Christian Relationship with the World: Evangelicalism and World Religions
The theology of relationships is vital, not only for those who wish to be relevant in their theology today but also for those who seek to understand the mind of God. For if our theology does not speak of relationships in a contemporary setting, it may become irrelevant for individuals today and fail our contemporary and often impersonal society. Furthermore, and possibly more grievous if ignored, the God who is self-revealing is portrayed as a God who seeks relationships with the created. Establishing relationship and community seems to be a vital desire and activity of the Christian God. In this paper I wish to focus on the Christian relationship as it pertains to the world. As one who identifies himself as an evangelical Christian, I will address this focal point from an evangelical perspective.
The challenge facing evangelicals is to develop a theology that does not reject the foundational beliefs of evangelicalism while encouraging a move beyond dualistic thinking.
While there is much misunderstanding regarding evangelical theology, there seem to be three crucial aspects of the tradition. First, it is committed to the Christian scriptures. Second, it is committed to evangelism and discipleship. And third, it exhibits a level of theological tolerance absent in other forms of conservative Protestant Christianity. Although evangelicalism has exhibited tolerance toward those of other theological persuasions (in some cases), it has lacked a tolerance toward those of other faith traditions. It is to this relationship between evangelical Christians and adherents of other religions that I wish to direct our attention.
This paper will not address those exhortations to be “in the world, but not of the world.” That aspect of the relationship between Christians and the world, which calls for some level of separation, is outside the scope of this project. Furthermore, evangelicals continue to emphasize evangelism and sharing the gospel—and rightly so. This too is outside the scope of this paper. My purpose is to address an aspect of the Christian’s relationship to the world that is often overlooked. I will claim that evangelical Christians should embrace a position that is both agnostic and optimistic as they seek relationships with members of other faith traditions.
To accomplish this task I will begin by briefly outlining foundational information. Then in the second section, I present five general observations pertinent to constructing an evangelical theology of Christian relationship with the world, i.e., those outside of the Christian faith.
It has been suggested that Romans 12 provides a model for Christian relationships with the world. However, if we are to understand this chapter as a model, it must be viewed in the context of the entire book of Romans. Chapters 1 through 8 are often seen as a doctrinal dissertation, which ends with confidence that God is able to accomplish what God desires. This confidence poses an interesting dilemma for the Apostle Paul. God had established a covenant with the Jewish people which included a promise that the Christ would come through the Jewish nation (Galatians 3:15-18). But the Old Testament suggests that God’s covenant was also intended to bring that nation into a final community with God. 1 Paul faces the perplexing dilemma that the Jews rejected the Christ in chapters 9 through 11.
Two things are significant from these three chapters for our current purpose. First, Paul is optimistic that Israel—the Jewish people—has a future in God’s plan. God will accomplish what God had promised. Notice that Christ had come and been rejected, yet Paul expects a future for his people; he expects them to experience a relationship with God. God has not replaced Israel with the church. Second, Paul does not seem to understand how God will accomplish this. Hence, Paul is both hopeful and agnostic regarding the future of Israel and its relationship with God. As a result, this concrete example connects the doctrinal chapters of Romans to its practical applications of chapters 12 through 15. It is Paul’s stance of agnosticism and optimism that lays the foundation for chapter 12 of Romans as a model for the Christian relationship in the world.
A CRITICAL ISSUE
The relationship between Christians and members of other faith traditions is a critical issue within the theology of religions. Discussions in this field of theology frequently identify three basic approaches to dealing with that relationship: pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism or particularism. 2 For evangelicals concerned about their relationship to the world, specifically members of other faith traditions, these three options are obstacles, for they oversimplify the complexity of evangelical theology and its understanding of other traditions. Regarding the agency by which God brings individuals into community, evangelicals are exclusivists. Jesus Christ is the only means by which community is possible with God. Atonement is possible only because of the Christ event. However, regarding the recipients of salvation—those to whom God gives community—evangelical theology acknowledges that there are individuals outside of the church who are saved. (The “great cloud of witnesses” listed in Hebrews 11 consists of many who never knew Jesus Christ.) The Christ of Colossians is a cosmic Christ whose impact goes far beyond the church. In this sense, evangelicals are inclusivists. Yet when we ask, “Who may possess religious truth?” evangelicals cast the net even wider. While Christians claim a superior revelation in both the written and living Words, evangelicals must not deny that God reveals through general revelation, i.e., conscience and nature. Given the Noachide covenant and the scope of general revelation, evangelicals are pluralists regarding religious truth, and any attempt to categorize evangelical theology in terms of the typical typology is doomed to fail.
