Friday, March 03, 2017

Pinnock: Paging Evangelical Inclusivists?

I've started doing a little research lately in the theology of religions. We'll see what may come of it. In that vein, I ran across the following passage, which delighted me with its verve and rhetorical punch (quite apart from how one might evalute the author's claim). These comments come from a forward, penned by the late Clark H. Pinnock, to the book No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized, by John Sanders (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992).

Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven
From The Divine Commedy, Illustrated, Completeby Dante Alighieri
(ed. Henry Francis Cary, 1892)
(PD-US, via Wikimedia Commons)
As Pinnock notes, many critics of conservative evangelicalism are scandalized by the apparent incongruity between claiming, on the one hand, that God loves everyone and, on the other hand, that the Creator, nonetheless, has consigned to eternal damnation billions of human beings across time who have never encountered the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What is needed, Pinnock avers, is a responsible articulation of an inclusivist soteriology, written from an evangelical perspective -- and, he claims, Sanders has delivered a work that helps to close the "credibility gap" caused by this lacuna in scholarship (p.xiii). (Quick refresher: The term "inclusivism" is theological shop talk for the position that Jesus Christ is the only savior, but that individuals might come to a saving relationship with him outside the bonds of explicit faith and membership in a church). Pinnock writes:

It [Sanders' book] has come none too soon, in that liberal theologians are jumping all over us for not making better sense of God's universal salvific will and are capitalizing on our vulnerability to mount outragous proposals of their own which deny the Incarnation and promote what they call theological pluralism but which is really only religious relativism (p. xiv).

Keep in mind that this was written 25 years ago -- back when a poor, humble Arkansas boy was running for President (ah, be still my neoliberal heart!). Still, it seems the "jumping all over" has continued apace. And I wonder what Pinnock would have made of DET and some of our liberal-pluralist-universalist-leaning friends (discretion restrains me from naming names, but you know who you are!). But wait, there's more:

Our position on the accessibility of salvation to the unevangelized gives liberals a window of opportunity to float really heretical notions. By sticking stubbornly to what Sanders calls restrictivism, evangelicals have made it ridiculously easy for liberals to attack classical theology (in particular, its christology). Scholars such as John Hick have been making mincemeat out of us, arguing all too convincingly that evangelicals have nothing to contribute to the discussion of religious pluralism (p. xiv).

In case you've forgotten, gentle readers, Hick was the British philosopher-theologian who argued, rather forcibly and persistently, that all cats are grey in the nightscape that is humankind's glorious religious diversity: The religions, he claimed, are pathways heading toward the one God, the transcendent Real that is the origin and goal of our lives and the source of our common ethical aspirations. In other words, Hick updated classical deism, and gave it a markedly English accent (wait, what? I suppose it already had an English accent, didn't it? Quite.) By "restrictivism," I assume Sanders means what the guild usually calls "exclusivism" -- the position that there is no salvation outside of an explicit, professed faith in Jesus Christ. As this blog post is due in half an hour, I don't have time to double check that.

To wrap up this post (no doubt to your great relief), some final words from Pinnock:

It has seemed for some time now, not only to liberals but to many evangelicals as well, that traditional theology is stuck in deep mud, having no new ideas to put forward and no defense to the serious criticisms made of it. Even the minority of evangelicals who are not restrivists have not been able to construct a decent full-scale defense of the inclusivist paradigm, only bits and pieces of which have been available in print. Well, they can breathe a sigh of relief now, for help has arrived (ibid.).

Note: The notion of having a defense vis-a-vis criticism is logically and existentially distinct from being defensive.

Pinnock himself, I understand, was fond of "new ideas." For example, he had the idea that, if you should want to know what your spouse is cooking for dinner, or whether the hurricane is to hit landfall this weekend, or what tomorrow's lottery numbers are, don't ask God, because He don't know. God perhaps also couldn't tell me whether my editor is ever going to let me anywhere near this website again.



Matthew Frost said...

I've basically run out of words to describe the voluminous disrespect in which I hold people who use Hick as the bogeyman to represent universalism and dismiss all closer options as mere laughable heresy.

