Zelophehad’s Daughters

The Universal Salvific Will of God

Posted by Lynnette

In 1 Timothy 2:4, God is described as one “who will have men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” The assertion that God has a universal salvific will, that he desires the salvation of every person, poses problems for any theological claim that only a certain group of people (e.g. Christians) are eligible for salvation. Augustine, who saw the majority of humanity as a “lump of sin” headed for perdition, resolved the dilemma by re-interpreting the scripture to mean that God wants salvation not for all people, but for all whom he has predestined. In the 20th century, by contrast, many have taken this verse quite seriously and re-thought the exclusive claims of Christianity in its light.

Christian theologians commonly speak of three ways of approaching religious diversity:

1. Exclusivism. Christianity is the one and only way, and without explicit knowledge of and acceptance of Christ, no one can be saved. This of course leaves open the question of what will happen to all those who never had a chance to accept Christ. One proposal (put forth by George Lindbeck) is that everyone will encounter Christ at the time of death and thus have the chance to make a decision. Many in the exclusivist camp simply remain agnostic on the matter, trusting that God’s justice will sort things out.

2. Inclusivism. It is only through the grace of Christ that one is saved, but one can be saved by this grace without labeling it as such. Karl Rahner’s theory of the “anonymous Christian” is the most well-known articulation of this approach. According to Rahner, God’s grace is universally offered and all people have the real opportunity to respond to it in their lives, regardless of their relationship to explicit Christianity. However, whether or not it is recognized as “Christian,” this grace is the grace of Christ.

3. Pluralism. Christ is one of many legitimate ways to salvation. Paul Knitter, one of the major advocates of this approach, views the exclusivist-sounding claims in the New Testament as “love-language.” When lovers say, “you are the only one for me,” they are not making metaphysical assertions but are expressing love and commitment in the context of a relationship, and the comments of the early Christians about Christ should be read in a similar way. It is a mistake, says Knitter, to assume that truly necessarily implies only; an unequivocal statement that Christ is truly saving does not rule out the possibility of others who are also truly saving.

Mormons, I would say, have some hard-core exclusivist elements, asserting that not only explicit faith in Christ is required, but also the ordinances of a particular religious institution. The LDS answer to reconciling this with the universal salvific will of God is, of course, to extend the opportunity for accepting the gospel to the next life and to perform vicarious ordinance work. Nonetheless, I think there are insights from both the inclusivist and pluralist camps which are not incompatible with LDS thought.

An aspect of Rahner’s theology which I find tremendously appealing is his vision of a world in which grace is everywhere. He notes that far too often, the radical gratuity of grace, the sheer wonder and un-earnedness of it, have been interpreted to mean that grace must be scarce, rare, in short supply. But God’s love, he points out, is no less an awe-inspiring free gift for being universally offered. The world therefore isn’t split into God’s favorites who get offered grace, “the elect,” and everyone else. Grace in Rahner’s view is actually constitutive of what it is to be human; in other words, we can only understand who we are in light of God’s love.

In a similar vein, the book of Alma tells us that “God is mindful of all every people, whatsoever land they may be in” (Alma 26:37) and that “the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own tongue, to teach his word.” (Alma 28:8) According to Moroni, “the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil.” (Moroni 7:16) Clearly God’s communication and activity in the world are by no means limited to the church. I also see some possible continuity between the notion of “anonymous Christianity” and 3 Nephi 9:20, which explains that “the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.”

Rahner’s approach has been critiqued for undermining the importance of missionary work– what’s the use of proclaiming the gospel if people can accept it anonymously? Interestingly, although I’ve rarely heard it mentioned, I think this same concern could well be raised in the context of LDS theology. Why worry about baptizing people in this life when we can always do it after they’re dead? I think the LDS answer would be similar to Rahner’s: if you understand the purpose of Christianity solely in terms of a “get out of hell free” card, you’ve missed the point. You can be saved without it, but explicit knowledge of the gospel in this life nonetheless has real value.

I also think the pluralists are right to remind us that we have much to learn from those of other faiths, that it’s a mistake to go into a conversation assuming that we have all the answers. Although the LDS view of other faiths has gotten more positive over the years (you hear less about “leave your apostate faith and join ours” and more about “let us add to the truth you already possess”), my impression is that the Mormon viewpoint still tends to be that we have the whole truth, and therefore nothing to learn from anyone else. Other religions are at worst misguided, and at best less-developed or incomplete versions of us. Yet given the premise that God is communicating to all people, I wonder if even from the standpoint of LDS theology, any and all dialogue between Mormons and those of other faiths necessarily has to be one-sided. Joseph Smith himself stated that Mormonism “is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 313.)

