An Introduction to the Theology of Religions | Book Review

The world into which Christianity was born was a religiously plural one, and the world in which Christians now live continues to be so. Although various religions exhibit similarities to one degree or another, they also embody deep differences about the authoritative sources of knowledge and the nature and means of salvation. How should Christian theologians make sense of these similarities and differences?

Answering that question is the task of the theology of religions, which Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen defines in this way:

Theology of religions is that discipline of theological studies which attempts to account theologically for the meaning and value of other religions. Christian theology of religions attempts to think theologically about what it means for Christians to live with people of other faiths and about the relationship of Christianity to other religions (20).

While Kärkkäinen notes that “in principle,” non-Christian religions could develop a theology of religions specific to their own beliefs and practices, as of 2003, little work had been done in this field by those religions. Instead, he writes, “Christian theology of religions is by far the most developed type of theology of religions” (21).

An Introduction to the Theology of Religions thus surveys Christian assessments of other religions in the Bible and across two millennia of church history. It focuses its attention most on the assessments of churches and individual theologians in the twentieth century. Kärkkäinen’s survey unfolds in four parts: (1) biblical perspectives, (2) historical developments, (3) current ecclesiastical approaches, and (4) current interpretations by individual theologians.

The book has three virtues: scope, depth, and typology.

Scope: The book sketches how Christian churches and individual theologians have evaluated the plurality of religions from the biblical period to the present day. This results in a typology, discussed below, that shows how theological arguments and themes recur throughout the centuries.

Depth: The bulk of the book focuses on ecclesiastical statements and individual theologians in the twentieth century, especially the latter. Part Three goes into detail about official documents from the Roman Catholic Church, the worldwide Anglican communion, mainline Protestantism, the Free Churches and the evangelical movement (between which there is a large degree of overlap), and the ecumenical movement, devoting a chapter to each. Part Four considers the writings of 21 individual theologians, again devoting a chapter to each. All the theologians are male, and most are white and Western.

Typology: Kärkkäinen develops a fourfold typology that he hopes to replace the conventional one. The conventional typology characterizes theologies of religions as exclusivist, inclusivist, or pluralist. It was developed by an advocate of pluralism, and advocates of exclusivism especially feel that it is tendentious and denigratory of their position. In its place, Kärkkäinen typifies theologies of religions as ecclesiocentric, Christocentric, theocentric, and realitycentric. He then correlates this fourfold typology with the conventional one, defining each type:

  1. Ecclesiocentrism. This is the exclusive attitude, according to which religions are not salvific or even necessarily conducive to the search for God, and salvation can be found only in the Christian church, the locus of faith in Christ.
  2. Christocentrism. This is the inclusive approach, according to which Christ is the Savior but the benefits of his saving work may be found outside the Christian church and Christian religion. However, whoever is saved is only saved through the work of Christ.
  3. Theocentrism. This is the pluralistic paradigm, according to which Christ is one savior among other savior figures and not an exclusive one. In this view, God alone stands at the center. The various religions, Christianity included, represent many ways leading to God.
  4. Realitycentrism. This is yet another step from theocentrism, the route taken recently by [John] Hick, among others, according to which the center of religions is not a God or gods but an ultimate reality (however that is named). Some extreme pluralists seem to shift to this orientation, but at this moment the shape and content of this option are still quite vague and undefined (25).

Following the survey of historical developments in Part Two, Kärkkäinen concludes that exclusivism and inclusivism best typify Christian responses throughout history. He writes:

To set the record straight: there have not been (at least to my knowledge) any self-pronounced “pluralists” among Christian theologians before the time of the Enlightenment—even universalists such as Origen attributed the salvation of all to the purposes of the Christian God, the only God. But neither is it the case that a more inclusivist attitude has not existed all through the history (107).

Later, he notes that these positions are prevalent among very different audiences:

Interestingly, numerically there are two giants among ecclesiastical opinions: the Roman Catholic Church’s inclusivism and the quite exclusivistic stance held by evangelical, Pentecostal/Charismatic and (other) independent churches. Pluralism governs the academy, but in the pews these two other views predominate (160).

Notice in these quotations that Kärkkäinen reverts to the conventional typology. This happens throughout the book. Although his fourfold “-centrism” typology has many strengths, it seems that that the conventional typology remains the standard way of describing the various theological positions, both at the time of the book’s publication and today, 17 years later.

Nevertheless, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions is to my knowledge the best overall introduction to this topic, so I recommend it to interested readers.

Book Reviewed
Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

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Only One Way? | Book Review

Gavin D’ Costa, Paul Knitter, and Daniel Strange compare and contrast three models of how Christianity relates to other world religions in their book Only One Way? D’ Costa is a Catholic theologian and outlines the formal position of the Catholic church, which is inclusivism. Knitter also is a Catholic theologian teaching at a mainline Protestant seminary and presents a model common among liberal theologians, whether Catholic or Protestant: pluralism. Daniel Strange is a Reformed theologian with a Dutch Calvinist bent a model typically called exclusivism, though he rejects that label as denigratory.

