Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (eds. Okholm and Phillips)

Written by Michael Vlach.

Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World


Okholm, Dennis L. and Timothy R. Phillips, eds.
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996. pp. 283
Reviewed by Michael J. Vlach


With the understanding that religious pluralism is the greatest challenge facing Christianity in today’s Western culture, Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips assembled the writings of five scholars to address the issue of whether explicit belief in Jesus is the only way to salvation. The contributions of these scholars, along with introductory comments by Okholm and Phillips, are found in the book, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, edited by Okholm and Phillips. The idea for the book arose out of the 1992 Wheaton Theology Conference that brought evangelicals together to discuss the challenges of pluralism and inclusivism.

In this work, John Hick argues the view of normative pluralism and its assertion that all ethical religions lead to God. Clark Pinnock promotes inclusivism and the view that salvation is ultimately based in Christ even though people of other religions may be saved apart from explicit faith in Christ. Alister E. McGrath argues for a particularist view of salvation from a post-enlightenment perspective. R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gary Phillips present a particularist view from an evidentialist perspective.

This paper will give a critical review of Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. It will attempt to accurately summarize the views of Hick, Pinnock, McGrath, and Geivett and Phillips. This paper will also evaluate the arguments made by these contributors.

Introductory Issues as Presented by Okholm and Phillips
Okholm and Phillips offer a helpful introduction to the issues of pluralism, inclusivism and particularism. They do this by discussing the rise of religious pluralism and the challenges it has brought to Christianity.

Okholm and Phillips point out that the traditional Christian view of particularism was challenged during the Enlightenment (8). Schleiermacher took an important step toward inclusivism when he asserted that God is salvifically available in some degree in all religions even though the gospel of Jesus Christ is the fulfillment and highest manifestation of this universal awareness (8). Classical liberalism followed Schleiermacher’s inclusive assertions until the late nineteenth century when historicism and its heightened awareness of cultural and religious relativities challenged the claim that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of religion. Ernst Troeltsch argued that all people at all times are purely historical creatures, therefore, all religious claims are culturally conditioned perspectives of the divine. Being unable to make normative religious judgments, Troeltsch espoused pluralism (8-9).

Okholm and Phillips assert that the late twentieth century “has heightened the dialogue regarding other religions” (9). In the current pluralistic environment normative religious claims are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Likewise, arguments for the uniqueness and superiority of Christianity are not well received. They also point out that the differences between liberal inclusivists and pluralists are only a matter of degree (10). In fact, in recent decades some liberal leaders have crossed over to religious pluralism. The strong pull towards pluralism has also affected conservative Christianity as more within the conservative camp question whether explicit belief in Christ is always necessary for salvation (11).  

Pluralism as Presented by John Hick
Okholm and Phillips point out that John Hick “towers over all other pluralists in influence and renown” (13). Hick believes salvation must be understood in more general terms than Christianity has traditionally allowed. According to Hick, salvation should be understood as a human change—a gradual transformation from natural self-centeredness to a radically new God-centeredness (43). He calls this transformation “salvation/liberation” (44).

Hick believes that all ethical religions lead to God and rejects the view that Christianity alone is superior or uniquely true. He opts for the view that “the God-figures of the great theistic religions are different human awarenesses of the Ultimate” (39). Presenting himself as a former Christian fundamentalist who is familiar with traditional Christian claims, Hick explains why he rejects Christian particularism in favor of pluralism.

First, Hick rejects the Bible’s authority and its ability to settle theological issues. He believes that the Bible presents pre-scientific beliefs and cultural assumptions that are no longer acceptable today (33). He also does not believe that God reveals propositions to people in human language. To Hick, the formulation of theology “is a human activity that always, and necessarily, employs the concepts and reflects the cultural assumptions and biases of the theologians in question” (36).

Second, Hick rejects the New Testament teaching of the incarnation. To him, Jesus was not God and never claimed to be divine. The New Testament declarations of Jesus’ deity were written by people who did not know Jesus and reflect a gradual deification of Jesus in the minds of Christians. Hick’s denial of the incarnation naturally leads him to reject the “central doctrines of Trinity and Atonement” (52). Hick says the idea of the incarnation was a metaphor. To him, Jesus embodied as much of the infinite divine moral qualities as could be expressed in a finite human, but Jesus himself was not divine (57).

