The theolog's survival pack
Christian uniqueness, Pluralism and the ‘Theology of Religions’
- Dan Strange is lecturer in Culture, Religion, and Public Theology at Oak Hill College. Previously, he worked for UCCF alongside theology students. View all resources by Dan Strange
The term ‘religious pluralism’ is a term that you will often hear in theological and RS departments. But what exactly does it mean? Usually the term does not only mean ‘empirical pluralism,’ the seemingly incontrovertible ‘fact’ that in the West we live in an age of ethnic and religious diversity, but more controversially, the notion of ‘philosophical pluralism’ which is to be cherished and encouraged. Harold Netland says that ‘philosophical pluralism’ is, an umbrella term that embraces a variety of contemporary positions that are united in their opposition to the idea that we can know objective truth: e.g., ontological non-realism (there is no objective reality ‘out there’ to be experienced and known); constructivism (‘reality’ is merely a construct of social experiences); perspectivism (we can never know reality as it is; the most we can know is reality from our perspective); various forms of relativism (truth, rationality norms, and the like are all relative to, or internal to, particular contexts.)1
The pressure of pluralism has generated a number of questions for the Christian theologian pertaining to the relationship between Christianity and other religions, the discipline known at the ‘theology of religions:’ Why are there so many diverse religions? If Christianity is the true religion, why is it that so much of the world rejects it in favour of diametrically opposing religious traditions? Is it theologically and morally acceptable to maintain that one religion is uniquely true and that the others are at best incomplete or even false? What happens to those who have never heard the Gospel? How do I witness and evangelise to those of other faiths?
It has become standard in this area of study to note three main approaches by which theologians have responded to religious pluralism: exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Netland provides a concise summary of these reference points:
“Exclusivism maintains that the central claims of Christianity are true, and that where the claims of Christianity conflict with those of other religions the latter are to be rejected as false. Christian exclusivists also characteristically hold that Jesus Christ is the unique incarnation of God, the only Lord and Saviour. Salvation is not to be found in the structures of other religious traditions.” Historically this position has been the orthodox evangelical position.
“Inclusivism...holds that [although] God has revealed himself definitively in Jesus Christ and that Jesus is somehow central to God’s provision of salvation for humankind, they are willing to allow that God’s salvation is available through non-Christian religions.” This is the position most closely associated with the Second Vatican Council. There are some evangelicals who argue for a modified or diluted version of inclusivism.
“Pluralism parts company with both exclusivism and inclusivism by rejecting the premise that God has revealed himself in any unique or definitive sense in Jesus Christ. On the contrary, God is said to be actively revealing himself in all religious traditions... Christian faith is merely one of many equally legitimate human responses to the same divine reality.2” John Hick is the most well-known figure from this position. Others include Paul Knitter, Dan-Cohn Sherbock (from a Jewish perspective) and the Dalai Lama (from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective). Rather than seeing these three positions as being tightly defined, if one is to persist with this typology then it is perhaps more helpful to see them as three points of reference on a wide spectrum. Such an approach takes into account many positions that appear to fall in between the three defined points. However, it may be more helpful to reject this typology altogether because on a closer inspection of both inclusivism and pluralism, I believe they both turn out to be as exclusive as exclusivism but with different criteria – that of liberal western modernity.
Issues and questions facing the evangelical student
For evangelicals, maintaining any form of exclusivism in the world today smacks of narrowness, imperialism and is extremely counter-cultural especially for departments of theology and religious studies that laud pluralism. It is important for evangelicals to speak the truth in love and to be able to disentangle theological issues from non-theological ones.
While we may recognise and even embrace factual pluralism we do not have to cherish philosophical pluralism and from the biblical revelation must expose its inherent weaknesses. Even if one is committed to some form of exclusivism, the evangelical student will have to ask themselves a number of hard questions that will take them deeper into the subject of the ‘theology of religions’:
While we might maintain the uniqueness, finality and particularity of Jesus Christ, has God revealed Himself in other ways. What is the difference between general and special revelation? Has God revealed himself in creation? Why? How does this bear on how we view other religions?
Salvation – Is it possible to believe in the uniqueness of Christ and still maintain that those who never hear the Gospel can be saved? What is the relationship between revelation and salvation? What implications are there for evangelism and mission?
If other religions are not paths to salvation then what are they? Do they contain any truth? Can people from other religious traditions do ‘good’? Are other religions demonically inspired? Are they human constructions? Are they all three?
Evangelism, Dialogue and Tolerance – How far can we go in tolerating others without compromising our own beliefs about Christ? Do we affirm the good in other religions? Is this what Paul was doing in Acts 17 or not? Should we take off our shoes in a Sikh temple as a mark of respect? Can there be any such thing as inter-faith dialogue? How do we discern what is cultural and what is gospel?