Having sketched the foundational position of this discussion, I will now present five general observations and two critical elements essential to an evangelical position on Christian relationships with the world.
THE KINGDOM OF GOD
The development of an evangelical theology of religions provides a fascinating challenge. It must be faithful to the key characteristics of evangelicalism, and it must present a story of how evangelicals should understand and relate to individuals who belong to non-Christian faith traditions. These two points can create tension because evangelicals, like most human beings, tend to think in terms of either/or, black/white, Christian/non-Christian, us/them, and so forth. The challenge facing evangelicals is to develop a theology that does not reject the foundational beliefs of evangelicalism while encouraging a move beyond dualistic thinking. This is my first observation.
Krister Stendahl offers sound advice, which, if heeded by evangelicals, may be very helpful. 3 He proposes stepping back and looking at a wider panorama than is normal when developing a theology. For understandable reasons, evangelical theologians have focused on Jesus Christ and the Christian church. However, Jesus Christ and the Christian church are only part of a larger drama. Stendahl suggests that we can best see this larger drama when we look at the message and mission of Jesus Christ: the kingdom of God. “My guess,” says Stendahl, “is that this very term expressed the continuity with the old and eternal dream of God’s for a mended creation, for a redeemed world. Kingdom is more than a King and a Lordship, and Reign. The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, stands for a mended creation, with people and things, a social, economic, ecological reality.” 4
It is the kingdom that captures “the sweeping vision of God’s total work.” 5 The kingdom speaks to God’s drawing the entire creation back into community with its Creator. From this reference point, the dualism frequently encountered within evangelical theology can be transcended without losing its distinctive features. The Christian church, while crucial within God’s drama, is not the only act within the epic. The Christian story does contain essential elements of the epic, but God’s drama is a call to the entire cosmos. The Christian scriptures speak to this wider scope. 6 If an evangelical theology of religions is to be embraced, the evangelical community must see itself as not only part of the Christian act but as part of the larger drama. The evangelical community must understand that while the Good News they proclaim is essential in God’s work of reestablishing community with the cosmos, the reestablishment is broader than the church. This movement of seeing itself as part of a greater drama is enhanced by the two important elements: broadening our understanding of general revelation and increased participation in interreligious dialogue.
A second general observation is that, for evangelicals, other world religions are non-Christian. To suggest that their adherents are “anonymous Christians”—or traditions that house individuals who will become Christians—is an injustice to both those other traditions and Christianity. Religions, including Christianity, are culturally connected attempts to make sense of ultimate concerns. As they attempt to understand religions, evangelicals have three basic options available to them: First, they can assume all religions are fundamentally the same. The differences among the various traditions can be explained as cultural variances. Second, evangelicals can assume that all other faith traditions are false and contain no hope or truth. Christianity is an anomaly among the world religions for it has the truth. Finally, they can assume that while the various non-Christian religions may contain some religious truths and spiritual benefits, they fail to provide the foundational component that makes it possible for persons to reestablish community with God. Once again, in this option, Christianity as a religion is an anomaly, for it claims that the foundational component for reestablished community is Jesus Christ. This third option is the stance most consistent with the evangelical theology. 7
Furthermore, an evangelical theology of religions must maintain a level of agnosticism. It must acknowledge its limited nature when addressing areas in which we have neither complete nor clear revelation. An evangelical theology of religions must therefore be agnostic: it cannot declare the mind of God beyond what God has chosen to reveal in a clear fashion. However, because evangelicals understand God to be a God of justice and mercy and because the Scriptures do clearly declare that some outside of the Christian church are saved, an evangelical theology of religions must be optimistic. We have cited the examples of Abraham and Moses who are outside the church, and yet the Scriptures speak of them as being saved. This optimism is not a form of universalism because the Scriptures also indicate that some will not be saved. God’s goodness and mercy, however, are not limited to members of the church—they extend to all. An evangelical theology of religions must therefore be both agnostic and optimistic. This is my third general observation.
