Religious Pluralism, Christian Particularity, and the Meaning of Acts 4:12

In Acts 4:12 it is said of Jesus that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”[1] How is one to interpret this in light of the religious diversity and plurality we see in our world today?

Understanding the salvation claims of Christianity in regard to other religions has always been a challenge. There are two main approaches to this issue I want to discuss in this post. The first approach is religious pluralism, which states that all religions bring a different yet equally valid way of salvation. Humans are transformed from self-centeredness to being centered in the ultimate Real.[2] The second approach sees Christianity as exclusive, or particular. Salvation is conferred only through faith in Jesus Christ.[3] These two views have been in strong opposition to each other, particularly in our current diverse and pluralistic culture.

In this post I will explain why I believe Acts 4:12 supports the particularity of Christianity and not religious pluralism. First, it will be necessary to discuss in more depth the components of religious pluralism and the particularity of Christianity. Then one can look at what this implies, and does not imply, in relationship to Acts 4:12.

A Look at Religious Pluralism

The belief that all religions are equally valid paths to the one divine reality is common today.[4] John Hick developed the most philosophically advanced and influential model of religious pluralism.[5] Hick bases his argument for religious pluralism on the following: his understanding of salvation; the witness of history; comparing Christianity to the other world religions; and his approach to the doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, and atonement.  A closer look at each of these components helps one to fully understand Hick’s position.

The belief of religious pluralism is largely based upon defining the term “salvation.” What does this word mean? According to Hick, salvation is

“…an actual human change, a gradual transformation from natural self-centeredness (with all the human evils that flow from this) to a radically new orientation centered in God and manifested in the ‘fruit of the Spirit’…. salvation is taking place within all the world religions – and taking place so far as we can tell, to more or less the same extent.[6]

The Christian tradition is just one of many contexts of salvation, where the individual is transformed from being self-centered to Reality-centered.[7]

Apart from salvation, religious pluralism argues that history demonstrates that Christian exclusivism has been the source of Western stereotypes and agendas.[8] It has bred violence and imperialism where minorities and the marginalized have been abused and persecuted.[9] In the past thousand years the Christian West has been:

“…strongly hierarchical, sanctifying serfdom and the subjugation of women, believing not in the rights of humanity but in the divine right of kings, burning heretics and witches, and brutally suppressing both social unrest and deviant intellectual speculation.[10]

Therefore, Christian exclusivism is harmful to humanity.

Not only history, but an understanding of the various world religions also supports the view of religious pluralism. The observable facts point out that Christianity has produced just as many saints as sinners. In each religious tradition men and women have submitted to their understanding of God, or the ultimate Reality.[11] Because each world religion has contributed both good and evil to societies, and each sees humanity as relating to the Eternal in a different way, we have no room to claim that one religion is superior to another.[12]

Finally, in defending religious pluralism, Hick articulates his understanding of the Christian doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, and atonement. The historical Jesus did not see himself as the Son of God. Rather, he thought himself to be the final prophet who would herald in the end of the age.[13] Therefore he was neither God incarnate nor the second person in the Trinity. Hick calls this inspiration Christology, claiming it is

“…fully compatible with the conception of the trinity as affirming three distinguishable ways in which the one God is experienced as acting in relation to, as is accordingly known by, us –namely, as creator, redeemer, and inspirer. On this interpretation, the three persons are not three different centers of consciousness but three major aspects of the one divine nature.”[14] In light of this, the death of Jesus was a demonstration of the selfless love that was incarnate in his life.[15]

While Hick makes a strong apologetic for religious pluralism, I believe it can be clearly refuted by Christian exclusivism, or particularity. Hick’s arguments, based upon an understanding of salvation, history, world religions, and Christian doctrine, fail to stand under further scrutiny.