Towards an evangelical theology of religions
Some of the answers to the above questions are easier to answer than others. For the evangelical, we must go to our ultimate authority, the Bible to attempt to answer these questions. In doing this we will want to look 1) at the ways in the OT and NT that ‘other religions’ are treated e.g. Israel’s relationship with the nations; Paul’s encounters in Acts; and
2) Look at didactic doctrinal passages that teach about mankind and religion e.g. Rom. 1:18-31. I believe there are some biblical building blocks that can be used as foundations in order to answer these questions. These will not fill all the gaps (and sometimes the gaps are quite big) but can get one started with confidence:
Christians worship a Triune God: I say this because the Trinity is what makes the Christian Faith unique and sui generis. We do not serve the Allah of Islam or the many deities of Hinduism but the One Living God who is three persons Father, Son and Spirit. Any worship to anything but this Living God is idolatry.
Christians worship a Triune Creator God: Unlike religious forms of pantheism (all is God) or panentheism (all is in God), Christians maintain a fundamental distinction between Creator and created. What is more, God created all things ‘good’ (Gen. 1:31) and human beings are the apex of creation with special responsibilities and privileges, an awareness of God and the capacity for personal relationships with other persons. However much we want to stress man’s sinfulness we must still affirm this structural aspect of humans in the image of God.
Christians worship a Triune Creator God who has chosen to reveal Himself to humankind universally: Theologians typically distinguish between God’s general and special revelation. In terms of general revelation we would want to include concepts such as creation itself; the imago Dei (image of God); the Logos; human conscience (Ps. 19:1-4; Jn. Acts 14:15-17; 17:22-31; Rom. 2:14-15) The classic biblical text on this is Romans 1:18-32. Demarest notes that Paul states some important truths here:
1) All people everywhere know God as Creator (v. 19,20,21)
2) The reality of God is apprehended a priori (v.19)
3) The reality of God is apprehended a posteriori (v.20)
4) Sinful hearts suppress both the a priori and a posteriori knowledge of God (v.18). Not only do people reject the living Creator but they substitute him for created things (v. 23).
5) Humanity’s rejection of God established their guilt before God. As Demarest summarizes: “God provides all people with a genuine knowledge of himself. Yet instead of bringing forth the appropriate responses of thanksgiving and worship, sinners perversely assert their own autonomy and become idolatrous. The effect of general revelation, not God’s purpose in it, is to render sinners judicially guilty.”
NB: Synthesising the above two points we can start even now putting together a rudimentary ‘theology of religions’ which will speak about other religions in terms of 1) creation and revelation (because man is made in God’s image the remnants of which still remain), 2) human sin (because we have all rejected God and made God’s in our own image) and 3) demonic deception (because the unregenerate have been blinded by the God of this age). Any ‘theology of religions’ will want to keep these three aspects in tension. We see something of this in Paul’s address to the Athenians in Acts 17: he immediately notes their idolatry but still quotes a true statement that their poets make.
Christians worship a Triune Creator and Redeemer God who has chosen to reveal Himself to humankind particularly and uniquely in Jesus Christ: As well as God’s general revelation, God in his grace has not left humankind in sin but has purposed to save a people for himself. It is God’s special revelation that speaks about God the Redeemer. The writer of Hebrews summarises this well: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom he made the universe” (Heb. 1-2).
The revelation of Jesus Christ given to us in God’s revealed World is particular, final and unique. What is the knowledge of this special revelation? In his mercy God has provided a way of salvation through the cross work of Christ for God’s anger to be satisfied and for God and man to be reconciled. There is only one way of salvation – through the cross of Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:9-10; Acts 4:12; Jn. 14:6; Jn. 1:12) and the instrumentality of this salvation is faith and repentance in Christ.
NB: One question that has led to some discussion within evangelicalism is the amount of knowledge needed for a saving response to God. Many (including myself) would hold that only those who hear the gospel from a human messenger in this life can be saved. This is commonly called restrictivism. Others would maintain in varying degrees of strength and certainty that while Christ’s death is the grounds for all who are saved, people do not necessarily have to know about Christ and his cross work to be saved. This is commonly called inclusivism. See the reading list for more on this area.
Christians worship a Triune Creator and Redeemer God who has chosen to reveal Himself savingly to humankind through particular revelation and who calls believers to share the good news of the gospel with all people: Netland sums this up well: “The Christian gospel is inherently missionary; it is the good news of reconciliation with God that must be shared with a world that is desperately lost. Commitment to missions and evangelism should flow from various motives, including obedience to the explicit command of our Lord to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Mt. 28:19…) It should be prompted by compassion for the lost who need to hear the gospel (Jn. 3:!6, 18, 36; Rom. 1:!6-17), and it ought to follow the examples of the apostles and early Christians who shared this good news freely with others. The church should be actively involved in global missions so that all peoples will worship and give glory to the one God and acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour (Phi. 2:10-11).”
