Notes from underground

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Christianity: inclusive or exclusive? (Synchroblog)

The theme for this month’s Synchroblog, Christianity — inclusive or exclusive? is rather vague, perhaps deliberately so. It allows people to blog about different things depending on how they understand those epithets.

From recent reading in the blogosphere I get the impression that “inclusive” means that one is in favour of the ordination of practising homosexuals, “exclusive” means that one is not.

But when I go back about 20 years, I encountered the terms mainly in the academic discipline known as Theology of Religion. The terms “inclusive” and “exclusive” were there applied to the views that different groups of Christians were alleged to hold on whether salvation was to be found in other religions or not. The inclusivists believed that salvation was to be found in other religions, and the exclusivists believed that it wasn’t. There was a third group, called “pluralists”. There is a pretty good summary of that debate and its various views here.

In 1990 I was asked to help with the teaching of the third-year course in Missiology at the University of South Africa (Unisa) which included a half-course in “Theology of Religions” (Course MSA301-B). I was asked to mark one of the assignments for the course, and in order to prepare myself for doing this, I read through the prescribed book (No other name? by Paul E. Knitter, SCM, London 1985) and the study guide issued to students (Kritzinger 1985). This raised a number of questions in my own mind, which I wrote down at the time in order to discuss them with others – especially those who were marking other assignments in the course. I found Knitter’s book frustrating, because it seemed to ask the wrong questions, and it seemed to beg too many questions. Other literature on the same topic seemed to have the same shortcomings.

Even though I was called upon to teach the course, I found the whole debate quite meaningless. Whatever it was, it was not a study of theology of religions, but rather a study of different Christian factions. It never got to grips with the content of other religions at all. There was much talk of interreligious dialogue but the dialogue never took place. It was all metatalk, talk about talk, talk about Christian attitudes to talking, and the talking never happened.

The main difficulty I had with Knitter may have sprung from my own failure to understand what “theology of religions” means. I had assumed that, in a Christian context, it meant the Christian understanding of other religions in the widest sense. I have always understood that it was to be distinguished from “Science of Religion”in that theology of religion was concerned with the Christian understanding of, and approach to, other religions, while science of religion was concerned with a phenomenon called “religion” (however defined) and took a more comparative approach. In other words, I understood science of religion to be concerned with questions like “How does a Buddhist regard the Buddha?” or “How does a Christian regard Christ?” and possibly a comparison between them, and I thought that a Christian theology of religions was concerned with questions like “How does a Christian interpret the Buddha and
Buddhist teaching?”

Knitter did not seem to me to deal with theology of religions at all. Throughout his book, the non-Christian religions are somewhere “out there”. Knitter seems not to be concerned with a theology of religions, but with reshaping Christian theology to conform to the values he regards as most important, one of which is a “more authentic dialogue”. Except that the dialogue does not actually take place. It’s all about how to get to the bus stop, but it never gets on the bus, it never goes anywhere.

And I believe it never goes anywhere because it starts from the wrong place, by asking the wrong questions.

“Is there salvation in other religions?” is the wrong question.

First of all, it is the wrong question because Christians believe that there is no salvation in any religion, including Christianity. Salvation is in Christ, not in religion.

Secondly, if Christians can’t agree among themselves on what salvation is (see, for example, here, here and here), how can they expect to find it in other religions, especially if, like Knitter, they don’t even examine or discuss those religions?

Thirdly, do the “other” religions think salvation (in the Christian sense) is at all important? Should we not rather ask how those religions pereive their own goals, and only then consider whether and how they relate to Christian ideas of “salvation”?

To use a consumerist metaphor, it is like describing the different views of the customers and staff of a bakery about the quality of bread to be obtained from the builder’s merchant, selling cement, bricks and window frames. The icnlusivists would say yes, the bread you get from the builder’s merchant is just as good as the bread you get from the bakery, as they spread jam on a slice of cement loaf, while the exclusivists would say it isn’t as good. What neither group appears to consider is that it isn’t bread at all.

[continued in next post]

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9 thoughts on “Christianity: inclusive or exclusive? (Synchroblog)

  1. Sally on said:

    thank you Steve, much food for thought as always.

  2. Jenelle on said:

    Steve, my eyebrow went up and I was nodding affirmatively as I read your first conclusion:

    First of all, it is the wrong question because Christians believe that there is no salvation in any religion, including Christianity. Salvation is in Christ, not in religion.

    Your metaphor of the bread in question is quite good. Excellent, in fact.

  3. nic paton on said:

    This question has been foremost in my mind for quite some time. Pressing enough for me to get down to some serious rethinking about what the Bible says.

    I don’t have it all worked out(thankfully) but many questions I have let lie in a sort of limbo for 20 or 25 years have found interesting answers during this exploration.

    As I see it right now, the Gospel IS the Gospel of Inclusion. Any Exclusion is as a a result of fear, religious adherence, and is self imposed.

    I have detailed my thoughts in these blog entries, if anyone cares to read them.

  4. Steve Hayes on said:


    I’ve added a link in the main list to the post I think you meant, and passed it on to the other synchro bloggers, so that they can foillow it.

    I’m also expanding my contribution on the theme with a couple of other posts.

  5. MikeCamel on said:

    I, too, struggle with a “Theology of Religion” that seems to concentrate almost exclusively on Christianity (sometimes there’s a nod in the direction of Judaism). I’ve not read the Knitter, but share your frustrations with how these discussions tend to go.

  6. nic paton on said:

    Thanks Steve.

    I have hope that your approach is going to put us in a position to deal with the issue of Inclusivity/Exclusivity, by trying to frame the correct questions, rather than jumping in with answers no-one is looking for.

    I also appreciate your micro-history of the concept, showing that the word/s themselves are taken so completely differently by different people in different contexts … WHAT is it we are including/excluding? Gays, other denominations, racial groups?

    Interfaith dialog is altogether different from a Christian-hosted discussion about comparative religion. I would rather talk to a Baptist, an Ancestor worshipper, a theosophist, a Charismatic or a Satanist than talk ABOUT them.

    In my view, Inclusion as a discussion “includes” all these more specific topics. However, ultimately I am concerned with the cosmic view. Once this can be settled, if indeed it can, it makes deciding on your approach towards the more specific categories so much easier, and leads to an altogether more integruous world view. This will then serve as a true and sure foundation for all life going forward.

  7. SaintSimon on said:


    I know this is now an old post but I am still getting people following your link to my blog, so firstly, a big Thank You! I only regret that owing to the pressures of life I am no longer able to dedicate time to keep on posting.

    I would like to say that your post here is excellent, and concur entirely with Jenelle.

    I have to say that I cannot fathom the inclusivist position in the light of verses such as Acts 4:12 “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved”, John14:6 “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.

    I would draw the inclusivists’ attention to the reality of seriuosly bad news for unbelievers in Rev 20:11-15 “11Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. ….12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. …… The lake of fire is the second death. 15If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire”

    Elsewhere it says “woe to those who say ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace”…I think that is a comment on Inclusivists, who suggest peace between God and unbelievers when it is not there. A consequence of their misleading soft words is that the unbelievers will never be encouraged to seek the truth that will enable them to have their names written in that book of life and escape the lake of fire. Let them leave the builder’s merchant and come to the bakery!

  8. Pingback: Towards a theology of religions « Notes from underground

  9. Pingback: Interreligious dialogue « Notes from underground

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