a report live-blogged by Andy Naselli

This evening is part of the annual Trinity Debates, “a series of discussions on challenging issues related to the church, theology, and the Christian life.”

Netland Knitter

Harold Netland vs. Paul Knitter


Here’s how the Henry Center has advertised this debate:

  • John 3:16 is undoubtedly among the most famous Bible passages of all time: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” But what happens to those who do not believe in Jesus? Is belief in the person and work of Jesus the only way to please God and thereby gain everlasting life? Or might Christians allow for the possibility that other pathways can lead to gaining God’s favor as well? What happens to people who haven’t heard the Gospel of Christ, who haven’t understood it, or who, for whatever reason, have chosen to pursue God from one of the many other (explicitly non – Christian) religious alternatives?
  • Drs. Harold Netland and Paul Knitter will take part in the annual Trinity Debates by probing these and other questions. Formally, the evening will be a debate over the question, “Can a Christian be a Religious Pluralist?” This will be a passionate and engaging dialogue between two of Christendom’s most notable thinkers on the right relationship of Christianity to other religions.
    • Paul Knitter is the Paul Tillich Chair of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, and author of numerous books, including No Other Name? (NY: Orbis Books, 1985; now on its 11th printing). He will be arguing the “yes” part of the debate—a Christian can be religious pluralist.
    • Harold Netland is Professor of Philosophy of Religion and Intercultural Studies and Naomi A. Fausch Chair of Missions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of Encountering Religious Pluralism (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001) and will be arguing the “no” side of the debate—a Christian cannot be a religious pluralist.

The debate begins at 7 PM EST, and as I’m writing this at 6:50 PM, this place is buzzing. We’re in a large classroom at TEDS that is supposed to hold 120 people, but the room is already filled way beyond capacity. I have never seen this classroom so packed! There are a lot of students here from both Trinity’s seminary and university. I just talked to the debate’s moderator, Chris Firestone, and Dr. Knitter, confirming that the debate will have three rounds and end with Q & A.

Round 1: Opening Statements (15 min. each)

The following opening statements are lightly edited manuscripts that Netland and Knitter prepared for this debate. They are not verbatim transcripts.

Knitter’s Opening Statement

Knitter expressed appreciation for Trinity’s hosting this, and he thinks we need more inter-Christian discussion. He joked that he doesn’t feel like he has a home team advantage at Trinity!

1. Defining Terms

In my theological studies at the Gregorian University in Rome, way back in the early 60s, we walked the path of theology – that is, of “faith seeking understanding” – by way of theses. Each step was a carefully crafted thesis – a truth claim that consisted, first, of a definition of terms and then a line-up of proofs from three sources: scripture, tradition, and reason. Old Roman that I am, I think I’ll follow pretty much the same path with you all here tonight.

My thesis is simple: One can be both a Christian and a pluralist at the same time. The first step in laying out this thesis will be a “definitio terminorum” – a definition of terms. The intent of this step is not to achieve agreement on these terms (though I hope that might be possible) but to enable you to understand what I am saying and what I am trying to argue. You’ll know “where I’m coming from,” and thus will be better able to assess where I am trying to go.

The terms in my thesis are basically two: Christian and pluralist.

1.1. Christian

What are the necessary ingredients for being able to define oneself as a Christian? I’ve summarized them under four headings.

1.1.1. Ortho-praxic

The primary, though certainly not the only, defining characteristic of anyone who calls herself a Christian is orthopraxic. Christian identity is first of all a matter of “right acting.” There are other necessary marks of a Christian, but this one comes first.

The reality of Christian faith stands or falls mainly on how one acts, not on what one says or believes (though belief is also essential). “They will know we are Christians” not by our creed but by our love. What counts most for Christian identity and integrity is not confession, but discipleship—not knowing but doing.

Still, I want to make it clear that knowing, though its role is subordinate to doing, plays an absolutely essential role in Christian identity. This brings me to the second characteristic of being a Christian.

1.1.2. Christomorphic

A praxis, or way of acting and being in the world, is Christian because, in terminology suggested by David Tracy, it is Christomorphic (preferred to “Christocentric”)—formed, molded, guided by the Gospel vision and the actual presence of the resurrected Jesus the Christ. What Jesus preached, who Jesus was—as understood by the early community of Jesus followers and recorded in the New Testament—provides the norms for how Christians seek to act in and transform this world.

