The Gospel and Non-Christian Religions: an Irenic Evangelical Assessment
The relation of Christian faith to other religions has been defined as expressing itself in three different paradigms, namely exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Not all Christian responses could be categorized as belonging to either of these paradigms; however, they help to understand the relation of Christianity to other religions as presented by most Christians. Netland prefers using the term particularism instead of exclusivism because of the negative connotations of the latter. Let us consider these three paradigms.
Particularism up until mid-twentieth century has been the only Christian (both Roman Catholic and Protestant) perspective on non-Christian religions. Three theological principles lay at the heart of this perspective, namely that (1) the Bible is God's distinctive revelation written to the humankind; (2) Jesus Christ is the incarnated God; (3) the grace of God is not mediated through the teachings, practices or institutions of other religions. The first principle implies that the claims of Scripture are authoritative and if they are in contradiction to those of other faiths, the latter must be rejected. Then the second principle implies that the uniqueness of God's incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ eliminates the possibility of salvation by a means of other religions. Finally, the third principle limits the work of saving grace to Christian faith. The Catholics put the latter two in the famous extra ecclesiam nula salus expression. Evangelicals expressed the essence of particularism in the Manila Declaration in 1992:
Against...pluralism, we affirm that God has acted decisively, supremely, and normatively in the historical Jesus of Nazareth. In his person and work, Jesus is unique such that no one comes to the Father except through him. All salvation in biblical sense of eternal life, life in the kingdom, reconciliation with God and forgiveness of sins comes solely from the person and work of Jesus Christ. . . . In our modern pluralistic world, many Christians ask: "Is it not possible that there might be salvation in other religions?" The question is misleading because it implies that religions have the power to save us. This is not true. Only God saves. All people have sinned, all people deserve condemnation, all salvation stems solely from the person of and atoning work of Jesus Christ, and this salvation can be appropriated solely through trust in God's mercy. . . . The truth to be found in other religious teachings is not sufficient, in and of itself, to provide salvation.
Thus, the essence of particularism is the conviction that God has revealed himself through the Scriptures as well as the incarnation and that Jesus Christ is the only Savior for all people despite their nationality and culture.
Inclusivism, on the other hand, is much more open to the notion that God may be at work through other religions. Although inclusivism affirms the superiority of Jesus over the messianic figures of other religions, it does not exclude the possibility of God's grace and even salvation being available by means of these religions. For instance, Clark Pinnock has argued that Christology is fully compatible with the notion that many people will be saved apart from actually hearing the gospel. "There is no salvation except through Christ, but it is not necessary for everybody to possess a conscious knowledge of Christ in order to benefit from redemption through him," he writes in Wideness of God's Mercy. According to him though we cannot claim that God does use other religions to draw people to himself, God may use non-Christian religion as a means to show his grace and evoke the faith. Pinnock suggests that grace operates outside the church and for this reason may be encountered in the context of other religions. He does admit that non-Christian religions include much that is false and evil, and yet, according to him, the Holy Spirit can be present and work in other religions. Thus, inclusivists usually regard other religions as part of God's purposes for humans.
Inclusivism has been building on so called Fulfillment Theme, which is primary associated with John Nicol Farquhar (1861-1929). A missionary to India, Farquhar felt that Christian missionaries should have a positive and deeper appreciation of Indian culture and religion. He wrote, "incalculable harm has been done to the Christian cause in India in times past through unsympathetic denunciation of Hinduism." Such conviction led him to propose that missionaries should present Christianity not as the religion which displaces Hinduism, but rather fulfils it. The proposed model seemed to be very plausible because much of the thinking at the time was influenced by the theory of evolution, which applied to anthropological studies suggested that primitive religions have developed into more sophisticated monotheistic religions culminating in Christianity. So according to this approach other religions were not as much false, as incomplete. Therefore, Christianity was not their enemy, but the crown. In one of his most influential writings The Crown of Hinduism Farquhar states, "In Him [Jesus] is focused every ray of light that shines in Hinduism. He is the Crown of the faith of India." Anyhow, this fulfillment motif has been developing from Farquhar to Pinnock, taking various forms, yet maintaining the essential claim that uniqueness of Jesus Christ is compatible with non-Christian religions.
