Breaking Boundaries

“Off” by: Edmund Leighton, 1899

Pluralism has found a home among the people of God. While pluralism — the acceptance of nonbiblical ideas and practices as compatible with biblical faith and life — is not a new phenomenon, its persistence in church history and the pervasiveness of its influence today is a matter of deep concern for believers. What differentiates old from new pluralisms is how pluralism was opposed in the Bible and early church but enthusiastically embraced by the church in recent eras.

Evidences of pluralism appeared early in Israel’s life. Idolatry existed alongside traditional worship in the temple in Jerusalem. Israelites worshiped the god Baal through grossly immoral acts and engaged in child sacrifice to the Ammonite god Molech while maintaining a semblance of traditional worship in yearly festivals and sacrifices in the temple (see Jer. 7:8-10). Prophets repeatedly castigated Israel for engaging in magical practices forbidden in Deuteronomy 18. Second Kings 23 reveals the great diversity of idolatrous practices that infiltrated Israelite religion but purged under King Josiah. Prophets called Israel back to the Mosaic covenant as the singular basis for Israelite belief and practice.

In the early church pluralism took several forms. Judaizers insisted that in addition to faith in Christ, Gentiles must also follow Jewish law, particularly the rite of circumcision. Gnostics proposed texts in addition to the Gospels and prohibited marriage and certain foods as the only way to higher spiritual knowledge. Still others insisted on worshiping angels and an array of ascetic rules. Paul attacked pluralism by denouncing it as “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6-9). He spoke of the Gospel as a singular “good deposit” consisting of “sound words” (1 Tim. 6:32 Tim. 1:13–14). 

Contrary to Paul’s teaching, the most recent mantra of church historians is that from the beginning, Christianity was not a unity but a vast plurality in which competing views existed with no need to discern what was genuine and illegitimate. According to this view, each gospel writer expressed a unique perspective on the life of Jesus and His teaching, which differed radically from the others. The Pauline letters represent still another Christianity based on justification by faith. Historians no longer speak of Christianity in the singular. Now they invoke the term “Christianities” each with its respective text, theology, and practice. Only much later did the Great Church emerge, unified in doctrine and practice. “Heresy” and “orthodoxy” were fourth-century innovations — creations of ecumenical councils — and forcefully imposed by imperial decree, which quashed movements like the Gnostics. Since the winners write the history, many of these views were long lost and are only now being uncovered through meticulous historical research.

These historians are clearly wrong in their revisionism. Just as prophets of the Old Testament and Paul in the New rebuked false teachers, so apologists in the early church repudiated rival teachings of the Gnostics. Hippolytus in the early third century wrote Refutation of All Heresies. Irenaeus and Tertullian stand as irrefutable evidence that the church taught a unified message along Pauline lines long before the fourth century. Irenaeus wrote in 185 a.d. that although the church was scattered throughout the world “it occupies but one house, and believes as if it had but one mind, and preaches as if it had but one mouth. And although there are many dialects in the world, the meaning of the tradition is one and the same.” Tertullian (c. 200 a.d.) added: “My first principle is this. Christ laid down one definite system of truth which the world must believe without qualification.” Apologists gloried in the one strand of truth inherited from apostolic Scripture.

Although pluralism appeared in biblical times and the early church, it has exercised an especially potent influence in modernity and postmodernity. Advocates of worldviews alien to Christianity have produced numerous alternatives by introducing various philosophical and cultural phenomena into their reinterpretations of Christianity. Each has claimed that only by including these elements into the faith could Christianity survive. The result was a series of “Christianities” in the nineteenth century that bore more resemblance to the cultural norms of the day than to the historic faith of the apostles.

Immanuel Kant in the wake of English deism transformed Christianity into a rational moralism. In Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793) he contended that only those acts that are explicitly moral count as genuinely Christian. He dismissed the Old Testament; he rejected the historical fall; and he disdained Christ’s substitutionary atonement as the height of moral irresponsibility. People are “born again” — he frequently borrowed traditional terms only to give them new meanings — by converting their innermost disposition to follow the Golden Rule. In addition, prayer, worship, and other devotional activities are superstitious substitutes for correct moral behavior.

When rationalism gave way to romanticism as the primary worldview in Germany, Friedrich Schleiermacher faced a crucial decision. Would he counter the cultural tendency to accommodate to the latest movement by calling the church back to biblical and Reformation principles? Instead of doing so he continued the thrust of modernity forward with another reformulation of the faith — a romantic Christianity in which subjective God-consciousness prevailed over objective doctrinal teaching. The Bible is not the Word of God but a record of huma