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CBF presenters: absolute truth claims — break down; imperil religious liberty

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (BP)–Absolute truth claims are a warning sign of religion gone awry said one presenter, and claims that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation boarder on infringements of religious liberty, said another during breakout sessions at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship general assembly June 27.

The statements were made respectively by Charles Kimball chair of the department of religion, Wake Forest University and Bill Leonard, dean of the divinity school, Wake Forest University. The corresponding sessions were titled, “When Religion Becomes Evil,” and “The Plan(s) of Salvation: When Conversion and Pluralism Collide.”

Discussing his recent book, “When Religion Becomes Evil,” Kimball said that religious groups who make absolute truth claims might pose a danger to society.

“At one level all religious traditions are predicated on truth claims. If we weren’t affirming something that was powerfully and profoundly true, then what’s the point?” Kimball said. “I’m not rejecting the notion of absolute truth. I actually believe firmly … that there is such a thing as absolute truth. I also believe it rests with God and not with me and that we have to be very, very careful as human beings when we begin to appropriate … that notion that when we think we have God in our heart … [we] know what God wants … for everybody else. Then I think you can show historically that you have at least the potential for a disaster waiting to happen because you can literally justify almost anything at that point.”

Criticisms of Islam, such as those made by Southern Baptists Jerry Vines, R. Albert Mohler Jr., Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, are particularly dangerous, Kimball said. People like Vines, Mohler, Graham and Falwell should realize that Allah is not significantly different from the Christian God.

“The implications become very, very dangerous as well. And some of this debate, for instance, that’s been going on this year about Allah being a different God than the God of the Bible. Let me circle back to brother Jerry Falwell and note that he and others have gone to great pains to make this distinction that Christians and Muslims are not talking about the same God. This is, in my view, either ignorant or disingenuous or maybe both on the part of these people,” he said.

“In the first place, Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. I’ve worked for many, many years with Christians throughout the Middle East, 16 million Christians in the Middle East, indigenous Arab-speaking Christians. … When they pray, they pray to Allah. I’ve been in worship services many, many times, maybe 35 or 40 times over the years. Because they speak Arabic, the Arabic word for God is Allah. If you speak French it’s Dieu. So in the first place, people are playing on this notion that it’s somehow a very different kind of God.”

It is particularly inaccurate, according to Kimball, for Christians to claim that one must believe in the divinity of Christ in order to have a correct understanding of God.

“But the argument then turns, you’ll often hear in these kind of absolutist claims, that well, if you’re talking then about God and if it doesn’t include the understanding of the divinity of Jesus — and the notion of Allah does not include the divinity of Jesus … — then you’re not talking about the same God. Well I won’t go into that argument in detail … but this argument begins to break down very quickly…” he said.

When Christians claim their understanding of salvation is the absolute truth, they can cause great harm across the globe, Kimball concluded.

Specifically referencing Jerry Vines, Kimball said, “I think many of these people … have a great deal of influence and authority and when they say these sorts of things, they’re being irresponsible. And indeed they’re being very, very destructive. It may play well in certain circles and they may see some checks come in, but they are doing tremendous harm all over the world.”

However, James Leo Garrett Jr., distinguished professor emeritus of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, offers that counterclaims to absolute truth lie at the heart of the confrontation of Christianity with other major religions, especially Islam.

“The Christian faith, rooted in the teaching of Jesus and the apostles, is built on claims to exclusive truth (John 1:14, 14:6, 9),” Garrett said in a written statement to Baptist Press. “The claim to exclusive or absolute truth does not rest with the individual Christian but inheres in the Gospel itself.

“Ever since the Arian controversy in the 4th century, orthodox Christians have affirmed that the deity of Jesus Christ belongs to the essential core of Christian beliefs about God. Names and titles of God are indeed important, but the reality represented by or associate with them is even more important,” he said.

Leonard argued that claims of Christian exclusivism boarder on an infringement of religious liberty.

