Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.
Esther Helm and I will be continuing our dialogue on exclusivism and inclusivism this week.
Esther: Hello Cal! I’d like to start by discussing the premises you laid out our first week. Concerning your first premise, “What determines salvation needs to universally have moral weight,” how did you determine what can and cannot determine salvation?
Cal: What we can know about salvation comes from what we know about God. Two basic facts that we know for sure about God are that he is infinitely powerful and perfectly good. So from these two premises we can reason about what it is possible to do.
Esther: I’m curious about how we know those two characteristics for sure and why they are the only ones we know with certainty? It’s true that they are usually accepted in Christian theology, but truth is not determined by agreement. Moreover, scripture describes many other characteristics of God which should guide our discussion of what He is capable of doing.
Cal: The reason I like to use these two characteristics is because they are the most useful. Christians tend to agree widely that these are true, and starting discussions from places where people agree is useful. These characteristics are also useful because their meaning is widely accepted. “God is perfectly good” has a more concrete philosophical meaning than “God is personal.”
Esther: I believe all of God’s characteristics are useful and essential to understanding who He is. Nevertheless, let’s focus on the “concrete philosophical meaning” of good. How do you define what is good, thus what would hypothetically define God?
Cal: The four main factors that lead us to knowledge of the good are reason, tradition, scripture and direct experience. Different faith traditions put different weight on each of these factors.
Esther: How should we determine which of these factors should receive the greatest weight?
Cal: I place the most weight on reason and direct experience. I still give an important place to tradition and scripture, but the focus is on interpreting scripture and tradition through reason and direct experience.
Esther: How can we be sure our reason is guiding us correctly? As we know, Jefferson Davis and other slaveowners tried to use scripture to justify slavery, and their reason and experience wrongly led them to believe that God approved of one race of humans owning and exploiting another.
Cal: This depends on using reason for its proper purpose. Reason allows us to think logically. The important capacity this gives us is knowledge of the logical conclusions of premises. Things that we know because of reason are not things that we can disagree about. For example:
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- Colossians 1:23 says that there is a gospel proclaimed in every person
- Understanding and internalizing of the gospel is necessary and sufficient for salvation
- A gospel that is proclaimed in every person cannot include religious facts
- Affirming religious facts is not necessary for salvation
Reason tells us that if statements 1), 2) and 3) are true, then 4) has to be true, but it does not tell us whether 1), 2) and 3) are true. Knowledge about the truth of premises falls to tradition, scripture and direct experience.
Esther: So ultimately, we cannot use our reason until we are sure our premises are true. Let’s explore the three ways inclusivists determine what is true. Many Christian traditions exist, so how do we determine the right one to follow?
Cal: Tradition allows us to draw on the experiences and understanding of others. I’ll never be as steeped in the Bible or ethical thought as the great Christian thinkers. People like George Fox, St. Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, etc, will always have surpassing knowledge and wisdom. Using their work, we can gain knowledge ourselves. Importantly, using tradition in our spiritual formation does not mean that we are servile toward and unquestioning of great thinkers.
There are intellectual giants on many sides of theological and moral debates, so one needs to remain critical when studying them. Using reason to understand the implications of their teachings and using scripture and direct experience to measure those implications is important.
Esther: How should we use our direct experience when measuring implications and evaluating truth?
Cal: Direct experience is controversial. Quakers rely heavily on direct experience because of the centrality of the Indwelling Christ in Quaker thought. The Indwelling Christ gives us personal revelations about truth.
A dwelling on the Inner Light can help to find truth when we are deliberating. One example that might be helpful comes from a 2017 article on a schism in Quaker meetings about whether to marry gay couples. One pastor who formerly opposed homosexual behavior as sinful went through “a gradual personal awakening and opening” as many LGBT+ worshippers joined her meeting.
Esther: If Inner Light is guiding all people, wouldn’t we all end up at the same conclusions?
Cal: Disagreements about what the Inner Light leads us to do and think arise not from the Inner Light leading people in different directions, but in our inability to receive wisdom clearly. We have all sorts of prejudices and shortcomings that get in the way of knowledge. But, through a gradual and persistent turning towards the Light, we can break down those barriers.
Esther: It seems like there are two possibilities. Either the barriers can be completely removed or they cannot. If they can be fully removed, that would mean we could match God’s wisdom and understanding, even while living as humans on earth.
If the barriers can’t be fully removed, then any of the conclusions we make, even when turning toward the Light, could ultimately be wrong because of an unknown barrier. What confidence and certainty does this leave us when relying on direct experience?
Cal: I think that this critique really applies to tradition and scripture as well. I think everybody would agree that we’re doomed to misunderstand the scripture and we’re doomed to misunderstand the work of great thinkers, but we have to persist nonetheless.
Esther: I do believe that every human is fallible and that we are unable to exercise our flawed faculties to understand God and salvation perfectly on our own. These limitations lead me to start with scripture, as wholly sufficient and authoritative, rather than myself, and to rely on the Holy Spirit to reveal their truth to me.
In the example I stated above, the issue was Davis refusing to start with God’s Word. Instead, he pulled scripture out of context and twisted it to justify what he had already decided must be true.
Cal: The problem with this approach is that it assumes that we have access to an authoritative reading of the Bible. Although the meaning of the Bible is sufficient on its own, the meaning of the Bible does not lie in the plain text. The meaning of scripture is sufficient, infallible, and authoritative. The plain text is not.
If two people, each of whom understand the dictionary definitions of the words, can in good faith read a Bible passage and arrive at different meanings, the meaning and the text of the Bible are separate. Rather, we need to do interpretive work from the text of the Bible to arrive at the meaning. Although our interpretive tools are flawed, we still have to use them as best as we can.
To not use our interpretive tools is to abandon the search for theological truths altogether.
Esther: I do not believe we can separate the meaning and text of the Bible, assigning one as infallible and the other as flawed. When two people read the same passage and arrive at different interpretations, it is because their human sinfulness is interfering, not because the meaning and text are separate.
If I’m understanding correctly, you’re saying we can only accept conclusions once we determine the truth of their premises. Our direct experience does not always lead us to the truth, nor does tradition, nor does scripture (in your view).
If none of these means of determining truth are sufficient and without mistake, then we do not have a fully reliable way to determine truth. Is the truth then unknowable?
Cal: I think that the truth is in some sense unknowable. The tools that we have for accessing it are useful and can get us to valuable approximations, but I think that an authoritative account of the nature of God and good lies outside our reach. Nevertheless, I believe that the importance of finding the best possible approximation of the good lies at the center of the vast majority of ethical theories.
Esther: In my own Christian walk, I define what is good based on what we know about God from scripture, rather than defining God based on how we define good based on our own reason. I don’t understand how we could be confident in our understanding of either God or good if all our means for knowing these things are limited and flawed. Therefore, I’m excited to continue our conversation next week and to explore your approximation of good and thus what you believe about God and salvation.
Contact The Walk columnist firstname.lastname@example.org.
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