Christianity and the doctrines of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism

Are you familiar with the differences between exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism? This article from Leadership University explains all three of them.

Here’s exclusivism:

The following is a succinct explanation of the central characters and ideas behind each position. The exclusivist position has been the dominant position of the church as a whole through much of its history until the Enlightenment. Major representatives include Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Hendrick Kraemer, D.A. Carson, William Lane Craig, and R. Douglas Geivett.

Key to this position is the understanding of God’s general and special revelations. God is manifested through creation (general revelation), but Man has responded by freely going against this revelation and, thus, stands guilty before a holy God. However, God has demonstrated a reconciliatory mercy through His word and deed, fulfilled completely in Jesus Christ. The historical person of Jesus, then, is the unique, final, decisive, and normative self-revelation of God to Man (special revelation). Exclusivists believe that Jesus Christ is the sole criterion by which all religions, including Christianity, should be understood and evaluated. Calvin Shenk explains:

Christ did not come just to make a contribution to the religious storehouse of knowledge. The revelation which he brought is the ultimate standard. Since in Christ alone is salvation and truth, many religious paths do not adequately reflect the way of God and do not lead to truth and life. Jesus is not, therefore, just the greatest lord among other lords. There is no other lord besides him.

Specific texts often employed by exclusivists include Acts 4:12; John 14:6; 1 Corinthians 3:11; and 1 Timothy 2:5-6.

And inclusivism:

Inclusivism is a blanket term to characterize a sort of “middle way” between exclusivism and pluralism. Most prominent within mainline Protestantism and post-Vatican II Catholicism, its notable proponents (in one formor another) include Karl Rahner, Raimundo Panikkar and Stanley Samartha, and Hans Kung. Evangelical theologians such as Clark Pinnock, Norman Anderson, and John Sanders have also identified themselves with this position. Herein, the agnosticism associated with the latter option above is replaced with outright optimism. Christian salvation is not confined to the historical or geographic extent special revelation has spread, rather it must be available to all cultures, irrespective of age or geography.Salvation is still posited wholly in Christ and his salvific work. Specific knowledge of this work, however, is not necessary for the effect (i.e., salvation) to apply to those within a different religious culture who have responded to the general revelation available. Once again, Shenk explains:

Inclusivists want to avoid monopolizing the gospel of redemption. They acknowledge the possibility of salvation outside of Christian faith or outside the walls of the visible church, but the agent of such salvation is Christ, and the revelation in Jesus is definitive and normative for assessing that salvation. Jesus Christ is believed to be the center, and other ways are evaluated by how they relate to him. Other religions are not just a preparation for Christ, but Christ is actually present in them.

The fundamental differences between exclusivism and inclusivism… are the nature and the content of “saving faith.” The former emphasizes explicit faith while the latter points to an implicit faith.

And pluralism:

Finally, there is the pluralist position. This is undoubtedly the most difficult of the three to define in any general sense. The spectrum of pluralistic thought is as wide as it is long. The focusof this particular study will examine the contributions of its key figures: Paul Knitter, John Hick, and Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Just as in the previous positions, the interpretative range within just these three individuals varies. It is fitting, however, to focus primarily on them since they are the most vocal and influential figures espousing pluralism today.

Hick and Knitter argue the case for pluralism on the following grounds: (1) ethically, it is the only way to promote justice in an intolerant world; (2) in terms of the “ineffability of religious experience,” so no religion can claim an absolutist stance; and (3) through the understanding that historical and cultural contexts must be the filter for any absolute religious claim. Hick has argued that all world religions attempt to relate to the unknowable Ultimate Reality (or, the Real), but because of their various cultural and historical contexts these attempts are all naturally different. Hence the various conceptions of the Real and the salvation(s) sought. The common soteriological goal, toward which all religions strive, though, is rooted in the desire to transcend self-centeredness and, in turn, encounter a new (unexplainable) experience with the Real. But, he emphatically emphasizes the fact that there is “no public evidence that any one religion is soteriologically unique or superior to others and thus has closer access to Ultimate Reality.”