I personally don’t know where I’d place myself on the exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist continuum. I’ve wrestled for years with issues related to pluralism without having come to much of a conclusion. I know so many devoted, spiritual people in other religious traditions who are so clearly following God and enriching the world in the context of their faith that I have a hard time believing that everyone is meant to be Mormon. On the other hand, I’m uneasy with glib assertions that all roads lead to God, or all religions are essentially the same–claims which I don’t think hold up under critical scrutiny. For the moment, although I’m murky about the details of how it all gets worked out, I hold to belief in a God who, as Nephi tells us, invites “all to come unto him and partake of his goodness” (2 Nephi 26:33) and who also speaks to humans “according to their language, unto their understanding.” (2 Nephi 31:3)

12 Responses to “The Universal Salvific Will of God”

  1. 1.

    Lynnette, thanks for this–just an excellent post. I, too, love the idea of a world abounding in grace.

  2. 2.

    Lynnette,

    I have nothing to add to your post, but I second RT’s comment. Thanks!

  3. 3.

    Lynette,

    Thanks for for talking about this. I find “hardcore exclusivism” to be very central to the Mormon identity (if there is such a thing). Personally, I have a lot of problems with this brand of exclusivism. Mostly because I do not see a way to overcome differnces between religious traditions without appealing to those traditions. I agree that we have come along way in our rhetoric, but I wish that we emphasized exclusivism less and “God’s Universal Salvific Will” more. One need not be an exclusivist to be a Mormon.

  4. 4.

    Thanks so much for the kind words, RT and SV. It’s good to hear that the picture of a world of grace resonates with others, too.

    Johnny, thanks for the comments. I’ve wondered a lot about how exclusivist one must be to be a Mormon. What exactly are we asserting with the phrase “only true church?”–is it a claim about authority, about doctrine, about a particular relationship to God? Is it possible to be LDS without seeing it as the one and only way? I’m honestly not sure what I think. But I do find the idea highly implausible that God’s activity in the world is confined to a narrow slice of the population, and like you, I’d like to hear more about God’s involvement with all people and less disparagement of other faiths.

  5. 5.

    Lynnette,

    I guess that I interpret “church” in a different way than most people. I see a church as a concrete community of believers. This idea is in contrast to the abstract view of a church as a formalized ecclesiastical structure. Seen in this way Christ’s church exists when the people are unified or “one” in the sense of D&C 38:27. Hence, there is only “one” church because those who are Christ’s are “one”. I guess I emphasize that Christ’s church is the not only a true but a living church. Thus, it seems to me that this view can incorporate a large amount of diversity and pluralism of both belief and practice. It also has nothing in it that requires denominationalism.

    1 Ne. 14 contrasts two churches, the Church of Christ and the Church of the devil. I was taught to interpret the Church of Christ as the LDS church, but I must confess that I really can’t believe that other people, spiritually superior to me, belong to the church of the devil. Further there is nothing in that text that requires interpreting the Church of Christ as the LDS faith. So, I believe that my view of the church of Christ as the living community that embodies virtues of Jesus makes more sense. It also makes sense to me that the Church of the Devil would embody the practices of power, oppression and seeking gain that are the norms that make up the “World”. When we see a church as a concrete community that is “one”, then we can see a contrast between the Church of Christ and The Church of the World, or the “true” and “false” churches. Yet, this contrast does not need to be based on any specific doctrines, ritual, or structure. This account is not relativistic, not all practices lead to God, but it is not really exclusivist either. This is my understanding of pluralism in the Mormon context.

  6. 6.

    Inclusivism. It is only through the grace of Christ that one is saved, but one can be saved by this grace without labeling it as such. Karl Rahner’s theory of the “anonymous Christian” is the most well-known articulation of this approach. According to Rahner, God’s grace is universally offered and all people have the real opportunity to respond to it in their lives, regardless of their relationship to explicit Christianity. However, whether or not it is recognized as “Christian,” this grace is the grace of Christ.

    I’ve always liked this view, and seen the Church as merely the paperwork end of things, with the focus on the next life validating God’s inclusiveness.

  7. 7.

    The entire Joseph Smith quote you excerpted is very interesting in the context of this issue:

    “The inquiry is frequently made of me, ‘Wherein do you differ from others in your religious views?’
    In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views, but that we could all drink into one principle of love. One of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.”

