In the past I’ve written several posts about why I’m an Inclusivist. Inclusivists hold that it’s possible that some who haven’t been evangelized can still be saved through Christ. For a more complete explanation of the view, see this post.
Exclusivists, on the other hand, hold that the unevangelized will not be saved, since they do not know of Christ. This is a view that I respect (since I’m not certain of my view). Recently a fellow Arminian named Brendan Burnett wrote a good post advocating for the Exclusivist view. Even though we disagree, I appreciate his challenge to my thinking and his gracious tone. You can see his post here. I wrote a comment on his blog, and this post is an expansion of those thoughts.
One of the passages that Exclusivsts refer to is Romans 10:14-15. Brendan references it in his post.
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
On the face, this text would appear to rule out Inclusivism. Paul seems to be saying that someone can’t believe or call on Jesus unless they have heard the good news preached to them. However, I think that is an over-reading. That’s not Paul’s argument. To understand what Paul is talking about, it’s necessary to take a wider look at Romans 9, 10, and 11. Paul’s concern in these chapters is is with the physical descendants of Abraham, the nation of Israel. Most of the Jews of Paul’s time did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Paul was grappling with that fact. Israel is God’s chosen nation. How then can it be that so many Jews do not believe? That is the background for Romans 10.
Arminians generally agree that Romans 9 is about the unbelief of Israel. It is not about Calvinistic election. The problem with the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 is that they initially acknowledge that it’s about Israel, but when it gets down to the particular examples of Romans 9 (Jacob, Esau, Pharaoh, etc), they forget that it’s in reference to Israel, and claim it’s about individual election and reprobation instead.
I think Exclusivists make a similar jump in conclusions with Romans 10. Romans 10 is not about the unevangelized (who are not addressed at all), it’s about the Jews who actually have been evangelized, and who still don’t believe. Israel is still in focus.
Specifically in chapter 10 Paul asks if the the reason Israel does not believe is because they have not heard the good news or do not understand it. But he comes to the conclusion that Israel has heard the good news and does understand it. He writes, “But I ask: Did they [Israel] not hear? Of course they did…” (Romans 10:18) Paul’s argumentation in Romans 9-11 follows this line: he repeatedly presents possible reasons why Israel doesn’t believe in Jesus, and then he shows how each of those possible reasons is not the actual case.
For example, are the Jews in their predicament because…
God has failed? No, God hasn’t failed (Romans 9:6).
God is unjust? No, God is just (Romans 9:14-15).
They haven’t heard the good news? No, They have heard the good news (Romans 10:18).
They haven’t understood the good news? No, They have understood the good news (Romans 10:19)
God has rejected them? No, God hasn’t rejected them (Romans 11:1)
They have stumbled too far to be redeemed? No, they haven’t stumbled too far (Romans 11:11).
Romans 10 is not about the unevangelized, even though it initially looks like that on the first reading. Rather, Paul is asking if the reason the Jews haven’t believed is because they haven’t heard or understood. But he then comes to the conclusion they have. In other words, the Jews had been evangelized but still didn’t believe. So, I think the exclusivist interpretation of Romans 10:14-15 is a misapplication and an over-reading.