Approaching World Religions, Volume 1: Philosophically Thinking about World Religions
Approaching World Religions, Volume 2: An Evangelical Theology of Religions
Robert Boyd is a professor at Fresno City College, where he has taught philosophy and theology of religions since 1996. While Boyd has maintained his primary interest in the field of critical reasoning, much of his current research deals with issues connected to the philosophy and theology of religions. He recently published two impressive volumes in the field: Approaching World Religions, Volume 1: Philosophically Thinking about World Religions (PTR) and Approaching World Religions, Volume 2: An Evangelical Theology of Religions (ETR). The purpose of this review essay is to engage Boyd’s two volumes, with a main focus on examining the approaches he uses, the themes he argues, the proposals he offers, and the conclusions he suggests.
Volume 1, Philosophically Thinking about World Religions
In his first volume, Philosophically Thinking about World Religions, Boyd argues that approaching the study of world religions through anthropological and sociological frameworks has some limitations. One of the major limitations is a focus on the facts of world religions, rather than beliefs. Boyd proposes to study world religions instead from a philosophical framework. Building on the words of Socrates, “philosophy begins with asking questions rather than answering questions” (quoted in PTR 7), Boyd argues that a philosophy of religions tends to focus on thinking hard about the doctrinal questions of world religions (1-7).
Boyd’s aim in this first volume is twofold: to inquire into the teachings of world religions and to expand our understanding of world religions (7).
The volume is structured in three parts. In part one, Boyd offers the concept and importance of a philosophical approach to world religions. It is true that some conservative Christians attempt to study world religions objectively. We may call this an “evangelistic approach.” This approach sees people of other religions as the mere objects for conversion. This approach does not study world religions philosophically, nor does it actually interact with other religions. Boyd considers such an objective study of other religions to be problematic in this post-colonial world. He considers a philosophical approach to be more productive in an age of world Christianity. By focusing on philosophical questions, Boyd’s aim is that the readers be challenged and transformed by their interactions with, and investigations about, world religions.
In part two, Boyd explores the comparative and philosophical study of various religious traditions. These include Jewish and Islamic dialogue on sacred texts, the notion of God in Hinduism and Christianity, Jewish and Buddhist perspectives on cosmology, the notion of persons in Daoism and Sikhism, the existential problem of evil in Christianity and Islam, and the doctrine of life after death in Christianity and Hinduism.
Boyd helpfully provides four sources for a philosophical or comparative study of religions. The first is personal experience, which has to do with one’s experience of other religions by learning their traditions. Boyd gives examples of those who experienced God personally in the biblical traditions, including Moses, Abraham, Paul, and others. Boyd considers experience to be crucial to Christian faith. He states: “Any theology that does not provide for or allow itself to be informed by the personal experience of individuals will likely become sterile dogma that does not influence the life of those who adhere to it” (PTR 28).
The second source is reason or cognitive understanding. Although Boyd affirms that Scripture is sufficient unto itself, he states that without reason we cannot understand the essential truths of Scripture. Since reason includes understanding the mystery of God beyond Christian community, Boyd puts the concept of reason in conversation with the teachings of other religions. He also acknowledges that our cognitive understanding of the mystery of God is assisted by the Holy Spirit.
The third source is religious texts, which, according to Boyd, are “revelatory- direct and revelatory-indirect” (30). He refers to Judaism, Islam, and Christianity as examples of revelatory-direct texts: the Law for Jews, Qur’an for Muslims, and Bible for Christians. While revelatory-direct religions maintain that religious texts are the word of God, revelatory-indirect religions claim that they are a human interpretation of God’s mind. Revelatory-indirect religions, then, tend to focus on the holy author of the religious texts. This source is a more subtle form of revelation and is found in many Eastern traditions. The purpose of the religious text is to perform the religious teaching of the author, with the purpose of enlightening others or helping others with achieving their own enlightenment. The Buddha and his dharma could be understood as one example of this source.
The fourth source for a philosophical theology of religions is tradition. Boyd refers to tradition as the religious practices, worldviews, and rites of a religion. Boyd believes that Christians should interact with the traditions of other religions. He states that a respectful interaction with religious traditions plays a role in understanding our own tradition of belief and our deeper relationship with the mysterious God.
