of the divine, and therefore all views are valid.
Pluralists such as John Hick (a leading writer in the pluralist camp), usually recognize that their views will not stand if certain historic positions of the Christian church are true, and therefore they will often go about the task of attempting to dispute them. They often begin with criticism and deconstruction of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the deity of Christ. All of these things are myth – not literally true, but practically true.
“Hick develops a clever analogy in defense of his view of myth: He tells the story of a man in love who declares that his Helen is the sweetest and prettiest girl in the whole world. While such an exaggeration cannot be literally true, it may be mythically true if it expresses an appropriate attitude of the lover toward the person he loves. In a similar way, early Christians took the simple expression ‘Jesus is my Lord and Savior,’ a psychological statement and transformed it into a metaphysical claim; ‘Jesus is the only Lord and Savior.’ Hick wishes people would stop thinking of the Incarnation as a metaphysical ‘truth’ and regard it as an ‘imaginative reconstruction’ that expresses ‘the Christian’s devotion to Jesus as the one who has made the heavenly Father real to him.’ Jesus is not the Savior; he is only my savior” (Nash, p.72).
Christian Liberals, Neo-orthodox, and even many that consider themselves Evangelicals that ascribe to the pluralist view, relegate the views that Jesus atoned for people’s sins on the cross, that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, and that Jesus was literally God incarnate to the realm of myth with meaning. Jesus was god-conscious (a human being who achieved a special awareness of God and God’s love), but certainly not the third person of the Trinity. For pluralists, all of these things should be understood to be metaphorical language that speaks of experiences with the divine, rather than literally describing reality.
Next, I will be looking at inclusivism – the so-called middle way and a favorite of Barthian Neoorthodox and even many modern evangelicals, such as William Young (the author of The Shack) and Donald Miller (author of Blue Like Jazz).
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