Rev. VanBaren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
In the June issue of this magazine, we quoted a letter from a minister in the Reformed Church who claimed that salvation was possible outside of Christianity (“God is truly known in a saving way by others in their own respective religious traditions”). One might wistfully think that such a view is rare — at least in the Reformed community. Sadly, that is not true today.
The Reformed Ecumenical Council, meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids this past June, has faced the issue and proposed a study committee to consider the matter.
Darrell Todd Maurina, URNS press secretary, reports:
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (June 7, 1996) URNS — A few short weeks after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the apostle Peter declared to an astounded crowd in Jerusalem that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Nearly two thousand years later, the meaning of that passage in Acts 4:12 has become a subject of intense debate among professing Christian theologians. If a recommendation of the REC theology conference is adopted, it will also become a subject for study in the Reformed Ecumenical Council.
In a June 7 presentation to the Reformed Ecumenical Council, its theology conference reported that “in view of the growing importance of the subject a study committee should be appointed by the interim committee to make an in-depth study of a) the many-faceted problems of religious pluralism, b) the biblical view of other religions, c) what all this means for the communication of the gospel to the present world.” The theology conference also suggested “that the REC print and distribute widely the papers read at the theological conference and ask the General Secretary to bring it to the attention of the member churches.”
Dr. Klaas Runia, retired rector of the theological seminary of the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands at Kampen, presented a paper that touched also on this subject — and created quite a stir! He explained the different views, as reported by Maurina, as follows:
Runia — long regarded as one of the most prominent conservatives in his denomination — surprised some delegates by the closing paragraphs of his speech.
Runia noted that professing Christians have historically taken three approaches to the relationship between Christ and adherents of other religions: an “exclusivist” approach declaring that there is no salvation apart from an explicit profession of the name of Christ, “inclusivist” approaches which appreciate non-Christian religions but “refrain from saying that the non-Christian religion can itself save a person” and that “it is always Christ who saves by his hidden presence in the other religion,” and what Runia termed “the ‘pluralist’ or ‘liberal’ approach” which “no longer has place for the unicity of Jesus Christ.”
While noting that “the exclusivist approach was generally held by the Christian Church up to the Middle Ages and by the Reformers” and “is also held by the great majority of evangelical theologians,” including those who drafted the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, Runia said the “inclusivist” position dates back to the second-century theologian Justin Martyr and is held today in various forms by a number of Roman Catholic leaders. Runia cited W.E. Hocking, William Cantwell Smith, John Hick, and Paul Knitter as examples of modern “pluralist” theologians — Hocking going to the point of stating that “the missionary will look forward, not to the destruction of these religions, but to their continued existence with Christianity, each stimulating the other in growth toward the ultimate goal, unity in the completest religious truth.”
How do such theologians deal with Scripture passages such as Acts 4:13 (sic), John 14:6, and I Timothy 2:5 which appear to teach exclusive claims of Christ? Runia cited Knitter as an example of a Roman Catholic theologian who “believes that these passages apply to Christians only.”
“When Christians see Jesus as the way, the life, and the truth, they actually say no more than that this is the way they personally experience Jesus,” Runia said regarding such views. “Knitter ranks it with the exclamation of a husband to his wife: ‘You are the most beautiful woman in the world.’ We have to do with ‘love’ language, which means that the passages I quoted should not be taken in an absolute sense, but as confessions that hold true within the Christian community only.”
Runia’s paper clearly distanced himself from such views. “This is the reason I take my starting point in the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” said Runia. “This, in my opinion, is the only proper point of departure for getting a good and reliable picture of the real Jesus.”
However, Runia was not willing to go as far as many exclusivists in declaring that no one can be saved apart from an explicit profession of faith in Jesus Christ. “Does this mean that there is no truth in all the other religions and that all the adherents of the other religions will be lost forever?” asked Runia.
Runia explained his views further:
In a subsequent interview, Runia confirmed his quote regarding the possibility of the Christian God hearing prayers to Allah but gave further explanation to his views. “I don’t want to identify the concept of God in Islam with our concept,” said Runia. “The fact that we have Jesus Christ makes our concept of God so different from theirs.”
“Would the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ not hear such a cry? Would he close his ears?” asked Runia. “I don’t think so. I can’t believe that God would not have heard the cries of the Old Covenant people when they cried out in Auschwitz.”
Dr. Roger Greenway, professor of missions at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, was one of several who spoke in favor of the “uniqueness of Christ” in salvation:
“I think the gospel stands or falls on this issue,” said Dr. Roger Greenway, professor of missions at Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids and convener of the REC committee appointed after its 1992 Assembly to draft a document on the uniqueness of Christ. “This is not a peripheral issue, and if we hedge on this we are forfeiting our right to be called Christians.”
