Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tiessen on Salvation without Hearing the Gospel

Some thoughts on Tiessen's Who Can Be Saved?. For an online class I took.


The goal of Terrance Tiessen’s book Who Can Be Saved? is to assess the possibility of salvation in Christ and in other religions and how we as Christians ought to respond. Tiessen gives a rough taxonomy of views about the salvation of the unevangelized (among which he includes everyone from infants to adults who have not had the opportunity to hear the gospel for whatever reason), dividing these into the categories of ecclesiocentrism (called by the professor “exclusivism” or “particularism”), agnosticism, accessibilism (called by the professor “inclusivism”), instrumentalism, and relativism (this last at least falling under the professor’s “pluralism” category). This is a taxonomy that seems in some ways more comprehensive than that used by the professor since it includes categories that were not included by him (though the professor may have a better taxonomy for pluralism, even if some of those listed as pluralists Tiessen would put in the instrumentalist category and others in the relativist). Tiessen wants, in this book, to argue for and lay out an accessibilist view, according to which it is possible for some unevangelized non-Christians to be saved.

Tiessen starts with a Calvinist view. He thinks everyone, including infants, need to be saved but that Christ’s salvific work is for the elect alone. Everyone, on his view, has the revelation necessary to respond to God with faith, whether in a general or particular, individual form, or in the form of the gospel or Bible which is in the care of God’s covenant people. Only the elect, however, are given the effective grace which moves that person in faith to God. Without such effective grace, such a response cannot happen (even though, he claims, everyone has been given universally sufficient grace at one time or another which enables them to make a response of faith). This does not negate the freedom of the human individual, however, since Tiessen is a compatibilist and believes that human freedom and responsibility are compatible with everything being determined. This makes his view rather unlike that of other Evangelical accessibilists such as Clark Pinnock who is neither a Calvinist nor a compatibilist regarding free will (and hence unlike the professor as well).

On Tiessen’s view, everyone is judged according to how they responded to the revelation actually given to them and are not held accountable for revelation of which they were unaware. Hence, someone without explicit knowledge of the gospel could be saved in the case where they have responded in faith to the amount of revelation of God they do in fact possess. Tiessen cites various Old Testament believers and others as examples of this. These arguments in Tiessen I found personally surprising as I had not thought explicitly about the passages he brings up in quite that way before and the real life examples he brings up are equally interesting. However, for Tiessen, it is still best for people, saved or not, to come to a full knowledge of God in Christ and for God to be glorified in the church and through the spread of the gospel, hence mission in love is still essential to the task of the church.

Since everyone has revelation necessary for faith, Tiessen also holds that infants or the unborn are also saved by faith, their response to divine revelation. Because he assumes substance dualism, holding the mind to be an independent entity from the body, he thinks the infant’s mind can go beyond any biologically-linked limitations. In addition, he holds that infants – and, indeed, everyone – meets Jesus at the moment of their death and they will respond to that revelation in a way in keeping with their response to previous, lesser revelation. So if an embryo responded in faith to the revelation given to it in the womb, at its death (say, because of a miscarriage), it would meet Christ and respond with faith in Christ. The elect, then, will always at the moment of death respond to Christ with faith.

I agree with his conclusions in his book, in line with some of Clark Pinnock’s thinking, that people in other religions might sometimes have fallible experiences of God or have access to flawed or demonically distorted reports of genuine revelation and that God in his providence is able to use these as a bridge to faith. And this is so even though, contrary to relativists and instrumentalists such as John Hick and others mentioned by the professor, these other religions are neither instituted as systems by God for salvation nor are they themselves as those systems instruments of salvation. This, as Tiessen maintains, provides some impetus for dialogue but not interreligious worship, which would be unfaithful to the gospel.

There are a couple of problems with Tiessen’s book I would like to address. First of all, considering his own self-classification, if an ecclesiocentrist is someone who says that every saved person meets Jesus while still alive, Tiessen seems to be an ecclesiocentrist, contrary to his claims otherwise, since he thinks every person meets Jesus while still alive. He thinks his position is different because one meets Jesus at the moment of death, but that moment can be understood in one of two ways: either as the first moment of being not-alive or the last moment of being alive. If the former, then the meeting is only after death. That would be the view of Clark Pinnock and would indeed allow him to remain an accessibilist, but this is in fact a view which Tiessen rejects. If the latter, however, then the meeting is indeed while the person is still alive and hence Tiessen is no accessibilist after all. If, on the other hand, ecclesiocentrism requires that a person cannot be saved until that moment of meeting Christ, however, then Tiessen does not accept it after all, since he thinks people can be saved prior to that meeting. But then why have that meeting in the first place? Tiessen seems to retain some ecclesiocentric leanings here, contrary to the general thrust of the rest of his book.

