by Guy Elsmore
from Signs of the Times No. 54 - Jul 2014

Part 1 of 3: Christian Exclusivism In the Parish of St Luke in the City, Liverpool

Part 2: Christian Inclusivism

Part 3: Pluralism

I regularly meet followers of other faiths. In Chinatown, I know members of the See Yip Association, upholders of traditional Chinese beliefs. In other parts of the parish, I have Muslim, Jewish and Hindu friends. Life together brings opportunities and invitations to work alongside one another. How should I relate to people of other faiths? Should I be trying to convert them to Christianity? Should I refuse or welcome acts of worship which involve other faiths? How should the Churches in the St Luke’s Team relate in mission to multifaith neighbourhoods?

In categorising theological responses to the issue of Christianity and religious pluralism, three broad categories of Christocentric exclusivism, Christocentric inclusivism and Theocentric pluralism have been described. There is currently debate about the usefulness of these names but they do provide a useful means of mapping complex territory and will serve for the purposes of these articles.

In this series of three articles, the strengths and weaknesses of these three approaches will be explored and evaluated through examination of the theology of a "classic" and "contemporary" exponent of each, from whom advice for my situation will be gleaned.

Exclusivist advice

Exclusivists assert that Christianity is public truth and that knowing Christ is the only sure way to know God. This has been the orthodox mode of the Christian theology throughout most of Christian history. It was the assumption underlying almost every contribution to February 2009’s General Synod debate on 'The Uniqueness of Christ and Dialogue with Other Faiths.'

A 'classic' exponent of exclusivism is Karl Barth. For Barth, the test of a true religion is whether it allows a saving encounter with grace, that is, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as attested to in Holy Scripture. Revelation and religion cannot be compared as equals, rather, religions must be judged by revelation. For Barth, there is no philosophical ground on which to stand outside of the divine revelation of Jesus Christ as Lord. Those privileged to be the bearers of this revelation should act with great, even Christ-like tolerance towards those who follow the religions of the world. Yet Barth is clear that those who do not acknowledge the revelation have avoided the truth and worship a fiction. The distinction Barth makes between revelation and religion does not allow the Christian to be triumphalist, since the Christian religion itself sits under judgement from this revelation. Barth likens Christians to those who are illuminated by the sun and the sun to the source of the revelation. Those on the earth have no light of their own, thus, we may infer, all religions, which do not derive from the revelation are in darkness.

What advice might Barth have for me? Clearly, his concern would be directed toward me, as much as toward those of other faiths. Barth would wish me to be sure that I am a recipient of God’s grace. Out of that assurance, I might then speak to others about my Christian faith, but then only with the humility of Christ himself.

Like all exclusivist positions, Barth’s approach avoids relativising or down-playing the claims made of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Barth’s theology, grounded in the doctrine of Christ the Servant avoids the trap of triumphalism. The weakness of Barth’s position is that he has nothing positive to say about other faiths. Furthermore the 'scandal of particularity' (i.e. that God would be revealed to some people in some times and some places) requires strict exclusivists to defend a God whose recipe for salvation seems to take no account of those who have had no chance to hear and respond to the gospel. Such a God seems, in the words of inclusivist Gavin D’Costa, [both] 'capricious and unworthy'.

Lesslie Newbigin is a theologian who writes in the exclusivist camp and whose work was formed by nearly 40 years in India. 'The Gospel in a Pluralist Society' is the reflection of one who held on to the particularity of the Christian revelation while being open to finding God at work in ways far beyond the limits Barth sets.

Newbigin argues that the parables of Jesus show God at work in the world through its everyday processes and he affirms Justin Martyr’s insight into the action of the Logos within both the secular and religious world. Newbigin downplays the scandal of particularity by pointing out that it turns the evangelist into judge, thus usurping a position which can only belong to God. Rather than calculating who is to be justified and who is to be damned, for Newbigin, the central question is 'How is [God] to be honoured and glorified?'

In Newbigin’s experience, the evangelism of non-Christians always involves the identification of points of continuity between the previous faith of the hearer and the Christian faith being proclaimed by the evangelist. Furthermore, his friendship and deep knowledge of people of other faiths led him to realise that their experience of God is real.

While affirming with Barth that the Gospel is public truth with Christ at the centre of theology and that the sure way of salvation is through the cross, Newbigin argues that Christians may nonetheless:

  1. Rejoice in signs of God at work among those who have yet to fully hear the Gospel.
  2. Be ready to work with those of other faiths in building God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
  3. Share in this work ready to engage in dialogue, a dialogue initiated often by those of other faiths, having confidence that in such praxis, the reality of the crucified and risen one will be made plain.
  4. Simply be content to tell their story since conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit.

The sure way is a broad way in Newbigin’s thinking and he would ask me to be open to 'signs of grace at work' in those who have yet to hear the Gospel. His position offers clear centrality to the Christian revelation while yet opening the way to dialogue and mission which are respectful of others’ religious experience. Newbigin would not ask me to proselytise but simply to be myself and to allow the Holy Spirit to work and witness through me.

To conclude this brief exploration of exclusivism, a story of a recent encounter with an exclusivist group and perhaps a sign that even within strict exclusivism is the knowledge that a properly Christian approach may be more embracing…

Pastor John at the Chinese Evangelical Church refused to allow a funeral in his Church which had begun at the See Yip Association. He felt that the offering of burning money, meat, alcohol and incense were incompatible with Christianity and that the family should choose either a 'pagan' ceremony or a Christian ceremony.

In the end, I went to the See Yip Association and joined in the rituals there and then welcomed the family to St Michael’s for an Anglican funeral service following the traditional rituals.

Paradoxically the leaders of the Chinese Evangelical Church were happy to provide a translator for me for the service. They could not, in strict evangelical conscience, offer their Church for the 'compromised' funeral, but they were glad that I could offer St Michael’s. Perhaps in this gracious action they were acknowledging the need for a broader approach?

In the next Signs of the Times - Part 2: Christian Inclusivism

Guy Elsmore is Rector of the St Luke in the City team ministry in Liverpool, and General Secretary of Modern Church.