Paul and Pluralism (A Reply to Ken Brown, Continuing the Bloggersation)

Thanks, Ken, for your insightful reply. I certainly would agree to a large extent with you (and Michael) that Paul saw himself as inviting people to experience redemption from the powers of the present evil age in and through Christ. To deny that this is central to his worldview, and his writings, would scarcely be plausible. What I’m trying to focus on is, in a sense, twofold:

(1) I am trying to ascertain whether there is any indication how Paul might have viewed those who were the equivalent of a Melchizedek or other such individuals who are recognized as having faith in one supreme Lord that is in essence equivalent to the Israelite understanding of God, and who understand the appropriate way of living in light of this conviction to be to pursue uprightness and justice.

(2) How might we apply Paul’s writings to parallel or at least similar situations today.

To begin with the second, my suggestion was that there is a parallel between Paul’s argument addressed to the Jews of his time, and what one might say to the church today. In both instances, the focus has come to be on a particular group as exclusive possessor of salvation, so that those within the boundaries are ‘saved’ even though they fall far short of what God demands of them, while those outside the line are ‘lost’ even though they may be seeking God with all their might. The parallels are too striking to ignore, as is the irony that the community that supposedly looks back to Paul as an authority so closely resembles those he was arguing against.

As for the first point, Paul generalizes about the earlier lives of Gentile Christians that they were living immorally and in ignorance. I have no doubt that Paul might generalize about individuals today in the same way who responded to his proclamation. But the question must still be asked what Paul might have thought about Gentiles who, through the study of philosophy, arrived at the conviction that there is one supreme God and that certain moral norms are appropriate which matched Paul’s own.

Luke certainly seems to have a view of what Paul thought about this: Paul is not only depicted as being like Socrates in Acts 17, but Paul is depicted as quoting two passages about Zeus as speaking truthfully about the God whom he worships. Presumably, like the author of the Letter of Aristeas who makes a similar equation, Luke (and perhaps Paul) was of the opinion that it was not the name or designation used to refer to God that mattered, but the basic concept.

In concluding, let me ask a question that helps to highlight what in fact matters most. How do you (that is, Ken, Michael, and anyone else reading this who wishes to join in) view the status of Muslims? The example of Islam places the question into focus, since any devout Muslim has a view of Jesus that is presumably not lower than that of his earliest followers. If Jesus is acknowledged as prophet (which was a widespread early view of him), as Messiah, and the emphases in his own teachings are adhered to, would the belief that Muhammad was also a prophet, or that Jesus didn’t die on the cross (a view that some early Christians held, and it is presumably from them that the Muslims derived the idea) hinder salvation? If so, how do we determine which conclusions about history and theology are decisive and which are not?

Once again, I direct attention back to Paul’s example, the faith of Abraham. But given the importance of Abraham for Muslims as well as Christians, and the many points we agree on, it is important to at least ask the question whether Paul (if he lived in our time) would have spent his time arguing with Muslims about the points of disagreement he had with them, or would have focused on those who, from both a Muslim and a Christian perspective, were living lives of alienation and estrangement from God.

So, in asking questions about the salvation of Muslims from the perspective of the Bible, I am speaking, of course, about those who have had a genuine experience of God, and live in the pursuit of social justice and other concerns emphasized in both the Bible and the Qur’an. To talk about “Muslims” in general or “Christians” in general is to fall back yet again into the approach Paul was combatting. It is not the group to which one belongs that is what matters, but the attitude towards God and towards other human beings. That defines the people of God, and that definition seems to me to cut across the boundaries between churches, mosques and the spaces outside, just as Paul saw it in his day to cut across the boundary between Jews and Gentiles.

This is my essential point: I am not suggesting that Paul did not focus fully and utterly on Christ as the one through whom God was drawing the Gentiles together with the Jews into a united people for himself. I am suggesting that he was seeking to identify the children of Abraham as including all those who had a faith like Abraham’s, in a way that allowed the Gentiles who were assumed to be excluded to be included. My concern is that, if we limit the implications of Paul’s argument to the precise specific groups and issues he was addressing and/or applying it to, rather than going back to his overarching principles, we may find ourselves repeating the sorts of arguments that have been used to justify preserving traditional views of slavery, or of women, or whatever.

