December 2009 - Vol. 35

Jesus Christ Pantocrator (1148 AD), mosaic, dome of Cathedral of Cefal, Palermo, Italy

The Finality of Christ

and Religious Pluralism

The battle between catholic evangelicalism and neo-Gnosticism

by Donald Bloesch

Coexistence of conflicting religious claims
With the rise of neo-Protestant theology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and neo-Catholic theology in the twentieth century, a new theological model has emerged into prominence that seriously calls into question the exclusivistic claims of traditional Christian faith. The new paradigm has been facilitated by the Church’s encounter in the early nineteenth century with Romanticism with its emphasis on individuality, pluralism, and relativism. It was Schleiermacher (d. 1834) who exulted in the plurality of the modern world: “Let none offer the seekers a system making exclusive claim to truth, but let each man offer his characteristic, individual presentation.”1

The History of Religions school associated with such names as Ernst Troeltsch (d. 1923) and Johannes Weiss (d. 1914) also paved the way for modern relativism and pluralism. For Troeltsch there is no final revelation: the Divine Life within history always manifests itself in new and peculiar individualizations. Truth has many forms; ultimate reality is necessarily apprehended in a variety of ways, all of which have some claim to validity.

The emerging philosophy of pragmatism from the later nineteenth century on gave additional impetus to the slide toward relativism and pluralism. William James (d. 1910), who has had a unmistakable influence on both process theology and New Age theology, advanced the notion of a pluralistic universe, which allows for the coexistence of conflicting religious claims.

Uniqueness of Christian revelation called into question
More recently, with the rise of the “theology of religions,” the uniqueness of Christian revelation has been further called into question. Paul Knitter of Xavier University in Cincinnati says that we need to “recognize the possibility that other ‘saviours’ have carried out . . . for other people” the redemptive work which as Christians we know in Jesus Christ.2 For Knitter the common ground of religion exists in the struggle to liberate the oppressed peoples of the world. Eugene C. Bianchi upholds a “Christian polytheism,” which allows for other savior figures besides Christ. Hans Küng contends that a person “is to be saved within the religion that is made available to him in his historical situation. Hence it is right and his duty to seek God within that religion in which the hidden God has already found him.”3 Calling for a “global religious vision” John Hick avers that it is no longer necessary “to insist . . . upon the uniqueness and superiority of Christianity; and it may be possible to recognize the separate validity of the other great world religions. . . .”4

The ascendancy of the new theological orientation can be described in various ways. Samuel Moffett, veteran Presbyterian missionary to Korea, views the nineteenth century as the age of missions, the early and middle part of the twentieth century as the age of ecumenism, and the present period as the age of religious pluralism. New Agers describe this last stage as the “Age of Aquarius,” marked by the celebration of the intuitive over the cerebral. Whatever images are used, it cannot be doubted that an exclusive monotheism is being challenged and in many cases supplanted by a religious pluralism that borders on syncretism.

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[This article was originally published in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, Summer 1991. Touchstone is a monthly ecumenical journal which endeavors to promote doctrinal, moral, and devotional orthodoxy among Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. Copyright © 2004 the Fellowship of St. James. Used with permission.].
Donald Bloesch (b. 1928) is a noted American evangelical theologian. He is Professor Emeritus of Theology (1957-1992) at Dubuque Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, U.S.A.. Bloesch earned a B.A. from Elmhurst College, a B.D. from Chicago Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He did postdoctoral work at the universities of Oxford, Tübingen and Basel, and has written numerous books including the seven-volume systematic theology, Christian Foundations.

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