The reality of the West’s post-Christendom, multiethnic, multicultural context has meant that, more than ever, Christians face questions posed not simply by the existence of other religions, but also by their apparent flourishing. If secularization is alive and well, then so too is society’s sacralization. Hence, a theology of religions is arguably the most significant concern confronting Christian mission and apologetics in the twenty-first century.
There has been little evangelical theology offering a detailed, comprehensive, and biblically faithful analysis not only of the question of salvation but also questions of truth, the nature and history of human religiosity, and a host of other issues pertaining to Christian apologetics and contextualization amid religious pluralism. In Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock, lecturer and vice principal of Oak Hill College in London, Daniel Strange, explores these issues and offers the beginning of a theology of other religions.
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Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock
By Daniel Strange
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Daniel Strange
All rights reserved.
THE TASK BEFORE US: CHRISTIANS IN A WORLD OF THE RELIGIOUS OTHER
We live in a strange world, a world which presents us with tremendous contrasts. The high and the low, the great and the small, the sublime and the ridiculous, the beautiful and the ugly, the tragic and the comic, the good and the evil, the truth and the lie, all these are heaped in unfathomable interrelationship. The gravity and the vanity of life seize on us in turn. Man weeping is constantly giving way to man laughing. The whole world stands in the sign of humour, which has been well described as a laugh in a tear. The deepest cause of this present world is this: because of the sin of man, God is continually manifesting his wrath and yet, by reason of His own good pleasure, is always revealing His grace also ... Curse and blessing are so singularly interdependent that the one sometimes seems to become the other. Work in the sweat of the brow is curse and blessing at once. Both point to the cross which at one and the same time is the highest judgement and the richest grace. And that is why the cross is the midpoint of history and the reconciliation of all antitheses.
The post 9/11, 7/7, multi-ethnic and multicultural Britain in which I live is indeed often very strange, leaving many evangelical Christians bewitched, bothered and bewildered by the tremendous contrasts presented to them. Starting with the positives, certain aspects of plurality are not to be feared but rather celebrated as a blessing from the triune God whose very being is characterized by diversity in unity and unity in diversity. Ecclesiologically, many like me will have been edifyingly challenged and enriched from being part of local multi-ethnic church families which at their best demonstrate the rich diversity of gospel expression as opposed to what could be a bland mono-ethnic uniformity. However, at the public level confusion often abounds as we try to make our way in a society that imagines and then creates cultural artefacts such as 'winterval', and 'mega-mosques'. Such confusion is increasingly mixed with terror, be it a terror attack in Woolwich, London, together with the almost inevitable reprisals over the following days, or those simply terrified by such events and who just cannot believe such things can be happening in our green and pleasant land. At an international level conflict and casualties continue in Afghanistan, and as I write, the Middle East situation is as volatile as ever, with Syria and Egypt taking their turn in the spotlight. Our media networks not only look on with incredulity and frustration but often look down with disdain, calling for 'solutions', 'peace', 'tolerance' and 'security'.
In a fevered climate such as this, for us as evangelical Christians to continue to defend and proclaim the uniqueness and exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the life, as the only name under heaven by which we must be saved, and as the 'reconciliation of all antitheses' often appears to those both inside and outside the church as exacerbating misunderstanding, marginalization and oppression. Both intellectually and morally such claims – sounding naive, offensive, arrogant and imperialistic – are an apologetic embarrassment in communicating Christian truth to its late-modern cultured despisers. For in liberal Western culture generally there continues to be a deep implausibility structure regarding such claims, with 'defeaters' being legion. Despite strong sociological support that testifies worldwide to the withering of secularization and the flourishing of sacralization, the catch-all term of 'religion' into which we are often unceremoniously dumped continues to be seen by many (at the level of both popular conversation and academic discourse) not as the solution, but as the problem. Far from being a blessing, we are seen as an instantiation of the curse.
What may be worse still, though, is that we have become an irrelevance. For many we are simply religious relics, an uncomfortable memory of a more primitive religiosity now reinterpreted as the times of ignorance and infancy when Christians did not know any better because they did not know other religions any better. To put it another way, in the world we are told we all want, which lauds inclusive plurality, equality, tolerance and peace, and in the story that we tell ourselves about who we are, where we have come from and where we are going, a perceived 'exclusive' Christianity is at best given the role of the villain – worse, given the role of the pantomime villain (because militant Islam has taken the part of the real villain) or, even worse still, is not even deemed worthy to have a part in the story, even a bit part. The legacy of the gospel's impact on Western culture has been airbrushed out.
