A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Mason Pell
In the book “Their Rock is not like Our Rock” Daniel Strange sets out to develop a theology of religions from a Biblical worldview. How do other religions fit into the witness of the Bible? How should Christians understand the presence of various religious systems around the world? What exactly are non-Christian religions? These are the questions Strange sets out to help his readers answer. He wrote the book because he believes a robust understanding of the “Religious Other” is lacking among evangelicals. Most writing in this area has been done from the view of comparative religions, but little has been written from a uniquely Evangelical perspective. He hopes that his work will spur on further study in the field as well as move Evangelicals to take the time to understand non-Christian religions from a Biblical perspective.
Strange wrote the book for Evangelical Christians (particularly Reformed Evangelicals) who struggle to respond to an increasingly pluralistic world that is hostile to the exclusive truth claims of Christianity. He hopes that his book will help Christians respond to the world of religions with “bold humility,” understanding non-Christian religions from a Biblical worldview before applying gospel truth to such pseudo-gospels. This all starts by identifying and defining the religious other in the Bible. Strange says, “it is not enough to say what other religions are not: we must know what they are, for this affects our missiology and praxis.” For this task he draws from the best of Reformed scholarship, going back to the time of the reformation, in particular, drawing from the works of Reformed missiologists J.H. Bavinck and Hendrik Kraemer. Throughout the work Strange shows great sensitivity to his own Reformed presuppositions as well as a great appreciation for the work of other men of God across disciplines.
Strange’s thesis is thorough:
“From the presupposition of an epistemologically authoritative biblical revelation, non-Christians religions are sovereignly directed, variegated and dynamic, collective human idolatrous responses to divine revelations 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.”
What is most important to Strange is that he is thoroughly Biblical in his understanding of the religious other. He begins with Paul’s Aeropaus address in Acts 17 through which he interprets the early chapters of Genesis, culminating in what he sees as a “religio-genesis” at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. This takes up chapters 2-4 of the book. Strange shows that the Bible defines man first and foremost as “Homo Adorans” or “worshipping man.” God created man to be religious, to worship him as the transcendent creator. The fall of man results in the de-creation of an originally pure faith. This Strange labels “false faith.” Thus, the religious other is a result of the fall of man and an act of “false faith.”
The first sin of man resulted in the first instance of false faith, and that faith continues to deteriorate over time through a process of “remnantal revelation.” This revelation originated in God’s dealing with man on a face-to-face level in the Garden of Eden. It was originally pure, but the result of sin, broken communion between God and man, man’s only means of preservation was through tradition. God’s revelation had not been inscripturated up to this point, thus there was decay and addition to the original revelation. This passing down of originally pure tradition, now with defect, is remnant revelation. Strange puts this forth as a reason for certain similarities between religious traditions, specifically similar creations stories of ancient mythologies.
False faith and remnantal revelation ultimately resulted in the collective idolatrous act of building the tower of Babel. Strange develops this in chapter 3. This, I believe, is the major contribution of the book. Strange sees Babel as not only the genesis of nations, cultures, and languages, but as the genesis of a plurality of false religions. At Babel God divided the peoples of the earth, and in so doing also divided the strands of remnantal revelation. This lead to a plurality of deteriorating strands of false faith. Strange sees God’s act upon the people of Babel as both a blessing and a punishment. The ethnic diversity produced was desired, as God had commanded man to multiply and fill the earth yet man gathered together. Babel was a rejection of God’s command. Thus, God’s intervention to divide the languages forced mankind to separate. This was a blessing. Yet God still punished the people by letting their false faith multiply among the newly divided tribes. This, Strange notes is being remedied in Jesus Christ who is uniting all peoples and nations under his Lordship. Babel is the origin of the diversity of false religion.
In this chapter Strange also lays out a theological basis for believing that behind the false religions of the world stand demonic forces. He first makes a case for the “sons of God” in the obscure passage of Genesis 6:1-4 to be fallen angels. He then moves to Deuteronomy 32 where he draws from the work of Michael Heiser who believes that Deuteronomy 32:8-9 shows that after God divided the peoples at Babel he assigned to each new tribe one of the fallen angels to rule over them. This is a “God’s eye view” of the Babel event in which God gives the peoples over to their sin of idolatry.
