Wesleyans, Scripture and a World of Faiths

For the last 30 years, it has been relatively commonplace to consider your theological response as a Christian towards people of other faiths as somewhere within the exclusive, inclusive and pluralist categories. Quite a bit of energy has been expended on this by some and quite a bit of apathy by others.

In brief, the exclusive position holds that God is at work and in relationship with people only through their direct response to Christ and normally very clearly within the Christian tradition. The inclusive position is not so far from this, but understands that God can be at work in many ways and while God’s revelation in Christ is complete this does not exclude a relationship with some who do not have an explicit understanding of this. The pluralist position argues that there are many ways of relating to God. Most Wesleyan Christians are found within the first two categories, and John Wesley’s position was largely within the inclusive rather than exclusive perspective (see my ‘A Firm and Generous Faith’ for this discussion). It is difficult for a Christian to maintain the pluralist position, as within this perspective Christ cannot be the Saviour of the world nor God’s full revelation. It is also hard to argue for this view from Christian Scripture. Rather a philosophical argument has to be attempted that allows for almost all religious perspectives to be valid but not quite all, as for example Satanism is not normally seen as appropriate. However Satanism is only considered invalid through an understanding of God’s revelation in Scripture, the very thing that pluralism discounts as definitive. Apart from it being a politically attractive option in contemporary society, the religious pluralist position does not stand up in light of Christian tradition, revelation or philosophy.

I want to take a rather different approach. Many of us have a traditional understanding of how God reveals himself and is at work among people. I will attempt to show that for many their view point may be just that, a tradition, but is not built solidly on Scripture. Consequently, in good Wesleyan manner, I want to develop the scriptural position that may challenge some traditional perspectives. We already know much of this, so it is more a matter of joining it all up.

Old Testament

We start with God’s covenant people. The first covenant God enters into is with humanity after the flood (Gen 9:8-17). The Abrahamic covenant is subsequent to this. We recognise the call of God to the people of Israel (Amos 3:2) but the same prophet also recognises that God is in relationship with other tribal peoples (Amos 9:7). We know that God uses various people groups in the Old Testament era to do his purposes, which clearly implies a relationship whereby these non- Israelites know enough to at least follow what God is saying. Whole sections of Isaiah (eg Isaiah 13-23), Jeremiah (eg Jeremiah 45-51) and Ezekiel (eg Ezekiel 25-32) have nothing to do with Israel but rather focus on God’s lament over the various nations.

We know that there are a number of righteous pagans in the Old Testament. There is ‘my servant Nebuchadnezzar’ (Jeremiah 25:9, 27:6, 43:10), while Cyrus is both ‘my shepherd’ (Isaiah 44:28) and ‘the anointed’ (Isaiah 45:1). These are not individuals who God forced to do his will and moved them as pawns on a chessboard, but individuals who are portrayed as being in a relationship, even if they may not have been fully aware of this. And there is more. There is evidence to question whether Job is fully part of the Israelite tradition. The theology is somewhat different and it is often considered to be a near eastern tradition that in God’s sovereignty is in the Hebrew Scripture. Abraham offers his tithe to a pagan priest (Genesis 14:18-20), and Jesus is a priest in the order of (the pagan) Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-28).

We know all about the Exodus, but often forget that there are two other exodus type experiences mentioned in the Old Testament where God declares that he has brought ‘the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir’ (Amos 9:7).

There are two final Old Testament passages I want to mention. In 2 Kings 5:15-19 Naaman is as close as we get to an evangelical convert. He now recognises the God of Israel as the God to whom he has turned in faith. But in the midst of this testimony Naaman mentions that the course of his duties mean that he will take part in pagan worship. It is repeated so that there is no doubt, and the question is addressed to God’s prophet. ‘What do I do?’ And the prophet’s answer? ‘Go in peace’.

Finally, in Malachi there is an intriguing translation issue. In a number of translations the present tense is used, while others use the future. While there is a problem given the absence of a verb in this verse, on balance the meaning is present tense, so why did some translations such as NIV use future - because the prophet declares ‘Throughout the world incense is offered to me’ (Malachi 1:11)? If this was future tense the traditional Christian understanding of God at work in the Hebrew tradition alone is maintained, but if it is present, then God is clearly being worshiped far beyond the Israelite people.

