J. I. Packer
Paul Against Pluralism: The Relevance of the Athenian Speech Today
The modern Western world is pluralistic to its fingertips. Pluralism has become foundational to contemporary culture. Pluralism is a sociopolitical ideology, an aggressive viewpoint that holds forth guidelines and parameters, a trajectory and sense of direction, and a definite goal and purpose, for the entire human community of which we are part. The viewpoint is that personal freedom is the supreme value; the goal is that freedom be maximized up to the limit; and the guidelines are that those who govern, manage, educate, and control others should not impose any one view of reality but should let all views coexist as options in life's smorgasbord display so that we each may choose what appeals without any convictional cards being forced upon us. Free from the guidance and restraint of universally accepted principles, we may all now live by our own values and ideals without hindrance. What is expected is that this freedom, plus the material prosperity and bodily well-being that today's technology reckons to provide, will ensure everyone's happiness. Though rarely displayed in its pure form, pluralism is a miasma that infects governmental, social, and educational policies constantly, and no modern Westerner escapes its influence.
Clearly post-Christian, postliberal, post-Marxist, and postmodern—and reflecting skepticism about every world-and-life view from the past, whether religious, philosophical, scientific, or romantic—today's pluralism directs that public policy be based not on public acknowledgment of universal truth and standards but on a purpose of enabling everyone to pursue personal options. Pluralism knows that the global village that we call the world is full of metanarratives, that is, accounts of reality that claim to make sense of the human story and to declare the meaning of human life; every religion has one, and antireligious viewpoints like Marxism and evolutionism have them too. Pluralism professes to tolerate and, other things being equal, to protect all these views, but it throws a dark canopy of uncommitted-ness over them and thus reduces them to private interests that must not be allowed to rock, let alone steer, the community boat. This is a huge break with how things have been everywhere up to now, or at least until a generation ago, and what will come of it remains to be seen.
How long publicly established pluralism can last is a serious question. In the past Western society has been held together culturally and behaviorally by public commitment to some form of Christian belief about God. Thus medieval Christendom saw God as guaranteeing the world's ongoing stability; Reformation Christendom saw him as executing an ecclesiastical and political spring-cleaning; Victorian Christendom saw him as generating universal progress; all had good hope for the future because it was in God's beneficent hands. Pluralism, however, has no such hope. Shaped by revolt against all forms of what it sees as totalitarianism, including Christian civilization, and functioning in society as a form of practical atheism, it produces short-term optimism as triumphant technology keeps widening our range of options, but the optimism is framed by long-term pessimism about how things will finally turn out. Cognitive dissonance as to how our ongoing rape of the planet and destabilizing of the climate can square with a universal advancement of human welfare abounds. It is almost a case of “let us eat and drink, for we don't know how soon all mankind may die.” Pop culture, when not alienated, is absorbed in, and euphoric about, the present; meanwhile, intellectuals wring their hands in despair about the future. Welcome to our modern Western world!
Christians cannot but be saddened at these developments in our culture, but we should not be surprised at them. We know, or at least we should know, that fallen human nature on its own is incapable of choosing a path that leads to real happiness; all paths that sinful humans, left to themselves, actually choose lead to disillusionment, more or less. We know that when people are encouraged to be egocentric, and to live their own lives and do their own thing in their own way, the result is a compound of pride and misery and cosmic resentment that may well find expression in antisocial behavior. Though pluralism itself is blind to this, I think we can already see that today's pluralistic culture is actually producing more misery, alienation, social instability, and personal hurt, than were there before. We know, too, that this is itself the beginning of divine judgment on us and that more catastrophic disasters await us if there is not community repentance and return to God. But we cannot pursue that theme now.
