Sunday, 2 March 2008

Only one Way to God?: Evangelism and the Uniqueness of Christ

Living in a pluralist society is a fairly recent development for those who live in the West: even more so in Northern Ireland. However it was always the case for the early Church. Nowadays one does not need to become a ‘missionary’ to meet people of other faiths. In fact as they have come to our country Christians have more opportunity to build long term relationships with them and show them Christian friendship. This is both a challenge and opportunity to the Church in Northern Ireland.

However postmodern relativism and the Religious pluralism can cause Christians to imagine that Christ is not unique and that somehow all Religions lead to God.
Advocates of such religious pluralism also charge Christians who hold to the historic faith of the Bible as being both religiously intolerant and imperialistic.

One such advocate W. Cantwell Smith states that any kind of Christian exclusivism is ‘morally unacceptable’ if it means ‘we are saved, you are dammed’. He would also reject Jesus is the only incarnation of God or the only Saviour.

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.‘It renounces every claim that Christianity is ‘unique’, ‘definitive’, ‘final.’(Stott)

” 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)

The word exclusive used here is used in a theological sense and is not used in any personal, social or attitudinal sense of excluding others (for God so loved the world).

It is speaking here of exclusive truth namely:

There is one living, personal God who is the creator of all, that is including ourselves. As human beings uniquely of all creatures, we are made in God’s image and are spiritually aware of God and morally accountable to God.

Human beings have rebelled against God in the moral disobedience of sin and are alienated from God in such a radical way that they can not save themselves or know God truly by themselves.

God has taken action to save human beings uniquely through the history of the Old Testament Israel since Abraham, with the intention of bringing blessing to the nations.

Jesus of Nazareth was the unique and final incarnation of God in a single historical human life. He both completed God’s self revelation, and achieved God’s work of salvation on the cross. Through his revelation and ascension God vindicated him as Lord and so he is rightly to be worshipped as such.

Salvation is therefore to be found only in and through Jesus Christ. Adherents of other faiths, in common with all other human beings, are made in the image of God and share in the benefits of general revelation conscience and nature. But other faiths as such can not be ways of salvation, for that is only in Christ.

There is therefore a radical discontinuity between the revelation and salvation of God in Christ and other religions. (‘The Uniqueness of Jesus’ Chris Wright)

This is essentially the conservative evangelical position which was championed in the last century by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth.

Questions to think about.

While is agreed that ‘salvation is through Jesus Christ alone’ does this necessarily mean that ‘salvation is only through actual knowledge of Jesus Christ and conscious faith in him.’?

In this question I am not thinking of those who have rejected Christ but those who have never had the opportunity to hear the message and therefore never had the opportunity to respond.

(1)There are those who argue ‘DEFINITELY NO’.Salvation is only achieved through repentance and faith in Christ. Biblical support is strong: Matt:7.14;John 14.6;Acts 4.2.Rom.10.13-14;1 John 5.12.

It has been argued that if this were not the case the motivation for evangelism would not be strong. This position is sometimes referred to as ‘restrictivism’. Critics of this position sometimes argue that God would not send people to hell just because they haven’t believed in Jesus if they hadn’t even heard of him. In other words it is not THEIR fault that they didn’t believe as no one told them. This argument at first sounds strong. But the Bible clearly teaches that all mankind stand under God’s judgement because of our sinfulness whether we have heard of Christ or not.

It also teaches that not all human beings are as sinful as everyone else. Nevertheless this position holds the view that ‘those who will experience the wrath of God and all that is intended by the Bible’s warnings of hell will do so, not because they did not do(i.e. trust in Jesus) but because of what they did know and nevertheless did (i.e. sin against the light of conscience and knowledge of God available to all. Rom.118.32)

(2)Possibly Yes.
Some evangelical believers hold the view that only through Christ can people be saved but nevertheless those ‘saved’ will possibly be more than those who consciously put their faith in Christ. In other words, there may be some who, though never having heard of Christ’s life and work, turn to God in some sort of repentance and faith.

Arguments put forward include the example of the O.T. saints e.g Abraham ( Gen 15.6 and Rom 4.3) Non-Israelite believers. The widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17.24) Naaman( 2 Kings 5.15-18) Also Noah, Job and Daniel (Ez.14.14,20)
The argument goes that as those above found favour with God before Christ, is it not possible that people living today in the ‘AD world’ though ‘informationally BC’. can have a relationship with God and experience His saving grace.

