The Place of Non-Christian Religions in a
Christian Theology of Revelation
Monash University, May 2000
This paper examines the issue of revelation, and what place non-Christian religions may have in Christian revelation. This necessitates a discussion about whether revelation is exclusively granted to Christian believers, or whether it also appears in non-Christian religions. It also necessitates a look at the main content of Christian revelation, namely salvation, and whether this too is universally accessible. Three main theological theories of Christian revelation are discussed, and it is argued that the inclusivist theory best corresponds to a notion of Christian revelation, and it allows for a place of non-Christian religions in it by allowing for the possibility that God may reveal Himself in various mysterious ways to mankind, and offer salvation, not only to Christian believers, but to the world as a whole.
Revelation, theology, non-Christian religions, salvation, inclusivist, exclusivist
As rightfully noticed by Rick Rood, few facts have become more evident in our lifetime than the fact that we live in a pluralistic world and society containing a multitude of diverse and conflicting viewpoints on many different issues - and nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of religion. As the society is becoming more multi-cultural, so is the need for everyone to open their eyes and realise that people around them are real people - people who are born, live, and die every day, and people that for various reasons profess different religious beliefs. In this new era of tolerance, acceptance and understanding, Christian believers cannot be bystanders to debates concerning God, the World, and man’s salvation, claiming that they are immune to these kinds of ‘big questions’ by having all the truth revealed to them through the belief in Jesus Christ. As noted by Pyle, to take a stand by claiming that one’s religion is a vehicle for truth in the world is only one way of resolving such issues, and the author of this paper argues that this is neither a correct, nor an acceptable or justifiable way. Such a coercive approach may have seemed fit in previous historical times, but would not entail today’s notions of religious openness and understanding. This has also been acknowledged by the Catholic Church, which has declared that it through dialogue and collaboration with followers of other religions must “acknowledge, preserve, and promote the spiritual and moral goods found among these men, as well as the values in their society and culture.”
Hence, Christian theology must examine its place in the world in regard to non-Christian religions, and likewise, the place of non-Christian religions within a Christian theology. This is also the aim of this paper, however narrowing down the issue to focus on the Christian theology of revelation. Thus, the first section of this paper, Revelation defined, is concerned with whether Christianity has been granted an exclusive right to revelation and its message - making it inaccessible for non-Christian believers, or whether it is a general source (or mode) of religious experience not only confined to Christian communities. The second section of the paper, Revelation and Salvation, deals with the salvific part of the Christian revelation, and whether non-Christian revelation is an equally valid way to approach God. This is dealt with by looking at, and distinguishing between, three difference theological views: the exclusivist, relativist (pluralist), and inclusivist view. The result from this discussion determines the role (if any) of non-Christian religions in a Christian Theology of revelation, and is discussed in the last section of the paper, The Age of Reconciliation, which also concludes with future recommendations to Christian theologians in the issue.
First, however, it is important to discuss what is meant by “revelation”, and what this means (and has meant) to the Christian Church and its followers.
2. Revelation Defined
2.1. Problems and issues:
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, revelation is defined as: “the communication of some truth by God to a rational creature through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature”. Although most theological authors agree about the core purpose of the revelation, that is, God supernaturally revealing something Divine to human beings, they all seem to have their own individual definitions so that Macquarrie, for example, importantly points out that a Christian definition of revelation does not equal a general definition of revelation. He acknowledges that a basic pattern of revelation seems to be common in all religions (mentioning components such as a mood of meditation, in-breaking of a holy presence, and a sense of being called or commissioned), but that the perceived bearer of the revelation differ so that for Christians, Jesus Christ is the bearer. Christian revelation then, as defined by Ward, can be seen as God’s self-disclosure, guiding the believers to discern the Divine nature and purpose in a personally transforming encounter, and, as added by the Catholic Church, in Christ - who is the fullness of all revelation - mediates the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man.