Our present task is to look more closely at what we may call the “in-church” version of this pluralism that we meet among the theological liberals. Liberalism as a flow of thought in the church today is in my view really bankrupt, but it constantly refinances itself by taking into itself what is uppermost in the culture, according to its operative principle that the world under God has the wisdom and the church must always be playing catch-up; and this is the case in point. During the past century liberal theologians have developed a pluralistic account of world religions, which sees them as quests for the same goal, ways up the same mountain, partners in countering hedonism and materialism, resources to enrich and encourage one another in a common task, and avenues leading finally to the same eternal happiness. This is the academic version of the world's idea that “religions are all the same really.” Academically this idea sprang from the world of Friedrich Schleiermacher; it was given as a boost by the 1893 World Parliament of Religions and is sustained today by the globalistic relativism of many thought leaders. But the thesis is vulnerable to three major criticisms.
First, it embodies a false modesty. Forswearing all modes of religious imperialism, Christian pluralism presents itself as humble: humble in insisting, as all liberals do, that no formulation of the faith is final, nor is any question of faith ever finally resolved; humble, therefore, in insisting that discussion must go on, and that it is spiritually obtuse to treat any sort of creedal definitions as fixed points for thought; humble, too, in now elevating non-Christian faiths to the same level as Christianity. All liberals see the positions they hold at present as provisional, being relative to other proposals today and whatever ideas may appear tomorrow, and liberal pluralists in theology extend this to cover what other significant religions may have to say. But in thus seeing religious thought as an ongoing exploration rather than following an established track, and in being open to augmentation and redirection from non-Christian sources, cultural, and religious, the pluralism we are considering expresses arrogance rather than modesty and pride rather than humility, for its method excludes treating clear and unambiguous Bible teaching as the abiding word and unchanging truth of God. That is bad; and if it is compounded, as it frequently is, by assuming an attitude of superiority—intellectual, theological, and spiritual—toward those who treat Bible doctrine as divine and definitive, bad becomes worse. And should this arrogance of heart prompt aggressive response when it is pointed out that the pluralist position is unfaithful to Christ, to the gospel, and to the church's world mission, bad becomes worse still; it is then not far from sin against the Holy Spirit. There is no true humility or modesty here, just the reverse.
Second, the pluralist thesis expresses a false charity. It is wellknown that, understandably, since Christianity is so directly salvation oriented, discussions of non-Christian religions have kept revolving around the question, whether they mediate the same salvation that Christians receive—that is, salvation through the historical death and resurrection of Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit leading us to faith in Him and fellowship with Him. As we all know, three answers have been given to that question. The exclusivist answer is that in this life there must be conscious faith in a known Christ for salvation to be ours hereafter. The inclusivist answer is that this is not the whole truth; additionally, some who lived and died ignorant of Christ, but who sought God as they conceived Him and strove for what they thought was good, will find in a future life that they have been saved by grace through Christ nonetheless. And the universalist answer is that this is not the whole truth either; for whatever our view of reality, whatever we may affirm or deny about God, and whatever our behavior or misbehavior in this life, God's grace in Christ will triumph by finally bringing us all without exception to the same happy heaven. Expositors of pluralism divide as to whether they give answers two or three, while the New Testament seems clearly to give answer one. But that being so, answers two and three, with their affirmation of non-Christian religions as so many ways of salvation, over and above Christianity, express a false charity since their zeal to extend the sphere of saving grace and the number of the saved leads them to part company with the apostolic Scriptures. The apostolic account of non-Christian religions, as we shall see in a moment, is that though they are shot through with true inklings about God alongside many distortions, they neither present a true concept of salvation nor mediate the reality of it, and their ideas about God are idolatrous to a degree. Pluralists, however, turn their backs on this teaching and insinuate, if they do not actually declare, that those who hold it thereby show a lack of charity toward most of the world's inhabitants. A sight gag used twice in Buster Keaton movies is a life belt that sinks the moment it hits the water; Bible believers have reason to regard all Christless faiths in similar terms. Pluralism's unhappy move at this point leads us on to our final criticism.
