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Ethos

Institute

Religious Pluralism
A Christian Perspective

RELIGIOUS PLURALISM
A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

Dr Tan Loe Joo

Ethos Institute for Public Christianity

Copyright The Bible Society of Singapore 2016


Published by Sower Publishing Centre
(A ministry of The Bible Society of Singapore)
7 Armenian Street, Bible House
Singapore 179932
Tel: (65) 6337 3222
Email: info@bible.org.sg
www.bible.org.sg

All rights reserved.


No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,
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copyright owner.

Printed in Singapore
ISBN: 978-981-220-548-3

978-981-220-549-0 (eBook)
BSS 2016 0.3M

Ethos Institute is a trademark of The Bible Society of Singapore.


Bible Society is a trademark registered with the Intellectual Property Office of
Singapore.

CONTENTS

About Ethos Institute vii


Ethos Institute Engagement Series

viii

Executive Summary

ix

Chapter 1: Pluralism

Chapter 2: Religious Pluralism



What is a Religion?

Philosophy of Religion

Sociology of Religion

3
4
4
6

Chapter 3: The Christian Theology of Religions



Typology of Christian Theology of Religions

Analysis Based on Language Concerns

Analysis Based on Theological Concerns

Soteriological Exclusivism

Soteriological Inclusivism

Soteriological Pluralism

9
9
10
11
13
16
21

Chapter 4: Theological Assessment



Soteriological Pluralism

Soteriological Inclusivism

Soteriological Exclusivism

25
25
28
31

Afterword

35

Endnotes

37

Bibliography

45
v

About
Ethos
Institute

ABOUT ETHOS INSTITUTE

thos Institute for Public Christianity was formed by National


Council of Churches in Singapore, Trinity Theological College
and The Bible Society of Singapore in 2014. Ethos Institute seeks
to serve church and society by engaging contemporary issues and
trends from the Christian perspective. Ethos Institute offers:
Studies on important topics and issues from the Christian
perspective
Regular lectures, seminars, conferences and symposiums
for the Christian public
Resources to Churches and Christians in different
professions and vocations
Resources to the National Council of Churches in Singapore

Contact:
7 Armenian Street, Bible House, #03-08 Singapore 179932
Tel: (65) 6304 3765 Fax: (65) 6337 3036
Email: info@ethosinstitute.sg
www.ethosinstitute.sg
vii

Engagement
Series

ETHOS INSTITUTE ENGAGEMENT SERIES


Series Editor: Roland Chia

he Ethos Institute Engagement Series aims to address pertinent


issues in church and society from the biblical and Christian
perspectives. Authored by theologians and scholars in different
fields, this booklet series discusses a variety of topics including
theology, politics, economics, education, science and the arts. The
booklets are an important resource not only for pastors and leaders
of the church, but also for Christians who wish to reflect more deeply
on the most important and pressing issues of today.

viii

Summary

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

eligious pluralism is a distinctive characteristic feature of our


contemporary society. While since biblical times, Christianity
has often grown and developed amidst pluralistic contexts with
many different faiths and encountered challenges in how to account
for these religions, questions about religious plurality have acquired
new urgency today given the trends towards globalization and
improved forms of communication and transport. Within Christian
theology, the theology of religions is that discipline that attempts
to account theologically for the significance and value of other
religions. A Christian theology of religions endeavors to answer
questions such as: what does it mean for Christians to live with
adherents of other faiths? Can Christians learn anything from the
other religions? In addition, what is the relationship between their
religions and Christianity?
One accepted taxonomy that has been widely employed to
encapsulate the various responses is that of the tri-fold typology
of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Exclusivists understand
the bible as proclaiming Christ necessary for salvation and that an
explicit profession of Christ as Lord and Savior is essential to enter
into a relationship with him. Inclusivists agree to the centrality of
Christ for salvation and relationship with God, but argue that for
followers of their own religions; especially those who have never
heard of the gospel, they may have also received divine salvific grace
without having an explicit outward profession of faith in Christ.
Pluralists contend that the other religions may independently
embody at least as much divine light as the Christian faith, and
hence that the Christ-figure may be seen as representative of a
form of divine salvific presence such that adherents faithful to the
instruction of their own traditions may also be saved through them.

ix

RELIGIOUS PLURALISM: A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

This book discusses several aspects of Christian responses


to religious plurality based primarily on the three-fold typology.
It begins with a discussion of pluralism in generic terms before
proceeding to describe some of the challenges that religious
pluralism poses for the Christian faith. After analyzing the current
state of the question regarding the typology of the theology of
religions, it affirms the continued relevance of the three-fold
typology and proceeds to examine each position in detail. Finally,
the theological merits and pitfalls of each standpoint are analyzed,
before concluding with some observations on the current trend in
the theology of religions, one that is based on the doctrine of the
Trinity and aptly called the trinitarian theology of religions.

Chapter
One

PLURALISM

erhaps one of the most defining characteristics of our


contemporary times is that of pluralism. By pluralism, I am
referring to the simultaneous experiential encounter of various
modes of expression of human existence, be it cultural, religious
or societal. The key phrase here is simultaneous experiential
encounter, for while pluralism in its cultural, social or religious
forms has always existed throughout the history of human
civilization, one of the markers of our modern era is the emergence
of huge numbers of people living in inter-connected communities
through urbanization and with improved forms of transport and
communication. Hence, while human society has always co-existed
as multiple communities across the planet throughout history,
hitherto, these have been relatively isolated such as during the
pre-industrial age as agricultural communes or small towns. With
the onset of rapid industrialization and the advent of the internet
age, large proportions of the worlds population now find themselves
living in close proximity with someone of a different background,
whether linguistically, racially or religiously. To take an example
relevant to our discussion topic, Catholic theologians first began
grappling with the question of the fate of the unevangelized only
during the discovery of the New World by missionaries in the
fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.1 The prevailing assumption then
has been that under Christendom, most, if not all peoples, have
1

RELIGIOUS PLURALISM: A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE

heard of the gospel, and the discovery of the new world in which
millions of people have lived and died without hearing the gospel
would provoke new and deeper questions about the nature of
Christian salvation.2
It is hence not an exaggeration to claim that one of the
greatest challenges of our times has been pluralism since contacts
between different cultures and societies are now the daily norm
rather than the occasional exception.3 Such encounters may have
fortuitous ramifications, such as the sharing of knowledge and the
development of new ideas, or as others have suggested, they may
result in a clash of civilizations.4 Whichever the case, pluralism is
now a much more widely shared experience for peoples than ever in
history, and this implies there is an urgent need to learn how to live
with one another in the midst of a wide diversity of views, beliefs,
and customs. In addition, given the nature of the internet and its
ability to disseminate information widely, it is unlikely that in the
near future, there would any one single dominant culture or religion
as we have witnessed since World War II. Rather, pluralism is now
a permanent and irreversible feature of our contemporary world,
and therefore, it is critical to learn how to live with it.