An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

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An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. By Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003, 372 pp., $29.00 paper.

The reality of religious pluralism raises some perplexing questions for the church: In what sense is Jesus Christ the universal Savior? How are adherents of non-Christian religions to be viewed? What role, if any, do non-Christian religions play in the divine economy of salvation? To what end should Christians enter into dialogue with adherents of other religions? Discussion of these questions takes place within an emerging field of study-the Christian theology of religions. The theology of religions involves the attempt, on the part of Christian theologians, to reflect upon the meaning and significance of non-Christian religious beliefs and practices from the standpoint of Christian revelation. In Are Introduction to the Theology of Religions, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, a Finnish theologian who teaches systematic theology at Fuller Seminary, attempts to survey recent developments in this field. His purpose in this work is not to present his own constructive interpretation of religious diversity but rather to offer a neutral overview of current discussion in the theology of religions. To this end the book is divided into four sections.

In part one Kärkkäinen briefly surveys biblical testimony regarding non-Christian religions. According to Kärkkäinen, the Bible offers no clear solution to the question of Christianity's relationship to other religions. Two themes run through the biblical material-exclusivity and universality (not to be confused with "universalism"). With regard to the former, the Bible clearly presents Yahweh as the one true God and universal creator demanding nothing less than unequivocal devotion to him. Other religions are evaluated in light of "Jewish-Christian standards" (p. 50). Alongside this exclusivity, "a universal orientation also forms a strong strand of thought, especially in the beginning chapters of the Bible, as well as in some Old Testament prophetic passages and elsewhere" (p. 50). Although pagan religions are frequently condemned, one sometimes encounters commendable representatives of these religions in Scripture.

In part two Kärkkäinen traces historical developments regarding the relationship of Christianity and other religions. Although the Church fathers categorically rejected polytheism, several of them (including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria) exhibited a "limited openness to other religions." Alongside this openness, an exclusivist attitude eventually emerged which limited salvation to those who identified with the visible Church. Although this perspective can be seen in Ignatius, Cyprian, and Ambrose, it came to fullest expression in the theology of Augustine. Augustine's exclusivism quickly became the dominant view and was ratified by subsequent Church councils in the form of the axiom: extra ecdesiam nulla salus. Despite their break with the Catholic Church, Luther and Calvin continued to affirm the Augustinian position. Although exclusivism represented the dominant position within the Church, dissenting voices occasionally arose. On the Catholic side, Pope Gregory VII, Peter Abelard, Ramon Lull, and Nicholas of Cusa expressed openness to salvation outside the Church. On the Protestant side, Ulrich Zwingli, Jacob Arminius, and John Wesley voiced similar openness to those outside the purview of the Christian witness. Kärkkäinen argues that one of the decisive factors with regard to the development of the theology of religions was the Enlightenment. Traditional Christology was questioned and revised, giving rise to classical Liberalism (Schleiermacher, von Harnack, et al.). Ernst Troeltsch, arguably the ideological "father of religious pluralism," emphasized the historical relativity of all religions, and Arnold Toynbee emphasized the oneness of all religions. Christianity was increasingly viewed as one religion among others. …