3—Mark Heim’s Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends
4—Amos Yong’s Pneumatological Theology of Religions
5—Jaquees Dupuis’s Christian Theology of Religious Ends
6—Raimundo Panikkar’s Theandric Spirituality
7—Conclusions and Reflections
A few days ago I mentioned that I received from IVP for review one of the most significant books on Christian theology I’ve seen in a long time. Again, I know that’s a big statement. Given the reality that accommodation to religious pluralism is beginning to plague to Church, I don’t think it’s hyperbolical to say this book is one of the most significant books of the year.
The book is Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism: An Augustinian Assessment by Keith Johnson. And it’s important because it seeks to recover the historic understanding of the Trinity and particularity of salvation through Jesus Christ alone, by grace through faith in Him alone. Except there is a movement within the Church that suggests the Trinity instead provides the basis of arguing for other religious “positive ends” in other faiths; non-Christian religions are channels through which their followers can experience Christian salvation; the Holy Spirit actively moves in non-Christian religions; and the Trinity itself is the basis for three distinct forms of religious experience. (34, 37) In other words, rather than forming the basis of exclusive salvation through conscious belief in Jesus Christ as the only one true God—not to mention only one true Savior and Rescuer—it instead is the basis by which Christians can actually accept and embrace religious pluralism.
Johnsons argues these assumptions warrant careful scrutiny for three major reasons: 1) there is good reason to question the assertion that the doctrine of the Trinity to provides a foundation for affirming the validity of non-Christian religions; 2) recent attempts to use the Trinity to accept and embrace non-Christian faiths are undermining the historic Christian teaching regarding the Trinity; and 3) the misuse of the Trinity in the theology of religions reflects broader problems in contemporary theology. (18) In fact, Johnson goes further in saying “the gospel is ultimately at stake.” I agree.
The Trinity itself is not simply a speculative, pie-in-the sky teaching that has little use beyond the halls of seminaries and tables of theological dialogue. No, the Trinity has always been directly tied to salvation itself because of the questions it answers: Who must Christ be in order to do what Christ did? Thus, the Trinity has great bearing upon the gospel itself, and any distortion of that doctrine has massive implications and distortions of the gospel.
So Johnson boldly, courageously, appropriately sets out to counteract these gospel distortions by examining the four most significant recent proposals regarding the use of Trinity to accommodate religious pluralism. He does so using the teachings of St. Augustine. There are 5 reasons he uses Augustine, 5 reasons that make Augustine an incredibly appropriate theological dialogue partner in this important theological discussion: 1) Augustine was part of an important point in the development in trinitarian thinking, coming out of the 4th century and writing in the wake of Nicaea and Constantinople; 2) Augustine is a “Doctor of the Church,” meaning his teachings are authoritative in that they reflect both Scripture and and creedal expressions of Christian orthodoxy; 3) Augustine’s teachings is one of the most influential in the Western church; 4) there is an important ecumenicism to Augustine’s theology in that he is Latin, thus Western, yet shares much in common with the Greek-speaking theologians of the East; 5) Augustine himself addresses the trinitarian issues raised in theology of religion. (20-21)
This is an entirely appropriate, solid method by which to evaluate and critique modern appropriations of the Trinity to accommodate to modern polytheism. In fact, it’s similar to the type of method I have grown accustomed to employing, and that is creating historical theological comparisons between historic and contemporary theologians in order to bring the lens of the historic Christian faith to bear on contemporary theological issues, especially those that innovatively re-imagine that faith a new.
After establishing his method of theological critique, Johnson launches into chapter 1 by examining the 20th century revival and rise of Christian theology of religions. Two primary thinkers who brought about this revival were two Karls: Barth and Rahner, one Protestant and one Catholic. For Barth, the doctrine of the Trinity permeated every aspect of his Dogmatics. Barth insisted that the Trinity, “be decisive and controlling for the whole of dogmatics.” (as quoted, 27) Rahner lamented the marginalization of the Trinity and sought to bring it into a central focus, especially recognizing the unity of the economic and immanent Trinity. This provides a nice overview of the revival of Trinitarian thinking, which sends us on our way toward understanding the contemporary accommodation of it to modern polytheism.
Johnson explains that modern efforts regarding so-called “Christian theology of religion” emerged post-Vatican II and seek to answer the following questions: Under what circumstances may individuals experience salvation apart from the witness of the Church? To what extent, if any, is the Triune God active in non-Christian religions? What role, if any, do non-Christian religions play in salvation history? As Johnson rightly says, “These questions cannot be avoided in the increasingly globalized world we live in.” But as Johnson also reveals regarding this conversion of theology of religion, what the proposals at hand all have in common is “an assumption that the doctrine of the Trinity (or, more precisely, a particular construal of this doctrine) constitutes the basis for a positive interpretation of religious diversity from the standpoint of Christian theology.” (49)
Such assumptions lead to a host of interesting questions: “Does the doctrine of the Trinity provide a roadmap for inter religious dialogue? Can vestiges of the Trinity be found in non-Christian religious experience? Is it legitimate to appeal to the complexity in the Trinity as the basis for multiple religious ends? To what extent can one affirm the presence of conflicting economic manifestations of the triune God in other religions without undermining the unity of the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity?” (50) These are the questions that our four dialogue partners seek to answer in addressing this important, foundational doctrine in response to the obvious religious pluralism in which we find ourselves.
In the next chapter, chapter 2, Johnson addresses the particulars of Augustine’s Trinitarian doctrine. We’ll address that in a few days. Beforehand, in reflecting again on the arguments made by these four proponents of the accommodation of the Trinity to polytheism, I find it incredibly odd considering the way Paul confronted the polytheism of his day with the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and the insistence that He is the only one true God, over against the false gods that littered his world, like ours.
1 Corinthians 8:1-6 makes it clear that Jesus Christ is the “one God” and “one Lord” over against the “many gods” and “many Lords” that are “so-called gods” worshiped in idols. I will be interested, then, to see how Christian theologians can suggest that the Trinity, a teaching of the Church as much as the Holy Scriptures, somehow accommodates the polytheism of our day when Paul himself obviously confronted the polytheism of his with the one God and one Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, and slightly further back, if the earliest of the Church—Peter, James, John, Stephen—all, with one voice, loudly and bodily proclaimed that “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved,” how can modern theologians suggest the name of Buddah or Muhhamed or Krishna possess salvific power, much less in anyway shape or form conform to Trinitarian theology—especially when the one denies the Trinity as blasphemous (Islam) the other denies the importance of any gods (Buddhism) and the other accepts many gods (Hinduism).
This shall be a very interesting journey indeed. Over the next few weeks I want to interact with each of the four distinct accommodating views, letting Johnson establish their arguments and critique them in dialogue with Augustine while providing some thoughts along the way. In the meantime all I can say is buy this very important book! And then consider the questions I posed in my the first post: why this big movement in the Church to accommodate to the religious pluralism of our time? And without fully understanding the arguments regarding the use of the Trinity to do so, why might using the Trinity to accommodate such cultural persuasions damage this central doctrine to the Church?