Such Christomorphic praxis is based on Christological truth claims about Jesus—claims embodied in Christian doctrine about Jesus as Son of God and Savior of the world.

The Christian confidence that to live Christ-like lives in this world is meaningful and imperative is rooted in their claims that Jesus is indeed Son of God and Savior of the world—the very reality and revelation of how God seeks to be present in and bring the world to well-being or salus—salvation.

Christians therefore are people who not only act like Christ; they also make extravagant claims about who he was and is.

1.1.3. Biblical

It follows that to be a Christian requires one to draw one’s understanding of who this Jesus of Nazareth is from the witness of the early community of Jesus, a witness that is embodied in the canon of the New Testament. Christians are essentially biblical people. To hold to something that flat-out contradicts the witness of the New Testament would nullify one’s membership card in the Christian community.

But I must add here that in order to follow the message about Jesus in the New Testament, it is necessary not only to ask “what the text meant.” One must also ask “what the text means.” God’s biblical word, I am saying, must not simply be read; it must be interpreted. What it meant must be translated into what it means.

1.1.4. Kerygmatic: missionary

Finally, I would add a further essential quality to the definition of a Christian. The truth and the saving presence of Jesus the Christ can never be only a truth “for me,” or “for us.” It is also a truth for others, indeed for all people, of all times. It is a truth that must be shared, communicated, and proclaimed.

Christians, in other words, are essentially missionaries (a word not looked upon positively in liberal circles). The reason we assemble in Christian community is to go forth from that community—“Ad Gentes” as the Second Vatican Council put it—to the nations.

1.2. Pluralist

1.2.1. Pluralists affirm diversity as “de jure” not just “de facto.”

A pluralist is someone who has come to suspect that the plurality or diversity of religions is not going to go away. Pluralists recognize that the diversity of religions, like the glory owed to God in a familiar Catholic prayer, is “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.” And they respond, Amen!

To put it more philosophically, for pluralists, the manyness of religions is not just de facto (the way things are) but de jure (the way they need to be). Theologically, pluralists affirm that the diversity of religions is “God’s will,” something that fits into the economy of salvation.

1.2.2. Pluralists affirm mutuality as the “hoped-for fruit” of diversity.

The main concern of pluralists (at least for most of them) is not pluralism. It’s not simply to affirm and preserve the diversity of religions. Rather, it’s to promote the mutuality of religions. (That’s why I prefer to call myself a mutualist rather than a pluralist.)

This means that pluralists are committed not simply to the diversity of religions but to the dialogue of religions. They affirm pluralism in order to promote dialogue. Dialogue is the intended, hoped-for, fruit of pluralism.

Pluralists, one might say, feel that dialogue is a moral imperative. An authentic, life-giving, justice-building dialogue among religions (and among nations) is a kind of ethical summum bonum – “highest good” that must be pursued. Anything that prevents such a dialogue is suspect.

1.2.3. Pluralists affirm the relativity of all truth claims.

Pluralists recognize the relativity of all truth claims, including the relativity of the just-stated truth claim! This does not mean that, ontologically, they deny the reality of “absolute truth.” They just harbor inextricable doubts that absolute truth can be articulated and known absolutely by human beings.

Please note here: the relativity of truth-claims does not mean the relativism of truth-claims. Just because it is impossible for anyone to know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” does not mean that we cannot affirm the “real truth, the binding truth, and the truth for which we are ready to give our lives.”

Or to put it more in terms of our debate, to propose that many religions are true does not mean that all religions are true. “Many” does not mean “any.”

And here I might add that for many pluralists (such as John Hick and myself), the criteria for sorting out the “many” from the “any” are primarily (though not exclusively) a matter of orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy—ethics, rather than doctrine.

2. Foundations for an Affirmative Response

2.1. Orthopraxic

Orthopraxis (committed discipleship) requires that Jesus be truly Son of God and Savior, but not the only Son of God and Savior. Speaking from the psychology of discipleship and Christian faith, I suggest that the ability to commit ourselves to a life of orthopraxic following of Jesus requires that we know he is truly Son of God and Savior; it does not require that we know he is only Son of God and Savior.

