Discerning the Doctrines: Interspirituality, Pt. I

A recent USA Today article highlighted professing Christians — most notably Brian McLaren, the “godfather of the emerging church” — who spent much of the last month fasting in observance of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The idea behind this fasting was, in McLaren’s words, “to come close to our Muslim neighbors and to share this important part of life with them.” Christians who participated were encouraged to find a Muslim fasting partner, leading to a greater respect and understanding between adherents of faiths which have rarely meshed.

While I am certainly in agreement that Christians must be respectful of all people, we must also be careful to distinguish between respecting and condoning. McLaren is correct in that Americans in general — and Christians in particular — have become increasingly anti-Muslim, especially post-9/11. We have a duty to share the gospel with people of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, including Muslims, and in order to do that there must be a dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

The problem is that, in this instance, this dialogue has come at the expense of Christ. No effort is made to preach the Truth of God that leads to repentance and salvation. The quote from Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University, is the most telling part of the USA Today article: “Here is a pastor (McLaren) who wants to understand us, who does not want to convert us…”

If understanding and respect are the sole objectives, why bother? We can understand and respect people all the way to Hell, but if we truly love them we MUST introduce them to the God who IS love! The message of love is the good news of God’s Son Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected to provide the only way for us to live eternally in the presence of a Holy God. It’s a message that brands Christians “intolerant” in the eyes of an increasingly pluralistic world. It’s a message that is not proclaimed through the religious rituals of false religions.

Some Christians who practice these rituals for the sake of “understanding” — whether it be Ramadan, the contemplative meditation of Eastern religions, the Catholic Stations of the Cross, etc — will cite 1 Corinthians 9:22 as their justification, when Paul wrote: “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” The context behind this verse is that Paul lived according to the customs of the people he was trying to reach, in order that he might be able to contextualize the Gospel in a way that they might understand. In Jerusalem, Paul — a Jew — went to the temple for purification (Acts 21:26). In Asia, Greece and Italy, Paul told the Gentiles that foods the Jews had considered unclean were permissible (Romans 14:14), and that circumcision was unnecessary (Galatians 5:6).

Paul did NOT, however, participate in the worship of pagan idols or in the sacrifices offered at the Jewish temple. He preached the Cross at the Jewish temple and in the synagogues. He preached the Cross at Mars Hill in Athens, and before Caesar himself in Rome. He was beaten by the Jews. He was imprisoned by the Romans. He was mocked and rejected by the Greeks. Even other Christian leaders like Peter, James, and John, “who seemed to be pillars” (Galatians 2:9), struggled to accept his radical (but God-breathed) teaching of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.

The true Gospel message still elicits strong negative reactions from zealous proponents of other religions, from philosophers and those who think themselves wise, from the unbelieving masses, and even from some within the Church, just as it did in Paul’s day. We ought not be surprised by this, for Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and the ruler of this world (John 12:31) still blinds the minds of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4). However, this same Gospel also still calls sinners to repentance and sets captives free!

When men who claimed to represent Christ went before the Church in Corinth, convincing the believers there that it was okay to act just like the pagans, the church became guilty of all sorts of corruption: Sexual immorality, lawsuits among believers, divisions within the church, and questionable worship practices, just to name a few. Paul wrote a series of letters to the Corinthians correcting this false teaching. He pulled no punches, calling these “super apostles” deceitful workmen disguising themselves in the same manner as Satan (2 Corinthians 11:13-14)! To Timothy, Paul described these sorts of false teachers as prideful and ignorant (1 Timothy 6:3-4). To Titus: “They are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:16).

How might Paul address those in today’s churches who condone rather condemn worldliness? I imagine he’d have some harsh words for those who are celebrating Ramadan, fellowshipping with Muslims yet having no intention or desire to lead them to Christ. Paul wrote that it is to our shame that there  remain some who have no knowledge of God (1 Corinthians 15:34). He would certainly rebuke those who use his own words from 2 Corinthians 9:22 to justify themselves! After all, the very next verse reads: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel“, which is the qualification for being “all things to all people”.

Unfortunately, this is just the latest example of a troubling trend in the 21st Century Christian Church. McLaren and other “emergent” church leaders have introduced into evangelical churches much of the same spirit of ecumenism that has pervaded many “mainline” Protestant denominations (for example, many Episcopals, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians) for decades. I want to be clear, however, that this is not a blanket condemnation of any of these denominations, or of “emergent” churches in general. All of these terms (especially “emerging” or “emergent”) have been used so much that they have different meanings in different situations, just as Stevens Street Baptist Church has very little to do with many other churches also bearing the name “Baptist”. This is why it is important to examine specific doctrines, rather than to make overarching generalizations.