A Look at Christian Particularity

Unlike religious pluralism, Christian particularity sees salvation as centering explicitly on a relationship with “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[16] The New Testament presents Jesus as the only expression and means of salvation.[17] While religious pluralism claims this belief is invalid and narrow-minded, it falls into the same exclusivity it seeks to deny.  Religious pluralism negates it’s very argument by making an exclusive claim. To select one way of salvation and deny all other ways is to choose a particular faith-commitment. By denying Christianity the right to make an absolute truth claim, religious pluralism makes an exclusive claim and undermines its very foundation.[18]

Furthermore, there is a unique dilemma to the universalism of religious pluralism:

“… [It] denies humanity the right to say no to God… in effect declaring that all are predestined to be saved – raising precisely the same problems relating to divine sovereignty and human responsibility associated with the approach of John Calvin, an approach that is not usually regarded with any great enthusiasm by pluralists.[19]

Therefore, Christianity is not unique in making exclusive claims and cannot be dismissed on the grounds of defining “salvation” as coming solely through faith in Jesus Christ.

Today Christianity is largely associated with the West and imperialism even though it has its origin in the East and the oppressed nation of Israel. While it is true that there have been times when people have used Christianity as a means of imposing imperialism:

“… at its heart is the denial of all imperialisms, for at its center there is the cross where all imperialisms are humbled and we are invited to find the center of human unity in the one who was made nothing so that all might be one. The very heart of the biblical vision for the unity of humankind is that its center is not an imperial power but the slain Lamb.”[20]

The Christian faith as taught in the New Testament is not imperialistic. In fact, the argument can be made that for religious pluralism to claim it has the final authority to mark Christianity as imperialistic is in fact a mark of imperialism.[21]

Christian particularism in no way denies the reality of a variety of world religions. Rather, it affirms that religious diversity exists while upholding the conviction that God has revealed truth about Himself to humanity through the person and work of Jesus Christ.[22] Harold Netland states this concept well when he says,

The Christian gospel thus has elements of both universality and particularity at its core: universality in that all humankind (including sincere adherents of other religions) are sinners and in need of redemption by God’s grace, and in that God desires the salvation of all irrespective of their ethnicity, culture or religion; and particularly in that God’s salvation comes to us through a particular person, Jesus Christ, the utterly unique incarnation of God who took upon himself the sins of the world.”[23]

Furthermore, religious pluralism is itself particularistic. What at first glance looks like an acceptance of all religions in reality involves accommodating religions within one’s own belief system.[24] “To the extent that the pluralist defines the core of religion, then, the very concept of religion must be exclusivistic. Some phenomena will be in, others out.”[25]

The crucial issue between Christian particularity and religious pluralism is the person of Jesus Christ. Religious pluralism understands that if Jesus really is the incarnate Son of God, than his claims to uniqueness are unavoidable.[26] Therefore it seeks to do away with these doctrines. Yet the Christian doctrines of the Trinity, incarnation, and atonement are central to its message. While religious pluralism may question the validity of these doctrines, it cannot do away with them.

Christianity has always had to interact with a religiously plural world and work through what it means that Jesus alone is Lord.[27] Yet it cannot be denied that“The New Testament clearly regards Jesus Christ as…the Savior of the world (not simply Christians), thus pointing to the strongly universal character of his saving work.”[28]

A Look at Acts 4:12

Therefore, despite the fact that religious pluralism denies the particularity or exclusivism of Christianity, it is seen that Christianity does in fact make exclusive claims. Acts 4:12 is one example in the New Testament where the particularity of Jesus is testified to. What exactly is this verse implying and not implying when it states that apart from Jesus there is no other name that brings salvation?