SALVATION BY REVELATION
The fourth general observation is more specific than the preceding three, but builds upon them. An evangelical theology of religions begins with an understanding of Christianity as based in Christ’s divinity. As Harold Lindsell claims, “The deity of Christ is the foundation of the Christian faith. The denial of it invalidates the entire structure of Christian theology.” 8 To claim that members of other faith traditions are “anonymous Christians” is to deny the very foundation of evangelical thought and to deny these other traditions their own voice. Since they reject the deity of Christ, they must be non-Christian according to an evangelical understanding of Christianity. 9 The Manila Manifesto explicitly proclaimed this unique attribute of Christ:
We affirm that the Jesus of history and the Christ of glory are the same person, that this Jesus Christ is absolutely unique, for he alone is God incarnate, our sin-bearer, the conqueror of death and the coming judge. . . . We affirm that other religions and ideologies are not alternative paths to God, and that human spirituality, if unredeemed by Christ, leads not to God but to judgment, for Christ is the only way. 10
An evangelical theology of religions will embrace these affirmations, but it will point out that some of the conclusions drawn within the Manifesto must be challenged. The Manifesto argues that
[b]ecause men and women are made in God’s image and see in creation traces of its Creator, the religions which have arisen do sometimes contain elements of truth and beauty. They are not, however, alternative gospels. Because human beings are sinful, and because ‘the whole world is under the control of the evil one’, even religious people are in need of Christ’s redemption. 11
An evangelical theology will embrace this assessment. However, this assessment continues:
We, therefore, have no warrant for saying that salvation can be found outside Christ or apart from an explicit acceptance of his work through faith.
An evangelical theology of religions will agree with this conclusion, but only up to the disjunctive. While evangelical theology does claim that salvation for all is based upon the work of Christ, it acknowledges that some (Abraham and Moses, for example) are saved without explicit knowledge of his work. For this reason, an evangelical theology of religions must go beyond the Lausanne Movement of 1974–1989. The deity of Jesus Christ and the atonement made possible because of his death and resurrection are foundational, and explicit acceptance of his work may be required to be a Christian. Salvation, however, is not limited to Christians. God is at work in the entire cosmos, not just the Christian church.
Let us consider a hypothetical scenario that focuses upon a man in nineteenth-century Janakpur, Nepal. He has no knowledge of Jesus Christ, nor is he familiar with Abraham and the faith traditions that derive from Abraham. According to evangelical theology, he is not a Christian. However, he has concluded that God does exist and has specific moral expectations of human beings. Furthermore, he realizes that his right standing before God comes not from performing ritual offerings but is based on the mercy and grace of God. He believes that God is holy, just, all-powerful, and so forth, and realizes that even though he is unworthy to stand in the presence of God, God desires a relationship with him. His knowledge of God is not based on the teaching of the local priests but on his contemplation of the cosmos and careful attention to his own conscience. While his culture and religious background foster an attitude of seeking God, he finds answers to his questions primarily as he considers what evangelicals have called “general revelation”: knowledge God has made available to everyone in conscience and in nature. 12
Is it possible that this man has responded appropriately to the revelation he has at hand such that God might grant salvation based upon the work of the cross of Jesus Christ? Is it possible that he possesses an appropriate faith? 13 Given the biblical evidence of salvation given to individuals between the time of Noah and Abraham, evangelical theology must acknowledge that it is indeed possible. God may accept his faith even though he has no knowledge of Jesus Christ. Thus, an evangelical response to the question of whether people outside the Christian fold may be saved is not necessarily negative, for while evangelical theology is Christocentric, it also is Trinitarian. The work of God is not limited to the atoning work of Jesus Christ, but includes the work of the Spirit by which God draws individuals into community. It is possible that our nineteenth-century Janakpurian arrives at his understanding of God and himself via the cosmos and self-examination through the moving of the Spirit of God, much like Abraham or Moses.
