Continuity and Discontinuity Between Christianity and Other Religions

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A few days ago I defended my PhD thesis which examined the research question “Is the Qur’an a valid source of Christian doctrine.”

I passed the defense, but one of the members of the jury wondered if I had accentuated discontinuity between Christianity and other religions a bit too much. In this piece, I hope to clarify some confusion about the subject and try to highlight some ways that Reformed Christians think about this. 

What does continuity look like?

In order to answer that question, we have to distinguish between the things that humans as beings created in God’s image share, and the things that religions and Christianity share. In the case of the first, it is likely that most Christians, regardless of their views of other religions would agree on the following things that all humans, Christian or otherwise have in common:

  • we are created beings
  • we are made in God’s image
  • we have a sense of the divine (this was Calvin’s emphasis)
  • we believe that God is speaking to us via the created order (Ps 19 and Romans 1)
  • we have an eternal destiny
  • we all wrestle with the big questions of life, i.e “How did we get here, what went wrong, what will it take to fix it, what will it look like when it is fixed?”

These shared realities among all humans, facilitate what some mission theorists have termed ‘a point [or area] of contact.’ That is to say because all humans have these overlapping realities, we can interact with them on this level.

Recall that at Lystra in Acts 14, the apostle Paul tore his clothes when the people tried to make him out to be some kind of a God. Rather he told the people (v. 15) that he was a fellow human just like all of them: “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you…” In Acts 17, he addressed the crowd as “men of Athens” even though he was churned up inside by their idolatry. In his speech at the Areopagus rather than saying “you ought” in v.29  he said, “we ought” as a way to include himself as well as he said, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”  

Thus, it is safe to say that looking for common human touch-points is a legitimate form of continuity.

What happens when continuity extends beyond our common humanity?

Besides the commonalities of human existence, some have looked for commonalities between Christianity and the world’s religions. This is expressed in book titles and the names of theological commissions and symposia. Here are a few examples:

  • “Christ the crown of Hinduism”
  • “A Common Word Between Us”
  • “..Muslims are imperfect [yet perfectable] Christians”
  • “Jesus Christ is not the destroyer of Buddhism, rather he is its fulfiller”
  • “So it is not out of court to suggest that through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, an Indian Christian community may find God’s word within the Gītā and, in so doing, are reading it legitimately and therefore may celebrate it accordingly.”
  • “Every man without any exception whatever—has been redeemed by Christ, and … each man without any exception whatever—Christ is in a way united, even when man is unaware of it.”

These statements reflect the common theme of a strong stress on continuity, where somehow Christianity and the religions of this world start to converge. These examples could be critiqued as being a very ‘strong’ form of continuity. Yet, Protestants and Protestant missions have adopted what might be called weaker forms of continuity. These appear in titles and conferences with the themes of:

  • “let’s talk about what my Christianity and your religion share in common”
  • “let’s look for “Truth” in your religion, and since all “Truth is God’s Truth” it must be inspired by God
  • “since the Holy Spirit blows where it wills, He must be at work in the religions of the world”
  • “…our Muslim brothers and sisters”
  • “we are all on this journey to the Cosmic Christ”
  • “the Bible and “XYZ” sacred text all work together to make one revelation.

In this picture, there is little talk of anything that might separate Christianity and the religions, but a movement towards infusing the world’s religions with Christian values, and divine activity.       

As much as there are some truths spoken in the above statements, they often reflect partial truths. For example, the religious nature of humans does indicate that somehow they are seeking for a fulfillment of what has been termed a “God-shaped vacuum.” Yes, it is possible that a religion says that there are supernatural forces at work, and that is true. But does that statement necessarily imply that these are statements inspired by the Holy Spirit, or might they be ‘truthlets’ found in the context of a larger Christ-denying worldview?

This leads us to the subject of discontinuity.

