Relativism or 'no other name'?
How should a Christian respond to people of other faiths? The Bible is clear that all men and women are equal. We are all made in the image and likeness of God. That is why we must respect all of whatever race, gender, social status, age, development or health. So Christians have supported movements for freedom and movements for racial equality.
But are all religions equal? It is fashionable to say so today. To deny it is felt to be prejudiced. All roads lead to God, it is said. The Bible clearly does not agree. Jesus was unambiguous, John 14.6:
'Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."'
And the apostles were unambiguous. Peter said, Acts 4.12:
'Salvation is found in no one else [than Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.'
But relativism is part of the late 20th century's mental furniture. Alan Bloom in his book The Closing of the American Mind writes:
There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.
And he goes on:
If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, 'If you have been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?' they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place.
Matters of fact
It is not surprising, therefore, to find multi-faithism in the Church. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, after a visit to India claimed, 'that other faiths than our own are genuine mansions of the spirit with many rooms to be discovered.' And 'other faiths reveal other aspects of God which may enrich and enlarge our Christian understanding.' For that reason, he said, Christians 'will have to abandon any narrowly conceived Christian apologetic, based on a sense of superiority and an exclusive claim to truth.'
He reported visiting the late Mother Theresa's Home for the Dying in Calcutta: 'I had not realised before,' he said, 'that her hospice is built on temple property - dedicated appropriately enough to the goddess Kali. Here was the love of Christ given and received by men and women of all faiths and of none alongside the goddess who symbolizes a mixture of destruction and fertility.'
Robert Runcie, we have to say, was very wrong in his understanding of 'other faiths'.
First there are issues of fact. For example, was Jesus crucified? Islam says he was not. Christianity (and the clear evidence of history) says he was. They cannot both be right.
Donald McGavran, a former missionary and an authority on 'Church Growth', writes: 'To Christians of the masses in India, the biblical account - that God created one man and one woman and all men are their descendants - is particularly dear. It contrasts sharply with the Hindu account that the great god Brahm created the Brahams from his head, the warrior caste from his shoulders, the merchant castes from his thighs, and the masses from his feet.' There are two fundamentally different conceptions of human nature in those two accounts. They cannot both be right.
But what does the Bible teach directly about other faiths? There are five things to be said.
First, what we read of the world's religions in the Bible is so often negative. When Paul was having an afternoon off in Athens and saw the evidence of other religions in the city, he did not think about the possibilities of inter-faith worship. No! 'His spirit was provoked within him' (Acts 17:16) and he ended up trying to convert the Athenians!
Secondly, of course, God can choose whom he likes to receive his grace. Melchizedek and Jethro in the Old Testament come to mind as two unlikely characters outside the ancient covenant community. But there is no suggestion that their 'religions' could in any way be alternative to the covenant revealed to Abraham and through him to Moses.
In the New Testament the Wise Men received divine guidance, but there is no suggestion that they were saved by their own religion. In fact God brought them to worship the child Jesus.
Later on in the New Testament we read that the prayers of the Gentile Cornelius were heard by God. So Peter concluded that 'in every nation any one who fears [God] and does what is right is acceptable to him' (Acts 10:34). But Cornelius himself said, under divine prompting, that 'salvation' required more than those prayers: it required the preaching and message of Peter (Acts 11:13).
Clearly preparation for faith occurs outside the community of the people of God. There was also the Ethiopian eunuch (and there are many similar people in the modern world). But the fact is that in whatever way God meets with people in other religious (or secular) settings, the Bible gives us no grounds for saying there is full salvation apart from acknowledging Christ. Religions (or secular philosophies) may play a part in helping to identify needs. But there is no salvation except in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12).
Thirdly, we must note that confusion comes through failing to distinguish the Holy Spirit's dual work - in Creation and universal history on the one hand, and in Redemption and salvation history on the other. Ever since the Reformation there has been a tendency in the West to make Redemption everything and to ignore Creation. The result is that God's work then gets assumed to be always and only Redemptive, even when what he is doing is Creative. Of course, he is engaged in redemptive work for, in and with the person of Christ and through the preaching of the Gospel; that is his great work. But we must never ignore his creative activity.
With that background the traditional categories of 'general' and 'special' revelation and 'common' and 'saving' grace are helpful here. General revelation is what God reveals of himself by Creation, in nature and through conscience. Special revelation is God's revelation in Christ and through prophets and apostles (so through the Bible). Common grace includes all the blessings of this life - the sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous, after all. Saving grace is salvation and Redemption through Christ alone.
Much of the inter-faith confusion, surely, comes because general revelation (understood in other religions) is seen to be special and common grace (experienced in other religions) is seen to be saving.
Fourthly, confusion also can come, and a position of uncritical openness adopted, because of the way religion is often identified with culture. We may, indeed, want to affirm elements of another culture that is shaped by a non-Christian religion while at the same time being critical of some (or much) cultural baggage in Western Christianity. That is not the same, however, as affirming the truth of that other system of belief and worship. The bottom line has to be for the Christian that nobody comes to the Father but through Christ (John 14:6).
Fifthly, what we must say is not that God's common grace is never experienced in other religious (or secular) contexts; nor that general revelation is never heeded in other religious (or secular) contexts. But we must assume, nevertheless, the words of Jesus that his Father seeks 'true worshippers' (John 4:23). So worship should not only be in spirit but also in truth. For the Christian believer that will rule out misleading 'inter-faith' worship experiences such as sometimes are forced on children. It should rule out, also, the sort of remarks made by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.
In the current climate of relativism it is suggested that there should only be 'dialogue' with people of other faiths. Some say that in the UK evangelism among our neighbours if they are of other faiths is improper. But, to quote Lesslie Newbigin: 'It is surely a very peculiar form of racism which would affirm that the good news entrusted to us is strictly for white Anglo-Saxons!'