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A God of Many Understandings?: The Gospel and Theology of Religions Paperback – April 1, 2010
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About the Author
Todd Miles is assistant professor of Theology and Hermeneutics at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, where he earned the M.Div. He also holds a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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Top Customer Reviews
**Please note: This book is not a primer on the different world religions. For that type of book, the reader will have to look elsewhere.
It is these kind of questions that Todd Miles, a professor here in Portland and elder of my previous church community, aims to answer in his book, A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and a Theology of Religions.
Miles begins his work by establishing his thesis. He argues for an exclusivist understanding of world religions that demands conscious faith in the gospel of Jesus (for those unaware, in a city like Portland this is perhaps the chief sin. Say this in Powell's and hipsters will stone you with books). This thesis guides the rest of the volume.
He briefly surveys the way that Scripture speaks about and responds to, what he terms, "religious others". Miles is adamant that the consistent refrain in the Hebrew Bible is a call for exclusive worship of YHWH. He states, "There is not even a hint that anything other than exclusive worship of the Lord, on his terms, is acceptable" (58). Upon evaluation of the New Testament, Miles concludes, the evidence is univocal in how the early Church responded to religious others: They preached the gospel. The times of ignorance had been overlooked, but now God was calling all people, everywhere to repent and look to His Messiah.
After he lays his Biblical foundation on which he constructs the rest of his argument, Miles assesses the available options for a theology of religions. He uses the familiar fourfold typology of Universalism, Pluralism, Inclusivism, and Exclusivism, with the exception of evaluating Inclusivism within both evangelical and non-evangelical expressions.
Beginning with Universalism, Miles, drawing largely from an article by Richard Bauckham, details the history of Universalism, as well as its current resurgence amongst evangelicals. As is expected, Miles rejects Universalism on both theological and Biblical-exegetical grounds. He includes a short excursus on the doctrine of hell, which, though largely convincing, may have overstated its case a bit regarding Annihilationism. I concede a bit more ambiguity than Miles would.
Next in line, Miles addresses Pluralism. He rightly notes that the pluralistic nature of our society is nothing new, the New Testament was written in an environment just a pluralistic as our own. As such, it can speak very adequately to our present situation without much need for analogy making. Miles notes two sorts of pluralism:
 Reductionism occurs when the claim is made that the major religions are essentially the same and ultimately teach the same things.  Obfuscation occurs when the assertion is made that because God is complex and mysterious, any claims to particularity are finally impossible. (pp. 141)
In counteracting these two forms, Miles engages with the thought of John Hick, Peter Hodgson, Paul Knitter, and Stanley Samartha. He offer acute analysis of the trends and developments necessitated in Pluralist theology. For example, the tendency to subscribe to a low Christology, In denying Jesus divine identity, Pluralists are free to reject the exclusivism entailed in Particular Revelation. Likewise, Christian Pluralists tend to work from a Theo-Centric perspective, rather than Christo-centric. Miles handily rejects the Pluralist claims, finding them wanting on Biblical (which, most Pluralists aren't concerned with anyways) and philosophical/theological grounds. Essentially, the concessions made by Pluralists result in a theology that is often unrecognizable to the Christian tradition.
Having dealt with Pluralism, Miles moves on to consider both non-evangelical and evangelical expressions of Inclusivism. I was very pleased with the breadth of conversation partners that Miles chose. He engages with Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant theologians. A distinct trend is revealed in almost all Inclusivist expressions: a theology of religions that is thoroughly Pneumatological. The Spirit is of prime importance to Inclusivist theology. Jesus is too particular of a focus, he is bound by the confines of the Church, however, the Spirit is universal, and as such, is able to reach all peoples, even those who are untouched by the gospel of Jesus. It is this pneumatological foundation that allows inclusivist to open salvation, though still grounded in the work of Jesus, to religious others. Miles engages with important thinkers such as Clark Pinnock, Amos Yong, Karl Rahner, and Greg Khodr, as well as the important Vatican II statements.
Miles responds to the Inclusivist claims, which he certainly sees as the most significant challenge to Exclusivism, in the final three chapters of his book. First, he addresses a hermeneutical concern. According to Miles, Scripture is Christocentric. To read the Bible in a way that places prime significance on the Spirit, over the Son, is to choose a non-Biblical hermeneutic. My studies in early Christianity certainly confirm Miles point that the New Testament writers were explicitly Christocentric. Even their pneumatology was Christocentric. Which leads to his discussion on pneumatology itself. He rightly states that we must not separate the work of the Spirit from the work of the Son, because the primary role of the Spirit is to witness to Jesus. The Spirit does not bring salvation apart from His witness to the Son. Neither the Son, nor the Spirit, are independent of one another - as many Inclusivists imply. Thus, Miles concludes that the Inclusivist claims must be rejected, once again, on Biblical-Theological grounds.
What then should a Christian theology of religions look like? How are Christians to relate to religious others? Miles closing his book by looking at six questions:
(1) Is general revelation sufficient for salvation? (2) Does special revelation require a human messenger? (3) Is there truth in other religions? (4) Is there salvation in other religions? (5) Is interreligous dialoge beneficial? (6) Is interrreligious social cooperation legitimate? (pp. 330)
With risk of oversimplication, I will answer these questions very briefly, though, I suggest one buys the book to understand how these answers were reached, along with the proper nuance Miles provides. In response, (1) no, general revelation is only sufficient to condemn, not save. (2) No, however, the primary means that God uses is humanity to reach humanity. This provides no excuse for laziness in regards to global missions. (3) Yes, general revelation accounts for this, "God is rich in mercy and not stingy with knowledge of Himself" (pp. 330). However, all truth must be judged by God's special revelation in the Bible. (4) No, salvation is in Messiah Jesus alone. (5) Yes, however, the intent is to persuade, not just to learn. We ought to preach the gospel as Paul preached it. (6) Yes, however, not when the witness of the Church is suppressed. We must always be explicit representatives of Jesus, in order that He be praised.
Todd Miles has written a great book. It is very thorough and convincing, however, I would have liked engagement with Romans 2, which I think provides the greatest challenge to Exclusivism. Likewise, some of the questions of the unevangelized remained unanswered, such as, what of the faithful Jews who lived and died in the diaspora between Jesus' resurrection and the Church's proclamation? Admittedly, these are difficult questions that likely do not have answers, however, I think they are important in such a work. Overall, I highly recommend this and I share Miles concern that wide acceptance of Inclusivism may result in diminished church-planting efforts across the world. Miles clearly has the heart of an evangelist and a missionary which is to be commended. This is a work that is erudite and demands consideration by those wondering how to be Christians in a pluralistic world. Ultimately, we must preach the Gospel.
Good work, Todd!
NOTE: This book was provided free of charge in exchange for an honest review.