How do the various claims to truth of world religions relate to one another? Further, how should Christians think of salvation for those who have never heard? The traditional distinction to answer this question breaks into three categories:
- Exclusivism: Jesus is the only Savior of the world, and one must believe God’s special revelation culminating in the gospel of Christ to be saved.
- Inclusivism: Jesus is the only Savior of the world, but one does not have to believe the gospel to be saved.
- Pluralism: All paths are valid and lead to God.
Andy Naselli points to Christopher W. Morgan’s “Inclusivisms and Exclusivisms” in Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism (WTS books). Morgan drills down into these categories, and notes that while most theologians still operate within these traditional sectors as a framework, in reality there are nine discernible categories:
- Church exclusivism: No, outside the church there is no salvation.
- Gospel exclusivism: No, they must hear the gospel and trust Christ to be saved.
- Special revelation exclusivism: No, they must hear the gospel and trust Christ to be saved, unless God chooses to send them special revelation in an extraordinary way—by a dream, vision, miracle, or angelic message.
- Agnosticism: We cannot know.*
- General revelation inclusivism: Yes, they can respond to God in saving faith through seeing him in general revelation.
- World religions inclusivism: Yes, they can respond to God through general revelation or their religion.
- Postmortem evangelism: Yes, they will have an opportunity to trust Christ after death.
- Universalism: Yes, everyone will ultimately be saved.
- Pluralism: Yes, many will experience “salvation” as they understand it because they embrace their version of the real.
(*Side note: I’m surprised at the placement of “Agnosticism” between loose exclusivism and tight inclusivism. I would think it would land between 7 and 8, no? I have not read Morgan’s contribution, so perhaps he’s describing agnosticism differently, but typically I would think of an agnostic answer as not sitting well with many “conservative inclusivists” [oxymoron – Ed.], much less exclusivists.)
At first blush, it may seem that Reformed theology is not only squarely exclusivist, but also in #1 of the nine: Church exclusivism. Not only do Reformed theologians tend to the conservative side, but the following quotes display the high view of the (visible) church that Reformed theology has generally demonstrated.
He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”
— Cyprian, Treatise on the Unity of the Church, 6.
“To those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother.”
Calvin Institutes IV.i.1
“We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it”
Belgic Confession Article 28
“The visible Church… out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”
Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2
I would contend that Reformed theology also suggests an organic relationship between all three of the exclusivist categories of special revelation, Gospel, and Church. The concept here is that the hypothetical individual who receives a certain amount of special revelation doesn’t (ordinarily) remain in the category of “special revelation exclusivism.” Rather, as God’s revelation finds its fulfillment in Christ, who unites us to Himself and (simultaneously) His Church, all of these categories become swept up in God’s free agency and transformative power.
Various texts make this clear. In Acts 10, Cornelius could be thought of as one who receives “special revelation” that is devoid of the specific Gospel content (Acts 10:3-6). But notice, by the time God’s message has accomplished its purposes, Cornelius has trusted in the crucified & resurrected Messiah (10:40), received the Holy Spirit (10:44), and was baptized (10:48). (NB: in Acts, to be baptized is to be joined to the visible church, cf. Acts 2:41 – 47.) The Great Commission doesn’t climax in “holy pagans” or even “converts,” but calls for disciples that are baptized and obeying all of Christ’s commands, including those concerning His Church. The logical conclusion of Romans 10:14 – 15 has people “calling on the Name of the Lord.” But this calling isn’t merely the sinner’s prayer nor responding to special revelation (cf. Joel 2:32). It comes after believing in Christ (Romans 10:14) and receiving the Holy Spirit for the Day of the Lord (Joel 2:29ff).
When doctrines like the inspiration of Scripture and the two natures of Christ are taken seriously, universalism seems foolish. When doctrines like original, and the noetic effects of, sin are taken into account, inclusivism (as described above) seems needless. And when doctrines like the ordo salutis (Romans 8:30), the efficacy of God’s word (Isaiah 55:11), and the priestly intercession of Christ (Hebrews 7:25) are employed in biblical fashion, the organic unity of God’s saving purposes in the Covenant of Grace become that much clearer.