The Uniqueness of Christ | Book Review


Chris Wright opens The Uniqueness of Christ by noting that “the supermarket mentality dominates popular thinking about religion” (12). This reduces religion to a “commodity” and a religionist to a “consumer” (13). Under this mentality, then, religion becomes a consumer product, and as the Latin aphorism puts it, De gustibus non disputandum est.

This mentality creates problems for those religions, such as Christianity, that makes absolute truth claims or require exclusive loyalty. With that in mind, Wright states the guiding question of the book: “So how then can we think clearly about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the midst of the religious supermarket in which we live?” (13).

Chapter 1 outlines different aspects of the meaning of religious pluralism, among other things drawing a distinction between “plurality,” the undeniable sociological fact of diverse religions, and “pluralism,” a controversial interpretation of this fact that relativizes all religions.

Chapters 2–4 survey “three main positions that have been adopted by Christian theologians toward other religions” (35). The first is exclusivism, the view that “if Jesus Christ be uniquely the truth, and the only way of salvation for mankind, then that excludes the possibility of other faiths being true in the same way, or being ways of salvation” (38). The second is inclusivism, the view that “ultimately all truth is God’s truth, wherever it is found. So Christ, who is the Truth, must therefore include all that is true in other faiths” (58). As different as these two positions are, Wright notes, “The one, central, and all-important point that exclusivism and inclusivism have in common is their commitment to the centrality of Jesus Christ” (57).

This commonality sets them apart from pluralism, the third position, which holds that “all religions, including Christianity, are related in some way to this ‘God at the centre’, but none of those religions and none of the ‘gods’ they name and claim, is actually the central place” (73). Wright goes on, “It is the basic assumption of pluralism that no single religious tradition can claim to have or to be ‘the truth’. In fact, there is no absolute truth available to us through any religion. There are only partial understandings which are historically and culturally relative. So a theology of religious pluralism goes along with a philosophy of relativism — i.e., the denial of any absolute truth” (74).

Wright believes that pluralism is contrary to orthodox Christianity. “The shift to pluralism … requires either a complete surrender of the uniqueness of Christ, or such a radical redefinition of it that it loses all value” (72). He ends the chapter on pluralism (chapter 4) with this warning: “At best, ‘Christ’ becomes so universal as to be of no real value except as a symbol. At worst, he is exposed as an idol for those who worship him, and as dispensable for those who don’t” (85).

Chapters 5–6 turn to the Bible to help readers “think more clearly about the question of the uniqueness of Jesus” (87). (Wright is a British evangelical, and The Uniqueness of Christ was written with evangelical readers in mind.)

Chapter 5 explores what the Bible in toto says about the Jesus. It argues “first, that the Bible presents us with a radical and comprehensive understanding of the sinful predicament of the human race. It thus prepares us to appreciate what salvation has to be and that only God can save us. In the face of such depth, to talk of Jesus as merely one among any number of ‘saving points of contact with God’ seems an altogether trivial account of his significance” (104). Wright goes on to summarize the biblical data this way: “In Jesus, then, the uniqueness of Israel and the uniqueness of Yahweh flow together for he embodied the one and he incarnated the other. So he shares and fulfils the identity and the mission of both” (105). On this reading of the Bible, pluralism is a nonstarter.

Chapter 6 surveys the biblical narrative to determine what the Bible says about human religions. Wright concludes: “Religion like all things human, has good and bad dimensions, but is never portrayed in the Bible as the means of salvation. The Bible is concerned about people and God, and about the need for the nations to recognise who the true and saving God really is — revealed as Yahweh in the Old Testament and in Jesus Christ in the New Testament. It shows us that God can and does speak to people within the framework of religious understanding that they already have. But this is not in order to endorse that prior religion, but to lead beyond it to the fullness of revelation and salvation in Christ” (139).

Wright concludes The Uniqueness of Christ by exhorting evangelical Christians to do three things: “to clarify our thinkingabout the truth … . We need to strengthen our contending for the truth. And we need to renew our living of the truth” (143). If religion is a matter of truth rather than merely of consumer choice, something like Wright’s position is the only available option for evangelical Christians.

If Christ is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6), then Christians should be able to demonstrate and defend this, with this caveat: “There is little point proclaiming how the gospel is true if people cannot see that it works. The fact of our contemporary western world is that for many people Christianity is not so much regarded as untrue (in the sense that they have considered its claims and rejected them for rational reasons), as simply implausible” (149). For that reason, “the church should be the ‘plausibility structure’ for the truth of the gospel” (idem).

If contemporary Westerners reject the truth of Christianity, in other words, it may because too few Christians live out the truth in their own lives.

Book Reviewed
Chris Wright, The Uniqueness of Christ (London: Monarch Books, 2001).

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The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Here are ten religious posts that caught my eye today:

Lee Strobel discusses how Easter killed his faith in atheism. If you’re interested in the topic, check out N. T. Wright’s exhaustive study, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which—at 740 pages is not merely exhaustive but exhausting…to hold, anyway. Or read Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which is 22 pages shorter.

President Obama hosted an Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House, and a reporter can’t help but note a political angle (in the penultimate paragraph). Personally, I cheer the president’s statement of faith. Raspberries on his politics, though.

Did the Last Supper occur on Thursday or Wednesday? I wouldn’t mind a few New Testament scholars weighing in with their evaluations…

Walter Russell Mead on how Christian faith matters in a world where the pace and intensity of change is so unsettling.

If capital punishment is a sin, is God a sinner (Genesis 9:6)?

Edward O. Wilson and other evolutionary biologists are having a fight about the origin of altruism, specifically, whether group selection or kin selection best explains its origin. Interestingly, forty years ago, Wilson promoted kin selection as the best explanation. For me, this argument demonstrates how difficult it is to overturn scholarly consensus.

The Barna Group reports on what Americans believe about universalism and pluralism.

Historian John Fea is halfway through a four part series on “the Civil War as a battle between two ‘Christian’ nations”: Part 1 is “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible.” Part 2 is “God’s Judgment Upon the South.” Fea is author of Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? Mark Noll has an excellent book on the Civil War you might want to read if you like Fea’s series: The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Ben Witherington posting a chapter-by-chapter critique of Bart Ehrman’s book, Forged: Writings in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are: Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter2 , Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, and Chapters 7 and 8.  I’m reading the book too and hope to have a (much shorter) review up in the next few weeks.

James Hannam argues that science and Christianity can get on better than you think. I always thought they can get along just fine, but evidently there are some atheists who think otherwise. Hannam is author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, which I’m also reading and hoping to review in the near future.

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