Discussing a recent episode of “Larry King Live,” in which John MacArthur claimed that Christ is the only way of salvation, Leonard said, “When I heard John MacArthur on ‘Larry King Live’ that night, I wished that someone on the panel had said to him, ‘Dr. MacArthur has every right to say that Jesus is the only way to salvation and that all other religions in the world are false. He has every right to speak about that out of his convictions. But that is precisely why we need religious liberty, because it is only half a step from saying that all other religions are false … to saying that since they are all false, we must protect the innocent ones from their false doctrine and write legal sanctions against them.’

“So all the conversations about religious particularism are fine as long as we hold the reality of religious liberty because when religion starts talking like that, if the state changes, persecution can begin. Silencing begins.”

In fact, Leonard said, until the 18th century, Baptists did not even believe that they needed to confront people of other religions with the Gospel. The foreign mission activity of William Carey and others led Baptists to develop a new conviction that they needed to insist upon the truth of Christianity to other religious groups.

“Eighteenth century globalism — that is, the ability to get on ships and go to foreign lands … — was a major factor in the decision of some British Baptists and later Americans to change their theology, not just to modify it, to change their theology in response to their relatively new belief about … reaching people they called ‘the heathen’ for the Gospel, believing it was the duty of Christians to take the Gospel to the world,” Leonard said.

“Ryan Stanley, in his wonderful book on the Baptist Missionary Society, affirms that early Baptists had no vision of foreign mission until Carey and his colleagues appeared on the scene.”

The Christian exclusivism associated with foreign missions is particularly problematic because of its implications for other world religions, he said.

“[Exclusivism] also implies that Christians are working toward a world where there are only Christians. That is a particular problem for many Jews who remember another effort to achieve a world where there aren’t any Jews. Again, it suggests that Christians desire a salvific hegemony over all other religions. Segments of other religions also believe that, but it is particularly problematic for American Christians when we have the army to back up our hegemony.”

“We need to confront the pluralism of other world religions the way our forbearers confronted the pluralism of Jews, Catholics and Quakers and learned to be different. In a truly pluralistic environment, every religion has the right to propagate and promote its views.”

An examination of Baptist history, concluded Leonard, reveals a continuous tension between Christian exclusivism and pluralism.

“When I talk about this, somebody almost invariably stands up and wonderfully quotes John’s gospel: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ which is fine. But if we’re going to be literal about that, then let’s trade literalisms and read Matthew 25 because in Matthew 25, there’s a suggestion that on that great getting up morning, the … ones who are welcomed into the Kingdom are those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick. And in doing that, the text says, even when they didn’t know it, they were … Christians,” he said.

But Garrett counters that the Christians’ mandate to present the Gospel to all human beings is coupled with a recognition that genuine faith is voluntary, not coerced, and indeed is accomplished through God’s own agency (John 6:44).

“The entire modern movement for religious freedom and against persecution — from Peter Chelcicky to Balthasar Hubmaier to Thomas Helwys to Roger Williams and beyond — came out of the matrix of Christian faith and discipleship,” Garrett also said in the written statement. “To seek for better relations with those of other Christian denominations who acknowledge Jesus as God’s Son and their Savior and Lord has the support of John 17, but to embark upon interreligious dialogue the presupposition that truth claims must be surrendered before entering the dialogue not only has no basis in the Scriptures but also is a potentially dangerous betrayal of the Gospel in today’s world.”

According to a statement released by CBF officials: “The opinions and views presented in General Assembly ministry workshops are those of the workshop presenters and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of, or endorsement by, the Fellowship or its members. Holding to the principles of soul freedom and church freedom, General Assembly workshop presenters do not speak for the Fellowship or any of the Fellowship’s members.”

The 2003-2004 CBF budget, however, allocates $8,000 for production and marketing of a study guide for Kimball’s book, “When Religion Becomes Evil.” According to information presented in Kimball’s breakout session, the study guide will be available on the CBF website, www.cbfonline.org.