Therefore, with pluralism, Christ is no more definitive or normative than any religious figure or concept. Or, as Andrew Kirk explains, “Rather than confessing that Jesus Christ is the one Lord over all, this view asserts that the one Lord who has manifested himself in other names is also known as Jesus.” By “crossing the Rubicon,” as Hick and Knitter illustrate, Christians are encouraged to abandon any claim of Christian uniqueness and the possibility of absolute revelation, accepting the fact that the Christian faith is one among many options.

Now maybe you didn’t know this, but Roman Catholics seem to have taken a turn away from exclusivism and towards inclusivism in the last century.

So, I thought I would post a rebuttal to the Roman Catholic embrace of inclusivism from one of my favorite Christian apologists, Greg Koukl.


There are some issues of Christianity that are intra-Nicene, intramural discussions between believers, in which I think a charitable person can easily see how another Christian can hold a different view because there are things that are difficult to understand in Scripture. For instance, though I’m Reformed in my soteriology, my understanding of salvation–I’m a Calvinist–I am sympathetic to an Arminian perspective because I can see how they, in lines of reasoning from the New Testament and verses themselves from the New Testament, can come to their view. So, though I would disagree, and I think they’re mistaken, I understand how they can see it.But there are other positions that I cannot understand because there is no New Testament evidence in favor of it, and, to the contrary, almost to a word, as the New Testament touches the issue, it says quite the opposite.

Earlier this week, I was honored, flattered, and, frankly, humbled to have a very unique opportunity on Monday to address an audience of about 150 Jewish people that were in the midst of Jewish High Holy Day services–morning services, evening services–at kind of a pause time in the afternoon, in which my host and I and another guest had a discussion about Jews and Christians. The three of us were on the panel:  my host, Dennis Prager, a man I have a tremendous admiration and affection for, and Greg Coiro, a Roman Catholic priest and a professional friend. I’ve known both of these men over 20 years and have been in many discussions, both in private and public on the air with Dennis and Greg Coiro.

It was in this opportunity that, in a sense, the ancient quarrel of sorts, theologically, was revisited, that I’ve had in the past many years ago when we were talking about this in interfaith dialogues. This difference of opinion is a historically new development in Roman Catholicism that stunned me when I first encountered it in the early days of being on Religion on the Line in the late eighties, a radio panel Dennis Prager hosted for many years. The priests on the panel uniformly held the conviction, informed by Vatican II, that Jews don’t have to believe in Jesus in order to receive the benefits of Jesus’ salvation. This is a view called “inclusivism.” It’s not the same as pluralism, but in my view, it seems to have the same impact: “Yes, Jesus is necessary for salvation, but you don’t have to believe in Jesus to benefit from Jesus.”

Now, at this afternoon panel recently, the very first question that came up was whether trust in Jesus is necessary for salvation. “Greg, do you believe that? Do Protestants believe that?” I answered, “Yes, I believe that. And no, not all Protestants believe that. But let me try to explain it to you in a way that doesn’t sound so stark. Let me try to give it some perspective.” I explained that it wasn’t as if God was up there looking down at a bunch of religious clubs and prefers some over others. He used to prefer the Jewish club and now He prefers the Christian club. It may sound that way to many when this doctrine of Christianity is put forward: Jesus is the only way of salvation; you must believe in Jesus in order to benefit from what Jesus did.

Talk about Daniel in the lions’ den. Anyway, click through and read the whole article to get an idea of how to make your stand for exclusivism in difficult places. By the way I am not a Calvinist (I accept some Calvinist doctrines, but not irresistible grace), but I think Greg is right to defend exclusivism. I realize that I have a lot of Roman Catholic readers, and I hope that you won’t be too upset that we disagree on this. In fact, I’m hoping that you’ll change your minds and agree with me!

For a general article defending the Christian doctrine of exclusivism, check out this article by William Lane Craig. One of my favorites, from way way back to when I was an undergraduate.

