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This essay is an analysis of the theological philosophy of Pluralism as Presented by Dr. Ronald. (Presented to the School of Divinity at Liberty University, THEO 313-B05 – The Person and Work of Christ)
The weight of this essay will focus on Dr. Randall H Nash’s book, Is Jesus the Only Savior? Particularly, it will analyze the first six chapters; which treat the theological issue of pluralism as it opposes Christian exclusivism. Nash primarily uses the pluralism philosophy of Englishmen, John Hick, to explain the tenants of pluralism. Nash goes to great lengths to give a concise understanding of Hick’s philosophy, and how his pluralism undercuts and absolutely dismisses the authoritative nature of Scripture.
As a matter of fact, when studying the theoretical hodgepodge of the proponents of pluralism; one will immediately notice in their literature, a gross absence of Scripture is replaced with wild speculation, with no support for their positional arguments. Nash mentions that pluralism asserts “knowledge about God is simply declared impossible and replaced by personal encounter, religious feeling, trust, or obedience” (Nash, 12, 13). This amounts to no more than theological agnosticism, because of the unreliability of feeling and personal encounters. Obviously, this flies in the face of Christian exclusivists who take as their sole authority the revealed truth of the Bible. (Christian exclusivists believe the Bible teaches that Jesus is the only Savior, and that no one can be saved unless they know the information about Jesus, as contained in Scripture; then express a personal and real belief in the person and work of Jesus Christ.)
Hick enters the discussion in the first chapter. He is described as a man who had an “evangelical kind of Christian conversion” (Nash, 13) experience. At first, he held to a generally orthodox theology; however, he lacked a belief in divinely revealed truth. Ultimately, this orthodoxy was abandoned and gave way to a neo-liberal view of theology which paved the way for his pluralistic views. Hick’s pluralism is encapsulated in his following statement: “There is not merely one way but a plurality of ways to salvation or liberation… taking place in different ways within the context of all the great religious traditions” (Nash, 22).
In the second chapter, Nash begins to break open the mind behind Hick’s early pluralism to reveal the evolution of his radical shift from orthodoxy to a purely pluralistic position. “Hick proposed to replace the historic Christian view that Jesus is the center of the religious world with the claim that God is the center” (Nash, 31). Clearly, in the mind of a pluralist like Hick, this major shift made salvation possible without the central figure of Christianity (Jesus). For Hick, this opens the door to most all major religions; but reduces Jesus to little more than an insignificant historical figure. Hick would claim that his knowledge of devout and pious non-Christians gives validity to the notion that an all loving God would not exclude anyone from His salvation.
This logic appeals to the pluralist; but ignores the practical agnostic premise of pluralism itself (specific knowledge about God is deemed impossible). One immediately recognizes that the acknowledgment of and all loving God is an admission of specific knowledge about God. If God is a God of love; then he cannot be the God of a different religious system which does not ascribe love to God. Nash makes this clear on page 33. Nonetheless, Hick remains unshaken in his understanding that God is, in fact all-loving. The logical pluralist leap from this assumption is that such a God would not limit his salvation based on a mere geographic inaccessibility to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The self-defeating nature of this argument is evident in the following question: How can an unknowable God be known as a personal and loving God and at the same time remain unknowable? Moreover, it begs the question: How can one know that God is unknowable? If God were, in fact unknowable; how could anyone claim there to be a salvific intention in God? Nash concludes that Hick’s defeasible delusions are the effects of starting with a conclusion then seeking premises to support it.
For Hick to avoid this philosophical dilemma, Nash notices that he makes a bold shift from a God- centered theory to a salvation-centered model (Nash, 39). Hick even demands that one drop usage of the name God from religious language. He replaces it with Reality or the Real or Ultimate Reality. The “unknowable-ness” is the foundation for Hick’s evolution to a salvific centered pluralism. His reasoning is that the finite mind of man can only perceive the existence of Ultimate Reality through imagery and symbols that provide the mind with a direction toward perceiving the Ultimate Reality. This speaks to man’s awareness of the Real; but maintains an unknowable-ness. Yet for Hick, these symbols and images presented by the Real are found in various cultures and traditions. Thereby, making this unknowable Reality perceivable through the vehicle of various cultural traditions found throughout the world. Of course, from Hick’s standpoint of unknowable-ness; he can only present his claims of the Ultimate as confidently hypothetical.