Third, the pluralist thesis involves false belief: mistaken notions, that is, about how world religions relate to one another. The closer one gets to them, the more obvious become the specific differences between them, as well as the differences between them all and Christianity, and the less plausible becomes the idea that they are “all the same really.” Two things must be noted about how they all differ from the Christian faith. To start with, there is a huge contrast between the way of salvation from evil, however that evil is understood, in all non-Christian faiths as compared with biblical Christianity. They point to behavioral options in daily life and say, “Do”; biblical Christianity points to Calvary and says, “Done.” They say, “Work, and gain salvation from evil by your own effort”; the Christian gospel says, “Receive salvation from the God who by rights would condemn and reject you, by his own amazing grace, through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ.” Then, too, the Christian concept of salvation, first to last, and supremely at its destination point, is Jesus centered. The essence of it is fellowship with, and worship of, Christ in His glory; and at the heart of our adoring vision of God in heaven will be our adoring vision of Jesus, the divine Son, our Savior, the slain Lamb now exalted to share His Father's throne. Glorified believers will be loving and serving Him, and He will be loving and enriching them, to all eternity. Heaven will be a world of love; mutual outpourings of love between the Lord and His people will be at its center. And whatever inclusivists and pluralists offer as to how knowledge of Christ will come after death to those who lacked it when alive, it remains untrue to claim that non-Christian faiths as such—some of which (Judaism and Islam most notably) explicitly deny Jesus' divinity and saviorhood—have in view anything like the love relationship, the ongoing doxology, and the endless joy of final salvation according to the gospel. To say that all world religions are climbing the same mountain is simply false, both to the self-understanding of each one of them and to the biblical revelation of reality. The assimilation of world faiths to one another at which academic pluralists like John Hick aim is impossible intellectually and disastrous pastorally. Any who doubt this should read Harold Netland's learned book Dissonant Voices (Leicester: Apollos, 1991), which is cogent indeed on this matter.
To confirm what has just been said, we shall now look at the way in which the apostle Paul responded to the pluralism he found at Athens on his pioneer missionary visit to Europe. Luke records this for us in Acts 17:16-34. Acts, as we know, is Luke's second volume on Christ and Christian beginnings. Jesus' ascension is the dividing point between them, and while this book is canonically titled Acts of the Apostles, it could equally well be called Acts of the Holy Spirit, or (even better) Acts of the Enthroned Lord. It tracks the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome and en route gives samples of the various kinds of evangelistic communication that the apostles addressed to various audiences.
Luke's purpose, being evidently apologetic and catechetical as well as simply narrational, required of him factual accuracy; doubly so if, as seems virtually certain, he was writing his two-volume work in the early sixties of the first century, when many witnesses of all that he records were still alive. He claims to be presenting facts that he has researched, that he knows well, and that he is qualified to relay with precision (Luke 1:1-4); and the hypothesis that he is entirely truthful and worthy, therefore, of our trust has stood up successfully to all the many skeptical queryings that the past 200 years have brought forth. To be sure, his account of Paul at Athens, as of most of the events he narrates, is compressed; and his summary of Paul's address, which he casts into direct speech, according to the conventions of Greco-Roman historical writing, can be read aloud in two minutes. But there is every reason to treat the whole story as authentic, no reason to doubt any aspect of it, and we shall draw on it accordingly.
First-century Athens, though long bereft of its former glory, still was thought of (and thought of itself) in Oxford-and-Cambridge, Harvard-and-Yale terms as the cream of the cream brain-wise, the intellectual capital of the world; and Athenian religion was a distinctive and highly sophisticated compound of manipulative polytheism in a frame of argumentative philosophizing about life's true values. From verses 16-21 we learn how Paul reacted to all this. He was “provoked”, Luke tells us—moved, that is, to grief and indignation on God's behalf—by the polytheism to which multiple shrines bore witness. The civic religion at Athens, a free city within the Roman Empire, was worship of the goddess Athena, who set Athens going, and of the god Apollo, the city's patron, and with them Athenians worshipped at their discretion a range of what were in essence nature gods—Poseidon the sea god; Demeter the harvest goddess; Bacchus, god of wine and energy; and so on. In all polytheistic systems each deity has some aspect of the natural order under his or her control, and one must do homage to the proper god or gods in order to get the help one needs in life's various involvements. Slavish attempts to manipulate the gods, wheedling favors from them by special efforts to please them, is the spirit of all polytheism everywhere. Here, then, was the religious substratum of Athenian life.
But there were philosophers there too: Epicureans and Stoics, the former committed to a withdrawn lifestyle, tranquil, unattached, and free as far as possible from all forms of business and trouble, including all worship of the gods, the latter embracing a stern elitist moralism in which reason and fate, pantheistically conceived, were the ultimate realities and fortitude the ultimate virtue. Athenians welcomed traveling teachers and loved novelties so Paul easily got into discussion with philosophers of both sorts. Some (Epicureans?) dismissed him as a “babbler”, that is, a picker-up of ill-considered trifles, an intellectual charlatan not to be taken seriously. Others (Stoics?) thought he was wanting to add two foreign deities, a god named Jesus and a goddess named Anastasis (“resurrection”), to Athens's already overcrowded pantheon. Foreignness would be a reason for rejecting these additions so there was some coolness toward Paul. But curiosity triumphed, and so he found himself summoned to Athens's most prestigious debating chamber to answer the question, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?” (v. 19). Luke now summarizes the points Paul made in reply.
Paul's appearance before the Areopagus had the nature of an official hearing, for the Areopagus was the legal body that would screen all proposals to introduce new gods into the Athenian pantheon. It has indeed been powerfully argued that the question cited above from verse 19 is actually a statement that should be translated, “We possess the legal right to make a judgment about” what this new teaching amounts to. At all events it was a situation calling for both courtesy and clarity as Paul sought to challenge and correct the polytheistic frame of thought on which the hearing was based, and what Luke shows us is Paul rising brilliantly to an almost impossible combination of demands upon him.
A time-honored mistake is to suppose that in his Areopagus address Paul was trying to show off as a philosopher among the philosophers, that the relatively small number of converts at the end of the day was God's way of indicating that he should not have done so, and that his declaration that when he moved on from Athens to Corinth, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2), was a renouncing of his Athenian style and method. This is totally wrong, as all modern commentaries acknowledge. Paul began where he had to begin with the mixed bag of polytheists and philosophers that he was talking to. First he gave them a lesson in basic theism, introducing them to the one real God whose existence they acknowledge despite their ignorance about Him, and who will break one day into history to judge the world. Next, he laid before them the truth about man, displaying to them their own present plight under God's judgment. The gospel message as Paul preached, taught, and defended it can be summarized under six heads for which the keywords are God, man, history, salvation, fellowship, and heaven; we may, I think, be sure Paul was trying to turn this legal hearing into an evangelistic occasion and that, having spoken of God and of man, he would have gone on to complete his account of saving history by speaking of Christ's atoning death on the cross prior to His resurrection and would then have explained the way of salvation in precise terms, as he did elsewhere (Acts 13:38-39; 16:31; Rom 3:23-26; 10:9-13). But before he could do that, he was howled down (that is what “mocked” really means); when his hearers realized that he was seriously affirming that a man had been raised from death by the power of God, cries (in Greek) that were the equivalent of the English “Boo”, “Yah”, “Rubbish”, “Nonsense”, “Poppycock”, “Stop it”, “Sit down and shut up”, broke out; the noise was such that Paul could not go on speaking; and the meeting broke up in confusion. Some, however, met with Paul again to hear more, and the small church that he left behind him included at least one Areopagite of standing. Luke seems to be telling us as the chapter closes that even in Athens, the toughest nut to crack evangelistically in all Greece, the gospel achieved real if qualified success.
Now look in more detail at what Paul said before he had to stop talking.
