Jacques Dupuis, SJ
Religious Plurality and the Christological Debate

In a paper presented in Baar, Switzerland, (9-15 January 1990) at a symposium sponsored by the 'Dialogue with Living Faiths' section of the World Council of Churches the author discusses, in the light of different paradigms of salvation, the Christological problem that is at the heart of a theology of religions: 'Is Jesus Christ the one and universal Saviour?'


 The Christological problem has always been at the heart of the Christian theology of religions. It remains so today. In fact, the present context of religious plurality and the practice of inter-religious dialogue give to the Christological question new emphasis and urgency. It is generally agreed that the New Testament bears an unequivocal witness to the finality of Jesus Christ as universal Saviour of humankind. The question is, however, being asked whether in the present context of dialogue such a massive affirmation needs not be re-examined and re-interpreted. Does it belong to the substance of the revealed message, or is it due to the cultural idiom in which the experience of the early Christians has been expressed? In the light of what we know today about the followers of other religious traditions and of the traditions themselves, is it still possible to make their salvation depend on the particular historical event of Jesus of Nazareth, about whom often or whom otherwise they have failed to recognise? Is Jesus Christ the one and universal Saviour? And, if so, how can we account for the salvation in him of millions of people who do not acknowledge him?

 It is important to note that the question being asked is about Jesus Christ, not about the Christian Church or churches. The Christological question, not the ecclesiological one is at the heart of the debate; and in whatever way theology may conceive the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church, both can never be placed on one and the same level of necessity. Only of Jesus does the Gospel of John say that he is 'the way, the truth and the life' (Jn 14:6): and only of the 'man Christ Jesus' does Paul affirm that he is the 'one mediator between God and men' (1 Tim 2:5), and Peter that 'there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved' (Acts 4:12). A Christocentric theology of religions needs to be clearly distinguished from an ecclesiocentric perspective to the same.

Different paradigms of salvation

 The various theological positions on the subject have been differently classified by theologians. One classification distinguishes four main opinions: 1) an ecclesiocentric universe and an exclusive Christology. 2) a Christocentric universe and an inclusive Christology; 3) a theocentric universe and a normative Christology: 4) a theocentric universe and a non-normative Christology. For the sake of simplicity other classifications reduce the spectrum of opinions to three main categories: ecclesiocentrism, Christo-centrism, and theocentrism; or, equivalently, exclusi-vism, inclusivism, and 'pluralism'.

 The first opinion holds that the explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ and membership of the Church are required for salvation; it maintains the axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus in its rigid interpretation. The second seeks to combine the twofold New Testament affirmations of the concrete and universal salvific will of God, on the one hand, and of the finality of Jesus Christ as universal Saviour, on the other; it affirms that the mystery of Jesus Christ and of his Spirit is present and operative outside the boundaries of the Church, both in the life of individual persons and in the religious traditions to which they belong and which they sincerely practice. The third opinion holds that God has manifested and revealed himself in various ways to different peoples in their respective situations; no finality of Jesus Christ in the order of salvation is to be upheld, for God saves people through their own tradition even as he saves Christians through Jesus Christ. Thus, for the exclusivist position Jesus Christ and the Church are the necess-ary way to salvation: for the inclusivist Jesus Christ the way of all; according to the pluralist model Jesus Christ is the way for Christians while the respective traditions constitute the way for the others.

 It should be noted that the three categories above have but an indicative value and may not be taken rigidly. They leave room for many shades of opinion among theologians. Taken rigidly, they would become misleading as they would freeze theological opinions into the straight-jacket of preconceived labels. They nevertheless have the merit of showing clearly that the universality of the mediatorship of Jesus Christ in the order of salvation is at the centre of the debate.

Ecumenical dimension of the theology of religions

 In the context of the ecumenical discussion on the theology of religions it is no less important to note that, rather than representing distinct church traditions, the various opinions of the spectrum cut across the different churches. It may be true that the exclusivists paradigm is mainly held by Protestants of the evangelical tradition; yet the concrete attitudes of missionaries belonging to various churches would seem more often than not to betray a similar theological stand, notwithstanding on the Roman Catholic side the official disavowal of the rigid interpretation of the axiom extra ecclesiam nulla salus. On the other hand. the inclusivist paradigm, while being proposed by a large number of Roman Catholic theolo-gians, is not their exclusive preserve any more than is the pluralist the preserve of liberal Protestants. Both these models are being proposed with notable variations by authors belonging to distinct church traditions. Theology of religions should not be misconstrued to be a factor of division between the churches; it rather offers an opportunity for a broad consensus within a diversity of opinions as members of the various churches reflect together on their common Christian identity in the context of the plurality of religions.