In the third part of Philosophically Thinking about World Religions, Boyd addresses the relationship between divine action and human replication for the sake of what he calls “applied justice.” He writes, “justice and social affairs must be a concern for Christian replication of divine action” (PTR 263). Boyd emphasizes the ethical role of religions in promoting social justice in the face of injustice and suffering. Boyd’s philosophical approach to world religions for the sake of social justice echoes Paul Knitter’s approach to social justice and Aloysius Pieris’s approach to liberation theology. Both Knitter and Pieris see the ethics of religions—particularly Christianity and Buddhism—as the common grounds for promoting social justice and political liberation.1
While Boyd’s approach to world religions embraces the ethical roles of religions in applied justice, he continues to affirm the importance of the Great Commission for the Christian church (PTR 263). He thus proposes an evangelical theology of religions as a companion to a philosophical theology of religions.
Volume 2, Evangelical Theology of Religions
Boyd defines an Evangelical theology of religions as “a systematic contemplation of orthodox Christian beliefs in light of Scripture, tradition, and the mission of the apostolic church in which Scripture is understood as the norm” (PTR 264). He draws his Evangelical theology of religions from Clark Pinnock’s threefold dogma of Evangelicalism: it must be “evangelical, conservative, and contemporary” (PTR 264). According to Pinnock, an Evangelical theology of religions should be conservative in terms of maintaining the historic apostolic beliefs and traditions as taught in the Scriptures without ceasing to be responsible to the contextual implication of the Gospel to the contemporary hearers of the message by interacting with people of other faiths (PTR 264).
In order to advance an Evangelical theology of religions, Boyd proposes two foundational approaches: (1) acknowledging the contemporary world as a religiously diverse place in which Christians and people of other faiths live together; and (2) celebrating the diverse world of religions as a twofold task for Evangelical Christians (ETR 18). Boyd distinguishes an Evangelical theology of religions from a Fundamentalist theology of religions, the latter of which often fails to listen to and learn from other religions, but rather tends to offend people of other faiths. By contrast, an Evangelical theology of religions values religious diversity and is willing to listen to and learn from other religions by acknowledging that God is at work beyond ecclesial constraints (ETR 20). The intent of Boyd’s second volume, therefore, is to suggest a direction for rethinking some foundational themes and issues in the field.
In part one, Boyd addresses the methodological issues of an Evangelical theology of religions, the challenges and opportunities of religious diversity, and the agency and recipients of salvation. Within the broader context of religious diversity, Boyd proposes an Evangelical theology of religions as the middle ground between a Fundamentalist theology of religions and a liberal or pluralistic one. He discusses concepts of the agency and recipients of salvation, identifying this issue as “the heart and soul of an Evangelical theology of religions” (ERT 36). Boyd builds on Pinnock’s twofold axiom: “the university of God’s salvation and the particular role of Jesus Christ in God’s universal salvation” (ERT 38). The first axiom states that God’s salvation is not restricted to a particular group, but that God’s salvation is offered to all humans as a gift. The second axiom states that there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ. Jesus is the particular, and only, agent of God’s universal salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:2), and receiving God’s salvation as a gift depends on humans’ response to it. Boyd insists that Christianity does not offer salvation; only Jesus does (ERT 146).
Boyd develops the contextual implications of these two axioms in the second part of his book, using Paul’s images of Jesus Christ in the book of Colossians as the ground for his treatment of the uniqueness of Christ. Boyd proposes the Colossians images of Jesus Christ for two main reasons: first, “if an adequate theology of religions is worked out in a philosophical format, it must be informed by a biblical theology, especially Colossians Christology. Second, the uniqueness of Christ is a central motif in Pauline literature, especially in Colossians.” Boyd uses Colossians 1:12-22 and 2:6-15 to emphasize three themes: God, the universe/ creation, and the believer’s salvation/life (ETR 113). Building on this, he explores functions of the uniqueness of Christ, the doctrine of special revelation in Christ, and the doctrine of general revelation.
While being faithful to God’s special revelation in Christ’s unique role by the power of the Spirit, Boyd invites Evangelical Christians to be open to God’s general revelation to people of other faiths through their religious cultures by the same power of the Spirit. In our dialogue with people of other faiths, we must not compromise God’s special revelation in Jesus Christ, but we hold a dialectical relationship between special revelation and general revelation. What is helpful in Boyd’s approach to general revelation within the framework of the uniqueness of Christ is his exploration of the “content of general revelation and the purpose of general revelation.” Given the fact that God is transcendent and humans are sinful, Boyd argues that God’s revelation is central to Evangelical Christianity.
