Who Can Be Saved?
December 30, 2013
I am half-way through Terrance Tiessen’s 500-page tome, Who Can Be Saved? (IVP Academic, 2004). I was waiting to write a short review about it, until after completing it, but Kevin DeYoung published a post this morning defending exclusivism. This is the belief that a conscious, explicit faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Those who were unfortunate enough to live before the reach of missionary expansion, the millions who have never heard the gospel, are out of luck. For a strict, old-school Calvinist, this is sometimes defended as evidence of their reprobation. Not kidding. Unless the unevangelized person receives a miraculous vision or communication of some sort, they are damned for eternity.
Given that this is such a momentous claim, I want more than just an inference from some proof texts, which are invariably directed at those who are confronted with the gospel (as in Jn 14.6, DeYoung’s proof text, or in Rom 10.14-21, the locus classicus). We need some rather explicit scriptural instruction. And if Tiessen’s work has demonstrated anything, this explicit scriptural teaching is far from forthcoming. A closer look at the biblical attestations about salvation are actually rather varied, and even exclusivists admit as much when they consider the Old Testament saints, both before the Abrahamic covenant and thereafter, and the righteous among the other nations.
Tiessen argues for a new taxonomy, beyond the standard categories of (1) exclusivist, (2) inclusivist, and (3) pluralist. Depending upon the theologian, inclusivism can be articulated as affirming other religions, viewed as God-ordained instruments in awakening the unevangelized to faith, even if Christianity is privileged (contra pluralism) as the only complete manifestation of God’s revelation. Other inclusivists would reject this approach, including Tiessen himself. So he argues instead for “accessibilism” — all persons in all times and all places have access to sufficient revelation, through which the Holy Spirit can utilize to quicken the hearts of man. I won’t give Tiessen’s manifold approach to defending this thesis — you will have to read the book.
Tiessen is himself a Calvinist, and he dedicates a whole chapter to defending monergism, which is a straightforward account of particular election and efficient grace that would make Sproul or Packer proud. (I really don’t have a problem with this, despite my Barthian leanings.) This has some strategic advantage, because the most zealous defenders of exclusivism today are among the “new Calvinists” such as Mohler, Piper, DeYoung, et al., though it is certainly widely held among other evangelicals. The revision of the Southern Baptist Faith & Message, in 2000, added the line, “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.” This was directed, of course, at inclusivism of any sort.
My only quibble with Tiessen’s book is how it is organized. It follows a question-based format for each chapter: Who needs to be saved? Whom is God trying to save? To whom does God reveal himself? By what standard are people judged? Why should we send missionaries? and so forth. This gives the book the feel of an apologetics handbook, whereas I would much prefer a more linear progression through the appropriate dogmatic loci. As a result of Tiessen’s approach, you will find yourself needing to jump forward and backward for further elucidation of, say, certain biblical passages. However, this is a minor complaint on my part, and I am sure that many others will appreciate the question-based format.
This is an easy-to-read book, directed at a fairly broad audience of evangelicals. Technical terms are kept to a minimum or thoroughly defined (e.g., monergism), so it is a good book to recommend to your Christian friends who are struggling (as we should) with this question.