‘Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and Prophets. I come not to abolish, but to fulfill.’
Jesus then unleashed a series of aphorisms that would sweep the world like ethical tsunamis. They would touch the hearts of desert monastics, provoke ancient commentaries, convert Germanic warriors, move Francis of Assisi to extravagant charity, and inspire Sufi mystics, Tolstoyans, and the followers of Gandhi, King, and Benigno Aquino.
All this was somehow implied by the word ‘fulfill.’
In essence fulfillment is as simple as drinking a cup of wine. The English word ‘fulfill,’ and the Greek plerou, both originate as concrete descriptions of how pliable materials like water are held by solid reservoirs like a cup, valley, or (less concretely) one’s spirit within one’s body.
Fulfillment thinkers argue that the story of Jesus in some sense consummates, crowns, or perfects key truths not just of Jewish religious heritage (the ‘Law and the Prophets’), but of Gentile tradition as well. (‘The Gospel in Indian cups,’ that Indian mystic Sundar Singh requested.) Christ ‘fulfills’ by being that in which acknowledged truth (what sociologist Rodney Stark called ‘religious capital’) is more fully invested, or in answering riddles within pagan traditions: the Pharaoh’s dreams, words on a Babylonian wall, an altar to an unknown god.
Fulfillment theology has occasionally been mentioned as an alternative to conventional models of religions. Its best-known modern proponents have, however, been criticized for naivite, Victorian mummery about religious evolution, or for a subtle form of cultural imperialism. John Hick argued that the arguments of such schools were ad hoc, like the epicycles of Ptolemaic astronomy. Yet the term attaches to great names and compelling visions. Those visions appear as historically ambitious as City of God, Everlasting Man, or Tiananmen Square philosopher Yuan Zhiming’s Christ-centered revisionist history, China’s Confession. They are argued with the erudition of James Legge’s forty year translation of the Chinese Classics, or the High God concept Wilhelm Schmidt borrowed from Andrew Lang and developed into an anthropology. Dante, Spenser, and Milton tip their hats to fulfillment, though it is more boldly embraced in Grimm forests, Middle Earth, and C. S. Lewis’ Greek hinterland of Glome, his Venus, and Narnia. Fulfillment schools arise in all three great branches of the Christian tradition and over many ages.
Most often, contrary to Hick's assumption, fulfillment insights appear not as knee-jerk reactions against cultural discovery, but at its pioneer edge, on mission fields.
I think the idea merits renewed and closer consideration. Let’s begin with key modern proponents, then examine six implications that are implicit to fulfillment thinking.
The Crown of Hinduism
Early modern Europe was the product of a peculiar historical sequence: isolation of ‘Christendom’ from competing civilizations, long, bruising conflict with Islam, followed by sudden, universal, intoxicating (but temporary) triumph. James Thrower depicts the fulfillment school as a nineteenth century echo of the approach Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen took to Greek philosophy (Thrower 1999: 42). Modern fulfillment may then be seen not as a series of ‘epicycles’ attempting to rescue a failing orthodoxy, but (in part) as a return to a more orthodox model after long diversion.
The return is announced most dramatically in Mateo Ricci’s late 16th Century apologetic, True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven. The book takes the form of a dialogue between a European and a friendly Chinese intellectual. ‘Western Scholar’ argues that the Christian ‘Lord of Heaven’ was, in fact, Shang Di, the Supreme God whom the ancient Chinese had worshipped, canonized in the Five Classics every literati drank in with his mother’s milk. Despite the geopolitical threat that Europe already posed, Ricci’s bad habit of identifying a crudely idealized Europe with Christianity, and his wholesale dismissal of Buddhism, his sketch of the Gospel as fulfillment of Confucian tradition aided in the conversion of perhaps 300,000 Chinese, including a few top-level Ming literati. Carried to Korea by diplomats, Ricci’s book also inspired a small movement to Christ in that country. Alexander De Rhodes borrowed from Ricci’s work to write a Vietnamese catechism, aiding hundreds of thousands of converts. Later French Jesuits applied the same method to other elements in Chinese tradition: Taoist philosophy, the Yi Jing, Chinese language itself. Roberto De Nobili also built parallel bridges to Brahmins in India, justifying his ‘adaptations’ by pointing to Christian borrowings from pagan European cultures. Such methods were, however, largely curtailed within the Catholic Church after Clement XI decided against the Jesuit approach in 1704.
In Ivan Satyavrata’s in-depth study of Protestant Fulfillment thinking in India, Krishna Banerjea emerges as a prescient pioneer (Satyavrata 2001). Banerjea argued that the figure of Prajapati, the primordial Supreme Being who sacrificed himself for the salvation of humankind in the Rig Veda, was realized in the life of Jesus (Satyavrata 2001: 137). Thus the evangelic call to modern Indians should be recognized as coming from their own ancestors:
‘Embrace the true Prajapati, the true Purusha begotten before the worlds, who died that you might live, who by death hath vanquished death . . . You will find in Him everything worthy of your lineage, worthy of your antiquity, worthy of your traditions . . . ‘ (Satyavrata 2001: 145)
But John Farquhar’s Crown of Hinduism, published by Oxford University Press in 1913, proved the most influential colonial-era theoretical statement of fulfillment thinking. Grounded in orthodoxy, ambitious in ‘breadth and scope’ (Satyavrata 2001: 75), Farquhar helped define what became a prominent model of religions.
Farquhar’s stated goal was to describe the ‘real relationship of Christianity to other religions’ (Farquhar 1913: 15), of India in particular. While the ‘science of religion’ had helpfully revealed much about the universal character of religion, one must not just understand, but make practical judgments. Objective evaluation, Farquhar recognized to some extent, was impeded by confusion between ‘Christianity’ and European civilization, and by increasingly sophisticated Indian reaction against imperialism.
Farquhar and James Legge (the great China scholar whom Thrower plausibly pairs with Farquhar) helped take the serious approach the Jesuits had developed towards Asian religions to a deeper level. Their goal, as orthodox and missional Christians, was to ‘do justice’ to Indian and Chinese traditions, respectively, as Legge put it. Both occasionally echoed Victorian triumphalism, and Farquhar could indulge in ‘evolution of religions’ rhetoric. But like the French Jesuits, Farquhar in particular attempted to unify different threads of pagan tradition around Jesus.
Farquhar conceded that non-Christian religions have often trained people in goodness and brought them closer to God (Farquhar 1913: 28). Each great civilization contained elements of inestimable value, but also internal flaws that prevented it from offering the ‘highest service to the whole world.’ Not only individuals, but religious traditions, too, must seek life by dying to themselves: ‘Each must . . . die before it can bear fruit in all the world and find its highest aspirations truly fulfilled’ (Farquhar 1913: 49-50). Jesus did not destroy Jewish religion, but made Yahweh and Jewish Scripture ‘the heritage of the whole human family’ (Farquhar 1913: 45). Citing Clement of Alexandria, Farquhar argued that Christianity adopted Greek and other European culture for the good of the world. He conceded that Christians must also die to some aspects of Western religious tradition. Only by entering this dialectic could India become part of world redemptive history. It was in light of this universal pattern that Farquhar issued the potentially misleading call for Hinduism to ‘die into Christianity’ (Farquhar 1913: 51).
Farquhar then described Hinduism in relation to the family, rebirth, caste, monism, asceticism, idolatry, major traditions (especially Vedanta, Buddhism and Jainism), and guruism. In each case, he set out what he saw as positive and negative qualities, then argued that the Gospel ‘crowns’ each facet of ‘Hinduism’ by fulfilling what was best in it, and reforming what is false or harmful. In a companion volume published two years later, he described how Hinduism had already begun to reform in response to Christian influence from 1828 to 1913 (Farquhar 1915: 445). (Closing by taking note of a new star in the Indian firmament: ‘Mr. M. K. Gandhi, who did such excellent service in the struggle with the South African Government for justice for the Indian . . .’)
The Meaning of Fulfillment
The word fulfill implies at least six things: a sequence of events or story (a cup is manufactured, purchased, cleansed, filled, then drained); selection (one shakes out debris before pouring); purpose (cups are made for drinking, and wine and tea for being drunk); persuasion (‘Bottoms up!’); utility (‘Drink a little wine for your stomach’s sake!’), and the unity of unlike elements (solid and liquid, thirst and object of thirst, oxygen and tea leaves or grape residue).
These characteristics, I believe, are imbedded in the structure of Christian theology and together suggest a coherent, richly explanatory model of religions.
a. Fulfillment first of all implies story, which since it transcends particular lives and traditions, may be called meta-narrative. Fulfillment thinkers at least implicitly offer an overarching tale of humanity of the sort post-modernist Jean-Francois Lyotard decried. But the fulfillment story is neither ad hoc nor modernist, since it begins with the words of Jesus himself, if not with the Law and Prophets he invoked.
That early Christians interpreted every strand of the story of Israel in terms of fulfillment is obvious. As N. T. Wright put it, Luke ‘told the story of Jesus as a Jewish story, indeed as the Jewish story, much as Josephus told the story of the fall of Jerusalem as the climax of Israel’s long and tragic history,’ indeed, ‘as the fulfillment, the completion, of the story of David and his kingdom’ (Wright 1992: 381). Nothing is clearer in the gospels, Acts, and Hebrews, than that the life of Jesus was quickly seen to ‘fulfill the Law and the Prophets’ in the sense of consummating and making sense of Jewish history.
Salvation then poured into wider circles: from the Twelve, who represented Israel, to Jerusalem, Samaria, and the ends of the Greco-Roman cultural sphere.
Virgil taught the Romans to seek meaning through story. For the mature Augustine, whom Sabine MacCormack calls his ‘most intelligent and searching ancient reader,’ Virgil served as a critical dialogue partner. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection drew the story of Rome up into the universal tale of the City of God. Augustine forecast that awareness of God would be found among pagan nations in all directions. Paul suggested that not just indigenous cultures, but creation itself ‘groans’ anticipating a hope analogous to childbirth (Romans 8: 18-25).
From the first, then, fulfillment invoked progress over time, as the redemptive story filled wider and wider spheres. One follows this thread through the conversion stories of Justin and Augustine, the Nestorian stele in Tang China, even into fairyland, as the Gospel expanded into personal, national, mythic and imaginative worlds. To adapt that beautiful early Medieval fulfillment poem Dream of the Rood slightly, the Gospel is like the Germanic World Tree, ‘brightest of all beams,’ spreading roots into all soils, morphing into a cross (‘an earlier, wretched ordeal’) and thence into something like a Christmas tree (‘shining, beautiful, arrayed in gold, covered with gems.’)
b. As Farquhar well recognized, fulfillment also means selection, or dialectic. Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote of the ‘dialectic of negation, affirmation, and redemptive activity’ that Christian tradition represents. This comes from the gospels themselves, and the concept of fulfillment.
Matthew’s story begins with a dialectic of repentance. Sins are symbolically washed away at the Jordan River, because the Holy Spirit cannot fill what has not yet been cleansed. Matthew revels in the dialectic irony of his story, beginning with a refugee infant who is king, and a prophet in camel’s hair, progressing towards a crucified Messiah. The Beatitudes describe fulfillment dialectically: blessed (somehow) are the poor and those who mourn, blessed are you when men revile you. As a cup (or temple) is cleansed before being filled, so weeds grow with wheat, and some bridegrooms miss the wedding. . Wright infers a chiastic relationship between the ‘Sermon’ and Jesus’ final End Times discourse, Matthew weaving Moses’ ‘covenantal choice’ of life and death ‘into the very structure of the Gospel.’
Dialectic distinguishes fulfillment from syncretism, on the one hand, and iconoclasm, on the other.
Alvin Plantinga criticized what he perceived as John Paul II’s simplistic affirmation of Greek philosophy: ‘Aren’t there Democritus and Lucretius as well as Plato and Aristotle, and isn’t the Cross “foolishness to the Greeks?”’ Gavin D’Costa wrote, ‘Christianity (or Hinduism, or whichever religion) . . . is regarded as the fulfillment of other religions.’ (D’Costa 2000: 21) Both I think underestimate the dialectical quality of fulfillment. Farquhar’s talk about Hinduism ‘dying into Christianity,’ does seem to envision ‘Christianity’ fulfilling rival bodies of thought. But Christianity is not the dialectical goal of fulfillment, Christ is. And it is not ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Greek philosophy,’ but God’s truth in diverse traditions that Christ fulfills.
A religion is generally defined in reference to three sources: (a) the life, teachings, and example of its founder or a charismatic guru, master, or prophet; (b) canonized teachings; and (c) developed tradition. Fulfillment should not be taken as a variation of inclusivism, or alternative to exclusivism or pluralism, not only because it cannot tell us ‘Who will be saved?’, but also because ‘Christianity’ does not fulfill ‘Judaism,’ ‘Greek philosophy,’ ‘Stoicism’ or ‘Hinduism.’ Rather, Jesus is seen as fulfilling central truths within Jewish, Greek, Indian or Chinese traditions.
As both Farquhar and John Paul II recognized in practice, in every tradition one finds gross errors about God, man, happiness, and justice, along with systematic evils like caste, sati, and human sacrifice. To all these, in unredeemed forms, the Gospel says ‘No.’ Wine is poured into a glass, leaving the cask (except for trace elements) behind. While the Gospel undoubtedly picked up aroma (good and bad) while ‘aging’ in the cask that was European civilization, figures like Ram Mohan Roy and Gandhi insisted it was Christ himself India wanted, not ‘beef . . . liquor, and . . . European costume, including a hat,’ as a young Gandhi objected. Identifying truth too closely with Western culture prompted either undiscriminating acceptance (cargo cults, Marxist heresies, Madonna in Beijing) or too wholesale a rejection (Boxers, Boston bombers). Fulfillment sifts every tradition as it sifted Europe.
Dialectic thus allows us to taste the full horror of Shang burials, Mesoamerican pyramids, or Auschwitz, alongside the full glory of Song painting or ahimsa, fitting each within a coherent scheme. But Jesus’ stories of the seed buried in the ground, yeast in bread, or marriage, do not merely juxtapose good or bad. Soil is life precisely because it is death. Seed (thesis), buried in muck (antithesis), draws life-giving nutrients to form a tree, in which birds settle (synthesis). Male joined to female leads to procreated synthesis: emergent qualities that neither sperm nor egg encompass. Jesus does not just reveal the evil of scapegoating, but transmutes the cross into redemption. Resurrection is not merely the negation of death, it brings a kind of life.
c. Fulfillment also offers utility, which among social creatures, means reform. Most great missionaries were also great reformers, and fulfillment missionaries (Justin, Ricci, Farquhar, Richard, Wu, Yuan, the Samurai Christians in Japan), are often in their top rank. As truth pours into wider circles, the individual is too small a vessel to contain its full blessings. Jesus was a threat to Powers That Be because in him, ‘the Kingdom of God is near,’ promising to transform not just individual hearts, but power and gender relations in a hierarchical, cruel empire, bring slaves out from under the thumb of Aristotle, and redeem the metaphysical status of Samaritans, children, lepers and beggars.
d. Fulfillment also implies purpose, or telos. Society is prepared (cultivated) as soil is tilled before planting. A cornerstone is set according to blueprints. The prophets are not mere celebrity endorsements for an aphoristic Cynic-sage. They remind us that God has planned every phase of Jesus’ career: good news and healing for the marginalized, sacrifice, resurrection, and redemption to the ‘ends of the Earth.’ Telos begins at a promised time in a Promised Land. But as the prophets foretold, the Messiah was prepared for all peoples. Matthew thus begins his gospel with a star in the east, and ends it with the Great Commission. So not only has God prepared a savior for all humanity, but He may speak to other peoples directly as well as through mortal messengers.
e. Seeds of Logos constitute evidence for the truth of that message, implying apologetic. The evangelists appealed to the minds of their readers, by historical investigation, rational argumentation, miraculous ‘signs,’ and realistic depictions of Jesus’ often baffling actions and the true to life reactions they provoked. Fulfillment was an integral part of the case that Jesus’ first followers laid out. One common objection is that gospel writers may have invented Jesus’ acts to fit the prophecies. But if Jesus also fulfills altars to an unknown God, the Vedic Prajapati who sacrifices himself for the world, Mencius’ promise that a Sage will appear 500 years after Confucius, and the Peace Child of the Sawi in New Guinea, one can hardly blame the evangelists for that. Fulfillment thus meets conditions Hick sets for an effective model of religions, by comprehending and helping explain even the most surprising bits of religious data.
Fulfillment also implies unity of unlike elements, or synthesis. Just as a seed takes in nutrients by shooting out roots in many directions, so Matthew draws on every accepted element in Hebrew tradition, from Adam to John the Baptist.
f. Synthesis thus begins with Israel. The Sermon on the Mount has been described as a ‘Messianic Torah’ delivered from a new Sinai (Davies & Allison 1988: 427). Matthew uses a patina of Old Testament allegory, types, theological tropes, and prophecies to present Jesus as fulfillment of the full panoply of Jewish tradition. The name ‘Joshua’ is an implicit promise to bring God’s people into the Promised Land. By Jesus’ genealogy through Abraham and David, and geographical markers (Egypt, Mount Sinai, the Jordan River, Jerusalem), Jesus is ‘recapitulating’ events in the life of Israel, as Davies and Allison remarks. Titles like Christ, Immanuel, Son of Man, and King of Israel focus ancient national expectations. The calling of the Twelve to be ‘fishers of men’ implicitly compares Jesus’ entourage to the patriarchs and tribes: they are Abraham’s seeds, broadcast to the world, prepared for death and new life.
Tillich recognized that with pagan cultures, as well, the Gospel becomes a ‘crystallization for all positive religious elements after they have been subjected to the criteria implied in this center.’
Clement explained how the Gospel also synthesized different threads of Greek philosophy by reminding readers of the playwright Euripides’ even more sordid tale of the King of Thebes. The women of the kingdom were going to the mountains to worship Dionysius. Suspecting orgies, the king banned worship of the new deity. In revenge, Dionysius drove the women mad, and they tore their king from limb to limb. Clement explained:
‘So the sects both of barbarian and Hellenic philosophy have done with truth, and each vaunts as the whole truth the portion which has fallen to its lot. But all, in my opinion, are illumined by the Dawn of Light.’
Dawn fills a landscape with light, revealing rivers, bridges, deserts and fruitful fields. Christ likewise illumines not only the character of each teaching or sect, but its relationship to the holistic Truth that Hick reminds us to seek.
In this ancient vision, then, religions need not relate in one dimension as on an acrostic bumper-sticker, or (on the other hand) like ducks at a shooting range. Fulfillment provides a four-dimensional map of faiths across time, with Christ at its interpretive center, leaving room for diverse phenomena, knitting the bones of truth together in a resurrected body of realized universal humanity.