The previous section gives hints to some of the problems with revelation that are discussed further on in the paper, but must already at this stage be pointed out for the purpose of the whole discussion. First, the “basic” definition of revelation seems to provide for a worldly, and not just Christian, accessibility to revelation. However, when “Christ” is added to the definition as the fulfillment of all revelation, and as the true and only source of mediator and agent of God’s word, the issue immediately becomes more problematic with the risk of creating a “one or the other” situation where Christians might be forced to accept that either Christ is the fulfillness of all revelation - which seems to give no room for other means of revelation, say in other religious cultures - or revelation is not always mediated through Christ, which in that case would have serious implications on the traditional Christian belief. The problem can also been seen from a Christian perspective in that Christian theology argues that God has been revealed through Jesus Christ although this revelation simultaneously was a concealment. This, according to Jones, leaves room for incompleteness at the very heart of Christianity, and “where there is such incompleteness, there is room for God to act through other means and avenues, including other religious traditions”. Dulles agrees with the inconsistency of Christianity, stating that:
On the one hand, Christianity proclaims Jesus Christ as the center…and fullness of all revelation. On the other hand, Christianity is good news about God’s saving design for humanity as a whole… Christianity contains, therefore, an inbuilt tension between particularism and universalism. Hence it is not surprising to find some Christians saying that there is no revelation apart from Jesus Christ, and others saying that God reveals himself to every human being.
2.2. Types of revelation
The next section of this paper shall discuss these problems further and show how they can be explained through the three views of revelatory theology (as mentioned in the introduction). Before that, however, it is worth briefly explaining the various types, or models, of revelation, not just because this is another controversial issue that has stirred lots of disagreement among theologians, but because theologians referred to in the following discussion often derive their arguments and conclusions from an authentic belief in one or more of these types.
Dulles describes five major so-called ‘models’ of revelation: revelation as doctrine (propositional), as history, as inner experience, as dialectical, and as new awareness. The doctrinal model emphasises that revelation comes through reading the Holy Scriptures and through authoritative teaching by the Church. The historical model explains revelation by God revealing Himself in certain historical (mainly Biblical) events. The inner experience model sees revelation as a privileged interior experience of grace or communion with God, which has not much to do with scriptures or teaching. The dialectical model explains revelation as God revealing himself through Christ in a transcendent and spiritual way, emphasising not the content of the revelation but the very fact that God is revealing Himself. Finally, the new awareness model sees revelation as taking place as an expansion of consciousness or shift of perspective - a way of continuously incorporating God into a new view of life.
2.3 Revelation outside Christianity
It seems as if advocates of the first two models does not allow for revelation outside Christianity. However, these models focus their attention on Scriptures that are also shared by two other religious groups, namely the Jews and Muslims. As Dulles notes: “The Christian can readily admit that Judaism and Islam, as ‘religions of the Book’ contain revelation insofar as they accept sacred texts which Christians also recognise as Scripture”. Hence, not one of these models seems to rule out the possibility of revelation outside Christianity. Actually, if Christianity claims that revelation existed before Christ - even if Christ is seen as the fulfillment of all revelation, it must hereby be argued that revelation can, and does, occur in non-Christian religions. This is the only rational conclusion in the light of previous discussion, and hence the door has opened for accepting that God has made, and continues to make Himself known to all people. As noted by Ward:
Christians believe that God will go, and has gone, to any lengths to bring human beings to know and love God. How then could God ignore millions of human beings in primal societies, and fail to reveal anything of the Divine to them?
Avis too accepts the notion of universal revelation, but points out that if revelation is defined apart from Christ, it cannot be called a Christian understanding of revelation. He maintains, however, that if Christianity is not critically open to the voice of God within culture and creation (which includes other religions), then Christianity will fail to be faithful to God.
Keith Ward focuses his attention on culture, history and society as the main factors affecting various religious communities’ revelation experiences - including Christian communities, saying that revelation is a “Divine communication shaped to the interests and values of a particular society at a particular time”. With this view of revelation, Ward would probably have an easy match against the authorities of the Christian Church explaining various disputable Church policies throughout the ages, such as previous condemnation of the Jews. He would not, however, have an easy task in explaining the notably lesser importance of Jesus Christ in his revelation theories.