Using the analogy of marriage, in order to make a decision to marry someone, we have to have reliable assurance that s/he truly possesses the qualities of honesty, integrity, goodness, etc that we feel are essential to a committed relationship; we do not have to know that s/he is the only man or woman who possesses such qualities, the only possible person whom we might marry.

I believe it is possible—indeed, I believe this is a central challenge to Christian identity today in this world of pluralism—that we be fully committed to Jesus and the Gospel and at the same time that we be truly open to what the Spirit may be revealing to us and challenging us with by means of the other religions.

We must learn how a genuine openness to the universal Spirit does not jeopardize our total personal commitment to the Word incarnate in Jesus (any more than the full divinity of the Spirit does not diminish the full divinity of the Son within the life of the Trinity).

2.2. Christomorphic: Jesus was Regnocentric not Christocentric.

From what we know of contemporary New Testament studies, it is generally agreed that the heart of Jesus’ message, the focus of his commitment, and the goal that he envisioned was the Basileia tou Theou – the Reign of God – or in the language suggested by John Cobb, the Commonwealth of God.

In other words, a biblical Christology does not necessarily put Jesus in the center of things, because Jesus himself did not put himself in the center of things. As Jon Sobrino states, Jesus was not ecclesiocentric, nor was he Christocentric. You might even say that, strictly speaking, he was not even theocentric. He was “Basileiocentric.”

What counted most for him was not that everyone joins his community or that everyone sings his praises, or even that everyone recognizes the Father. As important as all these things are, for Jesus what was most important was that people believe in and work for the Reign of God. “Not those who shout ‘Lord, Lord,’ but those who do the will of my Father”—those who feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the imprisoned, even though they don’t know about Jesus—will be part of the Basileia.

So I believe that we, with Jesus, can recognize the validity of anyone, or any religion, that is contributing to what Jesus envisioned as the Reign of God—a world of mutuality, dignity, justice for all. “Those who are not against us, are with us.” We might even have much to learn from them about how to build the Basileia.

2.3. Biblical: The given language of exclusivity is confessional not ontological.

But what about all the language in the Bible that does place Jesus in the center, to the apparent exclusion of everyone else: “No other name . . . One mediator . . . Only begotten Son . . . No one comes to the Father except through me.” We’re biblical people. We have to take this language seriously.

That means we have to ask not only “what it meant” but “what it means.” The New Testament scholar who has helped me most to figure out what it means is Krister Stendahl. He points out that all this talk about Jesus as “one and only” is essentially confessional language, not philosophical or ontological language. Or more personally, he calls it love language.

The early Jesus-followers were speaking about the Jesus with whom they were in love, who had transformed their lives, whom they wanted others to know about. People in love are passionate about what they feel and exuberant in how they speak. They naturally use superlative language: “you are the most beautiful, the most adorable, the one and only.”

Such language is exclusive in order to be superlative! The primary intent is to be superlative, not exclusive. The intent of such language is to say something positive about Jesus, not something negative about Buddha. We misuse this language when we use it to degrade or exclude Buddha or Muhammad.

The intent of this “one and only language,” I would suggest, was essentially twofold: to express the total, personal commitment of the Christian community to Jesus and to proclaim the universal meaning and urgency of what God had revealed in Jesus.

I am suggesting that we are faithful to this language primarily by affirming its decisiveness for Christian life and its universal significance and urgency for all peoples of all times. Exclusivity is not necessary to preserve what this language means for us today.

2.4. Kerygmatic: The kerygma is universal not exclusive.

The kerygma that we missionary Christians must announce to the world is necessarily universal; it is not necessarily exclusive. This means that we have to go forth and proclaim, but we do not necessarily have to exclude.

Indeed, besides proclaiming, we also have to listen. Listening is an essential part of the job description of a missionary. Missionaries are those people in the Christian community who go forth to let others know about Jesus and the Kingdom in order to convert them to that Kingdom (not necessarily to the Christian community). But missionaries are also those people who go forth to listen and to learn in order to enrich the Christian community.

