This is the second of a two-part review of Dr. Ronal Nash’s Is Jesus the Only Savior?
(“Inclusivism”). This review was much better than the first half
(in my opinion).
Before delving into the arguments for or against inclusivism, Dr. Nash gives an introduction to the concept. First off, it is important to understand that the topic has nothing to do with tolerance, in the sense that people ought to not mistreat those that believe things that are false. The inclusivism in question here is soteriological in nature. It is an answer to the question, “What about those that have never heard the Gospel?” According to Dr. Nash, inclusivists would say, “devout believers in other religions will be saved, but only on the basis of Christ’s atoning work.” (emphasis added) Dr. Nash also quotes Dr. John Sanders, “[T]he work of Jesus is ontologically necessary for salvation (no one would be saved without it) but not epistemologically necessary (one need not be aware of the work in order to benefit from it).” As part of defining inclusivism Dr. Nash presents what he calls the starting point for the ideas of inclusivism: the “particularity axiom” and the “universality axiom.” Dr. Nash references Dr. Clark Pinnock as insisting that Jesus Christ’s lordship is non-negotiable, Christ as the particular Lord of all and savior of all. Dr. Nash references Dr. Sanders with regards to the universality axiom, referencing 1 Tim. 2:4, “[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” and Tit. 2:11 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.” As Dr. Nash’s introduction of inclusivism continues, he discusses the growth of this view within evangelical circles, its widespread acceptance within Roman Catholicism, inclusivism and its relation to non-Christian religions, and finally a comparison of inclusivism and universalism. This section seems a bit out of place, with the exception of the comparison to universalism, this series of sections would have been better suited as a separate chapter, but Dr. Nash brings all these ideas together in the conclusion which also serves to introduce the next two chapters.
Dr. Nash continues this discussion of inclusivism with the next two crucial sections. Chapter eight focuses on the theological ideas presented in inclusivism and chapter nine on the relationship between inclusivism and the Bible. Dr. Nash admits that in reality the biblical discussion concerning inclusivism and the theological discussion are closely related, but in order to present the ideas in a more logical progression he breaks them up into separate chapters. The first, and possibly the most important, theological issue Dr. Nash mentions is the idea of “general” or “natural” revelation. Defined by Dr. Bruce Demarest in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: “The divine disclosure to all persons at all times and in all places by which humans come to know that God is and what he is like. While not imparting truths necessary for salvation …” (emphasis added). Dr. Nash seems to do Dr. Pinnock a disservice aiming at what he sees as an inconsistency in the inclusivist position when it comes to evangelicalism. Dr. Nash seems to set his sights, in this chapter at least, on the argument in inclusivism that says one need not know about the particulars of Jesus’ work and person to be saved. However, in a sense, Dr. Nash does not seem to address the main thrust of the inclusivist’s argument, which revolves around the question, “What must one know to be saved?” It seems that Dr. Nash does not completely address the question of what salvation means to prior to the work of Christ. The argument Dr. Nash seems to offer against the inclusivists with regards to “holy pagans,” seems to be an argument from silence. The Scripture does not say that Melchizedek, Job, Jethro, etc. ever participated in the sacrifices of the Old Testament Hebrews. If faith, evidenced through obedience, in the one true God is all that is required for salvation (Heb. 11). Why would that not to Old Testament heroes Deuteronomy? Is not God the same in all times for all people? It does not seem that Dr. Nash responds to this particular argument very thoroughly.
Another particularly weak point in this chapter is in Dr. Nash’s critique of the inclusivist’s use of God’s love for all as an important argument for the universal availability of salvation. Dr. Nash claims that Dr. Pinnock’s argument: “If God really loves the whole world and desires everyone to be saved, it follows logically that everyone must have access to salvation,” is both counter to other Arminian theological points and is logically fallacious. Dr. Pinnock’s argument may run counter to Arminian theology, but that seems a non sequitur. The goal is to find the truth, not necessarily that which is in agreement with a particular theological view. Also, Dr. Nash does not clarify what logical fallacy Dr. Pinnock’s argument commits. The argument seems perfectly logical: P1) A loving God that wants all to be saved (2 Pet. 3:9) P2) God can establish a logical system wherein salvation is available to all C) God would make salvation available to all. It seems that Dr. Nash’s phrasing of Dr. Pinnock’s argument is not very clear and dismisses quite a few suppressed premises that could completely change the argument’s effectiveness.
