Inclusivism and Dispensationalism

Bibliotheca Sacra 151 (January-March 1994): 85-108

Soteriological Inclusivism and Dispensationalism
Ramesh P. Richard

Explosive growth in the world’s population forces an important question on all evangelicals: Are the masses of the world condemned to eternal conscious punishment even though they have not heard the gospel of Christ in this life? The emotional pain the question evokes cannot be masked, and the theological stress is steady. Evangelicals insist that explicit knowledge of Christ is necessary for personal salvation. But they also know that vast numbers of mankind are inhibited or prohibited by history, geography, religion, culture, and Christian failure from having access to knowledge of Christ. When these realities are combined with God’s stated desire for all men to repent (2 Pet. 3:9), the question attains enormous complexity.

The Options

For many it seems that to achieve a theologically and emotionally satisfying answer one must either deny or broaden the exclusive condition of salvation to which evangelicals have traditionally subscribed. On theological grounds, however, the former is not an evangelical option. Would an emotionally acceptable broadening of the exclusive condition of salvation be a biblically, theologically, and evangelically permissible alternative?

Clark Pinnock and John Sanders think so. They propose a broadening of the salvific condition so that evangelicals may ad-

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equately grapple with the question while maintaining orthodoxy. They marshall several theological and historical arguments in support of their proposal.

This article ponders that critical question from the perspective of dispensationalism. Need for this arises from certain arguments that Pinnock and Sanders put forth in defense of an inclusivist or ’wider-hope’ position. A few of these arguments will be examined before presenting interaction from the viewpoint of dispensational evangelicalism.

One argument for the ’inclusivist’ position is that Jews in the Old Testament were saved without actually confessing Christ.

Another class of people saved without professing Christ were the Jews who lived before Jesus was born. . . . The Old Testament describes a large number of believing Israelites who trusted in God, though the Messiah had not yet come to them. Yet they exercised saving faith, as did Abraham, and experienced forgiveness, as did David. Their theological knowledge was deficient, measured by New Testament standards, and their understanding of God was limited because they had not encountered Jesus, in whom alone one sees the Father. Nonetheless, they knew God and belonged to the great cloud of witnesses who encourage us (Heb. 12:1). Without actually confessing Jesus Christ, they were saved by his work of redemption.

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Another support for ’wider hope’ comes from the ’holy pagan’ tradition of Melchizedek, Abimelech, and other pre-Israelite or non-Israelite people who experienced Old Testament salvation. ’Abel, Noah, Enoch, Job, Jethro, the queen of Sheba, the centurion, Cornelius-all stand as positive proof that the grace of God touches people all over the world and that faith, without which it is impossible to please God, can and does occur outside as well as inside the formal covenant communities.’

The conclusion to this sampling of arguments is clear. According to Pinnock and Sanders, people may be saved today without actually confessing Jesus Christ, even as people were saved before Christ without actually confessing Christ.

While everyone will grant that it was possible to respond to God the way Job did in premessianic times, not everyone thinks that the possibility still exists. This latter hesitation needs to be confronted. Why would it make any difference if Job were born in A.D. 1900 in outer Mongolia? Why would God not deal with him the same way he dealt with him in the Old Testament? A person who is informationally messianic, whether living in ancient or modern times, is in exactly the same spiritual situation.

Evangelical Responses to the Critical Question

Evangelicals rightly spurn the conclusion of these ’inclusivist’ hope premises. Many covenant theologians counter that people before Christ did actually confess Him, in an embryonic but developing way. Therefore people today must actually confess Christ for salvation. Dispensationalists rebut the inclusivist premise in another way. True, individuals before Christ were

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saved without actually confessing Him, but that does not mean that they did not confess anything specific. Every dispensation has a specific and exclusive content to faith. In the present dispensation the confession of Christ is necessary for eternal salvation. Both the covenant and dispensational answers reject the ’inclusivist’ premises and conclusion.

