The Uniqueness of Christianity

Pluralism is no new thing.  In the world that the Apostle Paul evangelised there were ‘gods many and lords many’.  In post-Reformation Scotland we briefly grew accustomed to a different world, in which Protestantism enjoyed an unquestioned hegemony.  That world has now gone.  Not only have other Christian traditions grown in strength, but immigration has brought all the world faiths to our shores.  Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists have become our neighbours, and their children sit beside ours in school.

Three different attitudes

This presents Scottish Christianity with a serious challenge.  In the old days, the answer would have been clear enough.  The newcomers would have been seen as a mission-field on our own door-step.  Now we are far less certain.  Even within the Christian church itself there are now three different attitudes towards other world faiths.

First, there is the inclusivist answer:  Christ is the best, but not the only way to God.  These other religions may include some of the essential elements of Christianity, and their adherents may therefore be Christians without knowing it.  They are, to give them their fashionable label, ‘anonymous Christians’.

Secondly, there is the pluralist answer, endorsed by such scholars as John Hick, which argues that there is nothing distinctive about Christianity.  All the great religions contain supreme revelatory moments, and all of them lead to God.

Thirdly, there is the exclusivist answer: The God of Israel is the only true God, Christ is the only way to him, and faith in this Christ is essential to salvation.

This is, beyond doubt, the biblical position.  The Old Testament clearly sets forth the strictest monotheism.  Jahweh is the god not only of Israel, but of all nations, and worship of any other god is culpable idolatry.  The same exclusivism appears in the teaching of Jesus: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.  No-one comes to the father except through me.’ (John 14:6)  The early church sounds the same note.  ‘Salvation is found in no-one else, proclaimed Peter, ‘for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

Similarities to other religions

But Christian uniqueness is no excuse for intolerance.  Christians not only concede the right of all human beings to worship God as their consciences dictate.  They insist on it.  Toleration is a fundamental Christian obligation, even when we know that some of the faiths we tolerate will one day cut our throats.

Nor does Christian uniqueness mean that we have to deny that there are similarities between Christianity and other religions.  There undoubtedly are.  One reason for this is the reality of General Revelation, of which Paul speaks in Romans 1:18-32. The invisible qualities of God, he says, are not only clearly revealed by the things that are made, but clearly seen.  Every human being knows her dependence on God and her accountability to him.

It was by building on Paul’s teaching that John Calvin gave us what is in effect a theology of world religions.  A sense of divinity is engraven on every human heart, and this, said Calvin, is the seed from which all religions spring, each one containing glimmerings of the eternal light which shines in everyone who comes into the world (John 1:9)  This is why there can be no total discontinuity between Christianity and other faiths.  The instincts to pray and praise and sacrifice are inevitable results of the seed of religion which God has implanted in every human heart.

Religions of the Book

But there is a further reason to expect similarities between Christianity and other religions.  Three of the great world faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are all derived from Abraham.  They are “Religions of the Book”, sharing a common Old Testament inheritance, and this inevitably means that they hold certain values in common: such values, for example, as the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage, the sanctity of truth, compassion for the poor and sympathy for the alien.   But there are also seminal beliefs which all three Religions of the Book hold in common, including the doctrines of creation, life after death and final judgement.

Christian fact-claims

Where, then, does the uniqueness of Christianity lie?  Modern politicians, as well as pluralist theologians, like to stress the importance of “Christian values”.  But the uniqueness of Christianity doesn’t lie in its values.  In fact, there are scarcely any uniquely Christian values.  Even the Golden Rule (“Do to others as you would have them do to you”) is found far beyond the boundaries of Christianity.  But when we turn from values to facts, the situation is completely different.  Christianity is not a religion of ideas, but a religion of facts, and on its most basic facts other religions are in complete disagreement.

What are these Christian fact-claims?

First, that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfilment of the age-old Jewish hope, bringing with him the kingdom of God, the renewal of the world and the salvation of Israel.  No Jew or Muslim accepts this; every Christian insists on it, and the result is an insurmountable wall of division between the three faiths.

