Jesus Christ the only Way or Multi-Faithism?

In the United Kingdom 60-70 per cent of the population think of themselves as "Christian". Only 3 or 4 per cent think of themselves as belonging to another faith. We are not a "multi-faith" society. But many think we are. And they want "multi-faithism" in our schools, and, yes, some want it in our churches. Why?


At the beginning of the 19th century Schleiermacher, a German liberal theologian, taught that there is reservoir of "world spirituality" that all the religions tap into. Then later, at the turn of the century, the "History of Religions School" of theologians tried not only to map out the religions of the world but to synthesize them. And today, since the nineteen sixties, it has been fashionable, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, to say that God's grace is given through non-Christian religions and even through atheism. Karl Rahner, a famous Roman Catholic theologian, talks about "anonymous Christians" in other religions.

So you now often have a "concentric model" of religions - an idea that has spread from the Roman Catholics, where the Roman Catholic Church forms the centre circle; then a little further out are other Christian churches; beyond that is a circle of other theists; beyond that a circle of various animistic and non-theistic religions; then on the far edge are secularists with no religion at all. It seems so reasonable. But are people to be measured by their "religious" nearness to, or distance from, a "religious" centre? Was the Pharisee or the tax-collector nearer to Jesus? The Pharisee, no doubt could claim a range of religious experiences. He was committed to "fasting" - a tried and tested adjunct of religious experience. But it was the tax-collector who went down to his house "justified".


Raymond Panikkar, another Roman Catholic, has argued that if you are truly tolerant of others, you will not critically evaluate them. But this is to equate tolerance with indifferentism. There is a commonly held but mistaken view that tolerating a belief or a religion is primarily a matter of not making a judgment about the content of that belief. That is not the case. Rather tolerance involves living with something or someone about which you have a negative, or very negative, opinion or negative judgment but without redress to the law. There can be discussion, friendship, and mutual action in non-controversial areas, but not a suspension of opinion or judgment. This is so important. Let me give you a humanist, non-Christian, writer on this very point - Professor Bernard Crick:

Reacting against the religious disputes of the seventeenth century, toleration both as a state policy and an educated attitude began to spread in Britain in the eighteenth century. But let us remember one essential thing about tolerance. It arises because people do differ on fundamental and important things, but wish to limit the practical effect of their differences. Tolerance is not complete acceptance, still less permissiveness; it is modified disapproval.

Fundamental theology

The claim to the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ is a truth claim and, therefore, a question of fact. That is why all claims cannot be right. Here's how one Christian theologian has put matters:

Islam says Jesus wasn't crucified. We say he was. Only one of us can be right. Judaism says Jesus was not the Messiah. We say he was. Only one of us can be right. Hinduism says that God has often been incarnate. We say only once. And we can't both be right. Buddhism says that the world's miseries will end when we do what's right. We say, you can't do what's right: the world's miseries will end when we believe what is right. The fact is that the world's religions may agree about the peripheral matters but they disagree precisely about the most important matters of all. Any intelligent person could decide that all religions are wrong. Any intelligent person could decide that one is right and the rest wrong. But no intelligent person can seriously believe that all religions are essentially the same.

That, of course, is to go against the grain of the modern view. Today we have been conditioned to believe that all truth is relative. What we must fear from absolutism, it is said, is not error but intolerance. So the cardinal virtue is "openness". But you can't be open over what is fact and what is fiction. And the Christian faith is talking about a "gospel" or "good news" - about what God has done in history. Is that fact or fiction? That question cannot be side-lined.

The Old and New Testaments

Let me now spell out five of the theological reasons why faith in Jesus Christ as the only way is incompatible with multi-faithism.

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 didn't think about the possibilities of inter-faith worship. No! "he was greatly distressed" (Acts 17.16) and he ended up trying to convert the Athenians. And 1 Corinthians 8-10 is essential reading for his theology on these matters.

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 Jesus.

Later in the New Testament we read that Cornelius' prayers were heard by God; so Peter concluded that "God accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right" (Acts 10.35). But Cornelius himself said, under divine prompting, that "salvation" required more than those prayers: it required the preaching and the message of Peter (Acts 11.14). Clearly preparation for faith occurs outside the community of the people of God. There was also the Ethiopian eunuch (and many today in the 20th century). 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 "for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4.12). This is not "anonymous Christianity" at all.

General and special revelation: common and saving grace

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" from sin 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 the great danger of ignoring sin, and so the need for redemption, must not obscure the other danger of ignoring God's creative activity.

Traditional categories are helpful here. We must distinguish between "general revelation" that comes, for example, in nature and "special revelation" in Christ and the bible; and between "common grace" that favours all alike - after all God makes his sun to shine and his rain to fall on everyone - and "saving grace" seen supremely in the Cross. Much of the inter-faith confusion, I believe, comes because general revelation is seen to be special and common grace is seen to be saving.

Fourthly, confusion also can come, and a position of uncritical openness adopted, because of the way religion is identified so often 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 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 Christians have taught down the centuries 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 it assumes the recorded remarks of Jesus that his Father seeks "true worshippers" (John 4.23) and so worship should not only be in spirit but also in truth.

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