Saying Something Theological

0
56

When the well-known Christian ethicist James Gustafson gave the 1981 Ryerson Lectures at the University of Chicago, he chose as his title, “Say Something Theological.” He took the title from a conversation he had at a cocktail party with a chemistry professor who, when he heard that Gustafson was a theology professor, challenged him to “say something theological.”

Someone commented about this blog that so far I have mainly commented about popular culture, and specifically about TV shows. The person wasn’t complaining–just curious about my choice of subjects. Well, I probably should get around to saying something that is clearly theological (even though I really do think that Jack Bauer and Jerry Springer are fair game for theological critique!).

And I do have a straightforwardly theological thought right now. I have just been reading the latest issue of Martin Marty’s newsletter, Context, and he reports something there that raises my theological blood pressure a bit. It seems that a Southern Baptist theologian, when asked whether Mahatma Gandhi might have gone to heaven, responded by saying that we can be sure that Gandhi did not make it to the heavenly realms. The theologian backed up his claim by quoting The Baptist Faith and Message, an official document of the Southern Baptist Convention: “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ.”

This is much too simplistic. Not that I want to make a case for Mahatma Gandhi as a Christian saint, or even as what the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner called an “anonymous Christian.” Like my Southern Baptist friends, I am not a universalist and I do not want in any way to detract from the importance of having a personal faith in Jesus Christ.

But unless I misjudge the character of the folks who say the kind of thing that this particular Baptist theologian is quoted as saying, they really don’t mean what they are saying. Surely they believe that children who die before they have made a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ–those, for example, who die in infancy–can be saved. And I would hope they could say the same for severely mentally disabled folks who cannot understand what it means to have a personal faith in Jesus Christ. If they do believe this, then they have to admit that the doctrinal statement quoted above is simply false as stated.

Obviously, of course, it does not follow from granting an exception to children who die in infancy that we can assume that the doors to heaven will be opened to all sorts of folks who, like Gandhi, we might like to see get some sort of eternal reward. But to acknowledge the one exception for dying infants ought at least to make us open to a bit of mystery on the general subject of who gets in and who does not.

The very orthodox Calvinists who wrote the Westminster Confession at the time of the Reformation in Scotland were open to that kind of mystery. They allowed that at least Christian parents whose children die in infancy can be assured that their offspring are beneficiaries of Christ’s saving work. This is what they wrote in their section entitled “Of Effectual Calling”: “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when and where, and how he pleaseth.” But then they also added an amazing further comment: “So also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.”

That last statement opens the door to a lot of mystery. Perhaps at least some of those millions who have never heard the Gospel might be saved, even though they have not been “outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” And there may even be others, folks whose obstacles to hearing the call of the Gospel may be of a different sort.

Again, I am no universalist. I believe that refusing to put your faith in Jesus is something that imperils your soul for all eternity. There is no salvation apart from Christ. But how Jesus gets ahold of people and how he brings them into his heavenly Kingdom is surrounded–for me at least–by a lot of mystery. I’m glad the verdict on who is in and who is out is not up to me, but to the Spirit who is described by the Westminster Confession as the One who “who worketh when and where, and how he pleaseth.”

16 Comments »

  1. Common Dr. Mouw…Jesus only saves those are are good enlightement evangelicas with propositional statements of faith! Nevermind that the church is growing fastest in places that don’t have bullet point statemetn of faith documents. Those people in Africa and Asia are syncretistic, not us!

    Great thoughts. I agree that we are confident in personal salvation given in Christ. We confess Christ, but we affirm that the Spirit of God is free to blow and work throughout the whole creation.

    I wonder how much of that doctrinal proposition from the Baptist person flows from the gross assumption that we do the converting and saving. When it is certainly not us but God who is revealed, yet mysterious. In fact, seems to me Jesus does not speak of soul saving, but of discipleship. Those are two very different things. One given to us by Plato and the other by the incarnate Rabbi who was raised in the flesh.

    Now no to boast but that’s saying something theological.

    Comment by into the subversion — February 12, 2007 @ 2:13 pm


  2. Dr. Mouw,

    Recently, my prayer partner and I have quite bit discussion regarding theology vs. reality. Since there were many things happened in my life which I cannot ever grasp the understanding in theological method, therefore, I tend to have reality checks with Holy Spirit and to see things from His perspective. In reality, over the years, I have gone through “boot camped” with Jesus on how to utilize my Spiritual gifts in realistic ways to be the faithful God’s Kingdom intercessor.

