Global religious diversity is one of the central facts—and challenges—confronting evangelical missions today. In A Trinitarian Theology of Religions: An Evangelical Proposal, Gerald McDermott and Harold Netland take stock of different theological understandings of the relationship between Christianity and other religions.
Recently, I corresponded with the authors about how believers can build bridges of truth, humility, and respect in a world of clashing faiths.
Trevin Wax: Given the rise of religious devotion across the world, why is it important for evangelicals to have a framework for considering and interacting with people from other religions?
Gerald McDermott & Harold Netland: The percentage of those who belong to a major world religion has gone up in recent decades. The authors of a recent study of religion and global politics point out that “the portion of the world population adhering to Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism jumped from 50 percent in 1900 to 64 percent in 2000. Globally speaking, most people—79 percent—believe in God (a slight increase from the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was 73 percent).” While Christians have always been aware, to some extent, of non-Christians around the world, the changes brought about by globalization, massive migrations of peoples in all directions, and the telecommunications revolutions have deepened awareness of religious diversity and prompted urgent questions about how Christians should respond to this new reality.
More and more Christians have friends who are devotees of other gods and religions. Many find that the best way to understand them is to learn about their religion. But then when they do, or when they use this knowledge to relate to these friends, they run into difficult questions:
- What difference does belief in the Trinity make?
- Could God be responsible for the truth I see in other religions?
- Can non-Christians be saved?
- Where do the good moral lives of some of my non-Christian friends come from?
- How can we separate religion from culture?
- Is it arrogant for me to think Christ is the only way to God?
These questions cannot be answered satisfactorily without some larger theological framework. That’s why we wrote this book—to help evangelicals wrestle with these questions.
Trevin Wax: You write that “evangelicals are calling for a different approach in our witness among adherents of other religions.” How can we be faithful witnesses in a multi-religious world?
Gerald McDermott & Harold Netland: Globalization affects all religious communities in varying degrees. Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims are increasingly aware of Christians as well. The more recent effects of modernization, colonialism, and the modern missionary movement are especially significant.
There has been a resurgence of traditional religions such as Islam and Buddhism, alongside the rise of modern Hinduism. This has often gone hand in hand with a resurgence of national and ethnic identity in many parts of the world. In part, this phenomenon can be seen as a reaction against the perceived alliance between Christian missions and Western colonialism. In other words, Christian witness today does not occur in a social or historical vacuum. There is a long and complicated history that makes the call to follow Jesus Christ inflammatory and controversial.
In light of this, the temptation is for Christians to ignore or minimize Christ’s command to make disciples of all peoples. In our view, this is precisely the wrong response. We cannot be faithful to Jesus as Lord if we do not bear witness to him as the one Savior for all humankind. The issue is not whether we bear witness to Jesus but how we do so.
While we must be clear on what the gospel is and the fact that, according to Scripture, salvation comes only through the person and work of Jesus Christ, we must approach religious others in a spirit of genuine humility and respect. We must learn to listen to them, learn from them, and cooperate with them where we can in tackling the many problems we face—even as we invite them to consider what the Scriptures say about Jesus.
Trevin Wax: Why does your book focus on the significance of the Trinity in reflecting on the world’s religions?
Gerald McDermott & Harold Netland: Historically, the church has taught that God is a Trinity of three divine persons who are inseparable in all divine acts. To divide the Trinity by separating the work of one person from the work of the other two is to violate the Trinitarian logic of the Gospels.
Some theologies divide the Spirit and the Son. They suggest or say explicitly that the Spirit is at work in ways and places that are distinct from the work of Jesus. Therefore, they assert, the Spirit is saying new things in other religions that were never considered by either the Jesus of the gospels or the risen Jesus who inspired the New Testament authors.
Other theologies divide the human Jesus from the divine Christ and the eternal Word. They say the man Jesus could not exhaust the meaning or work of the cosmic Christ or eternal Word. The problem with both of these moves is that they invite speculation about some other Christ who might take a shape different from the incarnate Christ of the Gospels. But the only God we know is the one revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, who was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
Still other Christian theologians separate the Father from the Son by saying, for example, that the God of Islam is the same God revealed in the Bible. But if the Father is not divided from the Son and is in fact revealed by the Son, then we cannot say categorically, without qualification, that the Gods of the two religions are one and the same. While both Christians and Muslims affirm the reality of one eternal creator God, they disagree on the nature of this God. For the Christian, God is the head of a Trinity, and the Father of the divine Son. Both of those assertions are denied by Muslims of Allah. Furthermore, the Son revealed the Father’s love for all, including enemies. Yet the God of the Qur’an commands love for other Muslims and not for enemies.
