Friday, February 21, 2020

Noble pagans

This is a follow-up to my previous post:


I have always wondered about that part [about Emeth worshiping Tash as Aslan in C. S. Lewis' The Last Battle], but not yet taken the time to look it up. Does Aslan's quote about "Those who follow Tash but do good actually follow me / and vice versa" accurately reflect CS Lewis' view on the matter?

Thanks, Scott. That's a good question!

1. I'm no C. S. Lewis scholar, but to my knowledge I think Lewis may have been hopeful that some non-Christians could've been saved (e.g. Virgil). That is, my impression is Lewis had some inclinations toward inclusivism, but I don't know if he was an inclusivist. He certainly wasn't a universalist. Maybe others who know better than I do can weigh in.

2. Regarding inclusivism, the Catholic philosopher Eleonore Stump offers such an argument here. She even cites Lewis' illustration of Emeth worshiping Tash in The Last Battle. It seems to me Stump's basic argument is we're not saved by facts about a person, we're saved by a person, namely Jesus Christ, but it's possible to know a person without knowing who they are. It's possible for a person who doesn't profess to be a Christian to know and love God despite not knowing God's true identity in this life.

3. On the face of it, it sounds like a reasonable argument, which it is to a degree, but I'm afraid I don't think it works at the end of the day.

a. For one thing, there's a significant difference between loving a person and loving an idea. If we can love God by loving that which God stands for (e.g. goodness, beauty), despite not knowing which (if any) God we're loving, then it seems to me what we're really loving is abstractions or ideas. If a pagan loves an impersonal goodness like a Platonic form of goodness, or if an atheist loves beauty in nature, how would that be loving a God who is personal? That could just as well be loving the creation rather than the creator. So I think there'd still need to be a step from loving true goodness to loving God.

b. With regard to the core claims of Christianity, I don't see how philosophical or theological truths can be so detached from historical facts or foundations. After all, Christianity is a historically revealed religion (e.g. 1 Cor 15). God plants his footsteps in the sea. God works wonders for his people. God speaks to his people via his prophets. God sends his Son. All this needs to be taken into consideration. It can't be ignored or glossed over.

Otherwise, if loving goodness or beauty in the abstract is sufficient for salvation, then all who seek goodness or beauty could be scaling up a different slope of the mountain, but all will reach the same destination in the end. A villager from Africa with no knowledge of Christianity could be seeking goodness. Likewise a Native American. Same with an Australian Aborigine. All in the context of their own culture's spiritual beliefs and practices. And so on. In fact, isn't this in effect what Hinduism teaches? If so, then perhaps Hinduism is the true religion, not Christianity. Perhaps Yahweh is another name for Brahman, not the other way around.

c. Moreover, how would the non-Christian know what is true goodness and true beauty? How far can natural revelation alone take the non-Christian in knowing what is truly good? For instance, isn't there a non-trivial distinction between the regenerate person's conscience and the unregenerate person's conscience? More to the point, our consciences may indeed give us moral insight, but what's needed isn't solely moral insight, but personal repentance.

d. I suspect Stump has in the back of her mind the noble pagan who has never heard the gospel but apparently lives an exemplary life and searches for truth, goodness, and beauty. Such as the ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. As far as that goes, I don't know if men like these were so morally exemplary, certainly not by 21st century progressive values (e.g. their arguments regarding slavery, their arguments about how society should be constituted). Furthermore, many of the ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated the life of the mind, perhaps we could add some of the ancient Egyptians, Indians, and Chinese, but otherwise how common was "the search for goodness, truth, and beauty" throughout human history? At any rate, I think Stump's argument might make more headway given some versions of freewill theism, but Calvinists would have better answers to the question, in my view, which Triablogue members have responded to in the past.

e. In addition, there are plenty of non-Christians who aren't "noble pagans" but are in fact explicitly serving a god that's inconsistent with true goodness as Stump envisions true goodness. Take Muslims who love Allah. Take, for instance, that to be a good Muslim one evidently needs to treat Jews and Christians as second-class citizens in Muslim lands and one must execute non-Muslims who refuse to become Muslims. If the Muslim does that, then they might be a good Muslim, but they're not doing what's truly good and right because they're mistreating others, according to Stump's exemplar of true goodness. However, if a Muslim does treat non-Muslims much better than they deserve, then they're not being a good Muslim, and it's arguable they may not even be considered a true Muslim by Islamic tradition. In other words, it seems to me on Stump's argument these Muslims could only be saved if they're more like noble pagans than they are like Muslims. So this seems like a quandary.


