Books Theology of religions

A “fulfillment” approach to other religions

The proper Christian approach and attitude to other religions and their adherents is not a new issue for Christianity. The church of the second century faced it squarely. But the ease of world travel, and the increasing diversity of the population in western nations, have made this a pressing issue for us in our time. Not all Christian theologians agree on the correct answers, and so we need a constructive conversation about this, within the church. To that end, a helpful contribution has been offered by two Roman Catholic theologians, Gavin D’ Costa and Paul Knitter, and one evangelical Protestant, Daniel Strange. These are leading voices on the issue, from their varying perspectives, so we should welcome their book, Only One Way? Three Christian Responses to the Uniqueness of Christ in a Pluralistic World.

The structure of Only One Way?

The authors have agreed upon  a good structure for their conversation. Each of them will speak to the same topics of philosophical presuppositions, theological presuppositions, creation, fall, God, Christ, Trinity, salvation, eschaton, dialogue, social just and mission. In Part 1 of the book, each contributor lays out his own position. In Part 2, each of them responds to the other two conversations partners. In Part 3, they each respond to the responses offered in Part 2. This provides one more round of conversation than commonly happens in “multiple view” books, and this is a helpful move.

Given the book’s structure, I envision doing 6 posts, but we’ll see how it goes once I get into the writing process. My current plan is to write a post expositing the contribution of one the authors, followed by another post in which I will describe the critique of the other two authors ad the response of the original presenter to that critique. Having described that conversation, I plan to throw my two-bits into the discussion. Of course, you are welcome to offer your own thoughts at any point in the process.

A new typology posted on my site

Previously, I had posted to the “Documents” section of my site, under “Tables etc.,” my 14 types of positions concerning the salvation of the unevangelized. One’s answer to that question naturally informs one’s approach to other religions, but they are not exactly the same question and so I have now posted a 5 part “typology of positions regarding other religions.” In typologies of this sort, an individual’s ideas sometimes draw on more than one of the types but one stands out most strongly.

D’ Costa’s fulfillment approach

We begin our consideration of this book and its issue, with the essay by Gavin D’ Costa, Professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Bristol, UK. I identify his approach as a “fulfillment theory,” for reasons which I expect will become readily apparent.


As a Roman Catholic theologian, it is D’ Costa’s job “to convey the teachings of the Catholic Church on the matter at hand” (3) but this is complex because, within the Church, there are differing interpretations of the authoritative texts. All of the Church’s teachings “have their authority from scripture,” but never as a matter of sola scriptura. Scripture, church, and tradition derive their authority ultimately from Christ, but none stands alone; they function in “an intimate reciprocity” (5). Having grown up in a religious pluralist society in the Asian community of Kenya, with Sikh, Hindu and Muslim neigbbors, D’ Costa approaches this subject as one wishing to learn to love, honor and serve our neighbor who may have a different religion than we do.

The development of Roman Catholic teaching on this issue

D’ Costa gives a fine review of the perspectives at work in the church from the time of the early fathers through to the Second Vatican Council. He observes that

until the twentieth century there has generally been what might be called a salvation pessimism about the salvation of non-Christians, that is, there is an assumption that because of sin non-Christians will be lost. Our recent history can be characterized by a move to a salvation optimism, which is always in danger of playing down the power of sin and exalting the power of human goodness (8).

What brought about the move to a more optimistic conviction, in D’ Costa’s reading of the church’s history, is

a new hermeneutical context which contextualizes this tradition; that well until the age of discovery in the fifteenth century it was generally assumed by most theologians that after the time of Christ everyone knew the gospel. If a person was not a Christian they had explicitly rejected the truth of God. This meant that Judaism and eventually Islam (from the seventh century on) were both seen as heretical and/or schismatic movements, rather than genuinely “other” as we tend to view these and other traditions today (10).

In the age of discovery, the church became aware of

the “new world” with millions of women and men who had never heard the gospel through no fault of their own. [This made it] difficult to rely on Thomas Aquinas’ (thirteenth-century) speculation that, were there to be a young boy brought up by wolves (and who thus had never heard the gospel), God’s justice would require that an angel would visit him or that he would have an interior revelation. The evidence was generally that angels had not visited non-Christian peoples en masse and private interior revelation in such circumstances is unrecorded. New thinking was required in a new context. But note the continuity of dogmatic focus on the necessity of Christ and the Church for salvation (10).

Five factors in the modern period “have shaped the Catholic Church’s formal teachings on our subject”: (1) the end of Christendom, (2) two world wars fought in the heart of Christian Europe, (3) the Holocaust, (4) the critique of missions from the viewpoint of secular modernity, and (5) “prophetic voices” within Catholicism that “saw the future as requiring a deeper assimilation to modernity” (10-12).

With all of this in the background, Vatican II reflected anew on the church’s approach to other religions and the remainder of D’ Costa’s chapter unpacks the teaching of that Council, and of the magisterium since then.

God, Christ, the Church, the fall, and salvation

The most important dogmatic document on this question is “The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church 16,” Lumen Gentium. In regard to non-Christian religions and non-religions, D’ Costa points out that the church’s earlier description of the necessity of the Church for salvation had been expressed in negative terms (no salvation outside the Church) but it is now stated positively: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or remain in it, could not be saved” (LG 14), so that it is a call to Catholic Christians to “truly hear the gospel message,” rather than a negative statement about non-Christians (15). The upshot is that the Church now affirms that those who “sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience” (LG 16) can be saved, and “all non-Christians who are saved are related to the Church” (17). How this relationship comes about is still being debated within the Roman Catholic Church.