What did he tell them about God? In verses 23-25 we learn that he told them the following: (1) By their own admission (the altar to the Unknown God), they do not know the one true God, whatever gestures of worship they may make in his direction. (2) This God is their Creator, to whom they owe their present and continued existence. (3) He is the sovereign Lord, God in charge of the world He has made. (4) He is infinite and omnipresent, not therefore localized, and not to be thought of as inhabiting buildings specially set apart for Him. (5) He is eternally self-sufficient and self-sustaining and does not depend on our gifts and sacrifices to keep Him going, for He never runs out of vitality or energy. (The theologians' term for this is aseity, which means the quality of drawing your life continually and endlessly from within yourself. It is a word worth learning.) (6) He is the source of every good thing we have or ever receive, so that (Paul implies) constant thanksgiving to Him would be in order (cf. Acts 14:15-17), and any lack of thankfulness would be a disorder (cf. Rom 1:21).
What did Paul then tell them about man? In verses 26-30 we learn that he laid before them the following truths: (1) The unity of the human race through a common ancestor is a fact. (2) The sovereignty of God in human history, geography, and all of everyone's affairs, is a further fact. (3) The purpose of the Creator was that we should, through intentionally seeking God, find him; in other words, knowing God is the true purpose of human life. (4) The dignity of each human being lies in the fact that we live in and through God as his offspring. Being God's image bearer (this was Paul's thought, whether or not he used that phrase) brings great dignity, though it brings responsibility too. (5) Since Greek poets, whom Greeks everywhere venerate as oracular wiseacres (they all did, and Paul builds on that), have testified to this human relationship to God, it is inexcusable to imagine God in the form of an idol, a process that means, first, scaling Him down to the level of His creatures, and then reducing Him further to the level of our own image of this creature or that. (Mental as well as metal images come under the lash of Paul's words here.) (6) God holds us all guilty for not worshipping and serving Him according to the highest we know of Him, and directs us to repent of—that is, to turn our back on—everything that has so far kept us from worthy worship.
And what, after all that, did Paul go on to tell them about history, before their booing and catcalling silenced him? From verse 31 we learn that he was able to set forth just four facts: (1) The era in which God shows forbearance toward our willful disregard of him is coming to an end. (2) God has fixed the day on which He will stop the flow of space-time history in order to bring us all to judgment and deal with us all as we deserve for our shortcomings toward both Him and other people. (3) God's executive agent in that judgment will be the man called Jesus, whom He has designated for that purpose. (4) God has given the world a public proof and pledge of this by resurrecting Jesus after he was put to death. As 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 also shows, Paul was ready to deploy testimony to the reality of Jesus' bodily resurrection whenever there was need; Luke's summary does not however enable us to know how much of that, if any, He did here.
How long had Paul been speaking before he was shouted down? This, too, is something we cannot tell. But we can safely guess that anger had been mounting steadily among the Areopagites since he began, so that his asserting of Jesus' resurrection was for them the last straw. By affirming the unity of the human race he, a visiting Jew, had challenged the elitism and racism that, as we know, were built into the Athenians' standard view of themselves compared with others. By declaring God's sovereignty, he had shown them that the true God cannot be manipulated and that we have no independent standing before him—always an unsettling notion when a person first meets it. By what he said about idols, he had in effect declared that Athenian religiosity, about which he had sounded affirmative at first (v. 22, the word translated “religious” can have a positive meaning), was misguided from start to finish; the gods of the polytheistic system in which the Athenians generally, Epicureans and Stoics included, invested their hopes were no gods at all. By quoting their own poets to them (Epimenides and Aratus, for the record [v. 28]), he had implied that Athenians were blameworthy for not worshipping the one true God. By speaking of final judgment, he had torpedoed the common Greek view of world history as endless cycles of events repeating themselves. By relaying God's call for repentance, he had in effect directed his learned listeners, Athens's brightest and best, to change their whole religion and lifestyle in a radical and upsetting way. And now for him to say of a particular dead man, not that his soul was immortal (which most, if not all, of them believed already), but that as a matter, not of mythology or legend, but of space-time, this-world, real-life fact he had been reanimated and somehow refashioned in the process, so that embodied existence, which to Greeks was a lower form of existence anyway, would never end for him, and to speak of this as something wonderful—well, it was just too much, and they were not going to listen to any more of it! Paul was talking offensive nonsense, and it was high time they shut him up. So they did.
