Foundations: No.62 Spring 2012

Book review

Rohintan K. Mody, Vicar of St Paul’s Church, Throop, Bournemouth, UK

Only One Way?: Three Christian Reponses on the Uniqueness of Christ in a Religiously Plural World, Gavin D’Costa, Paul Knitter & Daniel Strange, SCM Press, 2011, 240pp, £25.00.

The questions of the uniqueness of Christ and the existence of other faiths are, perhaps, the most important theological, missiological, and pastoral questions we face today. This book is a clear and fine contribution to the debate.

The book is divided into three parts: Part 1 contains the position papers. These papers outline the different approaches the authors, Gavin D’Costa, Paul Knitter, and Dan Strange have to the question of different religions by focusing topics such as their own background, theological method, God, the Trinity, Christ, salvation, mission, and interfaith dialogue. Part 2 contains critiques by each author of the other two authors to enable readers to make their own judgements on the questions being discussed. In Part 3 there are three final defences, presented by each author in light of the critiques. The level of interaction in the book, which is clear, gracious, and hard-hitting, enables readers to be exposed to both the strengths and weaknesses of each case. All the essays are well-written and good expositions of the different positions in the debate.

Gavin D’Costa sees it as his primary task to convey the teaching of the post-Vatican 2 Roman Catholic Church on the subject of the uniqueness of Christ and other faiths. D’Costa explains that while Christ is unique and the Church is necessary for salvation, nevertheless it is possible for those who die not knowing Christ to be saved, if they are ‘potentially’ in the Church. Thus, other religions may be a ‘preparation’ for the Gospel. The doctrines of purgatory and limbo may provide a solution to how some of other faiths may have a vision of Christ after death and so be saved.

Paul Knitter, athough also a Roman Catholic, presents a very different perspective. He believes that theology is a mutual conversation between Christian experience and beliefs. For him, our theological beliefs are ‘symbols’ of God or Ultimate Reality. Thus, the Trinity, Christ, etc. are the atonement symbols of a deeper Christian reality. Knitter is indebted to Buddhism and to panentheism. Knitter has a ‘non-dualistic,’ ‘co-inhering’ understanding of God and the world, which ‘deconstructs’ traditional Christian understandings. Therefore, Knitter questions the ‘uniqueness’ of Christ, if it means that he is the ‘only’ saviour. For Knitter, inter-faith dialogue is accepting and learning from different faiths.

Dan Strange’s paper is from a ‘Protestant Reformed orthodox’ or ‘conservative evangelical’ perspective. In terms of method, Strange argues for the primacy of Scripture, as interpreted in the creeds and Reformation solas. From this starting point, Strange argues for YHWH’s transcendent uniqueness as the Trinitarian God. Strange stresses that religions are ‘an idolatrous refashioning of divine revelation.’ Christ and his work is unique, and faith in him is necessary for salvation. Christ is the ‘subversive fulfilment’ of other religions. Therefore, evangelism, mission, and critical engagement with other faiths are key tasks for the church.

In the interaction sections in Parts 2 and 3 of the book, Knitter’s position comes under fierce attack from D’Costa and Strange, for its focus on human experience to the detriment of a transcendent authoritative revelation, and as being outside Christian orthodoxy. Indeed, with the best will in the world, it is difficult to see how Knitter’s position is a specifically ‘Christian’ response to the uniqueness of Christ and other religions. The attacks by Strange and D’Costa on Knitter give the book a lop-sided feel (indeed, Knitter sees the criticisms of Strange and D’Costa as coming from the same stable.) Strange attacks D’Costa’s reliance on the teaching of the Roman Catholic magisterium, which, Strange believes, risks playing down the power of sin, and exalts the power of human goodness. D’Costa criticises Strange’s Calvinist commitment to total depravity and predestination/reprobation, which means that all non-Christians will be lost.

For me, the book highlights the importance of one’s theological presuppositions for the questions of the uniqueness of Christ and other religions. If your starting point is that of religious experience (whether as a liberal Christian or as a non-Christian) then you will come to Knitter’s pluralistic position of other religions being symbols of contact with Ultimate Reality. If you are a mainstream Roman Catholic (and, perhaps, an Arminian or ‘open’ evangelical) then you will agree with D’Costa’s position of trying hold to both the uniqueness of Christ while allowing for the possibility of people of other faiths being saved. If you are a Reformed, conservative evangelical then you will conclude with Strange that only faith in Christ is sufficient for salvation and that other faiths are idolatrous.

I would recommend this fascinating book as a fine introduction to these critical issues.