Implied in what I am suggesting is that there are really two kerygmas that missionaries have to deal with: The kerygma of the incarnate Logos and the kerygma of the universal Pneuma. Missionaries proclaim the former and receive the latter.

Both kerygmas, like the second and third persons of the Trinity, are truly different from each other, but essentially related to each other. In their difference and in their relatedness, they enhance each other. Ancient Christian theologians have called this mutual enhancing perichoresis—dancing together. Missionaries “dance” between their dual responsibilities of proclaiming and listening. And through this dancing, both the Basileia of the Spirit and the Ekklesia of the Christ become greater realities in our world.

3. Conclusion: A Christian not only can but must be a pluralist.

My conclusion, therefore, is that not only can Christians be a pluralists, they must be pluralists. To be faithful to the Gospel, to the witness of the New Testament, to the implications of our Christian belief in a God who is Trinity, we Christians have a dual challenge and a dual mission: to be both committed to the particular Jesus and to be open to the universal Spirit.

This is why John Cobb’s description of Jesus has spoken so powerfully to me, both intellectually as a theologian and spiritually as a Christian believer: Jesus is the way that is open to other ways. When Jesus said that “no one comes to the Father except by following me as the way,” that’s what I think he meant: a way that is open to other way–at least it seems so to me.

Netland’s Opening Statement

Netland expressed his gratefulness for Nitter’s coming. He appreciates “some of what he says,” while of course disagreeing with other aspects.

Can a Christian be a religious pluralist? Well, much depends upon what we mean by “Christian” and by “religious pluralist.” Surely there is one sense in which the answer is clearly, “yes.” There are indeed many today who identify themselves as both Christians and religious pluralists, so on a descriptive level the answer is obviously “yes.”

But that is not the issue tonight. The question is whether in a normative sense one who identifies himself or herself as a follower of Jesus Christ can also, or better, should also, be a religious pluralist. In other words, is being a religious pluralist compatible with being a follower of Jesus Christ?

Let’s begin by clarifying terms. By a Christian I mean someone who intentionally follows Jesus Christ and patterns one’s life after the teachings of Christ. Minimally this means that one accepts the teachings of Jesus and orders one’s life in accordance with these teachings. Surely there is much more to being a follower of Jesus than this, but this is an essential part of what we mean when we speak of someone being a Christian. Before considering the meaning of the term “religious pluralism,” let me make a few comments.

When it comes to the subject of Christian faith and other religions, there is not just one issue to consider. There are many distinct questions that need to be addressed: theological, philosophical, missiological, and ethical issues, and questions about how we are to live as followers of Jesus in religiously diverse societies. Good, sincere Christians disagree on many of these issues. One might be fairly open to other religions when considering one question but less positive when it comes to other questions. I do believe that as followers of Jesus we are to treat followers of other religions with respect and dignity, and we should develop bridges to other religious communities. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in today’s world our neighbors include religious others. Furthermore, there are many areas in which Christians can and should work together with followers of other religions for the common good, to fight hunger and poverty, and to promote justice. I do think that other religions have, in varying degrees, truth and goodness, and that there are things we as Christians should appreciate in other traditions. But none of this requires religious pluralism as a way of understanding the relation among religions.

What do I mean by religious pluralism? The term “religious pluralism” is sometimes used in a descriptive sense to mean religious diversity. But this is hardly controversial. If we are at all aware of the world around us we must be pluralists in this descriptive sense, for the world is full of religious diversity.

But in theology and philosophy “religious pluralism” is usually used to denote the perspective which holds that all of the major religions are (roughly) equally true and provide equally legitimate ways in which to respond to the religious ultimate, whatever that might be. Listen to the definition offered by Peter Byrne, himself a pluralist:

“Pluralism as a theoretical response to religious diversity can . . . be summarily defined by three propositions. (1) All major forms of religion are equal in respect of making common reference to a single, transcendent sacred reality. (2) All major forms of religion are likewise equal in respect of offering some means or other to human salvation. (3) All religious traditions are to be seen as containing revisable, limited accounts of the nature of the sacred: none is certain enough in its particular dogmatic formulations to provide the norm for interpreting the others.”

