Brief Notes Towards a Reformed Theology of Religions (With a Bit of Bavinck on the Unevangelized)

theology of religionI’ve been reading Gerald McDermott and Harold Nestland’s new theology of religion A Trinitarian Theology of Religion: An Evangelical Proposal and it’s been quite stimulating. While I used to give the problem of other religions and the Christian faith more thought, I haven’t as of late. Still, McDermott and Nestland’s stimulating work have gotten the juices flowing again. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer 7 brief, tentative notes towards my current “theology” of other religions. What, in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, can we say is the truth about what we typically think of as other faith-systems?

1. Jesus Christ alone is the crucified and resurrected Lord over all creation. The confession of Christ’s preeminent, sole, unique, saving Lordship is baseline for any Christian theology of other religions.

2. Consistent with this, as the uniquely Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ alone is and reveals the ultimate fullness of truth about God, the world, and everything else. Jesus’ revelation is not one among many, or merely a slightly clearer revelation of a broader religious truth.

3. Jesus reveals the Triune God to to be ultimate spiritual reality. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not merely the names we’ve given to our Christian experience of some deeper Real that every other faith is describing by some other name. Hard Pluralism about religious reality is inconsistent–well, just in general–and with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

4. There is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved than that of the Lord Jesus. This means at the very least that salvation comes by, in, and through the work and person of Jesus Christ alone. It is only by union with his obedient life, atoning death, and life-giving sacrifice that any can be redeemed from their sin and brought into a saving relationship with God. For that reason, other religions cannot be the mechanism or method for the salvation of any person. Salvation is solely by the grace of Jesus Christ, not the result of human works or merit.

5. Other religions, just as all other philosophical thought systems that do not flow from the truth of gospel, participate in idolatry. While they testify to the basic human need to worship, they do so in a disordered fashion, according some part of creation with the honor, dignity, and function that only God may rightfully occupy. Note though, this is true as much with Hinduism as it is with Marxism or Aristotelian philosophy.

6. The complementary reality is that within other religions there can be elements of truth found within them through God’s work of common grace. Note, this is not saving truth, or special grace. That said, some religions’ teachings may be the result of the Holy Spirit’s restraining work of mercy, though not likely his illumining work of salvation. That a Muslim knows there is one God and does not fall into the obvious idolatry of animism or ancestor worship, I take to be the restraining work of common grace. Also, it seems possible to see those aspects in Buddhism that teach compassion, or at least militate against socially-destructive forms of obvious selfishness, to be truths of common grace as well. Many of us would have no trouble affirming something like this about the truth of systems of thought we call “philosophy” such as Aristotelianism and Platonism. I take this to be as true for the systems of thought we typically designate “religious” in the West.

7. Finally, as to the very sensitive question of the salvation of members of other religions who have never had the opportunity to explicitly respond to the gospel, unsurprisingly, I suppose I hold decently conservative views on the subject. When I was younger I used to straight-forwardly affirm a C.S. Lewis-style inclusivism–God saves some on the basis of their response to the truth they could respond to, yet only on the basis of Christ’s merits. Lately though, in light of the types of concerns summarized by this excellent little article by Kevin DeYoung clarifying the case for exclusivism, I have become me much more cautious about affirming something speculative on this issue and wary about going that route.

My thought in this area has been rather unreconstructed since my shift Reformed, though, so I decided to do a little digging in Bavinck and I find this interesting section on the fate of unevangelized pagans and children who die in infancy. After discussing some historical positions–for instance, Augustine and others believed some pagans like Socrates were in a position similar to OT saints–he goes on to write this fascinating passage:

In light of Scripture, both with regard to the salvation of pagans and that of children who die in infancy, we cannot get beyond abstaining from a firm judgment, in either a positive or a negative sense. Deserving of note, however, is that in the face of these serious questions Reformed theology is in a much more favorable position than any other. For in this connection, all other churches can entertain a more temperate judgment only if they reconsider their doctrine of the absolute necessity of the means of grace or infringe upon that of the accursedness of sin. But the Reformed refused to establish the measure of grace needed for a human being still to be united with God, though subject to many errors and sins, or to determine the extent of the knowledge indispensably necessary to salvation. Furthermore, they maintained that the means of grace are not absolutely necessary for salvation and that also apart from the Word and sacraments God can regenerate persons for eternal life.
Thus, in the Second Helvetic Confession, article 1, we read: “At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power”…And the Westminster Confession states (in ch. X, §3) that “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases”, and that this applies also to “all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” Reuter, accordingly, after explaining Augustine’s teaching on this point, correctly states: “One could in fact defend the paradox that it is precisely the particularistic doctrine of predestination that makes possible those universalistic-sounding phrases.”
In fact, even the universalistic passages of Scripture cited above come most nearly and most beautifully into their own in Reformed theology. For these texts are certainly not intended universalistically in the sense that all humans or even all creatures are saved, nor are they so understood by any Christian church. All churches without exception confess that there is not only a heaven but also a hell. At most, therefore, there is a difference of opinion about the number of those who are saved and of those who are lost. But that is not something one can argue about inasmuch as that number is known only to God. When Jesus was asked: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” he only replied: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many … will try to enter but will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Directly important to us is only that we have no need to know the number of the elect.
In any case, it is a fact that in Reformed theology the number of the elect need not, for any reason or in any respect, be deemed smaller than in any other theology. In fact, at bottom the Reformed confessions are more magnanimous and broader in outlook than any other Christian confession. It locates the ultimate and most profound source of salvation solely in God’s good pleasure, in his eternal compassion, in his unfathomable mercy, in the unsearchable riches of his grace, grace that is both omnipotent and free. Aside from it, where could we find a firmer and broader foundation for the salvation of a sinful and lost human race? However troubling it may be that many fall away, still in Christ the believing community, the human race, the world, is saved. The organism of creation is restored. The wicked perish from the earth (Ps. 104:35); they are cast out (John 12:31; 15:6; Rev. 22:15). Still, all things in heaven and earth are gathered up in Christ (Eph. 1:10). All things are created through him and for him (Col. 1:16)

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pp. 726-727

Bavinck is about as orthodox Reformed as you get–rejecting pluralism, universalism, affirming predestination–and yet still he finds some space for the possibility of the regeneracy unevangelized. I find that interesting, even if I’d need to give it more thought. In any case, I’m quite sure whatever God does do is consistent with the astounding mercy, love, and justice demonstrated on the cross.

None of this is particularly astonishing, new, or controversial (I hope). Still, it seems profitable to be laid out for reflection and discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria

6 thoughts on “Brief Notes Towards a Reformed Theology of Religions (With a Bit of Bavinck on the Unevangelized)

  1. Your last point – “whatever God does do is consistent with the astounding mercy, love, and justice demonstrated on the cross” – is at the heart of the matter for me. There have been times when I felt a lot of anxiety over this question, and since it is one unanswered (I have to assume purposefully so) by the scriptures, the only response that makes sense is to remember that God is good – indeed, much better and more merciful than I. And not giving us an answer to this question is probably a part of that goodness somehow;

    I wonder if “who will be saved?” is one of those questions like, “who is my neighbor?” which we tend to ask as an evasion, in order to shift the paradigm toward legalism and self-justification and away from servitude and clear responsibility. The only “answers” Christ gives to such questions are stories (the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son) and commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Go, and make disciples of all nations…”

    • I think it can become that sort of question very quickly. In college my usual answer to the apologetics challenge was to say, “I’m not entirely sure about that, but I do know for sure that you’ve heard about Jesus, and the question you have to face personally is what will you do with him.”

  2. Interesting that this doesn’t rule out the salvation of Emeth the Calormene; it just re-centers the why and how in God. In other words,the virtuous Calormene is not saved because he was virtuous (despite growing up with a bad religion and never having heard of Aslan), but the Calormene is saved and able to be virtuous because he was chosen.

  3. Pingback: What Happens to Those Who Never Hear the Gospel? -
  4. Pingback: What Happens to Those Who Never Hear the Gospel? - Gospel X
  5. Pingback: What Happens to Those Who Never Hear the Gospel?

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