It’s not a stretch to suggest that many (most?) Americans today believe that this age is the first time a pluralist society has existed. At least they act as though that’s what they believe. It also seems that the conclusion drawn from this assumption is, therefore, that truth-claims and exclusive appeals to the truth of one’s own faith are outdated and bigoted concepts. I want to suggest that this modern-day chauvinism is grounded upon a false assumption. Alister McGrath points out that the “Christian proclamation has always taken place in a pluralist world, in competition with rival religious and intellectual convictions.”
In fact, many books in both the Old and New Testaments were written as polemics against the competing religions that Israel and the early Christian community faced daily. McGrath comments:
“Ancient Israel was acutely aware that its faith was not shared by its neighbors. The existence of other religions was simply a fact of life for the Israelites. It caused them no great difficulties, in that they believed that theirs happened to be right, whereas others were wrong. The same pattern emerges in the New Testament. From the first days of its existence, Christianity has recognized the existence of other religions and the challenge they posed. …Christianity was born amid religious pluralism…”
The early church faced the lions, became burning torches in Nero’s garden, and other such fates, because they actually believed the truth of what they were proclaiming. Therefore, they proclaimed that the Christian message was true and rejected false teachings. David Wells asks:
“Why were [the early Christians] so adamant about the preservation, appropriation, and propagation of this doctrinally framed teaching? The answer is that it is the ‘truth’ (2 Cor. 4:6; Eph. 1:13; Col. 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:15; Tit. 1:14; 1 Pet. 1:22; 2 Pet. 1:12; James 1:8; 3 John 4) It is only by coming to know this ‘truth’ that one comes to know God, for he can be known only through Christ who is the center and object of this teaching (Tit. 2:4; Heb. 10:26; 1 Pet. 1:22; cf. 2 Tim. 3:7).”
In The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments, C.H. Dodd “showed in a convincing way that the apostolic preachers all followed a broadly accepted outline of key facts concerning the life and ministry of Jesus Christ when they presented the gospel to unbelievers.” Furthermore, this content-filled faith which proclaimed that Jesus Christ alone was the truth, was proclaimed “in the midst of a world that was more religiously diverse than any we have known in the West until relatively recently.”
Is it not, therefore, arrogant to suppose that our modern-day culture is the first to deal with the issue of pluralism? It is important for Christians to maintain that “the faith once delivered” is a faith in what “really happened” in time-and-space history. It would be a destructive revision of history to suggest that early Christians were bringing to the world merely a subjective philosophy or worldview based on what they “wished” had happened. “It would be a remarkable example of cultural chauvinism if we supposed that our faith about what really happened, shaped as it is by our cultural perspectives, must necessarily displace that of the immediate witnesses.”
Yet, on what basis can Christians proclaim that they have “truth to tell?” On what foundation can Christian truth-claims be made and defended?
I’ll attempt to deal with that next time.
Grace and Truth,