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Knitter’s critique of Strange’s subversive fulfilment interpretation of other religions

Dialogue between Paul Knitter and Daniel Strange

The largest distance between perspectives in this book exists between Paul Knitter’s unitive pluralist approach and Daniel Strange’s subversive fulfilment approach, so we will begin with their conversation and then take up D`Costa`s critique in another post.


Knitter’s response to Strange

Paul Knitter chose to focus on what he believes are dangers in Dan’s arguments, namely, the elements that can be harmful – to “the individual Christian who endorses them, to the Christian Church that acts on them, and to other religious believers who suffer the effects of them” (161). Knitter identifies four such dangers:

  • In regard to Dan’s theological method, there is a danger of biblical idolatry and fideism. Dan “seems to assert an identification of the transcendent, ultimately ineffable God with a finite book” (161). This derives from “a denigration of our human nature and an expulsion of any revelatory presence of the Divine in nature or in human life” (162).
  • Dan’s view of God is considered dangerously patriarchal. His “self-contained ontological Trinity” (115) sounds to Knitter “a bit like divine narcissism” (163). God is wrathful and jealous and “bears striking resemblance to a stereotypical patriarchal father” (163-64).
  • A danger of Christomonism is perceived in Dan’s Christology. Dan’s affirmation of a substitutionary satisfaction theory is problematic for Knitter because he sees in it a contradiction between God’s wrath and his love. But even more troubling is that this theory “limits salvation only to Jesus,” with the consequence that “Jesus Christ becomes all of God there is’ (164). Knitter thinks it more accurate to say that “Jesus defines God” than that Jesus confines God (165).
  • Finally there is a danger of imperialism in Dan’s view of religions and mission, because his Christomonism moves to “religio-monism;” “only one true saviour means only one true religion” and the picture of followers of other faiths is “impossible to reconcile with the most fundamental law of Christianity”: the love of our neighbors as ourselves (165). “When Dan’s general judgment and attitude about the utter worthlessness of other religions and their cultures is translated into the attitude and actions of Christian missionaries and of Christian soldiers and politicians, we open the door to all kinds of cultural and political imperialism” (166). Knitter acknowledges that Dan is sincere “when he warns against ‘an attitude of self-righteous superiority’ (p. 44),” but he doesn’t see how Dan’s theology “allows him to take his own warning seriously” (166).

Daniel Strange’s response to Knitter’s critique

Dan is disappointed with Knitter’s focus on possible dangers in his position rather than on perceived biblical inconsistencies, because Dan thinks this critique lacks the force to challenge seriously the presuppositions on which his argument is constructed (222). But Dan does attempt to demonstrate that the dangers Knitter discerns are invalid.

  • Dan’s doctrine of Scripture is not bibliolatry, it is an affirmation of divine inspiration. Furthermore, Dan wonders what authority informs Knitter’s judgment about whether or not something is idolatrous (223), given Knitter’s own pluralism.
  • To the charge of fideism, Dan pleads not guilty, and he finds the charge rather ironic, since his tradition is so often criticized as rationalistic. Two features in Dan’s presuppositional epistemology inform what Knitter mistakenly calls “fideism”: (1)” the role and important of presuppositions and the ‘all-encompassing grids’ that are the worldviews through which we interpret the world and decide what counts for evidence and what does not,” and (2) Dan does not deny that revelation or knowledge of God exists outside of the Bible, but he believes that all men and women suppress that truth and exchange it for idolatry, unless God graciously gives new sight and new light, “by his Spirit in the message of the gospel” (225).
  • Dan’s doctrines of God and Christ are defended as descriptions divinely revealed in the Bible, where Yahweh reveals himself as “both absolute and personal, the self-contained ontological Trinity (226).
  • Concerning Knitter’s concerns about Dan’s portrait of God as jealous and angry, Dan proposes that Knitter has forgotten the analogous nature of biblical language (226).
  • As to the concerns about patriarchalism in Dan’s portrait of God, Dan proposes that the preponderance of the masculine imagery for God in Scripture is masculine “not arbitrarily or simply ‘culturally’ but for important theological reasons concerning God’s authority and covenantal headship” (226).
  • The doctrine of penal substitution, says Dan, does not portray any trinitarian division in the cross, and the Father’s love is the motivation behind his sending the Son to die, not the consequence of the Son’s death. Both the biblical doctrines of God’s wrath and of his live are complex, “having different objects and both universal and particular aspects” (227).
  • Finally, the claims that believing in the exclusivity of Christ for salvation and that non-Christian religions are idolatrous neither excuse nor invite a harmful imperialism which is contrary to love of our neighbours, although instances of harmful imperialism can certainly be identified within the history of the church (227-28). It is love that motivates Christians to proclaim Christ to those whom they believe are without hope if they do not receive such revelation.