Religious pluralism maintains that no single religion can legitimately claim to be distinctively true and normative for all people in all cultures at all times. No single religious leader is in principle authoritative or normative for all people. With certain qualifications meant to exclude morally repugnant religious traditions, religious pluralism maintains that the major religions all, in principle, offer roughly equally legitimate and effective ways of understanding and responding to the religious ultimate. This is the perspective that is under consideration tonight when we ask whether a Christian can or should be a religious pluralist.

The crucial distinction here is that between genuine religious pluralism and all forms of Christian theism. Within Christian theism itself, there are many different perspectives on other religions, with some being highly negative and others very positive. But Christian theism maintains that there is a creator God who has revealed himself definitively in Jesus Christ and through the written scriptures, and this commitment sets it apart from a genuinely pluralistic perspective. For there are many religious traditions that reject the existence of a creator God, and no non-Christian religion regards Jesus Christ as the definitive revelation of God. A genuinely pluralistic perspective cannot privilege any particular religious tradition, whether theistic or non-theistic. No single religious tradition, including Christian theism, is privileged or somehow normative over the others. Even the most generous form of theism is not pluralism.

The decisive issue then with respect to pluralism is this: Does the Christian God really exist and has this God revealed himself in a definitive way in the Incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth and through the Christians scriptures?

Should a follower of Jesus Christ be a religious pluralist? I think not, and for two major reasons. First, because being a committed follower of Jesus Christ, as I understand it, entails accepting beliefs that are incompatible with religious pluralism. And second, I do not think that a genuinely pluralistic position on the religions is coherent. Let us explore each point briefly.

1. Being a Christian is incompatible with religious pluralism.

I said earlier that, minimally, being a Christian involves accepting the teachings of Jesus and ordering one’s life in accordance with these teachings. Our only substantial access to Jesus’ life and teachings is the witness of the New Testament, and so it must be the New Testament which defines for us what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

We cannot rehearse here the rich data in the New Testament which shape the Christian understanding of Jesus, but let me make two brief comments.

1.1. It is clear that Jesus of Nazareth was a monotheist. Jesus accepted the prevailing first century Jewish assumption about Yahweh as the one God, creator of all that exists, and that Yahweh has revealed himself progressively through the patriarchs and prophets, as recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. To be a follower of Jesus, then, is also to embrace monotheism and to accept what Christians call the Old Testament as God’s revealed Word. This conflicts with religious pluralism, which insists that theism is not be privileged over nontheistic forms of religion and that the Christian scriptures are not divinely inspired in any definitive or normative sense.

1.2. The comprehensive picture that emerges from the New Testament witness is that God was present and active in Jesus of Nazareth in a way in which he is not elsewhere. Jesus is not simply one among many other great religious figures. In the language of 1 Cor. 5, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and there is no suggestion in the New Testament that God was also doing this equally in other religious figures and traditions. It is not just the teachings of Jesus that set him apart; it is who he is and what he has done on our behalf on the cross that distinguish him as the one Savior and Lord for all humanity. It is because he is the incarnate Word, and because of his death on the cross and resurrection, that the early church acknowledged him as “the Way, the Truth and the Life”, indeed the only Way to reconciliation with God. This is simply incompatible with a pluralistic perspective which holds that Jesus, in principle, is not qualitatively different from or superior to other great religious leaders.

There is no suggestion in the NT that Jesus is just one among many other possible saviors and lords. It is not as though the first century world was unaware of other religious ways. The idea that there are many alternative paths to the divine, with each people or culture having their own distinctive way, was a common one in the first century Mediterranean world. Had the early Christians and writers of the New Testament wished to say this, they certainly could have done so. They didn’t.

2. A genuinely pluralistic position on the religions is incoherent.

The second reason for rejecting religious pluralism is the enormous epistemological and ontological problems confronting any attempt to formulate a coherent model of religious pluralism. There are many issues here. Let me focus upon just one.

The most immediate challenge facing pluralism is the very different claims being made by the various religions. While religions certainly involve much more than just beliefs and doctrines, each major religion offers a particular view of reality. The religions have distinctive views about the nature of the religious ultimate, the human predicament, and how to overcome this predicament. If we take the claims of the various religions on their own terms, it is clear that they are making very different, and at times mutually incompatible, claims about the nature of reality.

