This past week, while on vacation, I read Who Can Be Saved? By Terrance Tiessen. My week was much more involved with activities than usual so I wasn’t able to finish it. I am almost done with it but not quite. Let me give some general impressions and then I’ll talk about some specifics.
Who Can Be Saved? was published in 2004 and as of then Tiessen had read every one of any significance on the topic and some that surprised me. For example, one of my favorite systematic theologies is by J. Oliver Buswell Jr. but you rarely, if ever, see any one refer to it any more. Tiessen interacts as well with more recognizable figures such as D. A. Carson, Clark Pinnock, Gerald McDermott, Harold Netland, Winfried Corduan, Millard Erickson, Daniel Clendenin, Ronald Nash, John Piper, J. I. Packer, Darrell Bock, Amos Yong, J. N. D. Anderson, John Sanders, Neal Punt and many, many more. The range of literature covered by Tiessen is quite impressive. He approaches the topic admittedly as an evangelical and a monergist (he prefers monergist over Calvinist since some Calvinists hold to a libertarian notion of freedom). (17-20) He further states that he holds to critical realism along with the correspondence theory of truth and the globalization of Christianity. (20-21) I find myself suitably comfortable with all four.
Tiessen lays out five options in addressing the issues of the unevangelized and world religions:
Ecclesiocentrism, Agnosticism, Accesibilism, Religious Instrumentalism and Relativism. The typical categories found in other treatments are exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Tiessen observes that scholars have taken issue with these labels and found them each to be problematic in one form or another and so therefore he offers his own categories. In chapter two he offers a brief definition of each and their distinctive.
Ecclesiocentrism is “characterized particularly by the conviction that ever since Christ ascended and sent the Holy Spirit, only those who hear the gospel can be saved.” (32) Advocates of this position would be John Calvin, John Piper, Douglas Geivett and, formerly, Terrance Tiessen.
Agnosticism identifies those who “do not know for sure that God has means by which to save people who not hear about Christ. . . . At most, they find the Bible silent about the fate of the unevangelized. . . Evangelicals who take this standpoint in regard to the possible salvation of the unevangelized also tend to be more affirming of relative good in the context of other religions, while insisting that the religions are not themselves God’s instruments of salvation.” (33) John Stott is an advocate of this position.
Accessibilism “asserts that Jesus Christ is exclusively God’s means of salvation and that the covenantal relationships God established with Israel and the church, in working out his saving program, are unique and unparalleled.” They do “posit that God makes salvation accessible to people who do not receive the gospel. Although they grant that non-Christians can be saved, they do not regard the religions as God’s instrument in their salvation.” (33) Tiessen notes that some have defined accessibilism as inclusivism. (34) This is Tiessen’s position.
Religious instrumentalism says “God’s salvation is available through non-Christian religions. Jesus is still held to be, in some sense, unique, normative and definitive; but God is said to be revealing himself and providing salvation through other religious traditions as well.” (34) This view is strong among Roman Catholic theologians. Of particular note are Hans Küng and Karl Rahner with his “anonymous Christian” theory.
Relativism says “salvation is universally accessible through the various religions that are part of the divine program. . . All the major religions have true revelations in part, while no single revelation or religion can claim final and definitive truth.” (34) “One of the major problems with using the term pluralism to define the position that I am calling relativism is that pluralism is widely used to describe contexts in which diverse viewpoints are permitted. In that sense, societies that grant religious freedom to their members are pluralist. But most people in all four of the other categories are committed to this sort of plurality, or pluralism.” (35) Here we find John Hick, Paul Knitter and Raimundo Panikkar.
Tiessen recounts his own “conversion” to accessibilism from ecclesiocentrism. After doing a review of three different books on the subject but still convinced of his position he found himself “reexamining biblical texts and hearing them differently.” He continues: “I concluded that I had been reading Scripture through ecclesiocentrists lenses, which I had inherited and gotten used to. But when I stood back and examined the lenses themselves, I decided that they had been keeping me from seeing some things that now jumped out at me from the biblical pages.” (41)
In a latter post I will interact with some key thoughts that I found most challenging. I started this book as a convinced ecclesiocentrist but Tiessen has provided significant reasons to doubt it.