Kärkkäinen’s “Trinity and Religious Pluralism”

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Libby Vincent at Fuller Theological Seminary during my first year for the first quarter of systematic theology.

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Did Jesus Christ not emphatically proclaim that he is the only way to God and to heaven?  It would seem that Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen has forgotten that Jesus did in fact claim himself to be the exclusive means by which anyone can be in a relationship with God or to have a ticket into heaven when first glancing at his book, Trinity and Religious Pluralism: the doctrine of the trinity in Christian theology of religions, which is designed to progress some new theological territory in systematic theology.  This territory is referred to by Kärkkäinen as “theology of religions.”  In this book, Kärkkäinen goes through and critiques nine trinitarian theologians and their theology of religions in exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralisms categories , some of which I liked and others I did not.  In order to proceed, we must first define our terms.

Trinity and Religious Pluralism in Review

Defining our Terms

This book is primarily focused on theology of religions, but what is it?  Kärkkäinen defines theology of religions as that which “deals with how Christianity should relate to other religions” (2004, 1).  Essentially, theology of religions can be defined as a Christian understanding of Christianity in relation to all other religions.  Kärkkäinen did well, however, to define the terms by which he would be categorically referring to in regards to theology of religions: exlusivism; inclusivism; and pluralisms.

Exclusivism is defined by Kärkkäinen as the theology of religions that holds to salvation as “available only in Jesus Christ, to the extent that those who have never heard the gospel are eternally lost” (2004, 3).  This category claims that Jesus Christ is exclusively the only way to heaven and he is the only way to God, and therefore all other religions do not lead to God or to heaven.  This category did not receive much treatment, if truly at all, in Kärkkäinen’s book, probably because there are not very many theologians who have actually written on theology of religions from this perspective.  At any rate, this category is not given much space in his book.  Inclusivism and pluralism, however, are apparently Kärkkäinen’s main focus.

Inclusivism is defined by Kärkkäinen as the theology of religions that holds that “while salvation is ontologically founded upon the person of Christ, its benefits have been made universally available by the revelation of God” (2004, 3).  This category of theology of religions basically upholds that Christ’s salvific act was universal and therefore the effects of it affect all men through the working of the Holy Spirit.  The most ink was spilt on this category within Kärkkäinen’s book, as five chapters out of 12 were devoted to it.  Still, a significant amount of space was devoted to pluralisms.

Pluralisms is defined by Kärkkäinen as the theology of religions that holds that “other religions are legitimate means of salvation” (2004, 3). Pluralisms, which is used by Kärkkäinen as the singular, not plural, despite the way he spells it, allows for other religions to be true in that of themselves as they function for different end goals.  It allows for all regions to be correct and that, for example, both Jesus Christ and Buddha are both means for bringing salvation.  This is different from, for clarity’s sake, inclusivism, because while pluralisms hold that all religions are legitimate in their own right, they have different end goals and they are all true, inclusivism holds that God–the God of Christianity–works in all religions to bring about salvation through Jesus Christ.

To sum up our terms, let’s conceptualize our categories in relation to theology of religions in terms of God’s grace umbrella–God-provided salvation.  First, exclusivism states that only Christianity is included under God’s grace umbrella.  Second, inclusivism states that other religions are also included with Christianity under God’s grace umbrella.  Third, pluralisms state that each religion has its own grace umbrella.  It is within these categories that Kärkkäinen critiques nine trinitarian theologians: Karl Barth; Karl Rahner; Jacques Dupuis; Gavin D’Costa; Wolfhart Pannenberg; Clark Pinnock; John Hick; Raimundo Panikkar; and S. Mark Heim.  Barth represents most closely the exclusivism category, while Rahner, Dupuis, D’Costa, Pannenberg and Pinnock represent the inclusivism category, and Hick, Panikkar and Heim represent the pluralisms category in Kärkkäinen’s book.

The Three Categories and Their Respective Theologian Representatives

Kärkkäinen’s critique of Barth can be summed up with this statement: “It was Barth who claimed that what makes the Christian doctrine of God different from the gods of other religions is the Trinity” (2004, 1).  Basically, for Kärkkäinen, Barth represents the exclusivism category in the fact that Barth states that the trinity is the end of the dialogue.  Barth’s understanding is, according to Kärkkäinen, that the Trinity makes Christianity different (2004, 1).  By means of talking of the exclusiveness of the Trinity, Christianity is therefore the only way to heaven and to God.  This is the only time we will see a hint of this line of thinking in the book.  The rest of the book details inclusivism and pluralisms instead.