Third, Hick argues that the morality of Christians is basically the same as people who belong to other religions. If Christianity were uniquely true, he asserts, Christians should be morally superior. This is not the case according to Hick (39-42). Since people of differing religions have basically the same sense of piety and morality, this suggests to him that the major world religions are basically equal and saying the same thing.

The primary appeal of pluralism is that it fits well with the thinking of modern Western society. Today’s society holds to a high view of man that has carried over from the Enlightenment. It also likes to stress fairness and equality and shows a disdain for the idea that large numbers of people may be lost for eternity because they never heard of or trusted in the Christian message.

Hick’s pluralism appears to be an enlightened approach to religion but it has more problems than solutions. The first major issue with Hick’s pluralism involves his starting points for understanding people and religions. Hick’s starting point appears to be the Enlightenment’s positive anthropology and Western conceptions of fairness. He also explicitly states that he rejects the Bible’s authority when it comes to evaluating religions. Not only is this high view of man being challenged in the new postmodern environment, Christians who believe the Bible must reject Hick’s starting points. For those who accept the Bible’s authority, Hick’s perspective on these important matters is certain to be skewed since he rejects the one true source that is able to give us direction on these important matters.

Second, Hick disrespects and even insults the major religions by claiming that they are basically teaching the same thing. As McGrath’s analysis showed, Hick’s perspective is shallow and shows a disregard for what the major religions actually teach. Certainly, there are aspects of Christianity such as the Golden Rule that have parallels in other religions, but there is much about Christianity that is mutually exclusive to other religions. The Christian belief in one personal God, for instance, cannot be reconciled with Buddhism and Hinduism. The Christian view that God is a God of grace and mercy who can be reached only through faith alone is foreign to the Allah of Islam. The deity of Jesus Christ is a particular of Christianity that is rejected by other religions.

This reviewer also disagrees with Hicks’ attempt to mold Christianity into his own image. Hick wants to acknowledge that Christianity is a way to God but only after stripping it of its essential elements. He also wants to keep the elements of Christianity he finds acceptable while rejecting other parts. For example, Hick wants to keep the ethical teachings attributed to Jesus in the New Testament but rejects any claims concerning Jesus’ deity. Such distinctions appear arbitrary and subjective.

Third, this reviewer rejects Hick’s modern assumptions that religious beliefs are totally culturally conditioned and that true knowledge of God cannot be reached. It is true that humans are influenced by culture and that no one person or group has a complete understanding of “the truth.” If God does exist, however, why should He not able to reveal Himself in such a way that humans can have some true knowledge about Him and His ways? 

Inclusivism as Presented by Clark Pinnock
Clark Pinnock believes that inclusivism correctly offers a middle ground between exclusivism and pluralism. To him, “Inclusivism believes that, because God is present in the whole world (premise), God’s grace is also at work in some way among all people, possibly even in the sphere of religious life (inference)” (98).

Pinnock asserts that inclusivism rightly holds to two equal theological truths—the particularity of salvation through Christ and God’s universal plan to save sinners. Particularists, Pinnock says, hold the former and not the latter. Pluralists, on the other hand, deny the former and affirm the latter. “Inclusivism,” Pinnock asserts, “permits us to hold both particularity and universality at the same time” (142).

Pinnock points out that inclusivism is not a tightly defined position. He says his form of inclusivism is “cautious” or “modal.” Unlike another influential inclusivist, Karl Rahner, Pinnock stops short of stating that other religions possess salvific status or are vehicles of salvation. Pinnock holds that “Religions can be pathways to damnation” (113). He does believe, though, that the Holy Spirit is operative in human religion in a way that prepares people for the gospel of Christ (96). He also claims that wherever the triune God is present, grace must be present (98). Using the examples of Melchizedek and Cornelius, Pinnock states, “I believe that the Bible supports inclusivism” (109).

