Book Review: A God of Many Understandings?: The Gospel and a Theology of Religions

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A God of Many Understandings?: The Gospel and a Theology of Religions

by Todd Miles, B & H Academic, (Apr 1st, 2010)
416 pp.  ISBN 978-0805448221
Reviewed by John Span

 

In his book,  A God of Many Understandings?: The Gospel and a Theology of Religions. Todd Miles concludes with a final chapter entitled “A Christian Theology of Religions and Mission.” The purpose of this article is to review that chapter with a view to further developing a Biblical missiology.

Setting the stage: A God of Many Understandings?

One might summarize the contents of Miles’ book and especially his last chapter with the words of the scholar Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen who advocates that a Christian theology of religions is to  “think theologically about what it means for Christians to live with people of other faiths and about the relationship of Christianity to other religions.”[1] That is to say, the two authors have observed that the world religions are no longer some exotic entities overseas, but are present throughout the globe, and more and more constitute our neighbors.

As a way to suggest that the religious landscape is rapidly changing to one that is increasingly a religiously plural world, Miles drew the title of his book from a public prayer spoken during the 2009 US presidential inauguration ceremonies. The person leading the prayers addressed his plea to “O god of our many understandings.”

A Christian Theology of Religions and Mission.”

Miles begins by asserting that the question is not whether someone has a theology of religions, but whether it is “faithful to Scripture and the gospel” (328). Increasingly, he shows, the voices of cultural influence would try to drown out the command to take “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). When the command to go and make disciples of all nations becomes a good suggestion rather than a set of marching orders due to an increasing embrace of religious pluralism, the drive to mission activity is extinguished. He asserts “if a theology of religions causes people to ignore the clear biblical mandate to proclaim the gospel, then it cannot be called Christian, and its validity must be questioned” (329).

Six Key Questions a Christian Theology of Religion Must Answer

Miles suggests that the way that the church answers the following six questions will affect mission strategy and  ultimately will determine whether or not the church is carrying out the great commission in a “Great Commission in a Spirit-empowered and Christ-honoring way.”

#1. Is General Revelation Sufficient for Salvation?

After taking the time to define his terms carefully and showing that even the terms “general” and “special” have the potential to lead to confusion,  Miles cites a wide range of authors to show that the hopefulness of pluralists and inclusivists for the sufficiency of general revelation for salvation constitutes a false hope for religionists of non-Christian religions. He demonstrates that the fall has affected general revelation and he carefully delineates its need for special revelation.

# 2.  “Does Special Revelation Require a Human Messenger?”

In a well nuanced fashion Miles sketches out the commands for gospel proclamation and contemporary stories of dreams and visions. Rather than pitting them against each other, he demonstrates from Scriptural examples that verbal proclamation is the norm given to the Church, and other means the exception. He concludes his section with a quote from R. Scott: ” “Dreams prepare people to believe and repent; however, they never (in my experience) contain a clear gospel message, God uses followers of Jesus to explain the gospel so that dreamers can believe and repent” (336).

# 3. “Is there Truth in other religions?”

Never straying far from the critical Biblical texts of Romans 1 and Hebrews 1, Miles tempers his suggestion that “Christians, therefore, ought not to embrace the extremes of either broad condemnation or naive acceptance of non-Christian texts” (337) by showing that religions devolve rather than evolve, they are influenced by the demonic, and that any truths they contain from general revelation are suppressed. He cites Timothy Tennant’s three guidelines for the use of non-Biblical sacred texts, including:

    • use texts that are comprehensible to the target culture, such as Greek texts for a Greek audience
    •  accept only those truths that corroborate or back up Biblical truth and which acknowledge that only in Christ are “hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3 ESV).
    • recognize that all texts come out of a comprehensive life and worldview and they must be  “lifted out of its original setting and clearly reoriented within a new Christocentric setting” (339).

# 4. “Is There Salvation in Other Religions?”

Miles wisely “looks under the hood” of this question, and asserts that the question will be answered variously depending on what one means by salvation. If salvation means a good moral life, then the answer will be much different than if it means everything that the Gospel entails for people dead in their sins. There is no other salvation than through Jesus and he affirms that the “nature of the Great Commission dictates that any comparison between Christianity and the religions of the world are to be based upon the gospel” (340).

# 5. “Is Interreligious Dialogue Beneficial?”

Behind this question, Miles examines the question, “what can we learn from other religions?” He interacts with scholars like McDermott and Fernando and by using the examples of Jesus and the apostles is very cautious to attribute too much ultimate wisdom to other religions: rather he focuses on a disposition of “respectful integrity” (341, fn 26) which always makes a distinction between being fellow searchers and fellow humans. It is our common humanity which makes grace-filled ambassadors of Christ want to interact with other humans and to find points of contact with them.

Miles then offers four guidelines for inter-religious dialogue:

    • Christians must engage in dialog with people of other faiths.
    • Christians engaged in dialogue must be listeners.
    • while listening with humility, Christians must not abandon their Christian convictions.
    • Finally, and most importantly, the goal of Christians in inter-religious dialogue must be the conversion of their conversation partner to Christ.

Miles shows that if a relativistic philosophy lies behind the motives for inter-religious dialogue then it is doomed to fail from a Christian standpoint, even though Christian jargon might be employed.

#6. Is Interreligious Social Cooperation Legitimate?

As much as Miles appreciates the contemporary push by parts of the church like the Emerging/Emergent church to get out of their own walls and into the social concerns of society, he is genuinely concerned  about any group that “seems willing to make any theological revision necessary to partner with religious others” (342). He shows how the Emergent church has used and abused the term ‘the kingdom of God’ as a means to be as inclusive of other religions as possible. Unfortunately, in his view it has reduced the Kingdom to a dream  for a “politically correct version of the twentieth-century social gospel: the parenthood of God and the siblinghood of humanity” (349). Miles’ bottom line is clear: ” When the church is not allowed to identify herself explicitly with Christ, let alone to share the gospel, then the church ought not to participate officially in such interreligious or secular partnerships.(Acts 4:18-20)” (349). 

Miles’ concluding statements

Never has the need for authoritative gospel proclamation been greater, and never has Western culture dubbed this insensitive and less than tolerant, observes Miles. Hiding behind a phrase which should give a balance of word and deed, namely ” “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words” he observes that the Church has drifted away from the use the Great Commission mandated verbal communication. This trend has manifested itself in missions spending and giving, with ever increasing amounts earmarked to relief and development efforts.

While inclusivists and  pluralists spend time writing about the theology of the “wider hope” and wringing their hands over “those who have never heard” Miles suggests that the command to “Go tell them” is being ignored. Miles’ clarion call is to wake up the Church to “embrace” her marching orders as the “Spirit embolden[s]…[her]…witness [to]testify to the love of God in Christ” (352).

A Response:

Miles has covered a lot of ground in answering his six basic questions which he sees as foundational to forming a Christian theology of religions and mission. Most of his Biblical references in this chapter are to New Testament passages and this reviewer would have liked to see more references to the Hebrew Testament. That said, one is certainly left with the impression that Miles is thoroughly against accommodating his theology to the surrounding culture, and much more willing to examine it and even its presuppositions in the light of Scripture.


[1] Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen , An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. (IVP, 2003), p. 20.    Kärkkäinen takes the time to distinguish between a theology of religion and a theology of religions, pp. 21-22 and thus it is possible to have an African theology of religions which would examine the relationship between African traditional religions and Christianity.

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About Author

John Span has worked with his family in West Africa among an unreached 'Fulani' people group for the last ten years. His mentors have challenged him to think theologically, especially in the area of missions to Muslims and he desires to inspire others to do the same. In the last year he has been a frequent contributor to the St. Francis Magazine.

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