The Catholic perspective

 This paper is primarily intended as a brief presentation of the state of the question from a Catholic perspective. It may therefore be useful to show succinctly what direction the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church has taken in recent years on the subject of other religions and their relationship to Christianity.

 I have already recalled the disavowal by authoritative church teaching of the exclusivist position: salvation must be held possible outside the Church. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has reaffirmed this doctrinal stand in unambiguous terms in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium, nn. 16-17), as well as in its declaration on the relationship of the Church to non-Christian religions (Nostra Aetate), its Decree on the Church's missionary activity (Ad Gentes), and its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). A celebrated passage of the later document, after stating how Christians come in contact with the paschal mystery of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, affirms clearly that the same applies 'in a way known to God' for members of the other religious traditions. It says: 'All this holds true not for Christians only, but also for all men of goodwill in whose hearts grace is active invisibily. For since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery' (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22).

 Several points need to be noted here. First, the Council looks at God's universal salvific will not as an abstract possibility but as a concrete reality, actually operative among people. Second, the concrete possibility of salvation available to all men and women of goodwill is salvation through Jesus Christ and his paschal mystery. Third, this salvation reaches out to them through the universal action of the Holy Spirit. Fourth, the manner in which salvation in Jesus Christ is made available outside the Church through the working of the Holy Spirit remains for us mys-terious. This last point does not amount to saying that the 'how' of salvation outside the Church lies altogether beyond the scope of theological investiga-tion; however, whatever theological explanation may be given would have to preserve the reference to Christ and his Spirit. God's saving grace or the faith that justifies has, even outside the Church, a Christological and pneumatological dimension.

 Has the Second Vatican Council gone beyond affirming that salvation in Jesus Christ is available to persons outside the Church? Does it consider the other religious traditions as constituting valid ways of salvation for their followers? For sure, the Second Vatican Council is the first Council in a long conciliar history to speak positively of the other religions. It recognises positive elements not only in individual persons belonging to those traditions, but in the traditions themselves. It speaks of 'elements of truth and grace' (Ad Gentes, n. 9), of 'seeds of the Word' (Ad Gentes, nn. 11, 15), and of 'a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men' (Nostra Aetate, n. 2) lying hidden in them. However, it leaves unanswered the question how the saving mystery of Jesus Christ operates in the members of the other religious traditions through the Holy Spirit. Yet, it is clear to the Council that those traditions cannot be considered as channels of salvation for their followers without reference to the mystery of Jesus Christ outside whom there is no salvation.

The inclusivist perspective

 This is the point on which the inclusivist theory and the pluralist one are sharply divided. The inclusivist model of which there exist different varieties professes to hold fast to the universal significance of the mystery of Jesus Christ, constitutive of salvation, as affirmed by the New Testament. While, however, the saving mystery of Jesus Christ is available to Christians in and through the Church, it reaches out to the followers of the other religious traditions, in some mysterious way, through these traditions themselves. There is thus one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ; but there exist different channels through which the saving action of the one mediator attains people inside and outside the Church through his Spirit. Admittedly, the Church, as the eschatological community representing sacramentally the mystery of Christ, mediates the mystery of salvation in an eminent way; but it is not the only channel of the mystery. The same attains people outside the Church in the concrete situations in which they find themselves; that is, in and through the religious traditions to which they belong, which inspire their faith-response to God and in which this response finds concrete expression. For the inclusivist theory, therefore, the task to be accomplished by a theology of religions consists in showing that the Christ-event, its particularity in time and space notwithstanding, has universal value and cosmic consequences in such wise that the mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ is everywhere present and operative through the Spirit.

The pluralist perspective

 The pluralist theory finds this inclusivist theological agenda unpracticable and unnecessary. It criticises the inclusivist model for pre-empting the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ and thereby affirming a priori the superiority of Christianity over the other religious traditions. It also accuses inclusivism for evaluating the other traditions not in themselves but in relation to Christianity; for seeing them not as they see themselves but as pale and incomplete realisations of what Christianity embodies in its fullness. In the present context of religious plurality and dialogue, such a position would seem untenable, for it assumes that Christianity is the yardstick by which all re-ligious traditions must be theologically evaluated and closes the door in advance to an inter-religious dialogue on a basis of equality. A paradigm shift is therefore necessary.

