Books Theology of religions

D’ Costa’s critique of Strange’s subversive fulfilment interpretation of other religions

Dialogue between Gavin D’Costa and Daniel Strange

D’Costa’s response to Strange’s position

Gavin D’Costa begins his response to Daniel Strange’s subversive fulfilment approach by enumerating numerous foundational points of agreement, but he is conscious of a Calvinist-Catholic divide that is daunting (145-46). Among points of difference which D’Costa attributes to this divide are:

  • Dan’s rejection of the concept of “invincible ignorance,” which arose within Catholic theology in the 16th century and was particularly emphasized in the 19th, and which is also affirmed by some Protestants.
  • the role of religion, given Dan’s assertion that non-Christian religions are always incommensurable with Christianity (149). On this point, however, D’Costa discerns “an internal dissonance in Dan’s position,” because (1) Dan allows for non-salvific, common grace, activity by the Holy Spirit within other religions, and (2) Dan grants the validity of “Bavinck’s notion of the ‘inflow of special revelation.’” Given the latter, D’Costa proposes that two points are thereby conceded, which may ndicate “a chink in what appears an invulnerable position on ‘religions’” (149). First, since other religions are capable of mediating “special  revelation,” “there is the possibility of knowing the one true God within that religion,” which is a direction taken by the Roman Catholic Church (150). So, the person between a person and their tradition should not be pushed as hard as Dan does. Second, “if Dan has conceded the possibility of ‘special revelation’, why is he so reticent to understand the praeparatio evangelica more dialectically?” (150).

D’Costa identifies one thing which he needs “to chew on” because he sees it as an “unresolved question” within Catholic theology. He wonders: “Could it be that the Spirit’s operation in other religions is best understood as common grace and not in any way salvific?” (151). In Dominum et Vivificantem, 53, John Paul II observed that Vatican II acknowledged the Holy Spirit’s activity “outside the visible body of the Church.” It asserted that, “since Christ died for all, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this Paschal Mystery.’ (Gaudium et Spes, 22; Lumen Gentium, n. 16.)”

To D’Costa this possibility should entail, in some sense, “a supernatural and special revelation in non-Christian religions.” But Vatican II and later magisterial teachings, culminating in Dominus Iesus, ruled this out. D’Costa has

“tried to resolve this tension through the solution of a post-mortem encounter with Christ, which keeps three sides of this tension intact: some non-Christians can be saved even if they die as non-Christians; while acknowledging the necessity of confessing faith in the triune God to enjoy the fullness of salvation; while acknowledging that God may be inchoately related to within a non-Christian religion. This would mean that the Catholic position can with Dan hold that the Spirit is operating in terms of common grace, but also proleptically, in terms of saving grace” (152).

Strange’s re-response to D’Costa

Dan acknowledges the difficulty of dialogue across the traditional differences between his Reformed Protestantism and D’Costa’s Roman Catholicism, but he replies to D’Costa’s concerns as best he can.

To D’Costa’s objections to the monergistic understanding of salvation which is part of Dan’s Reformed identity, Dan makes a few points of clarification.

  • He appreciates that D’Costa has linked together the doctrines of total depravity, predestination and “limited atonement,” because they have a “strong intra-systematic coherence,” growing out of their biblical warrant. In particular, however, Dan emphasizes that these doctrines should be understood positively, rather than in the negative way D’Costa has portrayed them. In particular, with regard to “limited atonement,” Dan describes it as “the positive and wonderful affirmation . . . that Christ’s work does actually procure salvation,” and he quotes a lengthy passage from John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied (63-64).
  • Calvinism’s “soteriological doctrines of grace are a microcosm of the larger Reformed macrocosm” of the belief that God is sovereign everywhere (215-16). By contrast, Dan suggests that D’Costa’s libertarian understanding of human freedom “is philosophically far more problematic and ‘tragic,’” because it leaves us wondering “whether there is something/someone more ultimate than God. Acts done with incompatibilist freedom are “arbitrary and random rather than morally responsible” (216-17).
  • In regard to D’Costa’s concerns about Dan’ rejection of the concept of “invincible ignorance, and differences between them regarding pre-Christian salvation and the preparatory nature of religions, Dan refers readers back to his earlier response to D’Costa’s constructive essay (see my post on that conversation). But he adds further clarification now, “by resuscitating the seemingly dead topic of the origin  and history of religion, as well as the prisca theologia tradition,” to which he and D’Costa have both referred previously (117).
    • Assuming a monogenetic understanding of human origins, Dan posits “a period at the beginning of human history from Adam to Abraham, when the whole of humanity was privileged to be in proximity of redemptive revelation, for example the protoevangelium of Genesis 3.15” (217). The history of human religion can be viewed as the process of response to that revelation, “both its preservation and degeneration, its progress and regress” (218). The problem with non-Christian religions is that they always assimilate God’s revelation into an idolatrous structure (218), and the individuals within those religious frameworks respond only in an idolatrous way (220). “God may use such religions to ‘teach’, ‘edify’ and even ‘rebuke’ God’s Church (220), and God’s Spirit works non-salvifically in other religions, “restraining sin and exciting to a civic ‘goodness’” (221). But this work of God is only preparatory to the gospel; it serves only to judge, never to save, without the gospel (221).

