A Response To James McGrath (1)

In his initial post, James asked readers to take the “Flaming Meteorite Challenge”. He posited the following theory (in sum): If, just before Peter had reached Cornelius (a non-Jew; see Acts 10) a flaming meteor had struck him dead, would Cornelius, having already been “righteous enough to be noticed by God”, be included among or excluded from the saved?

Probably, most of us have heard this question in one form or another. Usually, it tends to come up in debates between those who have high and low views of baptism. The one with the low view will ask the one with the high view, “So, if John Doe made a confession to Christ but didn’t have the chance to be baptized, you’re saying he wouldn’t be saved?” Personally, I don’t think the Scriptures answer this specific question. Probably, it would have been closer to the context to ask: If Cornelius’ chariot wheels came off and he wrecked and died, would he still be saved? (joking) Anyway…

For Paul, salvation was a process (present, past and future tenses): you have been saved, are being saved and will be saved. It is also clear to me that in the Early Church, initiation for Gentiles was also a process. Recalling the fact that converts had to go through a lengthy process (sometimes even three years; see the Didache among other documents) before gaining membership in the Body, it is safe to say that they were in no rush. In other words, they were not too concerned with a question like James asks and that’s why I contend that they don’t attempt to answer it. So, the question is not one that Scripture itself speaks to. This means that we can only speculate how the first Christians “might” have answered such a question. Still, had they answered it, I don’t think it would have necessarily placed them in the categories that James sets up.

To try to say, for example, that Paul was “either” an inclusivist or exclusivist is misleading. Paul was both at the same time. As I’ve already stated in previous conversations with James, Paul’s view was that while there is always an open invitation to Christ (inclusivism), the reception of that invitation calls and forces one to place their allegiance in Christ alone (exclusivism). Furthermore, Paul believed that Jews/Judeans could maintain their Jewish practices and be Christ-followers as long as they did not mandate those practices (for inclusion into the Body/salvation) upon Gentiles. So, while Paul allows for a type of religious pluralism (e.g. you can maintain the Law of Moses if you are Jewish and you don’t have to if you are Gentile), it is not a type of soteriological pluralism. If anything, Paul argues vehemently against this in his letters and at times, even uses himself as an example.

This is precisely where James’ analogy fails in the highest because, as I’ve shown, Paul is an exclusivist, inclusivist and religious pluralist all at the same time. What Paul is not is a universalist.

James started the conversation off as he did in hopes of drawing some lines of demarcation. However, while labeling can be helpful (from philosophical and theological perspectives), I think the way he has framed his approach does not work. Again, I can’t answer his question from Scripture because that isn’t a question they deal with. I can, however, answer the question based on other theological tenets that I hold, which I believe are derived from Scripture. In fact, I would say that I adopt Paul’s approach and view as my own. That is, I am at once an inclusivist, exclusivist and religious pluralist. I am not a universalist by any means (of the modern term). I believe that while there is always an open invitation to accept Christ (even through a process), that invitation results in a type of exclusivism. I should be clear, the exclusivism does not have to be rigid, mean, arrogant, etc. It can be a type of exclusivism that seeks to live at peace with those who share a different view—even if one, through conversation, seeks to persuade persons to change their views.

I am a religious pluralist in the sense that Paul was too. It is clear that Paul believed that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob could work through other faith systems. But it is also clear that Paul believed those faith systems were ultimately inadequate. That is why he offered Christ. Paul did not write off all that had happened to him in Judaism before the Damascus Rd. experience. Looking back, he saw God working in him to bring him to a point of understanding the person and work of Christ. The Mars Hill episode is another good example of where Paul says that God could work through other religions to help persons understand Christ. Now, I don’t think God puts persons in those religions. No, I take the view that He meets them where they are and works with them and attempts to reveal His full truth to them. So, to reiterate, I transcend the barriers of James’ analogy because I am at once an inclusivist, exclusivist and pluralist (as qualified above).

Apart from the whole “Scripture not dealing with this question” issue, part of my reason for responding this way was to also get away from the “quick-to-label” actions of religious persons today. A more detailed explanation was needed, that is, a more defined answer than just taking James’ test and concluding that I am of this or that persuasion. Now, if I could humor James and answer his question about Cornelius, I would say this: Given my theology, firstly, I would say that Cornelius will be judged by God alone and ultimately nobody else can make that call, but secondly, given what we know about salvation in Christ and membership (for Gentiles) in the Early Church, Cornelius had not been through the catechetical process, so, it would appear that, had a meteor hit him, they would not have considered him part of the Body of Christ, which means they would not have pegged him as one in a saving relationship with Christ.

On a closing note, because this always comes up in an exclusivistic conversation, I would just say that at present, my view is that for those who have never heard of/about Christ, these persons may be judged by God in accordance with their behavior/knowledge about the divine. That said, God does not owe them salvation or anything else, the fact that they get to come before Him is grace enough in and of itself. God is not culpable or fit to blame because they didn’t hear and thus, He cannot be blamed if He renders them lost. It was their faith/actions that led to that result, not God’s.

I’ll graciously await James’ reply realizing in the meantime that if I’ve been arrogant in any way, I’m sorry and did not intend to be. Also, for others who want to be part of this ongoing conversation, feel free to jump right in—so long as you’re civil. Otherwise we might wish a flaming meteorite upon you and God knows we don’t want to have to debate your salvation.

Link to James' first post: Flaming Meteorite Challenge

1 comment: