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Is Jesus the Only Savior?
Three conflicting answers to the question 'Is Jesus the only Savior?' spark a debate that is dividing religious thinkers in the English-speaking world. This chapter explains the oldest of the three views, Christian exclusivism, the position that answers our question with an unqualified yes. The other two answers, pluralism and inclusivism, arise mainly out of opposition to exclusivism.
I have three major reasons for writing this book: (1) To see whether pluralism succeeds in developing a strong enough case against exclusivism to lead thoughtful people to abandon the Christian church's historic teaching that Jesus is the only Savior (part 1); (2) to see whether inclusivism succeeds in developing a strong enough case against exclusivism to lead thoughtful Christians to embrace inclusivism (part 2); and (3) to present at least some of the reasons why many thoughtful and conscientious Christians continue to espouse Christian exclusivism.
A Definition of Christian Exclusivism
Christian exclusivism can be defined as the belief that (1) Jesus Christ is the only Savior, and (2) explicit faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation. The first claim denies that there are or can be other saviors, a fact that distinguishes it from pluralism. The second claim denies that people may be saved without conscious and explicit faith in Jesus Christ, which sets it apart from inclusivism. Christian exclusivists begin by believing that the tenets of one religion in this case, Christianity are true and that any religious beliefs that are logically incompatible with those tenets are false.
Exclusivism and Biblical Authority
Some people cannot understand why the Bible plays such a normative role in Christian thinking. Such people need to recognize that while humans are free to reject the authority of Scripture, they will only substitute some other authority in its place. Usually that authority is either their own opinions or those of other people. Christians believe that the Bible is God's special revelation 'inscripturated,' or communicated in writing. People who think this way understandably prefer the authority of God to that of some fallen and fallible human being.
The church's access to truth cannot be credited to the natural, human wisdom of its apostles. Rather, it lies in the fact that God himself has graciously revealed himself and truth about himself to select individuals who have given the church an inscripturation of that revealed truth in the Bible.
Many who teach in self-described Christian seminaries and colleges today do not believe and probably do not understand this time-honored notion of revealed truth.
To a great extent, much nonorthodox theology over the past two hundred years is a chronicle of futile attempts to retain respectability for religious faith while denying Christianity access to revealed truth. About the only thing such thinkers can agree on is that God has not spoken and, indeed, cannot speak. And even if God could speak, according to this view, humans are incapable of understanding whatever he might say. The human relationship to God, therefore, must be understood according to some model other than that of receiving information or truth. Instead, it must be understood as an inward personal experience with God devoid of any objective, cognitive means of testing its validity.
Influenced by such views, many theologians and clergy trivialize or repudiate the central role that revealed truth has played in the Christian religion. Knowledge about God is simply declared impossible and replaced by personal encounter, religious feeling, trust, or obedience. This relatively new teaching clashes with the traditional view that divine special revelation is a communication of truth and that human knowledge of this revealed truth is essential to any personal relationship with God.
A study of the literature reveals that religious thinkers who reject the possibility of revealed truth seldom bother to support their position with arguments.1 Their theory has simply become part of the theological mind-set in many departments of religion. Moreover, the doctrine of revealed truth that is so widely rejected today is a straw man-a false target. And finally, the most serious problems with their noncognitive (noninformational) view of revelation are simply ignored.2 The theological agnosticism that is such an important feature of contemporary nonorthodox theology marks a dramatic break with a major tradition of historic Christianity, a tradition that has affirmed both an intelligible revelation from God and a divinely given human ability to know the transcendent God through the medium of true propositions.
English philosopher John Hick is the major representative of pluralism. We will study his views in great detail in chapters 2-6. John Hick professes to have experienced an evangelical kind of Christian conversion when he was nineteen years old and also reports that his early Christian beliefs were generally conservative or orthodox.3 How did Hick come gradually to renounce every essential Christian belief he once affirmed? The obvious starting point lies in his defective understanding of divine revelation and Scripture. Hick's capitulation to the prevailing neo-liberal or neo-orthodox view of Scripture was apparent by the time he published his book Faith and Knowledge in 1957.4 Paul Eddy explains:
Although [Hick] had definitely departed from evangelical theology with his adoption of a non-propositional view of revelation and the attendant implications for the Scriptures, he nonetheless maintained a generally conservative, if neo-orthodox theology. The problem, of course, was that the philosophical foundations for such a theology had been severely undercut by his religious epistemology. In tracing Hick's theological pilgrimage from this point on, one is primarily tracing the effects of the logical implications of his religious philosophy [that is, his defective understanding of special revelation] upon this theology. Thus, one could argue that nearly every major theological development throughout the next four decades was in one sense or another implicit in this early religious philosophy.5
While Eddy applauds Hick's early commitment to such essential Christian beliefs as the Incarnation, he points out that the basis for Hick's actions was less than stable:
In faithfulness to his views of non-propositional revelation and the epistemological primacy of religious experience, Hick finds the cognitive grounds for Christological orthodoxy not in a cognitively-based revelation of truth from God, but rather in the very human attempts of the early Christian community to formulate what they perceived to be the theological implications of their religious experience of Jesus. With this as a model, it is not surprising to find Hick's entire theology continuously spiraling away from its original orthodox source.6