Friday, October 23, 2020

A Wideness is Not Enough

It quickly became apparent to me in my late teens as I began studying Christian theological history was
that there are only so many theological solutions available. That is, for any 'problem' posed by beliefs derived from the Bible, multiple solutions were thoroughly explored centuries ago. There is very little genuine novelty in the field. An example of this can be found in 'On the Great Extent of God's Blessed Kingdom,' in which Celio Secondo Curione argues that the unevangelized in distant lands can still be saved without the Gospel. Published in 1554, Curione had this to say:

This is the law of our king, and his very just ruling: to the extent that, having heard the Gospel, a person believes, he is saved. And he who, having heard the Gospel, does not believe, is condemned. From this it follows that he who has not yet heard the Gospel is not by the Gospel to be condemned. Those who are condemned are condemned because they have rejected natural law and the Witness and judgment of their own conscience. (McKanan, 2017)

With just that quote you could be left with the impression that one way or the other, people who haven't heard the Gospel in places without Christianity will be condemned anyway, based on what little they did know from nature and conscience. The words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (mid-50s CE) could also be construed to have this meaning. 

When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them. (Romans 2:14-15 NRSV)

What I think Paul was trying to do here was simply explain that everyone knows right from wrong, and that's why the pagan philosophers thought about ethics and their nations established laws. From the evangelical Protestant perspective the law can only condemn. Within that framework, any sin separates a person from God, requiring rebirth and regeneration as a Christian to be saved. From some other viewpoints, this could instead be understood to affirm that while the law condemns, the conscience is part of the 'light' available to those without the Christian gospel, showing them the way to live if they will only heed it.

"Even in the most remote nations he can stir up people by his spirit and send them out to teach others. He himself can also enlighten his people within, that they may know about him. For his divine goodness never left anyone without knowledge of him." (McKanan, 2017)

Here Curione is saying two things. First, that people can be called in far away lands to preach, and second that people can be inspired directly. What is unclear to me is whether in the first part he's saying that these are Christians in distant places who will be called to preach the Gospel, or whether he means these will be prophets of a sort, preaching Good News as led by God. The text available to me in McKanan's 1st volume "A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism" doesn't provide sufficient context, and I haven't been able to find another copy of Curione's text online. As for the second part, in which people can be enlightened within, these would seem to contradict the principle that faith comes by hearing the word (Romans 10:17).

As I said at the outset, none of this is pondering over the fate of the 'unsaved' who never heard 'the Gospel' is new to Christianity. Ever since it went from being about declaring a subversive message about a king other than caesar to preaching heaven and hell decided by faith and possibly sacraments administered by the church, 'missions' turned into a question of saving the unwashed masses of humanity 'out there.' It tied in easily with the colonizing endeavors of Europeans, even facilitating the subjugation of peoples. In our times that false sense of cultural superiority remains, of course. 

Still, in centuries past and today, there have been and are plenty of missionaries who see what they do as for the benefit of those they contact. In our times there is at least some self-awareness in the teaching of missiology, with instruction about separating culture from faith, and respecting the self-determination of groups of Christians that form in foreign lands. The question of whether mission work is even necessary hinges on the availability of salvation to those having no contact with Christianity.

Evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock expressed in a book published in 1992 both the classic problem under discussion here, and also the alternative solutions to it. 

The eternal destiny of a very large number of people throughout history who have not had access to the Gospel, and who enter eternity not knowing Jesus Christ, is a pressing problem for theology. It pits access against urgency. If we say there is equal access to salvation for all, including the unevangelized, we will be charged with eliminating the urgency of mission. But if we preserve the urgency, people will protest that this means millions will go to hell without any chance to avoid it. No decision is free from serious objections. (Pinnock, 1992)

On the one hand, if there is no need to hear and respond to the 'good news' about Jesus, as the evangelicals understand it, then why spend time, energy, and resources on mission work? On the other, if salvation is only available through hearing the Gospel, then how monstrous God must be. 

Here's Pinnock's answer to the problem, one that should by now seem very familiar:

People cannot respond to light that did not reach them. They can only respond to revelation that did. Scripture and reason both imply that no one can be held responsible for truth of which they were inculpably ignorant; they are judged on the basis of the truth they know. A person is saved by faith, even if the content of belief is deficient (and whose is not)? (Pinnock, 1992)

While Pinnock is voicing a well-worn viewpoint, in discussing available 'light,' he also does something interesting. He says, "[a]ccording to the Bible, people are saved by faith, not by the content of their theology." For traditional Protestantism this can be somewhat mind-blowing, as it is considered true for the most part that there is a minimum to be believed in order to be saved. The most common minimum in evangelicalism, that preached by Billy Graham, is believing that Christ died for our sins, that God loves us, and trusting in Jesus alone for salvation. Of course there is an expectations that newly-minted Christians will learn beyond that, but that is the minimum. What Pinnock is suggesting here is that for those who have not heard the so-called 'facts' of the Gospel, the minimum can be even less. 

As an aside, the more fundamentalist Christians tend to associate knowledge of their sect's beliefs with making certain of salvation. This usually means a lot of Bible study (and in my experience, painfully little action for the benefit of others), but it can also translate into a sense of insecurity for some. When I was at Harding University studying for the ministry (the first time around) a classmate arrived late one day, explaining that he had been out baptizing his wife's grandmother. Everyone began congratulating him, which he cut short by explaining that she had been baptized as an adolescent and been a faithful Christian ever since, but was worried now because she wasn't sure she knew enough when she was younger. I couldn't help but observe the terrible light this cast God in, suggesting that someone could do their utmost to serve him for decades but still go to hell on a technicality.

Moving along, Pinnock goes on to put the emphasis on the attitude of the spiritual heart, writing that "[t]he issue God cares about is the direction of the heart, not the content of theology." However, lowering the minimum as described above, and shifting the focus to one's spiritual and moral leanings, doesn't answer some fundamental questions raised by orthodox Christianity. Most significant is that of when a person who lives and dies 'unevangelized' has been saved. Salvation in this theology is more than an adjustment to a divine ledger; it's also meant to indicate a fundamental change in the nature of a person. Someone who becomes a Christian is promised, in addition to forgiveness, regeneration of their inward nature, and the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. In Pinnock's proposed soteriology it's unclear when or if this would happen for people in times and places without Christianity.

Now, to me, this is all nonsense. Sure, I find it interesting to think about and pick apart, but none of it reflects reality. People live as though these things were factually true, when they are just religious fiction. This has caused enormous pain, as I've already discussed, in facilitating colonization and subjugation. 

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20 NRSV)

It also makes life difficult for people raised in Christian families but who don't accept the religion into adulthood. In particular, lgbtq+ youth are routinely mistreated and forced out of the home by religious parents who can't accept who they are, regardless of whether the kids still think of themselves as Christian. The demand for conformity in the mission imperative is simply overpowering, dampening even natural parental bonds.

The text by Curione was included in a documentary history of Unitarianism and Universalism because his theology seems like a proto-universalism. Unfortunately, in my estimation it is still deeply flawed, hopelessly vague, and does nothing to right any wrongs committed in the name of Jesus.


McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

Pinnock, C. (1997). A Wideness in God's Mercy: The Finality of Jesus Christ in a World of Religions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.