    I am not near a theological person by nature, however, am longing for proper training and to be equipped in such way.

    Respectfully,

    LLL

    Comment by Lan — February 12, 2007 @ 11:18 pm


  3. Recently I have been talking to a long time friend who was born into the church and recently became a universalist. He read If Grace is True by Philip Gulley who is a quaker and believes God will save everyone. Have you ever read this book?

    Comment by Ray — February 13, 2007 @ 3:53 pm


  4. Just as point of interest, Ghandi once said, “I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”

    Ghandi also said, “Jesus lived and died in vain if he did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love.”

    Comment by D — February 13, 2007 @ 8:49 pm


  5. Dr. Mouw

    While I would agree that many of the doctrinal statements seem to leave much of the mystery out, I am puzzled by some of your comments.

    The comparison which you make of “the children who die in infancy” and “the severely mentally disabled folks” to perfectly capable and competent people is bothersome. I do not see how the Westminster Confession can be interpreted in such a way as to go where you intend. I do not believe that the writers had someone like Ghandi in mind when this statement was penned.

    While I would agree that there are mysteries that are not understandable, it is not a mystery as to those who have rejected the gospel.

    The Spirit does blow where He wills and and when He calls he commands that we leave all to follow this Jesus. His kingdom is larger than this not smaller.

    Comment by Blake — February 15, 2007 @ 8:04 pm


  6. Well said Dr. Mouw I have always been heavily convicted by the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. If nothing else, it indicates that some people will be very suprised by Jesus’ judgement. I have never been comfortable making a judgement on whether someone is “saved” or not. The call to Christians in Matt. 28 is to lead the way to God rather than pass eternal judgement.

    Comment by BB — February 15, 2007 @ 9:32 pm


  7. It is refreshing to read of a theologian’s humility and respect for the mysterious. It often runs counter to the profession!

    The doctrine of election does not exactly leap from the pages of Scripture, so I’m glad you’ve allowed God some wiggle room. I find that those who talk the most about election are most interested in promoting their own selection. “We’re getting in. That particular group isn’t.”

    …and I have enjoyed your TV comments. “Bravo” for engaging the culture vs. attacking it. Thanks for blogging.

    Comment by GH — February 16, 2007 @ 6:54 pm


  8. Came across your Musings from the blog, “It Takes A Church” – http://bolsinger.blogs.com/weblog/2007/02/another_preside.html

    Essentially I agree with Dr. Mouw’s perspective – the key difference being the wording of the two credo statements (like the way I speak theologically? :-)

    1. Baptist Faith & Message: “There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ.”

    2. Richard Mouw: “I believe that refusing to put your faith in Jesus is something that imperils your soul for all eternity. There is no salvation apart from Christ.”

    The differential in Mouw’s statement is the absence of the phrase “personal faith.” And that is what is so difficult to judge. Do we know a person’s heart position? Only by their actions, and of course not even then fully. But we can examine the evidence of whether or not a person has accepted or rejected the gospel, don’t you think?

    So while I’m not lining up to damn Gandhi (or anyone for that matter), I can understand the 5th commenter Blake’s concern. If someone who knew of Jesus (as Gandhi clearly did) but rejected his gospel – presumably because his followers were so unlike Christ – then that action reveals, as best we can tell, a heart position that has refused the offer of salvation.

    So what do we do? We keep witnessing to that person and praying for their salvation (definitely a “judgment” call, right?) until they die. And after the opportunity for witnessing has passed? Well, I’m with Dr. Mouw. I won’t say for sure one way or another if they’ll be in heaven. One reason is that I don’t want to embarrass myself at the pearly gates when St. Peter introduces me to the person I was sure wasn’t going to be there! :-)

    Thanks for saying something theological. lgp

    Comment by Lyn — February 17, 2007 @ 8:57 am


  9. Gandhi was highly praised and set as a role model in many history books. I personally admire his character and many of his accomplishments despite his believe.

    In my distresses, I often prayed that the Lord would take me home soon before I may become rebellion . . .Then I would be comforted by scriptures, such as John 5:16, and Isaiah 41:10. I always wonder about the thief, who was hanging on the cross next to Jesus, if he was saved according to our Christian standard. Yet Jesus assured him that He would see him in Paradise.

    I hope that Anna Nicole Smith would make to heaven when she cried out “Abba, Father.” at her last breath.

    I am just so thankful that my Heavenly Father is full of grace and mercy, and He exams our hearts.