What relevance has all this to our present concern? Its relevance lies in the fact that the Athenians were religious pluralists, and Paul was responding to their pluralism. There were, to be sure, many differences between the polytheistic pluralism of Athens, typical as it was of the ancient world, and the monotheistic or, rather, post-monotheistic and post-Christian, immanentist, cognitively skeptical pluralism that breaks surface among today's liberal theologians. But the essential pluralist position, that all responsible religions and cults are on a par with one another, that there is room for them all, and that they are all friends in that none really counters or contradicts either the theology or the promise of any other, was and is the same. Pluralism exists wherever it is thought good, for whatever reason, to sanction and endorse a plurality of rival beliefs and cults, and that is what we see here. Certainly, the theoretical grounds on which the position rests in the two cases are very different: Athenian pluralism, in the manner of polytheistic systems generally, was a superstitious system that rested on the idea of distinct spheres of power for a wide array of gods about whom horrific legends were circulated; today's Western pluralism is a sophisticated ideology that rests on the belief that the human mind, being finite, is fallible at a deeper level than it can know. Prone to misconceptions and misperceptions as we are, and lacking power to discern the fullness of ultimate truth, we must not wonder (so it is said) that different religions, and different experts within those religions, give different accounts of divine and/ or transcendent things. We really are like the six blind men in the Hindu parable who touched different parts of the elephant and came back with six different and seemingly irreconcilable stories about it. Humble realism about ourselves, so it is argued, requires a high level of agnosticism about the ultimate, and the way to project the fundamental unity of religions is to practice that form of intellectual self-denial that refuses to treat one's own present understanding as in any way definitive.
The attraction of this view is, of course, its openness and friendliness to other faiths. It is always a pleasure to proclaim peace and play host. The problem with it is, however, that no consistent form of it ever appears, since all its advocates prove on inspection to be commending, not consistent distrust of all human religious definitives as such but only consistent distrust of all human religious definitives except for the defined viewpoint of the teachers themselves (Blatavsky, Besant, Steiner, Campbell, Radhakrishnan, Hick, Coomaraswamy, Schuon, whoever); and logically it does not appear how it can ever be otherwise, for it is the nature of teachers to project, explicitly or implicitly, what they think they know, and this will come across, willy-nilly, as a positive option for learners to embrace. According to pluralist theory, for instance, the fact that one religion sees God as personal, another does not, and a third is atheistic; or that one religion anticipates a future existence with God in love and joy, another foresees gloom and diminution for all, and a third hopes only for nonexistence—pain ended because one is no longer there to feel it—should be explained somehow (there are different ways of doing this) in terms of the incompetence of human minds to discern and conceptualize ultimate realities. But teachers explaining this will have a personal view on both these matters and will be unable to conceal or refrain from commending it if only by the way they critique other opinions and options; and the very fact that they teach will seem to be saying that their views are likely to be wiser than those of others—certainly, than those of the persons under their instruction. The guru syndrome has historically been noticeably strong among advocates of religious pluralism, just as it has among liberal theologians generally, and the reason is obvious: having moved beyond both biblical and church authority, their only authority is now themselves.
