Throughout my missionary career, I had two main goals: 1) Present ing the Gospel to the followers of Islam from a specifically Reformed perspective, and 2) Challenging certain trends which were in conflict with the historic mission of the universal church.
In reflecting on the work of missions from William Carey’s days to the early years of our century, one could discern a great amount of consensus among the Protestant missionaries when it came to the person and work of Jesus Christ. He was proclaimed as the unique Savior and Lord. Faith in Him was a prerequisite for one’s reconciliation with God and incorporation in His Kingdom. Unfortunately today, this consensus is gone. Since the end of World War II, universalism has invaded both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. It seems that nowadays, Western Christians are rather reluctant to affirm the historic teachings of the universal church about faith in Jesus Christ as a condition of salvation.
In these lines, I would like to make a few comments on the recent discussion of universalism as it took place during the June 1996 meeting of the Reformed Ecumenical Council in Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Klaas Runia gave a speech to the full session of the council dealing with some pressing issues facing the church today. I draw upon a report on this speech which appeared in the July/August issue of The Outlook. I consider the account found in the section, “Church & World,” as a faithful summary of the discussions which took place around Dr. Runia’s lecture.
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. [Emphasis is mine]
1. Such remarks tend to be confusing. There is no doubt that the three positions mentioned above, the exclusivist, the inclusivist, and the pluralist have been held by some members of the church. But the use of the term “processing Christians” may imply that their views have equal validity. Should there not be a prior question as to what they profess? Throughout my formal and informal theological formation, I learned that in historic Christianity, the Bible has supreme and final authority. A secondary source of authority is found in the official decisions of the councils and assemblies of the church. What an individual Christian may believe and teach has no intrinsic authority unless it is based on the Bible and on the creedal and confessional books of historic Christianity. The real question we face is: Does the Bible teach universalism and has the church ever adopted universalism as part of its apostolic tradition?
2. In discussing the subject of universalism versus particularism, (terms which I prefer to inclusivism versus exclusivism) things become muddied by adding a third category: pluralism. There are many Universalists who believe in every article of the Nicene Creed while at the same time spreading the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work to all; but I know of no pluralist who can be counted as a “professing Christian.” Even a superficial acquaintance with the writings of such pluralists as Wilfred Cantwell Smith, John Hick and Paul Knitter will show that they believe in the equal validity of all religions. I remember Knitter’s questioning of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the very title of his book, No Other Name?
3. I was puzzled by the statement of Dr. Eugene Rubingh “that much of Christian mission work was done in a context of radical Muslim antagonism toward Christianity.” I do not doubt it at all that Muslim antagonism has always existed for Christian missions. After all, does not the Quran state: “Inna’I-Dina ‘Indal’-Lahi Al-Islamu”? (The acceptable religion with God is Islam.) However, the exclusivists base their exclusivism on the historic understanding of the unique role of Jesus Christ as the only Savior and Lord. Their strong conviction about the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ as condition for salvation did not originate from within the Christian-Muslim encounter. The Nicene Creed’s formulation of the person and work of Jesus Christ antedates by three centuries the rise of Islam.
4. The hypothetical case of a Muslim calling out to Allah and whether his prayer is heard by God does not clarify the subject of universalism at all. Allah is not the exclusive, Islamic name for God. Arabic speaking Christians call God, Allah. This happens to he one of the first words I learned from my father and mother. Just as we meet the name Elohim in the first verse of Genesis in the Hebrew Old Testament, so we meet the name Allah in the Arabic Bible. It is unfortunate that in our popular Western culture we imagine that Allah (wrongly pronounced with the accent on the first syllable) is the Muslim God. And regardless of one’s religious affiliation, it is very common for Arabic speaking people to exclaim, when finding themselves in a difficult situation, Ya Allah! O God [help me]! Does such a request necessarily mean: O God, save me? It is very important to remember at this junction that redemption and salvation are concepts which are peculiarly Christian. Muslims do not feel any need for salvation, so when they utter a prayer to Allah for help, they are not thinking at all of a salvation which has any eschatological meaning. They believe that they can please God by professing His unity, the apostleship of Muhammad and the performance of certain specific religious duties. They earn paradise by faith and works.
5. Professor Runia is quoted as saying concerning those who have not heard the gospel that “they will be judged according to the standards they had. What the outcome of that judgment will be I don’t know, but Matthew 25 makes me want to be very mild about that. Those who thought they knew the Lord were told they do not know him and those that thought they did not know him were told they did.”
Is this really the teaching which may be gleaned from the words of our Lord? I quote from the NIV version the account which is entitled, The Sheep and the Goats:
When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, fie will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you as stranger and invited you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”
The king will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (31–40)
I am baffled by the statement that: those that thought they did not know him were told they did! The sheep who were on the right hand of our Lord did know him; they were described in the text as “righteous.” Their “ignorance” did not imply that they had not confessed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior during their life on earth. They simply echoed the sentiment of all true believers who “do good works” spontaneously. They did not remember all the specific acts of mercy which they per-formed among their needy brothers and sisters, since those acts were the by-product of their faith in Christ.
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, inta the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes, and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”
He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
As for those who were rejected in the end, their claim that they knew the Lord was an empty one since their deeds manifested the fact that they were not true believers. Their “faith” was nominal or spurious.
These reflections are not meant to sound as if I have no appreciation for the speech of Dr. Klaas Runia. Many of the statements he made showed his strong commitment to the uniqueness of the Christian doctrine of God. But it is a crucial matter, at this time in world history, that we boldly proclaim the critical importance of confessing Jesus Christ asSavior in this life. My concerns were echoed by others who did attend the theological conference. Here are some of their comments.
“REC vice-moderator Dr. Douwe Visser, formerly a missionary of the GKN to the African nation of Zambia, also concurred on the centrality of the issue. ‘It’s all coming up; what is our identity as Christians; what that relationship is of salvation in Christ, is really foundational for missions and the whole life of the church,’ said Visser.”
Our own Dr. Roger Greenway of Calvin Seminary said, “I think the gospel stands or falls for this issue [of 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.” The reporter quotes Dr. Greenway explaining the reason for this present discussion: “The debate arose from the fact that most modern Christians did not have close contact with adherents of other religions until recent times. A lot of Christians have not thought this through because they have not been confronted by other worldviews.”
The topics discussed at the REC and its theological conference are not of an abstract nature. The church today is called upon to reaffirm its historic stand on the uniqueness, finality and superiority of the Lord Jesus Christ and the extreme importance of confessing Him for salvation. The mission situation is now globalized; adherents of world religions are now becoming our neighbors. Some like the Muslims, challenge us to accept the finality and superiority of Islam; while others from south and east Asia, want us to grant their faiths equal validity with ours. Unless our theologians and pastors proclaim clearly and unequivocally the Biblical and historical claims of our faith, we will not be able to withstand the onslaught of the non-redemptive world religions during the Third Millennium.
Rev. Madany, a retired Christian Reformed minister, served as Minister of Arabic Broadcasting for the Back to God Hour from 1958–1994. He and his wife Shirley, have established Middle East Resources, Inc. to service Islamic missions in the 90’s.