    However, later in the same sermon he says:

    “Have the Presbyterians any truth? Yes. Have the Baptists, Methodists any truth?” Yes. They all have a little truth mixed with error. We should gather all the true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we should not come out true ‘Mormons’.” (Teachings, 316).

    The perspectives that you have gained from such as Karl Rahner can be a good example of gathering up true principles in the world. Certainly learning from the examples of good and spiritual lives lived outside of the LDS Church are another example of drinking “into one principle of love.” These quotes show that the modern LDS Church’s message emphasizing appreciating and adding to the truths of other religions have a precedence in LDS teaching.

    However, I must disagree with stephen in seeing “the Church as merely the paperwork end of things, with the focus on the next life validating God’s inclusiveness.” I would suggest that we are looking at salvation too narrowly in analyzing this issue.

    Modern Christian thought has rejected exclusivism because Christian exclusivity traditionally condemned non-believers to hellfire, which seemed counter to what was perceived as Christ’s message of universal love. However, the restored gospel sidesteps that entire dilemma in proposing near universal salvation from mortality. Even the lowest of the kingdoms has a glory which “surpasses understanding” (D&C 76:89). Further obviating the negative aspects of traditional Christian exclusivism are the restored gospel’s teachings (1)about postmortal missionary work, (2) that the light of Christ comes to everyone (D&C 93:2) and (3) of the concept that “all things are written by the Father; therefore out of the books which shall be written shall the world be judged” (3 Ne. 27:26)implying that judgement will be based upon what light and knowledge was available to the person.

    In light of the foregoing doctrines I think Latter-day Saint exclusivist claims should seen less harshly than traditional Christian exclusivist claims. Still the fact remains that many, many people are good without the benefit of the restored gospel (and many who have that benefit are not so good). So what do we do with Mormonism’s exclusivist claims?

    The aspect of exclusivism discussed here so far is that of institutional exclusivism — that the LDS Church is the only true church. Most Mormons are taught that the core element of being the only true church is that the LDS Church has the only approved authority to administer salvific sacraments. In a sense the availability in LDS doctrine of these sacraments vicariously and posthumously obviates somewhat the importance of this aspect of LDS exclusivism. While I think that receiving the salvific sacraments is more significant than “paperwork” (especially the temple sacraments which are not available in any form elsewhere) I would focus here on two aspects of exclusivism that you did not touch on in the post.

    (1) Truth. Even if people in other faiths lead magnificent lives, it still is better that they know the truth about their place in the eternities. A primary example of the truths exclusively available through the restored gospel are the ones mentioned above about the availability through Christ of near-universal salvation in glory. That these are important truths is illustrated by the theology discussed in the post where for lack of this knowledge modern Christian thought has slid into a dangerous relativism out of repulsion against the idea on condemning non-believers to damnation.

    (2) Life. Johnny aply cites the often ignored second part of the scriptural formulation in D&C 1:30 that this is the only true and living church. However, I look at that differently than he does in describing the ‘living church’ as an amorphous bunch of disorganized disunited nice people. Rather I see that as being an aspect of the LDS Church which is as distinctive in practical everyday terms as any doctrine. That is that we are a lay church. It is that which makes us the only living Church. It is not that other faiths do not provide spiritual worship or charitable service, but rather that the LDS Church by its very structure assures or pushes every communicant, and not just the clergy or already inclinced volunteers, into the refining fire of worship and service. I referred to Gene England’s brilliant article on this over at the other thread. I am willing to argue that this structure offers a greater ‘machinery’ for moral improvement than any other church’s (all while acknowledging the value of other faiths’ work and the imperfection of the results of the LDS Church).

    Seen in this broader light, I think we have something very positive to offer even though we don’t claim to need to provide salvation from hellfire as in traditional Christian theology. However, I think that maintaining some exclusivist stand is important for another reason. The alternative views inevitably tend to relativism — if other people are good and will be saved, who are we to judge them? However, the fact remains that many other people are bad and do bad things. If we yield our standing as messengers of an exclusive salvation, we yield some of our strength to condemn evil, and no one who reads ALL of Christ’s words can doubt that we called to denounce evil as well as to announce the good news. We are to exclude evil doing, and to do that is inherently exclusivist.

  8. 8.

