Four Views of Salvation in a Pluralistic World by John Hick, Clark H. Pinnock, Alister E. McGrath, R. Douglass Geivett, and W. Gary Phillips

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Theology and Faith
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John Hick argues for a pluralistic understanding of world religions.  In other words, Christianity is “a way, not THE way” to salvation.  Hick bases his conclusion on several premises.  The major observation that leads Hick to promote pluralism stems from perceived morality of others.  Hick says that there is no demonstrable evidence that would lead one to say that any religion produces a higher degree of morality than any other religion.  In fact, he states, the “average” of morality across the various religious traditions do not seem to vary at all.  Furthermore, he concludes that the weight of refuting such a claim rests upon Christianity.

Another complaint Hick levels at evangelical Christianity is its doctrine of “inerrancy.”  The pre-scientific ideas of Scripture are in contradiction to what is known in science about the way the world works.  In addition, Hick deconstructs the “Incarnation” of Christ as nothing literal but merely symbolic.  Even more, Hick assumes that Jesus himself did not teach that he was God but would have thought this to be blasphemous.  Thus, Hick understands evangelical exclusivist belief to be a travesty and falsehood.  Instead, all religions should be viewed as a partial but incomplete understanding of “the Real.”

First, Hick’s assumption that the “average” morality of Christianity, if true, should be higher than the “average” of other religions is problematic.  First, due to the fact that this cannot be measured, it is purely subjective in what is being “averaged.”  That’s not to say that one cannot see such things in action, but it is hard to quantify the actions or the motivations behind them.  This hardly seems like good criteria in which to base a estimation of a religion’s overall truthfulness.

Secondly, because the Church is both a mix of sinners and saints, it is difficult to say that the “average” (if it could be assessed) would indeed be higher than other religions.  Furthermore, one must distinguish between the institutional Church and the Church that is God’s people.  These are sometimes in cooperation and other times in contention.  This is not always able to be distinguished, but can be a helpful category to consider when the “morality” of the Church looks less than what it should.  After all, even Jesus proclaims that not every that says “Lord, Lord” will be considered faithful, despite the monikers they may wear that suggest otherwise outwardly.

Hick’s complaint against the understanding of “inerrancy” has some valid points.  However, I also think that his overall argument is shaky at best.  First, “inerrancy” is only one particular understanding of Scripture within evangelicalism.  Wesleyan thought, for one, affirms that all things necessary for salvation are contained within Scripture, but does not deny the “contradictions” and difficulties that are often found within Scripture.  Also, Hick’s modern understanding of the world leaves no room for mystery and tension and thus wants to explain away everything.  However, this is a misconception about what is even possible to know.  There are plenty of mysteries within the world that are beyond explanation, yet we no more question the truthfulness or reality that is life because of these things.  Why must we do the same for faith?

Yet, I will digress.  I do not think we have to throw the “baby out with the bathwater.”  Just because there are difficulties or contradictions with Scripture does not mean that it communicates truth in nothing more than symbolic ways.  Rather, there is a fundamental foundation that must be asserted: “All Truth is God’s Truth.”  Scripture is thus in no way threatened by scientific truth.  And, we must also understand the nature of Scripture, which is not a “scientific” treatise for understanding the world.  Rather, it is a theological work that confirms “who” is working in the world, not necessarily the scientific explanations for “how” that came about.

Finally, Hick’s argument against the Incarnation solely rests upon the “fact” that Jesus did not teach that he was God.  He primarily bases this conclusion on the fact that the Gospels are theological writings constructed several decades after Jesus’ resurrection.  However, just because these Gospels may not contain the actual words said by Jesus, that does not then mean that they are not congruent with Jesus’ teaching.  In fact, there would be no outside criteria by which to make such a claim.  Rather, the early Church came to such conclusions about Jesus based on the evidence, not simply circumstantial whim.

Again, the tired argument for pluralism based upon a loving God that would send unbelievers to hell is a gross misunderstanding of the doctrine of hell.  I generally think that free will refutes these misconceptions.  Hell is not simply a punishment, but a consequence.  In order for free will to be a reality, there must be two paths or choices available.  Thus, “hell is the terrible compliment that God pays to the human race by taking it seriously.”  In other words, God values each person’s decision enough to allow them that natural consequence of such decisions.

Overall, I found Hick’s generalized statements concerning evangelical Christianity lacking weight.  There were subjective arguments without much objective evidence with which to interact.  In fact, Hick made many of the same mistakes of logic that he levels at evangelicals.  The result is a distortion of Christianity to be something it was never intended to be.  This violates the integrity of this religious tradition, which is what pluralism actually claims to protect.

Clark Pinnock’s “inclusivism” had a number of things that I agreed with.  First, his emphasis on prevenient grace undergirds his “pnuematology” for salvation.  That is simply to say that God is continuously working to bring us into relationship with the Triune God.  Essentially, it is a relational ontology, rather than epistemology from which Pinnock draws his conclusions for an inclusivist approach to salvation.