And the unhappiness of the pluralist view is precisely that it is so decisively post-Christian and sub-Christian, the fruit of falling back from the apostolic gospel that announces the sufficiency, finality, cosmic dominion, and universal claim of Jesus Christ, our crucified Savior and risen Lord. The humility of mind for which pluralists call is actually unbelief of the Bible and ignorance of the Holy Spirit, who spoke by the prophets, inspired the Scriptures, interprets them to us so that we know the truth about God and Jesus, and through that knowledge sets us in a vital, saving relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Spirit Himself. So, too, the openness to non-Christian religious wisdom for which pluralists plead regularly involves disregard of Bible truth about world religions, and thus is in effect unbelief once more. What, therefore, we must do today in relation to the pluralism we face matches what Paul did, courteously but firmly, in relation to the pluralism he found at Athens: stand against strategies of assimilation, affirm the biblical view of God, man, and Christ in its fullness, and set it, not in syncretistic synthesis with, but in categorical contrast to, all other teachings, so that the insufficiency of non-Christian religions is clearly seen.
What view then should we take of non-Christian religions today? And how should we relate to their adherents, with whom in these days of immigration we rub shoulders constantly? First, let us learn to distinguish things that differ in our own backyard, starting with the liberals in the church who find pluralism so attractive. In 1924 the Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen, in his book Christianity and Liberalism, argued that there were two distinct religions side by side in the Protestant world. In 1998 the Canadian Anglican George Eves, in his book Two Religions One Church: Division and Destiny in the Anglican Church of Canada, argued similarly within an Anglican frame. Clarity and truth forbid us to pretend that here are merely minor variants on a single theme. Five centuries of Western thought have shrunk the God of the Bible by discounting His sovereignty, His holiness, and His use of language to reveal Himself to us; at the same time, they have inflated man by soft-pedaling original sin and seeing us as evolving toward intellectual and managerial omnicompetence in a world that is all ours, and they have robbed the church of vision and vigor by setting out, as we noted earlier, to play catchup to the world. In the churches of the Reformation, great confusion and uncertainty have resulted from all this, and it is no wonder that we now find it hard to think clearly about the crosscurrents of belief and behavior that flow from the presence among us of people of other faiths. The weight of generations of muddle, compromise, uncertainty, and cultivated vagueness lies heavy upon us. Before we can relate Christianity to persons of other faiths, who are often more clearheaded about their religion than we are about ours, we need to sort ourselves out.
Our confusion is often made worse by the wide spectrum of ways in which Protestants use the Bible. Let it be said at once that there is only one right way to interpret “God's Word written”, as Anglican Article 20 calls it: that is, first, to practice grammatical-historical, common-sense exegesis on each biblical book, treating it as written not to mystify but to be understood, and second, to let Scripture illuminate Scripture by its own internal links and cross-references. The combination of these two procedures is nowadays called canonical interpretation; Christ centered and life centered, as the entire Bible is, it yields results that in theological substance differ surprisingly little from what Christians found in the Bible from the start. Reformation exegesis and biblical criticism are often said to have transformed Bible study, and in terms of technique that is true, but in terms of content almost the whole story is that precision has been given to what men like Augustine and Chrysostom already knew. The selective impressionism and straining after novelty, which mark so much liberal exegesis and leave ordinary Christians feeling that biblical interpretation is much too difficult for any save experts to attempt, is a modern aberration. Biblical authority means the direction is given, and the limits set, by the Bible properly interpreted, and proper interpretation means canonical interpretation, and there is a heritage of canonical interpretation going right back to the apostolic age, a heritage whose essential correctness has been vindicated by critical examination time and time again. Canonical interpretation, clear and cogent in its fidelity to the whole Bible, yields the doctrines of the ecumenical creeds and Reformation confessions and classic catechisms and latter-day statements of evangelical faith. It dispels confusion and anchors Christian minds in a simple, straightforward grasp of the Christian faith; and thus it orients us for the relationships through which we are now to think our way.
Assuming, then, that we are clear in our minds as to the central realities of the historic biblical faith of which we are both beneficiaries and trustees, what principles (we ask) should guide us as we discuss religion with neighbors and friends of other faiths, and as we consider invitations to involve ourselves in interfaith and multifaith services and joint activities that bring the religions together? Taking my cue directly from Paul's Areopagus address, I suggest that three principles should guide us constantly: recognize what non-Christian faiths have; identify what they lack; and highlight the unique Savior and salvation that Christians have, and that everyone needs. Let me, as I close, develop that.