Strange moves next to deal specifically with idolatry. By working through Romans 1:18-32 he shows that idolatry is the main theme that the Bible uses to interpret non-Christian religions. Before that, he argues against the position that God was tolerant of idolatry in earlier Biblical account. For some, God’s treatment of supposed idolatrous characters in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis shows a more inclusive stance regarding non-Christian religions. Strange believes that the patriarchal narratives are in a different redemptive-historical moment. Abraham and his immediate children act differently than the nation of Israel under Moses because the circumstances of each group are redemptive-historically different. Along with this, he argues that the patriarchs knew the divine name Yahweh, or at the very least knew Yahweh personally even if through other divine names such as El. Even Melchizedek, who some believe to be a pagan priest, is actually shown by Abrahams interaction with him to be a worshiper of the creator God, Yahweh, whom Abraham himself worships.
Strange believes that the name Yahweh expresses God’s “transcendent uniqueness,” and that uniqueness is displayed in his absolute rule over the world as well as man’s covenantal accountability to him. Because of Yahweh’s transcendent uniqueness, all deviation from worship of Yahweh is idolatry. Strange, agreeing with C.J.H. Write identifies idols as things in the created world, demons, or things made by human hands. They parasitically draw from God’s good creation and act as counterfeits of the true God. This leads to counterfeit worship. By appealing to Jeremiah 2:11-13 Strange shows that idolatry robs God of glory and hurts the individual idolater. Thus, non-Christian religions are counterfeits of true Yahweh worship that God stands firmly against (Ex 20:3-4).
Turning to the NT in chapter 6, Strange notes that any serious understanding of the religious other must deal with the person of Jesus Christ. For in the NT Jesus Christ is revealed to be Yahweh, the transcendent and unique God over all creation. Not recognizing Jesus Christ as the one and only ascended Lord and ruler of all peoples of the earth is idolatry. All of this makes special revelation in Scripture necessary, for only Scripture reveals Jesus Christ to be the one true God.
Returning to Romans 1, and looking exclusively at the work of J.H. Banvink, Strange notes that non-Christian religious show that they know God through their reaction to what God has revealed in creation. All people respond to God’s revelation of himself in creation, but sinful man suppresses what is clear about God. The world religions are expressions of this suppression as they substitute true worship of God with something resembling God.
Chapter 7 provides a summary and synthesis of all that proceeded it and ends with the introduction of the idea of the gospel as being the ‘subversive fulfilment’ of all non-Christian religions. As subversive, the gospel stands antithetically against the religious other. Though there are many similarities between true and false faith, at its core Christianity is opposed to all non-Christian religions. As fulfillment, Christianity answers the ultimate questions that grip man. These questions arise from man’s response to the revelation of God in creation (general revelation). The whole reason man creates idolatrous systems of worship is to explain what he experiences from being in constant contact with God’s revelation. Strange believes that the gospel of Jesus Christ, though opposing all false religion, satisfies the longings of the worshipping man.
The final two chapters deal with the implications of the book’s study, first missiologically and then pastorally. Strange defines mission before returning to Acts 17 to show how Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is consistent with his subversive fulfillment model. Strange then moves to show a contemporary example of his theology or religions at work, looking at Sunni Islam. He concludes chapter 8 by insisting that the Church is the ultimate embodiment of subversive fulfillment in that the life the religious other longs for is only found in the Christian community.
Chapter 9 is a guide for pastors in interacting with the concerns of the church body over the reality of the religious other. Other religions can be a stumbling block for certain brothers and sisters. Strange believes that his theology of religions provides answers to the questions that the church body may raise. Here, he shows how God is glorified through his judgment upon false religions and mercy shown to the adherents of false religions through the gospel message. Beyond this, he explains how religious systems act as a restraint to the wicked intentions of man and provide a religious foundation through which the Christian gospel can communicated and understood. False religions use the same categories, and in many cases, the same language as Christianity. This is actually provision by God so that the believer can communicate with the unbeliever, using the common categories and language but speaking the truth.
Overall, I think that this work accomplishes its goals. It provides a Biblically focused, theological understanding of non-Christian religions. It answers questions that a lot of Christians have about their neighbors who follow a different religious tradition. It provides a framework that can be used by missiologists, missionaries, pastors, students, and lay people alike. Yet this book is not be for everyone. I don’t have the chops to provide an in-depth critique of the theology, but I can say that the work is very technical. It uses many theological terms that I myself had to look up, and it can be repetitive. What is said in the first chapter continues to be repeated in subsequent chapters which made my reading a bit choppy. It wasn’t a bad decision, per se, but it wasn’t a necessity. Still, this an important work that I believe can and should set up students for further study of the world of religions. Strange himself sees his work as only a beginning and hopes that others will take what he has done a go further. He plans to write a second book that will further develop the missiological implications of his study on religions. I look forward to reading that book.
Mason Pell is an MDiv student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
Buy the books
THEIR ROCK IS NOT LIKE OUR ROCK: A THEOLOGY OF RELIGIONS, by Daniel Strange