My reflections on the conversation between Strange and D’Costa

An over-emphasis on the Catholic-Calvinist gap

I was a bit frustrated that D’Costa attributed so much of his difference from Dan to the divide between Catholic and Calvinist understandings. I share Dan’s Reformed Protestant location, but there are numerous points at which my understanding is closer to D’Costa’s than to Dan’s, yet my own position represents a line of interpretation within the Reformed tradition. Consequently, I’m sorry that D’Costa did not have the opportunity to discuss these matters with a Reformed theologian who is soteriologically accessibilist (rather than gospel exclusivist), and who regards religions (including Christianity) with more ambiguity. More encouragingly, I endorse D’Costa’s sense that Dan’s own appropriation of J. H. Bavinck’s perspective on the religions is in unresolved tension with Dan’s completely negative assessment of the situation of people within other religions.

In regard to “limited atonement,” it is worth reiterating here that the “single intent” understanding of the atonement which Dan affirms, in his citation from John Murray, stands alongside the “double intent” understanding (which I have affirmed), within the Reformed tradition. This would probably not alleviate D’Costa’s concern completely, because it shares Murray’s (and Dan’s) affirmation that a major intention of God in Christ’s atoning work was the effective salvation of the elect. But I think that a recognition of wider gracious intentions for all human beings, as grounded in Christ’s atoning work, could mitigate D’Costa’s negative response somewhat. Dan’s quote from Murray rightly speaks of the effectiveness of Christ’s redemption, but it would be misleading not to couple it with the Spirit’s effectual calling of the elect, which makes Christ’s universally sufficient work effective through its appropriation by faith.

Universal salvific revelation

Like D’Costa, I am convinced that potentially saving revelation is universally accessible. In my previous interaction with D’Costa’s essay, I explained my dissatisfaction with his emphasis on post-mortem access to saving revelation, and I remain convinced that my own proposal of an at-death meeting with Christ would serve D’Costa’s purpose even better than the concept of post-mortem evangelism. As an expression of “particular revelation accessibilism,” one could posit that salvation does not take place until that at-death encounter. For reasons I have enunciated elsewhere, however, I am more inclined to affirm that God gives saving faith to some to whom he gives revelation less explicit than the gospel, but that it is particular, even though its particularity may be subjective in form (the Spirit’s work of illuminating and enabling), rather than as objective supplement to universal revelation. (Here, however, I heartily endorse Dan’s own reasons for asserting that particular objective revelation is very widely available, if only through the communal memory of primitive revelation.)

With regard to D’Costa’s emphasis on post-mortem evangelism and salvation, I think i most consonant with Scripture’s description of salvation to see the faith response to revelation which comes about through this work of God as saving, during the person’s life, while acknowledging that a great step forward is made in understanding what God has done, at the moment a person meets Christ.

In speaking about the situations of people before and after Christ, Dan writes:

“Contrary to Gavin, I do not believe there to be a valid analogy between those who, by the regenerating Spirit, responded to God faithfully according to the redemptive revelation given to them at their time in redemptive history (Israel and those engrafted into Israel), and those who respond to God idolatrously with the revelation they have been given in nature and history” (220).

This statement appears in Dan’s re-response, and so there was no opportunity for come back from D’Costa. Speaking for myself, however, I must say that I think that Dan has framed the situation very badly. I agree (and I expect D’Costa would too) that “those who respond to God idolatrously with the revelation they have been given in nature and history” are certainly not saved. The problem is that Dan’s gospel exclusivist perspective does not allow for the possibility that God enables some people not to continue in their idolatrous response to universal revelation. Such people, by the Spirit’s enablement, no longer suppress the truth in unrighteousness, but they acknowledge that God is the Creator of all things, and they give God thanks.

