Is inclusivism evangelical?

In recent years, the criteria for identifying individuals or institutions as “evangelical” have been a matter of debate. Numerous issues have been identified as areas in which one’s credentials as an evangelical can be tested. But I was a bit taken aback, a few months ago, when a Southern Baptist leader of Calvinist convictions stated that inclusivism does not fit within evangelicalism. (Since I failed to record the location of his statement when I read it, I can’t give a verifiable citation, so I’ll leave his name unmentioned.)

CREDO magazine (a fine online publication) has a regular feature called “From the Horse’s Mouth,” in which a few people are invited to respond briefly to a question. The January issue sums up its content as an argument “for the exclusivity of the gospel, especially in light of the movement known as inclusivism.” Its question this month is: “Does inclusivism fall within the boundaries of evangelicalism?” (pp. 14-15).

I was invited to provide a response and I thought you might be interested in hearing all four of them right

 From the Horse’s Mouth

Paul Helm, Research Professor at Regent College, but now living back in England, said:

“The claims of Jesus are clearly exclusive. But we are foolish if we attempt here and now to make a map of where the boundary lies: Many who are first will be last, and the last first. And, do not pronounce judgment before the time.”

Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, said:

“If to be an inclusivist means that one holds that people can be saved through the atoning work of Jesus Christ without having a conscious faith in Him, then all of us who hold that little children who die before that kind of conscious faith still go to heaven–all of us are inclusivists. For me, once you allow that category, it is best to allow some mystery about how Jesus gets ahold of people salvifically, while still insisting that His blood alone can save.”

Stephen Wellum, a theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said:

“Assuming that we define evangelicalism theologically, i.e., as maintaining a robust historic Christian theology as summarized by the Protestant confessions indebted to the Reformation, and assuming that we understand inclusivism as the position which contends that Scripture teaches that responsible people may receive salvation apart from explicit faith in the covenant promises of God which are now centered in Christ, the answer is no. Scripture teaches that salvation is only grounded in the finished, substitutionary work [of] Christ and applied to people in this life by grace through faith in Christ alone. Scripture knows of no salvation for responsible people who are surrounded by the revelation of God, whether in nature or Scripture, apart from hearing and believing the gospel and placing their faith and confidence in God’s covenantal promises now centered in Christ.

I brought up the rear, applying David Bebbington’s 4 criteria to the question:

“Yes. Inclusivism fits very comfortably within evangelicalism, where it has deep historical roots. Its conclusions are reached through regard for the unique authority of Scripture; it values the cross as God’s only means of reconciling sinners to himself; it asserts the necessity of salvation by God’s grace, through faith, and it teaches the urgency of the church’s gospel mission.”

Some reflections

Intriguingly, all the articles in the magazine are written by gospel exclusivists who make a case for that position, but three of the four people speaking to this little question are inclusivists. As some of you may know, I prefer to call the position accessibilism because it identifies clearly the conviction that distinguishes this perspective, namely the belief that God makes saving revelation accessible to everyone. I have identified six forms of accessibilism that differ from one another in regard to the revelation that saves, but all agree that no one is condemned who lacked such revelation.

It was certainly appropriate that at least one gospel exclusivist was invited to answer the question about evangelical credentials. But I would have been much happier if the gospel exclusivist voice among these respondents had granted that, though in error, accessibilists like Helm, Mouw and me are evangelical. The ground on which Steve excludes us is particularly puzzling. He believes that “robust historic Christian theology as summarized by the Protestant confessions indebted to the Reformation” rules out accessibilism. That is an extraordinary claim.

Should we ignore the Church of Scotland’s Declaratory Act (1879), which stated that “while none are saved except through the mediation of Christ . . . it is not required to be held that . . . God may not extend his grace to any who are without the pale of ordinary means, as may seem good in his sight” (Act 4, quoted in John Sanders, No Other Name, 143-44)? Like Mouw, the Westminster Confession (1647) allowed for the possibility that at least some infants may be “saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth,” and it went on to say: “So also are all other elect persons, who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word” (10.3).

In 1888, W. G. T. Shedd contended that “the electing mercy of God reaches to the heathen,” and he stated: “It is not the doctrine of the Church, that the entire mass of pagans, without exception, have gone down to endless impenitence and death. That some unevangelized men are saved, in the present life, by an extraordinary exercise of redeeming grace in Christ, has been the hope and belief of Christendom. It was the hope and belief of the elder Calvinists, as it is of the later” (Dogmatic Theology, 2:706).

Shedd cites a lengthy section from Herman Witsius (1626-1708) to illustrate “the hopeful view which the elder Calvinism took of the possible extent to which God’s decree of election reaches” (2:706). He also quotes Jerome Zanchius (1516-1590) who had commented on the many nations that never had the privilege of hearing the word: “It is not indeed improbable that some individuals in these unenlightened countries may belong to the secret election of grace, and the habit of faith may be wrought in them” (2:708, citing Zanchius, Treatise on Predestination, chapter 4).

Judging by the criteria that Steve has used, it is clear that Reformed confessions and major Reformed theologians have made generous room for accessibilism. If the boundaries of evangelicalism are so tightly drawn that only gospel exclusivists fit within them, a remarkable number of thoroughly orthodox theologians, both Calvinist and Arminian (including John Wesley himself), are excluded from the camp.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

9 replies on “Is inclusivism evangelical?”

A brief thought regarding Steve’s criteria. As a Wesleyan who grew up with Holiness Camp meetings a a clear conviction of God’s holy Spirit working in my life, I find myself wondering if he is evangelical. I am a Pietist and a Wesleyan — neither fits in his definition. If I make my path normative for him (or the Wesleyan path normative for all Reformed Calvinists), a conversation with great potential for mutual benefit degenrates into a political contest for control of the evangelical tent.