Following the lead of Aquinas, the Church now asserts that non-Christians are “ordained in various ways, to the People of God” (17). Though not actually in the Church, they are in it potentially. Once again, what this means is hotly debated within the Church. But D’ Costa identifies three conclusions of his own: (1) It is clear that non-Christians can be saved, but since salvation involves “the beatific vision (the direct vision of God as Father, Son and Spirit),” D’ Costa argues “that salvation for the non-Christian is an eschatological event” (18). God knows this person to be saved, but “the epistemological reality is yet to happen” (19). Nonetheless, the same is true of most Christians, excepting Mary and the saints; hence the doctrine of purgatory. As to other religions, they “cannot be objectively true,” although they “may contain many elements of goodness, truth and beauty as well as reflect the light that enlightens all men and women” (19). (2) Salvation is deeply corporate and should not be spoken about only in an individualist manner. (3) Post-mortem salvation should be considered “along the route of the righteous before the coming of Christ,” with Christ’s descent into hell in mind. Many millions after Christ have not had the opportunity to hear the gospel, so they have not received Christ, but they may, through God’s Spirit and the promptings of grace, “have followed the dictates of their conscience and the good elements within their religions and thereby sought to follow the good at great personal cost” (20). Their future salvation is construed with this in view. In short, the Church is the means by which the grace of Christ is mediated, and it is not yet clear how this grace is mediated to those outside the Church, but that it is mediated to some is certain, so that the Church teaches that non-Christians may be saved.

The Holy Spirit and the religions

In the Council, and in John Paul II’s papal teachings, D’ Costa discerns six important points of pneumatology that bear on the question at hand. (1) The Holy Spirit has been at work since creation and before Christ’s incarnation, and has since been working also outside the visible Body of the Church (Gaudium et Spes, 22; Lumen Gentium, n. 16). The Spirit was active in preparing people for Christ before his coming and in applying the fruits of Christ after his coming. D’ Costa perceives the Spirit’s work among those who are ignorant of Christ now as analogous to his work before Christ, but also “of a different quality, given the ontological transformation of all creation in the resurrection” (24).

(2) “The Holy Spirit can be found in the hearts of non-Christian people and also in their values, cultures and religions” (24). (3) Since the Spirit is at work in other religions, “it can also call into question false practices and beliefs held by Christians who have failed to grasp their own faith properly” (24). (4) The Holy Spirit’s work “serves as a preparation for the gospel . . . and can only be understood in reference to Christ” (25). (5) The Holy Spirit “moves every ‘authentic prayer’ of those from other religions,” so that “there is no aspect of the non-Christian’s life that might be untouched by the Spirit, including of course their scripture” (25). Finally, (6) “It is through the Holy Spirit that every person is offered the ‘possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery [Christ]’ so that all may have the possibility of salvation” (25).

Dialogue and engagement with other religions

Hebrews 11:6 establishes that the “minimal condition for salvation” is “faith in a God who rewards good and punishes evil,” i.e., theism and morality (26). D’ Costa pursues the implications of this for Judaism (26-28), Islam (28), and the Asian traditions (28-31). The Church’s assessment allows for engagement with each particular religion, in hopefulness of finding points of contact “that can be harnessed towards working together for the common good, and it is also positive in terms of learning and listening to the ‘Other’ knowing that God’s Spirit may have already worked within these traditions” (31). None of this, however, displaces “the necessity of Christ’s call to total conversion to the triune God, to rejecting the depths of sin and violence and falling upon his forgiving grace and knowing that only in this grace is there salvation” (31). The upshot of this will be both rejoicing at what God’s Spirit is doing and respectful questioning and critical engagement with the features of other religions.

The meaning of other religions in God’s plan of salvation

Vatican II was silent about whether or not other religions can be viewed as salvific means, but subsequently the magisterium has clearly stated that other religions may be part of God’s plan as potentially preparatory for Christ, but they are not means of salvation alongside the Christian Church (32-33). They can contain elements of good, but they also contain idolatries.

Mission and inculturation

The church is called to be a light to all nations, but also to respect the dignity of every human person, including their freedom of conscience (36). It must plant Christian communities in every nation, incorporating into the Church anything that is good, true, and holy in the cultures of the world, which requires keen discernment. Inculturation must not become uncritical assimilation. In that process, as John Paul II stated, “the Church cannot abandon what she has gained from her inculturation in the world of Graeco-Latin thought. To reject this heritage would be to deny the providential plan of God who guides his Church down the paths of time and history” (Fides et Ratio, 72).

Social justice

From a Catholic perspective, the relationship between religions is “profoundly oriented towards the common good” (44), and this is one of the major reasons for interreligious dialogue. In seeking to advance human well-being in contexts where other religions are dominant, D’ Costa thinks that we should argue from within the other’s tradition whenever possible. But when this fails, dialectical argument against the religion is required. The next step may be to resort to international political pressure, but Christians must bear suffering rather than resort to violence.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

4 replies on “A “fulfillment” approach to other religions”

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Is it really possible to write that Paul Knitter is part of “Roman Catholic theologians” since his writings are not compatible with the magisterium of the catholic church ?

Baudouin, I know that there has been tension between Knitter and the Vatican, but he has not been silenced, to my knowledge. I agree that his pluralism doesn’t look like the church’s teaching, but has he been forbidden to publish his views or to teach theology in a Catholic institution?

I’ve not heard about such things ; when I wrote that comment, I was thinking to the declaration “Dominus Iesus” which is clearly not compatible with No other Name, the only book of Knitter I’ve read… So my question would be more for Knitter himself. If he doesn’t claim to be catholic, there is no reason why the Vatican would say anything.
Anyway, thank you for your articles!

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