Where Does Jesus Fit in Inter-Religious Dialogue?

Jesus does not fit the usual categories for a founder of a religion

I have been involved in a number of inter-religious dialogues. In these exchanges adherents of different religious traditions share their beliefs and practices. Often the motive is to advance tolerance. We seek to discern beliefs and sometimes practices that different religions share in common.

One of those attempts to find commonalities is a tendency to characterize the founders of world religions in one of two categories. They are either supremely inspiring teachers, like the Buddha, Confucius, or the many gurus who have molded Hinduism. Or they are powerful prophets, spokesmen for the divine, like Moses, Zoroaster, Muhammad or Bahá’u’lláh.

Where does Jesus fit? A common answer is that he is either a great teacher or a great prophet. For some he is both. He is seen as a typical specimen of a founder of a religion.

When we read the gospels, we do indeed encounter a Jesus who is a great teacher. The gospels tell us Jesus is constantly teaching, both his disciples and the crowds who follow him. He is a provocative teacher both in style (take the parables) and in content (take the Sermon on the Mount).

At times in the gospels we also find people acknowledging Jesus as a great prophet (see Matthew 16:13-14). In fact, his followers come to believe he is the great prophet that Moses had proclaimed that God would raise up to carry on Moses’ work (see Deuteronomy 18:18).

The Distinctive Role Christianity Assigns to Jesus

But if you limit your understanding of Jesus to just a great teacher or a great prophet, you are going to have a hard time understanding the animating spirit of Christianity. The Jesus of orthodox Christianity does not fully fit either category.

For example, the orthodox creeds of Christianity (the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed) say nothing at all about Jesus as a teacher or a prophet. Their focus is not on what Jesus taught or preached. Rather they focus is on who Jesus is and what he did.

I note this because I want to contend that in orthodox Christianity at least, the central role of Jesus is his role of Messiah and Savior of the world. It’s why the name of our religion is Christianity, a name based upon the title Christos, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah.

Behind the title Savior is the concept of liberator, a concept with deep roots in the Old Testament. God saved or liberated Israel from bondage in Egypt in the Exodus experience. And the Exodus story is the governing paradigm for salvation in the Bible.

For Christianity Jesus is the liberator not only for Christians, but also for the whole world. This Christian understanding of Jesus is given expression on the lips of the Samaritans in John 4:

They [the Samaritans] said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” [John 4:42]

Jesus sets us and the whole cosmos free not primarily through his teachings, but through his actions—his life, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension. These are exactly the actions the creeds give their attention to.

Now this makes it difficult to place Jesus in the usual categories when one is comparing world religions. What is supremely important for Christianity is not what Jesus said (important though Christians take his teachings and his words), but what he did. It is through those actions that he liberates the world.

Although I am not a deep scholar of world religions, the concept of savior does not seem to me to be a common category when talking about the religious leaders of other religions. From what I have read about the concept of the bodhisattva, Mahayana Buddhism may be envisioning something close to the Christian concept. But as I said, the concept of savior does not seem to be a common one in other religions.

The Practical Implications of Christianity’s Understanding of Jesus

Yet if you are to understand Christianity, you need to pay attention to this element of how Christians understand Jesus. It’s how we understand the very character of a Christian. Let me show how practical that is for my own Presbyterian faith tradition.

According to our Book of Order (our denomination’s governing constitution), the Christian Church “consists of all persons in every nation, together with their children, who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and commit themselves to live in a fellowship under his rule.” *

I call attention to the exact wording of this statement. The Christian is the one who professes faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The profession of faith is not primarily in a teacher or a prophet, but in one who is acknowledged as Lord and Savior. That profession of faith is accompanied by a commitment to live under Jesus’ rule within a community of faith (a fellowship, meaning a local community of believers).

In the New Testament this profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is given visible expression in the action of baptism. In the classical baptismal liturgies, the one who is to be baptized renounces sin, evil, and the devil, and one professes faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. One makes a decisive break with one’s past and enters into a new future. That future is now defined as allegiance and commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

Baptism is a comparable experience to the naturalization ceremony new American citizens undergo. They renounce an old citizenship in order to adopt a new one. And that new citizenship for the Christian is lived out in the community of a local church, which might also be described as a colony of the Kingdom of God.

In the Christian community you find people understand how Jesus saves in different ways. Yet as a community of faith, we continue to use this terminology of savior and salvation in talking about Jesus. This strikes me as something distinctive about Christianity, which tends to complicate inter-religious dialogue with other religious traditions.

I am not trying in this posting to disparage people who cannot see Jesus as anything but a great teacher or prophet. They honor Jesus in this level of respect that they accord him. My point is that if we try to limit a discussion of Jesus to the two categories of teacher and prophet, we will never understand the distinctive character of the Christian faith. Nor will we understand the deep, emotional devotion many Christians give to Jesus.

If others who are more knowledgeable about world religions contest the generalizations I have made in this posting, I welcome your comments of correction or clarification.


* This was the language traditionally found in paragraph G-4.0100 in all versions of the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) until the latest version adopted in 2011. That the language has been dropped from the latest version of the Book of Order is a serious deficiency, in my opinion.

Spacious Salvation

Have you stuffed your idea of salvation into too narrow of a box?

Scripture text: Psalm 66:10-12

For you, O God, have tested us;

            you have tried us as silver is tried.