    Johnny, I’d agree with you that the church of Christ as described in 1 Nephi must go beyond the borders of the LDS church. (Fortunately the idea that the “church of the devil” can be equated with the Catholic church seems to have fallen out of popular church teaching.) I haven’t looked into this a lot so I may have no idea what I’m talking about, but I’m not sure that Nephi’s description and the term “church” as used in the D&C are getting at the same thing. I think of Nephi’s “church of Christ” not as the visible church, but as those who respond to the light of Christ in their lives– whether or not they are explicitly Christians– which sounds similar to what you are saying. I like your conception of the church of Christ as “the living community that embodies virtues of Jesus.”

    Stephen, I also quite like the inclusivist view. I’m sympathetic to some of its critiques, but I find a lot of beauty in it.

    JWL, one of the things that fascinates me about the Joseph Smith sermon we’re referencing is that it’s a much more positive view of other faiths than the comment in the First Vision that “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight” (which I would doubtless have quoted if I were out to show that the church is exclusivist.)

    The point you raise about the focus on salvation is a good one; that is where the discussion is usually centered, but I agree that there are other relevant issues to be considered. By the way, in order to keep things simple, I didn’t touch on the LDS exaltation/salvation distinction, which from the beginning casts the question in a rather different light. I would however say that LDS “exaltation” is roughly comparable to the general Christian notion of “salvation” in that it’s the fullest actualization of human potential, and for that reason I usually think of the problem in an LDS context in terms of who makes it to the CK, since as you point out, LDS teachings on “salvation” come close to universalism.

    The salvation issue is of course closely tied to the necessity of ordinances, which is something I must confess I have a hard time understanding. But turning to the issue of truth–while I see the LDS church as asserting a complete monopoly on the rites of salvation, I don’t think that a comparable claim is made about revelation. And what I’m wondering is whether it’s possible that there are truths out there which Mormons don’t already possess, things which we could in fact learn from others. I don’t disagree with you that we have exclusive truths to offer the world– but from an LDS viewpoint, is there any reason that the same couldn’t be said of other religions as well?

    The reason I bring this up is because the pluralist viewpoint isn’t actually solely motivated by a desire to avoid damning unbelievers. Pluralists reject the inclusivist view even though everyone gets saved, partly because they note that both exclusivism and inclusivism have had negative effects on relations between Christians and non-Christians. Perhaps in theory it’s possible to see yourself as in possession of the final and unsurpassable truth which the other person lacks, and not have that result in a sense of superiority, but I think the pluralists make a legitimate critique when they point out that the exclusivist outlook of Christians has often in practice undermined the formation of genuinely reciprocal relationships in which both sides are respected and seen as having something to contribute. Of course the fact that we Christians often act obnoxious doesn’t in and of itself refute our truth claims, but I think this is a problem worth taking seriously.

    A question I personally keep coming back to is– to what extent is knowledge of the gospel really an essential part of what we’re doing in this life? How do we make sense of the fact that the vast majority of the people who’ve lived on the planet haven’t been exposed to it? I’m playing with the idea that the experience of mortality is more about responding to grace in whatever form we encounter it than about finding the “true church” — which isn’t to say that I see no benefits in the latter. I’m intrigued by your suggestion that “living church” could be tied to the structure of the church in terms of lay ministry.

    The alternative views inevitably tend to relativism — if other people are good and will be saved, who are we to judge them?

    First of all, I’d mention that most Christians wouldn’t equate being good with being saved– salvation is after all effected by grace rather than by merit– so even saying that all people will be saved doesn’t necessarily impact your ability to talk about the reality of sin.

    Also, though I probably wouldn’t in the end consider myself a pluralist (I just dabble in it sometimes), I don’t think even pluralism has to lead to relativism. In fact, Paul Knitter, the theologian I mentioned as an example of this approach, bases his pluralism on liberation theology, on a concern for the poor and the oppressed which he thinks many religions share– in essence, on a denunciation of the evils of injustice. So if your concern is not to lose the ability to denounce evil, I think it’s still possible to do it under an inclusivist or a pluralist approach. Of course, should you point out that if you do that you are thereby in some sense being an “exclusivist” nonetheless in that you are ruling out certain behaviors, I think you’d be right. The categories don’t always hold up that well.

  9. 9.

    I think you get a lot of traction out of separating the issues of whatever is absolutely minimally required for salvation and the broader issue of receiving what God gives us. Clearly God gives us much more than salvation — truth, light, wisdom, love, the wealth of the physical realm, beauty and ad infinitum. It is in this sense that we can say that the restored gospel embraces all truth “let it come from whence it may” and I think even the most orthodox Mormon could be comfortable with the notion, at least in the abstract. As you write “while I see the LDS church as asserting a complete monopoly on the rites of salvation, I don’t think that a comparable claim is made about revelation. And what I’m wondering is whether it’s possible that there are truths out there which Mormons don’t already possess, things which we could in fact learn from others.”