Rahner basically says that the grace of the Trinity has affected the world for all ages (2004, 42).  The Trinity, then, is not really exclusive to Christianity, but it can also be implicitly found in other religions, due to the universal nature of the salvific act of God through Christ.  Dupuis understands that the Trinity is relational and is present in other religions as well as in Christianity (2004, 59).  Therefore, the Trinity is not confined to Christianity merely based upon the fact that this religion claims the Trinity for itself, because the Trinity is relational, and it can relate to people outside of the Christian religion.  D’Costa understands that the existence of the Trinity in other religions also reveals the existence of the church in those religions (2004, 69-70).  This means that the church is not just those involved in the Christian religion, but extends to all who belong to a religion, which implies that everyone belongs to the church–the bride of Christ.  Pannenberg perceives that the Trinity is the common ground for evaluating all religions (2004, 89).  This line of thinking makes the Trinity to be the place where all religions convene together, a place of convergence, therefore making all religions in some way salvific through the Trinity.  Pinnock upholds that the Trinity uses all religions to transform the friendship between God the Father and humanity (2004, 101-2).  This makes the Trinity out to be involved in all religions to bring about God’s salvation for humankind.

The development, therefore, of the Trinity within the category of inclusivism goes from affecting the world, to relating to the world, to existing in all religions, to becoming the converging point for all religions, to employing religions for redemption.  Inclusivism’s use of the Trinity has broadened in its development throughout Kärkkäinen’s book.  Having a firm grasp of the trinitarian development of inclusivism in juxtaposition of the exclusivism’s use of the Trinity, we can now proceed to the development of the Trinity in pluralisms.

Hick understands that the Trinity is not three in one, rather essentially three modes, and the modes represent different ways by which God can be known (2004, 113).  Therefore, the Trinity is used here as a proof for the fact that there are multiple ways of going about religion, or at least multiple ways to know God.  Pannikkar holds that the Trinity is a way to structure the world, and it can therefore be seen in any aspect of life, including religion, which means that the Trinity is the originating and driving force behind all religions (2004, 121-3).  This makes the Trinity the motivating force in all religions, but more importantly it makes the Trinity ambiguous so that it can be seen in anything and thus claim anything, in this case various religions, to be of God or working for God.  Heim basically says that the diversity of the Trinity demonstrates that there is a diversity in religious goals (2004, 136).  This makes the idea that because there is diversity within the Trinity, there must also be diversity among religions, which would mean there must be diversity in terms of religious goals.

The development of pluralisms’ use of the Trinity, then, goes from different ways for knowing God, to seeing the Trinity in anything and everything, including religions, to having different goals of religions.  The use of the Trinity in pluralism does not broaden the perspective of the Trinity as inclusivism does, rather it multiplies the use in its categorical perspective.

Personal Matters and Conclusion

Before Kärkkäinen closed his book with a drug-out summary of his critique of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralisms, he performed a short case study focusing in on the way Catholicism and Islam relate to each other in theology of religions.  It demonstrated that Islamic followers criticize Christianity for upholding the Trinity, which they claim is a distortion (2004, 156).  To them, the Trinity is really “tritheism” (2004, 156).  Our author clearly shows that “the doctrinal concept of God is not the same in these two faiths” (2004, 157).  This implies that pluralisms do not function well between the two religions being studied, thus ruling it out as a viable option as a theology of religions.  Kärkkäinen does well to show that “For Christians it is clear that the trinitarian faith is monotheistic, but for Muslims it means blasphemy” (2004, 160).  These two religions cannot stand together.

Kärkkäinen’s final critical comments in the last chapter seemed drug out a bit.  He continued going on and on about one particular point that could be boiled down to a simple statement.  In truth, the whole book can be boiled down to this statement: the only way to approach theology of religions is through the Trinity, which has had a vast array of approaches in that of itself, including, but not limited to, a narrow, broad, and multiple use of the Trinity for inter-religious dialogue.  Additionally, the three categories are washed away in the end, even by our author, in the fact that it is impossible to have an inclusivism or pluralisms view “without sacrificing the built-in tendency of each religion to assume the finality of its own truth claims” (2004, 166).  It just is not possible to uphold inclusivism or pluralisms for this reason.  We know that that Trinity is exclusive to Christianity, and salvation is exclusive to Christianity; however, exclusivism does not mean exclusion!  Therefore, the whole purpose of theology of religions is this: “to learn and share but also to persuade the Other [all religions and all other people outside of Christian religion] (contra Dupuis and pluralists), yet in ways that honour the Other and give him or her the right to make up his or her own mind” (2004, 181).  It seems, then, that Kärkkäinen has not lost sight of the fact that Jesus did in fact make strong claims to be the exclusive way to God.

Kärkkäinen sought to review the categories of theology of religions in this book.  He did do well in critiquing several trinitarian theologians and their perspectives on theology of religions in relation to the Trinity.  What I have determined from reading this book is that the bottom line is that there are really only two categories: exclusivism and non-exclusivism.  It is impossible to hold to a true category that upholds either inclusivism or pluralisms because such categories deny exclusive truths of the respective religions.  Furthermore, the whole purpose of theology of religions is not necessarily to determine how God will save humanity, whether through one particular religion or through various methods, but rather to learn to respect other religions and to respectively persuade them towards Christ (2004, 181).  Thus, theology of religions is really, at least in the sense of Kärkkäinen, an apologetic for witnessing to people of other religions.

Reference List

Kärkkäinen, Veli-Matti.  2004.  Trinity and Religious Pluralism: the doctrine of the trinity in

Christian theology of religions.  Aldershot, England and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate

Publishing Limited and Ashgate Publishing Company.