Another argument used is that of the destiny of children dying in infancy and the mentally defective. Throughout Church history it has been the dominant view that such people will be saved without exercising faith in Christ.
It should be noted that the above arguments do not argue for (1) a universalism in which everyone will be saved (2) Salvation is by sincerity or (3) salvation is found in other religions.

Those who hold this view still affirm that Jesus is the final revelation of God and the sole source of salvation. This view asserts that there will be multitudes of who have never heard the name of Christ will nevertheless be saved by the grace of God.

Grounds for this argument include :
Pagan saints-example of OT saints who were not of Israel should not be regarded as exceptional but rather ‘prototypes’ of the much larger body of people throughout the world who will be saved.

Control texts.- traditional interpretation use ‘control texts’ which emphasise God’s wrath and judgement, and the few that will be saved ( Matt.7.13-14;Rom 1-3;Eph.2.12.However if texts which emphasise the universality of God’s saving love were used ( Jn.12.32;1 Tim2.3-6;4.10; Tit2 .11; 2 Pet.3.9) there would be much greater optimism about salvation for those who have never heard the message. Advocates for this position include Clark Pinnock and John Sanders.

It has been argued that unless the church accepts the Restrictivist view of(1)i.e.those who never hear the gospel are without exception eternally lost, one has no motivation for evangelism. This is not necessarily the case. That God may save others who have never named Christ is really God’s business. As a Church we are commanded to bring the message of salvation to the world and for us it is a question of obedience to that command. If God in his mercy saves others without the Church having brought the message to them it will be a cause of great rejoicing and praise to God for his mercy.
It is not a reason for the Church to diminish the preaching of the Good News.The New Testament is full exhortations to the Good News with the neighbours,whether they live at the other end of the street or the other end of the world.Let our passion be that of Charles Wesley who declared:

I would the precious time redeem,
and longer live for this alone,
to spend and to be spent for them
who have not yet my Savior known;
fully on these my mission prove,
and only breathe, to breathe thy love.


D.A. Carson. The Gagging of God; Christianity Confronts Pluralism.
C. Pinnock. Wideness of God’s mercy: the finality of Jesus Christ in a world of Religions.
Christopher Wright. The Uniqueness of Jesus
John Stott. The Contemporary Christian
Ajith Fernando. Sharing the Truth in Love: How to relate to people of other faiths.
H. Netland Dissonant Voices : Religious Pluralism and the question of truth


Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Only one way to God? Yes…

This was a very long post, but informative and good in bringing up some topics that people should be aware of.

While I agree fully with the idea that there is no salvation outside of Jesus (Y'shua = salvation), I do not agree with Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox fundamentalists that there is no salvation outside their visible church.

I especially liked that scene in the recent film Luther in which the young seminarian Martin Luther challenged professor Andreas Carlstadt on the idea that "outside the holy Roman church, there is no salvation." He started by asking if the saints of the Greek church were therefore damned. Carlstadt tried to tell him he was getting off the point, but Luther insisted, citing one of the canons of a church council, in which it was stated that "there is no salvation outside of Christ," though not necessarily outside the visible church. As I understand my own faith, this is also the position of Greek Orthodoxy today, though not because of any church council (we recognize only the first seven), but because of scripture and pious reason.

C. S. Lewis said the same thing in, I think, Mere Christianity, something to the effect that… (quoting from memory) "we know that salvation is available only through Christ. We don't know that only those who know Him are saved by Him." The reason also why the Eastern Orthodox believe this is that we do not presume to judge what God will or will not do with individuals, because we don't know what is going on invisible to our eyes and ears. We hold by the Bible, no salvation outside of Christ, no religions lead to salvation, least of all non-Christian ones, not even Judaism. So we evangelise at all times and in all places, being all things to all men (as your blog header states) so as to save at least some of them.

What is true, however, is that the number of those saved is probably far less than those who are lost. Thankfully, the exact nature of this election and salvation is hidden from us, lest we become too confident, or too desperate.

Thanks for the good post!

Andrew Kenny said...

Thanks again Romanos for your comments regarding the Eastern Orthodox perspective.I like the quote of C.S.Lewis (who was from my native city) which I wholeheartedly to agree with.Generally, in my opinion fundamentalists limit God's grace too much, while some inclusivists such as Pinnock and Sanders (and pluralists)argue for a 'wideness in God's mercy'that goes further than Scripture warrants.