by Bassam M. Madany
During the 20th Century, several international missionary conferences were held. Their goal was to challenge the sending churches in the West to double their efforts in their mission outreach overseas and thus hasten the fulfillment of the Great Commission. The first conference was held in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910. The Second International Missionary Conference met in Jerusalem in 1928, followed by the Madras, India, Third International Missionary Conference in 1938. One of the speakers at this meeting was the Dutch missiologist, H. Kraemer. In his lectures on the Christian Message to the Non-Christian World, he emphasized the uniqueness and finality of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Fifty years after the Madras conference, a group of church leaders met in this south Indian city to commemorate the 1938 event. I still remember the comments of William C. Smith, a Canadian missiologist, as they appeared in The Christian Century. "Today, to hold to the thesis of H. Kraemer, is to manifest the height of arrogance."
Around the same time, I read a review of Paul Knitter's book: No Other Name? (Note the added question mark to the original phrase taken from Acts 4:12!) This Roman Catholic theologian propounded his pluralistic theology in the most shocking way by denying the fundamental doctrine of the historic Christian faith that salvation is possible only through the Lord Jesus Christ.
My concern about this defection from the historic Christian faith became greater after reading in the August/September issue of FIRST THINGS. It was entitled, Pluralism and the Otherness of World Religions. The author was S. Mark Heim, professor of Christian Theology at Andover-Newton Theological School near Boston, MA. He began with these startling words:
We have witnessed in recent years the flowering of various Christian pluralistic theologies calling for unequivocal affirmation of the equal validity of all world faiths. It is argued that Christianity (and to some extent other traditions) has been infected with a virulent exclusivist virus, the disease of imagining its religious truth superior to all others and its path to salvation the only one. This sickness is perceived as similar to, and in the West often reinforced by, elements of racial and cultural prejudice, so that a devaluation of non-Christian religions goes hand in hand with devaluation of the culture and humanity of those who participate in them.
Advocates of pluralistic theology maintain that there is no antidote to this virus but a consistent reconstruction of the fundamentals of Christian faith. They insist that any responsible theology must now claim the religious experience of all humanity as its ground and avoid shaping its understanding in terms of only one or a few privileged traditions. (1)
The pluralistic virus had already been at work in Western European institutions. Here is one more example from the academic world. Dr. Timothy P. Palmer, a Christian Reformed missionary in Nigeria, contributed an article to Calvin Theological Journal in 1997, under the title, The Denial of Missions in the Missiology of Anton Wessels.
Anton Wessels is professor of missiology at the Free University of Amsterdam. He is successor to great missiologists like J. H. Bavinck and J. Verkuyl. But unlike these giants, Prof. Wessels seems not to believe in missions.
It is obvious that the theology of Professor Wessels has been heavily influenced by the secular European culture in which he lives. Instead of his Christianity transforming society, he is allowing his society to radically change his theology. Wessels’ theology is a good example of European syncretism, in which the Gospel is mixed with contemporary European culture. (2)
It is not only theologians who manifest the impact of the spirit of the age on their thinking. On the popular level, many Christians are no longer willing or able to defend the uniqueness of Christianity. They do not want to offend their new neighbors who have come from Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist parts of the world by affirming the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Should they be listening to radio ads on weekends, they are likely to hear more than once the government-sponsored ad: "Our strength is in our diversity." Placing this statement within its larger context of political correctness, it means much more than ethnic diversity. It preaches a multiculturism that erases religious differences supplanting them by a vapid spirituality.
I would like to advance three main reasons why pluralism is gaining grounds within the Western world.
1. Loss of faith in the supreme and final authority of the Word of God.
While many Christians are not willing to say explicitly that they no longer receive the Bible as the only Word of God, they exhibit their lack of faith in its authority when they are unwilling to stand for the great themes of Biblical revelation such as the Creation, the Fall, and the Redemption accomplished by the incarnate Son of God. When confronted with open denials of the uniqueness, finality, and superiority of the Lord Jesus Christ, many Christians remain silent. Unlike Paul, they are ashamed of the Gospel!
2. Loss of faith in the value of the Christian tradition.
Nowadays, the majority of Christians know hardly anything about the great Christian tradition that has come down to us via the Church Fathers, the teachings of the Ecumenical Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon.
Equally, they hardly manifest any true knowledge of the Reformation and its leaders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox. They may not even be aware that the Reformers left us classical formulations of the Christian faith in their Confessions of Faith and Catechisms.
3. Ignorance of the resurgence of the major world religions in the non-Western world.
One of the most important phenomena on the global scene at the dawn of the New Millennium is the revival of the major world religions. Prof. Heim noted this phenomenon and remarked in his article that the representatives of world religions, such as Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, are not willing to relinquish their firm belief in the validity and uniqueness of their particular religious tradition. At the same time, is it not strange that Westerners, who are now a demographic minority on the global scene, are rushing to get rid of their religious and cultural roots?
For those of us who love the Lord and believe in the supreme and final authority of His sacred Word, we must repudiate the harmful influence of all pluralistic theologies. We need to deepen our study of the Bible and the classical works of Christian leaders of the last 2000 years. Above all, we must double our efforts to defend and spread the Christian faith by every means throughout the entire world.
- S. Mark Heim, Pluralism and the Otherness of World Religions, in FIRST THINGS OF August/September 1992. Pp.29-35
- Timothy P. Palmer, The Denial of Missions in the Missiology of Anton Wessels, in Calvin Theological Journal of April 1997. Pp. 140-144