In my next post, we’ll examine further this trend toward “interspirituality” and “interfaith cooperation”. Is this simply another method of sharing the gospel, or is it apostasy?

See you then. Grace and peace be with you all.

Part II

10 comments on “Discerning the Doctrines: Interspirituality, Pt. I

  1. This seems to me to reflect only one side of the situation reflected in Scripture. Paul rejected idol-worship – so do Muslims, I might observe. And in Acts 17, we find Paul depicted with positive echoes of the figure Socrates, calling philosophers to abandon idolatry. Do we have any reason to think that Paul would have had something other than praise for a philosopher who agreed with him about monotheism and rejecting images of the divine, and about what it means to live righteously?

    There are certainly voices in the New Testament that give the impression that Jesus’ death provides the only means of access to God (John and Hebrews in particular). But those are not the only voices in the New Testament. Acts 24:14-16 gives the impression that Paul continued to believe that God would reward the righteous in a way that does not seem limited to one particular religious group. The praise Jesus offered to non-Jews seems to imply something similar.

    And so I simply wish to point out that both you and McLaren represent voices that can be heard in Scripture. Getting these different visions of Christianity into fruitful dialogue with one another might be a more difficult challenge than fostering constructive conversation between Muslims and Christians! :)

  2. Nick says:

    That Acts passage just refers to what the Jews agree with Paul about (the resurrection of the dead, the Hebrew Scriptures). He does not say anyone can be saved apart from Christ. If you think this passage is vague on whether or not a person can be saved apart from Christ, you only need to look at the rest of what Paul says in the New Testament to clarify thigns for you. Or, you can look at the rest of what Luke (the author of Acts) says. For example, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no ohter name under heaven given among mean by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). The New Testament is unified that salvation comes only through Christ.

  3. John Gardner says:

    Thank you for the comment, Professor McGrath. I’ve read your blog before, and, as usual, I find your interpretation of Scripture puzzling. What in your reading of Paul’s writing (or the entirety of the New Testament, for that matter) leads you to the conclusion that he would claim anything BUT exclusivity of salvation by grace through faith in Christ?

    Acts 17 is a perfect example of the type of contextualization to which I referred. The Greeks had no history with the Scriptures, so Paul quoted from a historic source they knew as a springboard for a discussion about Jesus. After all, “they spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21). Paul knew how to get people’s attention, but just because Paul may have agreed with Socrates on one point, or even many points, doesn’t mean he would have praised Socrates or any other philosopher. Paul was as learned a man as any of his contemporaries, yet in Philippians 3 he wrote that he counted everything in his extensive resume as loss because of the worth of knowing Christ Jesus.

    Yes, we have monotheism and rejection of idol-worship in common with Muslims and many other world religions. We shouldn’t find commonalities surprising. Romans 1 tells us that the truth which may be known about God has been revealed to all men through His creation. Most people acknowledge the existence of a god because there IS a God. Many world religions are monotheistic because there IS only one God. Yet most people, and most religions, have exchanged the truth about God for a lie. Monotheism can provide a springboard for a contextualized discussion, just like Socrates or, say, Peyton Manning (someone likely to provide a common point of interest for my Tennessee neighbors and yours in Indianapolis). But if that discussion does not point to Jesus Christ as the one true God, a vague philosophical monotheism is worthless.

    “There are certainly voices in the New Testament that give the impression that Jesus’ death provides the only means of access to God (John and Hebrews in particular). But those are not the only voices in the New Testament.”

    Give the impression? What part of “no one comes to the Father but through me” and “there is one mediator between God and man” leaves anything open to interpretation? Of course there are “other voices” in the New Testament. Some of those voices even believe that God is one – and shudder (James 2:19)!

    The Bible does present alternative viewpoints, because it is God’s inspired Word to equip us for teaching and correction (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The objections people have to the Gospel today are essentially the same ones people had during the first century. How blessed we are to have God’s own Word show us how we are to respond to these objections!

    And, as Nick has stated, the passage you cite from Acts 24 is not at all referring to salvation through righteous observance of the Law. Paul is on trial for preaching against the Law. He explains that he believes in the Law and the Prophets, and challenges the Jews to provide evidence for their charges. As always, though, Paul uses this as an opportunity to tell about Jesus. This is consistent with his teaching that the Law and Prophets bear witness to Christ (Romans 3:21; Acts 28:23), and with Christ’s own words in Luke 24:44. There is no ambiguity at all unless you insist on reading things into the Scriptures that are simply not there.

