Can Non-Christians Be Saved? Reformed Ecumenical Council to Debate Question of Uniqueness of Jesus Christ

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (June 7, 1996) URNS — A few short weeks after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the apostle Peter declared to an astounded crowd in Jerusalem that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Nearly two thousand years later, the meaning of that passage in Acts 4:12 has become a subject of intense debate among professing Christian theologians. If a recommendation of the REC theology conference is adopted, it will also become a subject for study in the Reformed Ecumenical Council.

In a June 7 presentation to the Reformed Ecumenical Council, its theology conference reported that “in view of the growing importance of the subject a study committee should be appointed by the interim committee to make an indepth study of a) the many-faceted problems of religious pluralism, b) the biblical view of other religions, c) what all this means for the communication of the gospel to the present world.” The theology conference also suggested “that the REC print and distribute widely the papers read at the theological conference and ask the General Secretary to bring it to the attention of the member churches.”

The three papers mentioned are a speech to the full session of the Reformed Ecumenical Council by Dr. Klaas Runia, retired rector (president) of the theological seminary of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN) at Kampen, and papers presented to the theology conference by Dr. Raymond Van Leeuwen of Eastern College in St. David’s, Penn., and Dr. Allan Harman of the Presbyterian Theological College in Australia.

Runia—long regarded as one of themost prominent conservatives in his denomination—surprised some delegates by the closing paragraphs of his speech.

Runia noted that professing Christians have historically taken three approaches to the relationship between Christ and adherents of other religions: an “exclusivist” approach declaring that there is no salvation apart from an explicit profession of the name of Christ, “inclusivist” approaches which appreciate non-Christian religions but “refrain from saying that the non-Christian religion can itself save a person” and that “it is always Christ who saves by his hidden presence in the other religion,” and what Runia termed “the ‘pluralist’ or ‘liberal’ approach” which “no longer has place for the unicity of Jesus Christ.”



While noting that “the exclusivist approach was generally held by the Christian Church up to the Middle Ages and by the Reformers” and “is also held by the great majority of evangelical theologians,” including those who drafted the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, Runia said the “inclusivist” position dates back to the second-century theologian Justin Martyr and is held today in various forms by a number of Roman Catholic leaders. Runia cited W.E. Hocking, William Cantwell Smith, John Hick, and Paul Knitter as examples of modern “pluralist” theologians—Hocking going to the paint of stating that “the missionary will look forward, not to the destruction of these religions, but to their continued existence with Christianity, each stimulating the other in growth toward the ultimate goal, unity in the completest religious truth.”

How do such theologians deal withScripture passages such as Acts 4:13, John 14:6 and I Timothy 2:5 which appear to teach exclusive claims of Christ? Runia cited Knitter as an example of a Roman Catholic theologian who “believes that these passages apply to Christians only.”

“When Christians see Jesus as the way, the life, and the truth, they actually say no more than that this is the way they personally experience Jesus,” Runia said regarding such views. “Knitte, conks it with the exclamation of a husband to his wife: ‘You are the most beautiful woman in the world.’ We have to do with ‘love’ language, which means that the passages I quoted should not be taken in an absolute sense, but as confessions that hold true within the Christian community only.”

Runia’s paper clearly distanced himself from such views. “This is the reason I take my starting point in the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” said Runia. “This, in my opinion, is the only proper point of departure for getting a good and reliable picture of the real Jesus.”

However, Runia was not willing to go as far as many exclusivists in declaring that no one can be saved apart from an explicit profession of faith in Jesus Christ. “Does this mean that there is no truth in all the other religions and that all the adherents of the other religions will be lost forever?” asked Runia.

Runia noted that “some of the ‘exclusivists’ do take this position,” citing a statement by the 1960 Congress on World Mission at Chicago that “in the years since the war, more than one billion souls have passed into eternity and more than half of these went into the torment of hell fire without even hearing of Jesus Christ, who he was, or why he died on the cross of Calvary” and a special hymn sung by the 1968 World Congress on Evangelism at Singapore “that spoke of the billions that were lost.”

“I believe such statements go beyond what we are allowed to say,” said Runia, citing Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck’s statement in his Reformed Dogmatics that “with regard to the salvation of the heathen and of children dying in infancy, we can, on the basis of Scripture, only refrain from a definite judgment, in either a positive or a negative sense.” In support of his view, Runia also cited statements by Bavinck’s nephew J.H. Bavinck, Hendrick Kraemer, and J. Verkuyl.

