This is a repost of a 2010 article I wrote for The Christian Post. In the article I address a reader’s question regarding the consistency of assenting to my denomination’s Statement of Belief whilst affirming the possibility of the salvation of those who have never heard the Gospel. It is important that the evangelical community be able to have these kinds of open discussions because there are some very vocal people in the evangelical community who believe that they are the gate-keepers for orthodoxy. And they try to quash dissent and stamp out discussion while foisting their particular reading of the Bible and creedal/confessional statements on the wider community as if that were the truth unvarnished.
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A few weeks ago in the midst of defending inclusivism I made the statement that “Inclusivism is consistent with the NAB statement of faith to which my seminary ascribes”. Well dwilkinson is a sharp bloke, and so he then quoted the NAB statement:
“We believe salvation is redemption by Christ of the whole person from sin and death (II Timothy 1:9-10; I Thessalonians 5:23). It is offered as a free gift by God to all and must be received personally through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ (I Timothy 2:4; Ephesians 2:8-9; Acts 20:21).”
Dwilkinson then commented: “Maybe I’m missing something, but this sounds exclusivist to me: MUST be received PERSONALLY through repentance and FAITH in JESUS CHRIST.”
In other words, doesn’t the NAB Statement of Belief exclude inclusivism even as it includes exclusivism?
I thanked Dwilkinson and promised to get back to the question because it isn’t adequate to deal with it in a quick response. Now finally here’s that fuller response.
Let’s start with a simple example. You’re a retired librarian spending an afternoon in the library. You take a book off the shelf, read the cover, and decide that it is not what you need. You are about to put the book back when you notice a sign that says “Please do not reshelve books.” You have a dilemma. Can you reshelve this book? After all, the space is right there. And you’re a former librarian yourself. You can see that the book is being correctly reshelved.
This scenario illustrates the point that general statements must be interpreted in concrete situations. We all are sensitive to this tension as we recognize that general statements are intended to deal with a specific set of cases and are much less helpful on marginal cases unanticipated by the original writer(s).
So how rigid should we be in adhering to the statement or directive as given? What does faithfulness to the statement or directive require? That is a debated question. Different people may draw different conclusions on when it is appropriate to deviate from the general directive not to reshelve books.
Life is full of such ambiguities. We agree on “Thou shalt not murder.” But there are innumerable marginal cases. To note but one, at what point is anticipated “collateral damage” (e.g. civilian deaths) in a bombing campaign a violation of that maxim? The answer is not a simple one.
Now we come to the NAB Statement of Faith. What does faithful adherence to a statement like this require? There is an interesting parallel here with a basic question in jurisprudence (the philosophy of law). Judges disagree on how they interpret and apply a document like the constitution.
Some judges adhere to the doctrine of originalism according to which judges should be restricted to discerning the original meaning and/or intent of those who composed the constitution. Others hold to the theory of living constitution which takes the meaning of the constitution to be dynamic. For those of this view, the constitution must be reinterpreted for every generation because new contexts, situations and circumstances arise. The original writers could not stipulate every potential application or implication of the constitution throughout time so we must interpret and apply it.
It is important to note that one cannot go to the constitution itself to settle the matter of its interpretation. This is a theoretical question that conditions how one reads the constitution to begin with. Just as one adopts a particular interpretation of “Please do not reshelve books” or “Thou shalt not murder”, so one takes a particular interpretation on the constitution and its range of interpretation and authority.
The same lessons apply to the interpretation of a document like the NAB Statement of Faith. How shall we interpret that document? Should we focus on the original meaning/intention of the composers of the 1982 statement, or can we adopt a more nuanced living approach to the statement?
To simplify matters, let’s set aside the creedal equivalent of “Living Constitution” here and focus on a creedal originalism. Even with this more restricted position it is very difficult to establish that inclusivism is in any way incompatible with the statement.
To illustrate, let’s travel back in our time machine to 1982 when the NAB Statement was composed. Now survey the pastors and smattering of theologians gathered there and ask them this question: “Do you intend to exclude infants, the mentally handicapped and saints living before the time of Christ from this statement (because that is what a strict exclusivism does)?”
What percentage do you think would say yes? I am guessing about zero. (I make that statement not on a whim but having been a theologian working within the NAB conference for a number of years, occasionally in the capacity of ordination committees and councils.)
Now ask those gathered the more controversial question. “By this statement do you intend to assert categorically that God cannot redeem people today through the work of Christ though they may never have heard the gospel?” On this question you would undoubtedly encounter some disagreement. But that is precisely the point: the issue was (and is) a matter of ongoing discussion. Inclusivism just is accepted as part of the legitimate range of debate whether you choose to frame it within the context of originalism or living creed.
(Some concrete examples of this: My own NAB pastor has no problem with inclusivism, and he’s a sharp cookie. My fellow faculty at the seminary recognize the legitimacy of the inclusivist position. One of my peers, himself a theologian, was part of the process of authoring the 1982 statement and a coauthor of the companion study guide and he recognizes the legitimacy of the inclusivist position.)
Lest one think this is simply a game one plays with creeds/statements of faith, we should remember it reflects the same complexities that attend interpretation of the constitution, an ethical maxim, or even a simple directive on the wall in a library.