The rational has been set for accepting revelation in non-Christian religions, which to some degree answers the main question about the place of non-Christian religions in a Christian theology of revelation. It has been shown that Christianity does not have an exclusive right to revelatory experiences, but this paper now turns to the more central question about Christian revelation that focuses on its salvific component. If God speaks not only through Christian revelation, does that mean that non-Christian revelation can be alternative paths to God and thus share the promise of salvation?
Avis warns that by accepting revelation as a universal occurrence one must not equate it with salvation within non-Christian religions. On the other hand, Dulles argues that the absence of revelation in a religion does not by itself rule out the possibility that its adherents achieve salvation. The stage is set for the biggest issue concerning revelation, and three main propositions shall now be discussed. It should be noted that the following discussion presupposes an understanding of salvation from a Christian point of view.
3. Revelation and Salvation
Imagine that you are just about to climb a high mountain, and you stand at the mountain base and look at three signs that points to three different paths, and each sign tells you that that particular path will take you safely to the top. Three guides come up to you and each of them gives you different advice. The first guide says that only one of the paths will take you to the top, and if you choose one of the other paths you will surely fall down the mountain and die. The second guide tells you not to listen to him, assuring you that all the paths are equally safe and will take you to the top. The third guide enters the stage and agrees with the second guide that all paths will take you to the top, but one of the paths is easier to walk and is furthest away from the danger. Which guide would you expect telling the truth?
This story illustrates the three different views of revelation held by contemporary theologians; the exclusivist, relativist (pluralist), and inclusivist view.
3.1. The exclusivist view
Exclusivists hold that biblical Christianity is true, and that other religious systems therefore must be false. They derives their belief from various biblical references, such as Acts 4:12: “And there is no salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given, by which we must be saved”, but acknowledge at the same time that non-Christian religions may contain certain truths. Rood, for example, mentions moral and ethic truths in Buddhism, and truths about God in Islam and Judaism that Christians can agree with. It still does not entails that non-Christian religions have part of the salvation in Jesus Christ, simply because this ‘saving truth’ is non-existent in these religions. Therefore, Rood argues, Christians must reject any place of non-Christian religions in the Christian revelation, although he importantly points out that this does not mean rejecting the people professing the beliefs.
The exclusivist view has traditionally been held by the Catholic Church, although in recent times it has been encouraging openness and dialogue with non-Christian religions. It maintains that there is only one salvific truth, and that this in the belief in Jesus Christ, but notices that God’s “manifestations of goodness, and His saving designs extend to all men”, thereby indicating a move towards a more inclusivist understanding (see section 3.3).
Karl Barth is probably the most notorious exclusivist, and he also rejected the presence and acting of God in non-Christian revelation, stating that there I no genuine knowledge of God outside Christian revelation. Thereby he is strictly limiting the salvific component to Christian believers, and hence, seeing no part of non-Christian religions in Christian revelation.
James Dunn writes in an article that from a Christian perspective, “the revelation of Christ is the climax of all previous revelation and the key to making sense of all other revelation”, and therefore he too limits the role of non-Christian religions in Christian revelation. Finally, Farmer states that it is through the personal relationship with Jesus Christ that we are able to approach and have a relationship with Christ. If this is non-existent, salvation can also not be reached.
The exclusivist view relies heavily on the Scripture and tradition as primary sources of revelation, but as seen in the previous section, this does not equal a denial of God working through other means, such as through non-Christian revelation. Therefore, the exclusivist view does not seem to provide a convincing argument for a Christian revelation, and certainly does not assist in the contemporary developing dialogue between religions, as it does not allow for salvation outside Christianity. It is also among exclusivists that Christian fundamentalism exists, which benefits no religious dialogue in the world.
