The world is full of non-Christian religions. What do we make of this? Can we really believe that Christianity alone has the truth when so many people hold different beliefs? Can we learn from them – perhaps they are stepping-stones towards the truth? How are we to think biblically about other religions?
These are some of the questions which Daniel Strange has set out to answer in this engrossing, challenging, thought-provoking and excellent new book. Although he says he is simply standing on the shoulders of earlier Reformed theologians – particularly J. A. Bavinck, Hendrik Kraemer and Cornelius Van Til – in fact, he has produced a volume which opens up the issues in a profound, fresh, illuminating and, above all, biblical manner. It is not an easy read (and his occasional use of academic language – ‘the religious Other’, for example – can occasionally be irritating), but it will repay careful study many times over. Strange argues consistently (and expressly) from a Christian, Protestant and Reformed theological position.
The main thesis of the book is that other religions are idolatrous human responses, sovereignly directed by God, to divine revelation; behind them lie demonic forces; and they are ‘subversively fulfilled’ in the gospel. Various strands make up the argument. The image of God in man was not totally destroyed at the Fall. Common grace means that humans have a conscience and tend to ask similar big questions about existence. Humanity after the Fall seems to have benefited from remains of God’s revelation to Adam and Noah, though that revelation has been distorted and suppressed. These factors mean that humanity worships, even if that worship is idolatrous.
Strange argues that the main way in which we are to understand other religions is as idolatry. He interacts extensively on this issue with Chris Wright and John Goldingay who in different ways take a rather more sympathetic view of other religions. Strange concludes that other religions are parasitic on the truth and counterfeits of it, and that they rob God of his glory and cause humanity ‘radical self-harm’.
Gospel of fulfillment
And so, Strange concludes, the gospel is the ‘subversive fulfilment’ of other religions. ‘Subversive’ because the gospel confronts and condemns them; ‘fulfilment’ because the gospel alone provides true responses to the essential questions that all religions seek to answer. Why then does God allow false religion? Ultimately, a Reformed theology has to affirm that they are for God’s own glory, shown in his judgment of sinners and in his mercy towards them.
This book demonstrates Reformed theological writing at its best. It refuses easy answers, takes contrary views seriously, is eirenic in tone but uncompromising in content and is careful in biblical exegesis and theological argument. It has significant implications for mission and Strange promises a further volume on this which is eagerly awaited.
Robert Strivens, Principal, London Theological Seminary