Our Inclusive God


A Response to, and Evaluation of Neal Punt's A Theology of Inclusivism






(A Book Review of A Theology of Inclusivism by Neal Punt; published by Northland Books, Allendale, MI, USA. 2008. Paperback, 258 pages. ISBN: 978-0-945315-46-9. We would like to thank Neal Punt for quickly sending his new book to us here at UK Apologetics in order for us to review it).



Neal and Betty Punt

All Christians believe and agree that personal acceptance of Christ is necessary in those places and periods of time in which the name of Christ is actually accessible, but what about those places and periods of time in which one could not learn of our Saviour because His Name was inaccessible?

This is the emotionally and doctrinally weighty area which Inclusivism takes it upon itself to consider. Such considerations have come from liberals, Roman Catholics but also - very importantly - from Bible-believing evangelicals. This third strand is now increasingly becoming known as Evangelical Inclusivism.

This is the area of concern for retired Reformed pastor, Neal Punt. Neal wants us to reconsider our whole theological perception and suggests the redressing of a vital salvific balance which was lost at the time of Augustine's wrestlings with Pelagius and Pelagianism. In short, we should move from an 'All persons will finally be lost except those who the Bible declares will be saved' position to an 'All persons will be saved except those who the Bible declares will be finally lost' position, thereby regaining the overall more positive approach of the earliest fathers of the Church.


“Salvation is a gift of unconditional sovereign grace; condemnation is earned by disobedience”
Neal Punt.

Here, and elsewhere in his writings, Neal complains that the correct biblical balance on salvation has become lost with the belief that most of mankind is doomed to destruction now frequently occupying 'centre stage.' But Neal Punt writes, "Salvation is a gift of unconditional sovereign grace; condemnation is earned by disobedience." Many of us totally agree with that statement and have long wanted to see a more broad and inclusivist conception of evangelical theology take over the more mainstream or middle ground of Christian evangelical teaching. Unfortunately, there is a tendency that, as soon as one voices such a wish and opinion, one is immediately lumped together with those new influences in the evangelical, or post-evangelical, world which are really not at all helpful and which certainly do compromise sacred Scripture.

I think I need to commence this review with a few comments about my own route to Evangelical Inclusivism, for I must admit that your reviewer comes to this book as already an advocate of its prescribed path. Once I have done so, I will then proceed to consider the 'nuts and bolts' of how Neal's new treatise operates.

My own path to Inclusivism...

Around the late 1980s various factors caused me to increasingly personally challenge the seventh day theology which had been my own theological background. I found that legalism had been a problem in my understanding and that this seriously compromised the vital doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. Its as though I woke up one morning and found that I was surrounded by people who were trying so hard to earn their entry into God's eternal kingdom - by what they did, and how they performed it. This - to my mind - just could not be reconciled with numerous statements within the New Testament which showed that salvation is granted by grace alone - nothing to do with our 'works.' I saw that some of these misunderstandings also operated within myself and that, therefore, ones theological leanings and worldview must, at least partly, be at fault. At length (this is obviously not the place to fill in the details), my wife and I decided to put seventh-day theology behind us and we became evangelical conservative Christians. I commenced a theology degree soon after to help things move along. Within less than two years I was in little doubt that I was a Calvinist, and quite firmly so, yet for me there always remained the one problem area: the teaching of Limited Atonement. I must admit that this was partly emotional: Could a God of love really make a decision to exclude a substantial portion of His own human creation from His eternal love? Yet it was also a scriptural problem - I just did not find limited atonement within Scripture, although I found things which could be mistaken for that when sloppy exegetics were applied. So I simply told myself that I was a 'four-point Calvinist.'

Several years later, in fact in 2002, I wrote 'An Evangelical Inclusivist Defends Evangelical Inclusivism.' It took me that time to get it on paper although many of the points were slowly developing and emerging in my mind from about 1996. No, my article has not appeared as a book and is only currently available on the internet where it has been since 2002; it occupies a web page which has been very widely read. Around this time somebody (I can no longer recall whom) had said to me, "Your approach is like Neal Punt's approach." Now I had never heard of Neal Punt but, with that, I did some detective work and subsequently learned that Neal had written a 1980 book called 'Unconditional Good News,' but I found it to be unobtainable here in the UK and the only book which I located and read which proposed a similar view to mine was 'No Other Name' by John Sanders - actually John's approach was very close to mine although he appeared to operate from an Arminian base which I do not. As I recall, I did a Google search for 'Neal Punt' at the time but did not seem to find anything.

In 2005 Neal and I finally made contact and it was, I believe, Neal who found me through discovering my webpage essay, 'An Evangelical Inclusivist Defends Evangelical Inclusivism.' In an e mail, Neal was highly complimentary to me about that article.