Let us consider another scenario. A man whose last name is Singh was born in India. But as a young man he traveled to the United States and is now a devout member of the Nanak Sar Gurdwara in Fresno, California. Even though he has lived in North America for many years, his knowledge of Christianity is filtered through his Sikh worldview. He is ignorant of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. However, like our friend from Janakpur, he has come to understand God as holy, just, all-powerful, and merciful. He understands that God desires to have a special relationship with him and that relationship is based in God’s mercy and grace, not his membership in the Khalsa. 14 He achieved this understanding in the same way that our Janakpuri friend did.
While all such scenarios are hypothetical, this does not mean they do not portray real possibilities. It is conceivable that our Sikh friend, now a North American, embraces a worldview closer to his counterpart in Janakpur than to someone attending Riverpark Bible Church, also in Fresno. God may interact with him in ways more consistent with the ways God dealt with those after Noah (but before Abraham) than those who have knowledge of the work of Jesus Christ—even though they may be neighbors. The same Spirit that illuminates an individual regarding their sinfulness before God and the atoning work of Christ, such that they appropriately respond to the New Testament message, also illuminates those whose currently available revelation is limited to general revelation.
Our fifth and final general observation regarding evangelicals and their relationship to the world draws attention to the pragmatic nature of evangelical theology. Evangelical theology is church oriented and seeks to be practical. As such, an evangelical theology of religions must be able to address not only a theoretical assessment and response to faith traditions as religions but faith traditions as practiced by individuals. According to evangelical theology, God seeks individuals, not institutions such as religions. As a result, an evangelical theology of religions will focus on individuals and their relationship or community with God. As human institutions, religions themselves are not the focus of an evangelical theology of religions. The focus is upon individuals who practice other religions. While the Christian scriptures clearly indicate, “if one believes in Jesus Christ, then one is saved” and “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” the Bible also presents a merciful, just God who knows the intent of the heart, the inner being, and judges accordingly. An evangelical theology of religions seeks to understand God’s potential interactions with individuals of non-Christian religions and describes how evangelicals ought to interact with them. It must strive to understand the intent of a worshipper and be capable of asking practical questions such as, “Is it possible that the God worshipped by members of another religion is the same God who reached out and provided the means of reestablishing community through Jesus Christ?” Or, “What can the evangelical church learn about spirituality or practices of spirituality from someone outside the Christian church?” Questions such as these do not solicit easy answers.
To develop a theology of religions consistent with fundamental evangelical beliefs and the general observations made above, two elements are critical. First, a deeper appreciation of the value of general revelation is necessary. General revelation (and I include latent revelation under that designation) provides an explanation of how persons belonging to non-Christian traditions can possibly possess knowledge of God and other spiritual insights. Second, evangelicals must increase their participation in interreligious dialogue if they are to gain any understanding of individuals from other faith traditions. While some may claim that interreligious dialogue is not part of a theology of religions, given their emphasis on individuals, dialogue is crucial for evangelicals. Dialogue provides the opportunity to gain a better understanding of others. Hence, participation in interreligious dialogue is a necessary condition of appropriately assessing those who belong to other traditions. These elements must be explored further at another time.
A more fully Christian understanding of how Christians should relate to the world requires a theology of religions. In this paper, the focus has been on particular observations for an evangelical theology of religions. It is my belief, however, that they are pertinent to other Christian traditions as well. Christians are exhorted not to conform to the ways of the world, but they are to be in the world and develop relationships with individuals in it (Romans 12-14). These relationships require Christians to be both agnostic and optimistic regarding those outside the church. It is possible that some members of other faith traditions possess knowledge of the same God evangelicals worship. However, an evangelical theology of religions must declare itself agnostic regarding the details of how God will accomplish the reestablishment of community with the created. Evangelicals should not feel compelled to tie together all the loose ends. At times, the preservation of tension is preferred. Like other areas of theology, this particular field must be approached with a sense of awe, of reverence, of excitement as we watch God doing God-stuff. For the evangelical, theology is always about God and should lead to God.