He asks: (1) What is the content of God’s general revelation? and (2) What are the general sources for humans’ knowledge of God? Boyd suggests that there are two contents of general revelation. The first is intuitional, which depends on the belief that human beings are created in the image of God. The second is acquired, which is knowledge of God by rational means.
Boyd argues that these two sources of humans’ knowledge of God based on God’s general revelation are biblically right (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:19; Romans 1:32). He also accuses some Reformed theologians, such as Karl Barth, G. C. Berkouwer, and Cornelius Van Til, of rejecting general revelation as a source of the knowledge of God (ERT 156). I disagree with Boyd’s charge that Barth rejects general revelation. Indeed, in his early life, Barth emphasized God’s supreme revelation in Jesus Christ in the famous statement: “God makes Himself known to us through Himself.”2 For Barth, the first question is not an epistemological one: how do we know God? It is rather an ontological one: how does God make Himself known to us through the incarnation of Christ? Barth develops his concept of general revelation by seeing the incarnation of Christ as the channel through which humans have an implicit knowledge of God.
Barth emphasizes, however, that knowledge of God through general revelation is a limited knowledge that cannot save us. Only Jesus Christ can save us, but the Holy Spirit draws people to the salvation of Christ. This means that all humans, including people of other faiths, have a general and a moral knowledge of God, but they do not have a saving knowledge of God (ERT 157). For instance, God may reveal His kenotic nature of suffering (Philippians 2:1-11) to Buddhists through their cultural beliefs and practices of the First Noble Truths of suffering. God may reveal his moral nature to Buddhists through their ethical practice of compassion. Christians must necessarily discern God’s general revelation among other faiths through their own stories and cultures. In relation to these ideas, Boyd offers Paul’s dialogical mission among the Athenians in relation to their own cultural practices, beliefs, and worldviews (Acts 17:22-34) as a model for Evangelical Christians’ dialogical engagement with people of other faiths.
Finally, Boyd explores three main purposes of God’s general revelation: (1) to reveal God’s holiness and righteousness (Philippians 3:10); (2) to offer salvation as a gift of cosmic reconciliation and redemption in Christ by the Spirit (1 Timothy 1:15; Ephesians 2:8-9); and (3) to expose our sinful natures and to transform us into the likeness of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29). Revelation is not something that confirms what we already know. Rather, it has to do with a new or fresh knowledge of God as the God of love and holiness and of ourselves as sinners with a new commitment to being transformed. The purpose of God’s revelation is not just for information about God, but for transformation. God’s revelation radically changes the lives of its recipients, both Christians and non-Christians. A good example of such mutual transformation is seen in the interaction between Peter, as a paradigm of the Christian, and Cornelius, as a paradigm the religious other (Acts 10).
In the final part of Evangelical Theology of Religions, Boyd explores the relationship between the Great Commission and the law of love. If God’s revelation is to transform people with their cultures and beliefs, then it is imperative for Christians to carry out the Great Commission, calling people of other faiths to the knowledge of the truth and to becoming disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:18-20). Boyd, however, criticizes fulfilling the Great Commission in the form of proselytism by judging the cultures of other faiths. He instead emphasizes the law of love through the power of the Holy Spirit as the motivation of the Great Commission. Boyd emphasizes the Pauline use of the law of love not only as the motivating power of the church, but also as the fruit of the Spirit that the church must bear witness to in its internal communion with one another and in its external communion with persons of other faiths (I Corinthians 12 and 13) (ETR 221-32). In other words, the Great Commission must be accompanied by the great commandments (Matthew 22:36-40).
Boyd’s twenty years teaching philosophy of world religions and working with persons of other religions has enabled him to provide a helpful overview and theological and philosophical analysis of various aspects of an Evangelical theology of religions. He has demonstrated how a philosophical and Evangelical theology of religions should provide a balanced position between fundamentalism and liberalism. The goal of Boyd’s work in these two volumes is to suggest a methodological direction for Evangelicals to rethink their approaches to people of other faiths without compromising the Evangelical belief in salvation through Jesus Christ and the historical tradition of apostolic mission.
Cite this article
- See John Hick and Paul F. Knitter, eds., The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987), 162-202; Aloysius Pieris, An Asian Theology of Liberation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 3-23, 35-44; and Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religions (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 134-149.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, I.I, trans. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936), 296.