Important to Pinnock’s inclusivism is the belief that “God can use both general and special revelation in salvific ways” (117). Pinnock rejects the traditional idea that God reveals himself in such a way that worsens the condition of sinners and makes their plight more hopeless (117).

Pinnock should be credited for emphasizing the vastness of God’s mercy and forcing particularists to reexamine their beliefs. This reviewer, though, was disappointed with Pinnock’s defense of inclusivism. First, Pinnock appears to have a higher view of human religion than Scripture does. Scripture consistently presents the other religions as wicked and idolatrous. God viewed the religion of the Canaanites as an abomination (Ezra 9:1). Paul was persecuted for teaching that the gods of the Gentiles were “no gods at all” (Acts 19:26). In his letter to the Thessalonians Paul commended his readers for turning to God from idols (1 Thess. 1:9).

Second, Pinnock’s anthropology is not true to Scripture. He does not address Scripture’s strong emphasis on man’s depravity. He appears to share with Hick the idea that people are basically good and are deserving of a chance at salvation. Salvation in Scripture, though, appears based more on God’s choice than on something God owes the human race. His claim that general revelation can save is also not supported by Scripture.

Pinnock’s inclusivism is most striking in his assertion that people of other religions may still be saved even if they reject the Christian gospel and remain in their current religion (120). How can this be reconciled with Jesus’ message in Matthew 10:37-39 that no one who is unwilling to deny mother, father, and even his own life to follow Him is worthy of salvation?

McGrath’s Post-Enlightenment Particularist View
McGrath presents a post-Enlightenment particularist approach to salvation, but the main focus of his chapter is to highlight the major problems with pluralism. After acknowledging that the issues raised by pluralists are important, McGrath shows why he believes pluralism is seriously in error. According to McGrath, the whole issue of religious pluralism has been “fatally flawed” by a mentality that demands that all religions be “reduced to the same mold” (156). The assumption by pluralists that all religions are basically saying the same thing reflects an outdated foundationalism and a view of religion that reflects a Western cultural bias.

McGrath argues that interaction between people of different faiths is good. He disagrees, though, with religious discussions that overlook important areas of disagreement. Proper discussion can enhance understanding of other religions and cause Christians to reexamine long-held views that rest on inadequate scriptural foundations, but it should never be at the expense of downplaying key beliefs (159).

McGrath, therefore, calls on theologians to respect all religions and their unique elements. Christianity, for example, holds to key beliefs that separate it from other religions. As he states, “The New Testament thus affirms the particularity of the redemptive act of God in Jesus Christ” (163). This foundational difference should not be ignored or “merged into the various concepts of divinity found in other religions” (165).

McGrath also draws attention to the Reformed view that God has revealed himself to all people through natural revelation. Thus, McGrath, unlike Karl Barth, does believe that people of other religions know some true things about God from the creation. Knowledge of God from natural revelation, though, does not necessarily translate into salvation.

In the last four pages of his chapter, McGrath specifically addresses his personal views on salvation. He states that we can be assured that all who respond in faith to the explicit preaching of the gospel will be saved. He does not, though, conclude that only those who respond to the explicit preaching of the gospel will be saved. According to McGrath, “We must be prepared to be surprised at those whom we will meet in the kingdom of God” (178). He cites the Ninevites, the queen of Sheeba and those who lived in Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom and Gomorrah as examples of people who may have experienced salvation in untraditional ways.

McGrath says the traditional evangelical view that a verbal proclamation of the gospel is always necessary for salvation is “flawed” (178). This approach, he says, “limits God’s modes of action, disclosure, and saving power” (178). For McGrath, “A human failure to evangelize cannot be transposed into God’s failure to save” (178). God’s prevenient grace is at work and may bring salvation to people even if their “act of hope and trust may lack the fully orbed character of an informed Christian faith” (179). Although giving no documentation or explanation, McGrath claims that many Muslims are becoming Christians through dreams and visions of the risen Christ. For McGrath, then, human preaching is a means that God uses to bring salvation, but it is not the only means. In the end, McGrath states his confidence that the Judge of the earth will do what is right (Gen. 18:25).