You brought us into the net;

            you laid burdens on our backs;

you let people ride over our heads;

            we went through fire and through water;

            yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

Well-meaning Christians sometimes come up to me and ask, “Are you saved?” I find more often than not that they are asking from a narrow understanding of salvation. What they mean is: Where will you spend eternity? Will it be in heaven or in hell? Salvation is thought of primarily as a spiritual form of fire insurance.

This understanding of salvation stuffs salvation into a too restricted theological box. It ignores the richer and more expansive understanding of salvation that I get from reading the Bible.

Yes, the Bible encourages us to hope that when we as believers die, we will be “with Christ,” as the apostle Paul expresses it (Philippians 1:23). The promise of eternal life to each of us as individuals is a precious promise of the gospel. But that does not exhaust the meaning of salvation.

Reclaiming Old Testament Roots

It is helpful to remember that the concept of salvation has roots in the Old Testament, especially in the Exodus story. First and foremost salvation deals with rescue and liberation. When a person or a people are in deep danger or bondage, a savior is the one who comes and sets them free.

God becomes such a savior when God comes and liberates Israel from bondage in Egypt. God leads them out into a new life, a life of freedom. Israel is set free from the constraints that keep Israel from being the people God calls them to be.

Those constraints are political. Pharaoh’s claim on them must be broken. The constraints are social and economic. Israel must be delivered from the literal bondage of slavery. The constraints are psychological. Israel must acquire a new mind-set. They are to live as responsible free people, not as passive slaves.

And the constraints are spiritual. Israel enters into covenant with God, a covenant that calls them away from all forms of idolatry. The first commandment is that “they shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

In the Old Testament salvation has a clearly this-worldly and communal quality. It is fundamentally an experience of liberation.

Salvation Is Enriched in the New Testament

When we get to the New Testament, none of this Old Testament understanding is abandoned. Salvation continues to have its political, economic, social, and psychological dimensions. But the concept of salvation is enriched. For what has happened since the Exodus event is that spiritually sensitive minds have come to realize that the constraints that hold human beings in bondage are more than political, economic, social, and psychological, important as they are.

What ultimately holds human beings in bondage is spiritual. These bonds are sin, spiritual powers of evil, and ultimately death. Against these powers human beings prove helpless. We need someone to set us free, to save us. That is the mission of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, as the Samaritans acknowledge him in John 4:42.

Jesus does this by his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This is the saving work of Jesus. The Nicene Creed acknowledges this when it begins its recital of Jesus’ saving work with the opening phrase “for us and for our salvation.”

There are many dimensions to salvation as we encounter it in the New Testament. For one, it is certainly spiritual. Sins are forgiven. We receive reconciliation with God. We are adopted as God’s children to enjoy an intimacy with God.

But it is also much more. When Jesus heals the woman with a hemorrhage in Mark 5:25-34, he tells her that her faith has made her well. The Greek word translated “made well” can also be translated “saved.” In her healing she is experiencing liberation from her ailment, and in that physical sense she is experiencing salvation.

When Zacchaeus responds to Jesus by saying that he will change his ways as a tax-collector, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:1-10). Salvation embraces the dramatic change of mind-set and behavior that Zacchaeus has adopted.

Salvation = Shalom

I think the best synonym for salvation is the Hebrew word shalom, which we translate as peace. But the English word peace is an anemic translation. The English word usually means “a cessation of conflict or of war.” The Hebrew word is much more expansive in meaning. It embraces not only cessation of conflict, but also wholeness, prosperity, and social harmony. It is well-being in its many dimensions.

For the New Testament writers the greatest enemy of mankind is death. It is the one oppressor that no human being can break free from. So the ultimate gift of salvation is the gift of liberation from death. That is what the apostle Paul is celebrating in the glorious 15th chapter of First Corinthians:

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

            “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

            “Where, O death, is your victory?

            Where, O death, is your sting?”

 The Cosmic Dimension of Salvation

But I want to suggest that this final liberation from death does not exhaust the dimensions of salvation that we find in the New Testament writings. Salvation exceeds even the ultimate destiny of human beings. There is a cosmic dimension to salvation.

Two passages in the apostle Paul’s writings weigh heavily with me here. The first is in Romans 8:19-23. There Paul talks about all of creation awaiting its own liberation, a freedom from the bondage of decay, a freedom mirroring that of the children of God.

Human beings are not the only ones held in bondage to death and decay. All of creation is as well (as evidenced by the scientific law of entropy). In the day of final salvation, the whole of creation will share in God’s liberation. Our salvation as human beings is part of a much bigger story, a story that embraces all of the universe.

The second passage that rivets my imagination is Ephesians 1:9-10:

With all wisdom and insight, he [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Here Paul envisions that in the day of final salvation, all of the cosmos will be brought into a profound unity with Christ at the center as the one who unites all things together in peace.

This is about as cosmic as it can get. The kingdom of God, the realm of salvation, embraces not only human beings, but all of the cosmos, including its billions upon billions of galaxies and its many infinitesimally small atomic particles. Now that is breathtaking to me.

I’m not sure any human being has expressed the vision more expansively than has Dante in his final canto of The Divine Comedy. There we experience a vision of the triune God as the center and unifying force of a great mystic and cosmic rose that choirs forth God’s praise.

Spacious Salvation

I love the phrasing of Psalm 66 that I quoted at the start of this posting. It sings of the troubles that Israel has been through in its pilgrimage with God. They have passed through fire and water. But says the psalmist, God has brought them out into “a spacious place.”

I love that word “spacious.” It captures for me the whole vision of the Bible. What God is up to is nothing less than a “spacious salvation.” Now that is worthy of the jubilation of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.