Part of the appeal of religious pluralism is the widespread perception that it accepts the various religions just as they are and does not make negative judgments about them. Pluralism seems to offer a way of avoiding the conclusion that large numbers of sincere, intelligent and morally respectable people are simply mistaken in their religious beliefs. In fact, however, a consequence of religious pluralism is that many of the central beliefs of traditional Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism are in fact false.

For example, the Christian believes that the religious ultimate, the highest reality, is the Triune God and that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God, fully God and fully man. The Muslim also believes in one eternal creator God, but he denies that this God is a trinity or that Jesus was God incarnate. The Theravada Buddhist denies that God the creator exists, and she maintains that ultimate reality is nirvana. How does religious pluralism deal with such conflicting claims? John Hick, one of the most influential pluralists of the past 25 years, maintains that the Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist are all “in touch” with and responding appropriately to the religious ultimate, which he calls “the Real.” However, this ultimate reality cannot be identified with God the Holy Trinity, or Allah or nirvana. What is truly religiously ultimate, what Hick calls the Real, is beyond these designations, which are merely penultimate symbols through which Christians, Muslims and Buddhists relate to the ultimate reality. So although pluralism does accept the three religions as equally legitimate responses to the Real, it does so only by changing in important ways the core beliefs of Christians, Muslims, and Buddhists. For no mainstream Christian, Muslim or Buddhist would accept this reduction of what they regard as ultimate to merely a penultimate, symbolic status. If religious pluralism is correct, then the Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim are all mistaken in what they each claim about the nature of the religious ultimate. Thus, even with pluralism we cannot escape the conclusion that large numbers of sincere, intelligent, and morally good people are mistaken in their basic religious commitments.


A related difficulty, which we cannot now pursue, is the problem of clarifying the ontological relationship between the pluralists’ religious ultimate (Hick’s the Real) and the many penultimate symbols we find in the religions. Some of these symbols (God the Holy Trinity, Allah, Shiva) are personal, others (the Dao, nirvana, sunyata, nirguna Brahman) are non-personal. Is it possible to have a coherent and meaningful relationship between the Real and these various penultimate symbols which does not privilege either the personal or non-personal symbols? I do not see how this can be done in a coherent manner, and the extensive critical literature on John Hick’s model bears this out.

Why should a Christian not be a pluralist? (1) Because pluralism is incompatible with entailments of what it means to be a follower of Jesus and (2) because it is not possible to formulate a coherent and plausible model of religious pluralism.

Round 2: Response (10 min. each)

Knitter’s Response

Knitter joked that he’s delighted to respond, especially after reading Netland’s books and scribbling comments in the margins!

  • I am delighted that Netland and I are agreed on the definition of a Christian.
  • Without minimizing differences, our ethical commitments to Christ holds us together. We should be able to worship together. We can and should break bread together.
  • Clarification: I am uneasy when people critique pluralism for saying that all religions are equally valid. I prefer to say “many,” not “all.”
  • Clarification: Many religious leaders can be authoritative and normative for all people. Certainly, we can say that about Jesus. Maybe we can say that about Buddha.
  • “The heart of it”: Netland holds that to say that Jesus is in principle not superior to other leaders is not Christianity, i.e., that one must say that Jesus is the one and only Savior. If that is true, then our debate is over. That’s precisely what we’re debating. Can a Christian question and reinterpret the uniqueness of Jesus? That is a new and a very unsettling question, a delicate question. I want to approach it carefully and humbly, but I want to pursue it. I may be wrong, but I can find out that I’m wrong only by discussing it with my fellow Christians.
  • Re our religious language, Netland is understandably concerned that pluralism does not respect the differences among the religions. There is always going to be a surplus about what we say about God. We are called to be humble about our language. And as a Roman Catholic, boy, I need to be humble about my language. But as Protestants, you need to be more careful about your biblical language. What seemed to be contradictory actually turned out to be complementary. The reality of the God revealed by Jesus is a coinciding of opposites. The mystery of God can include what looks to us like opposites, and we should be more open to both/and rather than either/or. The divine example is both transcendent and imminent, with masculine and feminine characteristics, etc.
  • Netland says, “But Jesus was a monotheist.” Of course: He was a Jew! He expressed Himself based on His cultural limitations. God became a Jew. We must recognize the need to get beyond Jesus’ own limitations. Otherwise, we would all have to become Semites in order to become Christians.