The critical issue here is the nature of Jesus Christ. Many religions accept him as a prophet or avatar or enlightened being of some kind. But they reject what is central to the New Testament picture of Jesus—that in Jesus Christ we have the eternal creator in human flesh, God incarnate. To affirm this, along with biblical teachings on the Spirit, is to embrace the Trinity. To deny this, in one form or another, is to move away from what the Church traditionally has affirmed.
Trevin Wax: When we look to Scripture, we find denunciations of pagan religions as idolatrous. Yet we also discover people outside of Israel and the church who have at least some knowledge of God. How do we account for this tension, and how does it impact the way we interact with people of other faiths?
Gerald McDermott & Harold Netland: The Old Testament is replete with Gentiles who knew something of the true God. Pharaoh’s magicians, for example, told Pharaoh after the (third) plague of gnats, “This is the finger of God” (Ex. 8:19). There is no indication that they had saving knowledge of God. But the text states that they recognized that he was at work. Other people outside the Jewish tradition who knew and sometimes “walked with” the true God include Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Abimelech, Jethro, Ruth, Naaman, and the Queen of Sheba. Similarly, we find some commonality between Christian teachings and those of some other religions today—for example, belief in a creator God, life after death, and basic moral principles such as the Golden Rule.
How do we explain this? A common answer to this question among evangelicals is that some of these similarities come from the fact that human beings are created in God’s image with some capacity to know certain things about God. Psalm 19 and Romans 1 both speak of God’s revelation of himself in nature, and Romans 2 points to God’s revelation of his moral law in the human conscience. Paul told the crowds at Lystra that “God did not leave himself without witness” but showed his goodness through the blessings of nature (Acts 14:17).
Jonathan Edwards proposed a second source for truth in other religions: contact with God’s special revelation. Edwards received and developed a tradition called the prisca theologia (Latin for “ancient theology”) which attributed truth in other religions to indirect contact with revelation coming from Noah’s sons or later Israel. Most of this cannot be validated by our knowledge of the historical record.
But there may be something to it, at least in germ form. Israel was at the crossroads of many ancient civilizations, and so it is plausible that her neighbors learned of her religious heritage.
A third possible explanation for Christian similarities in non-Christian religions was first advanced by Justin Martyr, the early Christian apologist who concluded that truth found in pagan philosophers could be explained in part by the work of the Logos, the eternal Word, revealing truth to people all over the world.
The upshot of all this is that we should recognize that God has probably already shown something of himself to our non-Christian friends, and that there are elements of truth, beauty, and goodness in their religions. So we should show respect for their non-Christian faiths and not consider them to be domains of unmixed darkness. At the same time, we know that only Jesus is the true light of the world.
Trevin Wax: A dominant assumption today is that evangelism and efforts at conversion produce unnecessary tension, and that common moral values should be emphasized over divisive doctrines. How do you respond to this point of view?
Gerald McDermott & Harold Netland: While there is some commonality among the religions in basic moral values and teachings, we cannot reduce the religions simply to their moral beliefs. Each major religion has a particular perspective on what the basic problem in our world is and how we can overcome it. It is not as if the religions all agree on where we are going and just disagree on how to get there.
Historically these disagreements have been divisive because religious believers have been convinced that much is at stake: Unless one understands the problem correctly and applies the proper remedy, one cannot attain the desired state. We simply cannot avoid the so-called “problem of conflicting truth claims” unless we ignore what has been central to religious traditions throughout the centuries.
Religious disagreements are inevitable, and to some extent this does cause tensions. The message of the Cross is always a stumbling block in some sense (1 Cor. 1). But it is important that in our witness we allow the Cross itself to be the stumbling block, and not add further obstacles or causes for offense. Much depends here upon our attitude and demeanor as we bear witness to Christ. We need to establish relationships of trust with those from other faiths, listening carefully to them, finding areas of common ground and agreement, responding to their questions and objections, and in a humble and gracious spirit inviting them to consider Jesus. Honest disagreements need not be divisive.
