Towards a Reformed Theology of Religion

What do we mean by religion? What are we talking about?

Religion is a conventional name for a category which includes groups of people whose beliefs and behaviour in relation to non-material life have comparable patterns.

Those comparable patterns usually but not always include, a founding figure or prophet (Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses), a sacred text or texts (sutras, Koran, Bible, Hebrew Bible, Bhagavagita), a community ritual (worship), a community place of worship (mosque, temple, church, meeting-house).

These similarities tell us something, but not not everything. Because things are held to belong in the same category because they have some characteristics in common does not mean that they have all characteristics in common.

The Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have problematic relationships and serious differences in theology; however different some of their understanding about Jesus and God, it is difficult to deny that they are each concerned with the same divine being, the creator of the universe.

Religions are complex phenomena, deeply intertwined with cultures, and diverse in themselves.

What do we mean by a "theology of religion"? Why is it scary?

A Christian theology of religion is a statement about how Christian teaching sees people who do not share our religion.

It can be scary because there is a lot of emotion attached to the subject, and assumptions about what Christians in general and Evangelicals in particular have believed and ought to believe. It is widely and erroneously believed that evangelicalism and the Bible consistently teach a hardline view and that this is the view that is required if you are to be a real committed Christian. Even though this does not bear the weight of historical investigation, there can be a high price to pay in some circles if you are thought to be a bit weak in this area.

For Christians we will be guided by biblical stories, and particular by the New Testament. We may also wish to be informed by those who have lived and witnessed as Christians in non-Christian environments, whether secular, ideological, or of another religion. We may be aware that different generations and cultures see this differently because of their different historical experiences and contexts. Those who live in a situation of persecution will see it differently from those in places where faith communities co-exist satisfactorily together.

For Luther and Calvin the religious others were essentially two groups, Catholics and Muslims. Catholics were political and even personal enemies. They had virtually no experience of Islam except that its armies were threatening Vienna. Luther saw the armies of Islam as the rod of the Lord sent to punish Christians. I am sure it made a great sermon, and it is a theological point worth pondering, but it is hardly a thoughtful theological reflection on how Christians should actually understand what Islam was about.

This is an issue for other religions as well as ourselves. A range of attitudes towards Christians and to other Muslims is evident within Islam. There is a human need for identity and boundaries which requires that we be able to differentiate between traditions as well as acknowledge commonalities. (This is an issue in evangelism and conversion - some converts are helped by acknowledging the continuities between their original religion and culture and the one they have converted in to; others are confused by that and need a clear sense of which is which. Patterns of dress, prayer, food etc which may be theologically neutral, and missiologically quite acceptable, may be unhelpful for some converts.

These arguments have been worked through in relation to the writings of Phil Parshall who has advocated a continuity of Islamic practices for converts. The difficulty is that while this is an option which can be offered, it is not for the missionary or other external body to decide what is appropriate in the context. What it may be helpful is for the missionary to indicate that different generations in a new church may well have very different attitudes. What for first generation converts is too close to the old faith (and old practices which quite apart from the religion itself pointed away from Christ, ie were sinful); may be not simply spiritually neutral for the next generation, but something they may wish to reclaim as an appropriate cultural vehicle for living out their Christian faith.

A typology of attitudes as exclusive, inclusive or pluralistic has been widely used, despite some logical issues with the categories depending on how they are defined. The mentalities they refer to are readily recognisable - those who exclude all who do not meet the criteria for salvation, those who want to include people generally in God's salvation, and those who don't really care too much how or if God does it.

The difficulty with this framework is that it is possible to have pluralist beliefs with an exclusivist attitude. Exclusivists tend to be those who say no one can be saved without a conscious knowledge of Jesus as Saviour. Those who believe salvation can only be through Christ, can be exclusivist if they they say that a conversion experience is essential in order for God to accept  a person, or inclusivist if people may be accepted without actually knowing they are saved.

People worry about what this does to preaching, but the command to spread the world stands regardless.

What sort of values do we need to bring to this?