D’ Costa summarizes the inclusivist theology of the Catholic church this way:

God through Christ is the cause of all salvation and the Church is Christ’s body on earth, the means by which all grace is mediated. How this grace might be meditated to those outside the Church is an area that is not defined or resolved, but that this grace is mediated to those outside the Church is a certainty. Catholics can be confident that non-Christians might be saved which is the solemn dogmatic teaching on this matter (22).

Knitter does not provide as concise a summary of his model of pluralism, but he outlines three assumptions that shape his thinking, all of which together lead to a denial of the uniqueness of Christianity vis-à-vis other religions. Essentially, then, he argues that different religions can be both revelatory and salvific.

Knitter’s three assumptions concern “how theology works,” “the role of language in theology,” and “two of the most challenging issues that confront Christian faith and life today” (47). For him, theology is “a mutually clarifying and a mutually criticizing conversation between Christian experience and beliefs on the one side and ongoing human experience and understanding of self and the world on the other side” (47–48). Regarding religious language, he believes that “all ‘God talk’ is symbolic” (49); consequently, “if all our words are symbols, then, in general, they should not be taken literally” (50). Finally, he identifies the need for interreligious cooperation and the alleviation of poverty, together with environmental protection, as the most challenging. He says these issues shape “the two criteria by which I will evaluate whether a Christian theology is both meaningful for our contemporary world and faithful to the message of Jesus: is it liberative [poverty/environmentalism] and is it dialogical [interreligious cooperation]?” (51).

Reflecting especially the influence of Dutch Calvinist theologians J. H. Bavinck, Cornelius Van Til, Strange offers this definition of his model:

… from the presuppositions of an epistemologically authoritative biblical revelation (itself presupposed on the self-contained ontological triune God who speaks authoritatively), I will argue that non-Christian religions are essentially an idolatrous refashioning of divine revelation, which are antithetical and yet parasitic on Christian truth, and of which the gospel of Jesus Christ is the ‘subversive fulfillment’ (93).

Strange goes on to advocate as “a holistic, transformative or integral approach to mission that recognizes, on the one hand, the spiritual and social dimensions of sin and idolatry and, on the other,, the scope of the gospel and its entailments to transform individuals, communities and cultures, spiritually, socially, economically, politically, and so on” (132).

Regarding evangelism specifically, he writes: “Given that eternal life is only to be found in the gospel of Christ, and that normatively this comes through the human messenger in this life, in terms of missionary activity, we must speak about the ultimacy of evangelism, that is, the verbal proclamation of the gospel message with the call for faith and repentance in Christ” (134).

Only One Way? unfolds in three parts: In Part 1, each author presents a “position paper” that outlines how his model treats the standard theological loci: “philosophical presuppositions, theological presuppositions, creation, fall, God, Christ, Trinity, salvation, eschaton, dialogue, social justice, and mission” (v). In Part 2, each author responses to the other two authors’ position paper. Finally, in Part 3, each author evaluates the other two authors’ responses. This format allows readers to see how the three models are similar and dissimilar, as well as to evaluate how each model holds up under criticism.

Interestingly, though the Catholic D’ Costa and the Calvinist Strange disagree (sometimes strongly) on various issues, they seem to hold more in common with one another than either holds with Knitter, even though both D’ Costa and Knitter are Catholic. Knitter himself recognizes this, writing: “if we line the three of us up on the spectrum that represents the Christian churches nowadays – with the liberal one on the left, the conservative Dan on the right, and the mainline Gavin in the middle – then it seems to me that the ‘middle’ is much closer to the right than to the left” (199).

The overall benefit of this book is that it shows how different Christian theologies of religion arise from different theological methods and philosophical assumptions. Tradition plays a significant role for D ‘Costa, human experience for Knitter, and biblical revelation for Strange, though to some degree, each author incorporates tradition, experience, and revelation into their argument. The fact that Knitter recognizes his distance from D’ Costa and Strange may point to the conclusion that in reality there are just two positions in a Christian theology of religions, one that recognizes the ultimacy of Christ, and one that does not.

The question on my mind as I turned the last page of this book was whether, in the end, the denial of Christ’s ultimacy even qualifies as a Christian theology. At the very least, it seemed to me to be a theology on the way out the door of the Christian house.

Book Reviewed
Gavin D’ Costa, Paul Knitter, and Daniel Strange, Only One Way? Three Christian Responses on the Uniqueness of Christ in a Religiously Plural World (London: SCM Press, 2011).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

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