I prefer to use a centred-set approach that refers to the creeds (such as the ones Steve referes to — Wesleyans are not good at creeds!), but places a living relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour at the centre. That approach accommodates Wesleyans and Calvinists — and accommodates exclusivists and inclusivists.

Nicely said Daryl. I definitely want to be in the same camp as you and I believe that is evangelicalism. 🙂

As I understand Romans 3:23, the text doesn’t say “all responsible people have fallen short of the glory of God . . .”. If Stephen Wellum’s statement is correct but he allows for the inclusion of infants and the mentally challenged, we must add the word “responsible” to the text of this Romans passage. Either we add the word “responsible” or when we preach the passage we must provide a disclaimer to the effect that God does make some exceptions based on responsive capacity. I see the wisdom of accessibilism in that it simply seeks to verbalize what we seem to understand and allow for internally concerning the salvation of all kinds of people, but preach quite differently in the pulpit. I find the phrase “responsible people ” hard to work with because it forces me to create categories and levels of responsibility. In the case of mental challenge, for example, there are different levels of severity and functionality. At what level of functionality or severity does responsibility become applicable?

I have recently come across those of the synergistic line who have excluded me enthusiastically from evangelicalism, so when I hear those who are making pronouncements so definitively I become somewhat uncomfortable. That is not to say that there is not clear boundaries regarding who is evangelical and who is not. Terry, I trace my theological journey from synergism to monergism to participation in your seminary classes and for what it is worth, I could not imagine labeling you as outside evangelicalism. Although I would invite you to explain more completely how accessibilism is congruent with limited atonement and such passages as Romans 10.

Thanks Tony,

I confess that I’ve never pondered a possible incongruency between particular redemption (i.e., “limited atonement”) and accessibilism.. I understand the point of particular redemption to be the assertion that Christ intended to save only those whom the Father had given him, to whom also the Holy Spirit would apply Christ’s atoning work. It is a matter of Trinitarian harmony/unity. So, when I posit that God saves some to whom he does not gospel in this life, I am affirming that the Father chose those people, that Christ died as their sin-bearer. The Holy Spirit then applies Christ’s work to those people by giving them a repentance appropriate to the conviction of their consciences, and a faith response appropriate to the content of the revelation God has given them, both externally and internally. (I plan a post on the kinds of divine revelation in my current taxonomy, and I will expand on that external/internal matter at that time.)

Does this brief response reduce your sense of incongruity between the two doctrinal points. If not, can you expand a bit on where the incongruity lies? Thanks.

In regard to Romans 10, let me mention that I also envision a post (or series) in which I will give my reading of the key texts to which gospel exclusivists appeal in support of their conviction. So I won’t attempt a full exegesis of the text now but here’s a short take on Romans 10.

Paul’s concern is about his fellow Jews: “Why do they not believe in Jesus as Messiah?” In pondering the possible reasons, he wonders whether it might be that these Jews have not heard the gospel concerning Jesus. He identifies the universal principle that faith requires hearing, which requires a messenger. He does not specify, however, what revelation is necessary for saving faith. That is completely alien to the context of his concern in this text. The principle holds: without revelation, communicated through a messenger, there can be no faith. This was as true in Noah’s , Abraham’s or David’s time as it is in Paul’s, even though the content of revelation which saved those individuals varied considerably, particularly considering people who were saved outside the covenant community. (Here again, a post is forthcoming in which I will sum up my recent ETS paper: “God’s Covenant’s: A Ground for Hopefulness Concerning the Unevangelized.” At that point, I plan to post the paper to a “document” section, for any who are interested.)

The bottom line is that Paul answers his own question with an assertion that the Jews have heard. They are not the “unevangelized,” they have been evangelized but they have not believed. To use this text to address the issue of the unevangelized therefore takes it seriously out of context, though the basic principle enunciated concerning revelation and faith applies in all contexts. Keep listening. More on this will arise in coming weeks and months.

Terry, I read the Credo material, and I experienced the same sort of perplexity that you did. I think what annoys me the most is the idea that every theological debate has to lead to the question, “Is it evangelical?” The real question is whether it is true, and I would prefer that we focus on that, rather than assuming that we need to give a precise definition of “evangelical” and then toe the line. The longer I live, the more I doubt the descriptive power of “evangelical”.

I hear you Stan. I too am beginning to wonder how helpful it is to tell someone that I am an evangelical.

I am thinking, however, that useful information about my theological and ecclesial identity can still be communicated by means of explaining my institutional affiliations. I am, for instance, an orthodox Protestant who identifies myself, in terms of the global Christian church, with the World Evangelical Alliance. (I am an affiliate of its Theological Commission.) Furthermore, I am a member of a congregation with the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptists of Canada, an associate member of a congregation within the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association. I am also Professor Emeritus of Providence Theological Seminary. All of these organizations have statements of faith, and it seems to me that the sum total of these affiliations communicates quite a bit about me to someone who is at all knowledgeable of the ecclesial and academic theological scene.

How do you communicate your identity these days, if simply calling yourself an “evangelical” is too ambiguous to be useful?

Ah, you ask good questions as always. I still use the term evangelical to describe myself, along with other descriptors like Baptist and Calvinist and institutional connections. In other words, basically as you do. What I am uneasy about is a prescriptive rather than descriptive use of “evangelical”. I don’t think we ought to start with a definition of all the parameters of “evangelical”, and then commit to those parameters because I MUST be evangelical. What I am called to be is a faithful disciple of Christ, not a faithful member of a particular Christian tribe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

145,577 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments