Miles begins A God of Many Understandings? with an event I remember well: “On Sunday morning, January 18, 2009, Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, stepped to a podium near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, to open the inauguration festivities for Barack Obama with an invocation and began his prayer, ‘O god of our many understandings, we pray that you will…’” (1). That simple opening to his prayer hit me like a tidal wave that day. “O god of our many understandings (?!)” At the same time I felt befuddlement, anger, and a sense that in that very phrase, Robinson had profoundly captured the essence of our modern religious sensibilities.
There have been plenty of books published over the recent years that have decried the slippage in the American church’s commitment to the exclusive claims of the gospel. But I promise you none have been written that are quite like this. The ambitious nature of Miles’s book is remarkable. The book is a biblical-theological tour de force that deals with a host of issues relating to the topic of the exclusive nature of the gospel.
Miles begins by developing a biblical understanding of an exclusive Trinitarian monotheism. As he does throughout the book, Miles moves methodically through the material, dealing with every significant biblical text on the subject matter as well as every serious challenge to his reading of the texts. Miles somehow manages the daunting task with agility, moving us deftly through the subject matter. Miles forces us back to texts in their context, reminding us of the pluralism that existed in the writing of both the Old and New Testaments (contra the tacit assumption of many inclusivists that the Bible was written in a non-pluralistic setting) and underscoring the Bible’s exclusive claims about God.
On the heels of this foundation, Miles really has two opponents he takes aim at, the universalists, who believe Christ has secured salvation for all, and the pluralists, who believe that all paths lead to God. Miles proves himself to be a fair and thorough reader of his adversaries, outlining their positions (and even chronicling their developments in thought) carefully and evenhandedly before taking them to task. His own position of an exclusive and Christocentric Christianity is driven by a circumspect reading of Scripture that is both systematic and thorough.
In the course of the book, Miles deals with a cloud of important topics related to issues of salvation and pluralism including hell, annihilationism, and pneumatology. These significant topics could derail a lesser writer from the central purpose of the book, but Miles is equal to the task and manages to deal with each of those in a manner both comprehensive and serving his primary purpose. The last of those is of particular interest and import. One might be surprised to discover the amount of energy Miles takes in developing a doctrine of the Holy Spirit in his book, but the decision to do so is strategic.
One of the driving theological factors for inclusivists is their pneumatological reading of Scripture wherein the movement of the Spirit moves beyond the work of Christ (saving people apart from the explicit preaching of Christ). If it is appropriate to read scripture pneumatologically, then many of the conclusions of the inclusivists follow naturally. If the work of the Spirit supersedes the work of Christ, one cannot anachronistically import the demands and exclusive statements of Christ on the Spirit. The Spirit (so the argument goes) is to Christ as Christ was to God’s dealing with the Israelites. Christ is significant, but penultimate. The Spirit’s work is without limits and the final outworking of the Trinity’s redemptive work. Is such a reading faithful to the scriptures? In no uncertain terms it is not, Miles contends.
A God of Many Understandings? is a treasure and I hope finds its way into the hands of many pastors, church leaders, and congregants. There is no doubt that one will emerge from the book with a profoundly biblical sense of God’s salvific plan alongside a deeply enriched understanding of how to faithfully read the Bible and think biblically about theology. Pick it up and read it. Look for someone struggling with these questions and encourage them to read it with you. I trust that God will use it powerfully if you do.