So, at this point we have God at work among many peoples, God having a personal relationship with peoples and individuals outside of the Hebrew tradition, a covenant with humanity and worship being offered throughout much of the world.

New Testament

The pagan Magi clearly know enough of God to follow his guidance, recognise the messiah, know the appropriate response is worship, and have the spiritual discernment to act to protect Jesus. The adult Jesus points to a Roman officer as one whose faith surpasses that of the Israelites, and it is a Roman Centurion who points to Jesus on the cross and declares that he is the saviour of the world.

When we consider the person of the Holy Spirit, we know that he is sovereign and blows where he wills. We also know that something of the light of God is found in all people. The missio Dei reminds us that it is the God of mission who has a Church and we join in where God is already at work. Every good Wesleyan understands prevenient grace to be God at work in our lives, and others, long before we recognise this, and before we are believing Christians. There is no limit to this activity of God that we can manufacture.

But Scripture also teaches us that there is no way to God apart from Jesus (John 14:6), and that there is no other name given to us for salvation (Acts 4:12). How does this exclusive declaration make sense with the inclusive activity of God?

The answer is exampled in a couple of passages in Acts. When Peter is challenged to share Christ with the Gentile Roman Cornelius (Acts 10:1-11:18), he struggles to understand what God means. When God speaks to the Gentile Cornelius he doesn’t struggle, but responds directly. Cornelius, despite being an officer of the occupying army, is also clearly someone of faith, prayer, piety and in relationship with God. Yet it wasn’t a saving relationship, as Peter still needed to bring to Cornelius a message ‘by which he and his household might be saved’ (Acts 11:14).

When Paul arrived in Athens he recognised that in the midst of worship practices that were far from ‘in spirit and in truth’ there was still some acceptable worship. In a deviation from the normal kerygma or preaching content, Paul twice quotes approvingly from Greek philosophers and recognises that they contain religious truth (Acts 17:16-34). Both passages illustrate an understanding where other faith traditions are affirmed, but with the need for a saving relationship through Jesus as a necessary further development.

Conclusion

This is a brief overview and not much more than a raising of issues to do with the subject, but I hope there is enough here to cause us to think further, and focus that thinking primarily on Scripture. Rather than the tradition where God has his people Israel, and no other, and that Jesus and the Church call people into a relationship with God, Scripture shows that God is in relationship with many peoples and individuals, who respond in worship. In the ministry of Jesus some pagans had faith beyond that of Israel, other scriptures contained an element of truth and people could worship God without fully recognising Him. And within this, Scripture shows that there is the necessity of turning in faith to Jesus to move from a relationship to a saving relationship.

For Christians in the Wesleyan stream, Scripture is more important to us than tradition and our task is always to make our understanding fully in accordance with Scripture. I haven’t presented anything here that is disturbing to faith, but rather is the content of faith. We have Christian Scripture through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. What we have is what God intended and delivered to us. Our task is to respond to that revelation by worshipping and following the Saviour, and pointing all others to Jesus. We can affirm that many individual Muslims, Jews, Hindus etc can be in a close relationship with God. And we act in that knowledge within the inter-faith world in which we live. But we also are clear that without knowing Christ there cannot be a saving relationship, and so we seek to win the world, or to use the Cliff motto ‘Christ for all, and all for Christ’.

Helpful Resources from a Wesleyan Perspective...

  • K. Cracknell - In Good and Generous Faith (Peterborough: Epworth, 2005)
  • A. Fernando - Sharing the Truth in Love (Grand Rapids, Discovery House Press, 2001)
  • M. Forward - Inter-religious Dialogue (Oxford: Oneworld, 2001)
  • Methodist Church May I Call You Friend? Sharing our Faith with People of Other Faiths (London: Methodist Church, 2006)
  • S. Skuce - ‘A Firm and Generous Faith: Towards an Authentic Wesleyan Inter-Faith Understanding’ Studies in Interreligious Dialogue, 19/2009/1 66-80
  • S. Skuce - The Faiths of Ireland (Dublin: Columba, 2006)
  • A. Truesdale - With Cords of Love: A Wesleyan Response to Religious Pluralism (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2006)
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