PEW FORUM SURVEY: ‘IS CHRISTIANITY THE ONE TRUE RELIGION?’


A 2008 Pew Forum survey found that 65 percent of Americans believe many religions lead to eternal life — and that 52 percent of American Christians believe salvation can be found in at least some non-Christian religions, reports Baptist Press.

At a time when American belief is shifting toward religious pluralism — the idea that all religions are equal in offering truth — New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s annual Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum addressed the question: “Is Christianity the one true religion?”

“The topic is very important given the politically correct, tolerance-laden culture we find ourselves living in today,” said Robert Stewart, director of the Greer-Heard Forum and associate professor of philosophy and theology at NOBTS. “Ultimately we need to take a stand on the clear teaching of God’s Word, which teaches us that Jesus is the only Savior of the world.”

Evangelical Christians as a whole are not embracing pluralism, Stewart said, but some are drifting away from an exclusive view of salvation.

“Some Christians are probably more inclusivistic in their theology than pluralistic,” he said. “The recent Pew Forum survey found that a majority of American Christians believe that some non-Christian faiths lead to eternal life and that 37 percent of those Christians were evangelical Christians.”

The keynote speakers for the March 27-28 forum, Harold Netland of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Paul Knitter of Union Theological Seminary, presented divergent answers to the question of pluralism.

Citing the often-conflicting and contradictory views of various religions, Netland rejected pluralism as a viable option. He argued in favor of the evangelical position that Christianity is the one true religion. Knitter, who identifies himself as a Christian and disciple of Jesus Christ, argued that Jesus “is a way open to other ways.”

Netland opened the forum by acknowledging, “The assertion that Christianity is the one true religion for all people strikes many as hopelessly out of touch with current realities.” Such a claim, he said, “seems to display generous amounts of both intellectual naivety and arrogance.”

“Nevertheless, with proper qualification, I do believe that the Christian faith as defined by the Christian scriptures is true and that this sets the Christian faith apart from other religious traditions,” Netland said.

Affirming the truth of Christianity does not deem all aspects of other religions false; Netland said other religious traditions do contain beauty and goodness — often in the area of moral and ethical teachings. However, beliefs that are incompatible with essential Christian teachings must be rejected, Netland said.

Netland said he rejects pluralism in part because the major world religions tend to make often-exclusive truth claims. Religious adherents from most traditions are expected to regard the claims of their religion as true, he said. These truth assertions are not meant to be taken as personal or mythological.

“Each religion regards its own assertions as correct or superior to those of its rivals,” Netland said. “When we consider carefully what the religions have to say about the religious ultimate and the nature of, and conditions for salvation …, there is significant disagreement.”

Netland suggested focusing on the essential or defining beliefs of a religion in determining its truth; a religion is true only if these essential beliefs are true.

“For Christianity to be true, the defining beliefs of Christianity, namely certain affirmations about God, Jesus of Nazareth and salvation must be true,” Netland said. “If they are true, Christianity is true.”

Netland said that some argue for “epistemic parity” among religions. Epistemic parity holds that no religion can claim rational superiority over another religion because the data is insufficient to prove one claim over another. Netland, however, sees epistemic parity as an argument for agnosticism rather than pluralism.

“For if there are not good reasons for accepting any single religious tradition as true, why should we suppose that all of them collectively are equally true?” Netland said.

On the other hand, Knitter claimed that true Christianity would never make an exclusive claim to truth. He offered a case for pluralism based on four categories: history, ethics, theology and Scripture.

“If we look at our history, there has been a change in Christian beliefs about this question,” Knitter said. “Although at one time, almost all the churches held firmly that Christianity is the only true religion, today many Christian churches do not.”

Knitter cited the 2008 Pew Forum study as evidence that many Christians are moving away from a belief in Christianity as the one true religion.

“The fact that our question has already been answered by a broad group of Christians … we have to take [this] into consideration,” he said. “Our job as theologians is to work with what people are actually believing.”

Knitter said the shift away from an exclusive belief in Christianity has not diminished the commitment or discipleship of individual Christians. He argued that a further shift could be made — a complete shift to religious pluralism.

Knitter noted that viewing Christianity as the one true religion carries the danger of hindering dialogue among the religions.

“The religions of the world have a moral obligation to engage each other in a peacemaking dialogue,” Knitter said. “Dialogue is the mutual exchange to which all sides seek to help each other grow in the knowing and the doing of what is true and what is right.”

Dialogue is impossible, however, if one side makes an exclusive claim to religious truth, Knitter argued, saying it is a grievous error to hinder dialogue.

If dialogue is “a moral imperative,” he said, “what impedes a moral imperative looks to be immoral itself.”

