In 2010, one hundred years after the historical 1910 Edinburgh Missions Consultation, Timothy Tennent, president at Asbury Theological Seminary, authored Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century.
Following Part One’s wide overview of “Megatrends That Are Shaping Twenty-first Century Missions,” Part Two is subdivided into the members of the Trinity. Under the heading ,”God the Father,” Tennent examines “An Evangelical Theology of Religions” (pp. 191-229). It is this section of the book I want to review; it seems that various contributors to the Biblical Missiology site have alluded to their own theology of religions without being aware of Tennent’s contribution.
After acknowledging that the Father is both sovereign over all of life, that he is only known by revelation, Tennent moves rapidly through a sketch of three authors’ Christian approaches to world religions. He demonstrates that scriptural justifications are used or abused to bolster support for most positions., He wisely notes that views of general or special revelation serve as the acid test for the one’s approach. He shows the spectrum of thinking ranging from “those who believe that special revelation is nothing more than a specific and particularized symbolism of the general revelation that is universally known” to those who assert that “true knowledge is found only in Christ and the Scriptures and all other claims to knowledge are utterly false” (195). Following his interaction with each view, he proposes his model of “revelatory particularism.”
Tennent cautions that far too often models are proposed by those far away from the reality of the majority of the world, which lives in the context of adherents of many religions rubbing shoulders; these are scholars influenced more by post-Enlightenment thinking than Biblical categories.
A. Alan Race
Pluralism, inclusivism and exclusivism.
It was in 1982 that Alan Race used those three words to describe the general categories into which all theologies of religion can be found. Some complained that the categories were too simplistic and others, as Tennent reports, adjusted them. Most notably was Paul F. Knitter in his Introducing Theologies of Religions (Orbis 2002).
B. Paul Knitter
To keep things simple, I have expanded Tennent’s use of the analogy of mountain paths to describe Knitter’s various categories. Knitter proposes a spectrum of responses to world religions, each with its own major proponents.
1) The Replacement Model
“There is one path and one mountain.” Knitter renames the exclusivist model and further refines them as the total replacement and partial replacement models.
a) Total Replacement Model
“There is one guide up the mountain.” From a Christian point of view, this model argues that salvation and true revelation are found uniquely in Christ; Christianity is the only true religion and it totally replaces all others. Those who die without Christ will perish eternally. Knitter believes the total replacement model is generally triumphalistic and Tennent shares this caution.
b) The Partial Replacement Model
“There are multiple guides up the mountain.” As with the TRM, the partial replacement model holds that salvation is found only in Christ. The difference is in the latter model’s understanding that revelation can be found outside of Christ and the Scriptures. Tennent calls the advocates of PRM “new evangelicals.” On the Biblical Missiology website, this view is expressed by proponents of the insider movements; e.g., the Holy Spirit inspired some truths in the Qur’an.
2) The Fulfillment Model
“Many paths lead to my path, which takes you to the top of the mountain.” This is Knitter’s replacement for the inclusivism model. He suggests this model is characterized in statements from Vatican II: “Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God” or “Upon the Moslems, too, the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of heaven and earth.” Furthermore, Tennent discusses the influence of evolution upon this model for other scholars with Christianity at the top; it is a first among equals. Among Hindus, Tennent’s specialization, “non-confrontational bridges” were built from Hinduism to Christianity. The fulfillment model, then, suggests, “salvific grace is mediated through general revelation, not just through special revelation” (202).
3) The Mutuality Model
“Many paths lead all the way up one mountain.” This is Knitter’s replacement for the pluralism model. It might be rephrased, “as we talk and walk together we will come to see the truth which we already have” model. Tennent explains that proponents of this view, including Knitter, do not look for biblical support. If they did, Tennent believes, they would only find an incipient exclusivism– something they avoid like the plague. Tennent cautiously appreciates the willingness to engage with other religions on their turf; however, he has serious reservations about the mutuality model’s notion of “universal religious consciousness” becoming determinative, even god.
4) The Acceptance Model
“Many paths lead to many mountains.” Postmodernism is rampant through Knitter’s models. The acceptance model could be called the model that believes “There are many true religions and the differences are real and eternal and we just have to accept that.” Proponents of the acceptance model suggest that each religion can only be judged by its own standards of truth (cultural relativism), thus comparison between them is fruitless. Tennent appreciates that there are real and eternal differences between religions, but he has severe reservations about redefining truth.
Tennent engages with each model, pointing out areas from we can learn from them, but he is not afraid to tackle unbiblical presuppositions. The “anonymous Christians” advocated by the fulfillment-inclusivism model is one such assumption. He helps the reader understand the faulty ecclesiology undergirding the model. For those who advocate the total replacement model, Tennent argues they could fall into the trap of dualistic thinking. That is to say, in an effort to protect special revelation, they might say there is nothing good to be had in general revelation. Tennent suggests that a solid doctrine of creation might be a corrective here. Tennent seems to lean toward the partial replacement model, yet he does not go far enough in considering the fact that the human heart is, as Calvin suggested, “an idol factory”–simultaneously a truth holder and a truth suppressor. Human thinking is darkened in the futility of its thinking.
C. Amos Yong:
Tennent examines the work of this Pentecostal scholar who proposes a “Spirit-based” view of other religions: other religions are judged by the criteria of divine activity, divine presence and divine absence. Tennent applauds Yong’s interaction with the early church fathers, his global view, and his emphasis on the Spirit. With reservation, however, Tennent believes that Yong never adequately wrestles with the questions of “What do we do with Christ?” and “What must one do to be saved?” Additionally he finds that Yong’s model carries the incipient dangers of subjectivism, triumphalism, and focuses too strongly on understandings of pluralism coming from the church of the West.
D. Tennent’s Proposed Model
Before offering his own take on an evangelical theology of religions, Tennent suggests that five controls are vitally important. His depth of experience shines through here. They are:
- Being attentive to our nomenclature. Using the words ‘descriptive and performative,’ Tennent shows the need for accuracy in describing both doctrinal positions, and how one relates to adherents of other religions.
- Maintaining a Trinitarian frame with Christological focus. In the final analysis, Tennent suggests Christology is the only objective standard to measure truth claims coming from within or without the Christian community.
- Proclaiming biblical truth. Fear of the rough edges of the gospel has caused many to compromise the particular nature of biblical truth. Tennent suggests that avoiding the word exclusivism might be helpful, while adhering to the exclusive nature of the gospel message in a culture of relativism.
- Placing the discussion within a larger theological setting. Tennent suggests placing the three non-negotiables, i.e., The uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the centrality of his death and resurrection and the need for an explicit response of repentance and faith within the broader biblical categories of creation, revelation, ecclesiology, anthropology etc. to avoid being either too “individualistic or theologically reductionistic.”
- Recognizing the global dimension of religious pluralism. Changing times, globalization, immigration and the collapse of Christendom, and post modernism can engender a religious pluralism that is “decidedly relativistic.” Tennent feels that voices of the global church must weigh into any discussion of religious pluralism. The Christians of the majority world, living alongside of other religions, are demonstrating “the normative primacy of Christ” as fact, not theory.
Consequently, Tennent proposes the following model.
1. Exclusivism is renamed revelatory particularism. Tennent prefers the word particular as it still communicates the idea of uniqueness without sounding like it is excluding someone. He uses the word revelatory to show that biblical revelation is normative and that Jesus Christ is the final revelation and revealer of God. As well, he suggests that these concepts together will prevent some vague idea of a cosmic Christ, who has nothing to do with apostolic proclamation.
2. Inclusivism is renamed universal inclusivism. Tennent tries to underline God’s self-revelation through general revelation to everyone in the universe; all are included. He suggests that each and every person has what Calvin called “a sense of the divine;” none are excluded.
3. Pluralism is renamed dialogic pluralism. Rather than remaining in a holy huddle talking among ourselves, Tennent proposes Christians must honestly and respectfully engage proponents of other religions. This should be viewed as an opportunity–not for defensiveness–but for relationship.
4. Knitter’s category of “acceptance” is renamed narrative postmodernism. Within the larger metanarrative of the Bible, Tennent proposes that the narrative genre can be useful in communicating the gospel today without selling out to postmodern ideas of multiple truths and multiple paths.
Tennent summarizes by saying that “an evangelical theology of religions should be able to embrace the positive performative qualities of each position. We should embrace the ‘hospitality’ of openness, which is characterized by pluralists . . . the inclusivist’s eagerness to see that the mission dei transcends the particularities of the church’s work of mission and witness in the world . . . and take notice of the importance of biblical and personal narrative in the way we communicate the gospel (222).
Finally, he proposes that his revelatory particularism be Trinitarian, based on the assertion that the Bible is central to understanding God’s self-disclosure, is found in the larger context of the missio dei and that it is thoroughly evangelical and catholic.
A sketch can be delightful in that it provides an overview, but maddening because many details are left to the imagination. Tennent demonstrates that he has both rubbed shoulders with those of other religions and with those who are attempting to develop a Christian response. His response is a breath of fresh air in its wideness of thinking, and taking the time to delineate his operating principles. By pushing for clear definitions, by speaking out against triumphalistic tendencies, Tennent is challenging narrow thinking due to one’s culture or from one’s perch in an ivory tower.
Tennent’s brief overview of a theology of religions would benefit from a much needed in-depth exegesis of critical texts: Romans 1 and 2 (on simultaneously holding the truth while suppressing it); the biblical themes of the effects of the fall on human thinking (Eph 4:18; 1 Cor 2:14); the biblical antithesis between darkness and light (Gospel of John); the ubiquitous hostility of the unrighteous to God (Ps. 10:4; Rom 3:11-18); culpable ignorance (Acts 14, 17); the propensity of humans to construct gods of their own imagination, and the biblical theme of the polemics of YHWH against false gods. This may have led, in this reviewer’s opinion, to a overly generous view of the unalloyed value of revelation outside of the Scriptures and of the presence of Christ in other religions.
I would welcome follow-up volume by Tennent, or perhaps other contributions to this site will examine these issues more closely, especially the areas of general and special revelation.