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Shifting Perspectives on Other Religions

Harold Netland


For the first time since the Constantine victory in A.D. 312 and its consequences, the Christian Church is heading towards a real and spiritual encounter with the great non-Christian religions. Not only because the so-called younger churches, the fruits of the work of modern missions, live in the midst of them, but also because the fast growing interdependence of the whole world forces the existence and vitality of these religions upon us, and makes them a challenge to the Church to manifest in new terms its spiritual and intellectual integrity and value.

HENDRIK KRAEMER, Religion and the Christian Faith

The half century since Kraemer penned those words has demonstrated the prescience of his observation. Few issues have been as prominent or controversial in recent Christian theological or missiological discourse as the question of the relation of Christianity to non-Christian religious traditions. Since the 1980s there has been an enormous increase, both in volume and in sophistication of discussion, in the theological literature on religious pluralism. In part this is due to the growing exposure in the West to other religions. Our awareness of “religious others” has never been more acute than it is today, forcing the church to deal with new and troubling questions that pose formidable challenges to traditional Christian beliefs and practices.1 Canon Max Warren, for twenty-one years general secretary of the Church Missionary Society and a major missiological figure in Britain in the mid-twentieth century, correctly perceived the seriousness of the issues when in an address in 1958 he claimed that the impact of agnostic science upon Christianity will turn out to have been mere “child’s play” when compared to the challenge presented by non-Christian religions.2 Writing almost forty years later, Gerald Anderson, one of the most astute observers of missions today, observed, “No issue in missiology is more important, more difficult, more controversial, or more divisive for the days ahead than the theology of religions. . . . This is the theological issue for mission in the 1990s and into the twenty-first century.”3

Although the reasons for the recent prominence of religious pluralism as an issue for the church are varied and complex, it seems clear that more open perspectives on other religions are directly related both to increased exposure to religious diversity and to the cumulative effect of the social and intellectual forces of modernity that tend to undermine confidence in traditional beliefs. The increasingly pervasive exposure in the West to cultural and religious diversity, combined with the erosion of confidence in orthodox Christianity engendered by profound social and intellectual transformations, help to explain the current attraction of pluralistic views on Christianity and other religions. Chapters two through four will explore some of these factors underlying recent shifts in perspectives on other religions, but in this chapter we will first consider the nature of these changes over the past several centuries.

The Traditional Position

Christians have traditionally maintained that God has revealed himself in a unique manner in the Scriptures and preeminently in the incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth, and that sinful humankind can be reconciled to God only through the sinless person and atoning work of Jesus Christ, the one Lord and Savior for all people in all cultures. Allowing for certain distinctives of time and theological tradition, it is safe to say that this has been a central tenet of Christian orthodoxy throughout the past twenty centuries. Accordingly, in the early modern era other religions were egarded by Western Christians largely in negative terms as idolatrous “domains of darkness,” and adherents of other religions were thought of as “the heathen” who were “spiritually lost” and in desperate need of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.

The dominance of this perspective is certainly understandable, for its roots (if not the rather unflattering language in which it has sometimes been expressed) are firmly embedded in the New Testament and the practice of the early church. The first Christians were uncompromising monotheists who believed that the one eternal God had decisively revealed himself through the long-awaited Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Salvation was available to all—Jews and Gentiles alike—because of God’s work on our behalf through Jesus Christ. Moreover, apostolic preaching insisted that salvation was possible only through Jesus Christ. Not surprisingly, then, alternative religious practices and beliefs were largely rejected as idolatrous, and the early church held a consistently critical posture toward the religious practices and beliefs of Hellenistic paganism.4

It is tempting to assume that the perplexing problems of religious pluralism we face today are unprecedented, but nothing could be further from the truth.5 The world of the New Testament was characterized by social, intellectual and religious ferment. Traditional Jewish religious values and beliefs were being challenged by powerful competing forces within the Hellenistic-Roman world. Even within Palestine itself, Jews were confronted with alien beliefs and practices. The many Jews in the Diaspora, scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, were forced to come to grips with the relation between their traditional Jewish religious and cultural heritage and the invigorating intellectual and religious currents from Greece and Rome. Not only did they face the formidable challenge presented by Greek philosophy and literature but also they had to contend with the many popular religious movements of the day—the cults of Asclepius and Artemis-Diana, the “mystery religions” of Osiris and Isis, Mithras, Adonis and Eleusis, the ubiquitous cult of the Roman emperor and the many popularized versions of Stoicism, Cynicism and Epicureanism.6

John Ferguson observes that the attitudes of many in the Roman Empire in the first century were marked by tolerance of alien religious beliefs and practices, accommodation and syncretism.7 The idea that there are multiple ways in which to relate to the divine, with each culture having its own distinctive traditions for doing so, was widespread.8 The outstanding exceptions to this general pattern were the Jews and the early Christians, for the strict monotheism of Jews and Christians allowed no room for accommodation with the polytheistic traditions of Hellenism and Roman religion. Initially little more than a small minority movement within the Empire, the early Christians faced hostility on all sides. They were attacked by Jews as heretics, persecuted by Rome as a seditious movement, resisted by the masses for their rejection of the popular cults and mystery religions, and ridiculed by the philosophers for their seemingly crude views.9 It was within this environment that Christians uncompromisingly proclaimed Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior for all peoples.