Netland’s Response

Netland prefaced his comments with a reminder that although this debate highlights a sharp disagreement, he and Knitter have much in common in other areas. He complimented Knitter for being a gracious and irenic person. Netland agrees that we need more intra-confessional discussion, i.e., that we need to listen to others in missiological engagement.

Netland raised three issues, mainly for clarification:

  1. Is Knitter really a pluralist? He sounds very theistic. What is “the religious ultimate”? Is it God or is it a reality that is more ultimate behind whatever metaphor it is you want to use here? Is Christian theism true, or is this simply a symbol through which we understand or relate to what is more ultimate?
  2. How does the relativity of truth claims differ from relativism? Perhaps Knitter is reminding us that we don’t have exhaustive knowledge of the divine. If that is the point, then surely he is correct. Epistemic humility is a virtue. But it hardly follows from this that we cannot have limited knowledge about God and Jesus. While certainly not exhaustive, there are statements that adequately depict God and Jesus, statements that we are justified to believe. The proper conclusion of skepticism is not pluralism but agnosticism.
  3. Re exclusive language in Scripture, Knitter distinguishes between (1) expressive, confessional love language and (2) philosophical language expressing metaphysical, ontological claims. Does Knitter want to maintain that this non-ontological love language characterizes all of the NT? If not, then why is it just these statements that have exclusive implications ontologically?

Round 3: Rejoinder (5 min. each)

Knitter’s Rejoinder

Aside: Netland has a great sense of humor!

  • Am I a pluralist? John Hick raised the same question. I use the language of my Christian community because it is my language and no one would understand me without it.
  • Am I a theist? What is the religious ultimate for me? The religious ultimate is “divine mystery,” “ultimate mystery.” It is that reality that I have experienced in and through Jesus but goes beyond. It is as mysterious and incomprehensible as it is real and true in my experience. Therefore, all of our language is symbolic. We cannot use non-symbolic language to talk about God. (Knitter agrees with Tillich on this.)
  • I will make truth claims on the basis of what I have experienced in my Christian community and tradition. Yes, Jesus really is the revelation of God for me, but because He is not only, if something comes and contradicts what comes in God and Jesus, we’ll have to disagree. This is the truth I stand for and why I continue to be a Christian. But because I understand that Jesus is not the only or definitive way, there is more that I have discovered about mystery through my discussion with others.
  • On exclusive NT language, “you’re right.” I am not denying that it does not have ontological content. It is saying something real. It is a cognitive claim. But because it is primarily love language (and the cognitive claims come out of the love language), the cognitive, ontological content will always be subordinate to the love language. “That’s not very clear.”

Netland’s Question to Knitter

Question to Knitter: If the writers of the NT and the early Christian community were with us tonight, would they recognize your depiction of Jesus and Christological language as reinterpreting what they intended? If you asked that to John Hick, he would say that the NT language is exclusive, but they were mistaken. Is that your approach?

Knitter’s Answer to Netland

  • If they were here, they would go, “Huh?” They wouldn’t understand it.
  • However, the world of religious pluralism in the the NT time is different than now. Then it was a rampant relativism (though we have a lot of that today, too). But I reject that. Philosophically, it doesn’t make sense and it contradicts experience. But the people of the NT would have a much different way of talking about this today given our kind of religious pluralism. “This is very speculative.”