    However, I am sure you will be pleased to know that in the second part of my examination of interspirituality, which I hope to have published tomorrow or Thursday, I intend to suggest constructive ways to promote fruitful dialogue between “different visions of Christianity” as well as between Christians and those of different faiths. As you so rightly stated, it is a very difficult challenge indeed!

  4. I look forward to the ongoing series!

    As for the present topic, obviously my point included an acknowledgement that the sorsts of verses you quoted are found in the New Testament. But we all presumably know that ‘proof texts’ can be found for all sorts of things.

    There are two things I’m not hearing from you. First, you don’t seem aware that there are genuinely other voices in Scripture – at least, voices of NT authors themselves rather than views they attribute to demons. Why, for instance, do you assume that Paul (Romans 2:6-11), Matthew (e.g. 7:24-27; 25:31-46), and the author of Revelation (20:12) don’t really mean it when they refer to a final judgment where what one has done matters? Why allow John’s distinctive realized eschatology, in which the judgment is shifted to the present, to overshadow the unified testimony of so many other voices in the New Testament?

    Second, you seem willing to quote texts without discussion of other possible meanings or relevant contextual data that might complicate matters. The context of Acts 4:12, the healing in ch.3, makes it very possible that that is what is being referred to. Likewise the broader context of John 14:6 is the prologue, the lens that we are supposed to read the Gospel through, which declares the Logos the light that gives light to every human being.

    Having said that, the Gospel of John is largely exclusivistic in its outlook. But it is but one of three Gospels, others of which praise the faith of Gentiles who are never said to be quizzed about whether they have a correct understanding of monotheism, much less subscribe to the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement.

    Even having made all these points, I should emphasize that, even if it had turned out that the Biblical authors all largely agreed in adopting an exclusivistic outlook, that still wouldn’t exempt us from wrestling with the possibility that they were wrong…

    • John Gardner says:

      Hmmm… sounds like somebody’s been reading Bart Ehrman…

      Anyway, I’ll briefly (I hope) answer your two things, and then just hold off until I have finished writing the next part of this series, which should more fully flesh out my points.

      you don’t seem aware that there are genuinely other voices in Scripture

      I do absolutely acknowledge that there are different voices in the NT, if by that you mean that the authors have distinct vantage points and perspectives. I do NOT, however, acknowledge that these voices are in contradiction to one another. I believe that Paul was correct when he said that ALL Scripture is inspired by God. You can call that a “proof text” if you like, but if you don’t believe that the Bible is reliable, both spiritually and historically, it seems to me like you’re cutting off the branch on which you’re sitting.

      Why, for instance, do you assume that Paul (Romans 2:6-11), Matthew (e.g. 7:24-27; 25:31-46), and the author of Revelation (20:12) don’t really mean it when they refer to a final judgment where what one has done matters?

      When did I ever say that I didn’t believe that there is “a final judgment where what one has done matters”? That is a Truth penned by many authors in both testaments. This does not conflict with the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. What sets Christianity apart from all other world religions is that most religions teach that one must earn one’s way to Heaven (or Paradise, Nirvana, etc), while the Bible teaches that our salvation is NOT by works, lest any man should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is a hard teaching, because we all want so desperately to boast in our own righteousness. It is the recurring theme of the NT, and continues to be a stumbling block for so many today. James wrote that works are the evidence of faith (James 2:18). Peter wrote that our service to one another is stewardship of God’s grace (1 Peter 4:10-11). The author of Hebrews wrote that Christ’s blood equips us to do the will of God (Hebrews 13:20-21). Paul wrote that he who supplies the Spirit works among us by hearing with faith (Galatians 3:5), right before he tells us that Abraham was blessed because he believed the gospel that God preached to him before hand (quoting Genesis 15:6, just as James did when he said Abraham was justified by works). Paul also writes that works can be evidence of unbelief as well (Titus 1:16). I sense a theme… almost as if each of these authors was inspired by the same Spirit!

      Why allow John’s distinctive realized eschatology, in which the judgment is shifted to the present, to overshadow the unified testimony of so many other voices in the New Testament?

      I’ll admit that I have no clue what you’re talking about here. What about John’s writing on the judgment do you feel contradicts others’?

      you seem willing to quote texts without discussion of other possible meanings or relevant contextual data that might complicate matters.

      I am more than willing to consider the context of texts that I’ve quoted. However, when you claim that a text holds a possible meaning that is so far removed from the plain reading of the text (i.e. – that “salvation” in Acts 4:12 means something other than “salvation”), the burden of proof is on you.