Discontinuity

In my article “The Areopagus: A Study in Continuity and Discontinuity,” St Francis Magazine 6, no. 3 (2010): 517–582 I examine the areas where the very diplomatic apostle Paul disagreed with the Athenians and their worldview. I challenge some popular thinking that he was trying to establish philosophical common ground with the Athenians and that if the text is carefully exegeted, it shows radical discontinuity. [There is no doubt that in these times the phrase “radical discontinuity” can come across as bombastic or in black and white categories. As much as the modern eye and ear like to see and hear things in shades of gray, the Bible often speaks in antithetical categories]  

 For example, it is popular to seize on the altar to “an unknown God” and suggest that Paul was trying to affirm their religiosity. When looked at closely, the case is that he was challenging their idolatrous worship, their creations of Gods by their own imagination, and their “win the lottery” approach to placating all Gods, even the unknown ones. A close look at the construction of the text shows that Paul used a subtle form of criticism, “that or what you worship unknowingly” as a reference to an impersonal God worshipped in ignorance. Thus, those who look to this altar for continuity will fail to find it.

Examples from this address can be multiplied. No, he does not cite the poets Aratus and Epimenides approvingly as some have suggested, rather he states that as much as they might have had some sage advice, they had the wrong address.

When it comes to the religions of this world, what does the Bible have to say?

If we look at the injunctions to Israel, they were forbidden to adopt, adapt, and utilize the practices of the nations around them. They were instructed to destroy idolatrous images, avoid any insinuation of mixing loyalty to Yahweh and the gods of the nations. In fact in Psalm 96:5 with a play on two Hebrew rhyming words, the Psalmist states that the “gods of the nations, are less than nothings.” The people of Israel disregarded these messages of discontinuity and married themselves in an adulterous and syncretistic fashion to these gods and their practices. Exile was the result.

In the New Testament, reference is made to the “futile” ways of the religions which surrounded Christians. In an ultimate sense they were said to be useless vapours like morning mists. The overall attitude of the Early Church was to avoid any insinuation of mixing Christianity and these religions in a syncretistic melting pot. Like Israel, there were those who went down that road, but as Michael Kruger has pointed out in his text on 2nd century Christianity, “Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church” this was more the exception than the rule.   

What we see then, is that the Bible has a stance of philosophical discontinuity with the world religions, and gives the injunction to Christians not to join them, to expose their works of darkness, and to work towards helping people to get free from their spiritual bondage.

So what?

Closely examine the statements coming from the pulpit, the way that certain texts are exegeted, the passions and priorities of denominational agencies with respect to other religions and ask whether they have stressed continuity too much, and ask the same, whether they have stressed discontinuity too much. If the consistent message is “those adherents of that religion are nice people and we should be friendly to them and to their religion” it may well be possible that the person suggesting such as conflated the very useful area of seeking continuity with other humans made in God’s image, and an illegitimate seeking of philosophical continuity with the world’s religions. A better solution would be to hold continuity between humans and radical philosophical discontinuity between Christianity and the world religions in tension. This will allow us to love the Triune God uniquely and his inspired unique message in the Bible, and still to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

What is a Reformed response?

If we believe the five solas of the Reformation, then we affirm:

  • Sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone") and consequently we see the Bible and its message as the only way that we can interpret the realities of the world religions, as the perspective of the Triune God therein is the only valid perspective, as much as it might be popular sociologically to sing and talk about the togetherness of all religions.
  • Sola fide ("by faith alone") and consequently any religion that attempts to supplant the righteousness that is gained by and imputed to us by Christ must be called a false religion and seen as discontinuous with Christianity.
  • Sola gratia ("by grace alone") and consequently we see salvation as a free gift of grace that we desire other humans also created in God’s image to experience.
  •  Solus Christus or Solo Christo ("Christ alone" or "through Christ alone") and consequently the Christ of the Bible and the way to Him are defined by the Bible and not by fulfillment theology {a kind of Cosmic-Christ at the top of the evolutionary mountain}. 
  • Soli Deo gloria ("glory to God alone") and consequently, the continuity that Christians attempt to build with other people of the world religions is because we see the image of God in them, and the philosophical discontinuity we affirm with the world religions is because we love the glory of the Triune God so much, that any attempt to supplant Him must be contested.
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