On The Fringe Of Universalism?: McGrath Blurring The Lines

If you want to follow the conversation/debate, Ken Brown has compiled an in-order list. Click the following link to get there: Inclusivism Bloggersation.

I want to start off by saying that my attempt to “label” James here is not pejorative. Instead, I am simply trying to use labels to clarify—not create division or anger. I trust James’ confession that he is a born-again, Jesus-loving, Christian. However, I do question some of his views and as you know, that’s why we are having this discussion in the first place (he also questions some of mine!). If anything, I hope that our diablogue exemplifies Christian civility while also showing that we can vehemently disagree with one another, even to the point of not accepting one another’s views. However, lest we get to the point where anything goes in Christianity, I am quite willing to say that there are things that do not go; I am quite willing to say that there are things that make Christianity distinct and that those things must be held on to. That is what the heart of this post is about!

Out of every post so far, in his latest entry, James McGrath most clearly spells out what lies at the foundation of his view of salvation. It is this “spelling out” that leads me to suggest that if he hasn’t already stepped fully into it, he’s surely on the fringe(s) of universalism. Like many Universalists, he attempts to blur the lines between those who have placed their faith in Christ (and will thus be saved) and those who have not placed their faith in Christ but who will also be saved. So, it is clear that a full-throttled inclusivism stops at no boundary and eventually spirals downward into Universalism. However, Universalism was not the Gospel that Paul (nor any of the other NT writers preached). So, what I will do in this post is answer each of James’ questions about the passages he was inquiring over, that is, passages concerning Melchizedek, Acts 17 and finally, Abraham.

Of course, Acts 17 is where the infamous Mars Hill episode is recounted. I need not retell that story here. Instead, I would like to point out that from this episode, we learn that Paul was not a Universalist but rather a Christian evangelist. Paul did not talk to the men at Athens and say, “Well, I think it is okay that you believe in this mysterious god, so, we’ll leave it at that.” Nor did he say, “This god you believe in is the same God I worship.” Instead, Paul was saying, “The experience(s) you’ve had of this so-called ‘god’ you’ve been worshipping are only part-and-parcel of the truth.” What Paul was attempting to say was that those who’d had these experiences are in a better position than most to understand the God Paul was speaking of. Why? Because a number of the practices and truths that Paul embodied were seen in these men. Paul was contextualizing the Gospel, meeting these people where they were and building off of that. This is why, in the end, Luke feels it necessary to say “some believed and followed”. In other words, they changed their beliefs and trusted in Jesus. This is not a passage validating Universalism. It is, instead, a passage revealing that Paul did contextual evangelism.

Before getting to Melchizedek, I will deal once more with Abraham. James keeps wanting to argue that Paul says Abraham was “saved” by his own righteous faith. This is never what Paul says—especially in Galatians! Paul does say that Abraham’s faith made him righteous in God’s eyes. This isn’t even close, though, to asserting that Abraham was saved. Again, Abraham may have been saved but Paul never argues about that here. This is making the text argue something that it never intended to. Paul only says that Abraham’s faith made him righteous. As we all know “righteous” does not equal “saved”. I think that by trying to blur the lines here, James is making a great error. I also think the attempt to use this passage in a Universalistic sense is to misuse it.

As for Melchizedek, James wonders if he was saved—outside of Christ (kind of like Abraham). Of course, this gets back to the issue of “Will people before Christ be ‘saved’; will they be in ‘Christian eternity’ for a lack of better terms? Will righteous people like Abraham and Melchizedek be saved, even though they never specifically confessed Christ as Savior? Well, Melchizedek was, in my mind, comparable to those on Mars Hill. He had a partial understanding of the truth (probably more fully, though, than those on Mars Hill). Melchizedek, though, was not a Universalist or Polytheist. Instead, he rejected the idols of Canaan and confessed only one God. The logic of Hebrews 7 makes it clear that while Melchizedek was greater than Abraham, Jesus was greater than Melchizedek. In other words, Jesus was the fulfillment of the priesthood; He is the Great High Priest. So, for those in the audience who revered Melchizedek and knew a lot about him, well, this was a point the author of Hebrews (probably Paul) could build on. Again, we see contextualized evangelism; the people are being met where they are and then the rest of the truth is being relayed. Will Melchizedek be saved? Perhaps. Probably. How? We might take the view that the cross, since it was established before the foundations of the world, covers those prior to it (at least in God’s mind) who were faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, after the cross event, this cannot be the case as “belief” and “confession” in Christ are a MUST.

Therefore, when it comes to modern-day Muslims and Jews, while they might have some things to teach us about being faithful people or whatever, they do not posses the full truth about Jesus—it has been distorted—or the Triune God. Our job is to share that with them and help them to enter into a relationship/union with God.

Lastly, James wonders if the children of Abraham are really the children of Abraham? I would say: Of course. But I do not mean by that what he does. I do not mean that by being an ancestor of Abraham or any other patriarch I am saved. What I mean is that the promise that God gave to Abraham extends to me (the promise to unite all persons in Christ who would accept Him) and thus, I am a child of Abraham. My righteousness, your righteousness, any Jew or Muslim’s righteousness does not include them in God’s people. Jesus includes us in God’s people. So, while the Sufi Mystic and his prayer are quite fascinating, in the end, they fall short of what includes one in the true people of God.

To be sure, the notion of sexism, slavery, etc. that James is worried about does not have to be caused or carried out by believers who make exclusive confessions like I have done. While I am exclusivist, I am at the same time an inclusivist because there is always an open invitation to accept Christ. Just because I make my confession in Jesus, in no way means that I have to mistreat, belittle, demean, dehumanize or hurt others. Where persons reject Christ, I am still willing to love them and live at peace with them. Even then, it is not my righteousness that saves me it is God’s grace in Jesus.