3.2. The relativist (pluralist) view
Advocates of the relativist or pluralist view totally oppose the exclusivists and say that we must acknowledge that all religions are equally (or nearly equally) valid paths to approach God. That is, you may take any path up the mountain and still arrive at the same summit. This is the view that easiest would explain God’s part in revelation in various religious communities and cultures, arguing that cultures and society shape moral and religious beliefs, and that God communicates with people in ways that they best can understand, due to traditions they are used to in their society and culture. Simultaneously, this is the view that is hardest for Christians to defend as it compels them to deny any claims to the uniqueness of Christ or of Christianity. Macquarrie writes that:
All I am saying is that one can commit oneself within one’s own community of faith and in terms of the symbols established in that community, and yet believe that for a person in other circumstances, the same God reveals himself in another community and under different symbols, and that there may be nothing defective or inadequate about that person’s commerce with God.
Ninian Smart links God’s continuously creative activity in the universe with that of His revelation:
Revelation is the central point in the illumination of the cosmos. But the cosmos as a whole is the theater and expression of God’s creative activity. …so God, though he reveals himself par excellence in the history of Israel and of the Church, also is operative in countless ways throughout the vast universe which he has created and which he continually sustains.
Neither Smart nor Macquarrie deny the importance of Christ in the Christian tradition, but do not rule out the possibility of salvation outside Christian revelation. It should be noted, though, that these two theologians are not relativists, but rather inclusivists (see section 3.3). The reason for quoting them here is solely because the two statements above helps out understanding the relativist point of view, concluding that God’s work of salvation may go beyond our understanding or beliefs. Ward, who already has been quoted believing that revelation is a Divine communication shaped to the interests and values of a particular society at a particular time, is more of a traditional relativist, and he further explains revelation as “…the shaping by God of human thoughts and feelings so as to challenge, guide, and motivate the lives of those who seek to worship God”.
The relativist view is undoubtedly intriguing and offers “different paths to a common goal, conceived in a number of rather different ways”, but can hardly be said to represent a Christian view of revelation. Although John Hick once wrote that: “it seems implausible that our final destiny should depend upon our professing beliefs… concerning which we have no definitive information”, Christianity has never argued to be perfectly rational, nor having answers to all the questions. Furthermore, Hick’s argument that the assumption that salvation is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ (held among exclusivists) is incompatible with the Christian teaching of a God who desires to save all people, also lacks reasoning. If there had been no obligation for salvation, would not everyone be saved, and would that not make Hick’s statement contradictory as one can not have a desire to achieve something that is already achieved?
Another relativist, Immanuel Kant, tried to justify this view by insisting that revelation and salvation was universally accessible via moral reason and not via particular historical events, such as the incarnation, but again, this presupposes that Christianity - or any other religion - is rational, and that people choose to believe by deductive reasoning and not through faith, and this is hardly the case. Thus, as concluded by Rood, due to the denial of the uniqueness of Christ, and also to its failure to take seriously the vast differences among the world’s religions, religious relativism (pluralism) does not represent a valid point of view for the Christian and the Christian view of revelation.
3.3. The inclusivist view
The third and final view, the inclusivist view, holds that though Christ is the unique savior, nonetheless, there are many people included in His salvation that do not profess the Christian faith. Inclusivists seek to widen God’s grace, while still preserving the core of the Christian message and commitment to the uniqueness of Christ.
Macquarrie and Smart have already been mentioned belonging to the inclusivist branch of theologians, but probably the most well-known inclusivist is Karl Rahner, although some may argue that by studying him in detail, Rahner is essentially an exclusivist who is “painting his views with brighter colours” to become more appealing to the reader. One may also see problems with his views similar to those previously mentioned in regards to relativist theologians, arguing that Rahner too is endangering the uniqueness of Christianity in that he salvation for Rahner requires no specific faith or response to the historical narrative of Jesus Christ, and therefore threatening the whole foundation on which the Christian Church is built and has been nourished throughout the ages.
In short, Rahner’s view is that there is no religion of any kind in which God’s grace, however suppressed it may be and however depraved its expression may be, does not reveal itself in one way or another. Thereby Rahner acknowledges God’s activity in universal (and not just Christian) revelation, but argues at the same time that man’s salvation is inseparably linked with Christ although a direct confrontation with Christ is not necessary. God, for Rahner, is the ultimate goal in every man’s life, but in an unknowing transcendent way. There is plenty of work written on Rahner’s so-called ’transcendental theology’, and it is not the aim of this essay to explain this further. It is important to mention him in this issue though, as his work has had an enormous influence in Christian theology, and still has.