Probably one of the worst sections of the whole book falls in this chapter (chapter eight). Dr. Nash turns his critique not towards the ideas of inclusivism, rather towards Arminianism, and a misrepresented form of the Arminian position at that! Dr. Nash lumps Dr. Pinnock’s view of God’s sovereign foreknowledge in with Arminianism, though Dr. Pinnock’s book calls it “process theism” and in many circles the rather new term “Open Theism” has recently gain some prominence. It sounds as if Dr. Nash’s argument in this section is something like this: P1) Dr. Pinnock’s (and other Open Theists’) view of God is incorrect C) Inclusivism is incorrect. That may not be the best way to phrase the argument presented in the text, but with the phrasing and tone of this section that is how Dr. Nash’s arguments sound. The characterization of the Arminian view of salvation is also poorly represented in this section. It is not that salvation is “ultimately up to that person” it is more in response to the Calvinist view of irresistible grace, saying that each person has the ability to reject or accept salvation. The Arminian position does not emphasize mankind’s will over God’s will, more it does not view God as forcing, even against their will, people into salvation. Also, there are many other philosophical and theological positions that reconcile God’s sovereign foreknowledge with free will namely, Molinism. None of the different views of sovereignty and free will necessarily directly relate to the inclusivist position. Even the Calvinist position can be made to fit an inclusivist view. For example: God through His abundant grace provides irresistible grace to the elect not based on any conditions (unconditional election), therefore God could elect any number of people that have never heard the name of Jesus for salvation. If one’s soteriological position relies solely on the unconditional election of whomever God wills, one cannot question whom God elects. To summarize this section (chapter eight), Dr. Nash aims his critique in many odd directions and never truly hits home with the inclusivist’s position.
Now in chapter nine Dr. Nash turns his critique more directly towards the biblical passages used in support of inclusivism. The first clear issue with this section is in this quote, “Morally and spiritually [Cornelius of Acts 10] was in precisely the same condition as any faithful and believing Jew of that time who had not yet encountered Jesus. We could go so far as to say that his relationship to Yahweh was similar to that of an Old Testament believer.” There are several issues here. First off, the text does not directly say but rather implies, that Cornelius and his household was not circumcised, which was (and still is) a religious requirement (Gen. 17:9-14; Ex. 12:48) of Judaism. Apparently Cornelius was not circumcised, so none of the Old Testament sacrifices should have applied and he had apparently not acted on his faith in wholeheartedly following Abraham and his descendants in obedience to the Lord. So, he would not be in the same moral and spiritual situation as Old Testament believers. Again, the whole argument of inclusivism does not necessarily rest on this one text, despite Dr. Nash’s clear assertion as such. This chapter, both the verses taken in defense of inclusivism and those taken against, seem tantamount to cherry-picking or prooftexting. Dr. Nash presents an argument against the usage of the words “all men” and “world” to defend inclusivism in various texts (1 Tim. 2:3-4; Tit. 2:11; 2 Pet. 3:9; and 1 Jn 2:2). The same type of criticism can and has been levied against the verses Dr Nash gives in defense of exclusivism. To his credit Dr. Nash does mention in a footnote that there is more to this argument than will fit in the context of this section of this one book, but it seems as if he proceeds with critiquing inclusivism as if that point has been won. To illustrate the ineffectiveness of this type of prooftexting here is a counterexample using Rom. 10:9. “[I]f you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved;” though Dr. Nash gives Dr. Sanders’ argument that this does not exclude the possibility of being saved without confessing “Jesus as Lord,” one can take an even more basic track to derail this prooftext. What about a person who is unable to speak? Since that person is incapable of confessing anything with his or her mouth, is that person not able to be saved? Clearly, this verse is not as exclusive as some might want to make it. Though this chapter is rather effective as an argument because of its reliance on the Scripture, it runs contrary to good biblical study to take one (or even ten) verses out of their context, quote them, and claim that they support a certain position.
In the penultimate chapter Dr. Nash takes on two important points relating to some inclusivist opinions. The first is the concept of postmortem evangelism; the second is various concepts of Hell. On the topic of postmortem evangelism Dr. Nash discusses the importance of 1 Pet. 3:18 - 4:6, though it seems unnecessary to carry the reference out to 1 Pet. 4. It seems clear from 1 Pet. 3:19, that in some sense Jesus preached to spirits in prison. The Roman Catholic catechism and the Apostles’ creed both speak to this concept, and Dr. Nash seems to overemphasize the break between chapters three and four in 1 Peter, when in the original there was no break. It does not seem to be as big an exegetical leap as Dr. Nash seems to say to claim that 1 Pet. 4:6 is referencing the same situation as 1 Pet. 3:19. Also, Dr. Nash seems to dismiss without explanation why Jn. 5:25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Does not matter in the discussion of postmortem evangelism. It requires one to translate “dead” to mean spiritually dead, to which the text does not necessarily lend itself. The last section of this chapter Dr. Nash devotes to a short discussion of Hell and the various implications for the exclusivist’s position. Primarily the issue is, that if the exclusivist’s position is true, then billions of people who have never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus will be, indeed are right now, burning in intense eternal torment in Hell. Both the annihilationist view and the segregated levels of hellish torment stand in favor of the exclusivist’s argument. If Hell is non-literal, or if the souls of the non-elect are annihilated some time after death, the exclusivist position is no longer so difficult. The un-evangelized are not tormented for eternity just because they happened to be born thousands of miles from where Christianity had reached, they are simply destroyed. Dr. Nash does not employ this type of argument (perhaps because he has a literal view of Hell), but it might have served to strengthen this section of his work.