The theocentric perspective

 It consists in substituting for the Christocentric perspective a theocentric one, according to which Jesus Christ and his saving mystery no longer stand at the centre of God's saving design for humankind. That place belongs to God alone towards whom all the religious traditions, Christianity included, tend as to their end. It needs to be recognised plainly that God, who 'shows no partiality' (Acts 10:34), has manifested and revealed himself in various ways to different peoples in different cultures, and that the various religious traditions of the world embody, each in its own way, such divine self-revelation. It follows that, partial contradictions notwithstanding, the various religious traditions complement each other in their differences; what is required between them is neither mutual exclusion nor inclusion of the many into one, but reciprocal enrichment through open interaction and sincere dialogue.

 The pluralist paradigm is not, however, a monolithic theory; it covers different theological positions the distinction between which needs to be rapidly mentioned. In its extreme form with which the term 'Copernican revolution' is associated pluralism calls for Christianity to give up all claim to uniqueness or finality for Jesus Christ in the order of God's relationship with humankind. Universality can only be understood in the sense that the person of Jesus Christ and his message is capable as other saving figures also are of a universal appeal to people, that is, of arousing in them a response to God and to that which is truly human. But such a universal appeal is in no way a distinctive or exclusive feature of Christianity.

 Other versions of the pluralist model are more restrained. They hold perhaps illogically, once the claim for the universal constitutive mediatorship of Jesus Christ is abandoned that among the various paths, all valid in themselves and in their own right, Jesus Christ keeps a relative prominence: compared with other saving figures, he remains the ideal symbol of the way in which God has been dealing with humankind salvifically, and in this sense is 'normative'. According to some views, Christianity must renounce its claim to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ once for all. Others, on the contrary, call on Christianity to put such claim 'between brackets' provisionally to allow for sincere dialogue with the other religious traditions; the practice of dialogue will perhaps help rediscover that Jesus Christ is indeed unique.

A false dilemma

 This survey, though rapid and incomplete, allows for two observations to be made. The first is that at stake in the Christological debate in the context of religious plurality is the traditional Christocentrism of much of Christian theology. A growing number of theologians suggest that a Christocentric perspective is no longer tenable in the present context and that a theocentric model must be substituted for it. This assumption, however, calls for some clarifications. Are Christocentrism and theocentrism mutually opposed as two distinct paradigms? To affirm it constitutes by itself a theological and Christological option. The Christocentrism of Christian tradition is not, in fact, opposed to theocentrism. It never places Jesus Christ in the place of God; it merely affirms that God has placed him at the centre of his saving plan for humankind, not as the end but as the way, not as the goal of every human quest for God but as the universal mediator of God's saving action towards people. Christian theology is not faced with the dilemma of being either Christocentric or theocentric; it is theocentric by being Christocentric and vice-versa. This amounts to saying that Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God's encounter with people. The man Jesus belongs, no doubt, to the order of signs and symbols; but in him who has been constituted the Christ by God who raised him from the dead (cf. Acts 2:32) God's saving action reaches out to people in various ways, knowingly to some and to others unknowingly.

High and low Christology

 The second observation has to do with the kind of Christology that underlies the Christocentric and the theocentric paradigms. In terms of the distinction often made between a high and a low Christology, it is clear that the inclusivist or Christocentric model of a theology of religions is consonant with a high Christology in which the personal identity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God is unambiguously recognised; on the contrary the pluralist or theocentric model is in keeping with a low Christology which either questions or prescinds from such ontological affirmations about Jesus Christ. It is not by chance that the main protagonist of a 'Copernican revolution' in Christology in the context of the theology of religions, had pre-viously advocated the 'demythologisation' of the mystery of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. Both paradigms are in this regard fully consequent with themselves. The implication is, as the Christian tradition also testifies, that the only adequate foundation on which the uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ can be based is his personal identity as the Son of God made man, as God's incarnate Word. No other Christology can, in the last analysis, account persuasively for Christ's universal mediatorship in the order of salvation.