In general, then, inclusivists acknowledge that God makes Himself known to people all over the world in various mysterious ways, offering them salvation through Jesus Christ. Inclusivists have a tendency to see the mission of the Church as to ‘sell’ the way of life that Jesus advocated, rather than to strictly demand a belief of Jesus for gaining salvation. The inclusivist theologian may say about Mahatma Gandhi that: “sure, he did not believe in Christ, but he lived a Christ-like life”, and see this as enough for. It is an appealing view to many Christians, especially those with family members and friends that do not confess a Christian belief, but does it reflect a Christian understanding of revelation and salvation? It certainly makes a better case than the relativists view, but it can be argued that there are clear statements in the Bible that it is necessary to hear and believe in the gospel to receive salvation, for example in Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ”. On the other hand, it is exactly this exclusivist Christian approach to claiming a truth from some words in the Scripture that inclusivist oppose, meaning that God’s revelation is not only experienced within reading and teaching historical texts, but in new awareness and individual experiences as well - that is, acknowledging that God can work in many mysterious ways, including having salvation plans for everyone and not limiting His grace for only a few by putting demands as mentioned.
These three views see the content of Christian revelation in three different ways, illustrating the problematic issue in current Christian theology of the place of non-Christian religions in a Christian theology of revelation. It shall now be argued that there is a need for Christian theology to take a more inclusivist stand if it intends to strengthen its relationship and reconciliation with the non-Christian world.
4. The Age of Reconciliation
The discussion so far has shown that the Christian Church cannot deny the possibility of God acting in non-Christian revelation, and likewise, the possibility that there is a universal salvation for all human beings, Christians as well as non-Christians.
Therefore, and well summarised by Macquarrie, “the time has come for Christianity and the great other religions to think in terms of sharing a mission to the loveless and unloved masses of humanity, rather than sending in missions to convert each other”, or as noted by Dulles: “obviously no dialogue would be possible if Christians demanded, as a condition of participation, that Christ be acknowledged by all as the supreme norm of truth”. Dulles means that Christians can enter the dialogue with non-Christian religions with the full consciousness of having something to contribute, but also something to learn. He sums up his argument by stating that the Christians cannot set limit to he heights of holiness and insight that Gods grace may bring among those who do not recognise Christ as the incarnate Word.
An inclusivist Christian theology of revelation would therefore benefit Christians and non-Christians in that all would have something to provide and all would have something to learn from each other. Acknowledging that culture, history, tradition and society can shape various beliefs and actions, and acknowledging that an almighty God can work through different means of salvation and revelation, provides for a new age of open religious dialogue and reconciliation. If the inclusivist view is adopted, the place of non-Christian revelation in Christian theology of revelation can be said to be a place of mutual understanding and benefits. This paper ends with recommendations based on the six main features of Keith Ward’s theory of an “open theology”, which may assist contemporary and future theologians that find themselves in an increasing multi-cultural and multi-religious society:
This open theology will:
1) seek a convergence of common core beliefs, clarifying the deep agreements which may underlie diverse cultural traditions.
2) seek to learn from complementary beliefs in other traditions, expecting that there are forms of revelation one’s own tradition does not express.
3) be prepared to reinterpret its beliefs in the light of new, well established factual and moral beliefs.
4) accept the full right of diverse belief-systems to exist.
5) encourage a dialogue with conflicting and dissenting views, being prepared to critisise own traditions with questions arising from such a dialogue.
6) try to develop a sensitivity to the historical and cultural context of the formulation of own beliefs.
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Books and articles:
Avis, P., “Divine Revelation in Modern Protestant Theology”, in Paul Avis (ed.), Divine Revelation, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1997.