If you want to hear Paul Knitter in a debate, check out the Greer-Heard forums. The 2009 forum can be had as MP3s for $15, and you will not be disappointed with the response by Doug Geivett. The 2005 set with Crossan is also worth buying. If you really really like them, then get the 2008 one with Bart Ehrman and Dan Wallace. Chuck Quarles’ response will knock your socks off. I actually met him at the EPS apologetics conference this year. Doug Geivett’s response is worth the price of the whole set. Unfortunately, that Crossan set is not on MP3 – you have to get CDs. Crossan and Ehrman are back for the 2010 and 2011 forums, but I have not heard those yet.

12 thoughts on “Christianity and the doctrines of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism”

  1. The Catholic position is bizarre to me. After centuries of saying Protestants weren’t saved now they think everyone gets in?!


    1. Of course not! At that time people had to have faith in God in the way that was available – through nature and the moral law. You could say that the righteousness of Christ can be applied retroactively to them on the basis of their faith in God and obedience to the moral law, since the Christ had not yet appeared. But that’s not the standard now.

      Acts 17:29-31
      29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.
      30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
      31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

      For Abraham specifically, see Romans 4:18-25.


      1. If the righteousness of Christ can be applied to Jews, before Christ, on the basis of their faith in God and obedience to the moral law, why can the same not be done to Jews after Christ?

        More specifically, does the Jew who dies a minute before Christ’s resurrection enter salvation, but the Jew who dies a minute after Christ go to hell?


    2. Jamie, Abraham is saved because he had faith in God the Father and in His promised One who would bless all people and would come from Abraham’s line. So he had faith in Christ too, as did all the patriarchs. The problem with Judaism today is that the promised Messiah has come but He is not acknowledged for Who He is. Any jew who truly gets and accepts the Messiah will in this day and age accept Jesus as that Messiah. Abraham would recognize the Messiah He trusted in Jesus.


  2. Sad it is see that we fail — miserably I might add — to ever realize that God is nothing more and nothing less than a state of mind — an attainable state of mind. Indeed, it is the mystical state. Once one attains this so-called higher state (ultimate reality, nirvana, etc.), one knows — knows fully — himself/herself, the universe and God. These three elements become one. This is called, Oneness. Certainly it is a most precious state. I have talked about how it can be attained and why it can be attained.
    Emmanuel Karavousanos


    1. Do you have an argument or some evidence as to why we should think that your personal view (monism) is objective and binding on the rest of us?

      What do you make of the origin of the universe, in which all matter comes into being out of nothing? What caused that one your view?


      1. WK, you’re going to have to realize that when talking with monists (it’s ironic that there’s a plural for that isn’t it?) and other eastern religions, that their beliefs do not come from “Western logic”. In fact, they’ll say that it is we who are constrained by our logic to be unable to see beyond “A = A”, and that in Zen Buddhism or other experiential religions that A can also, at the same time in the same place, be equal to non-A. Then again, that would mean that such people DO accept logic as the way to truth, not experience, since A can equal non-A, when they say that logic can’t, they also mean that logic can. Epistemological implosion-explosion at its finest.

        To ask for evidence on their side in this case, I think, is a fruitless venture. You’re going to have to go “under the carpet” so-to-speak and explain why the foundation is termite-ridden.

        I mean, the fact that this person is using multiple, distinguishable words, and using the English language instead of another language shows that he may be inconsistent with his beliefs that all is one.

        Or if you were to tell him/her to give all of his money in his savings account, he’d certainly object, though, would it really be a difference in his worldview if he did write the check or not? Doesn’t really carry into the “real” world does it? I mean, if its an illusion, it shouldn’t matter if you lose your house or if you don’t eat for weeks or something.

        Also, a quote from a Stand to Reason article by Greg Koukl referring to Hinduism, but applies to its monistic undertones (at least one school of thought anyway):

        “…if Hinduism is true how could we possibly know it because the only way we could know it was true was by measuring and sensing and testing our environment using some method to find out what is actually true. But the problem with Hinduism, if it’s true, is that our environment is an illusion. It’s Maya. It’s not really there. So how can we get true information from something that doesn’t really exist? This statement identifies what really amounts to epistemological chaos, a crisis of knowledge, as it were, that takes place if you are of the opinion that the world is an illusion.”


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