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Genuine Pluralism and Reformed Christology Revisited

  • Dr. Paul J. Dean Pastor, Counselor, Professor & Columnist
  • Published May 06, 2005
Genuine Pluralism and Reformed Christology Revisited

In a recent article titled "Genuine Pluralism and Reformed Christology," Sarah J. Melcher responds to Rita M. Gross and her call to pursue the goal of genuine religious pluralism. Gross asserts that the monotheistic religions have repeatedly failed in dealing with religious diversity in a constructive way. She contends that "the major persecuting religions of the world are monotheistic, and that their willingness to persecute is tied directly to their universalistic convictions, especially the conviction that their conceptualization of the deity is universally relevant and supreme."

Melcher's response is one of affirmation as she takes Gross's call seriously by exploring obstacles to genuine pluralism within her own monotheistic tradition, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Her desire is to encourage greater openness in terms of salvation regarding persons who are not Christian: an openness she feels is reflected in Reformed theology.

That openness must further be pointed out is unbiblical. Though biblical Christianity is indeed monotheistic, to lump all monotheistic religions into the same category is theologically and historically untenable. Moreover, different strains exist in the Reformed tradition. They cannot be lumped together either.

Understand that Melcher's critique is applicable even to those who do not hold to Reformed theology. The Protestant Reformation was grounded in what is termed today Reformed theology, but all Protestant denominations owe their existence and Christology to the Reformation. While those who call themselves Reformed and those who do not may disagree on certain points, all Bible-believing Christians believe that Christ is the only way of salvation. Thus, in terms of the issue at hand, all Bible believing Christians are in the Reformed tradition.

Melcher lays a foundation for her argument on an experience she had which served as an impetus for theological reflection on issues related to Reformed Christology. She explains: "A few years ago, I was asked to travel with a group of faculty and students to a Jewish-Christian dialogue event in Oswiecim, Poland. As part of the experience, faculty and students toured Birkenau, one of the death camps in the Auschwitz complex. As our guide was leading us through Birkenau, I moved closer to a Christian student who had been walking alone. I sensed that the student was struggling and I wanted to offer support. Together we learned that at least 1.2 million Jews died at Birkenau. As we were walking by ourselves, the student asked me, 'Do you think that the Jews who died here went to hell?' I was very startled by the question. After a pause for reflection, a line from a favorite Presbyterian hymn came to me: 'There is a wideness in God's mercy/ Like the wideness of the sea.' If I had answered in a way that was more in keeping with traditional Presbyterian doctrine, I might have responded quite differently to the student, perhaps quoting from the Westminster Larger Catechism (adopted by the Scottish General Assembly in 1647); 'They who having never heard the gospel, know not Jesus Christ, and believe not in him, cannot be saved, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the law of nature, or the laws of that religion which they profess; neither is there salvation in any other, but in Christ alone, who is the Savior only of his body, the church.' I did not have the heart to reply to the student according to the official doctrine of the Presbyterian Confessions. In that place--in the setting of the Birkenau death camp--to respond in such a way struck me as an inadequate response to the horrific offense that had been committed there."

Agreement can certainly be had in terms of the horrific offense committed against the Jews. No person with any modicum of compassion or sense of justice can deny the atrocities perpetrated against them. At the same time, in terms of orthodox Christianity and the exclusiveness of Christ as Savior, Melcher's thoughts and response may be shocking to some. However, the sad truth is that far too many in the contemporary church identify with her in the above even in the theological sense. Experience often takes priority over the propositional truth of Scripture. Redefining the wideness of God's mercy to include those who do not profess faith in Christ is the product of postmodern thought and revisionism. But the greatest blasphemy is uttered when so-called Christians don't have the heart to affirm the exclusivity of Christ. Not only is Christ and His work denied, but the truth is suppressed. When the truth is suppressed, salvation is hindered. How prideful mere human beings are when they think their hearts are some how bigger than God's. How arrogant they are to sit in judgment upon God's word. To claim that Christ and the fact that He alone is the way of salvation strikes persons "as an inadequate response" is nothing more than self-righteous rebellion. How can the church be safe from doctrinal decline and spiritual erosion when her theologians are guilty of such treason?

From her experience, Melcher contends that "a particularly knotty and controversial difficulty for interfaith relations between Christian churches of the Reformed tradition and non-Christian faith groups is the classic statement of Reformed christology [sic] that there is no salvation by any other means than through Jesus Christ alone." In her view, the fact that Reformed churches have affirmed "again and again" that Jesus Christ is the exclusive way of salvation is lamentable.