So the question I come back to is this. Did Paul really mean it when he said that the children of Abraham are those with a faith like Abraham’s (Galatians 3:9; Romans 4:12)? If so, then can those of us who are Christians not recognize in individuals outside of the boundaries of Christianity the occasional individual who has a faith like Abraham? Is it not appropriate, when we hear the selfless prayer of the Sufi mystic Rabi’a, to echo the words of Jesus? “Verily I have not found such faith, even in all of Christendom”.

Ken has not only responded but provided a table of contents to the discussion so far.
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  • I’ll respond further after I’ve had time to think through what you’ve written, but I wanted to point out that I also cross-posted that last comment to my blog, and it led to some valuable interaction with Michael, here.

  • James,This will be a long comment, but since it is pretty directly tied to this post (and the conversation has moved on) I’ll post it here instead of at my blog. I basically agree with your comment that:there is a parallel between Paul’s argument addressed to the Jews of his time, and what one might say to the church today. In both instances, the focus has come to be on a particular group as exclusive possessor of salvation, so that those within the boundaries are ‘saved’ even though they fall far short of what God demands of them, while those outside the line are ‘lost’ even though they may be seeking God with all their might.But I think it says more about the superficiality (and inadequacy) of many Christians’ faith than it does about the status of non-Christians. I think you are right that Paul would strongly condemn those “Christians” who think that being raised in a Christian home and perhaps attending church once or twice a year, somehow makes them genuine followers of Christ. When the same people are quick to wish hell upon their political or religious “enemies,” I can easily imagine Paul saying some modern equivalent of “I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal 5:12). I am also willing to concede that “the occasional individual who has a faith like Abraham” may well find him or herself embraced by God in the end. I think you are right that we are sometimes much too harsh in how we delimit “who’s in and who’s out,” and forget that most of our lines, if maintained absolutely, would exclude a great many of the saints and patriarchs who preceded us. Did Stephen recognize Jesus as the third member of the Trinity? Hardly, yet he died after Jesus and was (according to Acts), welcomed into the presence of God. Did the thief who died at Jesus’ side know anything about him, except that Jesus died with unprecedented grace (in the non-theological sense)? It doesn’t seem so, but Jesus promised him paradise. If these things are possible, how can it not be possible for someone like Rab’ia to be welcomed by God as well? Granted I don’t know that that she was, but neither do I know whether any particular “Christian” will be – their walk is between them and God. This is not to say that there is no right answer, nor even that I don’t think I know what it is (love God and neighbor, to start), merely that whether a person truly has the right answer is not always readily apparent from the exterior. Many seemingly strong Christians have turned apostate, and many great sinners have nevertheless been accepted by God (David comes to mind). Or do we think that only mistaken beliefs (!) can separate us from God? No doubt, if Rab’ia was accepted by God, she had/will have a great deal to learn about who Jesus really was once she reaches/reached the next world, but don’t we all?But there are several reasons I am hesitant to go too far in this direction: First, people like Rab’ia are rare (though how rare, relative to among Christians, I won’t venture to guess), and as I have tried to emphasize on several occasions, there mere chance that such people may be saved should by no means prevent us from telling them about the only way we know they can be saved – by placing their trust in Jesus. We rightly call fellow Christians to truly “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” and I see no reason not to do the same with non-Christians.Second, as Michael has observed, whenever the New Testament authors (and the saints of the Church since then) encountered such people – yes, even Paul at Mars Hill – they did not hesitate to tell them about Jesus, and were certainly not content with their refusal to accept him (when they refused). One can hardly ignore their example, even if we admit that there may ultimately be more to the story than they considered.Third, I’ve heard first-hand accounts from Christian missionaries to Muslim countries that some Muslims have actually had visions directing them to seek Jesus, and themselves have approached the missionaries to ask how they might become Christians (at great personal risk, no less). If such stories are true, that implies that God himself desires that even those genuinely seeking him in other faiths, should come to Jesus too.Thus, I think I am an exclusivist when it comes to evangelism, even if I retain the possibility of inclusivism when it comes to eschatology. In other words, what we can assume, and what God is required to do, are not necessarily the same.