Round 4: Q & A from the Audience

  1. Q to Knitter: How are you different than the Ba’hai? Knitter: I’m used to getting asked, What is the difference between you and a Unitarian universalist?! I emphasize the differences between religions to a greater degree.
  2. Q to Knitter: If Jesus was inclusive, did he do a poor job at communicating that? Knitter: The incarnation means the incarnation of God. Jesus couldn’t say everything because He was limited. He didn’t know much about Buddhism or Hinduism. We have different understandings of Christ. My teachers taught me that Christ was truly human and truly divine. We have not stressed “truly human” enough. Jesus did not have the opportunity to study Buddhism in universities like I have.
  3. Q: What is Jesus saving humanity from or for? Netland: The root issue is sin, and that is a clear difference between the Judeo-Christian tradition and many other religions. Sin is rebellion against and the rejection of a holy and righteous God. That’s the problem. That’s what Jesus is saving us from. His death was a substitutionary atonement on our behalf, saving us for a restored relationship with God the Creator. Religious pluralism is a distinct problem in this respect with reference to, say, Buddhism. Knitter: There are different ways to understanding how Jesus saves us, different soteriologies. There are two of the distinctive models for how Jesus saves: (1) The one that dominates Christianity is the one that Netland just mentioned, in which something was wrong in the relationship between God and humanity because of sin. (2) The one I’d like to resurrect is a more sacramental or representation model, in which Jesus doesn’t save by fixing something but by revealing God’s love and our own nature as God’s children. I don’t think these are contradictory, but the second model is more appealing to me and more open to other religions. Buddhism has been a tremendous help to me in understanding the Christian notion of sin, which is a selfish act in which we harm ourselves and others. Why? Because we don’t realize who we are. Ignorance and sin may be related.
  4. Q for Netland: How can you love people of other faiths and learn from and listen to them? Netland: I served as a missionary for ten years in Japan. (1) Respect and love don’t happen in the abstract. They happen one-on-one with individuals. Can I treat non-Christians with respect and love? Why not? When I was a missionary in Japan, we got along fine. Can we have sincere and open dialogue? Why not? Dialogue is a sincere, open conversation between people with different perspectives. (2) Do exlusivists have a good track record? No, I don’t think so, especially after 9/11. Knitter: But if the depth of your commitment is not just your belief but what God has given you, then I see tensions in carrying out dialogue that is more than just an exchange of information. How is it possible for you to learn from others when you believe that God has given you the final truth? Netland: I see your point, and it’s a good point. There’s a delicate balance here. God has revealed Himself in Scripture and Jesus in a way He has not revealed Himself elsewhere. Is it possible that I’m wrong? Sure. Solipsism may be true. It may be possible that we’re not having this conversation! But it’s possible for me to dialogue while recognizing that I may be wrong. My interpretations are not infallible. There is room for me to be corrected and learn from others. I don’t see that as being incompatible as seeing Scripture as God’s revelation.
  5. Q for Knitter: What do you mean that some people should convert to the kingdom but not Christianity? Knitter: This is a rather controversial question in Roman Catholic missiology. The primary purpose of the Christian community is to foster the growth of the reign of God on earth–not to gather members in the Christian community. The latter is the means to an end, namely, God’s reign, which includes greater love and justice. The kingdom is the priority.
  6. Q for Knitter: You said that “many” does not mean “any.” What is your standard for what you include in the “many”? Knitter: The primary standard is ethical conduct.
  7. Q for Knitter: Was Jesus different before and after His death and resurrection? (I didn’t follow this question very well. It sounded like the questioner assumed that Jesus was the God-man prior to His death and resurrection but that now He is only God and no longer man.) Knitter: I don’t make a significant distinction before and after. Moderator: You are saying that Christianity is about doing good; the questioner seems to be saying that Christianity is about being good. Knitter: I have a lot of difficulty with the wrath language. I know it’s there, but the wrath language for me is our Christian way of saying, “When we do not follow what we are made to be as God’s creatures, when we act selfishly, when we sin, when we really mess up and cause problems, I don’t see God as getting angry.” What we are basically—our very nature—is original blessing (besides original sin). I don’t want to make light of sin. I’m not very good at answering wrath questions.

Closing comments (1 min. each)


This was a very good evening and profitable exchange. Thanks for coming.


I have not felt intimidated by coming here. Thanks for your love. I have more to learn. We have more to learn. I am going to be teaching next fall semester a course at Union Theological Seminary on religious pluralism. (We have a growing number of evangelical students at Union.) Harold, I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but I’m going to ask you to come to Union. And I hope that all those liberals there will be as nice as you all were to me.

Note: The audio for this evening’s debate will be posted shortly in the Henry Center’s Media Archive.