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What Is the Theology of Religions?

By Emily Daw
Updated May 23, 2024
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Theology of religions is a branch of Christian theology that explores the relationship between Christianity and other world religions, particularly in regard to soteriology, or the study of salvation. In other words, one of the main concerns of the theology of religions is whether adherents of other religions can be saved, and if so, how can they. The three primary theologies of religion are exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.

Exclusivism is the view held by many conservative Protestants that only faith in Christ can lead to salvation, so followers of other religions cannot be saved. This theology of religions is rooted in Jesus' statement that he is "the way, the truth, and the life." Exclusivists believe strongly in the uniqueness of Christ among religious teachers, since according to their view his teachings are the only ones that lead to eternal salvation. People holding to this view generally interpret the Bible more literally than other Christians and are more likely to engage in mission work that focuses on converting and teaching others.

Inclusivists also believe that Christ is the only way to salvation, but claim that followers of other religions are also brought to salvation through Christ. According to the inclusivist theology of religions, God accepts any sincere religious practice as being offered through Christ, even if its followers are not aware of it. Such people are known in Catholic theology as "anonymous Christians," a term coined by 20th-century theologian Karl Rahner. Some say that only people who have not had the opportunity to hear about Christ can be anonymous Christians, while others think all religious people will be saved regardless of their exposure to Christianity. Critics say that such a view of salvation attempts to maintain Christ's uniqueness through wordplay, but salvation that is not through belief in Christ cannot really be called salvation through Christ at all.

Proponents of pluralist theology of religion believe that all religions are equally valid means of reaching God and that Christianity is no better or worse than any other. A helpful analogy for understanding pluralism might be to consider heaven as a city with many roads leading to it; the road, or religion, a particular person follows is largely dependent on where he or she started, but eventually all the roads will converge and lead to God. Critics of pluralism argue that claims made by different religious groups are inherently contradictory, so cannot all be true. For instance, many Islamic sects teach that salvation comes through good works, whereas most Christians believe that salvation comes by faith rather than deeds. Others, however, see pluralism as a force capable of promoting peace among adherents of all religions.

Some have criticized theology of religions for focusing on views of heaven and salvation after death, to the exclusion of the earthly relationship between religions. Inclusivism, for example, has been attacked on the basis that it devalues the need for mission work.If inclusivists do, however, believe that Christianity is the best way of living on earth regardless of the effect on what happens after death, they may still participate in missionary efforts. Many theologians are working toward a theology of religions that balances both earthly and heavenly concerns, but soteriology remains the dominant question within this branch of study.

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