The Critical Question

The critical question is this: Can the quality, reality, and vitality of Old Testament salvation be affirmed to be as valid as New Testament salvation in the face of the lack of knowledge of Christ in the Old Testament, while at the same time preserving the New Testament necessity of explicit knowledge and trust of Christ for eternal salvation? Only by recognizing the historical distinctiveness of Old Testament salvation without widespread and explicit content of Christ-while emphasizing the epistemological exclusivity of Christ in New Testament salvation-can one effectively discount the inclusivist position.

Covenant Theology and the Critical Question

Covenant theologians question the first part of the critical question. For them no material difference exists in the content of faith between the Old and New Testaments. Incipient, Old Testament Christocentric knowledge of the One to come is a necessary postulate of the position. Many would hold that Old Testament saints knew enough about the Seed of Abraham, the Greater Moses, the Lion of Judah, the Son of David, or the Servant of Isaiah to be saved. Messianic themes, shadows, allusions, prefigurements in typological prophecy, and other connections between the Old and New Testaments are strong testimony to this line of specific knowledge of Christ by Old Testament believers. This may be called the Christocentric ’continuity’ position.

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Nicole addresses the question of the ’heathen’ and the uniqueness of Jesus from a covenant perspective. He notes that Abraham (John 8:56), Moses (John 5:46), and the Old Testament prophets (1 Pet. 1:10-11) ’sensed they were speaking about the salvation to come through the work of Christ.’ Or as Hodge wrote, ’It was not mere faith or trust in God, or simple piety, which was required, but faith in the promised Redeemer, or faith in the promise of redemption through the Messiah.’ Calvin wrote that ’the people of God before Christ were ’adopted into the hope of immortality’ and had full assurance of their salvation (II.x.2), because of God’s grace and because their hope was in Christ, ’the Mediator, through whom they were joined to God and were to share in his promises’ (II.x.2).’

Inclusivism and the Critical Question

The ’wider-hope’ position plays up the lack of knowledge of Christ in the Old Testament to deny the second part of the critical question. It follows for inclusivists that, contrary to covenant theology, explicit knowledge of Christ was and is not necessary for eternal salvation at any time. Inclusivists argue that since it was impossible for individuals in Old Testament times to know of Christ and yet they experienced salvation, no specific knowledge of Christ is necessary now. This may be called the ’faith principle’ position. ’In my judgement,’ Pinnock writes, ’the faith principle is the basis of universal accessibility. According to the Bible, people are saved by faith, not by the content of their theology.’ Or as Sanders says, ’Inclusivists do not claim that people are saved by their righteousness; they contend that people like Cornelius are saved because they have the ’habit of faith,’ which involves penitence. But inclusivists do claim that it is not necessary to understand the work of Christ in order to be saved.’

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Questions and Responses of Dispensationalism

Covenant theology, inclusivist theology, and dispensational theology agree on the atoning work of Jesus Christ. They differ about whether faith explicitly in Christ is necessary for salvation.

Dispensationalism Considers Covenant Theology

Dispensationalists, including Ryrie, affirm that ’it is very difficult if not impossible to prove that the average Israelite understood the grace of God in Christ.’ Ross adds, ’It is most improbable that everyone [in the Old Testament] who believed unto salvation consciously believed in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’

So dispensationalism raises major questions about the amount and content of Christocentric, salvific truth available during Old Testament times. Even if one agrees that certain Old Testament personalities had a degree of Christocentric knowledge by divine revelatory initiatives such as covenants, visions, dreams, and other personal means of revelation, the number of individuals who had access to such extraordinary salvific content is rather insignificant to make it the general content of widespread salvation during the Old Testament.