Recognize what non-Christian faiths have. The Bible view of non-Christian religions (Judaism and modern Islam excluded, as being latter-day special cases) is that they are the product, first, of universal ongoing revelation—general revelation, scholars call it—whereby God generates in everyone some inklings of His own reality, of the reality of moral standards, and of retributive judgment to come, and then, second, of the distorting of these awarenesses by inroads of idolatrous superstition (desiring gods man can manipulate and manage is the root of idolatry), and by various self-affirming techniques for getting one's god or gods to meet present and future felt needs. The story differs with each religion, just as the religion itself does: each is distinct. But all religions have in them some awe and respect toward the transcendent powers, personal or impersonal, from whom or through which they hope to receive good, some real morality that commands the conscience, some pattern of prayer and/or meditation, and some heartfelt hopes for the future, and we should surely be interested in exploring all these aspects, looking throughout for streaks and flashes of undistorted God light and trying to discern why and how the religion of our conversation partners came to its present shape. Out of such explorations can come not only understanding but also friendship, and in all informal evangelism, as we know, friendship is a major factor.
Identify what non-Christian faiths lack. A just appreciation of anything takes note of what is missing as well as of what is present, and that is as true in the realm of religion as anywhere. Comparison of the various non-Christian faiths with Christianity shows that the God who addresses us in His Word and who fellowships with us on the basis of promises He has made, who loves redemptively and whose gift of His Son to die on the cross for our sins is the measure and pledge of His love, who adopts and recreates us as His children and heirs, and who holds out to us a hope of supreme unending joy with Him beyond this world, is a God with whom our non-Christian conversation partners are not acquainted. Our thoughts, and when appropriate our words too, should focus on this lack rather than fudge it. General revelation may convey some sense of the Creator's everyday generosity (cf. Acts 14:16-17; Rom 2:4) but gives no knowledge of him as the Redeemer of lost and guilty sinners. It is here that Christianity stands apart from all other world faiths, and in conversation we should keep this difference constantly in view.
Highlight the unique Savior and salvation that Christians have and that everyone needs. When Paul began to do this at Athens, the Areopagus closed ranks against him; to have the established religious pluralism of Athens challenged as this wandering Jew was challenging it was more than they could bear, no matter how respectfully and persuasively Paul phrased what he had to say. Today Christians are often invited to share in interfaith and multifaith activities—books of essays, combined worship services, multifaith meetings to promote united interests—and it becomes a crunch-point question whether to say yes or no. If the organizers want only gestures of unity and rule out anything more, nonparticipation may be the wisest as well as the most honest course. We cannot honor God by pretending to be closer to others in theology and spiritual identity than we really are. But if witness to the divine Christ and salvation in and through Him, which is the constitutive core of Christianity, may be borne, alongside whatever witness to the constitutive core of other religions may also be given, then accepting involvement may be the proper thing to do. The Areopagus story shows that Paul, for one, were he in our shoes, would certainly think so. Every opportunity of highlighting the reality of God's love, the reality of our personal Savior, and the reality of the Christian hope of resurrection and joy should be taken, and if the implication that there is really no place for faiths that are not faith in Jesus Christ gives offence, as it did at Athens, we like Paul must bear it. The key elements of the Christian calling are transcultural and unchanging, and this is one of them. Everyone needs to be confronted with God's call to repent and put faith in the Lord Jesus Christ because of the coming day of judgment; and all forms of pluralism, whether polytheistic, superstitious, and idolatrous as at Athens or postmodern, secular, and ideological as in the modern world, must be challenged and critiqued in the name of Jesus Christ for the sake of God's kingdom and the salvation of souls. Cultures may change, but this is an obligation that remains.
This essay, which it is my pleasure to present to Dr. Montgomery, is a revision of a public address. No attempt has been made to change its spoken-word style.