As mentioned, McGrath’s discussion is mostly a critique of pluralism. In this area he does well. McGrath rightly charges Hick with disregarding the particularity of Christianity and overlooking the major differences between the world’s major religions.

This reviewer also agrees with McGrath’s emphasis on the particularity of Christianity and the necessity of belief in Christ for salvation. He may also be correct in his assertion that we may be surprised as the number of people we will meet in heaven (178), although the texts he uses to support this assertion are questionable. His use of the Ninevites, queen of Sheba, and the cities of Tyre, Sidon, Sodom, and Gomorrah are not true challenges to traditional exclusivism. The Ninevites and the queen of Sheba had access to special revelation. The Gentile cities he mentioned may be less guilty than Jewish cities that rejected the message of Christ, but this is no evidence that people in those cities were saved.

McGrath may also be correct that human preaching is not always necessary for a person to be saved. God may use extraordinary means outside of human proclamation to bring people to saving faith. Like McGrath claims, God may use visions of the risen Christ to bring people to faith. How much of this activity takes place is not known. This reviewer wishes McGrath would have documented his statement that many Muslims are coming to Christ through special visions of the resurrected Christ.

Geivett and Phillips’ Evidential Particularist View
Geivett and Phillips promote the view that “individual salvation depends on explicit personal faith in Jesus Christ” (214). Their position is a version of Christian particularism that is sometimes called exclusivism or restrictivism. This view has been the traditional view of Christianity up until the Enlightenment and still has many adherents today.

Geivett and Phillips set forth their methodology for engaging inclusivists and pluralists. The discussion with inclusivists is a “first-order intramural debate” between those who accept and believe the Bible. Thus, debate over what the Bible says becomes primary. In this context, they do exegesis and theological analysis of texts they believe support particularism. The texts they use include Acts 4:12; John 3:16, 18; Romans 10:9-15; and John 14:6; 17:20. Geivett and Phillips argue that these texts affirm the necessity of explicit belief in Christ for salvation to occur.

With pluralists, however, there is a “second-order intramural debate.” Here arguments from Scripture are not the starting point since pluralists do not accept the Bible’s authority. For Geivett and Phillips, discussion with pluralists is possible, but the starting point must be natural theology. In particular, they begin with arguments for the existence of God to set the base for their eventual conclusion that we can trust God’s special revelation as found in the Bible. To them, natural theology and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead give strong evidence that the Bible is true and that we can trust it when it speaks to how one must be saved.

This reviewer finds himself mostly in agreement with the position of Geivett and Phillips. The strong emphasis in the New Testament on faith in Christ for salvation and the emphasis on taking the gospel to the ends of the earth are strong evidences for Christian particularism. Plus, although John 14:6 and Acts 4:12 do not present an airtight case for particularism, these texts do emphasize the exclusive nature of Christianity.

Geivett and Phillips are to be commended on two points. First, they are to be commended for their scholarly and humble attempt to establish the truth of their position. As they say, “We have not argued merely for the coherence of our position; we have argued that it is true” (245). They not only offered the most specific exegesis of any of the writers, they also interacted seriously with the texts most emphasized by their opponents.

Geivett and Phillips also point to a practical issue in their favor. If the pluralists are correct there is little danger in preaching inclusivism or particularism. If the inclusivists are right there is little danger in promoting particularism but it is risky to promote pluralism. If particularists are correct, however, there is great danger in promoting pluralism and inclusivism for many will be deceived into thinking they are saved when they are not. The consequences of this last scenario are disastrous.

Not all of the points made by Geivett and Phillips were equally good. This reviewer did not find their discussion on Christian evidences as being particularly helpful. Though in agreement with their conclusions about general revelation, such a discussion appeared out of place. Perhaps this space could have been devoted to more important matters and amplifications of other points made in the chapter. Plus, one could believe in the particularism of Geivett and Phillips and also hold to a presuppositional apologetic that would not start with evidences for the existence of God.

In sum, Four Views is a significant work that presents the major views on salvation in a pluralistic world. It is a helpful read for those who want a basic overview of the major positions on this important issue.

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