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A fundamental point in this theology of religions is the conviction that God's redemptive work in Jesus Christ was intended to benefit the whole world. Hence the title-A Wideness in God's Mercy. The dimensions are deep and wide. God's grace is not niggardly or partial. To use a phrase of political columnist Ben Wattenberg's: The good news is that the bad news is not true. For according to the Gospel of Christ, the outcome of salvation will be large and generous.
Nineteenth-century Calvinist theologian William G. T. Shedd said there were two soteriological errors to avoid: "First, that all men are saved; secondly, that only a few men are saved." My intention is to avoid both errors, and in this chapter specifically to refute the fewness doctrine and replace it with an optimism of salvation based in Scripture. It is important because the position one takes on this issue will influence and condition one's attitude to God and to non-Christian people. Another reason it is important is that to accept the fewness doctrine invites the pluralist theologies to come into play.
The first two chapters belong together, spell out the two-sided truth claim at the heart of Christianity; and provide the parameters for soundly Christian thinking about a theology of other religions. The two components of this dialectical truth claim are universality (God's love for all humanity) and particularity (the reconciliation of sinners through Jesus' mediation). This two-sided truth is visible everywhere in the New Testament: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son" (Jn 3:16). "This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him" (1 Jn 4:9). "And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world" (1 Jn 4:14). "... God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ" (2 Co 5:19). In these central texts we are told that God gave a gift to the whole world in the person and work of Jesus Christ. No other foundation can be laid than this for Christian theology and mission (1 Co 3:11). It offers the two basic parameters for a theology of religions: God provides salvation for the world (the many) through the person of his Son (the one).
This chapter focuses on the first axiom, the universality side of the equation, and inquires into the scope of God's salvific will and the extent of his graciousness. One really needs to know whether or not God is committed to the salvation of the race or only intends the rescue of a relatively small number from hell and judgment. Is God interested in human welfare on a large scale, or is he content to be involved with a fairly slender thread of history? The answer to these questions affects one's approach to the nations and their religions. It determines whether an optimism or a pessimism of salvation conditions our thinking and whether we are full of hope or are hopeless in respect to the multitudes of non-Christian people. Universality needs to be discussed first because it marks a major fork in the road.
The foundation of my theology of religions is a belief in the unbounded generosity of God revealed in Jesus Christ. This topic, like many others, comes down to the question of God. Who or what is God and what does he want or intend? Is he the kind of God who would be capable of sitting by while large numbers perish, or the kind to seek them out patiently and tirelessly? Does God take pleasure and actually get glory from the damnation of sinners as some traditions maintain, or is God appalled and sadded by this prospect? My reading of the gospel of Jesus Christ and my control belief causes me to celebrate a wideness in God's mercy and a boundlessness in his generosity towards humanity as a whole. (When I use the term "control belief," I mean a large-scale conviction that affects many smaller issues.) The issue is summed up for me by what the apostle Peter says: "[God] is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pe 3:9). I cling to Paul's word too: "[God] wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Ti 2:4). Paul also said: "For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all" (Ro 11:32).
There are different reasons why Christians have felt threatened by the existence of other religions in the past and have found it difficult to relate lovingly to them. These would include geographical isolation, awkwardness in the presence of conflicting truth claims, and competition between our mission and theirs. There is also a theological reason why we have felt uncomfortable with people of other faiths-a lack of confidence in God's generosity toward them. Dark thoughts have clouded our minds. For centuries, thanks largely to the Augustinian tradition that has so influenced evangelicals, we have been taught that God chooses a few who will be saved and has decided not to save the vast majority of humanity. God is planning (in his sovereign freedom) to send most of those outside the church to hell, and he is perfectly within his rights to do so. If as a result large numbers perish, theologians have assured us that God would feel no remorse and certainly deserve no blame. The result of such instruction is that many read the Bible with a pessimistic control belief and find it hard to relate humanly to other people. This is hardly surprising. We have to answer the question, Does God love sinners at large or not?
This negative control belief is what drives certain Christians straight into theological pluralism. They are led into extremes in their revising of Christian doctrine chiefly because they cannot accept God, as revealed by Jesus, as One who would consign most people to hell and deny them access to salvation. Theological liberalism reacts sharply and correctly to such a cruel and incoherent reading of the gospel that has all too often marred the orthodox tradition and assassinated God's character. Speaking boldly, pluralists are right on this point; insofar as certain of its representatives have presented God as a cruel and arbitrary deity, orthodox theology badly needs revision and correction. However, my belief is that trinitarian theism does not entail a cruel and arbitrary God at all, and changing it provides no solution.
The first move theologically is to establish an optimism of salvation, to make it perfectly clear that God is committed to a full racial salvation. The God we love and trust is not One to be satisfied until there is a healing of the nations and an innumerable host of redeemed people around his throne (Rev 7:9; 21:24-26; 22:2-6). I intend to make the case for salvation optimism, and for a hermeneutic of hopefulness that may assist us in negotiating a necessary paradigm shift away from our current pessimism. To put it out in the open, I want evangelicals to move away from the attitude of pessimism based upon bad news to the attitude of hopefulness based upon Good News, from restrictivism to openness, from exclusivism to generosity. If we could but recover the scope of God's love, our lives and not just our theology of religions could be transformed.
A HERMENEUTIC OF HOPEFULNESS
The basis of an optimism of salvation is found in the earliest chapters of the Bible, in the global covenants established in those passages. There is a universal orientation there that we should not miss. The first major division of Genesis deserves an importance greater than is normally given to it. Genesis 1-11 depicts the beginning of history and places the calling of Abram in the context of God's concern for the whole world. These narratives are revolutionary even today. God's dealings with Abram are situated in the context of universal human history. The patriarch is called from Ur of the Chaldees, not for his own sake or his family's sake, but for the sake of the whole world. God called Abram so that all of the families of the earth might be blessed in and through him (Ge 12:3). This is the beginning of a pattern that will become familiar throughout the rest of Scripture, the pattern of God setting aside one person (Abram) to be the source of salvation for many (the human race). It seems to be God's way to choose a single representitive of the group to deal with the whole group, and this appears most singularly in Jesus being presented to us as the last Adam, the one who represents the race as its Redeemer (1 Co 15:22).
Excerpted from A Wideness in God's Mercy by Clark H. Pinnock Copyright © 1992 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted February 5, 2002
Until I read this book, my Evangelical Christian joy had never known lasting freedom from the 'Evangelical' combination of two doctrines: exclusivism and endless hellfire--the beliefs that the unevangelized dead must go straight to hell and must burn there forever. It is primarily with the former that this book is concerned. The author also discusses a variety of related topics, such as what to make of religions, what is good about them and what is lacking apart from Christ. Readers should be moved to realize that God's unique revelation in Christ does not diminish his ability to work in the lives of people worldwide, even for salvation. The most memorable point of the book is that it gives abundant biblical consideration to the claim that God is both willing and able to forgive people who do not hear the gospel. The author beautifully defends this claim with scripture, as well as in citing and quoting from very important names throughout church history, from early to recent. It took me two readings of the book to fully drive out the fears that once bound me. But the truth once again has set me free, and this book is one of the most important books a Christian can read, provided he/she believes in God's love for all and his ability to forgive whomever he wants to.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.