March 29, 2010

Review: John Sanders, "No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized"

TitleNo Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized
Author: John Sanders
Publisher: Wipf and Stock Publishers
Genre: Theology
Year: 2001 (reprint)
Pages: 334
ISBN10: 1579108342
ISBN13: 9781579108342
Binding: Paperback
Price: 34.00

A new book is stirring up controversy among Evangelicals, though it isn't the book I'm currently reviewing. Brian D. McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That are Transforming the Faith is something of a universalist approach to salvation. According to NPR: "surveys show that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals under age 35 believe non-Christians can go to heaven, but only 39 percent of those over age 65 believe that. That's because young evangelicals have grown up in a religiously plural society."1 I was on my mission when the issue really hit home: there were, believe it or not, great people who loved God (and some who didn't even believe) who weren't Mormon. Certainly I had been raised to believe that there were good people all over the world, great people of other faiths, but I had also learned that the fulness of the gospel was found in my own religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That teaching becomes more acute while facing honest, God-loving, God-fearing people outside my Church. What about those C.S. Lewis called "virtuous unbelievers"?2

The more I studied the issue the more comfortable I became with Mormon views of the afterlife and the assurance that none will be left without the opportunity to honestly evaluate Christ's invitation to come unto Him and make a decision. I believe the solutions revealed to Joseph Smith (including post-mortal missionary work and proxy ordinances for the dead) are consistent, fair, even graceful. They are also surprisingly unique, considering the history of Christian thought on the subject—a subject I didn't know had occupied other Christians for centuries going back as far as the written record shows. LDS views are unique in important respects, but they grow out of concerns common to many other Christians, as the book mentioned above demonstrates. That author's approach isn't new. Twenty years ago John Sanders explored the history of Christian perspectives on this subject in No Other Name: An Investigation into the Destiny of the Unevangelized. Obviously the topic is just as relevant to Christians today, if not more-so. Sanders reaches far back into the history of Christianity and his book has held up well.3

Sanders's book is a systematic overview of how different Christian thinkers have handled the problem of salvation only through Christ. Jesus Christ said "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6, NAS). How can the billions of people who have never heard of Christ, before and after his mortal life, come to the Father? This appears to call into question the justice and mercy of God. Considering the billions of people who have not learned about Jesus Christ through no real fault of their own, in addition to the countless persons who lived on the earth before Jesus Christ was born, it seems not many people will receive salvation. Sanders says Christians today face "plural shock" when they encounter other religions, leading some to abandon completely the "finality and particularity" of salvation through Christ, much like I encountered on my mission (3).

Sanders is something of a non-traditional Evangelical Christian, an "Open Theist."3 His book is grounded in assuming the ultimate authority of the Bible, using subsequent Christian tradition as a guide (3). On page 25 Sanders describes "two essential truths" which cause the tension for Bible-believers. First: God has a "universal salvific will." ("God...desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth," 1 Timothy 4:12.) Second: "the particularity and finality of salvation only in Jesus" ("And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under which we must be saved," Acts 4:12). Each position has support in other verses throughout the New Testament. Sanders notes that "Holding both sets of texts together without neglecting either set requires a careful theological balance...We must hold to both sets of texts and seek to arrive at a theological formulation that does justice to both" (28-29).

Sanders is a systematic thinker with the ability to express complex topics accessibly and fairly. He clarifies the main point over which Christians disagree by "distinguishing between the ontological and epistemological necessity of Jesus Christ for the salvation of individuals" (30). His book takes for granted the ontological necessity—that is, that Christ had to, and in fact did, atone for the sins of the world. Those who do not believe this point are not addressed in this study (nor are Calvinists who believe in the "limited atonement" of Christ; that Christ only died for an elect group rather than for all humankind, 30, 50). The question of epistemological necessity is where the positions in the book differ; "the question of whether [and when] a person must know about Jesus in order to benefit from the salvation he provided" (30).  

The book is divided into three parts. In part one Sanders formulates the issue and situates it in the history of Christian thought. In part two he describes "the two extremes," Restrictivism (all unevangelized are damned) and Universalism (all unevangelized are ultimately saved). In part three Sanders offers a third view he calls "Wider Hope," which is where the Latter-day Saint position would fit in. Surprisingly, give the depth of research in the book and its attempt at being comprehensive, Latter-day Saints are not mentioned at all.4 

Each chapter is well organized. Sanders begins with the key biblical texts while taking care not to simply proof-text. Next he covers "theological considerations," the assumptions made by those holding that position. Then he gives an overview of leading defenders of the position. Finally, he evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the position. A bibliography of important texts concludes each chapter. The book concludes with an Appendix on "Infant Salvation and Damnation."

The salvation of the unevangelized weaves in and out of a striking number of theological considerations; christology, the nature of faith, justice, grace, the problem of evil, revelation, hell, judgment, and the love of God. Sanders is a model for inter-faith discussion, he treats differing perspectives with deference, trying to outline them in a way acceptable to those who hold them. He believes that the debate boils down to differing "control beliefs," which "guide and control the way we investigate and interpret evidence...Control beliefs can be extremely powerful in influencing what we 'see' in a text or the way we interpret our experiences" (31). Sanders knows that everyone has control beliefs, "it would be impossible to live meaningfully without them. They give us stability as we encounter new ideas and experiences. But sometimes we need to examine and modify—even reject—certain of our control beliefs" (32). He outlines his own control beliefs and calls for readers to be self-aware of their own. Only then can they reasonably analyze the different positions and hope to find the best answer to the problem of the unevangelized.

Despite overlooking the LDS position, Sanders has put together a noteworthy book. Philosophy, theology, and history interweave to examine a question at the heart of the mission of Jesus Christ:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3: 16-17).

See Barbara Bradley Hagerty, "Jesus, Reconsidered. Book Sparks Evangelical Debate," NPR Morning Edition, 26 March 2010. Take such polls for what they're worth. This one seems to signal a continuing shift in evangelical circles toward soteriological inclusivism.

I investigate C.S. Lewis, his concept of the "virtuous unbeliever," and LDS thought in a forthcoming issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. 

Sanders is currently professor of religion at Hendrix College. See his wiki for more info.

A more in-depth analysis of the positions Sanders outlines is Brent Alvord and David L. Paulsen, "Joseph Smith and the Problem of the Unevangelized," FARMS Review 17:1 (2005), 171-204. I made use of Sanders's book in a recent blog post, "Kristen's Dilemma: Eternity or Annihilation." I hope to do more posts in the future on the topic.


ricke said...

Thank you for this post. I heard the same NPR story. Since then, I have read the Wikipedia article on Mclaren, and saw that he also is described as a proponent of open theism. The reviews of his books on Amazon are very polarized: people appear to love him or hate him. I just read Kristin's Dilemma, and appreciated it also.

BHodges said...

thanks, ricke. I think LDS may have unique things in common to both Sanders and McLaren that would equally disturb them both!

Matt W. said...

Thanks for this Blair, I really enjoyed it.

BHodges said...

no prob

BHodges said...

I need to check the book to see if Sanders mis-cited 1 Timothy on God's salvific will, the actual reference is 1 Timothy 2:3-4. Other scriptures on the salvific will off the top of my head are John 3:16-17, Titus 2:11, Ezekiel 18:23, and 2 Peter 3:9.

BHodges said...

A few more: 1 Corinthians 15:22; Luke 2:10; John 12:32, 47; Colossians 1: 16, 20.

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