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A Simple Theology of Religions
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Q uestion: How does one believe in the exclusivist claims of the gospel and at the same time accept the people of other faiths, knowing there is judgment, along with a responsibility to share one's faith?

Answer:  There is a distinction between what I know (or think I know) from biblical revelation, or more accurately from my exposure to one particular form of historical-cultural Christianity, and what is ultimately true.  There is a difference between ultimate truth (which only the Ultimate can know) and what I know (or can know) as a finite creature.

I find that the institutional form of "Christianity" is even farther distant from "absolute truth," which I consider God alone has.  This is due to the cultural factors involving development of institutional structures, and gradual changes over the cecnturies.  This is complicated by the fact that the institutional expressions of Christinity as sa religion vary from culture to culture according to the cultural history of that people or region.

A perspective from which we may begin to answer your question rests on 4 pillars:
Epistemology (how we learn and know)
God's Sovereignty
Judgement or Accountability

A look at these factors will enable us to develop a practical approach to the problem.

Knowledge and Sources of Theology
What is called Epistemology is the first pillar of our answer.  Part of my faith confession is to admit that I am finite, and limited in both knowledge and understanding. Especially from Biblical faith, I learn not to trust my system of faith, that is, the doctrines or propositions which are intended to express my faith. Some people confuse their belief system with ultimate truth.

"Doctrines," as we now use the word, actually are rational formulations, generalizations based on reflection upon 
(1) experience, both corporate and individual
(2) tradition, the particular form of Christian institutional and communal expression of belief,
(3) reason, the use of "common sense" or more formal logic to reflect upon the faith and determine how faith addresses life in a particular society (Our reasoning is culturally determined, with the reflections arising out of the particular geography, culture, society problems, etc.), and
(4) revelation, basically the Biblical testimony.

This 4-cornered formulation is from John Wesley, and I have found no better way to analyze the sources of our faith or theology.  (Sources are not the same as authority).

Admitting this, a theology (particular systematic statement of faith and doctrine) can never be absolute, but can be understood in positive value in terms of incarnation (enculturation), with theologies and statements of faith arising out of cultural communities of faith.

God's Sovereignty
The sovereignty of God is the next major pillar. God is not limited by my cultural and other human limitations, so is free to choose whatever ways he wishes to reveal himself to other people outside the historical-cultural-geographical stream I have had benefit of.

Thus they are not judged for their lack of opportunity (knowledge of the specific Judaic tradition and historical Christian formal religion) but by how they respond to God as it is possible for them to know Him in their context.  Likewise they are not responsible for the limiting characteristics of culture through which Christianity has developed in Western history and in which it exists in modern America.

Paul deals with this in Romans 2, where he states that many are fulfilling the law without ever having heard of the law, responding to the light they have received.  Others have the law but have failed to follow it in terms of intent and are therefore judged as unworthy (unsaved).  God is free and able to relate to any and every individual in His creation whether I know them or not, and whether they have had the benefit of the Judaic stream of revelation or not.

There is nothing in Biblical teaching that indicates that God limited Himself to what the Jews knew or what was recorded in the Bible.  More specifically there are many references to the fact that God does things differently than we do.  The fact that Jesus told his disciples that God allowed some things in the Law of Moses that were specifically not his will, but that He did it for accommodation, should be sufficient to indicate that there are many ways in which God can reveal himself as Truth and Love, as well as Judge and Lord.

Testimony (Witness)
The next major pillar is testimony, which you raise in your question.  I am fully responsible for whatever "light" I have had benefit of.  I am responsible to be faithful to that insight, guidance, faith, doctrine, and experience which I know.  If I am unfaithful to that, I am judged.  But I can faithfully testify (not argue or convince, but testify/witness to) what I know in terms of the human limits of culture and understanding that I have experienced.  

My limited experience and my faithfulness to witness to what I understand in terms of how I have learned and experienced it in no way needs to be a judgement binding God in his relationship with anyone I witness to.  In this regard, the old question about making people lost by going to tell them for the first time about Jesus is a stupid misconception, which attempts to deal with God's sovereignty in terms of our human ignorance!

Judgement (Accountability)
Arising out of these then is judgement — my judgement (as an overt Christian believer witnessing to my specific and limited awareness in the historic faith revelation stream) and another's (who is devout and a serious seeker of truth, but outside any access, or varying degrees of access to my faith revelation stream).

Believers (of whatever background) have something in common; unbelievers (of whatever background) have something in common.  Each of us is accountable for how we respond to what we understand from the opportunities we have.

I take Paul to be saying in Romans 2 that the believer will respond — as well as he can, but always positively — to the truth; while the unbeliever will always reject truth.  The category of response between believer and unbeliever does not deal so much with specific knowledge, as with faith .  It is faith which saves us (sola gratia), not knowledge (gnosticism).  "Lord I believe; help my unbelief."

Intent and Response
Thus God will be responsible and competent to judge intent and response, in whatever situation He alone is able to relate to each individual ever in history or geography, knowledge or ignorance, youth or age.

When I was saved (converted, initially made my personal faith-commitment to Jesus), I did not know much theology (at age 6), but I could believe (trust, accept, commit).  I believe that is what God honored, not my level of knowledge.

Likewise people in other faiths can follow Christ, in intent and character, as they respond to the level of light available to them. Rather than diminishing my personal opportunity and duty to witness to them of my own faith experience and understanding, it necessitates it.  Membership in a religion is not the focus of Christian faith, but trusting in Jesus Christ.