    May I suggest three areas where I personally have learned from other faith traditions which I think can add to “Mormonism”?

    (1) History. In our effort to advance the doctrinal proposition of the apostacy, we have ignored and denigrated all of Christian history since the New Testament. We do acknowledge the Reformers but only as precedents to the Restoration. However, Christian history is full of magnificent figures who said wise things and did good things which we can accept unreservedly as examples. Now that we are moving away from the apostacy based approach to proselyting, as well as our anti-Catholic radical Protestant orgins, I would love to see Church history recognize the many valiant figures who preserved the word of God and lived it to the best of their knowledge during the “apostacy.” One quirky example for me is that, in addition to such popular figures as St. Francis, I think that the largely Scandinavian western “Utah” Mormons should acknowledge the unsung heros who managed to convert the Vikings.

    (2) Ritual. With the very ‘low church’ style of liturgy which we again inherited from the radical Protestant backgrounds of the earliest Mormons, I think we have a very limited appreciation of the value of religious ritual. This lack of understanding of the power of religious ritual manifests itself regulary in the shock of people raised Mormon when they first encounter the temple. It is fascinating to me that Mormon converts from Catholic and other ‘high church’ backgrounds in general take much more easily to LDS temple ritual than people raised Mormon. While I recognize that the Church would never officially go as far as I do in recommending that people raised Mormon attend a high mass as part of temple preparation, I think we could learn a great deal from other religious traditions about appreciating the role of ritual in drawing closer to God, and in appreciating our own very ‘high church’ temple liturgy.

    (3) Celibacy. This is geeting too loong. I’ll put this one on a comment on your singles post.

  10. 10.

    Thanks for your examples, JWL; I really like them. I want to do a post sometime on things I’ve learned from various figures in the history of Christianity, because there are several who’ve profoundly influenced my faith. And I must confess that I too have a fondness for “high church” liturgy.

  11. 11.

    The problem with this discussion in conventional theology is that they have an inadequate understanding of the metaphysics of grace. If grace is just stuff that God draws out of a bucket and sprinkles like pixie dust on people, then the gospel of work, service, suffering, etc. is incomprehensible. So is the Atonement.

    Paul said that we would be joint heirs with Christ if we suffered with him. So why suffering? Why service? Why sacrifice. On the Protestant view, which is pre-figured in the Old Testament, God doesn’t *need* us at all – our works are worthless or worse. But on a more balanced view, Christian service is a channel for the delivery of divine grace, that if we do nothing, God’s work is frustrated, and that is why service, suffering, and sacrifice are important, indeed on a global view (including heaven) *necessary* for grace.

    In other words the whole theme of the Atonement is that sacrifice leads to the blessings of heaven. No suffering service, no grace. Period. Christ suffered to do his part. So do we. And that is why works are important – works contribute to grace. Indeed we might say that our service is a tiny fraction of the grace in the whole universe – not dirt, worms, filthy rags, but a spark in the fire, without sparks just darkness, chaos, and despair – no obedience no salvation – heaven would be a lonely place with only one or two people up there.

  12. 12.

    I’m not sure what exactly you’re thinking of as far as “conventional theology,” since most of the theologians with whom I’m familiar are careful not to reify grace. Rahner, for example, defines grace as the self-communication of God, and is most emphatic that it should not be understood as a “thing.” (Though I’d agree that it often gets popularly talked about that way, and that such a view can lead to problems.)

    I like the link you make to service, though I don’t think I completely understand the way in which you’re conceptualizing grace. I personally have a hard time making sense of it outside of a relational context. When I talk about grace being extended to all people, I’m thinking of God’s desire to be in relation with every human being. It’s “grace” because God initiates the process, calls us to come to him prior to and independent of anything we do. I do think we can pass that on in the way we choose to be in relation with others, which is maybe similar to what you’re getting at? But I don’t see suffering as somehow contributing to the grace in the universe (in fact, I’m wary of anything which might lead to an idealization of suffering)–I see suffering rather as a natural result of choosing to love, choosing to be open to and affected by others. And I think it’s a problem to talk about grace too abstractly, separate from the reality of concrete relationships. Grace isn’t an impersonal force; it’s the freely offered love of a personal God.

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