     My reflections on the dialogue between Knitter and Strange

On the divide between the perspective of these two theologians of religion, my own position clearly lies at Strange’s end of the spectrum, so I expect Knitter to find my own soteriology and theology of religion objectionable for some of the same reasons that he deems Dan’s view dangerous. But there are two ways in which my Reformed Protestant understanding differs from Dan’s, and I think that both of these would make my position look less dangerous to Knitter than Dan’s does. I will expand on them when I take up the conversation between D’Costa and Strange in my final post on this book.

Our first difference lies in my accessibilist soteriology, and that difference came to mind particularly as I read Dan’s acknowledgment that divine revelation and knowledge of God exists outside of the Bible. I agree with Dan that all people, as sinners, need new sight which God graciously gives by his Spirit (225). In connection with every form of divine revelation, divine illumination is necessary for the apprehension of God’s truth in saving faith. But Dan is a clear proponent of the view whose error I endeavored to expose in my ETS paper last November. Dan’s gospel exclusivism presents a framework in which one must know the latest covenantal revelation to be saved. Ignorance of that revelation is fatal, even if one’s faith would have been saving in a previous time. I expect that Knitter would be less troubled by my own belief that God gives everyone revelation which is sufficient to save, provided one responds with the faith appropriate to that particular revelation.

The second difference between Dan’s position and mine shows up in our theology of religion. Knitter’s concern about a dangerous imperialism in Dan’s “attitude about the utter worthlessness of other religions and their cultures” would be significantly mitigated, I think, if Dan acknowledged  that Christianity is also prone to idolatry and that, like all other human religious constructs, it too is an ambiguous response to divine revelation in which revealed truth is suppressed and distorted as well as appropriated and faithfully represented. Again, I will have more to say about this when I join the conversation between D’Costa and Strange, but I share some of Knitter’s concern about triumphalism in Dan’s portrayal of Christianity, deriving both from too negative a view of the religious expressions found within other religions, and from too positive a view of Christianity as a human religious construct.

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



By Terrance Tiessen

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

2 replies on “Knitter’s critique of Strange’s subversive fulfilment interpretation of other religions”

A note on Strange’s perceived triumphalism, and Knitter’s fear of same. Knitter’s position is as imperialistic whenb applied as anything he says he is afraid of. If one cannot assert the uniqueness of Jesus the Messiah without being triumphalist-imperialistic, then the one forbidding the assertion exercises the same quality being condemned. I like a lot of Knitter’s work, but here (if you have described him accurately) he simply goes too far. That love requires a simple acceptance of different options, for example, depends on a uniquely Western view of love and tolerance not shared by many other parts of the world. I am not an exclusivist (as I think you know), but I think Knitter needs to look deeper in order to state difficulties in Strange’s position.

You make a good point Daryl. From descriptions I have seen of D. A. Carson’s new book on the intolerance of tolerance, I gather that he shares your concern. I have often thought of it in terms of the illiberalism of so-called liberalism. Thanks.

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