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Dispensationalism Considers Inclusivism

Along with covenant theology, dispensationalism questions the inclusivist view of a generic, contentless, salvation-bringing faith principle in the Old Testament, let alone the New Testament. While inclusivists are eager to use Ryrie’s words to emphasize the basis, requirement, and the object of faith in salvation, they overlook a structural characteristic of a dispensational theology of salvation-the specific content necessary in each dispensation. ’It is this last point, of course, which distinguishes dispensationalism from covenant theology.’ It may be added that this last point also distinguishes dispensationalism from the inclusivist view. As Ross puts it,

Ultimately the content of saving faith in any age must be God and his revelation concerning participation in his covenant (what we call salvation). Believers were ultimately taking God at his word when they responded to the truth in their situations. But as revelation continued, the content of faith grew.

Old Testament saints, did not have a contentless faith. Their faith-content was specified, required, and therefore exclusive. That is, exclusivity is not just a New Testament phenomenon introduced in Jesus Christ. When one takes the Old Testament’s exclusivity and adds the fuller, clarified New Testament insistence on explicit, conscious knowledge and belief in Jesus Christ as the means of receiving eternal salvation, the inclusivist, wider-hope view is inadmissible.

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As already noted, the problem with the covenant position (the continuity view) is that it assumes a great amount of Christological knowledge by the typical Israelite. It argues from the few to the many. The fact that Job, Abraham, Moses, and David knew much about the Coming One, does not mean that all who were saved knew much about Him.

The problem with the faith-principle position is similar to the problem with the continuity position. The inclusivist opinion has to assume a great amount of faith in the right object on the part of many unmentioned non-Israelites on the basis of a few non-Israelites who are named to salvation. The fact that Abel, Melchizedek, Noah, Jethro, and Naaman were saved does not mean most of those outside contact with and knowledge of Yahweh were saved or had access to salvation.

Both continuity and faith-principle theologies commit the fallacy of the general rule. They argue for a general rule from a small sample. In the covenant scheme a few cases of definite Christocentric knowledge become the basis for a widespread availability of specific Christocentric knowledge. In the inclusivist scheme a few cases of non-Israelite salvation become a case for the general availability of salvation without an exclusive content condition. Several ’neglected factors’ and ’disconfirmatory instances’ exist in both of these theologies of salvation.

While the arguments of covenant and inclusivist theolo-

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gians are similar, their conclusions differ. A major dividing line between these two theologies is the application of the generalizations. Some Old Testament saints (e.g., Abraham, Moses, David) had greater insight than others into the promised Redeemer. The question is whether this sampling is representative and proportionate to the entire Old Testament population of saints. On the other hand the inclusivist view has not established one solid biblical instance of salvation by ’the direction of heart rather than the content of theology.’ There is no biblical evidence of an abstract faith principle toward God without specific theological truth bringing salvation. Consequently Pinnock and Sanders must make an enormous inductive leap, a leap that is exegetically unsound and logically questionable.

Dispensationalism preserves pre-Christ salvation outside explicit knowledge of Christ while insisting that explicit knowledge of Christ is an exclusive, universal condition now. A normal historical and hermeneutical distinction between dispensations makes a broadened condition for salvation impossible.

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Some Directions from a Theology of Discontinuity

The ’historical location’ and the epistemological content of salvation become critically important. Theologies of salvation configure the relationship between these two elements in different ways. For universalists neither time nor content is critical to salvation. For inclusivists content is inconsequential. For covenant theologians a Christocentric epistemology provides unity to the progress of redemption with differences in historical location being less important.

However, for dispensationalists, historical location is integrated with epistemological content. One of the distinctives of dispensationalism may well focus on this point that the specific content of saving faith distinguishes a dispensation. Such a distinctive is important in relation to the inclusivist question. That is, it is possible for people to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ before Christ came, but not after He came. In this way, the truth and adequacy of Old Testament revelation for salvation is preserved, while emphazing that in this age a personal relationship with God is ’mediated exclusively through the Son.’

This ’integrative’ dispensational view of the time and content of salvation provides several points of argumentation against inclusivism. These dispensational resources are viewed soteriologically, ecclesiologically, and eschatologically.

