Summary of Inclusivism

The OCR DCT specification requires that you understand and can evaluate the basic principles of inclusivism.  The key thinker for this area is Karl Rahner, but you may also wish to study the works of theologians whose work could be described as inclusivist.  Gavin D'Costa would be an interesting contrast.

This page provides you with an overview of the inclusivist basics.  There is a separate page dedicated to the theology of Rahner which includes much more detailed notes about his work.

What is inclusivism?

Key terms:

Solus Christus:  'Only Christ'.  Inclusivists maintain that Christ's death was necessary and it is only through Christ that anyone can be saved.

Extra ecclesium nulla salus:  'No salvation outside the Church'.  Inclusivists reject the idea that you must be a member of the visible  institution of the Church to be saved.

Votum ecclesiae: 'Church of faith' or implicit faith in the Church.  Inclusivists maintain that you can be an implicit member of the invisible Church of faith though your desires and by the way you live your life.

Christian inclusivist (like exclusivists) believe that Christianity is the one true religion and that Jesus' death and resurrection are of central importance.  Most Christian inclusivists would believe that Jesus was genuinely God incarnate and that his death should be understood in the traditional way as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.  However, unlike exclusivists they believe that non-Christians can go to heaven and that it is not necessary to have explicit faith in Jesus or to be a member of the Church. 

Inclusivists could use various points to support their position.  These might include:

  • God is loving and fair so must make it possible for all people to be saved.
  • Jesus died for everyone so his actions must affect non-Christians.
  • Members of non-Christian religions often behave in a way that would be regarded by Christians as good.
  • Religions have significant differences (so cannot all be true) but also have significant similarities (implying some shared knowledge).
  • God is creator, thus revealed in creation so you do not need to read the Bible to have some knowledge of God.

Inclusivists would say that their position is superior to pluralism because it maintains the unique position of Jesus and of the Church and it does not ignore the fact that religions sometimes teach opposing things.

They would also say that their position is superior to exclusivism because it follows on naturally from Christian principles that exclusivists seem to ignore (e.g. it takes into account that God is loving, that he created the world and that Jesus died for all).  Furthermore, it encourages positive attitudes to non-Christians.

Biblical basis:

Exclusivists, inclusivists and pluralists can all find Biblical teachings and principles which support their views.  Some of the teachings used are ambiguous and depending on how they are interpreted could be used to support different approaches.

A couple of the teachings often used to support inclusivism are the story of Paul preaching in Athens and Jesus' parable of the Sheep and the Goats. 

The story of Paul preaching to the men of Athens is used by inclusivists to suggest that non-Christians might have knowledge of God but not the same detailed knowledge and personal relationship that Christians have.

The parable of the Sheep and the Goats could be used to argue that people are judged and go to heaven or hell on the basis of how they behave rather than what they believe.  This could be used to support the idea of the anonymous Christian.

Inclusivism in Christian history:

Theologians like Augustine and Aquinas were interested in the question of what happened to non-Christians.  The fate of those who lived before Jesus (and therefore could not possibly have a chance to be Christian) was particularly problematic.

Various solutions were proposed:

  • After his death Jesus 'descended to the dead' to liberate those already in hell.
  • God would give special revelatory experiences to those in areas where they did not have access to scripture.
  • The concept of the ecclesia ab Abel referred to the faithful non-Christians whose life choices meant that they had responded to God's demands on them.
  • God would use his omnisicience to know what a person would have chosen if they had had the chance to encounter Jesus.

Rahner - the short version:

Rahner argues that:

  • Christianity is the one absolute religion.
  • Jesus died for human sin and enables people to be saved through grace.  Jesus' death was necessary for salvation.
  • This grace can then be mediated through non-Christian religions.  Religions which mediate God's grace are lawful religions.
  • Non-Christians who behave in a 'Christian' type way already have God's grace acting in their life and should be regarded as anonymous Christians.
  • In this way the Church is not confined to the visible institution of the Church but is comprised of those whose behaviour and values reflect those of a Christian.