Exclusive claims to truth not only impede dialogue, but such claims can foster violence, Knitter said. While rarely the cause of violence, he said exclusive truth claims can rally followers to a leader’s cause.

In his theological case for pluralism, Knitter appealed to God’s love. He said that “the God of Jesus is a power of pure unbounded love” and that the New Testament’s teachings show God’s desire to see all people saved.

“As my teacher back in Germany, Karl Rahner, insisted, ‘if God wants to save all people then God will act in a sure way as to make this a real possibility for all people,’” Knitter said. “Rahner went on to claim that the religions are among the most available and ready at hand ways in which God will make this offer of His saving grace. A God who loves all will offer that love to all.”

For his scriptural argument, Knitter claimed that the exclusive language of the New Testament is confessional language, or love language that was intended to be superlative, not exclusive. Statements such as “no other name,” “one mediator,” and “no one comes to the Father except by me” are meant to communicate something positive about Jesus, not something negative about other religions, Knitter said.

“I must confess my faith that Jesus is indeed the way that is open to other ways and that in order to be a faithful follower of this Jesus I must recognize and engage the truth that the Spirit may be offering me in my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Native American and Shinto brothers and sisters,” Knitter said.

Knitter closed with the famous quote from Martin Luther: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.”

During the response time, Netland sought clarification on a number of points from Knitter in areas such as application of Scripture, the meaning of truth in religion and the religious ultimate.

“How exactly is the New Testament … normative for us today?” Netland asked. “How does Paul Knitter understand the concept of truth in religion?”

Netland also asked Knitter to explain his view of the religious ultimate (God).

Knitter did not directly address Netland’s questions but was content to present a further argument on the nature of religious language. Appealing to the mystery of God, Knitter said all of human language about God is symbolic, poetic and metaphoric.

This religious language, Knitter said, calls people to action. For him, right practice should be emphasized over right belief.

“Orthopraxis has a certain primacy over orthodoxy. The two are essentially related and you can’t have one without the other,” Knitter said. “The truth of a symbol will be in its ability to affect our life. Religious truth is truth for me when it enables me to find a context in which I find meaning and purpose.”

After the event, Greer-Heard director Robert Stewart said he hopes students learn to be “both properly charitable and properly critical in evaluating claims with which they disagree.” While he disagrees with the position of Knitter and other pluralists, Stewart sees value in engaging their ideas. He hopes exposure to scholars such as Knitter will help NOBTS students better defend the truth of Christianity.

“As a philosopher I don’t find the hermeneutical arguments that pluralists make on this point strong enough to overcome the case for the traditional reading of passages like John 14:6 and Acts 4:12,” Stewart said. “The purpose of the Greer-Heard Forum, however, is that we are training Christians for ministry in today’s world and must thus trust that we have given them what they need to interact critically with the wide range of opinions that they will encounter in real-world ministry.”

Begun in 2005, the Greer-Heard Forum provides a platform for dialogue between a noted evangelical scholar and a non-evangelical academic on matters of faith and culture. The event is designed to teach students, ministers and laypeople how to interact with a person from an opposing view.

The 2010 Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum will focus on “The Message of Jesus.” The keynote speakers will be Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, and John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University. Other presenters will include Amy-Jill Levine, Alan Segal, Darrell Bock and Craig Evans.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

WORLD EVANGELICAL ALLIANCE ASSEMBLY CLOSES IN THAILAND


More than 500 senior evangelical leaders gathering in Pattaya, Thailand from October 25-30, 2008, have wrapped up their General Assembly, after five days of intensive discussion to plan the way forward in world evangelization, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

On Wednesday, delegates agreed upon six major resolutions setting out an evangelical response to religious liberty, HIV and Aids, poverty, peacemaking, creation care and the global financial crisis, according to a media release obtained by ANS.

“The worldwide financial turmoil is, at its root, evidence of what happens when too many are captivated by greed and put their faith in, and entrust their security and future aspirations to, a system animated by the maximization of wealth. Many legitimately feel betrayed,” read the resolution on the global financial crisis.

“While we hope that the painful consequences of the turmoil will be mitigated, our concern is that its impact will continue to permeate into more regions and economies of the world. We recognize that this economic crisis will have the most painful impact on the poor, who are the most vulnerable.

“We reaffirm our faith in God and acknowledge that He is in control. We repent when we have placed our trust in money, institutions and persons, rather than God. Our security is not found in the things of this world.”

The resolution called on Christians to care for the poor during the crisis and live simply and generously.

“The Body of Christ, His Church, is living with HIV,” stated the resolution on HIV, a major focus area for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). “With brokenness we admit that as Evangelical Christians we have allowed stigmatization and discrimination to characterize our relationships with people living with HIV. We repent of these sinful attitudes and commit to ensuring that they are changed.”