- Some forms of evangelical theology do claim that the promise of community was passed on to the church with the rejection by Jews. However, not all evangelical theology would agree that the promises given to Israel were inherited by the church.
- These categories were set forth by Alan Race in Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in Christian Theology of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1982).
- Krister Stendahl, “Notes for Three Bible studies.” In Christ’s Lordship and Religious Pluralism, ed. Gerald H. Anderson and Thomas F. Stransky (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1981), 7-18.
- Ibid., 9.
- Ibid., 8. It should be noted that a major topic of discussion that led to the development of progressive dispensationalism was a reassessment of the concept of kingdom, as noted by Blaising and Bock: “The theme of the kingdom of God is much more unified and more central to progressive dispensationalism than it is to revised dispensationalism. Instead of dividing up the different features of redemption into self-contained “kingdoms,” progressive dispensationalists see one promised eschatological kingdom which has both spiritual and political dimensions. . . . Progressive dispensationalists put primary emphasis on the eternal kingdom for understanding all previous forms of the kingdom including the Millennium. They make no substantive distinction between the terms kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God.” Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), 54. Bock develops this thought further in another work: “If one wants to see how God accomplishes his kingdom, one must see how that program and the promises tied to it are linked together through the Scripture’s description of the career of Jesus Christ.” Darrell Bock, “The Reign of the Lord Christ,” in Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church: The Search for Definition, ed. Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 37. See also Robert Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational and Non-Dispensational Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 81-110.
- For examples: Genesis 12:3, Psalm 67:2–3, Isaiah 2:2–4, Isaiah 60:2-3, Luke 2:32, Matthew 28:19, Acts 11:18, Colossians 3:11, and Revelation 7:9.
- Evangelicals have rejected the first stance for three basic reasons. First, the various faith systems do portray radically different pictures on issues that are crucial to given faith traditions. Second, this position may lead to an adoption of positions that have been considered heretical by mainstream Christianity. Third, this position may lead to a less than respectful position of other faith systems by denying essential characteristics that make them a distinct faith tradition. This is a problem of any reductionistic approach to religion. While we did see those who are identified with evangelicalism holding the second stance, it was claimed that if evangelicals are to develop a theology of religions, this second stance must be rejected as being inconsistent with their basic theology. While there is a long history of Christians taking this route, it does not fit with an evangelical worldview. Furthermore, this position fails to acknowledge the common ground found among the various traditions. Typical of a fundamentalist approach to Christianity, this route tends to put God into a box and claims that those who hold “the truth” know God better. Truth is defined by what they hold to be true.
- Harold Lindsell, Harper Study Bible: The Holy Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1962), 1621 (footnote for John 20:28).
- This claim statement is not beyond controversy. Within the Christian church there are individuals who do deny the deity of Jesus Christ. That dialogue is outside the scope of our present discussion. An evangelical theology of religions must stay focused upon coming to grips and interacting with positions proposed by those outside the church, i.e., other faith traditions.
- Affirmations 5 and 7 (1989, July) in Making Christ Known: Historic Mission Documents from the Lausanne Movement, 1974–1989, ed. John Stott (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 231.
- Ibid., 235.
- Part of this revelation may have been “latent revelation,” which refers to the idea that fragments of knowledge revealed by God dating from before the Tower of Babel have been preserved in pagan oral traditions or non-Christian religions.
- “For by [faith] the men of old received divine approval” (Hebrews 11:2).
- Those of the Sikh tradition who desire membership in the Khalsa undergo a special baptism and are required to wear five specific items: kachh (a pair of underwear pants), kangha (wooden comb), kara (steel bracelet), kes (uncut hair), and the kirpan (dagger). W. H. McLeod, The Sikhs: History, Religion, and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).