Although there were always those who accepted more accommodating views, it can hardly be denied that the traditional perspective—which regarded Christianity as the only true religion and Jesus Christ as the only Savior—remained dominant within both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches until the nineteenth century. This view prompted the emerging missionary movements of the Catholic and Protestant communities.

Throughout the Middle Ages it was the firm conviction of Catholics that those outside the church were eternally damned—a stance that has been associated with the formula extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church no salvation).10 Introduced by Cyprian in the third century and formalized at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the doctrine was given its most explicit and rigid expression by the Council of Florence in 1442:


[The Council] firmly believes, professes and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, cannot participate in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels”, unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock. . . . [N]o one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.11

Jacques Dupuis reminds us, however, that the primary target of the formula was Jews, heretics and others who were held to be culpable because, having been exposed to the church’s teaching, they had willfully rejected it.12

Protestants maintained that those apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ were forever lost, and it was this assumption that drove early missionaries to bring the gospel of Christ to the remote peoples of China, Africa, Latin America and the islands of the Pacific. Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China, vividly expressed this perspective in his challenge to the Student Volunteer Movement in Detroit in 1894: “There is a great Niagara of souls passing into the dark in China. Every day, every week, every month they are passing away! A million a month in China they are dying without God.”13 One simply cannot understand the remarkable Protestant missionary effort of the nineteenth century, including the work of missionary pioneers such as William Carey, Adoniram Judson, David Livingstone and Hudson Taylor, without appreciating the premise underlying their efforts: salvation is to be found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and those who die without the saving gospel of Christ face an eternity apart from God.

Early Modern Missions and Religious Others

One might have the impression from current discussions of pluralism that it was Western theologians in the mid-twentieth century who first discovered the problem of Christianity and other religions. In reality, of course, questions about other religions have been prominent among missionaries since the early nineteenth century, with many of the perspectives adopted by theologians today having been anticipated in earlier missiological discussions.

Although he was not the first Protestant missionary, the modern missionary movement is often regarded as beginning with William Carey in India. At a time when many were convinced that Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:19 to “make disciples of all nations” had already been fulfilled by the apostles and thus was no longer applicable, Carey challenged the theological establishment in 1792 by arguing that Christ’s command had not been fulfilled and that it was still binding upon the church.14 Within several decades numerous missions societies were formed and large numbers of European missionaries spread throughout Asia and Africa, carrying the gospel to those still apart from Christ. The sentiments associated with early missionary endeavors are captured in the comments of missions advocate George Burder at the 1795 inaugural meeting of the Missionary Society (later to become the London Missionary Society):


I stand up as the advocate of thousands, of millions of souls, perishing for lack of knowledge. I stand up to plead the cause of Christ, too, too long neglected by us all—to plead the cause of the poor benighted heathen—to lay before you their miserable state—to convey to your ears and hearts the cry of their wretchedness—O that it may penetrate your souls—“Come over—Come over, and help us”.15

As the West increasingly became aware of the large numbers of those who had never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, there was an outpouring of concern for the salvation of the “heathen,” with thousands committing their lives to the foreign mission field. Trying to discern the motives of others is always a perilous enterprise, and undoubtedly missionaries in the nineteenth century—just as Christians today—were prompted by a variety of motives, some more admirable than others. Nevertheless, David Bosch is surely correct in his assessment that “a primary motive of most missionaries was a genuine feeling of concern for others; they knew that the love of God had been shed abroad in their hearts and they were willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of him who had died for them.”16 Remarkable men such as A. T. Pierson, John R. Mott, Robert Wilder, A. B. Simpson, C. I. Scofield, Robert Speer, T. J. Bach and D. L. Moody inspired generations of missions leaders and practitioners.

In spite of differences on more minor matters, there was a general consensus within Protestant missions on basic theological and strategic issues until the eruption of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920s and 1930s. James Patterson notes that, prior to the controversies, most Protestant missionaries would have accepted the statement in 1920 from the Board of F