Friday, January 25, 2008

The Gospel according to Hollywood

Recent months have seen a flurry of email debate on the subject of 'Inclusivism'. Very simplistically, this is the teaching (increasingly seeping into 'some 'Evangelical' thinking) that explicit faith in Jesus is not essential for a person to saved - so that a sincere & pious person could be saved on that basis especially if they have little or no knowledge of Jesus themselves. Inclusivists argue that it is presumptous and arrogant for us to exclude such people from benefitting from the salvation that comes through Jesus just because they don't meet our framework of understanding - e.g. having some measure of explicit faith in Jesus as the Son of God etc. A much fuller and better summary of Inclusivism has been written by John Thomson and is accessible HERE. My own contribution to the debate is written below....

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of my father’s death and so I visited the Hall of Remembrance at Linn Park to look at the entry for him in the Book of Remembrance and have a few quiet thoughts. My father was not a Christian, would never have claimed to be and in fact would have expressed an ‘open mind’ about whether God existed or not. As a Christian, dare I say an evangelical Christian, these facts are obviously a great sorrow to me. However, I ultimately have to place my feelings against the reality of a God before whom no-one will be treated unfairly or dealt with in anyway that is inconsistent with His good character – in this regard I can have total confidence that any punishment will absolutely ‘fit the crime’. These are genuinely painful words for me to write – but what I must resist is the temptation to customise a theology to sit more comfortably with my situation. I cannot stand over God’s Word and mould it according to my preferences and inclinations. I must stand under it even when that is a hard thing for me to do.

The reason ‘exclusivsm’ has been the historic orthodox belief of the church was not because people in the past were more callous, or because life was easier then (quite the converse generally), or because scholarship was less thorough – but because the view that prevailed (starting incidently with those closest to the Scriptures in time, culture and language) was that its ‘plain meaning’ predicated salvation on confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and believing that God had raised him from the dead (Rom 10:9). Of course, we could add repentance, obedient discipleship, and perseverance etc - but we should be very wary of subtracting from the Bible’s repeated expectations of what true & saving faith will look like. Indeed in terms of where we default on the Gospel surely it would be cupable rather than generous to dilute it and thus risk a complacency that could (and almost inevitably will) lessen the evangelistic imperative – afterall there is all the difference in the world between reaching people because we want to save their souls as opposed to enhance their lifestyles.

Does this mean that the Gospel has ceased to be ‘good news’ and instead become ‘bad news’ for those who do not know God or obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus (1 Th 1:8)? Well yes, I suppose, in the sense that the gospel is also ‘foolishness’ to those who perish – but to those it saves it is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18). However, just as the lifeboat doesn’t become ‘bad news’ because not everyone gets on it, the Gospel doesn’t become bad news because not everyone will be saved.

The problem, I perceive, with ‘inclusivism’ and other neo-liberal theology, if you want a downside, is that it ultimately takes us to universalism or salvation through works. It may be comforting to those from religious backgrounds who hope that enough ‘faith stuff’ will have rubbed off on their families and friends to ‘see them alright’ – but it leaves no hope for those from non-religious backgrounds. Unless of course we go down a works based basis of salvation – e.g. he’s a really sincere kind of guy as opposed to being one of those nasty yobs.
Alternatively we just tip over into ‘universalism’ because with Marcion of old we strip God’s character down to ‘kindness, unconditional love [although presumably not for the devil], empathy, generoisty, grace, and a pensive yearning for community’. Thus overlooking His holiness, justice, purity, righteousness etc. Indeed if God, as has been suggested, would never reject one of his children ‘no matter how wayward or rebellious they have been’ – why would anyone go to Hell? Surely every person would be saved? But ‘inclusivists’ aren’t apparently ‘universalists’. Instead they create a ‘religious exclusivism’ wherein salvation is for those who have religious tendencies or humanitarian concerns – a kind of ‘Gospel according to Hollywood’ in which decent folks go to heaven and only the real 'baddies' go to hell.

If inclusivism depends on having to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul (or Matthew and John for that matter) then it undermines both. For all we know of the Gospel comes to us through the apostles – Jesus never wrote a book. So everything we read about Jesus is mediated to us through an apostolic writer – why do we assume that Matthew has more authority or insight than Paul or John?

‘God is a rewarder of those who seek him’ – what does it mean? It means what it says. But the next question is: who seeks Him? The Bible says there is ‘no-one who seeks God’ (Rom 3:11). Those worshiping idols (that are no gods – and certainly not the True Lord, Ps 96:5) are not seeking ‘Him’ – to worship Baal was not regarded as seeking, albeit in a bit of a muddle, Yahweh. Some worship money, others their stomachs, others corrupt dieties of their own imagination – but they are not seeking the LORD. Only by hearing the Gospel can people know who to call upon and thus be saved (Rom 10:13-14).

Like every generation we stand at a fork in the road – between the historic faith delivered to the saints and a new proposition. In the C19 it was rationalism (trying to accommodate the faith to science), in the C20 it was materialism/prosperity gospel (trying to accommodate the faith with Western wealth). In the C21 it seems to be pluralism. Each a response to cultural pressures and the fear of being out on a limb. Liberal theology always prides itself on being at the cutting edge of theology when in reality it is usually just at the trailing edge of society. It may be that in a culture saturated with pluralistic values that some in the church have quite independently come up with a theology that coincidently dovetails with it – but however it has arisen it surely cannot claim to be any part of historic evangelical belief.

Not the same... (Benedict XVI & Indulgences)

In days when Evangelical distinctives are increasingly being eroded by a culture of 'unity before doctrine'- the following links on a recent anouncement by Benedict XVI should make all Bible believing Christians pause for thought....

BBC: Pope Approves Lourdes Indulgences
Telegraph: Trips to Lourdes to cut time spent in purgatory
Catholic New Service: Pope OKs plenary indulgence for Lourdes' 150th anniversary