Classical theology of religions perspectives

Alan Race’s Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in Christian Theology of Religions (SCM, 1983, repr. 1993) and others such as John Hicks and Jacques Dupuis have summarized three customary Christian receptions of other faiths. The introduction hereafter is limited to the truth of salvation, even though many more interweaving themes of faith and practice may be shown about each perspective.

Neither my book, nor this eighth chapter, is a monograph centered primarily on theology of religions, so I will limit my treatment to a short review instead of examining the theological rationale, explanation, and critique of each perspective. I will not juxtapose Race’s classical taxonomy with expanded taxonomies in the market. Learners may want to follow up with Paul F. Knitter, who proposes four models: replacement, fulfillment, mutuality, and acceptance (in Introducing Theologies of Religions, Orbis Books, 2002, 8th repr. 2008), and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, who suggests six approaches: classical ecclesiocentrism, christocentr-ism 1, christocentrism 2, christocentrism 3, theocentrism, and contemporary evangelical ecclesiocentrism (in An Introduction to the Theology of Religions, IVP Academic, 2003, Part 4, 16.5—352).

1 am aware that some would prefer to totally discard this older taxonomy. In my defense, I would register that in Henning Wrogemann’s Intercultural Theology, Vol. 3, A Theology of Interreligious Relations (trans. Karl E. Böhmer), even after

Truth and religious pluralism 131 having pronounced the “obituary” for the classification of the three classical theologies of religions (IVP Academic, 2019, 14-21), his reclassification of newer proposals in his Part 1, albeit named differently, could not avoid discussing the older theology of religions paradigm before he proposed an interdisciplinary theory and theology of dialogical interreligious relations. In his reclassification, the models are called, revisioning Hicks and Knitter, interpreting Brück and Heim, comparative-interpreting Clooney, and interacting with Yong along six heuristic theological loci inquiries (cf. Wrogemann, Parts III to V).


In this category, and at its most extreme version, adherents are convinced that no revelation exists outside of Christianity. Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, has been revealed as the only way to salvation. Christ alone is the way to God the Father, and He alone is the truth and the life. Christians in this camp embrace an exclusivistic theology of religion. All other religions may teach good morals, but eternal salvation is not available or attainable through all other religions. And though Christ’s gracious and unmerited gift of salvation has been extended to all peoples, only those who renounce self, repent of their sin (and sinfulness) and submit to the lordship of Christ shall receive the gift of eternal life. Historically, proponents of a variation of this view includes Karl Barth, Samuel Zwemer, Hendrik Kraemer, Harold Lindsell Harold A. Netland, Leslie Newbigin, and Winfred Corduan. Recent new contributors include Daniel Strange.

Since exclusivists hold that no revelation exists outside of the Christian faith (possibly, the only exception is Judaism, from which Christianity emerged), all other truths available in other religions are peripheral or secondary at best (if read charitably). Accordingly, ideas, insights, and resources from other religions would not be materially important for the development of doctrine in Christianity.


Those in this category, like those in exclusivist camps, affirm the absolute revelation of Christianity, which is unparalleled in other religions. To them, the eternal salvation of souls may only be received through the unmerited gift of Christ. However, they are more ready to also affirm that non-Christian religions could be received as preparatio evangelica (or preparation for the gospel). No doubt that Christ offers the definitive and authoritative revelation of God, but God’s operative presence may be found in these religions (cf. Gavin D’Costa, Theology and Religious Pluralism, Blackwell, 1986, 81). In the words of twentieth-century Catholic Jesuit Karl Rahner, a non-Christian religion “contains supernatural elements arising out of grace, which is given to men as a gratuitous gift on account of Christ” even though “error and depravity [are] contained in it” (cf. Rahner, Theological Investigations, 5, Longman & Todd, 1966, 1969, 1975, 121). In recent decades, other inclusivists state more explicitly that they cannot say for sure how non-Christians may receive their salvationespecially those who through no fault of theirs were not given the privilege and possibility of knowing or responding to faith in Christ. They are willing to grant that although God reveals Christ’s gift of salvation to all, some may actually be saved by God without them never knowing or acknowledging Christ as their Savior in their lifetime. This group includes those who embrace varying degrees of God’s salvific inclusivity, and some historic proponents are Jacques Dupuis, Gavin D’Costa, Henri le Daux, Klaus Klostermaier, and Doni Bede Griffins. In recent years, scholars such as Catherine Cornille have suggested that at least two camps exist: the closed inclusivists and open inclusivists.

Accordingly, proponents of religious/theological inclusivism would likely accept select insights from other religions for the purpose of theologizing in the Christian tradition. Insofar as theologizing with resources and insights from other religious traditions, theologians have yet to agree on how they decide what resources and what among the many other religious perspectives may be retrieved and appropriated for Christian theologizing. As reasonable and as inevitable as it may seem that the exercise would have to retrieve only insights that are commensurable with existing Christian perspectives, such a project of selective reading of other religious traditions has already been critiqued as a project that continues to practice religious hegemony, which also renders injustice to other religious traditions. The conundrums find no easy, clear-cut solution.