      Likewise the broader context of John 14:6 is the prologue, the lens that we are supposed to read the Gospel through, which declares the Logos the light that gives light to every human being.

      Yes. Jesus Christ is the Logos! How does this change the claim of exclusivity (and of Deity) made by Christ in John 14:6?

      the Gospel of John is largely exclusivistic in its outlook. But it is but one of three Gospels

      I’ll assume this is a typo, and that you do realize there are four Gospels. While the Gospel-writers offer different wordings and perspective on the accounts of Jesus’ life, they do not contradict one another. Together, they provide a complete picture of the Savior. All four accounts tell of the death and resurrection of Christ, and all four give examples of Christ’s claim that He was God.

      For a guy who seems to know a lot about the Bible, you sure do seem to have missed the point.

      Even having made all these points, I should emphasize that, even if it had turned out that the Biblical authors all largely agreed in adopting an exclusivistic outlook, that still wouldn’t exempt us from wrestling with the possibility that they were wrong…

      First of all, they DO agree in the exclusive claim that Christ is the only way of salvation. Secondly, if they were wrong about exclusivity, the triune nation of God, the resurrection, or anything else, then the whole Book is bunk. Feel free not to believe it, but as for me: I know whom I have believed.

      Once again, it seems as if I’ve failed on my promise of brevity…

  5. I’ll await your more detailed treatment of the subject, but I’d like to make 2 brief points. First, in discussing the famous verse in Acts, I was (I thought obviously) alluding to the range of meaning of the Greek word used, and clues from the context about the best English translation of the term in that context. I don’t dispute the meaning of the English word ‘salvation’, and I assume we both agree that the author of Acts did not use that English term.

    Second, there are more than two options besides ‘inerrant’ and ‘bunk’. Otherwise this conversation would be pointless, wouldn’t it? Because neither of us is inerrant, and yet we both realistically hope that our conclusions can nevertheless avoid the other extreme of ‘bunkdom’.

  6. erp says:

    Couple of queries:

    Some Christians who practice these rituals for the sake of “understanding” — whether it be Ramadan, the contemplative meditation of Eastern religions, the Catholic Stations of the Cross, etc

    Catholics aren’t Christians?

    Paul did NOT, however, participate in the worship of pagan idols or in the sacrifices offered at the Jewish temple.

    Is there any evidence that the original apostles and Paul as good Jews did not sacrifice at the Temple before its destruction? Paul certainly intended to in Acts 21:26 “Then he went to the temple to give notice of the date when the days of purification would end and the offering would be made for each of them.”

  7. Mike says:

    Hello. I have enjoyed this article, as well as the posts. I always enjoy seeing healthy debate from different points of view. I do not have a lot to add, but I do have this: when speaking of the Acts 4:12 use of “salvation,” or in the greek “Soteria,” it is fairly clear in the translation (from Strong’s) that it does mean deliverance from sin and spiritual consequences of that sin. Then again, I am not an expert in the Greek, as you may be professor. But, from my point of view, this verse, as well as the whole overarching story of God coming to earth (sending His son) to save his creation, points undeniably to the exclusivity of Christianity. Beyond that, his claim to be the only way to the Father, and his claim to be the “son of man, seated at the right hand of God” (Matthew 26:64)points to fulfillment of OT scripture (Daniel 7:13). These claims seem to point that Christianity would be the only way.

    As for judgement, I believe that what we do here does matter. In Revelation 20:12, people are judged by what they do. BUT, if their name is not written in the book of life (acceptance of Jesus), no matter how well they did, it would never be good enough. Just the thoughts of a layperson…

    Mike

    • John Gardner says:

      To Professor McGrath,

      I fail to see how any other translation of “soteria” changes the point made in Acts 3 & 4. Peter is proclaiming Jesus Christ to be the Messiah, and the power through which healing and the resurrection of the dead – our ultimate salvation – is obtained. The entire point, once again, is that Jesus Christ is Lord! That’s the point of the entire Bible: Don’t miss it!

      And I respectfully disagree that there are more than two choices when it comes to Scriptural inerrancy. The Bible claims that Jesus is God, that the Scripture is His word, and that it is complete. These claims are the basis for all of the other secondary doctrines that we have. Yes, you and I are fallible, and neither of us is completely right, but I stand by my claim that if the Bible is wrong about those primary doctrines, there is no reason to listen to any of it.

      To Erp,

      Thank you for these very good questions. I have written a new post to address them.

      To Mike,

      Right on, brother. Your comments are never “just the thoughts of a layperson”. I appreciate you and your heart for the Lord.

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