“I am not sure whether we have the right to be so expansive,” said Runia regarding some of the views cited, “but I do know that if it is possible that people of other faiths may be saved, they most certainly will not be saved by their own religiosity, by their own religious experiences and rites, but only because the Spirit of Christ was active in their lives and because by his work the secret of Christ became manifest to and in them, too. For it remains true for all times and all people: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’”

In the follow-up question period, several delegates asked Runia whether views other than that of the “exclusivists” were destructive to missionary work. Dr. Eugene Rubingh, vice-president for translations of the International Bible Society, noted that much of Christian mission work was done in a context of radical Muslim antagonism toward Christianity. “If a Muslim calls out in a moment of crisis, ‘Allah help!’ who is that call directed to?” asked Rubingh

“I would certainly not exclude the possibility of a Muslim in his deep distress calling out to Allah, that his prayer is heard by the God in whom we believe,” responded Runia.


Not everyone at the REC Assembly was equally willing to allow room for people to be saved apart from an explicit profession of faith in Jesus Christ.

“I think the gospel stands or falls on this issue,” said Dr. Roger Greenway, professor of missions at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids and convener of the REC committee appointed after its 1992 Assembly to draft a document on the uniqueness of Christ. “This is not a peripheral issue, and if we hedge on this we are forfeiting our right to be called Christians.”

Greenway agreed with other speakers that much of the debate arose from the fact that most modem Christians did not have close contact with adherents of other religions until recent years. “A lot of Christians have not thought this through because they have not been confronted by other worldviews,” said Greenway. “Neither Bavinck nor Kuyper dealt extensively with other religions, so we need to look at this ourselves.”

However, Greenway was willing to there grant Runia’s point that some Dutch Reformed theologians had not been insistent on the “exclusivist” position. “I have not been very satisfied with the history of Reformed theologians to be clear-cut in their presentation and defense of exclusivism,” said Greenway. “They have held back in a way I find surprising.”

Greenway predicted that the issue of the uniqueness of Christ was likely to become a divisive issue in the Christian community. “I think there’s going to be a refining in both ways; some will come to a clear and more articulate faith and others will say it really isn’t that important after all,” said Greenway.

In a later press conference, the REC officers also agreed with Greenway that the issue of the uniqueness of Christ was crucial to the work of the Reformed Ecumenical Council.

“I expect that in the next 25 to 50 years this will be the main issue confronting the churches and in comparison with that all these other issues, women and worship, will pale into insignificance,” said REC moderator Dr. Henk de Waard of Australia. “Here is the very essence of the churches and what we are all about.”

REC vice-moderator Dr. Douwe Visser, formerly a missionary of the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN) to the African nation of Zambia, also concurred on the centrality of the issue. “It’s all coming up; what is our identity as Christians, what that relationship is of salvation in Christ, is really foundational for missions and the whole life of the church,” said Visser.

However, de Waard cautioned that Runia had presented a “responsible paper” on the subject.

“The paper was focused on the uniqueness of Christ, but also not wanting to be dogmatic about the salvation of those outside the reach of the gospel,” said de Waard. “I don’t think it was a new view or even a very radical view.”

“At the council level there would be a greater level of toleration than we would allow on a local level in our own denominations; that’s part of what it means to have an ecumenical organization,” said de Waard. “There is diversity, but within limits.”

De Waard did affirm that “there are a range of Scriptural doctrines on which there can be no compromise.”

“If any church would say we no longer believe in the deity of Christ or the physical resurrection, I have no doubt that would be dealt with,” said de Waard.


Runia gave further explanation to his views in subsequent conference sessions. “I think in our Reformed tradition, and rightly, we always wanted to keep the Word and the Spirit together,” Runia told the theology forum. “On the other hand, we are not about to limit the possibilities and say Spirit and Word belong together so the Spirit cannot do anything without the Word. We have always said that the children of believers are saved, not by the Word but by the Spirit.”

“Those who have not heard the gospel will be judged according to the standards they had,” said Runia. “What the outcome of that judgment will be I don’t know, but Matthew 25 makes me want to be very mild about that. Those who thought they knew the Lord were told they do not know him and those that thought they did not know him were told they did.”

“Would the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ not hear such a cry? Would he close his ears?” asked Runia. “I don’t think so. I can’t believe that God would not have heard the cries of the Old Covenant people when they cried out in Auschwitz.”

However, Runia said he put a different interpretation from that of some others on a highly-publicized change in the church order of his denomination, the Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland (GKN) regarding missions to the Jews. “In the past our church order said we have to witness to Jews on the basis of Christ, we now say we bear mutual witness,” said Runla. “I don’t think the idea of the change in the church order was to say there are two ways of salvation. Some people in the churches may hold that view but I don’t think that was the intent of the change.”

Darrell Todd Maurina, Press Officer United Reformed News Service