Greenway agreed with other speakers that much of the debate arose from the fact that most modern Christians did not have close contact with adherents of other religions until recent years. “A lot of Christians have not thought this through because they have not been confronted by other worldviews,” said Greenway. “Neither Bavinck nor Kuyper dealt extensively with other religions, so we need to look at this ourselves.”
However, Greenway was willing to grant Runia’s point that some Dutch Reformed theologians had not been insistent on the “exclusivist” position. “I have not been very satisfied with the history of Reformed theologians to be clear-cut in their presentation and defense of exclusivism,” said Greenway. “They have held back in a way I find surprising.”
Greenway predicted that the issue of the uniqueness of Christ was likely to become a divisive issue in the Christian community. “I think there’s going to be a refining in both ways; some will come to a clear and more articulate faith and others will say it really isn’t that important after all,” said Greenway.
The Press had a letter from Rev. Sierd Woudstra, minister in the Christian Reformed Church. In it, he too presents some disturbing ideas concerning salvation.
I noted that the departure of Rev. Richard Rhem and his Spring Lake congregation from the Reformed Church of America now seems a foregone conclusion (Press, May 20).
I do not know Mr. Rhem. Nor do I know enough about his views to have an overall judgment. For myself I wish a fine, conservative denomination like the RCA, instead of forcing a parting of the ways, would have treated this conflict as a challenge to study the questions raised.
As to Holy Scripture, there can be no doubt that it should be read in its cultural context. If my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, had more fully realized this, it might have avoided the lengthy controversy on women in church office.
On the matter of salvation, it is my conviction that there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ. I also profess to believe in Jesus Christ. I also profess to believe in Jesus as my own savior and Lord. My church assures me that means I am heaven bound. Yet something keeps troubling me.
I am painfully aware that a majority of the world’s people are not Christians, and, barring a divine miracle, never will be. Also, throughout history countless numbers of people, many of them not Christian believers, have lived and died in a hell on earth. Only recall the millions slaughtered under Stalin, the holocaust, Red China, Cambodia, Rwanda and, more recently, Bosnia.
Fine Christian minds have long held that it is unthinkable that following their hell on earth the almighty would send them to another hell, one far worse than the first and presumably lasting “forever.”
Could it be that evangelical churches have too narrow an understanding of the Gospel? Since salvation is by grace alone, may we perhaps hope that, through Jesus Christ, the almighty has ways and is powerful enough to bring the majority of the human race into his eternal kingdom? The Bible offers plenty of openers for that belief.
Dr. Roger Greenway is correct: “The gospel stands or falls on this issue…. This is not a peripheral issue, and if we hedge on this we are forfeiting our right to be called Christians.” That is a clear and strong statement. I do wonder if he or others in the CRC will follow through with this conviction as pertains to the public writings of Rev. Sierd Woudstra.
These strange sounds arising from “Reformed” camps are clearly in violation of Scripture and our creeds.
To relegate such a clear teaching of Scripture (Acts 4:12; John 14:6; I Tim. 2:5; Rom. 10:13-15; etc.) to the trash heap on the claim that these “passages apply to Christians only,” or, “that it should be read in its cultural context” is to deny the infallibility and inspiration of Scripture. It is to render all mission work foolish and even wrong; it is a denial of the mandate of Christ in Matthew 28:19-20. It introduces “another gospel” which calls forth the condemnation of Revelation 22:18-19.
Those who deny these clear Scriptural truths who are within the Reformed camp are also in violation of the Formula of Subscription which presumably all officebearers have signed. The Reformed creeds present clearly the Scriptural truth that salvation is only in Christ and in the way of believing upon Him.
It is human reasoning and “logic” which conclude that a “loving” and “gracious” God cannot allow billions to go to hell only because they never heard the gospel or were destined to be born and raised in the realm of one of the other religions of this world. This reasoning, which contradicts the teachings of Scripture, does logically follow out of such views which insist upon a “common” grace of God and a universal love for all of mankind, or an atonement which is for all without exception.
One cannot help but be struck by the rapidly changing theological scene. When “Reformed Christians” seriously propose that salvation is possible outside of belief in Christ and without confession of sin and while still in the darkness of heathendom, when world religions begin to unite, then clearly the end is near. The second beast of Revelation 13 is materializing before our very eyes. Remember Greenway’s warning: “This is not a peripheral issue, and if we hedge on this we are forfeiting our right to be called Christians.”