Posted by: Ken Brown | February 22, 2008

More Inclusivism and Salvation – Response to James McGrath

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.


  1. I have responded once more to James. As for this post of yours, I think you’re close to the mark. We can’t “evaporate” (great choice of word, by the way) the line! I think I touched a bit on this when I talked in my latest post about joining Christ as opposed to joining the Church. It is in joining Christ that one becomes joined to the Church (in salvific terms), not really the other way around. Again, I am speaking of salvation/right standing here, that’s all! It is a bit more spelled out in my latest response.

  2. Ken, Like you I find these positions wanting. Heh, I don’t feel all that qualified to chime in here—there’s no seminary training in this girl. If anything, I’m more an arm-chair theologian (and a very simple arm chair it is). And while the inclusive/exclusive/pluralism debate is an interesting one (and one I’ll admit I’ve dipped into now and then), the thing that’s got me here has to do with defining “Christian community” or “church.” And like you so well put it, they don’t get to the heart of the matter–and that’s where my heart is (and thus my following, rambling comments).

    I fall in with those who propose “the church” is not a community to be joined or defined, a place to go or a thing to do, something we make or create. Rather it is more organic and living. It is an overflow of the life we find in Jesus, a spilling out of our relationship with him, an expression of the Kingdom here and now, a living-together as followers of Jesus, an organic, breathing, moving, alive expression of the Kingdom here-and-now. It is something we are (the called out ones, the people of God, the body of Christ, ect.) rather than something we do or join or belong to. It is the living and working together of those who walk with God and participate in his restoring rule of Love, Life and Right-ness.

    If the church is built as an overflow from our relationship and new life in Jesus, then that living together will have elements of both positions James lays out: “seeks to ensure that those within it have the characteristics of salvation and a genuine relationship with God” (sounds like one aspect of discipleship to me) as well as “those who have salvation and a genuine relationship with God those who are part of the Christian community” (as by its very nature this community overflows from a genuine relationship with God). But is so much more!

    Can we know if others are God’s people, these called out ones, living-together in the Kingdom, working with God in his restoring, life-bringing, right-making, death-swallowing work? I think Paul lays out some tell-tales in his letters—the fruit and actions we bear, how we act towards others, whether we love or not. But I’m thinking that imitating or aiming for those actions isn’t enough. I think it all comes down to the relationship we share in Jesus, for out of that relationship spills this community called the church. Without him, we can’t be and experience it—-maybe a shadow or echo of it, but not the real thing.

    Can people bear that fruit, participate with God in his work and know Jesus (and thus be the church) without ever hearing his name? Heh, I tend to fall in with an image more than a position: the Calormen in C.S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle” (which, I know, is often used among inclusivists). But I won’t get into here because I’ve already taken up WAY too much of your comment space.

    Again, my comments are off the track and are meant less as a contribution to the conversation you are having with James and Michael (which makes my head hurt) but more of one I’ve been enjoying with you on our blogs in recent weeks. Blessings.

  3. Michael, I’ll be reading your response with interest, but I don’t think I’ll attempt much further on the subject today.

    Carmen, those are some great thoughts. These are deep issues that we are unlikely ever to get to completely worked into a unified system, so the more perspectives we can get, the better! Oh, and I’ve been thinking about that character in The Last Battle as well, and also about another passage of Lewis’, I think from Mere Christianity, which I’ll post if I can find it. And if I can’t, well I’m sure the suspense will just kill you! 😛

  4. Good words.

  5. […] or Salvation of the Community ~Drew responded: Who Benefits from Salvation? II ~Ken responded: More Inclusivism and Salvation – Response to James McGrath Michael posted his second entry: A Rejoinder To James McGrath James posted his third entry: […]

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