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Soteriological Implications

First, in dispensationalism the details of Old Testament salvation are given equitable weight in the linkage between historical location and salvation epistemology. Pre-Israelites, non-Israelites, and nominal Israelites could be saved as they were rightly related to God by exercising faith in the specifically and divinely revealed content for that epoch. During Old Testament times salvation was possible even if Christ was not explicitly known by most Old Testament saints. Embryonic or mature salvific knowledge of Christ is attributed to divine revelatory initiatives which dispensed insight into the messianic promise to significant patriarchs and prophets (Abel, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, etc.; cf. Heb. 11). And yet these individuals did not necessarily understand many dimensions of what they stated (cf. 1 Pet. 1:10-11). Also any non-Israelites who were saved came into contact with Israelites and had to acknowledge the God of Israel (e.g., the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, Naaman and Elisha, Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel).

Second, in dispensationalism the details of New Testament salvation are given equitable weight in the linkage between historical location and salvation epistemology. Individuals in the present age can be saved as they become rightly related to God by exercising faith in the specifically and divinely revealed content for this epoch (John 3:16; Acts 4:12; 16:31; etc.) Even now, divine revelatory initiatives may dispense insight into the arrival of the messianic promise, but any such recipient (e.g., a Hindu or Muslim seeker) must still relate to Jesus Christ (as, e.g., Cornelius, Acts 10:43). In other words divine revelatory initiatives are not independently salvific. A person must explicitly believe in the salvific content of this dispensation, namely, on the Lord Jesus Christ as his or her only God and Savior.

Third, while affirming the unchanging and unchangeable aspects of salvation (e.g., divine election, the atonement, and the necessity of faith), dispensationalism carries the truth of exclusivity throughout the epochs of history without diminishing the quantitatively lesser amount of messianic knowledge in the Old Testament as qualitatively inferior.

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For instance dispensationalism does not permit glossing over the pre-Israelite period as many tend to do. Sanders (like Porphyry, the neo-Platonist from Tyre who assailed early Christianity) discusses a legitimate concern.

Porphyry was aware that some Christians attempted to meet his objection by claiming that people before Christ were saved by faith in the Christ to come. Pagans, before Christ, it was argued, were saved if they turned to the Jewish faith, which taught about the Christ who was to come. To this Porphyry said: ’let it not be said that provision had been made for the human race by the old Jewish law. It was only after a long time that the Jewish law appeared and flourished within the narrow limits of Syria. . . . It gradually crept onwards to the coasts of Italy; but this was not earlier than the end of the reign of Gaius. . . . What, then, became of the souls of men in Rome and Latium who lived before the time of the Caesars, and were destitute of the grace of Christ, because He had not then come?

Dispensationalists answer this objection from a time-content integration. Before the time of the nation of Israel, God had other divinely revealed, specific content for salvation. Once any such content was given, people everywhere had to relate properly to the God who was communicated in it. Pre-Israelite salvation was just as real and vital as salvation offered at any other time in human history. In this way dispensationalism also protects against the inference that a pre-Israelite period was the archetypal dispensation for the paradigm of salvation-a necessary assumption of the inclusivist view.

Fourth, dispensationalism insists that the temporal, geographical, and epistemological extents of salvation are coterminous. This view is possible since the amount of messianic (salvific?) knowledge given to Abraham or David did not have to extend to all Old Testament saved people. Pinnock argues that Abimelech ’was in fact another pagan who had a right relation with God outside the boundaries of Israel’s covenant.’ From this

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Pinnock deduces that the boundaries of Israel’s covenant are similar to the boundaries of Jesus’ salvation. Since Abimelech was outside Israel, Pinnock reasons, those today who do not know of Jesus can be saved.

Inclusivists suggest that Abimelech’s dream of divine accountability, his protests of a clean conscience, his compensatory generosity, and his healing are synonyms of personal salvation. However, the coterminous view of the temporal, geographical, and epistemological extent of salvation demands that specific content be available to the human race at a given time regardless of circumstances. The ’holy pagan’ passages actually prove that Yahwistic salvation was for the whole world (as in, e.g., the Abimelech-Abraham interchange). This salvation was available before the beginning of the nation Israel and continued through the duration of Israel to be available to non-Israelites. This is also true in the New Testament. The temporal, geographical, and epistemological aspects of salvation are coterminous.