Rahner supports his view by arguing that God is revealed both through creation and through history and that this is made clear in the Old Testament.  This means God's grace is available outside Christianity.  He says that Christianity has a historical starting point in time so clearly cannot be the way of salvation for all mankind.

Rahner goes on to say that whilst other religions can be lawful they contain error and depravity as well as grace and therefore the Church still has a duty to evangelise.  However, when proselytising, Christians should remember that those that they evangelise to may already know God but in an implicit rather than explicit way.


D'Costa is another twentieth century Roman Catholic theologian.  He has been critical of exclusivism, pluralism and also of versions of inclusivism.

He thinks that exclusivism

  • Incompatible with God's love
  • Ignores the examples of revelation in the Old Testament which occur outside Christianity.
  • Ignores the importance of moral action and behaviour (as set out in the parable of the sheep and the goats).

Pluralism he finds problematic because

  • Ignored the centrality of Jesus.
  • Makes all religions re-define their claims.

Whilst versions of inclusivism like Rahner's

  • Upset both exclusivists (who think it undermines Christianity) and pluralists (who think it is arrogant).

D'Costa created a version of inclusivism that built on the doctrine of the Trinity

He said that to claim that you can only know God through Jesus is binatarian and ignores the role of the Holy Spirit.  To be truly Trinitarian you must recognise that God can be known through the Holy Spirit. 

D'Costa says that Jesus is fully God but God is not fully Jesus. Wholly God but not the whole of God.  He uses the word Christomonism for the idea that Christ is the only way to God.

'Against an exclusivist Christomonism, it must be stressed that "the Son is not the Father."  Hence, although we come to know the Father through Jesus, we cannot turn Jesus into an idol and cliam that the Father is exclusively known through him.  It is through the Spirit and the Son that God is disclosed.'

D'Costa Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered 1990

D'Costa believes that his approach is truly Christian because it builds on the doctrine of the Trinity.

'I believe that the Trinitarian doctrine of God facilitates an authentically Christian response to the world religions because it takes the particularities of hisotry entierly seriously.  This is so because the doctrine seeks to affirm that God has disclosed himself in...the person Jesus.  But the Trinity also affirms, by means of the other two persons, that God is constantly revealing himself through history by means of the Holy Spirit.'

D'Costa thinks that Christians can learn from non-Christian religions.  It is not just that these religions reflect things already known in Christianity.  God is revealed in them in a way which might actually add to the Christian understanding.  D'Costa says that the revelation of God in Jesus is normative but not exclusive.  The process of revelation is ongoing and there is always more to learn about God.

'Christians need to learn more deeply about God from God's self-revelation wherever it has occured.'

General Evalation of Inclusivism: 

Many people would argue that Inclusivism provides a successful middle way between exclusivism and pluralism.  It allows Christians to continue to see a central role for Jesus and for the Church but avoids some of the theological problems associated with exclusivism.

However, other people would say that inclusivism is little more than disguised exclusivism.  There is (arguably) no real attempt to recognise non-Christian religions on their own terms, they are still seen in contrast to Christianity.  John Hick believes that the unknowability of God makes such a Christo-centric starting point unphilosophically sound.  Rahner's version of inclusivism is often accused of being patronising and insulting to non-Christians and although D'Costa tries to avoid these charges he still takes as his starting point a thoroughly Christian understanding of the nature of God.


When evaluation inclusivism use exclusivism and pluralism and identify the problems with it from each stand point. 

Consider also whether you think inclusivism would actually help to create a successful multi-cultural society and whether such a stance would enable Christianity to survive in either a modern or postmodern world.

If you want to consider whether exclusivism is 'Christian' then you coult examine what inclusivist says about the central points of Christianity, Jesus, the Church etc.  Does it remain true to them?  Does it undermine them?  Compare it back to the Biblical teaches and investigate which teachings support it and which oppose it.