World Religions and the Catholic Church

No one other than the Pope gets to speak for the Catholic Church officially, but once definitive statements have been made the Catholic theologians will articulate at length both what is said in the statement and then infer what is implicit. Perhaps the most influential theologian at work in articulating what Catholics think about world religions is Gavin D’Costa. (D’Costa is criticized from all angles, both by pluralists and by exclusivists.)

D’Costa’s responsibility, as he says, is to convey the teachings of the Catholic Church. He also probes and suggests and provokes, so his study in Only One Way? Three Christian Responses on the Uniqueness of Christ in a Religiously Plural World is a good one for drilling down a bit into this issue.

There is no issue more vital to the church today than the issue of world religions.

The three classic postures are exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. Where would you put D’Costa? How do you explain the “standing before God” of those who have not heard the gospel?

The early churches had three points: salvation was in Christ alone, other philosophies and religions could be preparation for the gospel, could plant seeds of faith and could be a pre-Christian ancient theology. In addition, there was the descent into hell, which could have been for the OT saints but at least sets the possibility for some hearing outside of knowing the gospel.

Here is where D’Costa lands:

1. There is no salvation outside the church; the church is God’s mediation of his grace in the world. All who are genuinely oriented toward God (my expression; there are some technical terms here in RC theology) are related to the mystical presence of Christ in his church.

2. How God mediates the presence of his grace through the church is not entirely clear. It is a certainty that God is at work through the Spirit in the world with all people.  “Catholics can be confident that non-Christians might be saved…” (22).

3. The Spirit is at work. There is a preparation at work in all places; the Spirit is at work in all people; all genuine prayer, whoever utters it, is a movement of God’s Spirit in that person.

4. The Catholic Church’s posture is to appreciate, without blandly affirming, the theistic faiths. It sees this faith as participation in the Spirit’s work in this world. The core ideas then are theism and morality, and the theistic faiths have these elements. This does not affirm the salvation of all but those who have genuine faith.

5. The Catholic Church’s statements disavow pluralism, as if all religions are paths to salvation in the same way. All salvation is through Christ — so there is an exclusivism in salvation in Christ alone. But these religions participate in the saving message of Christ in some ways. Other religions are a preparation of the gospel but not a means of salvation.

6. This means that those in other religions are not necessarily damned.

7. The Church is called to be a light of the gospel to all; to respect the dignity of others and not be coercive; and to plant churches in all places.

8. The Catholic Church does not want to privilege the Western Latin tradition but is working toward more organic expressions of the gospel in other cultures and in contact with other religions.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Fr Chris

    Interesting. How does that square with St Paul telling the Ephesians that they were previously children of wrath…without hope in the world…etc.?

  • scotmcknight

    Fr Chris, I don’t know how D’Costa would explain Eph 2:3′s use of wrath, seemingly natural to all humans as a result of birth or sinful behaviors, but I suspect his point is that the children of wrath are held accountable to their response to God’s gracious presence, however that presence is experienced. What about you? What do you say about those who have not heard?

  • Susan N.

    “How do you explain the “standing before God” of those who have not heard the gospel?”

    For about 10 years now, my leaning is toward inclusivism.

    More recently, I am believing (daring to hope) in universal reconciliation.

    As to those who have not heard the gospel: If a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it…(you know the rest.)

    If Jesus Christ died and rose to redeem all, then ?

    I see how even seasoned Christians struggle to understand the meaning of “salvation.” Let alone believe it in the sense that it sets one free (holistically) to live a transformed existence. We’re all working out our faith with much internal *and* external struggle.

    Centered set — with Christ at the center, and others within Christianity and of other faiths moving around His orbit. Is Christ drawing all to Himself? Is God’s goodness good enough to overcome our rebellion, wickedness, and failures to comprehend and respond to His love and grace? If not, then I believe that we, in our religious articulations, have made a god too small.

    I felt confused by D’Costa’s 8 points as shown above, which seemed to contradict itself in various places. Once a Catholic church is planted in a non-Western setting, how exactly would it then go about its mission, in light of the 8-points above? What would be the form and function of that church to the presumably non-Catholic community?

  • Rob Henderson

    As an American Indian (and pastor of an “Anglo” church)I have seen our Tribe (Little River Ottawa in Michigan) perform various religious ceremonies. What I strive to do is celebrate the ways that prayer, for example, is represented by the smoke from the Peace Pipe. As one pipe carrier explained, the smoke are our “prayers to Creator.” Sounds a bit like Revelation 5:8b. Quite often I am asked to pray for meals and such at events and my prayer is addressed to “Our Creator and Redeemer” in Jesus Name.