In the preamble to the resolution on the Millennium Development Goals, evangelical leaders stated, “In coping with the financial crisis of 2008, governments and international institutions have shown how quickly and effectively they can move to mobilize massive resources in the face of serious threats to our global, common economic well being.

“Yet one child dying of preventable causes every three seconds and 2.7 billion people barely sustained on an income of less than two dollars per day has yet to evoke a similar level of urgent response.

“We believe this to be an affront to God, a shame to governments and civil society, and a massive challenge to the witness and mission of the followers of Christ.”

World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) international director Dr Geoff Tunnicliffe told delegates that they faced additional challenges to fulfilling the Great Commission from radical secularism, postmodernism, declining Christianity at the same time as growing interest in spirituality, trafficking and migration.

He insisted, however, that great challenges also brought great opportunities for evangelical engagement.

“We see this tremendous growth and this seismic shift in the church around the world and we are excited to what God is doing as he raises up women and men around the world in so many different places,” he said.

“As we think about the global reality of the world in which we live, [there are] immense challenges but also immense opportunities.”

Dr Tunnicliffe also said that the WEA would remain committed to integral mission “or holistic transformation, a proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel”.

“It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are done alongside of each other but rather in integral mission proclamation has social consequences. We call people to love and repentance in all areas of life,” he said.

He reaffirmed the WEA’s commitment to world evangelization.

“If anyone tells you that we’ve gone soft on world evangelization you can tell them that we are totally committed to world evangelization because it is only Jesus Christ that changes people’s lives,” he said.

A highlight of the week was an address from the Rev Joel Edwards, who was commissioned during the assembly as the new director of Christian anti-poverty movement Micah Challenge.

In his address, the former head of the UK Evangelical Alliance told delegates that the power to rehabilitate the word ‘evangelical’ lay in their hands.

“Whatever people think of evangelical Christians, if people are going to think differently about evangelicals the only people who can actually change their minds are evangelicals,” he said.

“We must reinvent, rehabilitate and re-inhabit what evangelical means as good news. We must present Christ credibly to our culture and we should seek to be active citizens working for long-term spiritual and social change.

“Words can change their meaning. If 420 million evangelicals in over 130 nations across the world really wanted it to happen, evangelical could mean good news.”

In another key address, the head of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, the Rev Richard Howell said that an identity anchored in Christ and a universal God was an evangelical non-negotiable in an age of pluralism.

“We have but one agenda: obedience to the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ,” said Dr Howell. “We are evangelical Christians for the sake of God.”

“Our identity has to be related back to God. Unless we do that, we will never know who we are. Our identity comes from God and God alone.”

“The Christian belief in the oneness of God implies God’s universality, and the universality implies transcendence with respect to any given culture.

“Christians can never be first of all Asians, Africans, Europeans, Americans, Australians and then Christians.”

The assembly also heard from the Chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE), Douglas Birdsall.

The WEA is collaborating with the LCWE in its major Cape Town 2010 meeting, which will bring together 4,000 evangelicals to assess the next steps in realizing the movement’s vision of ‘the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world’.

“You might ask is there a need for an international congress that deals with world evangelization,” Birdsall told the assembly. “I would say that throughout history, such a gathering is only necessary when the future of the life of the church is threatened by some type of challenge – either internal challenge or external pressure.”

The assembly also saw the launch of the WEA Leadership Institute, a brand new initiative to see the leaders of the WEA’s 128 national alliances trained to serve and proclaim Christ within some challenging contexts.

“Leading an Evangelical Alliance is not easy,” commented Dr Tunnicliffe. “That’s why we want to provide them with the relevant training and resources.”

Also commissioned during the week was the new leader of the WEA’s Religious Liberty Commission, Sri Lankan national Godfrey Yogarajah.

Dr Tunnicliffe rounded up the assembly with a call to evangelicals to keep in step with God’s work on earth.

“It is my prayer that we in our community will be women and men who live with divine purpose within our lives, that we will be good leaders envisioned by God to make a difference in the world,” he said.

“The most important thing that you can do with your [life] is to integrate it into the never ending story of God’s kingdom. God’s already at work in the world. He’s doing things. We just need to align with what He is doing.”

World Evangelical Alliance is made up of 128 national evangelical alliances located in 7 regions and 104 associate member organizations. The vision of WEA is to extend the Kingdom of God by making disciples of all nations and by Christ-centered transformation within society. WEA exists to foster Christian unity, to provide an identity, voice and platform for the 420 million evangelical Christians worldwide.

Report from the Christian Telegraph