Few current terms are less precise than “theological pluralism.” It is used to indicate, now a denominational policy, now a theological outlook, now a form of theology. The term gains prestige from the fact that our society is pluralistic. Should not Christian theology, then, grant “equal rights” to all shades of doctrinal opinion?
This sounds impressive, if one does not take seriously the claim of the Christian faith to present One who makes exclusive demands upon our lives. In the light of His claims, the appeal to democratic practice to justify theological pluralism seems to be a misapplication of a socio-political concept.
Theological pluralism rejects the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. In place of the finality of Scripture for the Christian faith, it substitutes a complex of “authorities.” Alongside historic creeds and confessions are placed newer and equivocal “creeds” so that the symbols that formerly were normative for Christian bodies become but part of a series of “statements of faith.”
Various figures of speech are used to justify this dilution of Christian doctrine. Earlier the illustration was the tripod: authority was said to rest upon three “sources,” revelation, tradition, and experience (or revelation, experience, and reason). More recently the favorite figure is the quadrilateral: authority is said to be derived (presumably in equal quantities) from revelation, tradition, reason, and experience.
As a gesture to the past, older standards and symbols are retained. But the juxtaposition of alternate “creeds” alongside those based upon biblical authority drains the latter of current validity. Appeals to historic faith are met with equivocations and evasions. Pluralistic thinkers refer to the differences of opinion concerning specific doctrines over the past nineteen centuries and to the religious wars, as if these proved the impossibility of any normative Christian belief.
Besides diluting Christian authority, theological pluralism also serves to give legitimacy to all sorts of deviations from historic faith. The advocates of pluralism do not merely acknowledge the presence of a wide range of beliefs within the churches. They also permit all who hold these forms to consider themselves Christian. All this is done in the name of toleration and fairness.
A practical result is that this permits the modification of ordination vows. Those who have radically departed from their former commitments can now live in clear conscience. The concept of theological pluralism makes “honest men” of those who have abandoned the faith to which they pledged fidelity.
In place of a commitment to the Scriptures as the infallible Word, there are such shabby substitutes as “the Bible is a witness to the Word,” or “the Bible witnesses to Christ in today’s world.” Such expedients permit pastors and theological teachers, to work comfortably within their institutions, no matter how gently their thinking deviates their denomination’s historic standards.
Theological pluralism offers also a symbol around which to rally the loyalties of confused constituencies. They are permitted to feel that all shades of belief, and those holding them, are being treated democratically. When one looks more closely, however, the openness and total fairness is more sham than reality. Liberal power-holders in the churches show no intention of surrendering power to non-establishment hands. They appear nervous when conservative minority groups congregate in an area and appear to threaten the established power base.
Some evangelicals have hoped that the pluralistic stance would gain equal time and equal treatment for evangelical groups within liberal church bodies. So far this is a forlorn hope. True, there are token gestures toward those who base their convictions upon biblical authority. Occasionally one of them is called as a guest professor to a liberal seminary—but for one or two semesters only, never as a regular faculty member. Evangelicals are invited to theological conferences—but they are excluded from caucuses where policies are hammered out. Their stated convictions seldom appear in resulting pronouncements.
Advocates of theological pluralism operate from the centers of ecclesiastical power. They gain prestige from the fact that ecumenical, liberal Christianity has produced many secularized philosophers of religion in recent years, but few theologians. As a consequence, the few who really “do theology” gain a large hearing. Their prestige is enhanced by the fact that they advocate views that appear to give legitimacy and honesty to developments within liberal churchmanship.
Seventy years of wrongheaded theological education have produced a climate in the church world of today that demands either legitimation or renewal from the ground up. The latter would require changes at the roots of things, which would be vastly too expensive to the theological establishment. The alternative is tempting.
One is reminded of the Indian who had to follow poorly marked trails through the forest. He had to depend upon marking a tree every hundred yards or so in order to return to his home. An enemy who wished to cause him to get lost did not obliterate the marks; he merely marked all the trees.
Advocates of theological pluralism often seem to operate on the basis of vivid rhetoric rather than fair dialogue. Many of the figures of speech that they use, notably those by which they attempt to redefine the “basis for religious authority,” are designed more to impress than to instruct, more to conceal than to reveal. Such formulations make explicit that which has long been implicit in theological liberalism, and give status to what has been de facto for years.
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that for all the openness that the term seems to imply, theological pluralism is in reality a word game. It serves to divert the attention of the unwary from the crisis posed by the major departure from historic Christian faith in much of Christendom. It may also foster hope for a dispersal of ecclesiastical influence among non-establishment groups, a hope that seems unwarranted. When accommodations are made in the direction of evangelical minorities, they are tactical and superficial and contain little of substance. In practice, the term “theological pluralism” may serve merely to deflect attention from the techniques by which the theological status quo, which is at the root based upon humanistic rather than theistic principles, is perpetuated.
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