She moves to cite a Christological statement adopted by the General Assembly of the PC USA in 2002 entitled "Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ." While many hail the statement as a great step forward in terms of interfaith relations, Melcher contends that it retains an exclusivist kind of Christology. Judge for yourself from this excerpt: "Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him. No one is saved by virtue of inherent goodness or admirable living, for 'by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God' [Ephesians 2:8]. No one is saved apart from God's gracious redemption in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not presume to limit the sovereign freedom of 'God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth' [1 Timothy 2:4]. Thus, we neither restrict the grace of God to those who profess explicit faith in Christ nor assume that all people are saved regardless of faith. Grace, love, and communion belong to God, and are not ours to determine."

Melcher acknowledges that the exclusivist lines in the first part of the excerpt are mitigated by the last few lines. She maintains that the last few lines affirm a "wise and important principle of the Reformed tradition: 'Grace, love, and communion belong to God and are not ours to determine." At the same time, she complains that the statement as a whole does little to create openness toward other religious traditions. Her chief complaint is that while the statement is to be considered inclusive in that it allows for those who do not express faith in Christ to be saved; it asserts that if persons are saved, it is Christ who has done the saving even though they did not call upon Him per se.

One wonders how Melcher can interpret the Reformed tradition as being open to the idea that non-Christians may be saved as she implies. Not only is she guilty of twisting the Scriptures, but she is guilty of twisting the Reformed tradition.

Melcher next takes her argument to a new level. She cites the reformed principle that the church is reformed and always reforming. From this principle, she opines that "the experience of the Shoah (Holocaust) of World War II and subsequent genocides in our global experience--many of which were fueled in part by religious exclusivism--are compelling reasons for Christians to revisit their theological statements. The participation of Protestants in the atrocities of the Shoah-- including Protestants of the Reformed tradition--is something that must be squarely faced and considered from the vantage point of the theological formulations...Such global occasions as genocide--with its implicit accusation of complicity or indifference on the part of professing Christians--call for a deep commitment to reformation."

Again, Melcher is quite the revisionist herself. While the church is reformed and always reforming in the sense that she continues to learn and grow as a result of a deeper understanding of Scripture resultant from the leadership of the Holy Spirit and the fact that the contemporary church stands on the shoulders of countless giants who have come before her through the years, one is hard pressed to understand how an apostate church can be included in the Reformed tradition. Melcher is here not only guilty of historical revisionism, but she is guilty of a lack of scholarly integrity. While the state church in WWII Germany may have been in some sense established on certain Reformed principles, by the time Hitler came to power, the church had all but vanished into oblivion (provided one affirms a regenerate church membership, something that many churches in the Reformed tradition do not. But even among those churches, theological orthodoxy would be required for a church to be considered a true church of Jesus Christ. A church that has fallen away, as the German state church, is not a true church in the Reformed tradition).

The more important point to be debated is that an exclusivist Christology contributed to the church and its willingness to do nothing as Hitler slaughtered the Jews, and indeed others. Melcher needs to understand that it is not exclusivist Christology that contributes to prejudice, hatred, or indifference. Rather, it is the sinfulness of the human heart. No one who claims to be a Christian can make such a claim without not only feeling for the Jews, but in WWII Germany, doing something about the atrocities that were heaped upon them. As James the apostle affirms, the church's preaching of the Good News is inseparable from its responsibility to feed the hungry and plead the cause of the victims of injustice. As Deitrich Bonhoeffer in WWII Germany said, "Only he who cries out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian [chant]"

Contemporary Christians indeed need to be challenged by the likes of Bonhoeffer in terms of the practical application of their claim to know Christ. However, to reject Christ as the sole, sufficient Savior will only serve to have an opposite and deleterious effect as the culture of self marches forward with no consideration for the plight of others. Christ alone can transform the human heart. Let's cry out for Jews and at the same time figuratively sing Gregorian chant by flying to Christ for help in this time of need. Let's revisit other implications tomorrow.

Dr. Paul J. Dean is an adjunct professor at Erskine Theological Seminary and serves as the Director of Supervised Ministry at the Greenville, SC extension of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is actively involved in the field of biblical counseling having co-founded the Southern Baptist Association of Biblical Counselors.