A Theology of Interreligious Relations

Intercultural Theology, Volume 3

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Henning Wrogemann
Missiological Engagements
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , February
     475 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is not uncommon to find that scholars of the theology of religion describe the seemingly irreconcilable polarization in perspectives in the field as an “impasse.” Since Alan Race’s 1983 classic typological categorization of the different “patterns in the Christian Theology of Religions,” perspectives and issues in the field have often been framed in terms of the positions of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Henning Wrogemann’s A Theology of Interreligious Relations innovatively breaks away from this approach, and in doing this, he succeeds in opening up new theoretical and methodological vistas for the field. The book is the third and final installment of his Intercultural Theology trilogy. Even without having read the two earlier volumes, on the evidence of this third volume alone, one cannot but commend the scope, interdisciplinarity, and freshness of approach of the project.

The book is divided into six parts and is made up of thirty-five chapters. Although an earlier German edition had been published in 2015, this is the first English translation of the book. Wrogemann’s central contentions, which he expresses quite forthrightly in the prefaces to the English and German editions (both are included), are: (1), pluralistic theologies of religion “fail to represent true plurality” (xvii) and hence cannot be considered as reliable guides on navigating the complexities which attend to interfaith relations; and (2), he attempts to provide a corrective to this apparent failure and to propose a more holistic theory and theology of interreligious relations—with both the theology and theory aspects being intertwined but distinct. The first and second parts of the book are devoted to engaging the first of these concerns, and the third and fourth parts comprise chapters that tease out various aspects of his theory of interreligious relations. We come to the articulation of his theology of interreligious relations in the fifth and sixth parts of the book.

The organization of the book reflects the author’s methodological approach. Part 1 is, in the main, an exposition and survey of select “newer Christian theology-of-religion models.” Christian theological categorizations of non-Christian religions, including those of Wolfgang Trillhaas, Paul Althaus, and Paul Tillich are surveyed in the second chapter, which, alongside the first chapter, serves as an extended introduction to the discussion that follows. Wrogemann classifies the various theology of religion models which he treats under these labels: revisionist, interpretative, selective, and interactionist. John Hick and Paul Knitter’s theologies of religion are set out as illustrative of the revisionist approach in so far as they, according to Wrogemann, involve a relativization and radical reinterpretation of key Christian doctrines.

Wrogemann’s evaluation finds them wanting. The author considers Knitter’s linguistic grounds for relativizing the early Church’s Christological language to be simplistic. Contra Knitter, Wrogemann argues for reading early Christianity’s Christological language as conveying both propositional and metaphorical content. He chides Hick’s pluralism for being hegemonic and consequently not truly pluralistic. The work of Mark Heim and Michael Von Brück are considered as examples of the interpretative approach in that they seek to chart interpretative pathways for reading Christian doctrines—the Trinity in this instance—in ways that allow space for other “religious configurations.” Francis Clooney’s comparative-theological approach to reading sacred religious texts and Amos Young’s twin emphases on “redemptive hospitality” and pneumatology are treated under the headings of selective and interactionist respectively. Wrogemann’s evangelical leanings are evident in his sympathetic treatment of Young’s approach.

Moving from Christian theologies of religion, Wrogemann turns his attention in part 2 to considering a select number of Islamic and Buddhist views of other religions. The hermeneutical approaches of Farid Esack and Muhammed Sharur are summarily explicated. The diversity of Buddhist views of other religions is reflected in the range of Buddhist thinkers whom Wrogemann engages. For Wrogemann, both the Islamic and Buddhist approaches, unique in their own ways, no doubt, are at least united in their resistance of a “trans-religious” basis for comparing other world religions and in their sensitivity to non-democratic socio-political/legal contexts (in the case of the Islamic approaches). This difference, Wrogemann takes it, underlines the all too often idiosyncratic nature of many Western pluralistic Christian theologies of religion in that they tend to make Christian concerns about the salvation of “non-Christians” override more pertinent issues in interreligious relations. In attempting to show this, however, Wrogemann tends to conflate “Christian theologies of religion” with “pluralistic Christian theologies of religion.” An instance is when he avers that “many theology-of-religion models are based on theoretical presuppositions that lead to distorted perception of interreligious relations” 213) and then goes on to characterize them in pluralistic terms as “hoping that relativizing religious claims to ultimate validity will lead to lasting positive interreligious relations” (213-14).

To my mind, part 3 is where the marginal value of the book lies. Along with the chapters in part 4, both parts consolidate each other in making the point that much of the weakness of (pluralistic) Christian theology of religions lies in their tendency to overstate the pragmatic relevance of their contribution in aiding peaceful interfaith coexistence. Wrogemann’s theory of interreligious relations draws attention to the critical import of such factors as identity, the social psychology of exclusion and inclusion, the multifaceted nature of recognition, the dynamics of engagement in the public sphere and the variegated issues which accompany religious diversity in societal contexts. Wrogemann’s treatment of the topics reflects an admirable versatility even if sometimes too ambitious in scope as to necessitate less than detailed engagement. The key takeaway from Wrogemann’s theory of interreligious relations is that Christian theological study of other religions ought to pay more attention to the non-theological than they currently do because these latter factors are often more crucial for interreligious relations than any theology of religion model in and of itself.

Part 5 is Wrogemann’s articulation of his theology of interreligious relations. Wrogemann draws from both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament to relate how Christian monotheism, elements in the Gospel’s portrayal of Jesus Christ, the Apocalypse of John and 1 Peter’s admonition on Christian living can provide resources for Christian relationship with religious others. What strikes as novel here is the emphasis Wrogemann places on interreligious relations rather than interreligious theology. The final part of the book is Wrogemann’s reflection on the future of mission studies and an attempt to make a case for intercultural theology as proper theology.

Wrogemann’s book is very helpful for providing a synthesis of both theological and intercultural issues in interreligious relations, and in this regard, he succeeds. But while his theory of interreligious relations has important merits, his attempt to cast it as possessing superior practical value than “theology of religions models” sometimes comes across as unwarranted. Theology of religion as a field of research has its own disciplinary boundaries and research agenda. While it may be true that certain pluralistic theologians speak as though the sole cause of religious bigotry is due to so-called exclusionary theologies, that fact does not justify blanket generalizations about the whole field. Besides, as a theological enterprise, it seems unfair to expect the theology of religion to answer questions which it does not ask. This reservation, however, does not take anything away from my welcoming Wrogemann’s book as an excellent addition to the burgeoning field of interfaith/interreligious studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Wemimo B. Jaiyesimi is a doctoral student in Interfaith Studies at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Henning Wrogemann holds the Chair for Mission Studies, Comparative Religion, and Ecumenics at the Protestant University Wuppertal/Bethel in Germany, where he also heads the Institute for Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies. He is Chairman of the German Society of Missiology.


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