I’ve heard it before, maybe you have too. “Outside of Christ, the most forgiving and loving person is no closer to God than the most hateful, reactive one.” Of course, this is referenced to salvation, as in “salvation is a gift” and nothing we can do will earn us favor with God. If you are a Calvinist or raised among them, the phrase you heard was from Isaiah 64, “all our righteousness is as filthy rags.” And then we go from there to Romans 3:
As it is written,
There is none righteous, not even one;
There is none who understands,
There is none who seeks for God;
All have turned aside, together they have become useless;
There is none who does good,
There is not even one. (this from Psalm 14)
Their throat is an open grave,
With their tongues they keep deceiving,
The poison of asps is under their lips,
Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness,
Their feet are swift to shed blood,
Destruction and misery are in their paths,
And the path of peace they have not known.
Their is no fear of God before their eyes.
(all this from Ps.5, Ps.140,Ps.10,Isa.59,Ps.36).
And the point of all this? “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
And if this was all there was to say, why would God not simply destroy the world again? Surely there is nothing redeemable here?
Elsewhere David writes,
“What is man, that you are mindful of him?
And the son of man, that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than God,
And you crown him with glory and majesty.
You make him to rule over the work of your hands...” Ps. 8
There is a paradox here, and it is captured by Nouwen who wrote that each of us should carry two notes: one for each pocket. The one note says, “I am a broken and useless sinner.” The other note should say, “I am made in God’s image and I have great value. I am loved.” Both of these are true. I am not fond of a strict Calvinist anthropology; though of course there is wide variation in current Reformed thinking. The Anabaptists held a middle ground, as displayed in the work of Hans Denk and his “ein doppelerg” or “dual nature” in humanity. There is both darkness and light in all of us.
What first rattled my cage was mixing with non-Christians who were genuinely loving. In fact, many of them were more loving than many Jesus followers I knew. I found this really confusing. What do to with Romans 3 and similar passages?
But it got me asking new questions. Where before the big problem for me was the problem of evil, suddenly I was faced with the problem of good. Where does this goodness come from? Where is this hunger for justice rooted? Is it just the longing for a better world?
I felt.. and still feel… the lack of the required background work. I’d like to reread some of Amos Yong’s work as well as dig into Stackhouse, “No Other Gods Before Me.” I am coming from the place of Augustine’s “common grace,” and the place of humankind in the image of God, an image and likeness marred by the fall, but not lost. We are “cracked eikons.”
The Scriptures I have in mind move in two directions. The first trajectory is that of the work of the Spirit in the world in bringing conviction of sin (negatively) and the knowledge of God (positively). This latter knowledge includes inner knowledge of the good, true, and beautiful. The Scriptures I have in mind of this first trajectory include Luke 10:1 and John 5:19. There are also stories like that of the Centurion (Matthew 8). God is already on a mission in the world and goes ahead of us. Our task is to listen and observe to see what He is doing and then to partner with Him.
The second trajectory includes Scripture like Matthew 25, John 1:9, and 1 John 4.
Matthew 25 is the best known. The blessed ones are those who cared for the weak, the strangers, and the prisoners. They seem to have no knowledge of what they were doing, yet Jesus counts it as done to himself. How is this possible? How is there something of God in unredeemed humanity such that Jesus can count this work done to the poor and oppressed as done to him? Was Tolkien right?
“Dear Sir,” I said, “Although now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed;
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned..”
That is a pretty good description of the Imago — we bear the stamp of our Creator in our souls — marred, but not lost.
The next is John 1:9: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man.”
Finally, 1 John 4:7 “Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.”
So these two trajectories lead to a simple question and result in a particular stance toward those who do not yet name the Name of Jesus. I phrase it like this:
If God is at work in the world, and our task is to bless what He is already doing, then should we not affirm goodness, truth, love and beauty wherever we find them as the good work of God? In other words, perhaps the answer framed above grows out of the wrong question, resulting in an unhelpful and closed, somewhat negative stance. There are other questions we can ask which come from a more “generous” position. This is much of McLaren’s direction in his thoughtful book A Generous Orthodoxy.
I have two thoughts as I close. The first is from Leslie Newbigin:
Newbigin writes that the gospel is,
“exclusive in the sense of affirming the unique truth in the revelation of Jesus Christ, but not in the sense of denying the possibility of salvation to those outside the Christian faith; inclusive in the sense of refusing to limit the saving grace of God to Christians, but not in the sense of viewing other religions as salvific; pluralist in the sense of acknowledging the gracious work of God in the lives of all human beings, but not in the sense of denying the unique and decisive nature of what God has done in Jesus Christ.” The Gospel in a Pluralist Society 1989 182-3
I scanned a portion of McLaren’s chapter on the issue in A Generous Orthodoxy, and you can see it HERE. McLaren’s discussion is more at the philosophical level than a theological reflection, though in involves some of the latter. But his heart shines through, and he does sketch a thoroughly biblical response.
For some theological work, you can look at Clark Pinnock’s helpful survey, “Religious Pluralism: A Turn to the Holy Spirit.” If you are interested in a framework for thinking about interaction with other faiths, and for thinking about the relation to faith and culture, John Travis work comes highly recommended and is detailed in an article in Evangelical Missions Quarterly as His Ways are Not Our Ways. See also Roger Olson, A Wind That Swirls Everywhere
Amos Yong has done some important and foundational work in his argument that we must move from a Christological center, with its primary concern soteriology, to a Pneumatological center with its primary concern ontology (and the Imago) as we work out a theology of religions. One of the implications is a much more fertile ground for engagement in a post-colonial ethos. In The Holy Spirit and World Religions (2004) he writes,
“I suggest that set within a robust Trinitarian framework, a pneumatological theology of religions is able to navigate a via media between imperialism on the one side and relativism on the other; between Christian theology on the one side and theology of religions on the other; between discerning the Holy Spirit on the one side and discerning other spirits on the other. This is because the human experience OF the Holy Spirit is at the same time human experience IN the Spirit. As such, a pneumatological epistemology emerges that is intersubjective and participatory on the one hand, even while preserving difference and distinctiveness on the other. The dominant metaphor operative here is that found on the Day of Pentecost when those on the streets of Jerusalem proclaimed, “in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:11). In this account, the outpouring of the Spirit “upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17) opens up the possibility of encountering others in all of their differences even while avoiding or overcoming the radical incommensurability thesis. Thus the miracle of Pentecost is to allow for intersubjective communication and interrelational participation even amidst the preservation of otherness: linguistic, cultural and even religious.” 192-93
Finally, we need to always connect missio Dei with the imago Dei. The purpose of mission is shalom: restored relationship of all people and all creation to God. Ultimately what was lost will be restored: a new humanity, renewed in God’s image, will reign with Christ in a restored world.
An Interview with Amos Yong. See also Frost & Hirsch, ReJesus p.33ff on the imago Dei.