If salvation were only for Israel and if non-Israelites could be saved outside the boundaries of Israel, this would not indicate that people can be saved outside Jesus today. However one understands Israel’s covenant geography, salvation since Jesus’ first advent is clearly universal (as demonstrated even by inclusivist use of the universal texts). This fact is a point in favor of the discontinuity position in a theology of the history of salvation.


Believers and Christians. The inclusivist view requires a

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distinction between saved ’believers’ and ’Christians.’ Believers, Sanders says, are ’all those who are saved because they have faith in God,’ and a Christian is ’a believer who knows about and participates in the work of Jesus Christ.’ Pinnock distinguishes between premessianic believers and messianic believers (Christians). Both these groups are saved. Premessianic believers presently need Christ and missions for ’full strength’ salvation in this life. ’Unevangelized believers need a clearer revelation of God’s love and forgiveness, and the assurance that goes with love and forgiveness.’

Pinnock and Sanders say little if anything about the composition of the universal church. Presumably they view the church as composed of Christians (messianic believers) who participate in the mission of bringing Christ to the nations, including ’unevangelized believers’ who have not heard of Christ.

Inclusivism leads to two awkward ecclesiological options. The first option is to include only true Christians in the church. But in this case Pinnock has two categories of the saved in relationship to the church-the saved who belong to the church (and therefore are aware of it) and the saved who do not belong to the church (and therefore are unaware of it). Though Pinnock distances himself from Rahner, the latter category sounds like a Rahnerian ’anonymous Christian’ view. This could be called an ’anonymous church’ view or ’anonymous believer’ view. That is, a person does not know he is a Christian (Rahner) or that he is in the church (Pinnock) and ’saved non-Christians’ do not know it either.

Inclusivism’s second option on the composition of the church is to make both premessianic believers and messianic Christians part of the church, though Christians still have to evangelize be-

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lievers. Here, strangely, those who have not believed in Christ are viewed as part of the church. That believers already in the church need to be evangelized not only sounds outlandish, but also reduces missions to a mere ’conscientization’ task with nonevangelical overtones of mission.

A hint about the composition of the church may be found in the following statement by Pinnock: ’A forward look characterizes the church age, and central to it is the ingathering of the Gentiles. . . . The central thrust of this present age is the ingathering of the Gentiles through the mission entrusted to us.’ Whether these Gentiles include believers is not stated, though those who carry the mission are Christians. Seemingly Pinnock is suggesting that ’the Church Age’ comprises all present believers (messianic and premessianic) in a universal entity, the church, parts of which are identifiable (messianic believers) and parts of which are unidentifiable but authentic (premessianic believers). Only self-conscious Christians belong to what is identifiable as the church, and they are responsible to carry on its mission.

This point is discussed here under ecclesiology rather than soteriology because of the dispensational insistence that the church is composed of the saved in this age and is administratively discontinuous with Israel. One of the essential (not just institutional) differences between the church and Israel is the constituents of these two entities. Though Israel and the church may be analogous, how one becomes part of Israel or the church differs. Everyone physically born within the sociopolitical orbit of Israel was a bona fide, ethnic Israelite. But not all ethnic Israelites, Abrahamites of the flesh, were believers, that is, Abrahamites of the promise. To receive salvation, ethnic (children of the flesh) Israelites still had to express personal belief in Yahweh. ’Faith found expression in the OT in two predominant

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ways: obedience to the Law, and worship through sacrifices.’ In Israel some were saved and others were not.