Secondly, in the man, Jesus, God was incarnate.  This is abhorrent to Jews and Muslims, and scarcely less so to Hindus and Buddhists.  None of these faiths would have any difficulty with the idea of a Spirit-filled man, but this is not the Christian claim.  The Christian claim is that in this man, and only in this man, God took human nature into personal union with himself, and lived an authentic human life on this earth.  It is nonsense to suggest that all faiths are open to the possibility of divine incarnation, and even greater nonsense to suggest that all are agreed that such an incarnation took place in Jesus of Nazareth.

Thirdly, Jesus rose from the dead.  This claim is made in the hard realm of facts: in the realm, indeed, where it could easily have been falsified by producing Jesus’ body.   No Jew or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist believes this.  Here again there is fundamental disagreement.

If these alleged facts are not facts, Christianity is a fraudulent religion and every Christian must renounce her Creed.  That Creed doesn’t say, “I believe in love, truth and justice”, or, indeed, in any other set of values.  It says, “I believe in Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Plate and raised again the third day.” Our faith is about him; and what it is about with regard to him is facts.  If the facts fall, Christianity falls, giving Jews and Muslims every right to call it a blasphemy and humanists the right to dismiss it as an absurdity.  But conversely, if the facts are indeed facts, every other religion is invalid and all their adherents must fall at the feet of Jesus, the risen Saviour.

Radically different

These facts mark Christianity as radically different from every other world religion.  Its doctrine of the incarnation, for example, means that it has a unique concept of God.  Part of this is the proclamation of the Trinity, the one God existing as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  But there is the equally radical revelation of God as the One who makes himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, sharing our weakness, facing our pain and tasting our death.  This is a universe away from the Islamic cry, “Allah is great!”

The facts also mean that Christian worship is such as no adherent of any other religion can share.  We worship Jesus Christ.  We don’t merely worship with him, or even worship through him.  We worship him, personally, as the eternal Son of God, equal in being and equal in glory with God the Father.  Our hymns make melody to him, our prayers are addressed to him and our tongues confess him.  This is why inter-faith services can never be appropriate.  We cannot expect Jews, Hindus and Muslims to worship Christ; and we cannot expect Christians not to.

And Christianity is unique, too, in its view of the plight of the human race.  That plight is so grave that we had no hope of saving ourselves.  The human gene-pool, as the Virgin Birth reminds us, could never have produced its own Saviour.  God himself had to come “for us men and for our salvation”, becoming one with us so that he might save us from the inside.  Yet the situation was so grave that no mere incarnation could save us.  God uniting himself to us and dwelling among us was not enough.  He must die, bearing our sin.  This is the supreme stumbling-block of Christianity, and its sternest challenge to other faiths.  Can they endorse a religion which takes sin so seriously that the only remedy for it is the blood of God?  Here again is an insuperable barrier to inter-faith services.   Not even Judaism or Islam can enter into the Christian sense of the gravity of sin or associate with us in our stress on repentance and atonement.

Liberal humanist exclusivism

In recent years, pluralism has succeeded in putting Christianity on the defensive, arguing that its claim to be the only way to God is insulting to other to other faiths,  incompatible with God’s love for the whole world and, ultimately, imperialistic.  To this, we have every right to retort that Pluralism itself is a striking instance of Western Liberal arrogance.  With mock modesty, it proclaims that it cannot endorse “any single spirituality”, but then goes on to declare that it finds something of value in all religions (especially, of course, in the non-Christian ones).

But behind the seemingly respectful tone lies a blanket condemnation of all religions.  Religious pluralism is the voice of Liberal Humanist Exclusivism, damning all faiths, but softening the blow with a patronising endorsement of selected values from each.  From its own Mount Olympus, high above the superstitious rituals of faith and the meaningless mumblings of theologians, pluralism issues its learned judgement: “None of you is Truth, and none of you (least of all Christianity) holds out any greater hope than any other of leading men to God, but each of you deserves some little commendation for sharing some of our secular humanist values.”  Pluralism is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

If we cannot accept this, we are left with one pressing practical conclusion: the categorical importance of mission.  Apart from Christ the world is in the dark, desperately groping for God.  The responsibility for bringing him to the world, whether Jew or Gentile, Humanist or Animist, rests on us.  God is saying to us, quite literally, “Go home, and prepare for mission.”