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Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism in Soteriology

Discussion Ahead traffic sign in woman's hand on a white backgroundThis past week on the Energion Discussion Network two answers were posted to the question “Can the great religions be vehicles of salvation for their followers?” Answering “Yes” was Dr. Herold Weiss, and answering “No” was Dr. H. Van Dyke Parunak. Both are authors published by my company, Energion Publications.

I enjoyed reading the responses for a number of reasons other than the actual answer given to the question. Quite frequently we respond to an article based on whether we agree with the answer or not. The well-argued, well-presented article is one that supports our own point of view. The scattered, poorly presented one is the one we oppose. In my experience only a few people can say, “This was a well-written article even though I disagree vigorously with its conclusion.”

I’m going to do precisely that in this case. Both of these responses to the question are well-written, and they are even well reasoned. It may seem odd to say that when they come to opposite conclusions. It’s important, however, when you read something this short regarding a topic this complex, that you ask yourself just where the author is coming from. Having edited books by both men, I have a leg-up in doing that, but if you read carefully you can clearly see the approach each takes to revelation (particularly scripture), theology, and finally doctrine. These approaches can be experienced at length in Dr. Weiss’s book Meditations on According to John: Exercises in Biblical Theology, and Dr. Parunak’s book Except for Fornication: The Teaching of the Lord Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage.

You can get some idea of the difference simply by counting the number of scriptural quotations in each post. My quick count gives me eight quotations by Dr. Parunak and one by Dr. Weiss. There are some who will think that gives the answer. Dr. Parunak is being more scriptural than Dr. Weiss. I would suggest that this is something like determining how scholarly a book is by counting the footnotes. I have a book on my shelves which has an overwhelmingly large number of footnotes. But if one eliminates footnotes to the author’s own works, footnotes to unreliable sources, and simply incorrect footnotes, the count drops dramatically. The notes give the impression of scholarship, but unless they are also carefully and correctly done, they are not themselves good scholarship.

So the question here is how scripture is used in each case. If you think of it this way, Dr. Weiss is actually inviting you to read more scripture, as he refers to broad theological concepts. You’d need to read at least the books of John, Romans, and Galatians, to actually pick up on some of the ideas he’s presenting.

So now, in turn, am I intending to put down Dr. Parunak’s work based on changing the way I count from a quotation count to a necessary reading count. Absolutely not! This is, in fact, one of the best exercises I’ve seen in years of the way in which the approach an author takes to scripture impacts his or her results.

For Dr. Weiss, scripture is a varied landscape, reflecting a variety of viewpoints, backgrounds, cultures, and even theologies. This landscape invites us to study and to form theology. He would never (and in my experience has never) simply quote a text and say that the text settles the issue. He would always apply that text to a study of the theology of the book of the Bible it came from and as part of the work of its author, particularly its human author. He demonstrates this in a range of books, but particularly in his book Creation in Scripture in which he looks at the variety of views on creation that are contained in the Bible. Some people wonder how he can do this. Surely the creation story is not told repeatedly, even if one accepts that there are two stories in Genesis, which many do not. But Weiss is talking about views of creation, how God is understood to be the creator: Theology, not science or history.

In the YouTube video below you can watch me interview him about the gospel of John, though Colossians comes up at well!

Dr. Parunak, on the other hand, sees scripture as more directly from the hand of God, in the sense that all scripture presents a unified picture of doctrine that can be deciphered by the interpreter, and can and should be tested and result in a high degree of certainty. So he will draw a more direct connection between a particular scripture passage. He does not have room for a variety in scripture such that we could say that one theology differs from another.

You can see me interview Dr. Parunak below, and you’ll hear him express this for himself:

Though I find the question of pluralism interesting, I find the way in which we answer it even more interesting.

If you want to explore these ideas further, let me recommend a little book by Rev. Steve Kindle, I’m Right and You’re Wrong: Why We Disagree about the Bible and What to Do About It. If you’re more interested in the issue of biblical inspiration, try my own book When People Speak for God, The Authority of Scripture in a Postmodern Age (Bob Cornwall), or the more intense From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully.

My point here is not to critique either approach. I am not forced to publish anything. I wouldn’t have published books by these two authors unless I found their contribution valuable. But you and I as readers have to answer for ourselves the question of what we believe, and to do that we need to get behind the question of what an author believes to why he or she believes that. “Because the Bible says it,” is not really an answer unless you also know how that author or speaker reads and interprets the Bible.

So what about my answer to the question posed? Can the great world religions be vehicles of salvation for their adherents? I must note first that I regard my discussion of methology as much more important than any answer I might give here. Let me use Dr. Weiss’s terminology, which he discusses in his book Finding My Way in Christianity, pages 192 & 193. Exclusivism, he says, is the belief that all are saved through the sacrifice of Jesus and must confess in order to do so. Inclusivism says that there may be those in other faiths who are saved, but they are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus. Pluralism says that any religion may provide salvation and that Christianity does not have an exclusive hold on the true salvation story (I am using my own wording though working from Weiss’s material).

As I look at the question, I find it very difficult to answer without implying something I don’t mean. I am saved by the grace of God, not by a faith tradition, or a particular set of doctrinal beliefs. So just because someone says “Lord, Lord” doesn’t mean they are on the right road. My church membership is not what saves me. So in the sense that I believe God’s grace comes to me without consideration for my merit, in which I include meritorious beliefs as well as meritorious acts, I cannot exclude anyone. How wrong would I have to be in order to be excluded from God’s grace?

On the other hand, since I do believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, i.e., I believe that the incarnation is conceptually an exclusive event, and I also believe that there is just one God, however differently we may understand God, then I also see no salvation outside of Jesus, not because one has to understand this in a particular way, but because that was God’s ultimate act, one I see not merely as historical, but also as timeless and unbound by geography. God said that God was not too far away, that God was able to understand and to feel, and that God was able to deal with our guilt, our brokenness, and yes, our healing.

I find that both a message worth proclaiming, and at the same time a call for humility. How wrong can I be and yet be the subject of God’s grace? And in that case how wrong should I allow someone else to be and still consider them to be under God’s grace?

Actually I have an easy answer to that one. Nowhere has God made me the one to decide. I am simply convinced that if infinite God was willing to become finite and limited and live life as I must live it, that God isn’t going to miss any useful option in seeing God’s grace become effective on God’s children. I must sincerely doubt that God’s grace is less effective than mine.

As such, I’m going to trust God to get it right.


As a follow-up I’m going to discuss these issues with two other Energion authors, Dr. Allan Bevere and Dr. Bruce Epperly. This will be live via Google Hangouts on Air on January 26, 2016 at 7:00 pm central time:  Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism Hangout (January 26).

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