For Sanders and Pinnock and "open theism" as essentially a moderate-apologetic version of Evangelicalism, they seem to want to have their cake while eating it. If this isn't a slippery-slope halfway house to Evangelical Universalism, then it is merely an attempt to not look bad in public while claiming what in Knitter's terminology remains an exclusivism of salvation. They are not inclusivists in the sense in which pluralism is the logical third in the typology. The only alternate paths to salvation here are ways in which God works around human failure to do the job, essentially, in response to the straw-man argument that has always motivated missionary colonialism: how are they to be saved if they have not heard?

And it's telling that the real enemy, Hickian straw-man pluralism aside, is those damned liberals with their constant heretical making fun of Evangelicals for believing in damnation and the necessity for conversion/moral choice in order to be saved. The real enemy isn't religious pluralism; it's way-of-life pluralism, moral pluralism. That's the bottom line when Hick is used to color the liberal position as relativism: not that liberal Christianity thinks Buddhism is an equally good and true religion leading to the same God, but the risk nearer to hand that we aren't worried about defining and shaming sinners in order to "save" them by engendering moralistic conformity.

J. Scott Jackson said...

I take it you didn't like the book so much then, Matt? :-)

Matthew Frost said...

Not so much, no. :^) Though it does manage to sound remarkably eirenic for what it is, and I'm still definitely not going to identify myself as anything other than an exclusivist in Knitter's terms. I even gave a paper at AAR once about universalism as properly an inclusive exclusivism. (In which panel we had at least one Origenist, as well as a Liberty Baptist no-show who, in the prep work for the panel, compared universalism to the work of some truly random and out-there fringe figure I'd previously never heard of.)

J. Scott Jackson said...

You're a real trooper. And perhaps the Liberty no-show was recalled by superiors (if not raptured). At any rate, I hope the coffee and bagels were adequate. I find a conference can turn quite sour when the snacks run out....

But to your actual point: I have similar worries about inclusivism, as it might seem, on the face of it, to have at least two problems -- 1) I'm not convinced it necessarily addresses the theodicy worries that tend to prompt the position in the first place. After all, how inclusive must God be? The offer of grace would have to do more than transcend typical cultural and geographical barriers. Wouldn't the gesture also, say, address issues with emotional, intellectual, and spiritual incapacity? How about the "religiously unmusical" (I believe the term goes back to Freud?)? Do they get extra time to decide or an extra nudge? Or the targets of religious violence/trauma, including colonized peoples? God has a lot of work to do, perhaps, to reconstruct a fully cognizant, mature, self-possessed consciousness to counteract all the many ways we screw over each other so that one can make a "100 percent" decision to say yes or no. Perhaps Rahner was wise to bury the ultimate existential decision deep within the mystical recesses of transcendental subjectivity. That's convenient. But the second potential objection is 2) Hello, scandal of particularity! What about the covenantal history, what about Jesus' concrete ministry and death and resurrection? Do these externals become simply window dressing when the real meat of the transaction occurs ... well, not even backstage or in the audience or even at the ticket box but outside the theater altogether?

Matthew Frost said...

Yep, those are at least a sizable number of the problems with moral-choice soteriology, about which it is problematic therefore to discuss scope. And it's why the terminology emphasized (and this is the same on the RC side, e.g. Terrence Tilley, because of Nostra Aetate) is God's universal salvific will, corresponding to the idea of the universal availability of salvation, and dropping the decisive actions in our laps.

The thing about the scandal of particularity is that only moral-choice soteriology faces it, risking abstraction as the price of its apologetic coverage of the "no-fault" cases. It's only a problem when the object of salvation determines its own soteriological status, and when therefore the way of life, and religion, of the object of salvation in each individual case must be understood as their path to salvation as a goal. The real scandal is that it is then no longer the particularity of covenantal history in scripture, but only the notional correspondence of one's life to some version of it, that saves.

All of which, of course, disappears and leaves only the properly respected particularity of salvation history when we leave salvation as an act God does without respect to any concept of merit or demerit of the object. As long as salvation is a purely arbitrary act of God, with purely arbitrary scope, there is no conflict with its decisive particularity—except as we're offended by the fact that it's no longer our particularities that are decisive. The only question is, what is the real character and scope of the act of God?