    Are they doomed to hell? I hope not. Many of them have a very Catholic faith background. My prayer and goal is to guide them to the Savior and let Jesus rescue them just as he did me.

  • Susan N.

    Rob (#4) – beautiful. Thank you.

  • http://abcwesterville.org Mark Farmer

    Scot, would you expand on this fascinating statement:”There is no issue more vital to the church today than the issue of world religions”?

    I by no means disagree with it, but it is a subject that receives very little attention.

  • scotmcknight

    Mark, by that I mean there is an increasing awareness of other religions because of globalization; there is an increasing discussion that has become quite sensitive to postmodern localities and to other religious faiths; and there is a decreasing interest in missions and evangelism … add these up and you get the impact world religions is now having on the church. People like D’Costa are full-time on this one, and the next two posts — one by mainline liberal and one by a conservative evangelical — take significantly different approaches.

  • http://www.thefaithlog.com Jeff Doles

    I think I pretty much accept D’Costa’s points as applied to the Church in general (that is, not limited to the Roman Catholic Church).

    From John 1, I believe that Jesus is the Truth Light who gives light to everyone in the world. Everyone is accountable to God, then, for what they do with whatever light they have received from God. They are not accountable for anything more than that nor anything less. Whether they respond adequately to that light is a matter for God to judge.

    Is Gandhi in hell? I don’t know. Is Gandhi in heaven? I don’t know. How Gandhi responded to the light he was given is for God to judge.

    But as a Christian, I can say that whoever confesses that Jesus is King and believes that God has raised Him from the dead will be saved. I have no other assurance to offer besides that, except to say that God is good and will always judge according to what is right. So, when it comes to other religions, I will always proclaim that Jesus, God’s anointed King, has come, that God has raised Him from the dead and that salvation is revealed through faith in Him.

  • phil_style

    @Jeff, #8, very nicely expressed.

  • http://rising4air.wordpress.com MikeK

    Scot (7.):
    Yes. A thousand times: Yes.

    Long after I graduated from seminary, and was in the midst of international school ministry that I realized that all of the strengths of systematic theology had an enormous weakness, simply massive: it had failed to account for world religions.

    Trial by fire followed all of this, and 9/11 just amplified the experience in ways I still haven’t personally cataloged.

    I’ve read D’Costa’s previous works, esp. Theology and Religious Pluralism: he’s very thorough, and fair, although Newbigin wasn’t all that happy with the characterization he received (exclusivist) and said so in another publication. (Newbigin, FWIW, is very very hard to pin down in this matter, much to my surprise…) See Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s Trinity and Religious Pluralism for a great analysis of D’Costa.

  • http://www.trinityacademyportland.org eric shreves

    Scott — This book looks wonderful! I am a Roman Catholic and really appreciate your ministry and ecumenical sensitivity. The average American Catholic, including myself, is very confused about this topic in general.

    Off topic — I would say that there is some nuance to your statement that only the Pope can speak officially for the RC Church. The councils are pretty definitive. Certainly, the Pope is authoritative but our Church is more collegial than you might think.

    See Pope John Paul 2′s “Ut Unum Stint” (that they may be one) -for the best description of the role of the Pope in the universal Church I have ever read. It really changed a lot of my thinking and I was very surprised at how radically ecumenical it is.

  • http://rising4air.wordpress.com MikeK

    Scot,
    I have to admit some amusement today.

    While 60 comments were left regarding Rick Warren’s and Saddleback’s participation in interfaith dialogue in the other post, only 11 comments are here: and this post is the far-more risky content than Warren eating a meal with Muslims and a half-dozen people repeatedly throwing internet stones at each other over the word “same.” :)

    I hope you’ll post more on D’Costa’s book and on theology of religions. Good for you!

  • http://rising4air.wordpress.com MikeK

    Oh…sorry: omitted my response.

    I would put D’Costa among the exclusivists (or to use more contemporary usage, ecclesiocentric). I might guess as to why “traditional” exclusivists would hammer D’Costa (Points 5 & 6).

    Ironically- and I assume the book identifies the following- D’Costa relies upon Vatican II to develop his position, and I’m not up to speed on the different documents, but it’s all there: so 5 & 6 are part of the doctrine of the church. He’s not making anything up.

    Your second question is a great one! And it’s why this post is superior to arguing over the word “same” in the Warren post…


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