Religious Pluralism and Theology


Theology of Religion

  • The term 'theology of religion' refers to Christian thinking about its relationship with people who belong to other religions or who have no affiliation to a particular religious tradition. Christianity has needed to consider its relationship to other faiths since it began.
  • Theology of religion deals with issues such as salvation, truth, belief and practice, and dialogue between Christians and those with other beliefs.
  • The writer, Alan Race identifies three broad perspectives within the theology of religion, he calls them 'exclusivism', 'inclusivism' and 'pluralism' (book= 'Christians and Religious Pluralism').
  • These classifications have subdivisions within them. They might be best understood as positions on a spectrum of theology rather than as three distinct views.
  • Other models in the theology of religion have also been suggested, for example, by Paul Knitter.
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  • In Christianity, exclusivism is the view that people must have explicit faith in Jesus as the Son of God, and have to believe that salvation is found in Jesus, otherwise they cannot be saved.
  • Exclusivists argue that Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross and Resurrection were real events of cosmic significance for all humanity. They reject the idea that there might be other ways to salavtion without belief in the saving act of Christ.
  • Some people prefer the term, 'particularist'.

Kraemer - was an exclusivist who argued that salvation is only for Christians, although God's revelation can be seen by people outside the Christian faith. He argued that religions have to be understood as a whole and it does not make sense to say that some aspects of religion are true. Either a religion accepts the salvation offered by Christ, or it does not.

Barth - was classified as an exclusivist. He emphasised a 'theology of the Word' and asserted that knowledge of God can be found only when God chooses to reveal it through his Word. In Barth's view, Jesus was the living word of God, and the Bible is the word of God as a witness to the truth of Christ.

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Exclusivism 2

Within exclusivism there are different shades of opinion:

  • Narrow exclusivists - argue that salvation is only for some, not all Christians. Augustine taught the idea of predestination. Some who take the Bible literally believe that more liberal Christians are not going to be saved. The Catholic Church before Vatican II taught that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church: 'extra ecclesiam nulla salus.'
  • Broad exclusivists - argue that all who accept Christ through faith are saved, whatever their denomination or style of worship.

Gavin D'Costa divides exclusivists into two kinds:

  • Universal-access exclusivists - Christ's salvation is offered to all and the will of God is that everyone should come to him though faith in Christ.
  • Restructive-access exclusivists - following a similar view of Augustine and John Calvin, where God saves only those whom he has chosen.
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Exclusivism 3

Possible criticisms:

  • Exclusivism is not compatible with the idea of an omnibenevolent, forgiving God. It suggests that God loves some people more than others (partisan) because some people have much more opportunities to become a Christian than others.
  • Exclusivism causes social division and conflict.
  • Exclusivism fails to recognise the richness and wisdom of different world religions.
  • Exclusivism is arrogant in its assumptions that Christians know best.
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  • The term inclusivism is used for a range of views between exclusivism and pluralism. Inclusivists tend to argue that Christianity is the best route to salvation but that there is possibility of salvation for those outside Christian tradition.
  • Inclusivists agree that Jesus' death and Resurrection were unique events of cosmic significance for salvation, but they are uncomfortable with idea that a God of love would always reject someone who was sincerely trying to follow God through the context of a different religious faith.
  • Some inclusivists argue that there might be the possibility after death for non- Christians to accept the truth of the Christian message.
  • Some inclusivists argue that when truth is found in other religions, it is Christian truth even though it has not been recognised as such. Other religions sometimes have 'rays of truth' or 'rays of light' where they agree with the teachings of Christianity.
  • Some argue that people from non- Christian faiths call Christ by other names withoutealising that it is Christian work. For example, when Sikhs share free food at their place of worship with everyone, especially the poor, they could be doing the work of Christ in feeding the hungry without recognising it.
  • Rahner, the Catholic theologian, was very influential in devloping a Catholic position on theology of religion.
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Inclusivism 2

Karl Rahner- argued that:

  • Christianity is the 'absolute' religion with a unique offering of salvation throught the grace of Christ.
  • Some people, through no fault of their own, are not exposed to the message of Christianity, for example is they lived before Jesus or ina country the gospel has not reached.
  • There could be a partial truth in other non- Christian religions, expecially if they are structured ina similar way to Christianity.
  • People could be 'anonymous Christians' following Christian ideals without realising that they are actually following Christ.
  • People may achieve eternal salvation if they seek God with a sincere heart in contexts other than Christianity.
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Inclusivism 3


  • The Christian message is diluted if there is the suggestion that Christ need not be necessary for salvation.
  • Inclusivism is still arrogant, stating that Chrisitian belief is the best and putting itself as the judge and measure of other faiths.
  • People who have made free choices to have beliefs that are not Christian should not be labelled as 'anonymous Christians'; if they wanted to be Christians, they would say so.
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  • The term 'pluralism' is used for a range of positions that argue many different religions have the potential to lead their followers to salvation and that truth is not exclusive to one particular religious tradition
  • Pluralists often argue that different religions share the same goals , even if they disagree in details of doctrine and practice. Doctrines and practices are human constructs, attempting to find ways to respond to God or the divine as 'real.'
  • They argue that there is no need for members of one religion to try to convert others to share their beliefs; instead people from different religious traditions can communicate with each other and share different perspectives and styles of worship.

Hick - argued for the pluralist understanding of religion because of his belief that a God of love would not deny salvation to people just because they happened to be born in a non- Christian culture (for example). He thought that God wills universal salvation and that eventually everyone will be saved. Hick argued for a 'Copernican revolution' in theology, removing Christianity from the centre of the universe and replacing it with 'God' or 'the Real'. All religions, he thought, revolve around the Real.

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Pluralism 2

Hick - used Kant's distinction between the noumenal and the phenomenal to make a point. The noumenal is the world of things as they really are, and the phenomenal is the world as we see it through the filter of our limited human understanding. Religions are a human, phenomenal attempt to uncover the noumenal. All religions are therefore flawed and limited. No religion can claim to have got everything right. Hick thought that truth-claims of religion such as that Jesus was God incarnate need to be interpreted as myth rather than limited truth.

Panikkar - was a pluralist thinker from Hindu and Catholic traditions. He emphasised the mystery of the divine and the need for humility and openness to truth wherever it may be found. He thought that God makes himself known in a variety of ways and cultural contexts, and that there is a need for people to understand that God can reveal himself to whoever he chooses. Panikkar saw pluralism as a spiritual attitude rather than a reasoned philosophical perspective.

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Pluralism 3

Criticisms -

  • A pluralist approach to the theology of religion is not a Christian approach. A pluralist message rejects the idea that Christ came to the world to save humanity once and for all from sin; this is the central message of Christianity.
  • A pluralist approach can take human ideas of fairness and imagine what God ought to do to make salvation fair, which is no less arrogant than exclusivism or inclusivism. God is free to save whomever he wants and is not confined to behaving in the way people think they would behave if they were God.
  • Pluralism can be seen as a self-contradictory because it imposes a pluralist view as 'the right view', suggesting exclusivism and inclusivism are wrong. In claiming a relativist view as the right view, it is being absolutist.
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Biblical Passages


  • John 14:6 - 'Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
  • 1 Timothy 2:3-6 - 'For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus."


  • Matthew 25:40 - 'whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'
  • Job 19:25 (lived before Jesus but with Christian like beliefs) - 'I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.'


  • Micah 6:8 - 'And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.'
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Extra Scholars

  • Martin Luther - believed in the doctrine of justification by faith. Solus Christus= principle describes the idea that only through Christ is salvation possible.
  • Von Balthasar - argued that Rahner has reduced being a Christian to acting virtuously.
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