Good News for the Whole World
(not to be confused with 'evangelicalism and world religions')
Evangelicalism and World Religions (Or, what does it mean to affirm that the gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News for the whole world?) Telford Work, Westmont Faculty Exchange, December 10, 2003
Sources: Lesslie Newbigin, "The Gospel among the Religions" in The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, rev. ed. (Eerdmans, 1995); Hans Frei, Types of Christian Theology (Yale, 1992); Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Eerdmans, 1995); Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Orbis, 2002); John G. Stackhouse, Jr., ed., No Other Gods Before Me? Evangelicals and the Challenge of World Religions (Baker, 2001); James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Witness: Systematic Theology vol. 3 (Abingdon, 2000); Telford Work, "Confidence and Contradiction: An Evangelical Takes the Bible to Islam," forthcoming.
'Christianity and World Religions': Common Paradigms
Paul Knitter's models of 'Christianity and other religions':
Total replacement, partial replacement, fulfillment, mutuality, acceptance.
This framework assumes 'religious' likeness and implies certain (overlapping) options:
Imperialism: Make our religion the goal (or means) of empire, family, business, patriotism, etc.? (This resembles 'exclusivism'.)
Absolutism: Appraise the Christian 'worldview' in terms of universal objective truth? (This resembles 'inclusivism'.)
Relativism: Respect Christianity as a world religion, worldview, or value system? (This resembles 'pluralism'.)
In our culture this is a persuasive framework. But is it appropriate?
Deconstructing Our Title
Are 'world religions' meant as counterparts to 'Christianity' (or even 'evangelicalism')?
How would the geographical scope of the tradition be relevant?
Do American patriotism, Marxism, soccer, and consumerism count as world religions?
Is 'religion' meant as a generalized category into which the gospel traditions fall?
Our word 'religion' belongs to the modern project:
Thus Religionswissenschaft ('religious studies') and Religionsgeschichte ('history of religions').
Modernity is the project of discovering the universal metanarrative and relativizing particulars.
'Postmodernity' reconceives, withdraws from, or fully abandons that project.
Is 'evangelicalism' an appeal to our group's identity over against (but also along with) others?
Why do evangelicals need a 'theology of world religions' (cf. Stackhouse)?
Should we develop 'evangelical demythologization', 'evangelical transcendentalism', etc.?
Inappropriate categories ensure an unhelpful or misleading answer.
The Worldview Behind the Title
Hans Frei locates types of modern theologies by their relationships with philosophy:
1. Theology is entirely explained by philosophical categories
(Immanuel Kant, Gordon Kaufman).
2. Theology philosophically correlates to general structures of meaning
(Rudolf Bultmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, David Tracy, Karl Rahner, Carl Henry).
3. Theology practically correlates to universal structures of meaning
(Friedrich Schleiermacher, Paul Tillich).
4. Theology is a governing discipline of self-description correlated ad hoc with general structures
(Jonathan Edwards, John Henry Newman, Karl Barth).
5. Theology is Christian grammatical self-description in which 'outside' philosophies have no place
Interpretation shifts from allegorical to literal.
Relationship to wider culture shifts from absorption to distinction.
Emphasis shifts from generality to specificity (see Bruce Marshall in Frei 88-89).
Intellectual respect shifts from second-order reflection to first-order practice.
Cognate discipline shifts from philosophy to anthropology.
The shift is not from liberal to conservative, but modern to postmodern.
I read our title as 'Type 1' or 'Type 2' and our subtitle as 'Type 4' or 'Type 5'.
Unpacking Our Subtitle
Christian worship, doctrine, and life see the present in the context of the ascended, reigning Christ.
Readings for the Ascension: Acts 1:1-11, Ps. 47/93/110, Eph. 1:15-23, Luke 24:44-53.
Newbigin allows 'religion' as "that which has final authority for a believer or a society" (161).
No other 'metanarrative' rightly frames the story of Christian faith.
So we are inquiring of the significance and end of particular gods and lords (cf. 1 Cor. 8).
How do we understand particular religions (communities of final authorities)? (174ff)
1. All the world is already related to Jesus as its alpha and omega and his glory.
2. Humanity sinfully uses God's gifts as means of independence.
3. God exposes and meets this in the story of the cross as the world's reconciliation. 4. Salvation brings all Christ's treasures into obedience to him (John 16:12-15). 5. The Church is no more than the sign of that promise's fulfillment.
6. The Church's task brings it into 'kenotic [self-emptying] dialogues' with others.
Newbigin's list fits my own story of encountering the risen and reigning Christ.
Fulfilling Our Subtitle: Affirming the Ascension The good news of Christ is seed that yields a harvest in the cultural soils of all nations (McClendon).
Newbigin: No missionary has failed to find a word with which to translate 'God' to a culture.
Mission, education, and conversion are the Pentecostal birth and death of metaphors.
All Christian life (yes, including Christian liberal arts education) follows this metaphorical life-cycle.
A Case Study: Good News for Islam?
How do I as an evangelical Christian appreciate Islam?
As false ideology? (This sees the Bible as a 'treasury of truth'.)
As fallow mission field? (The Bible is then a means of mission.)
As basis for conversion? (The Bible is a means of conversion.)
As social order oppressive and supportive of Christ's body? (The Bible is God's Word to the Church.)
As domain of principalities and powers? (The Bible is a means of power.)
As a figure in the Bible's narratives? (The Bible is [all] history.)
If Islam is a narrative figure, then which figure?
Ishmaelite children of another promise?
Assyrian and Babylonian captors?
God-fearing goyim of Acts?
The cultural conservatives of James?
The beast of Revelation?
The Pharisees of the Gospels?
Rather, Saul (Newbigin 176-177) or Simon bar-Jonah (Work).