Trevin Wax: You write, “While the gospel can be expressed in any culture, it also judges every culture.” Why is it important to recognize both these truths?
Gerald McDermott & Harold Netland: Scholars like Andrew Walls and Lamin Sanneh have drawn attention to the “translatability” of the Christian gospel into diverse cultural settings. Walls speaks of the “indigenizing principle,” which reflects the fact that all Christians (including those within the first-century New Testament church) are embedded within particular historical, linguistic, and cultural settings. God encounters people within these contexts. Thus, the gospel of Jesus Christ can become “at home” within any particular linguistic or cultural setting. Unlike the relationship between Arabic and Islam, there is no single “Christian language” or “Christian culture.”
But the indigenizing principle must be balanced with what Walls calls the “pilgrim principle.” While the gospel can be authentically expressed within any cultural setting, it cannot simply be identified with any culture. The gospel of Jesus Christ transcends and challenges all cultures, reminding believers that they are not to be completely at home in any earthly culture. In this sense it also judges every culture.
Trevin Wax: In what ways can Christians learn from the moral examples found in other religions?
Gerald McDermott & Harold Netland: First, let us explain why we say we might learn from other moral practices. Most Christians would agree that the full meaning of the Christian faith is greater than our perception of it, and the lives of outsiders can sometimes help us better understand it. The revelation of Jesus Christ—and all that he means for the church and world—far exceeds human comprehension.
It has taken 3,000 years for Jews and Christians to unpack the meaning, and none who take it seriously would say we have finished that task. The church has always said that the Spirit continuously illuminates our understanding of revelation, so that we are always seeing deeper implications of it, and new applications to new situations. We reject the notion that the Spirit gives us new truths that contradict biblical revelation and the best of the church’s historic tradition. But we affirm that the Spirit helps the Church grow in its understanding of the original deposit of revelation in Israel and Jesus Christ. On this basis, the church has arrived over time at richer understandings of issues like slavery, racism, and women’s rights.
Jesus himself was not averse to pointing to those outside Israel as moral exemplars. The Good Samaritan had a faith that was inconsistent with Jewish orthodoxy (Luke 10:25-37). Yet this man from another religious culture and ethnicity has helped teach Christians what it means to be a good neighbor.
In our day the Dalai Lama has also helped many Christians to understand better what Jesus meant by forgiveness. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher does not often refer to Jesus, but his willingness to forgive a nation that has murdered one million of his people and destroyed the vast majority of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries is a powerful example of refusing to be embittered by one’s enemy. Similarly, Asians who have been influenced by Confucian teaching on respect for ancestors can help Western Christians recover some of the significance of biblical teaching on honoring our parents. It is not that we discover new moral or spiritual truths unavailable to us in Scripture, but rather that we learn to appreciate the richness of what God has revealed in a fresh way.
Trevin Wax: Why are evangelicals often uncomfortable with pursuing interreligious dialogue?
Gerald McDermott & Harold Netland: American evangelicals in particular are suspicious of the term “interreligious dialogue” because of its association with theologically liberal agendas that seem to have no place for Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior. This concern is not always unfounded. Many of the more prominent leaders in interreligious dialogue take it for granted that with “genuine dialogue” there is no place for convictions about the unique truth of one’s own position.
But dialogue itself if hardly incompatible with traditional Christian commitments and with the desire to change people’s minds. Dialogue is a two-way conversation in which each party listens carefully to the other, and genuinely tries to understand the other, and also explains his or her own position as clearly and winsomely as possible.
There are three important reasons for evangelicals participating in such dialogue. First, it is a way of affirming and respecting the other, of taking the other seriously as a fellow human being created in God’s image. Second, in our world, with all of its tensions and deep divisions, it is vital that Christians learn to listen carefully to religious others and work together to defuse ethnic, cultural, and religious tensions. Finally, it is difficult to see how we can engage effectively in Christian witness without establishing relationships and communicating on a deep level, in an atmosphere of mutual trust.