In Acts 4 the apostles Peter and John are on trial for preaching salvation in the name of Jesus Christ. Rather than back down in the face of religious pressure, Peter boldly proclaimed that salvation is found in no one other than Jesus. By this proclamation Peter was affirming the uniqueness and particularity of Christ. His death, resurrection, and exaltation authenticated His authority as the one and only Savior. No one else possesses the qualifications He does.[29] It is noted that “Jesus was not a useful commodity given to men but a person who lived among them as the agent of God’s salvation.”[30]

Therefore, Acts 4:12 and its larger context affirm that Jesus Christ is the only means by which a person can obtain salvation. It attributes a uniqueness and particularity to Jesus that automatically implies that salvation cannot be found in any other name, ideology, or religion.

This verse does not imply that the various world religions do not have valuable truths, insights, and wisdom. Yet the issue is not religious comparison. The issue is how one stands in a right relationship with God. And the particularity of Christianity makes it clear that Jesus is the only means to gain that right relationship.

In summary, religious pluralism seeks to argue that all religions reach the same goal and denies the particularity of Christianity based upon its understanding of salvation, history, the various world religions, and a reinterpretation of Christian doctrines. Yet these oppositions to Christian particularity do not stand as valid. Religious pluralism misinterprets Christian doctrine, uses of faulty logic, and seems unable to adhere to its own principles of religious pluralism. This causes me to seriously question its reliability and deny its claims. The Christian message as expressed in Acts 4:12 does make an exclusive claim. Jesus is the only name by which one can be saved. The questions then arise, is this particular truth claim true? And if it is, what do we do with it?

[1] Acts 4:12 (ESV)

[2] John Hicks, “A Pluralist View,” in eds. Dennis L. Okholm & Timothy R. Phillips, More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Zondervan: 1995, p. 43, 44

[3] Alister McGrath, “A Particularist View,” in eds. Dennis L. Okholm & Timothy R. Phillips, More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Zondervan: 1995, p. 174, 175

[4] Gavin D’Costa, “Theology of Religions,” in ed. David F. Ford, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century, Volume III, Blackwell: 1989, p. 274

[5] Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission, IVP: 2001, p. 17

[6] John Hick, “A Pluralist View,” in eds. Dennis L. Okholm & Timothy R. Phillips, More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Zondervan: 1995, p. 43

[7] Ibid, p. 23

[8] John Hick, “The Non-Absoluteness of Christianity,” in eds. John Hick & Paul. F. Knitter, The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, Orbis: 1987, p. 17

[9] Ibid, p. 17, 20

[10] Ibid, p. 28

[11] Ibid, p. 23, 24

[12] Ibid, p. 30

[13] Ibid, p. 31

[14] Ibid, p. 32

[15] Ibid, p. 33

[16] Alister McGrath, “A Particularist View,” in eds. Dennis L. Okholm & Timothy R. Phillips, More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Zondervan: 1995, p. 169

[17] Ibid, 170

[18] Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, SPCK: 1987, p. 160

[19] Alister McGrath, “A Particularist View,” in eds. Dennis L. Okholm & Timothy R. Phillips, More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Zondervan: 1995, p. 177

[20] Ibid, p. 159

[21] Alister McGrath, “A Particularist View,” in eds. Dennis L. Okholm & Timothy R. Phillips, More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Zondervan: 1995, p. 157, 158

[22] Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: The Challenge to Christian Faith & Mission, IVP: 2001, p. 12, 13

[23] Ibid, p. 13

[24] Ibid, p. 213

[25] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture, and Hermeneutics, IVP: 2002, p. 56, 57

[26] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Religious Pluralism and Conflicting Truth Claims: The Problem of a Theology of the World Religions,” in ed. Gavin D’Costa, Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered: The Myth of a Pluralistic Theology of Religions, Orbis: 1990, p. 100

[27] Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, SPCK: 1987, p. 157

[28] Alister McGrath, “A Particularist View,” in eds. Dennis L. Okholm & Timothy R. Phillips, More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Zondervan: 1995, p. 170

[29] John R.W. Stott, The Message of Acts, IVP: 1990, p. 97

[30] C.K. Barrett, Acts: A Shorter Commentary, T&T Clark: 2002, p. 58


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