Part Two: Genuine Pluralism & Reformed Christology
- 2005 16 May
In her article "Genuine Pluralism and Reformed Christology," Sara J. Melcher attempts to lay genocide, including the Holocaust, at the feet of the doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ. She fails to make a distinction between those who are biblical Christians and those who simply claim to be Christians.
The unification of the Protestant churches in Germany into a national church was one of Hitler's goals when he came to power. So-called "German Christians" attempted to justify Nazism and anti-Semitism on Christian principles, something which, of course, is impossible to do. Some refused to comply and a resistance was born consisting of approximately 10 percent of all Protestants.
The primary resistance movement came to be called the "Confessing Church" comprised of Lutheran, Reformed, and Union church pastors and lay persons. In 1934, the "Barman Declaration" declared that the proclamation of the church consists only in Jesus Christ and not Nazism. Those within the movement hid Jews, trained pastors, and some involved themselves in plots to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a key leader in the movement and executed by the Nazis in 1945.
Based upon her inclusion of the German state church in the Reformed tradition, Melcher asserts that exclusivist Christology is derived from a narrow reading of Scripture. She further appeals to the Reformed principle of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture.
In so doing, she posits that Christians have tended to treat "passages that express an exclusivist christology [sic] as having a higher level of authority than other parts of scripture [sic]. Christians tend to read a passage like John 14:6--Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me'--as having the power somehow to 'trump' other, more inclusive passages. The theological constructions of the Reformed tradition tend to read the rest of Scripture as necessarily conforming with passages like Matt 11:27; John 14:6; and Acts 4:12, among others."
Note that she does affirm that these passages do teach the exclusivity of Christ. The problem is that she goes on to posit that the author's of Scripture in effect contradict one another. In her words, "Job challenges some of the traditional wisdom perspectives represented within the book of Proverbs or within some poems from the Book of Psalms. Ecclesiastes, too, seems to challenge the world view of traditional wisdom.
The theological perspective of the Letter of James may challenge the perspective of Paul's Letter to the Romans or it may seek to correct a common misinterpretation of Paul's letter. There are additional intra-biblical challenges." Her notion is that Scripture's framers intended to offer divergent perspectives on the way of salvation.
Melcher's contention is that conservative Christians have read the Scriptures wrongly when it comes to the issue of salvation. "We of the Reformed churches often seem determined to make all Scripture conform to a few, special passages." Melcher interprets Romans 11 to say that all Jews will ultimately be saved. She interprets the account of the Rich, Young, Ruler as Jesus Himself teaching works salvation. She interprets the parable of the Good Samaritan as teaching that "love of God and love of neighbor will suffice" for salvation. She states that "Matthew 25:31-46 implies that something besides faith in Christ alone might be a factor in how one spends eternity." She notes that Amos 9:7 "may serve to challenge the idea that Christians alone are the recipients of God's salvation." Suffice it to say that Melcher has read each one of these texts out of context.
Of course, when one asserts that Scripture contradicts Scripture, then one has rejected the authority of Scripture. Those who would affirm Scripture's authority would also affirm that Scripture cannot contradict itself. In a sense, the debate must end here. It cannot go any further (on a non-presuppositional approach) as the Christian and non-Christian argue from different sources of authority.
Those who reject the authority of Scripture and affirm that Scripture contradicts itself must indeed be deemed non-Christians. The evidence lies in Melcher's own gross misinterpretations of Scripture cited above. But she continues.
Melcher argues that Reformed theologians, and PC USA theologians in particular, fail to use the Hebrew Bible. In so doing they misunderstand God's way of salvation. She asks, "If the Hebrew Bible suffers neglect in some of the individual churches, how will readers and listeners be confronted by the idea that God saves--in passages that lack an explicit reference to Jesus Christ?"
In response, indeed God does save. But, who is God and to whom does the Old Testament refer? Consider the words of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself: "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory? And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Lk. 24:25-27)."
Referring to the Hebrew Bible, Jesus said, "You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me (Jn. 5:39)." Ironically, in that text, the Lord Jesus is refuting religious leaders who deny His claim, even as Melcher does. The Hebrew Bible speaks of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Consider Gal. 3:8: "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, in thee shall all nations be blessed." Further, "By faith Moses, when he became of age, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt; for he looked to the reward (Heb. 11:24-26)." Moses esteemed the reproach of Christ as greater riches. Melcher's argument falls to the ground as she demonstrates her lack of understanding of the Scriptures as a whole.
Christ is found on every page, declared to be the Creator, equated with God the Father throughout the New Testament, and affirmed as the sole, sufficient Savior for both Jews and Gentiles. It was Jesus who said, "before Abraham was, I am (Jn. 8:58)."
Incredibly, she next moves to pit the "rule of faith" against the "rule of love." Again, she opines, "While the doctrine that salvation comes only through Christ follows the principle of Scriptural interpretation called "The Rule of Faith" (which means that one should be guided by the doctrinal consensus of the church), does the doctrine as it is currently formulated, understood, and taught adhere to "The Rule of Love?" Is it loving to focus on those passages of Scripture that confirm our sense of religious superiority, when there are passages that offer a broader point of view? Is it loving to hold on to theologies that reinforce barriers between the Reformed churches and people of other faiths?"