I meet them with what I think it is appropriate to claim as a superior awareness of God's character and intention, and a perhaps more complete experience of Him spiritually (after all, we claim the Holy Spirit lives in us, and we grow more in the Sprit as we learn more and commit more).  I testify lovingly to what I know, offering them an opportunity to consider it and compare it to what they know and believe already.

They May not Believe 
As a communicator, of course, I am aware that the intent of my witness may not actually be fulfilled, because I may not understand enough about their background to put what I feel, believe and know into terms that will be immediately sensible to them.

Further, no matter how careful I am, I can not be sure that their limitations of experience, culture and doctrine will enable them to really hear what I am saying.  They may hear something else and reject that, without rejecting what I have in my heart and am trying poorly to explain.

God knows how they respond, and how faithful I am.  I as a sinful believer meet that person as another human confessing frailty but showing divine love in an attempt to make sense of our disparate experiences.

For the seeker-believer, it is my contention that to the extent they understand my witness, they will respond, since they are believers and want to believe all of the truth.  For the unbeliever (the sinner, the rebel) they will NOT believe, no matter how clear or accurate I can make it, because they are unbelievers.  God knows who come with a pure heart and who with a contentious one.

"But by Me"
I would understand the Johannine statement "No man comes to the Father but by me," — in light of the other Biblical portions like those I have referred to — to also be correctly exegeted as "Any man who has come to the Father, has come by Me."

After all, John and Paul before him even moreso, teaches that Jesus is the Christ, the universal creator Spirit-Word of God, not a simple historical figure!  It is as Christ that the Jesus we know becomes Savior, and thereby participates in the Ultimate Sovereignty and Lordship of God the Creator/Father.

Thus you can, on strong Trinitarian grounds, defend the Universality of the Gospel and the transcultural nature and variety of expressions of the Gospel.  It is after all, "Good News."

Thus in each culture, language, place, and time, what sounds like "good news" to that particular people group by the very nature of Christian faith, must be different.  The proposition can also defended without recourse to the doctrine of the Trinity (for those who have trouble with that, such as Unitarians or Muslims).

How Different?
The final question would be to what degree can it be different and still be identifiable as the same thing.  But here again we return to Epistemology.  How do I (in my limited knowledge, time, place) know how to judge?

Well, it is part of my human confession of sin (inadequacy, disobedience and unbelief) to specifically admit that I cannot judge.   Judgement is God's business.  I can, however, make comparisons to what I know and to faith as I know it.   In fact, I will make comparisons, whether I think about it or not.  Actually, I will  probably do it more if I do not think about it.  It is a natural operation of human minds.

This might draw lines of cooperation and participation between human individuals and communities.  A necessary part of our humanity — to be confessed, as well as celebrated.  After all, Who made us that way?!  None other than Himself — thus being human and not knowing can't be bad.

It is the way God made us.  The sin of absolutism (fundamentalism, gnosticism) is rebellious at base, since it rejects God's unique sovereign role as the only Ultimate knower (the only knower of Absolute Truth).

The Answer
So here is the answer: stop trying to fulfill the role of God in deciding who is and who is not "saved" and be ever more diligent to witness to salvation as we know it, so everyone can indeed have the greatest opportunity to hear and understand the Ultimate News of God's love.  To understand how important it is to repent and believe in God, and to see Him as He revealed Himself to us in Jesus, in what can be claimed as a unique and ultimate expression of truth and love, and the epitome of God in character and intent.

That resolves for me what many people have seen as a dilemma.  Faith is faith as God sees it.  Not belief in certain rational doctrines, but saving faith is repentant faith of the sinner seeking reconciliation and seeking to know more and understand better who God is and to be more of what He wants us to be.  My reference point is the words of Jesus.

Related Articles
[review] Eastern Focus, Western Comment
[TXT] The Exclusively Inclusive Gospel
[TXT] Names of God and Words for God:
         Thoughts on Beliefs and Usages
[TXT] Relationships Between the Religions
[TXT] What about the people who were born before Christ?
[review] When They Haven't Heard
[Review] Saved without the Overt Gospel? — A Deep Analysis

For further Reading
The following are books I recommend on this topic.  Links are provided to reviews of some on this site.  I have also written reviews of some on this site or Amazon.Com

Achtemeier, Paul J. and Elizabeth.  The Old Testament Roots of our Faith.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1981.  158p.
Cobb, John B., Jr.  Christ in a Pluralistic Age.  Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1975.  287p.
Erickson, Millard J.  How Shall They Be Saved?  (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1996.  278p.)
Fernandez Olmos, Margarite and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert.  Creole Religions of the Caribbean:  An Introduction to Obeah and Espiritismo.  NY:  NY University Press, 2003.  251p.
Grant, Robert M.  Gods and the One God.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1986.  211p.
Moule, C F D.  The Origin of Christology.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1977.  176p.
Ogden, Schubert M.  The Point of Christology.  Cambridge:  Harper and Row, 1982.  191p.
Piper, John.  Let the Nations Be Glad:  The Supremacy of God in Missions.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 1993.  240p.
Tiessen, Terrance L.  Who Can Be Saved?:  Reassessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions.  Downers Grove, Illinois:  InterVarsity Press, 2004.  511p.
Spong, John Shelby.  Liberating the Gospels:  Reading the Gospels with Jewish Eyes.  San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1997.  365p.


Written December 1996 based on an email exchange
First posted April 2001
Revised 6 May 2006
Last edited 19 November 2008

Copyright © 2001, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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