    PofP

    Comment by PofP — February 17, 2007 @ 1:25 pm


  10. The thing I think that fuzzies our understanding of salvation is those darn pagans who do good works. But, back to good works as evidence of salvation’s movement in our lives – when I look for a changed life it is evidenced in the outward workings of faith – telling others about Christ, thinking that becomes clearer because it has embraced the truest truth of our creator, and a real desire to serve the interest’s of others. That’s when we are tilling our own soil. Yet, we see these fruits in others. Has Gandhi known heaven? I don’t know. But I do know that through the truth of Christ I see the manifest good in Gandhi’s life and the bad and I try to separate good fruit from bad. It’s not our job to judge another’s salvation but to tell the message of salvation and keep telling to people who are asking. I think other’s relationship to God is the business of God and that our relationship to God is our business we better get straight.

    Now – as to popular culture, go see “The Lives of Others” (German film with subtitles) about a member of the East German Stasi who is assigned to spy on the life of an East German playwright and is profoundly affected by the passion of art.

    http://www.sonyclassics.com/thelivesofothers/

    Comment by Diane S — February 19, 2007 @ 11:22 am


  11. I agree and sometimes feel guilty that the evangelicals, including me, sometimes emphasize scripture passages such as John 14:6 that they come across as intolerant and insensitive. I suspect a part of the dilemma, from the history of christian doctrine and theology perspective, is how to grant exception to the rule without over time opening up a can of worms – the slippery slope theory. Given all the modern issues – abortion, stem cell research, cloning, etc. – begging for ethical and biblical clarify, we need hermenutical guidance on how to determine what is the rule and what is exception to the rules without at the same time sounding dogmatic on the one hand and on the other without setting in motion a slippery slope effect. It appears the seminaries and divinity schools have their work cut out for them for the 21st century. I’m relieved knowing that I’m not Dr. Mouw and do not have to say something theological.

    Comment by Sunday A. — February 20, 2007 @ 2:06 pm


  12. Why do Christians insist on grand displays of righteousness, whereby they covet a function and title given totally to another (Jesus, Savior and Judge) and explicitly forbidden for them by Christ himself?

    Our charge is to make the gospel known, through word and deed, throughout all the earth. Why can’t we refrain from idle speculation, lusting after power and position not given to us, and let Christ rule with the power He alone has been given?

    Comment by CC — February 20, 2007 @ 4:58 pm


  13. Dr. Mouw and fellow blogger’s,

    It seems to me that scripture explicitly notes that we are not the Judge and even commands us not to judge! Thus the statement that the Baptist minister was quoted as saying seems to me to be forbidden by scripture. This does not however mean we are not to discern between what is good or bad, right or wrong behaviors; it specifically means that we cannot judge the state of someone’s relationship with Christ and the desire to want to might be evidence of a log in one’s own eye. At least that is what our Lord said.

    “For the LORD is our Judge, the LORD is our Lawgiver, the LORD is our King; it is he who will save us.” (Isaiah 33:22) Praise God!

    Cheers,

    Brian

    Comment by Brian — February 23, 2007 @ 2:53 am


  14. […] Sovereignty of God Just read a post on Richard Mouw’s blog and find it interesting when he talks about how the Westminister Confession of faith admits to the mystery on the general topic of salvation (i.e., who will get saved?). Chapter X, on the effectual calling, states that: III. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth. So also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word. […]

    Pingback by Sovereignty of God « A learner’s notebook — March 10, 2007 @ 10:56 am


  15. Just as point of interest, Ghandi once said, “I like your Christ, but I don’t like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.”</p><p>Ghandi also said, “Jesus lived and died in vain if he did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love.

    If someone who knew of Jesus (as Gandhi clearly did) but rejected his gospel – presumably because his followers were so unlike Christ – then that action reveals, as best we can tell, a heart position that has refused the offer of salvation.”
    I don’t believe we can assume by Ghandi’s above quoted statements that he rejected Christ’s gospel and so had “a heart position that has refused the offer of salvation.” He was simply saying that, in his experience, so-called “Christians” weren’t living a life worthy of the calling they had received. They weren’t a reflection of the love that he knew had motivated Jesus’ death on the cross.
    Don’t give up on people that don’t follow the “Christian crowd”.
    (came here through The Wilderness Crier)

    Comment by Sarah — March 16, 2007 @ 9:27 pm


  16. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

    14But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?[c] And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

    From Romans, chapter 10

    Dr. Mouw, the answer is in Scripture.

    Comment by Geoff — June 4, 2007 @ 8:39 am

LEAVE A REPLY