  1. > After all, Christianity is a historically revealed religion

    A relevant observation. It seems to me that in this overall question, the important datum is that Christianity is a historically *accomplished* religion. God has chosen to act through historical events. Salvation is through things done in space-time, not through abstract philosophy. The hope for salvation for those who don't have faith in the covenant promises of the real God rests ultimately on the belief that the receipt of salvation is separable from the time-line of history that God has ordained.

    i.e. the hope that, though God didn't ordain a time-line in which Mr. X hears and believes God's promise, yet God still ordained his ultimate salvation through some other means. I see no Biblical grounds of to sustain that hope; in Scripture, everything God does, he does through history.

    This isn't at all to identify history with closed-system naturalism. Christianity is not deism. The evidence of, for example, Muslims having dreams that guide them towards faith in Christ (usually by directing them to find a Bible, Christian or church) is overwhelming. The example of Cornelius may be relevant. He was sincere, and seeking - and God supernaturally guided him to hear with his ordinary ears the gospel of Christ.

    Hence, when people ask me questions in this area, I tend to say something like "if there is any such salvation, it's not one God has told us about anywhere in the Bible, so at best you have no grounds at all to believe in it or hope for it, even if you don't think verses like those in Romans 10 absolutely rule it out".

    1. Thanks, David! I appreciate these insights.

  2. I think a possibly more tenable variation would be to say that, since salvation is the work of God as a demonstration of His mercy (among other things), there exists (from our perspective) a non-zero chance that any given person might be saved. If a non-Christian exhibits traits we would find consistent with regeneration, then there might be grounds to say "maybe they made it in" as opposed to "they probably or definitely didn't."

    1. Thanks, MetaSkipper! That is a better argument than the one Stump presents, I think. It looks at things from the empirical evidence on the ground, as it were, then tries to work out an explanation, as opposed to Stump attempting a more top-down approach. Or so it seems to me.

  3. How often do Christians love Christ as He actually is versus what they imagine Him to be, though? Is it possible to love Him in a way that's not clouded by personal ideas and subjective bias? Given His absence from this world in a tangible, material way, I'm not sure how it's possible for it to be otherwise.

    1. Jim Bradshaw

      "How often do Christians love Christ as He actually is versus what they imagine Him to be, though? Is it possible to love Him in a way that's not clouded by personal ideas and subjective bias?"

      Thanks for the comment, Jim. I think Stump has in mind non-Christians rather than Christians.

      However as a separate issue from Stump I think I'd say who Christ is and what he has done is objectively laid out in Scripture. A Christian (such as a new believer) might have their view of Christ "clouded by personal ideas and subjective bias" to some degree (short of, say, heretical beliefs if they're a bona fide Christian). They can begin to adjust their "personal ideas and subjective bias" about Christ by studying the Bible, learning theology (Christology), attending to orthodox teaching from a good pastor or minister, and so on.

      "Given His absence from this world in a tangible, material way, I'm not sure how it's possible for it to be otherwise."

      Of course, there's the argument from answered prayers, miracles, etc.

  4. A thought regarding God having perfect Middle Knowledge.

    On the one hand, WLC has postulated Transworld Damnation where God places those He knows 'would accept the gospel if they heard it' in lives where they do hear the gospel.

    On the other hand, perhaps God knowing how any person would respond to the gospel - IF they heard it - chooses to credit this to that person, even if that person was placed in a life where he/she never actually hears the gospel (e.g. the noble pagans).

    Perhaps the latter is one way to explain how the thief on the cross could be promised paradise by Jesus, without seemingly having a full knowledge of who Jesus was (God incarnate but not the Father, one of a Trinity, saving by grace not works, etc).

    Regarding what David Anderson said in a comment above, I've heard that many of the Muslims turning to Jesus in Iran actually hold a modalist or monophysite view (I forget which). It would be quite 'snatching defeat from the jaws of victory' if they are all still damned after seeing Jesus in dreams and turning to (an inaccurate idea about) Him.