But back to my review of Neal's 'A Theology of Inclusivism.' In this smallish (less than 300 pages) book Neal makes his case very eloquently with a telling logic, admirable clarity and a fine lightness of touch, avoiding all weighty theological terminology. I have always appreciated clear and logical writers and this work is strong here. Neal is of the opinion that established Christian theology started to develop a serious problem of emphasis (becoming overly-negative towards the individual's possibility of salvation), as a result of Augustine's response to Pelagianism and I share that view. I also strongly agree that Inclusivism may be freely found within the writings of the 'church fathers.' The early church seemed to have an approach of quickly recognising and denouncing heresy but - beyond that - to allow quite a broad range of opinion in peripheral areas. Denominationalism, however, would later come to stress the need for separation over certain things which were sometimes undoubtedly peripheral.

Proposition 'A' or proposition 'B'?

In his book Neal quickly 'sets out his stall' in his Introduction. He offers two propositions, 'A' and 'B,' and asks us to consider which one of these more accurately reflects the teaching of Scripture:

'A. All persons will be finally lost except those who the Bible declares will be saved.

B. All persons will be saved except those who the Bible declares will be finally lost' (pages 8-9).

These two propositions are what this book is all about. Established theology, of course, has come to prefer proposition 'A' with its support of 'race against the clock evangelism' (get the gospel to all before they die otherwise they are headed for hell!), but the writer expertly makes the point that the weight of evidence probably favours proposition 'B.' This requires a subtle shift in focus yet absolutely no compromise in respecting scriptural integrity - indeed, one finds that the adoption of proposition 'B' causes several previously somewhat puzzling Scriptures to make more sense and that Christ's victory really becomes a true and overwhelming victory! I was once asked, "How can Christ really be victorious if about 85% of people finish up in hell? Isn't that like a neglectful parent who can't look after their own children?" Actually my inquisitor was assuming too much for - even then - I believed that the overwhelming majority of mankind would finally be saved but I was still working out a consistent theology to explain this.

Neal's book structure

The 'meat' of this very fine work, to my mind, is in chapters 1-7, 14 and 22. Here we find Neal at his very best, convincingly expounding Inclusivism with many helpful and instructive comments while avoiding all lengthy and weighty discourses, for example,

'The "small gate," "narrow road," and "few" finding convey the intrinsic value of salvation, not the extent of its availability. These expressions have the same meaning as finding the "hidden treasure" and selling everything else in order to purchase the "pearl of great value." These figures of speech are intended to teach us to covet salvation as a rare discovery and an invaluable treasure.' (chapter 22, page 219).

Of some of the other chapters, chapter 15 is largely a rebuttal of Clark Pinnock's alternative very Arminian 'take,' on Inclusivism.

Chapter 16 is something of a defence of R.T. Kendall's 1997 book, 'Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649.' In that book Kendall claimed that Calvin taught that "Christ died indiscriminatingly for all men." Kendall was correct but his claims about what Calvin actually taught (rather than what certain people think that he should have taught), caused predictable anger and turmoil among the usual hard-line Calvinists (actually hyper-Calvinists in many cases).

Chapter 21 considers Tiessen's 'Accessibilism.' Terrance L. Tiessen's book, 'Who Can Be Saved?: Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions' appeared in 2004 and addressed some of the areas which are also of Neal Punt's concern. Again, with good clarity, Neal points out what this teaching has in common with Evangelical Inclusivism but also - very importantly - where it differs.

Chapter 24 was a surprise for me since it describes Neal Punt's "heresy trial" when certain ones in his denomination accused him of preaching heresy! Of course, the acceptance of Evangelical Inclusivism certainly does not make one a heretic and it can be accommodated within the great Christian creeds and confessions of faith. I note this point with interest because I not only write on Christian Apologetics but, also in the area of 'countercult.' I do think it important to recognise and separate oneself from heretical teachings (which is why, for example, I frequently warn about the 'prosperity gospellers'), but unlike that form of biblically-undermining 'Inclusivism' which comes from liberals like Hick, 'Evangelical Inclusivism' really is evangelical and Bible-believing - it is solidly Scripturally-based, and indeed, it is to recognise Scriptures which have been ignored for far too long and - at long last - to allow them to have their place in the theological discussion arena without the "assistance" of the imposition of extra-context 'control beliefs'!

One or two minor criticisms

Since I wholeheartedly recommend this book, I must also claim the right, as hopefully a conscientious book critic, to be somewhat critical and questioning in one or two areas - I believe that Neal would welcome this and no book critic should duck this responsibility.

I found certain chapters to be far too short with a need for just a little more in-depth discussion of particular points, this particularly pertaining to those sections concerning objections to the inclusivist view as well as the section considering the 'universalistic texts.' Since the book contains several chapters which are not wholly necessary to the book's central thesis (such as chapters 16, 19 and 25), I found myself wondering whether it would have been preferable to expand those pivotal places of exposition and explanation rather than include these 'extras.' Actually 25 chapters seems to be rather a lot for a book of fewer than 300 pages but maybe the writer was determined to maintain a modern 'punchy' approach of hitting the spot then swiftly moving on in order to maintain a certain momentum. Certainly it all makes for a very 'readable' book - 'dryness' and over-wordiness are never a problem.

