Some Loose Ends on Religious Pluralism

I just want to add a few more thoughts on More Than One Way? I didn’t know where to fit them in my other posts, so I’ll put them here.

1. Geivett/Phillips respond to accusations that they are proof-texting. That reminds me of an incident I had at Harvard. I was in my senior seminar, and my project was to attempt to show that Isaiah 53 predicts Jesus Christ. (Unlike with my undergrad thesis, I don’t look back on this one with that much favor). I was trying to set forth my theology using Scriptural support, and one of the students snidely asked, “And what is your basis for what you’re saying? Prooftexts?”

But I wonder what the basis is for liberal theology. If they’re not relying on the Bible, then where are they getting their ideas about God and his purposes? And why should we trust their ideas as reliable? My paper was not the best thing I’ve ever written, but I see nothing wrong with using prooftexts.

2. That brings me to an interesting McGrath quote:

“Most Western religious pluralists appear to work with a concept of God that is shaped by the Christian tradition, whether this is openly acknowledged or not. For example, they often appeal to the notion of a gracious and loving God. Yet this is a distinctively Christian notion of God, grounded and substantiated in Jesus Christ…As Gavin D’ Costa has pointed out, John Hick’s concept of God, which plays a significant role in his pluralist worldview, has been decisively shaped by Christological considerations, whether he realizes or is prepared to admit this. ‘How credibly,’ he asks, ‘can Hick expound a doctrine of God’s universal salvific will if he does not ground this crucial truth in the revelation of God in Christ, thereby bringing Christology back onto center stage?'” (168).

I have a slight problem with this quote. Does a God of love exist only in Christianity? I don’t think so. Judaism has it too. Also, Clark Pinnock refers to “the Saiva Siddhanta literature of Hinduism, which celebrates a personal God of love, and the emphasis on grace that I see in the Japanese Shin-Shu Amida sect” (110). Of course, McGrath has a point when he says that Eastern religions may draw on Christianity in certain areas (he mentions grace), and I don’t know enough about Hinduism or Japanese religion to determine if this is true of them. But something tells me that other religions have some idea of God’s beneficence, even if it may not be as high as Christianity’s.

Overall, however, I appreciate McGrath’s point in that quote. Liberal theologians are usually getting their ideas from the Bible. And, if they see the Bible as authoritative on God’s gracious nature, why can’t they accept the rest of it? We need some foundation for theology, here!

3. We always talk about those who have never heard the Gospel. Geivett-Phillips say that those who never heard would not accept the Gospel if they actually did hear it. But, as McGrath points out, the New Testament presents an example of people who didn’t hear the Gospel but would have believed had they heard it. Matthew 11:21-24 states:

“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you” (NRSV).

Geivett/Phillips essentially blow this off. They say: “Our own view is that Jesus’ reference to the people of Tyre and Sidon is hyperbolical. His point is not that they would actually have believed if they had been in the same situation as his first-century audience, but that his first-century audience was even more obstinate than these ancient peoples who were known for their rebellion against God” (259-260).

Jesus doesn’t mean they would have believed? Then why’s he say that they would have believed? Maybe Jesus says what he means and means what he says. Why are some conservatives so literal on some interpretations of Scripture (as are Geivett/Phillips in their focus on even the smallest details of certain verses), but so loose on others?

4. Clark Pinnock says the following:

“I fear that restrictivism may prevent people from seeing truth and goodness that result from God’s grace working in other people and hide from them the spirit of Jesus, who regards deeds of love done for the poor as done for him (Matt. 25:40). He has a generous spirit and can detect the seed of faith evidenced in good works in those who are unaware of any relation to himself” (254).

I’m not sure if I agree totally with Pinnock’s view here, since Paul says that we’re saved by faith in Christ, not good works. Pinnock has to deal with that, on some level! But I like his picture of God and Christ as persons who look for the best in people. It reminds me of something I read in Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew: When Jesus healed a person, he often complimented the healed person by pointing out his faith. Jesus returned the compliment! There are plenty of Bible passages that condemn humanity as sinful. But does God ever seek and acknowledge any good in human beings? And how should we be in our relationship with others? Should we see them as hopelessly corrupt, or should we look for the good in them? Which approach will improve our relationships with other people?

These are just my thoughts. Number 4 is not entirely orthodox, but it’s something I’ve often wondered about.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Some Loose Ends on Religious Pluralism

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi James:

    I want to respond to your post.

    “But I wonder what the basis is for liberal theology. If they’re not relying on the Bible, then where are they getting their ideas about God and his purposes? And why should we trust their ideas as reliable? My paper was not the best thing I’ve ever written, but I see nothing wrong with using prooftexts.”

    Ultimately reason has to play a role, and even the staunchest fundamentalists concede errors in the Bible. For example, reason teaches us that the world is not 6,000 years old, we know that the Tower of Babel is untrue, as well as some other things with 100%, unequivocal certainty.

    The more important question, as you know, involves more central issues. Did Israel originate from Canaan, can their theology be explained because of X Y Z, etc…

    When you say liberal theology, I’m not sure what you mean. I’d imagine that many HDS students read Amos with utter idealism and construct liberation type theologies. This, to me, seems weak and may be equally guilty of fundamentalist proof-texting. I, in fact, as a capitalist read Amos as more of a foolish social misfit, and that he is simply mistaken about economic mechanisms. Maybe that sounded too harsh.

    What I’m advocating is modest. Reason should play a crucial role at the end of the day, and unfortunately, that means that reading the Bible as God’s inspired word is a bit more difficult than Geivett would like to admit.

    But, like anyone, I am forced to believe things that smack against the grain of responsible scholarship for pragmatic reasons. With that, I will withold my name–but you probably can guess my name.


  2. James Pate says:

    Hey Anonymous!

    Good question. What do I mean by liberal theology. I admit–I’m including all sorts of people and ideas under that rubric. In general, what I mean by that is people who don’t accept all of what the Bible says on God’s nature, will, plan, and purposes. And there are people who dismiss parts of the Bible, on such issues as homosexuality. Whenever someone flat out disagrees with the Bible, I see that person as a liberal theologian.

    Which is not to say that I hate liberal theologians. You will read me say “I don’t like what the Bible says about…” I welcome honesty on my blog, and I try to be honest too. Also, I too have questions about the historicity of parts of the Bible, even though I’m reluctant to dismiss it as unhistorical, especially when there are so many people offering arguments for so many sides. I have some familiarity with that realm, but you most likely have more.

    I have problems with using reason as a criterion, since reason can lead us in all sorts of directions. You can come up with an argument for virtually everything! Incidentally, this is also my problem with Christian apologists, when they act like reason is the end all be all. Sometimes, God can act in ways that do not make sense to us, though they probably would if we had more information or a grasp of the bigger picture.

    I’m interested in hearing more of what you think about Amos, since I was thinking about some of the same issues. When I was reading Amos, I was also reading Economics for Dummies and the Complete Idiots Guide to Economics. For those books, the market pretty much works everything out for good. Prices may be high, but the law of supply and demand will bring them down again. Yet, Amos does not present that, for he presents the rich charging people exorbitant prices. I wish I could be more crisp on this, but I read these things a few months ago.


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