Pluralism, the most recent paradigm, began emerging by late 1970's and 1980's. The proponents of this perspective came to believe that Christianity is neither normative nor superior to any other religion. The essence of this position was presented in the volume, edited by Paul Knitter and John Hick and entitled The Myth of Christian Uniqueness (1987). Just the title itself tells a lot about how the authors view Christianity in relation to other religions. The message of the gospel is stripped of all her distinctiveness. Moreover, the claims about supremacy of Christ and authority of Scriptures are viewed as presumptuous at best on the part of orthodox Christians. According to proponents of pluralism, salvation - although any other words could be rightly used, for instance liberation, enlightenment, etc. - is present and effective in its own way in each religion. As no culture is superior to other, but unique in its own way, so are religions. Historically and culturally conditioned, they are human expressions of religiosity providing different responses to the same transcendental reality.
The most prominent exponent of pluralism is philosopher of religion John Hick. His model of pluralism tries to (1) make sense of both significant commonalities and differences across the various religious traditions; (2) affirm the various religions as more ore less equally effective ways of responding to the ultimate reality; (3) provide a way to avoid the conclusion that large numbers of sincere and devoted religious believers are simply wrong in their basic beliefs; (4) provide a framework for people of various religions to remain fully committed to their own religion while also accepting that adherents of other religious traditions are equally justified in their respective beliefs. According to Hick within each religion the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness is taking place. Therefore, although Christians can hold that Jesus is unique, it is true just for them. Jesus is not unique or normative in an objective and universal sense. Jesus may be the savior for Christians, just as Allah for Muslims. However, there is no Savior for all peoples. Thus, Hick suggests that it is not possible for one religion to demonstrate that it is true and the others false or that one religion is rationally preferable to other alternatives.
Now after I have given an overview of the three paradigms representing possible explanations on how Christian faith relates to other religions, I would like briefly to state my own position. I definitely espouse the particularistic view. I am deeply convinced that the Bible, if we accept it at face value, leaves no room for either inclusivism or pluralism. I can see the concerns that missionaries like Farquhar had. Unquestionably we need to appreciate cultures and especially people in those cultures that we want to minister to. The lack of sensitivity and sympathy and inability to contextualize the gospel on the part of missionaries has brought much damage to the cause of Christianity. However, these failures are not the occasion to change the essence of the gospel. The quote from famous American fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan in his address titled "The Old Time Religion" seems very suitable here; at Winona Bible Conference in 1911 he said, "...it is better to raise the temperature than to change the thermometer." In my view, learning from the mistakes of the past, we must preserve the commitment to the uniqueness and exclusiveness/particularity of the gospel. The first "you shall not" given by Yahweh to Israel was "you shall have no other gods before me" (Ex 20:3). Is it not absolutely exclusive? Yet, Jesus referred to this commandment as the one of two greatest commandments (Mk 12:28-30). Similarly, Jesus' claim, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me," rules out all other ways of salvation suggested by non-Christian religions (Jn 14:6). Jesus cannot be compared to any other religious figures at least because of two reasons: (1) the incarnation, as presented in the New Testament, finds no parallel concepts in other religions; and (2) his resurrection is unique and without parallel in other religions. Finally, the claims of Jesus about himself should be taken seriously. Perhaps no one put it better than C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of thing Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
As far as the Fulfillment Theme, I agree that it is present in the NT. However, it can be applied only to one religion, namely Judaism. Jesus claimed that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, not to abolish them (Mt 5:17). Paul makes the same point in Gal 3:23; 4:1-7. However, these statements stress the continuity between the OT and NT, but not the compatibility of the gospel with other religions. Hence, if Jesus is the crown, he is not the one of Buddhists but of Jews. The fulfillment theme cannot be taken out to of the NT context and then applied to other religions.
There is not enough space to go into details why I disagree with pluralistic paradigm, suffice it to say that it does not only contradict the biblical teaching, but also has some inherent inadequacies. Hick's model either minimizes the differences among religions, so as to make them look similar, or reinterprets key doctrines from various religions in ways unacceptable to the adherents of those religions themselves. Therefore Hick's model was criticized as being reductionistic not only by Christian thinkers, but also by representatives of other religions.
In conclusion, I think that evangelical commitment to the inerrancy of Scriptures and the Lordship of Jesus Christ should be maintained in such a manner that it does not lead to intolerance of those with whom we disagree. In the words of Netland, "In our increasingly pluralistic societies Christians should take the lead in showing we can both be faithful to Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior for all peoples and work for peace, harmony and mutual respect among adherents of different religions."
Lewis C. S. Mere Christianity. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers. 2001.
Netland, Harold. Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith & Mission. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. 2001.