Unlike the exclusivists and the inclusivists, those in the pluralist category affirm that all religions possess valid claims to truth, reality, and salvation. In essence, though non-Christian religions embody different perceptions and conceptions of the ultimate in their myriad cultural ways and understandings, the differences are but alternate perceptions of the one truth of reality and the ultimate. They would find the notion of truth and falsehood inadmissible in their paradigm and interpretation of religions. All religions (or in the words of John Hick, “great traditions”) are “more or less equally effective” in mediating and conveying salvation or liberation (cf. John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, Macmillan, 1989, 369, 373). Pluralists support their claims with observations attesting that differences exist due to culturally embedded factors. Beneath the differences rests a fundamentally similar message, even if the concept of truth and the ways to salvation are understood differently by each religion. Historic proponents of this wide camp comprised of folks who do not share views homogenously include John Hick, Paul Tillich, C.S. Song, and Stanley J. Samartha (e.g., Stanley J. Samartha, One Christ-Many Religions, Orbis Books, 1991).

In each of these three broad types/classifications, varieties exist, and a continuum of perspectives, from exclusive-inclusivism to inclusive-pluralism, is observable in each of these theologies of religion. For instance, from each of the aforementioned spectrums, one can find proposals that would locate on each of

Truth and religious pluralism 133 the three members of the Trinitarian godhead — Patrological (Father), Logos (Christ), and Pneumatological (Spirit) — as a starting point. Proposals abound, especially within inclusivist and pluralist spectrums. Thus, one would assert wrongly that all inclusivists believe in the same understanding, even as homogeneity of views does not characterize all exclusivists and all pluralists. Here are some examples. Karl Rahner’s concept of inclusivism includes a theological argument for the possibility that God will save the faithful adherents of other faiths as if they are anonymous Christians by virtue of their devout following of the truth they have received in other religions (Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 5, 1966, 124-125, 131—132; Theological Investigations, Vol. 6, Longman & Todd, 1969, 390-398; Theological Investigation, Vol. 12, Crossroad, 1974, 161-178; Theological Investigation, Vol. 14, Crossroad, 1979, 280-294). Rahner’s position differs markedly from Amos Yong’s pneumatological embrace of the triadic of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism (Amos Yong, Discerning the Spirits, Ashgate, 2000; idem, Hospitality and the Other, Orbis Books, 2008, Chapter 5). Likewise, for pluralists and exclusivists, a range of trajectories exists. Compare John Hick’s pluralistic God Has Many Names (Westminster John Knox Press, 1982) with Raimon Panikkar’s pluralistic Intra-Religious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 1998), or Gerald McDermott and Harold A. Netland’s A Trinitarian Theology of Religions (Oxford University Press, 2014) with D.A. Carson’s The Gagging of God (Zondervan, revised 2002). The relative conundrum in the reception of truth is unavoidable, no less because of intra-Christian perspectives, but also in light of inter-religious contributions, as Samantha Stanley reminded us years back (cf. S.J. Stanley, Courage for Dialogue: Ecumenical Issues in Inter-religious Relationship, WCC, 1981, 150).

Adding to these variations are proposals for new comparative theologies of religion that have broken new ground in comparative religious theological methodology; proposals in the recent decade contribute in ways that are significantly different from approaches used by the historic comparative religionists such as Eric E. Sharpe, Ninan Smart, et al. (see Francis X. Clooney, ed., The New Comparative Theology: Interreligious Insights from the Next Generation, T&T Clark International, 2010; idem, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning from Religious Borders, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). As an example, Catherine Cornille’s Meaning and Method in Comparative Theology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2019) shows that such theologizing may be pursued within a confessional tradition and as a meta-confessional project, and the project need not be limited to rectifying differences, but it can also help recover, reinterpret, appropriate, and/or reaffirm truth and perspectives gathered after comparative theological engagements. The outputs of comparative theologians may be located on a continuum, from that of revising one’s theology in light of inputs from other traditions (such as Francis X. Clooney’s various Hindu-Christian projects of mutual religious traditions’ reception), to that of enriching one’s theology after selective retrieval of other traditions (such as Veli-Matti Karkkainen’s Doing the Work of Comparative Theology, Eerdmans, 2020), to approaching comparative theology within one’s confessional ground and handling other religious traditions’ conceptions and sources juxtapositionally with Christianconceptions and sources (such as is evident in Keith Ward’s now classical Religion & Revelation, Religion & Creation, Religion & Human Nature, and Religion & Community — all published by Clarendon Press, 1994—2000).

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