Being fair beyond being nasty and beyond being nice - this is not about clever rhetoric, but careful speech may be required (eg dialogue in 8th century in Moffett). Being fair means balancing religion as text and religion as life in community, it means comparing apples with apples (not the other's worst practices with your own best ideals), it means respect and honesty. It usually means parking your sense of humour at the door - and certainly in any formal religious or dialogue situation. Jews and Catholics make jokes about religion. Muslims almost never ever (but look up "Little mosque on the Prairie" on YouTube - designed to show that North American Muslims at least do know how to be funny).

Being clear about one's own beliefs and charitable towards others are not alternatives. There is a widespread notion that the only way to have a proper religious discussion is not to believe in anything. I disagree. The way to have a proper religious discussion is to respect and listen to others and be able to state your own beliefs at an appropriate time and place. Respect is not the same as agreement. Those who make progress in dialogue listen carefully, engage fairly, and share appropriately. Those who are very nice about it all may be great to have to the room but may not be able to contribute hugely to the discussion

Be clear about what we may understand about our responsibility and what we do not comprehend about God's bigger picture. We need to know what we are meant to do. I think we also need to be careful about telling God what he cannot do. David Bosch - as Christians we can only point to salvation through Jesus Christ, but we cannot limit the saving power of God.

The direction are people are moving in is important - is it towards God as revealed in Jesus or is it in a different direction? I think we need to see syncretism as part of conversion and not its enemy (old wineskins may be broken, but they help us know what a wineskin looks like and what it is for) and conversion is ongoing.

There is no substitute for knowing someone personally and a community from first-hand experience.

Should we pray together?

I think it is difficult to be consistent. A lot depends on the different hermeneutical communities involved and how they may interpret what is going on, and how much those considerations matter. Some people of very considerable graciousness and hospitality in relation to Muslims would draw the line at sharing prayers; others would say yes in some circumstances it is completely appropriate. I think it is important not to surprise any of the stakeholders / constituencies in such an event and stick to common ground.

If you feel that in relation to the particular event (say for peace, or the need for help to cope with a disaster or tragedy) and with those who see themselves as addressing the same God (even if their understanding of what God is like and how God is revealed is different) who are essentially looking in the same direction for Divine help, then it should be possible. But if you are accountable to someone - and all of us are - better talk it through with them as well.

Should we read the bible together?

Absolutely. Christians may learn something. A Muslim world view is closer to that of the Bible than that of many Westerners. Inter-textual hermeneutics is a growing field. In UK Muslims can and do teach Christianity in Religious Education in Schools. We need to understand how others read "our" stories - they may see things we have missed!

A Reformed Theology of Religions

Some ideas:

1. It is appropriate to start with God, and God's sovereignty. Our Trinitarian faith also requires that we acknowledge Jesus as saviour potentially for all, and God's Spirit as working in all sorts of places in ways we do not know.

2. Our theologies of sovereignty and predestination in their various forms allow God's sovereignty to work outside of those capable of making a rational informed choice, and even outside of the church.

3. Our understanding of mission requires us to preach the gospel by whatever means regardless.

4. Biblical study matters. God's concern is with the whole of creation. There are biblical examples of positive attitudes towards those outside the community of Israel, both in terms of individuals (Ruth, the pagans in Jonah) and Scriptures (sections of Proverbs) which are integrated into the canonical tradition. Elijah and the prophets of Baal is not the only model of religious encounter in the Bible, or even the Old Testament. The Bible as a whole has a theme of the seeking alien whose faith is in contrast to that of those who are keepers of the covenant.

5. The writers of the Westminster Confession were addressing the needs of 17th century Britain, they were not addressing these issues.

John Roxborogh


David Bosch

Irving Hexam

Hendrik Kraemer



Second Vatican Council: Nostra aetate, Declaration on the relation of the church to non-Christian religions

Eric Sharpe


Religious Studies


WCC: inter-religious dialogue and cooperation; inter-religious dialogue; guidelines.


Other authors of interest include: Harold Netland, John Sanders, Gavin D'Costa, Harold Netland, Daniel Strange.