The more appropriate question would be: "is it loving not to warn someone of the coming wrath? Is it loving to leave someone dead in their sins for the sake of a shallow union?" The fact that Christ is the exclusive way of salvation does not mean that Christians affirm religious superiority in a pejorative way. Christians view themselves as beggars telling other beggars where to find bread. Any other attitude is sub-Christian. It is Melcher who feels religiously superior by virtue of the so-called wideness in her mercy. The problem lies in the fact that affirming ways of salvation apart from Christ is not merciful at all.
Melcher then challenges the traditional and scholarly understanding of the historical and sociological background to passages that promote an exclusivist Christology. Her position is that differing factors led the writers of Scripture to promote such a position and that in our current context, that position must be rejected as contemporary factors have changed. (Her logic is that if you can't refute the text, simply deny the text).
In a postmodern world, truth is not static. To borrow from the ancient postmodern philosopher Hereclitus, truth is in a state of flux. One can never be certain of anything. One can never step into the same river twice for fresh waters are always flowing upon him. Hereclitus and Melcher are not the only ones who hold to such non-sensical notions. The church is drowning in the flowing waters of flux as new currents of truth rush past those who stand in the river not knowing which current to ride or even how to get out of such a torrent.
Two other Reformed principles of interpretation are cited by Melcher: the principle that Christ is that to which all Scripture points and the principle of dependence upon the leadership of the Holy Spirit in interpreting and applying God's message in Scripture. She notes that the first principle suggests that Jesus' attitude should inform our interpretation of Scripture and then reflects upon whether or not the "doctrine of salvation only through Christ is something that Jesus himself would promote.
If the purpose of the incarnation was to reconcile human beings to God, does the doctrine of salvation only through Christ serve that primary purpose? Or, does this exclusivist doctrine work against the reconciliation of human beings to one another and so represent an attitude that would not be supported by Jesus himself?"
We can only respond that Jesus did promote Himself as the exclusive Savior of the world. Note too how Melcher confuses two issues. She states that the purpose of the incarnation is to reconcile human beings to God and then states the doctrine of the exclusivity of Christ works against the reconciliation of human beings to one another.
While it does no such thing, Melcher has inserted her humanist bent. She forgets that which is ultimate: reconciliation to God, and substitutes that which is her main concern and agenda: the reconciliation of human beings to one another. She is not so much concerned that we get our theology right, but that we don't appear to be narrow or bigoted. Getting along with Muslims or Jews is more important that remaining true to God and/or seeing them saved from eternal judgment.
Consider the words of John R.W. Stott with reference to the exclusivity of Christ and the reconciliation of human beings to God and to one another. "It is understandable that since the holocaust Jews have demanded an end to the Christian missionary activity among them, and that many Christians have felt embarrassed about continuing it. It is even mooted that Jewish evangelism is an unacceptable form of anti-Semitism.
So some Christians have attempted to develop a theological basis for leaving Jews alone in their Judaism. Reminding us that God's covenant with Abraham was an 'everlasting covenant', they maintain that it is still in force, and that therefore God saves Jewish people through their own covenant, without any necessity for them to believe in Jesus.
This proposal is usually called a 'two-covenant theology'. Bishop Krister Stendahl was one of the first scholars to argue for it, namely that there are two different salvation 'tracks'-the Christian track for the believing remnant and believing Gentiles, and the track for historical Israel which relies on God's covenant with them. Romans 11 stands in clear opposition to this trend because of its insistence on the fact that there is only one olive tree, to which Jews and Gentile believers both belong... 'The irony of this,' writes Tom Wright, 'is that the late twentieth century, in order to avoid anti-Semitism, has advocated a position (the non-evangelization of the Jews) which Paul regards precisely as anti-Semitic.'"
The second principle Melcher cites implies that the Spirit guides us in the interpretation of Scripture and thus we should "continue to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit as [we] interpret Scripture in reference to the christology [sic] of Christ as the only savior [so that we] will be led to deeper understandings of the issue of salvation in Scripture." Her prayer is that the Spirit would give us a man-centered understanding of Scripture as opposed to a God-centered and accurate understanding of the same. The Spirit hears no such prayers.
The failure to make a distinction between those who are biblical Christians and those who simply claim to be Christians is a problem that is all too pervasive throughout the Christian and non-Christian worlds alike. We must maintain that distinction for understanding to be had and to prevent wrongheaded conclusions from the likes of Melcher. Christ is the only way of salvation. That doctrine does not foster persecution or indifference as Melcher suggests.
Rather, sin in the human heart produces such. To expect anything other than indifference as the very best from a great many of those who don't know Christ is to expect an illusion. Individuals from every philosophical and religious commitment can be and have been guilty of the dynamic Melcher laments. Again, the root of the problem is not exclusivist Christology but human depravity.
Melcher maintains that Reformed Christians should revisit their notions of an exclusive Christology. In her appeal, she cites the Presbyterian Confession of 1967 which states, "Repeatedly God has used the insight of non-Christians to challenge the church to renewal." Again, the renewal of which Melcher speaks is the paring away of biblical truth so that Christians might join with persons in other faith traditions in the spirit of brotherhood. That brotherhood is grounded in a willingness to set aside truth.
Of course, in a postmodern world, truth is relative and at the same time irrelevant. The danger is that if Melcher's version of Christianity is realized, the true church will be irrelevant. If that happens, life itself will be irrelevant and the relevance of truth will not be realized until it's too late.
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.