It is incredible that Hick does not believe that all religions are adequate for salvation. He even goes so far as to propose a grading system for religions, in order to qualify them for salvific properties. Yet, not all sects or religions past this criteria. According to Hick, some religions are better than others and some are unworthy of support (Nash, 45). In the end though, Hick believes, “Ultimately and eventually, every member of the human race will be saved. This salvation will encompass even the worst moral monsters of history, including at of Hitler and the Nazis, Joseph Stalin and his secret police, and the entire gamut of serial killers, rapists, child molesters and the like” (Nash, 45). However, Hick has a very broad concept of what salvation entails. He maintains that all religions have the same fundamental theme of sudden or gradual change of the individual from an absorbing self-concern to a new centering in the supposedly unity-of-reality-and-value (Nash, 46). This is more easily explained as a move from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness. But, if Hick is to maintain his Universalist understanding; there is no need to give thought to the supposed commonalities of the world’s major religions.
The problem with this supposedly commonality is, as Nash states, an oversimplification. Nash explains that the human predicament is understood differently in the various world religions; and is therefore, sought to be delivered from in undeniably different methods and beliefs. Nash’s quote of Harold Netland’s question sheds light on this predicament: “Is the human predicament brought on by sin against a righteous and holy God, or is it due to maya (illusion) and avidya (ignorance)?” (Nash, 48). Clearly, different understandings to the problem present differing means of reaching the goal of salvation/deliverance.
Chapter four deals with the apparent contradictory claims of the world religions and the response of the pluralist. Nash rightly sets forth the laws of logic, as they apply to reason and truth. He ultimately shows that a proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time. Hick and other pluralist attempt to avoid this crushing blow by denying that the truth claims of competing religions actually contradict each other. These pluralist attempt to prove that it only appears contradictory. They go so far as to say that the truth claims of the world’s great religions actually complement each other.
Nash gives a summary of pluralist, W. C. Smith’s idea that essentially, “We should stop concentrating on the idea of ‘religion’ and focus instead on external cumulative traditions and internal faith” (Nash, 59). Smith basically concludes that these truth claims can become true if one appropriates them personally. In other words, “If it works for you; then, good for you.” This makes the truthfulness of truth claims relative to the belief of the one who holds them. However, the strength of Nash’s argument is that if one person’s belief is, in fact, true; then it is not logically possible that someone who believes the opposite to be, at the same time correct. Yet pluralist’s hold to their idea “that the many different conceptions of the divine or religious ultimate… are all various culturally and historically conditioned images of the same single divine reality” (Nash, 66). For the one who knows something of the basic tenants of the world’s major religions; it is impossible to ignore the contradictory and competing conflicts found among them.
The logical question is: What do you do with the incarnate God, who died a sacrificial death to atone for the sins of all; but, only those who placed their faith in Him alone will be saved? For Hick, the answer is simple; the incarnation of Jesus is a myth. Nash indicates that Hick believes the early church transformed a sentimental declaration of the Lordship of Christ into a metaphysical claim that only Jesus can be Lord and Savior. In Hick’s way of thinking, Jesus is not actually the only Savior; but merely, the Savior of the individual believer. Hick treats the resurrection similarly, in that it was not fully an actual event, and that it makes no claims about Jesus’ divinity.
