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What are Non-Christian Religions and Why Do They Exist? — An Excerpt from "Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock"
These two questions sit at the heart of the discipline of the theology of religions. They also sit at the heart of Daniel Strange’s new book Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock.
His thoughtful, nuanced, biblically faithful work fills a crucial gap in the evangelical evaluation of the role of other religions. In it he seeks to explain and defend this definition of religion that answers our questions:
From the presupposition of an epistemologically authoritative biblical revelation, non-Christian religions are sovereignly directed, variegated and dynamic, collective human idolatrous responses to divine revelation behind which stand deceiving demonic forces. Being antithetically against yet parasitically dependent upon the truth of the Christian worldview, non-Christian religions are ‘subversively fulfilled’ in the gospel of Jesus Christ. (239)
Read the excerpt below to grasp the value of Strange’s work and gain greater insights into the reason and nature of non-Christian religions.
For their rock is not as our Rock.
(Deuteronomy 32:31 ESV)
From the perspective of a fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), what are non-Christian religions? Why are there non-Christian religions? These seemingly crude and almost childlike inquisitions of nature and purpose are in reality deeply profound questions, for without pretension they encapsulate much of the essence of the discipline known as the theology of religions. How one decides to answer these questions sets a theological trajectory with far reaching implications for contemporary Christian missiological engagement with other religions. My attempted answers will form the remainder of this work, as I seek to pull together into a systematic and coherent whole the material surveyed in previous chapters. Such synthesizing is a daunting task, not because God’s revelation presents multiple conflicting theologies of religion, but because within a unified revelation there is a sophistication and nuance in understanding non-Christian religion and religions that defies simplistic and reductionist explanations. As we have seen, even if we survey just the biblical revelation, the canonically limited polyphony of Scripture is complex as we take into account such features as literary genre and the contours of redemptive history. To this complexity we add further extra-biblical revelation in terms of historical and phenomenological evidence.
Before such explanation begins, and lest anyone be disappointed, it is worth once again reiterating what I am and am not attempting to describe and justify in this chapter. First, what I want to set out here is a general theological and dogmatic framework of religion that can act as both a fence and a foundation for particular religious tradition-specific instantiations that further ‘flesh out’ this skeleton. While I shall give some illustrative examples, it is the dogmatic outline that is the focus. Similarly, for those who, perhaps rightly, wish me to head straight to missiological application in terms of apologetics, contextualization, dialogue, and so on, a degree of patience will be required as, while this theological analysis provides a necessary and firm springboard for such missiological application, the actual detailed discussion and treatment of these issues will not be included here but will be sketched out briefly in the next chapter.
Secondly, I recognize that as I break down my theology of religions and summarize its component parts, each one of these parts merits much more expansive treatment than can be given here. I hope my brief description will whet the appetite for others to undertake further research in these areas that all contribute to a Reformed evangelical theology of religions, and a Reformed evangelical ‘theological religious studies’. For while it was confessional Christianity that pioneered the detailed study of other religions, apart from a few exceptions, we have lagged well behind in these areas of academic studies, with the result that agendas have been set and presuppositions assumed that rule out historic orthodox Christian faith.
Thirdly, and once again, I am not embarrassed to admit the somewhat derivative and synthesized nature of my theology of religions given one of my initial goals: that in writing this monograph I wish to bring out of the shadows and back into the limelight a few seminal Reformed missiological scholars, scholars who for me come asymptotically closest to articulating biblical teaching concerning the nature of the religious Other. Here the spotlight falls on Hendrik Kraemer and J. H. Bavinck. My own prescription of the nature of the religious Other is largely a description and re-articulation of their articulations.
At the beginning of this study I gave a definition of religion and the religions I now seek to explain and defend: From the presupposition of an epistemologically authoritative biblical revelation, non-Christian religions are sovereignly directed, variegated and dynamic, collective human idolatrous responses to divine revelation behind which stand deceiving demonic forces. Being antithetically against yet parasitically dependent upon the truth of the Christian worldview, non-Christian religions are ‘subversively fulfilled’ in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Throughout this study I have been attempting to both describe and justify this definition from Scripture, alluding to each of its component parts in varying degrees of detail. Such a definition, while verging on the dialectical and contradictory, is believed to be no more than the particular instantiation of the complex anthropological mix that is Homo adorans, which historically Reformed theology has attempted to articulate, and which I summarized in chapter 1 both systematically and redemptive historically. As was seen in that chapter and subsequent chapters, this pre-prepared tradition-specific ‘ingredient’ is perhaps best contained, explained and resolved by recognizing humanity’s ‘religious’ response to and reinterpretation of God’s revelation of himself. The Bible describes this conceptually in the language of ‘idolatry’. This Reformed dynamic of a subjective idolatrous response to an objective divine revelation is summarized in passages such as Romans 1:18–32 but is, as I hope I have demonstrated, evidenced throughout the entire biblical plotline. It is this dynamic that serves as the ‘grammar’ of this articulation. However, one more ingredient must be mentioned, for shadowing this major theme of idolatry, and ‘behind’ it, is the presence of the demonic. This is a minor theme but deserves some mention and analysis.
It is now possible to elucidate further this definition, breaking it down into four constituent parts. First, I shall describe the antithetical nature of the religious Other; secondly, I shall note the pseudo-similarity of the religious Other compared to true revelation; thirdly, I shall summarize what can be said regarding the role of the demonic behind the religious Other; finally, I shall attempt to show how this description paves the way for a relational dynamic between non-Christian religions and the gospel of Jesus Christ, which, and borrowing Kraemer’s term, I have called ‘subversive fulfilment’.
By Daniel Strange
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