As evangelical believers, who continue to affirm the 'scandal of particularity', how do we respond in such a hostile context? While we may not succumb to the siren of pluralism, there remain some unhelpful responses that do us little good. The first could be called 'timid acquiescence'. While we believe in the exclusivity of Jesus Christ, when faced with criticism of such views we either downplay exclusivity completely or affirm it, but rather apologetically and with not a little embarrassment. The second could be called 'bold arrogance'. Here there is a tendency when questioned simply to trot out verses like Acts 4:12 and John 14:6 with little explanation or apologetic defence (because we don't have one), or to give the impression of 'self-righteousness', implying we have achieved total enlightenment on these issues and that there are simple and easy answers when it comes to this topic. We use a machete to bludgeon when what is needed is a scalpel to subvert. While these approaches may be doctrinally orthodox, none are winsome or persuasive. Perhaps a better approach, and one in keeping with the tenor of much apologetic teaching in the new Testament, is one that both defends and proclaims Christian exclusivity with what might be called a 'bold humility', a stance that seeks first to understand the world of religion and religions through a biblical worldview before then applying unique and satisfying gospel truth to a world of pseudo-gospels that promise much but can never ultimately deliver. We are to give a reason for the hope that we have, but to do so with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15). In other words, fortiter in re, suaviter in modo (boldy in action, gently in manner).
1. Describing the tasks of an evangelical theology of religions
In a recent article addressed to evangelical pastors I outlined a three-point 'to do' list that might begin to move us into this stance:
Develop and deploy a biblically rich and nuanced theology of religions.
Discern and denounce the arrogance and intolerance of pluralism.
Demonstrate and display, in both word and deed, the unique power of the gospel to change lives and communities.
Concerning the second and third points, there have been some encouraging signs in recent years that evangelicals are becoming more confident and starting to shift, as in a sport, from defence to offence. In the Reformed tradition one prominent example of someone at the forefront of this move is the teaching, preaching and leadership of Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, new York.
First, and concerning the unmasking of pluralism, Keller, crucially at a popular level, disseminates and communicates the work of Christian philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga deals not with the truth of exclusivism but rather the propriety or rightness of exclusivism against claims that such a position 'is irrational, or egotistical and unjustified, or intellectually arrogant, or elitist, or a manifestation of harmful pride, or even oppressive and imperialistic'. He groups such charges into two categories: moral objections (that exclusivism is arbitrary and arrogant) and epistemic objections (that exclusivism is irrational and unjustified). In both cases Plantinga shows that these common objections to exclusivism are not necessary objections, and even if they are valid, they equally apply to other positions with the result that so-called 'non-exclusive' positions become guilty of self-referential incoherence.
Using this insight, Keller demonstrates that far from demonstrating epistemic humility, pluralism is epistemologically arrogant in its claims. newbigin's commentary on the infamous 'pluralist' illustration based on the ancient fable of the blind man and elephant is also cited:
In the famous story of the blind man and the elephant, so often quoted in the interest of religious agnosticism, the real point of the story is constantly overlooked. The story is told from the point of view of the king and his courtiers, who are not blind but can see that the blind men are unable to grasp the full reality of the elephant and are only able to get a hold of part of the truth. The story is constantly told in order to neutralise the affirmation of the great religions, to suggest that they learn more humility and recognise that none of them can have more than one aspect of the truth. But of course, the real point of the story is exactly the opposite. If the king were also blind there would be no story. The story is told by the king, and it is the immensely arrogant claim of one who sees the full truth which all the world's religions are only groping after. It embodies the claim to know the full reality which relativizes all the claims of the religions.
The practical application here is that Keller is able to equip Christians to respond to a number of objections non-Christians often raise regarding the exclusive claims of Christ:
You say 'no one has the right to have the whole truth', but your view assumes you have the whole truth, an absolute vantage point to look down and interpret all religions. Tell me, where did you get this insight from exactly? Where does your superior knowledge come from?
You say 'no one should try to convert them to their religion', but you want me to convert to your story with its own understanding of god and reality. On what basis?
You say that 'Christian belief is too culturally conditioned to be "truth" and that if you were born in Morocco, you wouldn't even be a Christian but a Muslim', but the same is true for you. If you were born in Morocco, you wouldn't be a religious pluralist. Do you think you are wrong because you've come from a particular culture? It's just not fair to say, 'All claims about religions are historically conditioned except the one I'm making just now.'
The result is a 'levelling of the playing field', showing that pluralism (and other worldviews) are in some ways exclusive and have their own interpretation of a god (or gods) and reality, which they seek to convince others of and 'convert' them to.
Secondly, and with the above point established, Keller now asks which exclusive set of beliefs actually delivers the world we all want: delivers lasting peace, delivers tolerance, delivers loving relationships and peaceful behaviour. His answer is that it is only the unique and exclusive good news of historic, orthodox Christianity that has the power to change lives, communities and cultures. Concentrating on 1 John 4:1–12, Keller argues that it is precisely the unique aspects of the Christian gospel that will provide the lasting reconciliation people long for and chase after in their unbelief – and all these focus on Jesus Christ. First, he mentions the origin of Jesus' salvation: unlike the human founders of many of the world religions, Jesus Christ has come 'from God' (v. 2). Jesus is God incarnate. Secondly, he mentions the purpose of Jesus' salvation: unlike many other religions that seek liberation or escape from creation and the physical world, Jesus has 'come in the flesh' (v. 2). Christianity says that in the incarnation God received a body, and in the resurrection we see that salvation is not about escaping creation but redeeming and transforming creation: 'this world'. Christianity gives hope for 'this' world. Thirdly, he mentions the method of grace: unlike other religions in which you have to perform in certain ways to be saved, love God, love neighbor, and so on, the gospel says the opposite: 'This is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins' (v. 10). Jesus is not mainly a teacher, but a Saviour.
