Inclusivism is the Christian doctrine that teaches it is possible to be justified through Jesus Christ without explicit or complete knowledge of who he is. Specifically, inclusivists hold that it’s possible that some who have never heard the preached word can still be saved through Christ. Inclusivists believe that Jesus died for the world, and that God is working in the heart of each person in order to draw them them to Himself. Given God’s character, we can trust Him to do what is right. The intent of this post is to illustrate that inclusivism is Biblical, and that it is a position that Arminians should endorse as orthodox.
Inclusivism is often maligned by those from the Reformed perspective. It has nothing to do with universalism or pluralism (see this post, where I address what it is, and what it is not). Inclusivists believe that non-Christian religions are in error and keep people from God. But we also believe that God has the capability to save some non-Christians. This is in spite of their errors, not because of them. Inclusivists believe that Jesus is the only way. We also believe that those who reject Christ will be eternally lost.
I am a hopeful inclusivist. Given what scripture teaches about the character of God, inclusivism makes the best sense to me. God can be trusted. He sees the heart. Through Christ, God is capable of saving those who have a distorted view of who he is.
A plenary reading of scripture gives us evidence that inclusivism is likely to be true. God shows no favoritism, but accepts people everywhere who fear him. God is love. Jesus’ blood purchased people from every tribe and nation. Jesus is good news and great joy for all people. The shepherd seeks out the lost sheep. Jesus is the light of the world. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Jesus died for the world. God is not willing that any should perish, but wants all to repent. The grace of God brings salvation to all men. God did not send his son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Jesus is the propitiation not just for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world. When Jesus is lifted up he will draw all men to himself. The servant who does not know his master’s will is beaten with few blows. A multitude that no one can count will be before the throne. These verses (and other verses like them) make inclusivism probable.
Every Tribe and Nation?
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb (Revelation 7:9). People from every tribe and nation will be represented in heaven. Every tribe. This presents a problem for exclusivism, as there are tribes who have not heard of Christ. Moreover, there are extinct people groups who never heard the preached word. Inclusivists believe that people from those groups will be represented before the throne, just like John’s vision affirms. One such tribe is the Teotihuacans – a group that lived in southern Mexico between 300 BC and 900 AD. Other tribes in the Americas (and throughout the world) disappeared prior to the arrival of missionaries. Since these tribes never heard the preached word, they will only be represented in heaven if inclusivism is true.
Mercy Trumps Doctrine – the Good Samaritan
The Samaritans were the heterodox heathens of Jesus’ time. We have a tendency to romanticize them today, however, their history and religion were despicable. Imagine a voodoo worshiper who integrates a few Christian symbols into his religion, and you have a pretty good idea of what Jews thought about Samaritan religion. The Samaritans were those from the northern kingdom that had intermarried with pagans, and had worshiped Baal. In Jesus’ time they refused to worship in Jerusalem, and they had dedicated their mountain temple to Zeus.1 In one case they opposed Jesus simply because he was on his way to Jerusalem. James and John despised them so much they asked Jesus if they could call down fire from heaven to have them all destroyed (Luke 9:51-56). Yet only a few verses later in Luke, an expert in the Law asked Jesus what he needed to do to be saved. Jesus’ answer was the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Jesus said that the Samaritan who had mercy was preferable to the Levite and Priest who did not. Jesus said the same thing about the sheep and the goats. “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” (Matt 25:31-46). John said the same thing about love. Everyone who loves others has been born of God. Whoever “claims” to love God yet hates his brother is a liar (1 John 4:7-21). In God’s view, mercy trumps doctrine every time.
The Shortcomings of the “Biblicist” Argument
Exclusivists argue that inclusivism is wrong because it is not explicitly affirmed in a particular proof-text. But there are other doctrines that exclusivists do not hold to the same standard – such as the doctrine of the Trinity, and the doctrine of Prevenient (or Irresistible) grace. A teaching that deserves special attention is the “age of accountability”. Outside of a few hyper-Calvinists, there is broad consensus that those who die in infancy and the severely mentally handicapped will be saved. This doctrine is arrived at through a plenary reading of scripture that appeals to the character of God. The “age of accountability” is a type of inclusivism. It affirms that God will not by default reprobate those who lack the capability to understand the gospel. In order to be consistent, those who reject inclusivism because it’s not “Biblical”, also ought to hold the same standard for infant salvation.
Inclusivism in the Early Church
Perhaps without realizing it, today’s exclusivists are promoting doctrinal prejudices that are holdovers from Roman Catholicism. Wesleyan Jerry Walls notes that “There is a significant tradition of Inclusivism going all the way back to the church fathers.”2 Forms of inclusivism were advocated by church fathers such as Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, and others (see this post). These include the same fathers who spoke Greek natively, defeated Arianism and wrote the creeds. But after Rome began to control the church, inclusivism dropped off the radar until the time of the Reformation. The state church had a vested interest in dictating who was and wasn’t saved. Augustine went so far as to state that all Christians not submitting to Rome were damned3, as were all non-baptized infants4. Augustine’s view became the default one. During the Reformation, theologians both inside (Erasmus) and outside the Catholic Church (Luther, Zwingli) began to consider inclusivism once again. They placed more emphasis on scripture, and less on Catholic tradition. Some Reformers continued to hold to exclusivism, replacing “Catholic” with their own state sponsored Protestant denominations.
Exclusivism is Synonymous with Calvinist Thought
All Arminians ought to reject exclusivism for the same reasons they reject Calvinism. Our view of God ‘s character demands it. Calvinists claim that God wants everyone to be saved, but then go on to argue that God doesn’t give grace to everyone, and justly leaves the reprobate in their sin. Exclusivists claim that God wants everyone to be saved, but then go to argue that some don’t hear the gospel, and God justly leaves them in their sin. There is no practical difference. Neither group has genuine means to be saved. Anyone who believes that God is drawing everyone to himself ought to be at least sympathetic with the inclusivist view. We can leave those who do not hear the preached word to our good and capable God. He always does what is right.
(1) David Carson, Who were the Samaritans?
(2) Jerry Walls, Heaven: The logic of Eternal Joy, p81
(3) Augustine, Address to the People of the Church at Caesarea “Outside the Catholic Church one can have everything except salvation. One can have honor, one can have the sacraments, one can sing alleluia, one can answer amen, one can have faith in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and preach it too, but never can one find salvation except in the Catholic Church”
(4) Augustine, On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants