Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Essay 3 in Alan Race & Paul M. Hedges, Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (London, UK: SCM, 2008)

Daniel Strange defends 'exclusivism' in his essay 'Exclusivism: 'Indeed Their Rock is Not like Our Rock''. Strange defines exclusivism by its concern with two "central insights":
The first is that God has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to bring salvation into the world and that this salvation is both judgement and mercy to all human beings who are deeply estranged from God. [...] Second, this salvation won by Christ is only available through explicit faith in Christ which comes from hearing the gospel preached..., requiring repentance, baptism and the embracing of a new life in Christ. (p.37)
Strange qualifies that those who affirm exclusivism do not necessarily think that salvation is only given to those who express explicit faith in Christ. Salvation is contingent upon other theological decisions than mere exclusivism. There is a range of exclusivism.

Nonetheless the essay points out that exclusivism is widely recognized as the "dominant theme regarding Christian approaches to other religions" (p.38). Strange gives three reasons showing that the scripture teaches this position. First, the ancient world of biblical authors was religiously pluralistic. This shows that the Judeo-Christian tradition is self-consciously exclusive. Second, it is consistent throughout the scripture that there is only one transcendent and unique God and Jesus is God incarnate. Third, if truth, salvation, and goodness are in God, God's word, and God's community, then anything outside of these boundaries fall short (pp.38-39).

Then Strange proceeds to give a brief historical sketch of the various affirmations of exclusivism since the time of the ancient Israelite to ours. He calls the contemporary form that he holds as 'Reformed Evangelical Presuppositional Exclusivism' (REPE), which affirms that,
[W]hile the triune God has revealed himself through his work in the natural world, in terms of an ultimate religious authority, it is God's totally truthful revelation of himself and his works in divinely inspired [...] Christian Scripture that is the ultimate authority in all metaphysical, epistemological, ethical and soteriological issues, and like all claims to ultimate authority (Enlightenment rationalism included) such a claim is made on the Bible's self-attestation, for to go outside of Scripture for Scripture's justification would be self-referentially incoherent. (p.48)
REPE is Christocentric in that, "It is the person and work of Christ that distinguishes Christianity from all other 'faiths' and gives Christianity its exclusive or particular claims." (p.52) So how do we account for other religions and the good found in them?

Strange points out two reasons. First, God's common grace, though non-salvific, enabled by the Holy Spirit to restrain sins and the consequence of sin in the non-Christians and lead them to do good (p.54). Second, humans' universal religious consciousness when suppressed and substituted by human sinfulness gives rise to idolatry, hence other religions (p.48, 54; based on Cornelius van Til's reading of Romans 1:25). In summary, Strange is saying that, 
[O]utside of Christianity there is damnation, because of the necessity of repentance and faith in the person and work of Christ which has been revealed in the apostolic gospel message, and the claim that God is perfectly just in his condemnation of non-Christians, for no one is ever 'ignorant' of God and their responsibilities before their Creator. All humanity is universally guilty of rejecting the knowledge of God they have been given in revelation and will be judged for this rejection. (p.55)
To Strange, one is either conscientiously for or wilfully go against God. The former leads to Christianity, the latter to other religions or non-religion. There is no place for sincere rejection of Christianity in good conscience because by REPE's principle, a good conscience can never reject God. Any conscience that rejects God is suppressed or distorted by sin.

What if there are people who are really ignorant of God and their responsibilities before their Creator?

Take for instance, devotees of other religions are often sincere. They believe and practice their religion as conscientious as they could, just like Christians. Yes, they may sometimes act contrary to their religion in good or bad way, yet they really desire to follow their faith. Just like Christians too.

On the other hand, if (as REPE argues) non-Christians reject Christianity due to suppressed and distorted conscience, then is the acceptance of Christianity really an act in good conscience? There are people who accepted Christ not because they have studied the scripture and came to an illuminated understanding of the faith. They decided to accept Christ because their prayer for certain physical, material, or existential blessing is answered.

If the acceptance and rejection of God in relation to humans' knowledge of and conscience before him is not as pronounced as Strange perceives it to be, then this ambiguity should make us hesitant to declare who is in and who is out based solely on humans' knowledge and conscience. If so, then Christian truth and salvation is not as exclusive as REPE presents.

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