D’Costa, G., “Revelation and World Religions”, in Paul Avis (ed.), Divine Revelation, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1997.
Daly, G., “Revelation in the Theology of the Roman Catholic Church”, in Paul Avis (ed.), Divine Revelation, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1997.
Dulles, A., Models of Revelation, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1983.
Dunn, J. D.G., “Biblical concepts of Revelation”, in Paul Avis (ed.), Divine Revelation, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1997.
Pyle, E.H., “Diagnosis of Religion”, in F.G. Healey (ed.), Prospect for Theology, James Nisbet & Co., Great Britain, 1966.
Jones, G., Christian Theology - a brief introduction, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999.
Macquarrie, J., Principles of Christian Theology, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1966.
Smart, N., The Teacher and Christian Belief, James Clarke & Co, London, 1966.
Ward, K., Religion and Revelation - A Theology of Revelation in the World’s Religions, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994.
Weger, K-H., Karl Rahner: An Introduction to His Theology, Burns & Oates, London, 1980.
Catholic Church Documents:
Paul, Bishop of the Catholic Church, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation”, The Documents of Vatican II, 1965.
Paul, Bishop of the Catholic Church, “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”, The Documents of Vatican II, 1965.
Rood, R., “The Christian Attitude Toward Non-Christian Religions”, Leadership University Reprint, http://leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/non-xrel.html, 1993.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen.
 Rick Rood, “The Christian Attitude Toward Non-Christian Religions”, Leadership University Reprint, http://leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/non-xrel.html, 1993.
 Erich H. Pyle, “Diagnosis of Religion”, in F.G. Healey (ed.), Prospect for Theology, James Nisbet & Co., Great Britain, 1966, p.222.
 Paul, Bishop of the Catholic Church, “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”, The Documents of Vatican II, p.662.
 The Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen.
 John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1966, pp.6-8.
 Keith Ward, Religion and Revelation - A Theology of Revelation in the World’s Religions, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994, p.232.
 Paul, Bishop of the Catholic Church, “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation”, The Documents of Vatican II, 1965, p.113.
 Gareth Jones, Christian Theology - a brief introduction, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp.149-150.
 Avery Dulles, Models of Revelation, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1983, pp.176-177.
 Ibid., pp.27-28.
 Dulles, Models of Revelation, p.175.
 Ward, Religion and Revelation - A Theology of Revelation in the World’s Religions, p.73.
 Paul Avis, “Divine Revelation in Modern Protestant Theology”, in Paul Avis (ed.), Divine Revelation, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1997, p.136.
 Ward, p.24.
 Paul Avis, “Divine Revelation in Modern Protestant Theology”, p.136.
 Dulles, Models of Revelation, p.176.
 Rick Rood, “The Christian Attitude Toward Non-Christian Religions”.
 Paul, Bishop of the Catholic Church, “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”, The Documents of Vatican II
 Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, p.144.
 James D.G. Dunn, “Biblical concepts of Revelation”, in Paul Avis (ed.), Divine Revelation, p.20.
 Pyle, “Diagnosis of Religion”, p.222.
 Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, p.156.
 Ninian Smart, The Teacher and Christian Belief, James Clarke & Co, London, 1966, p.184.
 Ward, Religion and Revelation - A Theology of Revelation in the World’s Religions, p.215.
 Ward, Religion and Revelation - A Theology of Revelation in the World’s Religions, p.338.
 Gavin D’Costa, “Revelation and World Religions”, in Paul Avis (ed.), Divine Revelation, p.121.
 Ibid., p.120.
 Rood, “The Christian Attitude Toward Non-Christian Religions”.
 Gavin D’Costa, “Revelation and World Religions”, p.132.
 Karl-Heinz Weger, Karl Rahner: An Introduction to His Theology, Burns & Oates, London, 1980, p.87.
 Ibid., pp.97-101.
 Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, pp.394-395.
 Dulles, Models of Revelation, pp.190-191.
 Dulles, Models of Revelation, pp.190-191.
 Ward, Religion and Revelation - A Theology of Revelation in the World’s Religions, pp.339-340.