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Veli-Matti Karkkainen: An Introduction to Theology of Religions


The bulk of Kärkkäinen’s book concerns the current scene, addressing “Ecclesiastical Approaches,” or how Christian churches respond to world religions, and “Theologians’ Interpretations.” Here his skillful navigating of the waters of the world of ideas regarding religions is especially helpful. Vatican II (1962-65) has had truly “transformative significance” for Roman Catholicism, leading to a much more inclusivist stance toward other religions. So-called mainline Protestant denominations such as Anglican/Episcopalian, Lutherans, Reformed, and Methodists generally follow suit. The Free Church tradition, including Anabaptists, Mennonites, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Charismatics, exhibits more variety than unanimity on theology of religions, but locates in exclusive-inclusive camps. Some Evangelicals are engaged in a painful process of struggle between exclusivism and inclusivism. Generally speaking, the ecumenical movement, including the World Council of Churches, is in close proximity to the official Roman Catholic position accenting inclusivism and interreligious dialogue.

In “Theologians’ Interpretations,” Kärkkäinen applies the paradigm of ecclesiocentrism, Christocentrism, theocentrism, realitycentrism, or, salvation through the Church, through Christ, or through God/Ultimate Reality. This allows more flexibility and variety than the more standard exclusivist-pluralist-inclusivist model, but still has its limits. Understandably, a short book review does not have nearly enough space to adequately analyze the ideas of leading theologians of the day. Put briefly, Karl Barth, Hendrick Kraemer, and Paul Althaus signify early Catholic/Protestant approaches to ecclesiocentrism, while Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, Jacques Dupuis, and Gavin D´Costa exemplify Christocentrism. Mainline Protestants Paul Tillich, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Lesslie Newbigin, and M. M. Thomas and Evangelicals Sir Norman Anderson, Clark Pinnock, and Amos Yong are also representative of Christocentricism. Theocentric/Ultimate Reality thinkers, include, most infamously John Hick, and also Stanley J. Samartha, Raimundo Panikkar, and Paul Knitter. Evangelicals who are ecclesiocentric include Millard J. Erickson, Harold Netland, and Vinoth Ramachandra. Obviously, a large difference of perspective exists among such original thinkers as these but enough similarity is shared to broadly place them together. Perceptive readers will note that generally speaking exclusivism overlaps with ecclesiocentrism, pluralism with theocentrism/ultimate reality, and inclusivism with Christocentrism.

In his epilogue, “The Way Forward,” Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen again notes the early stages of development for theology of religions and advises against continuing the current polemical mode of discussion. He favors more of a mutual dialogue. He warns that religious pluralism is “the most impending” problem for theology of religions, and looks forward to Christian theology of religions, which is now much more developed than that of other religions, being joined in discussion by them. He thinks theology of religions should be added to the core curriculum of educational institutions of various persuasions too.

I am particularly intrigued with what An Introduction to Theology of Religions says about Pentecostals. Noting that, next to Roman Catholicism, Pentecostals represent “the largest segment of Christian churches currently,” Kärkkäinen believes they have much to contribute on this subject and should be taken seriously. He insists, however, that we remember Pentecostalism, especially after global growth extending outside the West, is characterized by “variety and heterogeneity.” Pentecostals simply cannot be cubby-holed easily. Though Pentecostals are often aligned with fundamentalists and other conservatives, and “most limit the saving work of the Spirit to the church,” some see “the Holy Spirit at work in non-Christian religions, preparing individual hearts for eventual exposure to Jesus Christ.” Yet, while not wishing to limit the Spirit, many Pentecostals are “extremely reserved” about the Spirit’s “salvific ministry outside the church.” Pentecostalism’s close cousin, the Charismatic Movement tends to be a bit more open on this matter. However, Pentecostal theologians such as Amos Yong (and of course, Kärkkäinen, and me too) are challenging these stereotypes. Possibly Pentecostalism is shaking off the shackles of fundamentalism in favor of its own authentic pneumatological (and still Christocentric!) theology of religions. In any case, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen’s Introduction is certainly a significant assistant for this field of study. Perhaps most importantly, Kärkkäinen shows that before Pentecostals reach a conclusion regarding theology of religions and our response to radical religious pluralism we need to carefully survey the Scriptures, Christian history, and the contemporary setting. That seems so much better than jumping on a belief bandwagon driven by non/anti-Pentecostals.

Reviewed by Tony Richie


1 Realitycentrism is a term used to describe an especially radical vision of religious pluralism that prefers to use “Ultimate Reality” as a description of God in order to make references more palatable to those religions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism which do not believe in a personal deity but in some kind of impersonal force or being. In other words, it is a more philosophical and less theistic version of “theocentric.”


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Category: In Depth, Spring 2007

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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