Most evangelical ecclesiologies of salvation hold that it is not possible for the unsaved to belong spiritually in the church. People must personally believe in Christ to be spiritually born into the church. Unlike Israel, the church has no distinction between those who are spiritually related to it and those who are not. That is, in the church there are no levels of ethnic meaning or tiers of belonging. Consequently if Israel and the church are continuous or essentially the same, one not only runs into soterio-ecclesiological problems but also faces a major enigma that caters to the inclusivist view. Inclusivists could argue that just as ’more-than-authentic’ Israelites were in Israel, so ’more-than-authentic’ Christians are in the church. In dispensational discontinuity only the saved are in the church. And they are self-consciously the church with missionary responsibilities to the unsaved world.

Simultaneous dispensationalism. One of the powerful arguments for inclusivism is what may be designated ’simultaneous or concurrent dispensationalism.’ In this approach more than one dispensation runs concurrently. Kraft ’distinguishes between the chronological position of those who have never heard and their position with respect to revelational information.’ This group is ’chronologically A.D. and informationally B.C.’ The unevangelized are in the New Testament dispensation in reference to time and in the Old Testament dispensation in reference to the content of salvation.

This issue may be addressed in several ways. Dispensationalists again point out that Old Testament saints, in spite of their lack of knowledge of Christ, did have divinely revealed, specific content to believe (which content demarcates the dispensations). If Old Testament believers had nothing definite to believe, Kraft’s point might be acceptable. People today are not in an Old Testament dispensation in reference to specific content. Furthermore what the religious masses in the populous regions of the world (e.g., China and India) believe today does not even remotely correspond to what Abraham and Melchizedek believed as the divinely revealed specifics of their day. People today, like

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the unsaved of the Old Testament, affirm other (nonbiblical and therefore false) means of salvation.

Thus Kraft makes an erroneous crossdispensational link based on ’shared ignorance’ between the Old and New Testaments. He confuses the specific content believed by saved people such as Melchizedek and Naaman (in spite of their ignorance of Christ), with the lack of specifics of Christ among unsaved chronologically A.D. people. People outside Jesus Christ today do not maintain neutral or blank religious minds. While they may be deficient in information about Christ, they are not deficient in their information about God. Too, the Bible points to a moral problem among all the unsaved. Their problems in relation to salvation are twofold. The negative angle relates to knowledge of Christ, but the positive angle relates to suppression of truth and rebellious action. So the transdispensational link is between the ’unsaved’ of both Old and New Testaments-both are guilty-and not between the non-Israelites who were saved in the Old Testament and non-Israelites in the present era who are not saved. The latter hold religious views that conflict with divinely revealed salvation content.

This feature of specific content of salvation for a period of time, affecting all humans in that time, actually opposes the ’faith principle’ of salvation. This approach seeks a common denominator for salvific content (the ’faith principle’) in the various ages. Once this content of salvation is abstracted and given a generic status, inclusivists then attempt to find suitable

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candidates in any given dispensation to fit the abstracted condition. But a newly defined specific for salvation thwarts their efforts. So they posit concurrent dispensations to accommodate the abstracted generic content for premessianic believers and a concrete specific content for messianic Christians.

Dispensationalism’s philosophy of history does not allow for concurrent dispensations in any epoch. Salvific content includes divinely revealed specifics for each age. Intensive content and extensive reach distinguish the dispensations. Any period of salvific revelation in the Bible applies to the entirety of the human race for that time. Specific revelatory events had global dimensions as witnessed in Adam (global effect of the Fall, Gen. 3); Noah (the global Flood and the Noahic Covenant, Gen. 6-8); Abraham (global promise, Gen. 12); Israel (global orientation, Exod. 19:6; Deut. 4:6-8; Ps. 67; Isa. 60-66); the Cross (global implication, John 3:16; 1 John 2:2) and the church (Matt. 28:19-20, global influence); the millennium (global reign, Ps. 2; Rev. 20:1-6); and eternity (global ’summing up’ and the new creation, 1 Cor. 15:27-28; Rev. 21-22). Can several dispensations be running concurrently now? Theologically this cannot be so, since such a view reduces the comprehensive, epochal, and global radicalness of the Cross and the comprehensive, epochal, and global uniqueness of the church in God’s program.