Furthermore, Tiessen tries to answer objections to his Calvinism by positing universally sufficient grace that enables all to believe at some point or another. But only those who receive effective grace actually believe. It is not clear, then, what the point of sufficient grace is. It is not really sufficient, after all, since there is no actual belief or faith without effective grace. Hence, it is not really clear what sufficient grace really does. It is supposed to create for everyone the possibility of faith but it in fact does not, since effective grace is what is required, without which faith cannot happen. Sufficient grace is supposed to make a person responsible for their rejection of Christ and hence accountable for it – guilty and blameworthy – but it is not clear how it does so if that requires a possibility or capability of faith which sufficient grace does not seem to provide.

More importantly for this issue, it is not even clear why it is even important in the first place given that compatibilism about free will is assumed. It might indeed, after all, be determined that a person will not respond without effective grace, but absolutely everything that ever happens is determined on the sort of view Tiessen holds, hence acceptance or rejection of Christ does not seem any different from any other action a person might take. And Tiessen does indeed seem to want to see us as responsible for our own sins (he believes freedom and responsibility are compatible with determinism, after all). Hence, universal sufficient grace does not seem to actually do anything for Tiessen. In regards to responsibility and faith, it is effective grace and compatibilist freedom which do all the theoretical work.

Interestingly, then, Tiessen seems simply to have some strong incompatibilist intuitions in common with Arminians such as Clark Pinnock and others who reject Calvinism. Hence, he posits something that would really only make sense or even be required within a non-Calvinist, incompatibilist framework. In that sort of a framework, such grace would simply be a version of Arminian prevenient grace, granting the ability to each person to respond in faith to Christ (the main difference being that prevenient grace is often seen as always in effect whereas this version from Tiessen is applied at least once in each person’s life but is not necessarily present throughout every life). Given such an ability, a person may exercise their will to turn to God or not – no further effective grace is needed since they are incompatibilistically free to choose either way due to the grace given them.

This makes somewhat clearer what motivates Tiessen so strongly to allow for the salvation of infants. After all, one could see the fact that an infant did not live to hear the gospel as evidence that they were not in fact elect – if God elects someone, he brings them to a saving knowledge of the gospel. One could connect salvation of the children of Christians with belonging to the covenant people for whom Christ died and hence bring in Old Testament saints in the same way, but Tiessen’s motivation for allowing salvation of infants outside of that does not seem to derive from his Calvinism; their lack of being elect should be no more problematic than Calvinistic election in general. In fact, it is simply one instance of it, no different from others, particularly given Tiessen’s strong belief in original guilt. Again, the intuition that we need to leave room for the salvation of such infants seems like it may in fact derive from some non-Calvinist intuitions to the effect that everyone needs to be given a chance to genuinely choose for or against God with their incompatibilist free will. This seems to be connected also with his ecclesiocentric leanings mentioned above. Indeed, he feels some need to say that even infants or aborted embryos meet Christ and can respond to revelation prior to being dead.

However, Tiessen does not argue well enough for the possibility that infants or other mentally undeveloped or impaired persons are mentally equipped to have faith or understand any revelation in the first place. He simply accepts substance dualism without any real argument and assumes the abilities of the mind outstrip the functions or expressions of the brain, even though there seems to be a very tight empirical correlation between them. Many Christians, by contrast, have other views of the mind-body relation which would not necessarily allow for a natural mental ability in embryos or infants to respond in the way Tiessen wants (Thomistic views, for instance, see the soul or mind as the form of the body whereas animalist theories view the person as simply identical with the body), unless that be after death, if at all (which would fit more with Pinnock’s view, rather than Tiessen’s). These other views, however, are not even considered by Tiessen, but the possibility of their truth should have been taken into account or else argued against explicitly. Tiessen seems driven to this view, however, by his ecclesiocentrist and incompatibilist intuitions even while he wants to maintain a strict accessibilist and compatibilist point of view. It would be better, in my mind, to maintain a cautious agnosticism about infants outside the church than to adopt Tiessen’s overly-speculative theories.


Terrance Tiessen said...


Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of my proposals. I find reader feedback helpful when it comes from someone who has read my work as carefully as you have, but who has significant critique to offer. In case you have an ongoing interest in this subject, it has come up a few times in the blog I launched a couple of months ago, and it is likely to arise again in the future. You can take a look at what has been going on at, if your interested.

Ian Spencer said...

Thanks Terrance! I think this is the first time the author of a book I've commented on has posted here (articles, yes; books, no). Your blog looks really interesting - I'll have to take a closer look when I have the time (studying Hebrew at the moment!). In case it didn't come through in the post, I really did find your book very interesting and intriguing and like it quite a bit.