The root problem with Dan’s perspective is the one I identified in my paper for ETS last November (see this earlier post and that paper). Like other gospel exclusivists, he assumes that one must have knowledge of the latest covenantal revelation in order to exercise saving faith. I propose that a better reading of Scripture shows us that God holds people accountable only for the revelation they have received (as Dan also believes, concerning judgment) but that the faith which God requires for appropriation of Christ’s atoning work has always been defined by God in terms of that revelation. Everyone lives in some covenantal relationship with God (even if that is only the creational covenant); people live under the terms of the covenant related to the revelation they have received, and saving faith is therefore always possible, provided the Holy Spirit does the inner work necessary to elicit the faith response appropriate to the divine revelation God has made available to a particular individual.

The ambiguity of all religions

I think that Dan has expressed very clearly the problem of non-Christian religions, namely, their idolatrous suppression of God’s revelation. I appreciate Dan’s recognition that God also works graciously within the context of those religions, and I concur that none of these religions, as institutions, ever becomes an acceptable response to God’s self-revelation. The overall religious construct is always fundamentally idolatrous. I do not believe that God ever works in other religions with the intention of raising them up as religious structures parallel to the covenant people (first Israel and now the Church). So, when I speak of people responding to God’s revelation with a faith that pleases God, I am not claiming that the religions within which they have grown up are God’s means to their salvation. Rather, I believe that God graciously gives saving faith to some people, within the context of their religions. God may even use in a person’s life a truth of revelation which that person’s religion has appropriated rather than suppressed.

I referred earlier to the legitimacy of D’Costa’s concern that there is an unresolved tension within Dan’s own position, particularly because of the use he makes of the work of Bavinck. What I am suggesting now is that, if Dan followed through to its proper end his own affirmation of ambiguity in the responses to revelation that occur within other religions, his final assessment of other religions would be less totally negative. Yes, the final shape of those religions is idolatrous, but I don’t think that Dan allows sufficiently for God to work in the lives of individuals within those frameworks, and to do so, on occasion, in connection with the instances of positive affirmation of God’s truth, those aspects of the life and teaching of other religions which foster humility, and even learning, on the part of us who are Christians. I emphasize that this is never because God has revealed, within the context of his work among those religions, truths which he has not revealed to his covenantal people in the canonical scriptures, but because they have sometimes appropriated revealed truth also known to us, but which we have suppressed.

That leads me to a final concern, the dangerous triumphalism that could ensue from Dan’s failure to recognize (or at least to state) that Christianity, like other religions, is also an ambiguous response to God’s revelation. Christianity has a great advantage over all other religions, in that it has been blessed with the fullest revelation of God, in Christ and the Scriptures which bring him to us. But it is problematic to speak only of other religions as idolatrous, leaving unobserved the ambiguity of the response to God’s revelation that exists also within Christianity. We are all prone to idolatry, and expressions of the Christian religion that arise from the collective response to God’s revelation, by a community of Christians, are often idolatrous. I have occasionally pointed out to fellow Christians, with grief, that the Christian church often keeps people from God rather than drawing them to him. Sometimes, God brings people to a saving relationship with himself in spite of rather than through the Christian churches within which Christians endeavor to worship God. The letters of Christ to 7 first-century churches in Asia Minor, sent through revelation to John, are a sobering reminder to us that all religious communities, like all individuals, are perpetually involved in a process of response to God that involves both suppression and appropriation of God’s revelation. Having been so greatly blessed, we will be more severely judged. But, praise God, the grace of God continues to work in and through the Christian church, because God has chosen this as his primary instrument within the world, in this stage of human history.

General comments on the book

In general, this is a valuable book. The three authors are all excellent representatives of the positions they put forward and the discussion between them is respectful, but forthright, so that it further clarifies the issues and helps readers toward better informed conclusions. The issue of how Christians and Christian churches should relate to other religions and their adherents is not a new one, but it has possibly never been as important as it is now. This makes the book timely, and I hope that it will be widely read and discussed by Christians concerned about the questions with which it deals.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5. Part 6.



By Terrance Tiessen

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

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