Post 1: Sat Jan 12, 2008 3:25 pm
Biblical Reflections on Theological and Religious Pluralism
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Questions for debate follow the article.
Biblical Reflections on Theological and Religious Pluralism
A. Vanlier Hunter, Th.D
Central Maryland Ecumenical Council
Being a Presbyterian has its drawbacks in ecumenical endeavors, largely because of the reputation Presbyterians have for being rather dull and unexciting. People tell me I look good in brown. When I first came to St. Mary's Seminary 18 years ago, one of my Catholic colleagues told me that I should take a great deal of comfort from that verse in Paul that says. "The dead in Christ will rise first" for there's no one deader than a Presbyterian!
In one ecumenical conference the issue arose as to what the various denominations would do if someone were possessed by demons. It was argued that:
Methodists would sing them out;
Pentecostals would shout them out;
Catholics and Greek Orthodox would incense them out;
Baptists would drown them out;
and Presbyterians would freeze them out!
When you combine Calvinism and Puritanism as Presbyterians historically have, no wonder others think you're a dour lot. H. L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as "that haunting fear that someone somewhere is having fun."
So the one saving grace this evening is that I am not speaking particularly as a Presbyterian tonight, but as a teacher and student of the Bible. My topic is "Biblical Reflections on Theological and Religious Pluralism." It does not, of course, have to be argued that we live in a religiously pluralistic world. The fact is evident not only on the worldwide scene, but in America as well. And it is evident not only in the number of differing religions present in America, but also in the remarkable diversity within any given religion. And Christianity certainly is diverse, so much so that non-Christians often despair in trying to find the common denominators between liberals and conservatives, between high church and low church, between ecumenical and sectarian expressions of Christianity.
Therefore, as Christians we find ourselves faced with pluralism, even without taking into consideration non-Christian religions. But how to appraise such pluralistic diversity with Christianity? That is the initial question before we can even think about addressing the larger question of religious pluralism in the world. I think many Christians, when faced with such varied expressions of Christianity, assume two things:
1. Pluralism is a modern phenomenon and was not characteristic of the early years of Christianity.
2. Pluralism represents a deterioration of an earlier unity, a falling away from the ideal beginnings.
Thus pluralism is often deemed both new and bad. Attempts to give a positive assessment to pluralism are dismissed as trying to make the most of a bad situation, performing a salvage operation to reclaim some value in an otherwise decaying religious world. In some people's eyes, affirming inherent worth to pluralism is like calling the bad good.
Evidence for the way Christians have fallen away from our unified beginnings is drawn from the Bible itself. In the Book of Acts, we find several summaries of life in the early church: "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need" (4:32,43-35). "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers" (2:42). We've come a long way from that. It looks as if it's been downhill ever since. Christian pluralism, let alone wider religious pluralism, is just not biblical, some would say.
Now we've come to the crux of the matter. Besides the basic belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, Christians of all stripes have had in common their reliance on the Bible as normative testimony for our faith. Therefore, to say something is unbiblical tends to disqualify it immediately. So it becomes crucial to determine whether there is genuine pluralism attested in the Bible in any way.
To approach this issue, we must realize that the traditional way of interpreting the Bible left little, if any, room for true diversity in Scripture. To claim God as the author of Scripture so that the Bible is God's Word meant that there must be total consistency and uniformity. Otherwise, one attributes inconsistency to God, and that is absurd. Yet as historical critical study of the Bible developed in the last couple of centuries, inconsistencies were pointed out. This has led to what Harold Lindsell has called "The Battle of the Bible." The battle centers on the issue of whether there can be mistakes of history or science in the Bible, or whether the Bible is without error of any kind. Those who claim the inerrancy of the Bible base their claim on a water-tight logical syllogism:
Major premise: God cannot err.
Minor premise: The Bible is the Word of God.
Conclusion:The Bible cannot err.
The battle for the Bible, then, is fought in little skirmishes at every point where an inconsistency, contradiction, or error is suspected. Those who defend the inerrancy of Scripture do so with a great deal of zeal because they feel they are really defending God. In order to disarm those who see mistakes in the Bible, the inerrantists must show that the alleged mistakes or contradictions are just not there.
They do this by using two principles, what I call:
a) the principle of maximalization and
b) the principle of sheer possibility.
The principle of maximalization is illustrated by the instance of two occasions when Jesus drove money changers out of the temple in Jerusalem. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Synoptic Gospels as we call them, that is done during the last week of Jesus' life. In John, it is done at the beginning of his ministry. Which is correct? Both are. Jesus did it twice, once at the beginning and once at the end. Or this principle of maximalizing, of adding it all up, might be illustrated by the means of Judas' death. According to Matt 27:5, Judas hanged himself. According to Acts 1:18, Judas fell headlong over a cliff and his body burst open when it hit the rocks below. Which is correct? Both are. We can add them up and hypothesize that Judas hanged himself near a cliff, but the rope or branch broke and he fell headlong onto the rocks.
The principle of sheer possibility means that if you can think of even the slightest possibility of how two passages can be reconciled, you have saved the Bible from error. Matt 27:9-10, after noting that the 30 pieces of silver that Judas returned were used to buy a burial field for foreigners, says, "Then was fulfilled what has been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: about the 30 pieces of silver. But the verse containing mention of 30 pieces of silver is in Zechariah, not Jeremiah. Is that a mistake? No, because Matthew says, "Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah." We thus are to believe that this verse was originally spoken by Jeremiah, although not included in his book, but it was written by Zechariah, who must have been quoting Jeremiah. Isn't it possible, they say, that Matthew had independent information about the origin of that verse and set the record straight by attributing it to Jeremiah. Because it's at least faintly possible, the Bible and God have been saved from error.
So, you can see that when you work from within that logical syllogism, you are not going to see any true diversity, or distinctly different viewpoints in the Bible. Genuine pluralism on the theological level in the Bible is not going to be allowed, if you can't allow for real contradictions on the factual level. The problem with that syllogism is the minor premise: The Bible is the Word of God. The statement does not probe the question of how the Bible functions as God's Word. The Bible is, after all, also human words, and the issue is: how is it that we hear God's Word through these human words? That kind of nuance is not taken into account in the syllogism.
Therefore, I would like to construct another alternative for understanding how the Bible is God's Word. But I start with observations about the Bible itself, as we have come to know it in the last generations. If there is one conclusion we've reached, it is that there is genuine theological diversity in the Bible.
There can be many, many illustrations, but let me move through the Bible and point out seven more obvious examples:
1. Two different creation stories begin the Bible. The first in Gen 1 describes creation in six days with human beings, male and female, being the last creation of God. This account culminates in God's declaration of the goodness of creation and the giving of blessings. Gen 2-3 describes creation without a time scheme, but has a human being created first before vegetation is planted by God and the woman is the last creation of God. This account culminated in sin and curse.
2. In 1 Samuel we see two distinctly different theological interpretations of the establishment of kingship in Israel. One view sees kingship positively as God's rescuing answer to the threat of the Philistines. Saul is selected by explicit divine choice and is made king at Gilgal. Another view sees kingship negatively as a concession, or almost a punishment for having rejected God as king and wanting a king like the other nations. Saul is selected by lot and made king at Mizpeh.
3. The southern kingdom of Judah derived its central theological identity from two focal points of God's specific relationship to them, a) that God had chosen Zion (Jerusalem) as the place of his manifestation, and b) that God has chosen David and his royal line as the means by which God would govern the people. In combination, the Zion tradition and the Royal Covenant tradition spoke to the people of God's unconditional commitment to their salvation. But the Northern Kingdom of Israel rejected both those theological claims. For them God had not chosen Zion and the Davidic line. Instead, they derived their central theological identity from the covenant with Moses, a conditional relationship with God, based on adherence to the Torah. One of the strands of the Pentateuch, known as the Yahwist, writes out of the southern kingdom's confidence in the unconditional character of divine commitment toward them, but another strand, known as the Elohist, was written out of the northern kingdom's conviction that human obedience places a condition on God's favor. These two strands are now interwoven through the first books of the Bible.
4. The prophets, of course, attack the orthodoxies of their day, but what is interesting is that prophets sometimes say very opposite things on the same topic. Isaiah, who believes Judah will be disciplined severely by God, nevertheless reflects the Zion and Davidic traditions in his confidence that God will never allow Jerusalem to be destroyed and the Davidic king to be removed. And it did not happen in his day. But a century later, Jeremiah attacks precisely that confidence and, on the basis of violation of the Mosaic Covenant, announces the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the end to the kingship. And that's what happened in his day.In both Isaiah and Micah are these famous words: "Beat your swords into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." But Joel says to the nations: "Prepare War...Beat your plowshares into swords and your pruning hooks into spears."
5. Much of the Hebrew Bible celebrates the saving acts of God in history. God intervenes at special moments in history to save the people, whether it be in guiding the patriarchs, or leading the Israelites out of Egypt, or making the covenants with Moses and David, or delivering the tribes from oppression in the days of the judges.
God also intervenes to judge the people, especially in the fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Yet these moments of judgment are intended for the ultimate salvation of the people. These times of God's intervention are moments of revelation; we know God's nature and will by what happens in these interventions into human history. But there is a whole body of material in the Hebrew Bible that has no interest in such things, namely, the wisdom literature. In fact, the wisdom material does not claim that it is revelation. Instead, Proverbs consists of the time-tested pragmatic aphorisms of human experience that assist in producing a happy life and avoiding a destructive life. The writings of the sages in Israel are not that different from wisdom material from neighboring pagan countries. Yes, it is said that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, but the theological world of the sages is very different from that of the salvation history model.
6. The gospel portraits of Jesus are sometimes very different. For instance, if we had only the Gospel of John, we would not know that Jesus ever taught in parables, for none of the parables in the Synoptics is recorded in John. Conversely, John contains long discourses, such as on the Bread of Life, that have no parallel in the Synoptics. Each gospel highlights aspects of Jesus' ministry that are not so present in the others, producing in each a distinctive picture of Jesus.
7. We know that Paul's theology was not shared by all Christians. In fact, the leaders of the Jerusalem church, Peter the chief of the apostles and James the brother of the Lord who was "bishop" of Jerusalem, took major exception to aspects of Paul's theology, particularly as it applied to how Gentiles were to be included as followers of Jesus. They eventually came to some agreement, but it is evident that tension continued between Jerusalem and Paul's churches. Also, there is tension between Paul's emphasis on justification by faith and not by works and the emphasis in the letter of James that faith without works is dead. For Paul, Abraham was saved by faith for James, Abraham was saved by works.
8. Ezra and Nehemiah: Don't marry foreigners. Ruth is a foreigner and like Moabite ancestors is the ancestor of David and Jesus. This list could be expanded greatly both in broad strokes and in matters of detail. The point is this: the Bible contains an enormous amount of theological diversity that does at times produce inconsistencies and even contradictions. The question is: faced with this diversity, what do we do?
Three unsatisfactory alternatives are the following:
1. Harmonize and explain away the diversity. This is the option that has traditionally been followed in the history of the church. But it has been given its rigid form by modern inerrantist, who base their view on the conclusion of the logical syllogism, that such diversity just cannot exist, if the Bible is God's Word.
2. Abandon the idea of the relevance of the Bible, since the diversity seems to undermine its authority. This is the option followed by those who find Christianity itself no longer relevant. In other words, admit that the Bible is not God's Word.
3. Adopt one tradition or certain parts of the Bible and hold them as normative, at the expense of the rest of the Bible. This is the option of those who see a canon within a canon.
They affirm that the Bible contains the Word of God, but that God's Word is manifested better in some parts of the Bible than others. In this way they limit the Bible's authority to good parts. We are all probably prone to each of these three alternatives at some time, but none is really the way to go. Faced with the genuine diversity in Scripture, one can offer a fourth alternative. It is based on a theology of the canon itself. The very fact that such diversity was included in the Bible attests to the importance of theological diversity to those who hold the Bible authoritative. Why is the pluralism of theological views in the Bible to be taken seriously?
We must take the theological pluralism of the Bible seriously:
1. Because it tells us that no one way of perceiving God is complete and final. No one understanding of how God relates to us human beings is all-inclusive. There is not just one way to be faithful to God. In the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, this quotation of Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov is printed in bold letters on a wall: "Can he be God if he can only be worshipped in one way?"
2. Because it keeps us humble, knowing that we do not have a corner on all the truth. For example, our own denominational traditions which may tend to emphasize some aspects of our biblical heritage more than others are only partial and maybe even one-sided. If the canon included so many diverse viewpoints, we can no longer abide the arrogance of claiming we have the whole truth and others do not. We denominations need each other, just as the Davidic covenant needs the Mosaic covenant, and salvation history needs wisdom, and Paul needs James.
3. Because it means that the Bible is not so much a book of answers but of debate and discussion. We are not to sit passively by and wait for answers to come pouring out of the Bible. Rather only when we ourselves become actively engaged in the biblical debates themselves do we perceive God's Word to us and how we are to be faithful to God in our day.
4. Because it means we must always be attentive to the whole canon of the Bible, to realize that other biblical views than the ones we like have been deemed faithful by the process of the canon, to be willing to listen to those parts of the Bible that don't seem to speak to us right now, allowing for a time when new circumstances might call for a different faith response, one that is anticipated by some biblical view hitherto ignored.
In conclusion, theological and religious pluralism is not new and it's not bad. Because we human beings cannot contain God in our thoughts nor respond totally to God in our lives, diverse ways of believing and acting in faith have been the rule since the beginning and are fully attested in the Bible. Far from being bad, this pluralism of the Bible invites us to invest ourselves in the issues of life and death debated there, for such engagement becomes the means of our hearing God's Word and of our discernment of God's will for us today.
I close with a remark made by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen some years ago, which expresses well the richness of our theological and religious pluralism today:
If we could all get religion like a Baptist,
Work for it like a Methodist,
Be proud of it like an Episcopalian,
Study it like a Lutheran,
Be loyal to it like a Roman Catholic,
Try to unite all other Christians in good works,
Suffer for it like a Jew,
and enjoy it like a Negro--
Then God would truly be praised--
Especially if we could all go to heaven automatically like a Presbyterian!
A. Vanlier Hunter, Th.D
Central Maryland Ecumenical Council Annual Dinner and Awards Banquet
May 6, l990
Questions for debate:
1. Do you agree that the Bible actually supports the idea of theological pluralism, as explained by Dr. Hunter? Do you agree that "other biblical views than the ones we like have been deemed faithful by the process of the canon"?
2. Do you agree that "no one way of perceiving God is complete and final," that "No one understanding of how God relates to us human beings is all-inclusive," and/or that "There is not just one way to be faithful to God"?
3. Do you agree that "denominational traditions which may tend to emphasize some aspects of our biblical heritage more than others are only partial and maybe even one-sided"?
4. Do you agree that "the Bible is not so much a book of answers but of debate and discussion"?
5. Do you think that these ideas are helpful or harmful to the Church and to those who wish to serve God?This is a fascinating and illuminating talk from 1990. I think it might be of interest to many on the forum.
Post 2: Sat Jan 12, 2008 10:26 pm
Re: Biblical Reflections on Theological and Religious Plural
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Post 3: Sun Jan 13, 2008 10:11 am
Re: Biblical Reflections on Theological and Religious Plural
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What do we do with the plurality of the text itself, then, as detailed in examples by Dr. Hunter?
Fair enough, but I think the reference here is to institutions and not to individuals. Would your opinion here apply to them as well?
Good observation. Might one regard the degree of emphasis on the various aspects as legitimately "optional," then? Or are some versions more legitimate than others? (I obviously have no axe to grind here.)
LOL! My view exactly.
I see your point, but doesn't Dr. Hunter's contention--which I share myself--that theological pluralism is both natural and good for the Church interfere with that "assistance"?
In other words, if there is any truth or validity to religion, must there necessarily be only one?