The 'Reign of God' paradigm

 Concretely, then, the choice between a Christocen-tric and a theocentric paradigm in the theology of religions depends on the option which is made between a high, ontological Christology and a low Christology which remains deliberately at the functional level. There remains to be asked whether other paradigm shifts from the Christocentric model are possible and to review several suggestions which have been made in that direction in recent years.

 One suggestion is that an eschatological perspective be substituted for the traditional Christocentrism. The new 'paradigm shift' would consist in centring the theology of religions no longer on the Christ-event but on the reign of God which builds itself up through history and is destined to reach its fulfilment in the eschatological time. The focus in the new perspective would no longer be on the past but on the future: God and his reign are the goal of history towards which all religions, Christianity included, tend together as to their common destiny.

 The reign of God model is a new version of the theocentric. It has the merit of showing that the followers of other religious traditions are already members of the reign of God in history and that together with Christians they are destined to meet in God at the end of time. Does this new model, however, represent a paradigm shift from the Christologi-cal? To affirm it would be to forget that the reign of God has broken through the history in Jesus Christ and the Christ-event; that it is through the combined action of the risen Christ and his Spirit that the members of the other religious traditions share in the reign of God historically present: finally, that the eschatological reign to which the members of all religious traditions are summoned together is at once God's reign and that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Once again theocentrism and Christocentrism seem to go hand in hand as two aspects of the same reality: they do not constitute distinct paradigms. Nevertheless, in the context of dialogue the reign of God model has the advantage of showing how Christians and the members of other religious traditions are co-pilgrims in history, heading as they do together towards God's eschatological fullness.

The pneumatocentric perspective

 Another suggestion is to base the theology of religions on the recognition of the universal presence and action of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God has been universally present throughout human history and remains active today outside the boundaries of the Christian fold. He it is who 'inspires' in people belonging to other religious traditions the obedience of saving faith, and in the traditions themselves a word spoken by God to their adherents. In short, the Holy Spirit is God's 'point of entry' into the life of people and of peoples; hence his immediate action opens up the way for a distinct model in the Christian theology of religions, no longer Christocentric but pneumato-centric.

 That the Holy Spirit is God's 'point of entry' wherever and whenever God reveals and communicates himself in history to people, is certain. Indeed, it is so in virtue of the necessary correspondence which exists between the mystery of the Triune God as he is in himself and that of his manifestation in the world. Outside the Church as inside, the immanent presence of the Holy Spirit is the reality of God's saving grace. However, does a model centred on the Spirit represent for a theology of religions a paradigm shift from the Christocentric model? It does not seem to be so. For the pneumatological perspective is only partly distinct from the Christological. In fact, both are inseparable in the Christian mystery, in so far as the cosmic influence of the Holy Spirit is essentially bound to the universal action of the risen Christ. The Spirit of God whose abiding presence confers salvation is at the same time the Spirit of Christ, communicated by the risen Lord. His saving function consists in centring people on the Christ whom God has established as the mediator and the way leading towards him. Christ, not the Spirit, is at the centre. Christocentrism and pneumatology must not be set in mutual opposition as two distinct economies of salvation; they are two inseparable aspects of one and the same economy. Nevertheless, the specific role played by the Holy Spirit in salvation both inside and outside the Church, and the immediacy of his action make it possible to recognise his personal imprint wherever salvation is at work. The influence of the Spirit manifests the operative presence of God's saving action in Jesus Christ.


 Our survey of the various theological models for a Christian theology of religions seems to lead to the following conclusion. The ecclesiocentric model is too narrow a perspective to account for the presence of God and of his saving grace outside the Church. A paradigm shift is called for from the ecclesiocentric to a Christocentric perspective. Whether the Christocen-tric model turns out in turn to be unequal to the task and a further paradigm shift is required towards a theocentric model is a debated question among Christologists; while low Christologists will be inclined to agree, their high counterparts will insist that a theocentric perspective is intrinsic in the Christocentric model itself; it must not be construed as a distinct paradigm. But if a Christian theology of religions needs to be Christocentric, it must bring out the full dimension of the mystery of Jesus Christ and put in evidence its cosmic significance. In particular, a Christian theology of religions must show that the members of the other religious traditions, together with Christians, share in the reign which God has established in history through Jesus Christ, and that the Spirit of Christ is present among them end operative in them.

Ref.: Focus,   Vol. 15, no. 2-3, 1995.