I have just mentioned chapter 19, now I need to say a little more about that chapter. Since a deeper consideration of 'Hell' is vital to my own exposition of Evangelical Inclusivism, I was surprised that Neal gives this very brief chapter on Hell (about eight page sides) to Edward Fudge. Fudge appears to support Annihilationism and Conditional Immortality - I cannot say that he is wrong since this is a very closely-argued area and there are unquestionably problems in the old fundamentalist understanding. My own approach is not to come down on either side of these arguments but to point out that the Bible says remarkably little about hell, hell fire and damnation and to point out that biblically-based inclusivists believe that (despite the popularity among evangelicals of the opposing view), in all likelihood, very few souls indeed will be going there. In my 2004 article, 'The Utter Folly of Arguing Over Hell,' for example, I point out that while the word 'Heaven' occurs 568 times in Scripture, in abrupt contrast, if we take the version of 'Hell' based on 'Gehenna' (the word which we really should consider), it only occurs 11 times! I make other telling comparisons too showing where the true biblical emphasis really lies, mentioning, for instance, that while the wonderful word 'salvation' occurs 163 times in Scripture, 'damnation' only occurs 10 times and 'damned' occurs three times! The overall point I make here is that the Bible, while certainly continually warning of sin and disobedience, remains far and away more positive towards human salvation than traditional theology has allowed. In fact, Neal Punt perfectly expresses the true biblical approach when he states, "Salvation is a gift of unconditional sovereign grace; condemnation is earned by disobedience." (page 183). But, for my money, the 'annihilationists' are sometimes overly-negative and they frequently support the 'soul-sleep' concept found within the cults, whereas the Word of God, it seems to me, does support a certain level of consciousness for those in hades and the believing dead who await the resurrection. So whilst my own consideration of Evangelical Inclusivism must give at least some consideration to the topic of hell and some consideration also to how Predestination (a true biblical teaching) has been so seriously misapplied (my article, 'Predestination of the Saints: Biblical; "Double Predestination": Unbiblical!' is here), I find it fascinating that Neal's approach is somewhat different, apparently preferring to stand off these issues. Yet he is unquestionably successful in his approach, an approach in which he merely asks us to consider whether proposition 'A' or proposition 'B' should be our biblical focus (see above and pages 8-9 in Neal's book).

One or two surprise omissions

These are not the most important points, nevertheless, I will mention them: Neal had graciously and kindly wanted me to condense my article 'An Evangelical Inclusivist Defends Evangelical Inclusivism' to form a chapter of his book. I am not sure whether that meant this particular book or another book, but presumably the reference was to this book; unfortunately I felt unable to do so at the time I was asked but gave full permission for Neal to quote it where he might or even to come up with his own condensed version. This being the case, I was a little surprised that the essay in question finally remains completely unmentioned.

Secondly, I had suggested to Neal that 'Biblical Universalism' was really a very bad term because of the likely confusion in people's minds with the older 'everybody will be saved' Universalism which sometimes seemed so careless with Scripture. My feeling was that the use of this term might cause many to quickly reject the inclusivist arguments without even considering them (I don't claim that I am the only person to have pointed this out). Neal readily agreed that 'Evangelical Inclusivism' (a term I much preferred) was really much better and adopted it but does not say very much about this when briefly referring to this change in preferred terminology on page 240.

Conclusion

This book is a work of clarity and concision covering an area of theology where there should be much more discussion. It should be widely read and here at UK Apologetics we are going to wholeheartedly recommend it.

Evangelical Inclusivism is a fully biblical concept which shows that while it is vital to accept Christ as personal Saviour in those periods of time and in those nations in which the knowledge of Christ is freely available, those who have never had such an opportunity to learn of Christ during their lifetimes are certainly not excluded from God's love and calling, as amply demonstrated even within the Old Testament ('outsider' Gentiles were always welcomed into the congregation of Israel where they were 'open' to learning more of the Lord). Salvation is a free gift of God which cannot be earned through knowledge or through being in certain places at the right time and God is well able to include many - wherever He will - who respond in faith to that level of true spiritual knowledge which was available to them - yet they are only saved through Christ - there is no other Saviour (Acts 4:12).

Robin A. Brace, Editor, UK Apologetics. March, 2008.

If you want to purchase Neal's new book go here.

I am very happy to say that I have a very few FREE copies of Neal's book to pass on. Unfortunately, I must restrict them to UK-based readers only. If you want a copy of this book, you would only have to pay the postage. Please contact me here.

NEAL PUNT's 'EVANGELICAL INCLUSIVISM' WEBSITE

UK APOLOGETICS