In the final chapter of this text Dr. Nash presents some basic reasons why he is not an inclusivist. He starts with an important statement that many dogmatists of all types would do well to consider. That is, one should be willing to honestly answer that one cannot fully know what salvation means to those that have never heard. An interesting note here though, Dr. Nash says we cannot know what names will be in the Lamb’s book of life mentioned in Rev 20:12ff, but he neglects to address this small line: “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life …” (emphasis added). What are these other books that are opened here? One pastor in this area claims that this is a possible reference to books that have the names of those that are not in the Lamb’s book of life, but are nonetheless saved. Dr. Nash is right in saying that inclusivism can be dangerously close to pluralism, but it does not have to be. One can square inclusivism with theology, philosophy, and biblical texts. The arguments may not be strong, but Dr. Nash would do well to take his own comments to heart about the details of salvation referencing Deut. 29:29, God has not directly or overtly declared His plans concerning those that have not heard, neither the inclusivist nor the exclusivist should claim to know otherwise.
In general the arguments in this section of Dr. Nash’s work are clearly not as powerful nor as pointed as in the first section (against pluralism). Honestly, this topic is quite difficult, and this critique could have continued for many more pages. Time and space are limited however, and this critique needs to come to a close. One passage from CS Lewis’ classic children’s book series came to mind in defense of inclusivism. In the Last Battle the characters pass through a figurative death into Aslan’s country (the Christ figure). One such character was a young enemy soldier who had a passionate desire to meet his idea of God (Tash in the story), and after finding himself in Heaven face to face with Jesus worships Him, and says that he does not belong there. When that character, Emeth, is telling his story later he speaks of the words of Aslan: “For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand. But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said [Aslan], unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.” Obviously, one cannot hold CS Lewis to speak for God in such terms, but it is an interesting argument nonetheless.
God is goodness personified, and while the Bible clearly states that no one measures up to God’s holy standard (Rom. 3:23 and others), Lewis is saying that one cannot do good in service of the Devil. And vice versa, one cannot do evil truly in the service of God. It may seem like the Bible teaches that unbelievers cannot do good at all, but that is primary from a Calvinist view of total depravity which seems to take the depravity of sin beyond what the Bible actually teaches. Personal experience teaches, that though unbelievers are often sinful and often exchange the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:25), it does not necessarily follow that an unbeliever cannot at least try to act in accordance with their conscience and the prompting conviction of the Holy Spirit of their sin. It seems that though Dr. Nash references various theological points against inclusivism and various biblical references against the idea, he does not defeat it nearly as completely as he seems to think. This shortcoming is particularly clear in the concluding chapter when Dr. Nash directs his criticism to the inclusivist’s rationale for missions. Interestingly, the same critique can and is levied against strict Calvinist views. If God has already chosen whom He has elected to be saved, what point is there in evangelism? As if our human efforts in evangelism somehow effected the will of God in whom He has already elected for salvation. The question may also apply to the inclusivist, but it seems much easier to answer.
Another important issue that Dr. Nash does not seem to take into account at all throughout this second half of his book. When one is investigating these claims, one must be careful to not let one’s feelings influence one’s conclusions on both sides of the discussion. Though the inclusivist’s claims are much easier to swallow emotionally, that does not have any bearing on the truth of that claim, and vice versa, despite one’s strong feelings toward a particular theological system, those feelings do not make one right. It seems that Dr. Nash is rather passionate about Calvinism (or at the least against his idea of Arminianism), which seems to cloud his assessment of Drs. Pinnock and Sanders’ Open Theism. One other very important thing to keep in mind in this discussion. These arguments (specifically inclusivism, as pluralism is not Christianity and pluralists need to be evangelized) must be held only within the Christian family. When it comes to apologetics and evangelism, one should not claim to know for certain one way or another when it comes to the details of soteriological ideas (with some exceptions). Imagine an exclusivist giving a message at a funeral for a person who had never heard of Jesus giving a message to the deceased’s family that their family member was most certainly in Hell suffering for eternity! Within Christian circles it is important to discuss these types of theological differences, but when one brings the Gospel, though it is offensive in itself, to the unsaved one must lay aside one’s theological opinions and simply preach Christ’s work.
- "Catechism of the Catholic Church - Christ Descended into Hell." Catechism of the Catholic Church - Christ Descended into Hell. Accessed March 6, 2015. http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p122a5p1.htm.
- Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle New York, New York: HarperCollins, 2010, 188.
- Lockman Foundation (La Habra Calif.). New American Standard Bible. La Habra, Calif.,: Foundation Press Publications, 1977.
- Nash, Ronald H. Is Jesus the Only Savior? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994, 104.
- Ibid. Quoting from: Sanders, John, No Other Name Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992, 131.
- Ibid, Quoting from: Pinnock, Clark H. A Wideness in God’s Mercy, 130.
- Slick, Matt. "What Is Open Theism?" CARM. Accessed March 6, 2015. https://carm.org/what-is-open-theism.
- “Revelation, General." In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell, by B. Demarest. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 2001.