Why are these unique distinctives so important? Keller argues that these doctrinal distinctives are the foundation for truly loving behaviour. Without these foundations, a concept such as 'love' loses its meaning and quickly becomes self-righteousness and intolerance. How so? Keller argues that in the method of grace, Christians know they are not saved because of their performance, so they are to be humble, not self-righteous; in the purpose of Jesus' salvation, Christians know they are to serve others in their communities, because the resurrection shows us that God's creation matters, 'this world' matters; finally, in the origin of Jesus' salvation, Christians know that a self-sacrificing God must lead to self-sacrificing followers, not self-righteous followers. It turns out that so-called 'exclusive' Christianity is actually the most 'inclusive', 'loving' and 'peaceful' view of the world.
The ministries of Keller and others like him (e.g. Don Carson) have been able to give confidence to a younger generation of evangelicals to be both biblically faithful and culturally relevant: to go on the offensive against cherished pluralism but without being unnecessarily offensive.
2. Delineating the task of this study
In the Western context and atmosphere that I have already outlined, the front-line work of Keller and others has been desperately needed, for what we have here are faithful, relevant and, importantly, 'winsome' contextualizations of gospel truth for our 'strange' times. It is interesting to reflect here on both the 'success' and 'originality' of someone like Keller. There is no doubt that he is a very gifted communicator and strategist, but theologically he is not innovative and 'radical' in that he self-consciously remains totally within the tradition of Dutch Reformed theology and missiology, sitting on the shoulders of his teacher Harvie Conn, who himself was influenced heavily by the apologetics and systematic theology of Cornelius Van Til and the missiology of J. H. Bavinck. What Keller has done, though, like newbigin before him, is to reflect missiologically upon our Western culture and apply missiological tools to areas that have not been considered to be 'mission' fields.
Starting from the same confessional foundations, and with the same formative theological and missiological influences, this book is an attempt to complement and consolidate the work of Keller and others like him by expounding and developing the theology of religions upon which such practical theology or missiology is based. In other words, my subject matter concerns the first point of my 'to do' list: to develop and deploy a biblically rich and nuanced theology of religions. It is my contention that, as a tradition, evangelical theology of religions has been stunted in its growth, often lagging well behind other tradition-specific 'theologies of religions' in their depth and sophistication. Again, one of the reasons for this has been a justified defensive stance that has constantly had to defend the exclusivity and uniqueness of Christ against the criticisms of pluralism and (to a lesser extent) inclusivism. However, the result has been, albeit with some notable exceptions, a major preoccupation with questions of soteriology at the expense of other questions concerning the nature, meaning and purpose of religions in the economy of God's providence and purpose.
Alarmingly, not only are evangelicals behind other Christian traditions, but also behind other religions. As Leithart notes:
Islam's account of history has a place for Jesus and Christianity. To be sure, the Jesus of Islam is not the Jesus of the new Testament: He is not the divine Son incarnate, He is not crucified and raised (cf. Sura 4.157), and He is not reigning at the Father's right hand. Still, the prophet Jesus has a place in Muslim 'redemptive history,' and this poses the challenge to Christians: Has Christian theology been able to locate Islam within its history ... Can Christians make theological sense of the persistence of Islam? Can we fit them [i.e. Muslims] into our story?
Excerpted from Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock by Daniel Strange. Copyright © 2014 Daniel Strange. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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Table of ContentsPrologue
1. The Task Before Us
2. Homo Adorans
3. The Curious Case of Remnantal Revelation
4. Towards a Religio-Genesis
5. No Other Gods Before Me
6. The Perilous Exchange
7. For Their Rock Is Not as Our Rock
8. “A Light for the Gentiles”
9. ”But I Have Raised You Up for This Very Purpose”
What People are Saying About This
Deeply learned, theologically solid, well-informed in anthropology, this riveting study will guide the reader into the best ways to evaluate the religions of the world. Standing on the shoulders of Hendrik Kraemer and J. H. Bavinck, Dr Strange illuminates both the spiritual longings of people in different religions and their need for the gospel of Jesus Christ. -- William Edgar, Professor of Apologetics, Westminster Theological Seminary
Thoughtful, nuanced and biblically faithful evaluations on the role of other religions are unfortunately rare. Strange fills an important gap by offering us a bold but humble perspective on other religions, repristinating the thought of J. H. Bavinck and Hendrik
Kraemer for a new day. . . . Even those who are not Reformed or entirely convinced will be challenged and provoked and helped by Strange’s contribution. . . . This crucially important book should be read by missionaries, professors, pastors, and all those who teach the word of God and who long to see God’s name praised among the nations. -- Thomas R. Schreiner, Professor of New Testament Interpretation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary