Revelation and the Religions
Avery Dulles S.J.
Since the days of George Fox, one of the most fundamental
characteristics of Quakerism has been a
belief in continuing revelation. Such revelation may come through what
early Friends alternatively called “the Inner Christ,” “the Inner Light,” or
“that of God in everyone.” Whether it comes only to those who believe in the
divinity of Christ or whether it is available to all sincere seekers of the
Divine, whatever their religious tradition, has been a point of division among
Quakers for nearly two hundred years.
Friends are not the only ones to have struggled with this
issue. As Avery Dulles points out, Christianity proclaimed itself from the
beginning as “good news about God’s saving designs for humanity as a whole,”
and it therefore contains “an inbuilt tension between particularism and
universalism.” The question has assumed an ever keener edge in the 20th
century, as the world has moved toward becoming a single global community, and
as followers of multiple religious traditions have struggled to find common
ground. Here Father Dulles sets forth with meticulous scholarship the various
positions on Divine revelation that have been taken by a number of modern
theologians, both Protestant and Catholic.
Avery Dulles is one of the country’s most distinguished
Catholic writers and teachers on the subject of theology. Born into the
Presbyterian family of John Foster Dulles, he graduated from Harvard College in
1940, spent a year and a half in Harvard Law School, then served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Having
converted to Catholicism, he entered the Jesuit Order, was ordained to the
priesthood in 1956, and earned a doctorate in Sacred Theology in 1960. Since
then he has taught and lectured widely in both the United States and Europe,
has written 19 books, and has received a long list of awards and honors. He has
served on the International Theological Commission, as a member of the U.S.
Lutheran/Roman Catholic Coordinating Committee, and is currently a Professor of
Religion and Society at Fordham University.
This essay first appeared as a chapter in his book Models
of Revelation (Image Books, 1985). It is reprinted here with the permission
of the author and of the present publisher, Orbis Books of Maryknoll, New York.
Rhoda R. Gilman
1. The Problem
of the human race have not known Jesus Christ and have not believed in him, at
least explicitly. Does revelation come to them? If so, how is that revelation
related to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ?
These questions have been chiefly discussed in connection
with those major religions which have, over the centuries, performed for
millions of people functions broadly similar to those performed by Christianity
for Christians. Religion typically involves prayer, worship, belief in higher
powers, self-denial, and ethical commitment. If revelation is anywhere evident
beyond the realm of Christian faith, it should be discernible in the religions.
In the case of one such religion, Christian faith has a
fairly definite stance, based on the New Testament. Christ and the Church are
seen as radicalizing the Law and the prophets. The religion of ancient Israel
is viewed as a divinely given preparation for Christianity. The Bible, however,
does not encourage a similarly favorable appraisal of paganism. It portrays the
religions of the Egyptians and the Canaanites, the Greeks and the Romans, in a
negative light bordering on caricature. Since the age of the apostles,
Christian theology has vacillated between looking on other religions as
providential preparations for Christianity and as idolatrous perversions. In
recent discussion, as we shall see, still other options have emerged.
Several preliminary observations may be in order. In the
first place, it should be obvious that the question is here being treated from
the standpoint of Christian theology, not from that of a “nonaligned” history
of religions. Even as theologians, moreover, we shall not here seek to appraise
any given religious tradition in detail, but rather to see whether, in
principle, the Christian theological warrants give us reason to think that
revelation is present or absent in nonbiblical religions.
I say “nonbiblical” religions because the Christian can
readily admit that Judaism and Islam, as “religions of the Book,” contain
revelation insofar as they accept sacred texts which Christians also recognize
as Scripture. Although the relationships between these biblical faiths are
complex and problematical, they will not here be the primary focus of
attention. To pose our question in sharpest form, we shall concern ourselves
with the presence or absence of revelation in other religions to the extent
that they are untouched by historical contact with Judaism or Christianity.
Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism present special problems since
they do not make any claim to be founded on divine revelation; they are, in the
phrase of Robley Whitson, not “overtly revelational.”1 Islam, by
contrast, does claim to be founded on the word of God in the Qur’an, but this
revelation has not been acknowledged by Christians as authentic.2
To define the term “religion” in a way that includes
everything commonly so called, while excluding everything else, is notoriously
difficult, perhaps impossible. Among the major world faiths, Hinduism and Islam
fulfill the requirements of religion by any definition. Whether Buddhism is a
religion could be disputed, and the same is even more obviously true of
Confucianism. The fundamental issue of this chapter does not depend on
precisely what qualifies as a religion. Since our concern is whether and how
revelation is mediated under auspices other than those of Christian and
biblical religion, we need not limit our attention to the religions. They have
been selected for special consideration only because they would seem to be more
likely bearers of revelation than philosophies such as neo-Platonism or
ideologies such as Marxism.
Furthermore, it must be kept in mind that we are asking only
about revelation. We are not trying to determine whether there is truth or
ethical value in these other faiths, religions, ideologies, philosophies, or
movements, nor are we seeking to lay down rules for fruitful interreligious
dialogue, except insofar as presumption about revelation could help or impede
such dialogue. Finally, we are not directly asking about who can be saved.
Although revelation and salvation are presumably not unrelated, it would be
inappropriate toassume at this
point that the presence of revelation in a religion makes it a channel of
salvation, for it could be that revelation is given therein only in a measure
that suffices for condemnation.3 Conversely, the absence of
revelation in a religion does not by itself rule out the possibility that its
adherents achieve salvation. It is at least theoretically possible that a
Buddhist would have access to a saving revelation not through the Buddhist
tradition but through the order of creation or through the voice of conscience.
Or perhaps a case could be made for holding that one could make an act of
saving faith through an upright will elevated by grace, without dependence on
any specific revelation. To discuss the various theories of salvation would
take us into a series of problems beyond the scope of this work.
The question of revelation in the religions might seem to be
a very simple one, with a yes or no answer. Most theologians, however, answer
with distinctions. Some say that without biblical revelation one may have
natural revelation rather than supernatural, or general revelation rather than
special, or cosmic revelation rather than historical, or general historical
revelation rather than special historical revelation. If any kind of revelation
is acknowledged, it must further be asked how this is related to biblical and
Christian faith. Here again many different answers are possible. Some see all
other revelation as preparatory to Christianity. Some think that it can only be
a dim participation of what is given more fully in the Christian revelation.
But others hold that the revelation in other religions is different from, and
complementary to, that found in biblical religion. Then further differences
arise between some who see the religions as being different perspectives on a
revelation that is unitary and others who see the different religions as
holding different revelations in trust for the benefit of all. If so, each
religion, including Christianity, could learn revealed truth from the others.
Perhaps none could claim to be essentially superior to the rest.
The difficulty Christians experience in answering questions
such as these is in substance theological. On the one hand, Christianity
proclaims Jesus Christ as the center, summit, and fullness of all revelation.
On the other hand, Christianity is good news about God’s saving designs for
humanity as a whole. It is not just good news for Christians. Christianity
contains, therefore, an inbuilt tension between particularism and universalism.
Hence it is not surprising to find some Christians saying that there is no
revelation apart from Jesus Christ, and others saying that God reveals himself
to every human being. Tensions such as these are evident in the way theologians
speak about the relationship between revelation and the religions.
From the following survey, it will be apparent that the
first, second, and fourth models, which tend to be reserved toward the category
of symbol, are the least inclined to admit revelation in the world’s religions.
Models three and five, which favor the symbolic approach, find it easy to
acknowledge that revelation is present in all religions, but in so saying they
frequently relativize the traditional claims of Christianity.
2. The Propositional Model and the Religions
propositional model, in its appraisal of the religions, is concerned with the
question whether they can receive revealed propositional truths in any way
except through biblical revelation. This question is answered in similar but
slightly different ways in Conservative Evangelicalism and in Catholic
Conservative Evangelicals hold that special revelation is
accessible only through the Bible, but they hold on the basis of certain
biblical texts, such as Acts 14:17, Acts 17:22-31, Romans 1:18-20, and Romans
2:15, that God has not left himself without witness to all peoples, which
constitutes a kind of “general revelation.” This general revelation, however,
is not salvific. The Lausanne Covenant, a profession of faith issued by the
International Congress on World Evangelization in 1974, declares:
We recognize that all men have some knowledge of God
through his general revelation in nature. But we deny that this can save, for men suppress the
truth by their unrighteousness. We also reject as derogatory to Christ and the
Gospel every kind of syncretism and dialogue which implies that Christ speaks
equally through all religions and ideologies.4
Waldron Scott, commenting on this text, holds that God does
indeed reveal himself in nature, and that this light may well be reflected in
the religions. “Yetpeople reject
the awareness they have. They do not acknowledge God in truth. They utilize
their religiosity to escape from God.”5 Gordon Clark holds that the
contradictions among the pagan religions prove “the beclouding effects of sin
upon the mind as it tries to discover God and salvation in nature.”6
Thus Conservative Evangelicalism, while it makes use of the distinction between
general and special revelation, tends to look on extrabiblical religion not as
revealed but as a “depraved answer to the revelation of God.”7
Neo-Scholasticism characteristically makes the distinction
not between general and special revelation but between natural and revealed
religion, taking a moderately optimistic view of the former. Gerardus van Noort
may be quoted as illustrative of this position:
“There are two types of religion: natural and
supernatural. Natural religion stems necessarily from the very nature of God
and of man, is known and regulated by reason, and leads to a natural goal.
Supernatural religion rests upon some sort of revelation. Note, however, that
supernatural religion does not destroy, or take the place of natural religion,
but is added to it and perfects it.”8
The fact that all peoples, from the most primitive to the
most civilized, have always practiced religion can be explained, according to
Monsignor van Noort, “only on the grounds that all peoples in this matter were
following the dictates of sound reason.”9 But the religions that
actually exist, he concedes, bear the marks of sinful corruption. They are
found in “the perverted forms labeled fetishism, animism, manism, totemism, and
Some neo-Scholastics, including van Noort, fortify the idea
of natural religion by appealing also to primitive revelation. On the basis of
Scripture they hold that revelations were made to the first parents of the
human race and to the patriarchs in the period before Moses.11
Traces of this original revelation, they hold, are the best explanation for the
nobility and purity of the religion found among some primitive peoples, even in our own day. In support of this
many authors allege the findings of the Viennese cultural anthropologist,
Wilhelm Schmidt, S.V.D., in his monumental Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (twelve
Contemporary ethnologists and historians of religion appear
to be highly skeptical of the thesis, essential to the position of Schmidt,
that the more primitive peoples were outstanding for their monotheism.12
However that may be, the propositional model is too narrow in assuming that
revelation outside the biblical religions would have to rest either upon
rational deduction from the order of creation or upon some kind of primitive
positive revelation, passed down in immemorial tradition. In contrast to other
theories we shall examine, this model takes too little account of the workings
of God in the history and experience of the unevangelized.
3. Revelation as History and the Religions
The second model, that of revelation as
history, must likewise be discussed in two forms, salvation history and universal history. Oscar Cullmann,
exemplifying the first approach, holds that the line of salvation history, from
the beginnings to the time of Jesus Christ, became increasingly narrowed down
to a representative minority until, with Jesus, only a single individual stood
for the whole. Since the
Resurrection of Jesus the line of salvation and revelation has expanded outward
again from its midpoint in Jesus.
The missionary proclamation of the Church gives meaning to the entire period of
history from the Resurrection to the Parousia.13 The Church, as the
bearer of revelation, is “the instrument of the divine redemptive activity.”14
According to Cullmann the Church does not encounter in the pagan world people
who have already accepted revelation, but on the contrary only those who have
rejected it. He interprets Acts 17:22ff. and Romans 1:18ff. as teaching that
“the Gentiles after Abraham, just as previously, close their minds to the
revelation of God in the works of Creation.”15
Jean Danielou, who professes a modified salvation history
approach, finds it possible to make some room for revelation in the nonbiblical
religions. He holds that prior to the historical revelation given in biblical religion, God had
already revealed himself universally through the cosmos, conscience, and the
human spirit. The “cosmic covenant” between God and Noah, as attested by
Genesis, Chapter 9, extends, according to Danielou, to all humanity. “The
cosmic religion,” he insists, “is not natural religion, in the sense that the
latter means something outside the effective and concrete supernatural order.... The cosmic covenant is also a
covenant of grace, but it is still imperfect, in the sense that God reveals
himself therein only through the cosmos.”16 The Bible itself, he
points out, celebrates the holiness of many “pagans,” such as Abel, Enoch,
Daniel, Noah, Job, Melchizedek, Lot, and the Queen of Sheba. Yet it must also
be admitted, he says, that the religion of nature is invariably found, in the
forms known to us, in a more or less corrupt condition.17 Thus he
feels authorized to make a sharp contrast between Catholic Christianity and all
Thus, the essential difference between Catholicism
and all other religions is that the others start with man. They are touching
and often very beautiful attempts, rising very high in their search for God.
But in Catholicism there is a contrary movement, the descent of God towards the
world, in order to communicate His life to it. The answer to the aspirations of
the entire universe lies in the Judaeo-Christian religion. The true religion,
the Catholic religion, is composed of these two elements. It is the religion in which God‘s grace has made
answer to man’s cry. In other
religions grace is not present, nor is Christ, nor is the gift of God. The
vanity and illusion of syncretism
lies in its belief that universality is a common denominator of all religions.18
Neither Cullmann nor Danielou, therefore, seems to credit
the idea of revelation in the non-Christian religions. Yet there is nothing in
the concept of salvation history that requires the limitation of historical
revelation to the biblical peoples. Even prior to the Noahic covenant, God,
according to Ben Sirach, made an everlasting covenant with Adam and Eve (Sir
17:10). This was followed by a whole series of further covenants with Abraham,
with Moses, with David, and ultimately with Jesus Christ. Each covenant may be
interpreted as involving a revelation of God’s care and intentions for his people.
The successive covenants do not abrogate one another for, according to Paul,
God’s gifts are irrevocable (Rom 11:29). The “new and eternal covenant” in
Jesus (1 Cor 11:25; Heb 8:13,12:24) may be seen as a criterion by which all
other covenants are to be measured and interpreted. The history of the
covenants could perhaps provide the basis for a wider biblical theology of
salvation history than is found in authors such as Cullmann and Danielou while
not relativizing the Christian revelation. A number of recent authors, such as
Hans Kung, Raimundo Panikkar, Heinz Robert Schlette, Eugene Hillman, and Donald
Dawe, have asserted that all the nations are under a salutary cosmic covenant,
but the consequences of this assertion for the theology of revelation remain as
The idea of revelation through universal history, championed
by Pannenberg and his circle, might seem to offer great promise of finding
revelation in nonbiblical religions. If God is conceived from the outset as
related not simply to the history of a single elect people but to world
history, he might be expected to disclose himself to all. Pannenberg, however,
rejects the idea of revelation
in a multiplicity of religions. Beginning from the Hegelian premise that
universal history is an indirect revelation of God, he concedes that the
meaning of universal history is knowable only at the end. This concession would
seem to exclude all revelation within history were it not for the fact,
recognized by Christians alone, that the end of universal history has already
occurred proleptically in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Pannenberg
therefore agrees with Barth that revelation, as the self-disclosure of the one
God, occurs only in Christ, in whom the divine breaks into the historical
While reserving revelation to Christ, Pannenberg accords a
special place to Israelite faith. Israel’s history of promises, he says, is
unique because it was open to future fulfillment, and indeed to that very
fulfillment which occurred in Jesus. “In contradistinction to other peoples and
their religions, Israel, in the light of its particular experience of God,
learned to understand the reality of human existence as a history moving toward
a goal which had not yet appeared.”21By contrast, the myths of the religions are related to
primordial time and thus closed to the future. These other religions, however,
are not mere fabrications. They
manifest in a confused manner the same reality which has revealed itself
in Jesus.22 Religious dialogue can strive to make the religions open
to their own historical transformation, and thus also to the definitive
manifestation of God in Christ. Concurrently such dialogue can prevent
Christianity from clinging timidly to its own past forms and can actuate its
inexhaustible assimilative powers.
Whereas Pannenberg, with his idea of revelation through
universal history, restricts revelation to the Christ-event, Rahner, combining
historical universalism with a symbolic approach to revelation, is able to find
revelation in religion as such. Thanks to the Incarnation, Rahner maintains,
the entire human family is constituted as God’s people and is involved in a
supernatural relationship with God. All men and women are called to eternal
blessedness in Christ, whose grace is offered always and everywhere. Any
naturally good act is elevated to the supernatural order by God’s saving grace.
Rahner holds that grace, when accepted, never remains
suspended in a “metaempirical sphere,” disconnected with the tangibility of
history. On the contrary, grace will inevitably “try to objectify itself in
explicit expressions of religion, such as in the liturgy and religious
associations, and in protests of a ‘prophetic’ kind against any attempt by man
to shut himself up in a world of his own categories and against any (ultimately
polytheistic) misinterpretations of this basic grace-full experience.”23
Because religion is the normal way in which one’s relationship to the absolute
becomes thematized, supernatural grace cannot fail to show itself in the
religions, even when accompanied, as might be expected, with distortions due to
human sin and frailty.
In holding the salvific and revelatory a character of the
religions in general, Rahner does not relativize biblical revelation and
Christianity. In his terminology, the religion of the Old and New Testaments
constitutes the “special” history of revelation and salvation inerrantly
directed toward Christ, in whom God and the world enter into “absolute and
Christ, the incarnate Word, is the absolute religious symbol in whom the
aspirations of humanity for a definitive and irrevocable self-communication of
God are fulfilled. The religions can be interpreted as expressions of a
“searching memory” which somehow anticipates God’s culminating gift in Jesus
Rahner’s theology of symbol as the revelatory
self-expression of grace enables him to construct a theology of salvation
history that gives not only salvific, but also revelatory, importance to the
extra-biblical religions. In this respect Rahner goes beyond the typical
representatives of the revelation-as-history model.
4. Revelation as Experience and the Religions
of the third model hold that a revelatory experience of God underlies all religions,
and that they differ, not by being different revelations, but by differently
symbolizing the same revelation. While not affirming that all experiences of
God are equally pure or intense, or that all symbols are equally expressive,
these theologians regard the differences among the religions as accidental
rather than essential. The revelations accorded in different traditions differ
in degree rather than in kind.
Friedrich von Hugel, though he departs from the third model
in his firm commitment to the historical and institutional features of
Christianity, laid great stress on the mystical element. God, he held, was
experientially revealed in all religions, but this experience is found “at its
deepest and purest” in Christ.26 Among the “great Revealers and
Incarnations of the prevenient love of the Other-than-themselves,” he wrote,
“Jesus Christ holds the supreme, and indeed the unique, place.”27
Evelyn Underhill, the tireless explorer of mystical
literature, was convinced that mysticism has so far found its best map in
Christianity.28 But the map, she added, is not the reality.
Attempts, however, to limit mystical truth – direct
apprehension of the Divine Substance – by the formulae of any one religion, are
as futile as the attempt to identify a precious metal with the die which
converts it into current coin. The dies which the mystics have used are many.... But the gold from which this
diverse coinage is struck is always the same precious metal; always the same
Beatific Vision of a Goodness, Truth, and Beauty which is one. Hence,
its substance must always be distinguished from the accidents under which we
perceive it: for this substance has an absolute, and not a denominational
For William Ernest Hocking, too, revelation was “the
empirical element in religious knowledge.”30 There is no religion,
for him, without a basis in revelation, and therefore it must be possible for
such religion to be reconceptualized in the light of the revelatory ingredients
in the others. In such a rapprochement, he suggested, “the concept of Christ is
extended to include that unbound Spirit who finds and has stood at the door of
every man, and who, in various guises, still appears to him who opens, both as
an impersonal word and as a personal presence.”31 In the coming
world faith, as Hocking envisaged it, the name of Jesus Christ would no longer
be insisted on.32
In many recent theologians an approach to extra-biblical
religion is attempted on the basis of the patristic doctrine of Christ as
universal Logos. Paul Tillich, for example, held that all living religions rest
upon revelatory experiences of the same omnipresent divine reality, differently
symbolized in each. In one of his last works Tillich sought to show that the
Buddhist symbol of Nirvana and the Christian symbol of the Kingdom of God are
two ways of expressing the gulf between ultimate reality and the conditions of
actual existence. Through a three-way dialogue, Tillich believed, the Eastern
religions, the Western religions, and the new secular quasi-religions could
achieve mutual enrichment and purification. “In the depth of every living
religion there is a point at which the religion loses its importance, and that
to which it points breaks through its particularity, elevating it to spiritual
freedom and with it to a vision of the spiritual presence in other expressions
of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence.”33
This combination of an absolutism of revelation with a
relativism of symbols continues to be pressed by distinguished scholars of our
day. John Hick, for example, maintains that since God is the God of the whole
world, we must presume that the whole religious life of humanity is part of the
continuous and universal human relationship to God.34 The major
religious traditions all rest on revelatory experiences of the absolute, but
reflect this differently in view of the variety of cultural and historical
conditions.35 The unifying factor in all religions is God, about
whom they revolve. The many different analogies of the divine reality may all
be true, though expressed in imperfect
human comparisons. Although we may not be able to bring about a single world
religion, the situation created by worldwide communications may lead to “an
increasing interpenetration of religious traditions and a growing of them
model, therefore, revelation is sharply distinguished from symbol. The
revelation is seen as unitary and divine, the symbol systems as diverse and
human. Jesus Christ is viewed as a Christian symbol, highly meaningful to
Christians, but lacking the universal value of the experience of God to which
the symbol points.
This model has limitations for inner-Christian theology. It
may now be added that the attempt to separate the experience of revelation from
symbol and concept is inhibiting for interreligious dialogue. As Hick, for
example, is not unaware, there is an interpretative element in every experience
of revelation. The effort to bypass the historical and cultural factors can
therefore lead to an unwelcome reduction. Theism itself would be threatened
since it has been in great measure shaped by the symbols and conceptual
structures of biblical religion and Hellenistic philosophy, and is not widely
accepted in the Eastern religions. Consistently applied, the effort to
eliminate the culture-related specifics thus dissolves theocentrism as well as
Christocentrism as a basis for dialogue. The common platform therefore becomes
5. Revelation as Dialectical and the Religions
Wary of the reductionistic trends in liberal and modernist
theology, the dialectical theologians, under the leadership of Karl Barth,
advocated an approach to the religions that would be deliberately controversial
and critical rather than compromising and irenic. For these theologians Christ
as the Word of God stands in judgment against all human achievements, including
religion itself insofar as it proceeds from man. Leading from a position of
strength, authors of the fourth model held that the supreme norm of all
theology, including the theology of the religions, must be Jesus Christ in whom God had definitively disclosed
Barth, in his
Epistle to the Romans and in the first volume of his Church Dogrnatics (part
2), eloquently set forth his position that revelation stands against all the
religions, but that, in condemning, it heals and justifies, so that, in Christ,
there can be a “true religion” rescued as a brand from the fire.37
While rejecting any easy continuity between Christ and the religions, Barth’s
dialectical theology allowed for a kind of Hegelian Aufhebung (abolition
and sublimation) of that religion upon which the light of Christ is made to
shine. But he felt obliged to point out how even Amida Buddhism and Bhakti
Hinduism, in spite of real anticipations of Pauline and Protestant
Christianity, lack the one thing necessary for true religion, the name of Jesus
Even in the last volumes of his Church Dogmatics, in
which he emphasizes the far-reaching effects of Christ’s reconciling action,
Barth retains a posture of reserve. Religions such as Islam, he declares, are
humanly and ethically imposing.
Missions presuppose both that they will be valued
and taken seriously, with a complete absence of the crass arrogance of the
white man, and yet also that they will not be allowed to exercise any pressure
on the Gospel but that this will be opposed to them in all its radical
uniqueness and novelty, with no attempt at compromise or at finding points of contact and the like. Missions are
valueless and futile if they are not pursued in strict acceptance of these two
presuppositions, and therefore with a sincere respect and yet also an equally
sincere lack of respect for the so-called religions.39
Emil Brunner, who developed an “eristic” theology of the
religions, insisted that only the prophetic religions of the Near East could be
understood as making a serious claim to revelation.40 But the other
living prophetic religions, Judaism and Islam, reject the claims of
Christianity, thus compelling a choice.41 The claim of Christianity
to be the revelation given by God through Incarnation sets it totally apart
from both Judaism and Islam.42 In the view of Christian faith,
Christ is both the fulfillment and the judgment of all the religions. He
fulfills them by being the truth, the advocate, the sacrifice, and the ritual
meal for which they seek in vain.43 But he also judges all the
religions inasmuch as he shows up the falsehood in their doctrines and the
superstitions and cruel legalism of their practices. Called into being by God’s
self-manifestation in creation, religion is always perverted by human pride and
The dialectical theology of the religions, as proposed by
Barth and Brunner, was applied to missiology by Hendrik Kraemer. His book, The
Christian Message in a Non-Christian World,45 written at the
request of the International Missionary Council, was very influential at the
Tambaram Conference in India in 1938, and retains much influence in World
Council circles to this day. Kraemer held that the message of God, which is not
adaptable to any religion or philosophy, should be forthrightly announced,
though always in a manner intelligible and relevant to the evangelized. While
not decrying all signs of revelation in the religions, Kraemer focused on Christ
as God’s only full revelation of himself. He was generally critical of
non-Christian religions as human achievements.
Dialectical theology is to be commended for its insistence
that Christians should bring the full resources of their faith to bear on the
encounter among the religions. Taking the teaching of the New Testament at face
value, and accepting the Trinitarian and Christological dogmas without
equivocation, this theology holds to the incomparable richness of God’s
self-disclosure in his incarnate Word. These theologians rightly remind us of
the importance of signs and testimonies which proclaim Jesus as universal Lord.
Yet if God’s grace in Christ has a universal redemptive efficacy, as Barth
seems to admit, one might well suspect that all human religions, to the extent
that they proceed from grace, might bear a mute or indirect testimony to God’s
Word in Christ. At this point Rahner’s theory of “searching memory” and the
Logos theology of Tillich and others might be able to supplement, and somewhat
qualify, the more polemical statements of Barth, Brunner, and Kraemer.
6. Revelation as New Consciousness and the Religions
model defines revelation dynamically in terms of its impact on human
consciousness. Revelation is seen as a divine summons to transcend one’s
present perspectives. Since this summons is always correlated with the actual
situation as well as with the basic dynamism of the human spirit, revelation
comes in new ways in each period of history. In our own day, many of these theologians
assert, revelation involves a call to put aside the limitations of cultural
self-centeredness and to be open to the working of the divine Spirit in alien
cultures. Open to new currents in secular and religious experience, Teilhard de
Chardin, Gregory Baum, and Paul Knitter have proposed radical revisions of
conventional Christianity, with major implications for the dialogue between the
Teilhard de Chardin was convinced that the present encounter
between the religions could not fulfill its promise unless the critique of
religion by secular humanism were taken into account. Yet secular humanism,
lacking the transcendent focus provided by revelation, could not provide the
kind of faith needed to sustain humanity in the dawning planetary age. The
Eastern religions, imbued with a mystical sense of universal unity, provided a
transcendent focus, but failed to give meaning to human effort and evolutionary
progress. Christianity in its usual forms (“paleo-Christianity,” Teilhard
sometimes called it), suffered from some of the same unworldliness. He
therefore called for a “neo-Christianity,” a “new mysticism,” one “for which we
have as yet no name,” to serve as a “privileged central axis” about which the
religions might converge.46
A general convergence of religions upon a universal Christ who fundamentally satisfies them all: that seems to me the only possible conversion of the world,
and the only form in which a religion of the future can be conceived.47
Unlike the false monisms at work in Eastern and Western
forms of pantheism, an authentic pan-Christism, according to Teilhard, could
combine the Eastern concern for universal unity with the Western concern for
individual dignity and freedom. In spite of some passing remarks to the effect
that Christ must be reinterpreted in such a way as to “integrate those aspects
of the divine expressed by the Indian god Shiva,”48 Teilhard spoke
more often of the limitations than of the merits of the “road of the East.”
When asked whether a Buddhist or a Hindu should become a Christian, he replied:
“It would be better to try to carry its truth [that of your previous religion]
with you, and transform it if you could, though of course sometimes this might
not be possible.”49
Baum describes the acceptance of revelation as “an entry
into a new self-consciousness and a new orientation toward the world.”50
Jesus “makes known to us God’s redemptive involvement in the whole of human life.”51
Religion, as Marx and Freud pointed out, can be a screen shutting us off from responsible
life in society,52 but religious worship can also serve to protect
us from the demonic power of sex, money, nation, and social philosophies.
Without holding that nonbiblical religions are divine, we can find in them
something “that offers salvation to men, detaches them from idolatry, elevates
them to higher understanding, creates in them faith in a gracious transcendent
reality, and initiates them into love and care for other people.”53
Logos Christology, which viewed other religions as mere preparations
for Christianity, is no longer adequate, according to Baum. The Church, he
declares, must abandon its absolute claims, which inevitably breed aggression
and conflict.54 Each religion must strive to liberate itself, with
the help of others, from its own idolatries.
The Church’s mission may then be understood as an
ongoing dialogue with other religions, designed to liberate all partners,
including herself, from the ideological deformation of truth. Through
conversation and action men may learn
to attach themselves to the authentic, life-giving and humanizing elements of
their religious tradition.55
Such an ideal, Baum maintains, will make it easy for people
belonging to each religion to make friends across the boundaries, to share
important experiences, to feel united in the same basic struggle, “and never
think that anyone should change from one religion to another.”56
In the United States, another Roman Catholic, Paul Knitter,
has in several recent articles challenged the view that Christianity commits
its adherents to the finality and superiority of God’s revelation in Christ.
Such a tenet, he holds, is unjustifiable in terms of a modern approach to
Scripture and a revisionist method in theology. It is also disastrous for
interreligious dialogue.57 Following a consistent consciousness
theology, he argues that revelation and salvation occur when the individual is
“sucked into” a world constituted by myth and symbol.
Historical facts do not.... It is only when we are grasped by and find
ourselves responding with our whole being to a symbol, myth, or story that we
are encountering the divine, touching and being touched by “the Ground of
Being,” and experiencing grace.58
Symbol and myth, Knitter maintains, are salvific not because
they correspond to some antecedent objective reality, but because they reach
into a person’s innermost being, thereby renewing the whole self. Once this is
recognized, Christians no longer have to take the symbol of the Incarnation as
a factual statement. It is a myth in the same sense as stories of the wonderful
birth and exaltation of the Lord Buddha and the Lord Krishna. “If it is true
that it is the myth-symbol that saves, not historical facts as such, then
Christianity is placed essentially on the same level with other religions.”59
Knitter adds: “Such insights will open new avenues in the present-day dialogue
among world religions.”60
If symbol is equivalent to myth as a product of creative
imagination, then the doctrine of the Incarnation, being mythical, cannot be
taken as a cognitive statement about Jesus himself. To hold that salvation is
given by such a myth, rather than by the redemptive action of God in his
incarnate Son, radically shifts the center of Christian faith. Many
contemporary theologians, with whom I associate myself, deny that such a
transposition is called for by sound developments in hermeneutics or
theological method. Charles Davis had good reason to write, not many years ago:
“Frankly, I do not myself see how the universality and finality of Christ can
be denied without emptying the Christian tradition of meaning.”61
For a Christian to say what Davis here says is not to deny that Christ is a
symbol, or that the Christ-story is in some sense a myth, but it is to imply
that the myth or symbol is disclosive of the meaning inherent in the
Could a Christian affirm that the same divine Lord whom
Christians worship in Jesus is worshiped, under other symbols, by the devotees
of the Lord Krishna and of the Lord Buddha? Fidelity to the Christian
confession, it would seem, excludes the idea that there is any Lord except
Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 8:6). In company with Lucien Richard, I would reject an
extreme “archetype Christology” that would see the Jesus-story as “the
historicization of an archetype which is already found at work everywhere.”62
On the other hand, it need not be denied that the eternal Logos could manifest
itself to other peoples through other religious symbols. Raimundo Panikkar, who
proposes a “universal Christology,” stands in continuity with a long Christian
tradition of Logos-theology that goes back as far as Justin Martyr. On
Christian grounds, it may be held that the divine person who appears in Jesus
is not exhausted by that historical appearance. The symbols and myths of other
religions may point to the one who Christians recognize as the Christ.
Would the interreligious dialogue be helped if Christians
were to abandon the claim that Christ is universally and definitively
normative? Obviously no dialogue would be possible if Christians demanded, as a
condition of participation, that Christ be acknowledged by all as the supreme
norm of truth. In an interreligious dialogue the particular convictions of any
one party cannot be presumed as either true or false. For Christians
antecedently to surrender their traditional claim might be injurious to the
dialogue since it might prevent them from making what is potentially the most
Christians who are convinced of having in Jesus Christ his
definitive revelation can enter the interreligious dialogue with full
consciousness of having something to contribute. But can they enter it with the
expectation of having something to learn? According to the principles advanced
in this essay they can. They can expect to find signs and symbols of divine grace and
human greatness in any major religious tradition. This is
not a purely formal concession. The Christian cannot set limits to the heights
of holiness and insight that God’s grace may bring among those who do not
recognize Christ as the incarnate Word.63
As living, incarnate symbol, Jesus Christ fulfills what is
sound and challenges what is deficient in every religion, including
Christianity. Christians, no less than others, are subject to him as norm. He
detracts nothing from the revelatory meaning of other religions, nor do they
detract from him. Even while questioning the adequacy of other religious
symbols, Christ can place them in a new and wider frame of MsoNormal. As Carl
Hallencreutz has said:
For when confronted with Christ the symbols of the religious man are related in a
new way to that “sacred reality” to which they have referred within their
particular framework. They are brought together to their very centre and so
“concentrated” that they can become new expressions of the richness of Christ.64
This recontextualization may be beneficial to all the
religions, including Christianity. When the West, as a “Christian culture,” was
relatively isolated from contact with other religions, it may have been
sufficient to construct Christology in terms of explicitly Christian symbols,
but the present stage of world history seems to call for a further advance. The
present encounter of the religions can have positive significance for the
interpretation of what is revealed in Christ. In the words of Gabriel Fackre:
There is a
sound instinct in all of the models that respond to the new pluralism by
attempting to reformulate the Christian
doctrine of redemption in a more universal fashion. Doctrine does develop in
response to new settings in which the Christian communityfinds itself. Plural shock can so
impact our received theological traditions that we are led to a deeper insight
into basic faith. But doctrine which develops does so always along the lines of
the original trajectory. It renders more explicit that which was implicit and
coheres with the primal norm of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.65
We cannot accurately predict what
we may learn from the dialogue that seems to be getting underway. There is no
reason, however, to think that it will diminish the revelatory importance of
Jesus Christ. It may well be that in the light of other revelatory symbols, the
universal and abiding significance of Christ will be more strikingly
manifested. Even though it already is the supreme and definitive
self-disclosure of God, the Christ-symbol cannot be adequately appreciated for
our time except in the context of many other symbols, including those of the
extra-biblical religions. If disruptive change is avoided, the present
encounter of the religions may well lead to an enrichment of the Christian
symbolism and thus of the theology of revelation.
1. R. E. Whitson, The
Coming Convergence of World Religions (New York: Newman, 1971). p. 145.
2. Wilfred Cantwell
Smith proposes a sense in which Christians might be able to admit that the
Qur’an is the word of God. See, most recently, his Towards a World Theology
(Philadelphia: Westminster; 1981), pp. 163-64. On the basis of a study of the
Hindu sacred books, Ishanand Vempeny holds that the “nonbiblical Scriptures are
truly yet analogically inspired by God” in “Conclusion” to his Inspiration in the Non-Biblical Scriptures (Bangalore:
Theological Publications in India, 1973), pp. 177-78.
3. Paul Knitter in
his “European Protestant and Catholic Approaches to the World Religions,”
Journal of Ecumenical Studies 12 (1975), pp. 13-28, points out (pp. 21-22)
that P. Althaus, C. J. Ratschow, and other Lutherans admit the existence of
revelation but not the availability of salvation in religions which do not
preach faith in Christ. He could have added, perhaps, that for Barth the
adherents of these religions can apparently receive salvation without
4. Text in J. D. Douglas (ed.), Let the
Earth Hear His Voice (Minneapolis: World Wide Publications, 1975), pp. 3-4.
5. W. Scott, “‘No
Other Name’ -- An Evangelical Conviction,” in G. H. Anderson and T. F. Stransky
(eds.), Christ’s Lordship and Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, N.Y.:
Orbis, 1981). p. 66.
6. G. H. Clark,
“Special Divine Revelation as Rational,” in C. F. H. Henry (ed.), Revelation
and the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1958), p. 27.
7. G. C. Berkouwer,
“General and Special Divine Revelation” in C. F. H. Henry (ed.), Revelation
and the Bible, p. 17.
8. G. van Noort, The
True Religion (Dogmatic Theology, vol. 1) (Westminster, Md.: Newman, 1969).
9. Ibid., p. 15.
10. Ibid., p. 28.
11. Ibid., pp. 29,
12. G. van der Leeuw,
Religion in Essence and Manifestation (New York: Harper
Torchbooks, 1963), pp. 160-61.
13. O. Cullmann, Christ
and Time (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1950; rev. ed., 1964), p. 157.
14. Ibid., p. 167.
15. Ibid., p. 183.
16. J. Danielou, Holy
Pagans of the Old Testament (Baltimore: Helicon, 1957), p. 20.
Danielou, The Lord of History (Chicago: Regnery, 1958), p. 119.
18. J. Danielou, The
Salvation of the Nations (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press,
1962). p. 8. For a similar position contrasting the descending movement of
divine revelation with the ascending movement of human religion, see H.
U. von Balthasar, “Catholicism and the Religions,” Communio 5 (U.S.
edition) (1978). pp. 6-14.
19. See, for
instance, D. G. Dawe, “Christian Faith in a Religiously Plural World,” in D. G.
Dawe and I. B. Carman (eds.), Christian Faith in a Religiously Plural World
(Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1978). pp. 13-32.
Pannenberg, “Introduction” to Revelation as History (NewYork:
Macmillan, 1969), pp. 6-8.
21. W. Pannenberg,
“Toward a Theology of the History of Religions,” Basic Questions in Theology,
vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), p. 113.
22. Ibid., p. 115.
23. K. Rahner,
“History of the World and Salvation-History,” Theological Investigations,
vol. 5 (Baltimore: Helicon, 1966). pp. 97-114; quotation from p. 105.
24. Ibid., quotation
from p. 107.
25. Cf. K. Rahner,
“Christianity and the Non-Christian Religions,” ibid., pp. 115-34; K. Rahner, Foundations
of Christian Faith (New York: Seabury, 1978). pp. 311-21.
26. F. von Hugel, Essays
and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion, Second Series (New York: E. P.
Dutton, 1926), p. 39.
27. F. von Hugel, The
Reality of God and Religion and Agnosticism (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1931).
Underhill, Mysticism (London: Methuen, 12th ed., rev., 1930), p. 104.
30. W. E. Hocking, Living
Religions and a World Faith (New York: Macmillan, 1940), p. 166.
31. W. E. Hocking, The
Coming World Civilization (New York: Harper, 1956), pp. 168-69.
33. P. Tillich, Christianity
and the Encounter of the World Religions (New York: Columbia, 1963). p. 97.
34. John Hick, God
and the Universe of Faiths (London: Macmillan, 1973), p. 101.
35. Ibid., p. 106.
36. Ibid., p. 107.
37. K. Barth, Church
Dogmatics, vol. 1/2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1956), p, 356.
38. Ibid., pp.
39. K. Barth, Church
Dogmatics, vol. IV/3, Second Half (Edinburgh: T.&T. Clark, 1962) p.
40. E. Brunner, Revelation
and Reason (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1946), p. 227.
41. Ibid., pp.
42. Ibid., p. 236
43. Ibid., p. 270.
45. Third ed.,
London: James Clarke, 1956. The first edition of 1938 was introduced by a
glowing foreword by William Temple, then Archbishop of York.
46. Ursula King, Towards
a New Mysticism: Teilhard de
Chardin and Eastern Religions (NewYork: Seabury,
1980), pp. 181-89.
47. Teilhard de
Chardin, How I Believe (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), p. 85.
48. U. King, Towards
a New Mysticism, p. 181.
49. Ibid., pp. 225-26.
50. G. Baum, Faith
and Doctrine (New York: Newman, 1969), p. 27.
51. G. Baum, “The Religions in Catholic Theology,” in his New Horizon
(New York: Paulist, 1972), p. 105.
52. Ibid., pp.
53. Ibid., p. 96.
54. G. Baum, “The
Jews, Faith, and Ideology,” Ecumenist, vol. 10, no. 5 (July-Aug. 1972), p. 74.
56. Ibid., p. 76.
57. P. Knitter,
“World Religions and the Finality of Christ: A Critique of Hans Kung’s On Being
a Christian,” Horizons 5 (1978), pp. 151-64.
58: P. Knitter,
“Jesus-Buddha-Krishna: Still Present?” Journal of Ecumenical Studies16 (1979), pp. 651-71,
esp. p. 657.
59. Ibid., p. 664.
61. C. Davis, Christ
and the World Religions (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), p. 237.
62. Lucien Richard, What
Are They Saying About Christ and World Religions? (Ramsey, NJ.: Paulist,
1981), p. 67.
63. Cf. K. Rahner, “The Charismatic Element in the
Church” in his The Dynamic Element in the Church (New York:Herder
& Herder, 1964). p. 63.
64. C. F.
Hallencreutz, New Approaches
to Men of Other Faiths (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1970). pp.
65. Gabriel Fackre,
“The Scandals of Particularity and Universality,” MidStream: An Ecumenical
Journal 22 (1983), pp. 32-53; quotation from pp. 46-47.