Books that might help
The following books might help you think through some of the above questions and will probably generate more!
Norman Anderson, Christianity and World Religions (Leicester: IVP, 1984)
One of the evangelical ‘classics’ which has influenced many evangelical writing in this area today. Although probably superseded by Netland, still worth reading.
Don Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Leicester: Apollos, 1996) Carson’s large study ranges brilliantly over a number of issues:postmodernity, pluralism, biblical theology and evangelicalism with no stone left unturned. A book to have and to refer to constantly.
eds. Andrew D. Clarke and Bruce W. Winter, One Lord, One God: Christianity in a World of Religious Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992).
A collection of essays by evangelicals on the subject of religious pluralism. Much of the collection focuses on the biblical material looking at pluralism in the OT and NT. There are also useful essays on general and special revelation (Demarest) and Vatican II (Wright).
Gavin D’Costa, The Meeting of the Religions and the Trinity (New York: Orbis, 2000).
D’Costa is a Roman Catholic theologian who has been one of the fiercest critiques of John Hick. For evangelicals, the first half of the book is very helpful as I think it offers a devastating critique of the pluralism of Hick, Knitter, Cohn Sherbock, Neo-Hinduism and Tibetan Buddhist Pluralism, arguing that far from being pluralism they are modernist exclusivists.
Bruce Demarest, General Revelation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982)
Although this book is long out of print, it remains perhaps the best historical and evangelical survey of the doctrine of general revelation. Your library might have a copy…..
Ajith Fernando, Sharing the Truth in Love: How to Relate to People of Other Faiths (Grand Rapids: Discovery House, 2001)
An update of his earlier book ‘The Christian’s Attitude Toward World Religions,’ Fernando gives a theological and practical guide to witnessing to those of other faiths. Good for students.
Hendrik Kraemer, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1938)
_____________, Religion and the Christian Faith (London: Lutterworth Press, 1956).
You will have to try and find these two in the library. Although he died in 1965, missiologist Hendrik Kraemer still has much to contribute today and these two volumes remain classic statements of the uniqueness and necessity of the Christian Gospel.
Ronald Nash, Is Jesus the Only Saviour? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).
Nash is an exclusivist who examines and critiques both Hick’s Pluralism and various versions of Inclusivism. Solid and sensible and a good introduction.
Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (Leicester: Apollos, 1991).
Excellent introduction to the field of the ‘theology of religions’ written from an evangelical exclusivist position. The book examines the conflicting truth claims of the worlds religions and then gives a critique of the pluralism of John Hick before moving onto areas of evangelism, dialogue and tolerance.
_____________, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission (Leicester: Apollos, 2001).
A companion to Dissonant Voices, ERP concentrates on the change in attitude towards others religions looking at the culture of modernity and again dealing with John Hick. The second half of the book looks at engaging with religious pluralism and there is a good chapter that seeks to propose an evangelical ‘theology of religions’.
eds. Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, More than One Way: Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995)
Does exactly what it says in the title: four views on salvation including the assessment of other religions. Hick is the pluralist, Pinnock the inclusivist; McGrath and Geivett/Phillips, represent two versions of exclusivism.
ed. Christopher Partridge, Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World (Leicester: IVP, 2002) A very useful dictionary with contributions from all the important evangelicals working in the field of religious studies and the ‘theology of religions’.
Vinoth Ramachandra, The Recovery of Mission (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996).
Ramachandra an Asian evangelical theologian looks at a number of pluralist theologians before looking at modernity and the uniqueness of Christ.
Christopher Sinkinson, The Universe of Faith: A Critical Study of John Hick’s Religious Pluralism (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001).
Sinkinson did a PhD on John Hick and this book is a lucid analysis and critique not only of Hick’s Pluralism but the theological, philosophical and epistemological framework that supports his pluralism. If you are studying Hick in any detail this is the book to get!
Daniel Strange, The Possibility of Salvation Among the Unevangelised (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002)
A detailed look at how evangelicals have answered the question of the unevangelised with special reference to the work of Clark Pinnock.
ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Trinity in a Pluralistic Age: Theological Essays in Religion and Culture (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1997)
A collection of essays from a team of evangelical and confessional theologians. The essays are not easy reading but will repay the work spent on them. Look out for the ones by Williams, Vanhoozer, Gunton, Blocher and Badcock.
Chris Wright, Thinking Clearly about the Uniqueness of Jesus (Monarch
Basic introduction that deals with all the key issues in a really clear and accessible way.
___________, ‘The Christian and Other Religions: the Biblical Evidence’ in Themelios 9/2 Jan. 1984, pp. 4-15.
A good introduction, providing a basic biblical theological framework with which to address the theology of religions.
More on this subject:
 Don Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Leicester, 1996) p. 19 n.19.
 Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth (Leicester,
1991) p. 9f.