For the present dispensation, the Cross is of global significance. This significance is more than merely ontological since it relates to all the inhabited earth. Otherwise the Cross might as well have happened in the realm of the ideal in an eternal form in God’s mind. Simultaneous dispensationalism diminishes the historical radicalness of the Cross by taking away its epistemological distinctive and thereby undermining its comprehensive global claim and coverage.

Also in this philosophy of history the church has comprehen-

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sive global significance. Christ’s disciple-making mandate is noted for its internationality (Matt. 28:19-20). The church is to spread the message of Christ across the world. Unfortunately the church may cultivate an ingrownness as Israel did in confusing elective responsibility for selfish privilege. However, in dispensationalism the church portrays a new universality that is discontinuous with Israel. To a large measure, the church was unforeseen in the Old Testament. While salvation of Gentiles is highly evident in the Old Testament, the equality of Jews and Gentiles in a corporate body was a mystery revealed to the New Testament apostles and prophets. So the church is not a limited, nationally constituted institution. By nature it is new, and by composition it is multiethnic. This nonnationalistic, indiscriminate, interracial composition of Christ’s body, the church, does not allow for simultaneous dispensationalism. The fundamental event of the Cross and the composition of the church extend throughout the globe in this age. To provide a different content of faith for human salvation in the Church Age is to regulate post-Cross salvation by a pre-Cross model and to suggest pre-Pentecost descriptions for a post-Pentecost entity.

So a dispensational philosophy of history in its linear view of time and incremental view of revelation argues strongly against the idea of concurrent dispensations. Dispensationalism invalidates a ’chronologically A.D. and informationally B.C.’ division as a model for salvation today. Such an ineffectual division is acknowledged by Kraft himself. ’The discontinuity from our perspective is in fact that chronologically A.D. people could know whereas B.C. people could not know.’ Certainly this kind of a person is not unique. Everyone in this dispensation, until he comes to know Christ, is ’chronologically A.D. and information-

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ally B.C.’ So this category of the unevangelized is not unique. One’s pre-Christ ignorance can be corrected in this post-Christ dispensation. But such a correction was not historically undertaken on a wide scale in a pre-Christ dispensation.

Eschatological Implications

Perhaps dispensationalism is most popularly known for its eschatological thought. The futurist orientation of dispensational premillennialism points to some implications that speak against an inclusivist interpretation of salvation.

This-worldly salvation. The Old Testament prospect of salvation was spiritual, immediate, and this-worldly. Ross regards the profile of Old Testament salvation as deliverance from enemies, rest in the land, and unbroken fellowship with God. Though Pinnock does not discuss this concept, he could gain a certain Old Testament advantage by doing so since he wants to make the New Testament benefit of salvation spiritual, immediate, and this-worldly too. Of course to make the Old Testament understanding of salvation parallel to New Testament salvific benefits, some adjustments would be needed. Sociopolitical deliverance from enemies and literal rest in a geographically defined land would have to be adjusted to refer to sin, demons, heaven, and so forth.

Dispensational premillennialism enables the prospects of Old Testament salvation to be taken in a plain, originally understood sense. And the discontinuity in dispensationalism

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does not allow for New Testament salvation to be beneficial only in a spiritual, immediate, and this-worldly sense. Old Testament Israel, while finding spiritual salvation on earth along with short-term deliverance from enemies, still looked forward to the eschatological realization of their geographical hope. But New Testament salvation promises an eternal, ultimate, and other-worldly salvation. It refuses to give eternity second place to an earthly millennium, though the saved of all ages will enjoy the benefits of an earthly resolution of history and an eternal consummation of all things under Christ in a permanent conjoining of identities and destinies.