Pinnock argues that God is everywhere available and present.  As such, he has an optimistic view of other religions.  They are evidences, in his opinion, of people trying to respond to God’s redeeming grace through Christ.  Salvation is found through Christ alone, but not everyone has the opportunity to hear about Christ.  Yet, because they respond to the promptings of God’s Spirit, they will be saved.  As such, Pinnock does not align with an “exclusivist” viewpoint, which falls much closer to the thought that people must know Jesus and call upon him for salvation.  This view is supported by Phillips/Geivett.  McGrath does not quite go as far.

In all of this, Pinnock sees the other world religions as opening up possibilities for the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Yet, God is not dependent upon our preaching to reach others.  In fact, God may use specific or general revelation to call others into relationship with God.  Thus, there are elements within other religious traditions that can be used to connect the Gospel with the world of others.  In this way, Christianity is seen to fulfill the great promises of the other world religions.  At the very least, I am sympathetic with some of Pinnock’s observations and affirmations.

McGrath, on the other hand, represents a particularist viewpoint.  However, McGrath also leans more toward Pinnock’s understanding than he does toward Phillips/Geivett’s position.  McGrath mainly concentrates on combating Hick’s pluralism, in which he makes several valid points.  For one, McGrath argues that Hick deconstructs Christianity’s particularity but insists on keeping some of its framework, which makes little sense without the underlying Christian convictions.  In essence, Hick trades in a “known God for an unknown God” whom he insists is knowable despite being ineffable.  Hick’s argument is contradictory.

Also, Hick argues that the understanding of the various religions should be conceived in a unilateral fashion.  In other words, a framework has been forced upon the various religions trying to show how they deal with various ideas.  However, this gives a false impression that they are primarily concerned about the same sorts of things or that they are even conceptualized in similar capacities, which is utterly false.  That’s not to say that they can’t have a dialogue, but it does mean that the goals are not the same.  As such, according to McGrath, it is impossible for pluralism to be taken seriously because it does not truly value the intricacies within the various religions.  In essence, it is not wrong or elitism to have Truth claims.  Those are a natural part of religion.  Because religions hold competing goals, it is impossible for them to both be true.  Pluralism is merely a competing, albeit poorly constructed, truth claim.

Pinnock complains against McGrath’s lack of seeing the positive in other religions.  McGrath says as much by focusing on the ways that religions are different than in the way that they might be similar.  Pinnock wants to focus on the possibility of other religions opening doors to the Gospel.  McGrath says that their concepts are too different to sustain any conversation that aims toward the same thing.  That does not mean that religious dialogue cannot happen.

However, looking at the Book of Acts, Paul employs a similar method to Pinnock’s.  Paul finds an “unnamed god” that the Greeks revere.  Paul then proclaims this unknown god to be Jesus, who is actually The God.  Despite the immense differences in understanding and purpose of Christianity and Greco-Roman religion, Paul interjects Christ into that world to explain the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  One might see God’s grace at work in the moment and in spite of flawed religion to save those who responded.  It seems that McGrath is close to saying something along those lines but still remains hesitant to confirm this.

Phillips and Geivett approach the issue of salvation in an apologetic manner.   Using reason in order to work from the natural order to a logical conclusion that God must exist, the authors try to show why special revelation is a necessary and natural thing to expect.  Of course, this special revelation is given through Scripture.

I largely found their argumentation missing steps and several assumptions that underlie their construction, which other might not so readily accept.  For one, they suggest that special revelation can be expected because God has already begun to reveal God’s self through the natural order.  However, I find this highly suspect.  One does not necessarily entail the other.

Secondly, they posit that we have free will.  If that is true, then in order for us to have a real choice, it would seem that God would have set up the system in such a way that two possible, logical choices are available.  In other words, God created everything so flawlessly that a reasonable creature might either choose or not choose relationship with God!  There is no real freedom if there are not real choices.  Thus, natural theology can only hint at the possibility but not prove conclusively that God exists or that God reveals God’s self!

Due to their Reformed roots, Phillips and Geivett are not naïve about the potential pitfalls of their argument.  Thus, they employ “middle knowledge” as a way for God to know beforehand what someone would choose if they could hear the Gospel.  This is problematic though.  First, if humans are given real freedom, then God can only know potentials.  As such, the future does not exist as a set of knowable facts.  Rather, the future exists as a set of possibilities.  God might be able to ascertain with accuracy what someone would choose, but middle knowledge sounds much more like foreknowledge which would not entail free choice.

Another issue revolves around mission.  Phillips and Geivett believe that explicit knowledge of Christ is the only way to salvation.  Despite their arguments, this seriously maligns God’s nature: slow to anger, abounding in love.  Yes, God would be just to condemn us.  However, that is the power of the Gospel!  God loved the “whole world” that God’s son comes and dies for us!  To say that the God’s Kingdom is limited by our preaching is to put a serious constraint on the work of God.  Phillips and Geivett do not even confront the Old Testament work of God because this is before Christ and it ignores God’s work done in those who responded to God despite never having explicit knowledge of Christ!

Middle knowledge also creates problems in the area of mission.  For instance, if God already knows what someone would choose or will choose if they were to hear the Gospel, then it logically follows that our preaching does not matter.  God will save those who would respond and condemn those that would not.  Thus, explicit knowledge of Christ does not matter in their schema.  Overall, their argument has too many holes in it to be sustained.

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