James has posted his second contribution to the present discussion of salvation and inclusivism (see also here, here, and here, and my previous responses here and here). I was going to reply directly on his blog, but since my comment grew rather long, I’m going to put it here as a separate post instead. This will also be somewhat applicable to Alex’s excellent comment on my previous post. James said:
Is the Christian community to understand itself as a community that seeks to ensure that those within it have the characteristics of salvation and a genuine relationship with God? Or are those who have salvation and a genuine relationship with God those who are part of the Christian community?…
If we take the former view (as I do), then it is not that Christianity is a group that one enters because only therein one can find salvation, but one enters it either because it offers a community of those who have had a particular experience of God and are united by it, and invite others to have it….
I think that Paul would have been the first to recognize in those outside the Christian community who showed the defining features of true faith in God (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control…) individuals who knew God and stood in a right relationship to God.
I may have to take a page from Michael’s book and say I don’t know how well either position fits with mine. The second option in particular is ambiguous, because I think defining “who is part of the Christian community” is a bit precarious – does it include all denominations, or just a few, or just those people within (a/any) denomination who truly follow Jesus, etc. If “the Christian community” simply means, “every true follower of Christ, no matter where they are” then I would probably agree with the second option, but with a large qualifier that one can be “a follower of Christ” without, perhaps, knowing much of anything about Jesus (as James says, like Abraham). But that seems a little tautological to me, rather like saying “you’re a Christian if you’re a Christian.”
So that leaves me with the first option, which again I can agree with, but only with qualification: Yes the Christian community is seeking “to ensure that those within it have the characteristics of salvation and a genuine relationship with God,” but that sounds rather like the Christian community is, in essence, no different than any other devout religious community, except that they might perhaps have a few more of the right answers, or might follow “the important rules” a bit better. Again, hopefully both those things are true of the Christian community (though they are not always, even among the genuinely saved), but they don’t seem to really get at the heart of the matter. The Church isn’t just a fan-club; it is a kind of union or mutual abiding with Christ (according to Paul and John respectively). Spelling out exactly what that entails would take a lot of exegetical discussion, and to be honest I don’t have it all figured out myself, but I do think the New Testament conception of being “in Christ” involves more than simply adhering to his teaching, or even trusting and following him.
Thus, while I agree with much of what James says, especially that biblical “faith” has as much to do with trust and faithfulness as it does with “belief” (as many today would define it), I don’t think we can so easily evaporate the dividing line between Christian and non-Christian, even if we maintain that God can rescue even those on the wrong side (for at one time, we all were so). It seems to me that Paul is not abolishing all such boundaries, but rather shifting them from membership in Israel, to “membership” in Christ. If I may be permitted to wander into the Deutero-Pauline Epistles, it is noteworthy that the New Testament’s strongest affirmation that “the dividing wall of hostility” has been broken down, appears precisely in the midst of a discussion of our essential oneness with Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22). It is precisely because we are one in Christ that the barrier has been destroyed.
In the end, I don’t know if I am disagreeing with James, or merely seeking to clarify what he has said, but I look forward to further conversation.
UPDATE: This post is part of a continuing conversation.