Christianity As a Historical Religion


Among the modern scholars, Karl Barth was the first one to realize that theology cannot go on endlessly looking back and forth between the two separate poles of the absolute and the historical. His answer was to place theology ‘beyond the contamination of the historical virus.’1 He said about resurrection, the axis of the historical claims of Christianity:

Were there a direct and casual connection between the historical “facts” of the resurrection – the empty tomb, for example, or the appearances detailed in 1 Cor. 15- and the resurrection itself; was it in any sense of the word a “fact” in history, then no profession of faith or refinement of devotion could prevent it being involved in the see-saw of Yes and No in history, life and death……Therefore, if the resurrection be brought within the context of history, it must share in its obscurity and error and essential questionableness.2


Barth still wanted to secure the central place of Christianity in the salvation of humankind and the absolute uniqueness of Jesus Christ for all humanity. He realized that to do so, he has to place both beyond the relativizing effects of history. History has no place for absolutes.


But in the modern world, the uniqueness of Christianity cannot be just a claim. Every other religion can make a similar claim. The positiveness of the Christian claim is not sufficient. Modern consciousness of history must be addressed.


Others like Tillich have presupposed some common ground in experience, culture, religion, philosophy, and history between Christianity and other religions. In his lecture titled “The Significance of History of Religions for the Systematic Theologian,” Tillich took up the arguments of Troeltsch about the place of Christianity in history. Ernst Benz calls for a new theological understanding of the history of religion.3 Pannenberg maintained that Christianity’s promise of future fulfillment through the gospel of Christ would be meaningless apart from the universal context of the religious history of humanity.4


In North America, Christianity has been brought into a history-of-religions framework through the writings of John Hick, Paul Knitter, Wilfrid Cantwell Smith etc. The results of these wrings have been two-fold. On one side, Hick, Knitter and Smith have tried to prove that there is nothing unique about Christianity. The history of religions shows that all other religions are equally salvific like Christianity. Troeltsch on the other have felt that ‘increasingly refined historical inquiry has led to a more vital apprehension of the historically conditioned uniqueness of Christianity and to a more  radical interweaving of the Christian religion into human history generally.’5


A common consensus that has emerged from all of this is that a particular religion is culturally conditioned and that a particular religion does not suit for all the cultures of the world. Christianity is the highest truth relevant to the European cultural situation. It is the highest religion based on personal conviction and not inherent truth. An extension of this is that, even if Christianity is the highest religion so far, there is no proof that it will be the final religion for all time to come.


The historical method has been used to “dehistoricize” Christianity. People like Hick wanted to incorporate Christianity into the history of religions. Tillich wanted to integrate systematic theology and the history of religions. 


At the same time, Albert Schweitzer and others have shown that the relation between history and the absolute can be reformulated by a theology conscious of eschatology as the problem of the relation between the kingdom of God and history.6Pannenberg pointed out that Jesus himself consigned absolute religion to the world to come. Troeltsch appealed to the power of the eschatological idea, the influence of which is now universally admitted to extend throughout the Gospel. 


Therefore, the absolute does not belong to the historical past, but to the eschatological future end of history. The mistake was looking for absolutes in the past history. If this was clearly understood, many of the theological detours of the twentieth century could have been avoided. 


The presence of the eschatological kingdom in Jesus and in the Apostolic mission is the anticipation of the future of all religions as well as the entire religious life of humanity. The other religions are looking toward union with the divine mystery that the Christian gospel announces is ultimately the same dib=vine reality as that revealed in the person of Jesus. Thus the task of Christian mission is to interact with other religions to bring an encounter of all the religious traditions of humankind with the Christian message.7


The Christian attitude should be one of engaged interest in how God providentially has been preparing other religions to encounter the finality of the eschatological kingdom announced by Jesus.


1 Braaten, Carl E. No Other Gospel! Christianity Among the World’s Religions. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. (1992) p32.

2 Barth, Karl. The Epistle to Romans (translated by Edwyn C. Hoskyns). New York: Oxford University Press (1868) p204

3 Benz Ernst. “Ideas for a Theology of the History of Religion” in The Theology of the Christian Mission. New York: McGraw Hill (1961) p135

4 Pannenberg Wolfhart. Basic Questions in Theology: Collected Essays. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox (1983) p65

5 Troeltsch, Earnst. The Absoluteness of Christianity and History of Religions. Richmond, VA: John Knox Press (1971) p79

6 No  Other Gospel. p41

7 ibid. p47