Criterion for truth. One of the difficulties in the inclusivist view is ascertaining a criterion for salvific truth that can be presently applied to non-Christian religions. Having seen the Bible as providing a generic principle for salvation (i.e., faith commitment to God), but not providing specifics for salvation (content for explicit trust), inclusivists face the question of how to evaluate truth components in non-Christian religions. A lack of such a criterion allows Pinnock to see Buddhists as in touch with God their own way and Muslims as worshiping the same God as Christians and Jews. Most evangelicals find these suggestions unacceptable since non-Christian religions do not measure up to the standard of the Scriptures with reference to the condition and possibility for eternal salvation.

Dispensationalists look forward to a future time when all believers will participate in the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ as the final earthly dispensation. This kingdom will be brought about by divine intervention and without human agency.

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This kind of a historical eschatological scenario contrasts with Pinnock’s (and Hick’s) notion of alleviating present decisions about absolute truth by aspiring to the eschatological verification of truth. But if truth and falsehood cannot be resolved in the historical past or present, they cannot be resolved by a nonhistorical, eschatological maneuver. When the historical connection is cut, the criterion for truth becomes a nonhistorical, teleological ideal rather than a verifiable, historical absolute that discriminates between truth and error.

In Jesus’ incarnation the King and kingdom were historically present. Christ as King furnishes the historical criterion of truth for the exclusivity of Christ and the evaluation of whether other religions include salvific truth. This is true because the dispensational view of history provides a past, present, and future of earthly, historical realities. The tight link between the future, earthly, historical form of the kingdom, made certain by its relationship to the past, earthly, historical presence of Jesus as King, supplies the critical evaluative criterion for world religions. The King has come visibly in history and geography, but the mil-

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lennial kingdom has not yet come visibly in history and geography. So the King provides the criterion by which anyone may be included in His kingdom.


The inclusivist view is a crucial issue in modern evangelicalism. Dispensationalism provides a New Testament epistemology of exclusivity against the inclusivist view. In connection with ’historical location’ and salvific epistemology, four inclusivist arguments are cited below with appropriate responses from a dispensational viewpoint.

1. ’Pre-Christ individuals have been saved without explicit knowledge of Christ.’ However, not having ’explicit knowledge of Christ’ is only part of the equation of salvation content. Dispensationalism insists that pre-Christ believers did have divinely revealed, specific content of which there had to be explicit knowledge in order to receive salvation.

2. ’People, then, can be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ.’ This view disregards the content of salvation at any given time and arbitrarily gives universal status to that period which yields their principle. Inclusivists jump from one half of the fact (what Old Testament believers did and could not have) to a ubiquitous means of salvation. True, people in the Old Testament have been saved without knowledge of Christ. But it is improper to conclude from this that now anyone anywhere can and will be saved in the same way. Dispensationalism insists on the critical time factor and does not permit an archetypal faith principle that claims that people can and will be saved without knowledge of Christ in this era in human history.

3. ’There are many post-Christ individuals without explicit knowledge of Christ now.’ No one disputes this fact.

4. ’Therefore these too can be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ as were their pre-Christ counterparts.’ This conclusion is inadmissible. As already argued, pre-Christian times,

108 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January-March 1994

like post-Christian times, had divinely revealed specifics for salvation. The legitimate universalizable principle is that there are divinely revealed specifics of salvation for all humans regardless of time and location. In the present dispensation the ’specific’ is knowledge of Christ. Indeed, circumstances of birth of individuals since the Cross are not any more or less advantageous for the unevangelized, since divinely revealed specifics for salvation were given in pre-Christian times as well.

Dispensationalism rejects the conclusions of the inclusivist, wider-hope view. But dispensationalism is able to preserve continuity of faith toward God in both the Old and New Testaments while preserving the specificity of the content of faith in both Testaments. In answer to Pinnock’s earlier question, ’Why would it make any difference if Job were born in A.D. 1900 in outer Mongolia?’ dispensationalists answer, ’It would not, unless one draws on the definite resources of a discontinuity construct of the history and theology of salvation.’

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