Nash shows that Hick’s idea of Jesus is less than that of Him being God. He holds Jesus in high regard, living in a remarkable consciousness of a relationship with God; but he denies that Jesus ever claimed or thought Himself to be God. Nash contends that Hick believes the church to have deified Jesus, and that, was never the intention of God. Hick argues that the New Testament is vague and ambiguous and that Jesus is largely unknown and unknowable. But, Nash counters by saying that Hick’s skepticism of New Testament reliability is hypocritical considering what Hick claims to know about the historical Jesus. In essence: How does he know so much about Jesus and what Jesus believed about Himself; unless the authentic Jesus is discernible in the Gospel record? This amounts to nothing more than wild assertions, with no relevant arguments to substantiate his claims.
Nash strikes at the heart of the problem, by citing Joseph Runzo’s attack on exclusivism as, “neither tolerable nor any longer intellectually honest in the context of our contemporary knowledge of other’s faiths” (Nash, 92). The issue here is that of tolerance. Pluralism accuses Christian exclusivism as being intolerant of any competitors, and the promoter of an elitist mentality that promotes much of the ills of society. Nash negates such assumptions by stating, “that I do not believe in all the things that you believe hardly makes me guilty of intolerants, imperialism, egotism, arbitrariness, or oppression” (Nash, 93). Therefore disagreement does not demand intolerance. “Nor does exclusivism obligate Christians to believe that everything taught by a non-Christian religion must be false” (Nash, 95).
It seems that Nash’s reason for writing is unveiled at the end of chapter six. “Someday we will all finally discover whether this or that religion, whether this or that theory about religion, is true or not. Hick cannot rule out the possibility that after death, during the process of eschatological verification, one religion will turn out to be true after all and one definitive concept of God will prove correct” (Nash, 99). If the Christian exclusivist discover that pluralism is accurate, nothing will be lost. But the price tag of pluralism is way too high. Pluralism is a gamble that is not worth the eternal risk.
Pluralism, (at least Hick’s view) has been demonstrated to be dogmatically speculative, with absolutely no basis in truth. Hick’s view of pluralism promotes annihilation after death; therefore religion is only retained while living on earth. If this be the case, there is no reason to hold to the tenants of any religion, unless those reasons are driven by ideas of self-improvement. Self-improvement can be found in many of the world’s great religions. There is peace to be had through transcendental meditation. There is self-purpose to be found in the jihad of Islam. But, none of the other great religions offer salvation from a fallen human nature (sin). Christianity is unique in this matter.
Christianity solves the sin problem by providing the Sin-bearer in the person of Jesus Christ. Without the atonement provided by Jesus, an eternal existence separated from God would be the fate of humanity.
Pluralism is a philosophy about religion, not a religion itself. Hick’s pluralism especially, is simply a rejection of the infallibility of Scripture. If Hick had held a high view of Scripture he would have never become a pluralist. It is the Scripture that demand Christian exclusivism. From the proto-evangelium, Old Testament typology and prophecy, to the gospel record and New Testament epistles; the Scripture demands that Jesus is the only Savior from eternal punishment. Further, it demands that any relationship with God must come through the person of Jesus Christ. These are exclusive statements; yet, they are inclusive in the sense that “whosoever” believes in Him will have eternal life.
It may not be politically correct in contemporary society; but it is a fact that differing competing claims cannot be absolutely true at the same time. Today’s society demands tolerance, inclusivity and relativism; however, these come with the price of rejecting the person and work of Jesus Christ. He is absolutely the Savior, regardless of the shifting sentiment of today’s pragmatic culture. If Jesus is Lord and Savior; then salvation originated with God. To be saved and reconciled to God cannot and did not originate with man; therefore, Jesus is the only Lord and Savior.
Nash, Ronald H. Is Jesus the Only Savior? Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994.
“Ronald H. Nash (May 27, 1936 – March 10, 2006) was a philosophy professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. Nash served as a professor for over 40 years, teaching and writing in the areas of worldview, apologetics, ethics, theology, and history. He is known for his advocacy of Austrian Economics, and his criticism of the evangelical left.”
Source: Reformed Theological Seminary – https://en.wikipedia.org
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