Foundations: No.67 Autumn 2014

Review Article: Hard Rock Theology

‘For Their Rock Is Not as Our Rock’: An Evangelical Theology of Religions
Daniel Strange, Apollos, 2014, 384pp, £19.99

Daniel Strange’s book is a major contribution to the field of the theology of religion. Expounding earlier work by such writers as J. H. Bavinck and Hendrik Kraemer, Strange builds on it by a careful exegesis of Scripture and integrating into his argument the work of more recent writers. This review article summarises the main arguments of the book and interacts primarily with the author’s method. While there is much to be commended in this work, the reviewer argues that a major problem is introduced by equating religion and religions and pleads for a more positive incorporation of sociological enquiry into the field.

A few years ago I read this extract of a letter from a Japanese student on returning to Japan after studying in England:

Two months have already passed since I came home. I’ve been missing England and all my friends so much that I sometimes cry… Please listen to me. I’ve decided not to follow Christianity any more. I’m so sorry if my decision disappoints you. I can’t deny Christianity at all because I really know what I experienced in England… But now I must follow my family’s religion. Please don’t misunderstand. I’ve decided by myself although it was hard for me.

No sensitive disciple of Christ, regardless of their position on perseverance and apostasy, would be left unmoved on reading such words. But they also provoke questions: What does she mean when she says she is not going to follow Christianity anymore? Just what did she experience in England? What is it about her family’s religion that has led her to take such a decision? Quite apart from the pastoral issues that arise from such a situation the need for clear thinking on religion and religions is obvious. This volume by Daniel Strange, Academic Vice-Principal and Lecturer in Culture, Religion and Public Theology at Oak Hill College, London, is his attempt to do just that.

Strange draws the geological metaphor for his title from Moses’ song (Deut 32:31) and is not shy to declare his theological commitments: “this is a book for evangelical Christians, written by an evangelical Christian” (33). His particular confessional stance is that of Reformed theology (“the confessional tradition I believe to be closest to God’s revelation in Scripture”) although he hopes that the common evangelical position on the authority of Scripture will encourage a broad range of evangelical interaction. He also believes in the creation and fall as real space-time historical events, the uniqueness of Christ, and the necessity of conscious faith in the finished work of Christ for salvation, which I also affirm.

Approaching the Rocks

Moses’ declaration is expounded by Strange by integrating a number of disciplines that are often compartmentalised in theological studies: systematic theology, exegesis, biblical theology and missiology. He is aware that this is an ambitious undertaking but is ideologically convinced, as I am, that we need to break out of our narrow ghettoes and interact more. Such an ambitious goal is almost guaranteed to fail but it is a noble goal; attempt must be made and Strange bravely wades in. Given the spectacular failure that could result, the partial success of the undertaking is a great encouragement that should advance this very important discussion forward.

Strange is well aware of the “somewhat ‘derived’ nature” (34) of the work, depending heavily on the work of J. H. Bavinck (1895-1964), Hendrik Kraemer (1988-1965) and Cornelius Van Til (1885-1987). The author would be happy, he tells us, if this work achieved nothing but republicising and championing Kraemer and Bavinck for a new generation of Christians.[1] He has done that much and more and has set a challenging agenda for this generation; my hope is that this agenda will indeed be taken up by a host of others both from within the Reformed evangelical constituency and from without.

My own area is missiology and it is in this area that I will attempt to critique this work. This is difficult enough for one person as the area of missiology is itself one that attempts to integrate insights from a wide range of disciplines, primarily exegesis, systematic theology, biblical theology, history, communication, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, comparative religions, and geography. Just writing that list makes me go weak at the knees; no one missiologist can hope to become familiar with such a wide field of scholarship and Strange’s understandable fear of superficiality and amateurism is even more apposite for the contribution of someone seeking to bring such a multi-faceted perspective.

Strange recognises that many evangelical Christians will want to quickly move on through the complex arguments to their missiological implications. He is sympathetic to such an impulse but warns his readers that, in this volume at least, missiological implications are restricted to a single chapter with the tantalising prospect of a subsequent volume. This present volume, he tells us, seeks to provide “a theological analysis... for such missiological application” (36).

Strange clarifies his method as a particularly theological one: “From the presupposition of an epistemologically authoritative biblical revelation” (42). He rightly, then, bases his study on the doctrine of revelation (43-51). We can access truth about God and his creation because a true God has chosen to make truth known. As finite and sinful human beings our reception of that truth can be both true, in the sense that we are thinking God’s thoughts after him, and partial so that “‘we do not presume to think God’s thoughts’” (44).[2] Furthermore, Strange accepts the multiperspectivalist and symphonic approaches of John Frame and Vern Poythress respectively (45-46).[3] God’s revelation of himself, therefore, is not all of a kind but “comes to us through various media (nature, history, word, person), all of which are authoritative and consistent” (46). The Bible, however, he asserts (and quoting Frame), has a unique role in that it is necessary to correct our vision. Our doctrine of sola Scriptura must be informed and shaped by these considerations. The author is keen to avoid the mistake of dichotomising Scripture from the other media of revelation and argues that he is seeking to “highlight their complementarity and unity” (49) while reserving for the Bible the “ultimate authority in all metaphysical, epistemological, ethical and soteriological issues” (50).[4]

Mapping the Terrain

In chapters 1 and 2 Strange introduces the subject of the book, outlines his method and describes the theological anthropology that underpins his argument. His thesis is this:

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. (98, original emphasis)

I will focus this review on these two chapters, not because the other chapters do not also deserve focussed attention, but rather because the matters dealt with here are properly foundational.[5] But before I come back to Strange’s method I need to briefly outline the meat of the book.

In chapter 3 Strange turns his attention to self-confessedly speculative reflections on the “historical origin of the phenomena of the ‘religions’” (98, original emphasis) arguing that religion and the religions stem from a single source, a prisca theologia and an original monotheism. Basing his argument on the writings of Van Til, Herman Bavinck, Jonathan Edwards, and Wilhelm Schmidt (the latter two refracted through the work of Gerald McDermott and Winfried Corduan respectively), he asserts that “there is a historical remnantal revelation within religious traditions, which, though entropically distorted over time, through for example the mechanisms of etymology or euhemerism, gives us a comparative theological explanation of ‘commonalities’ and ‘continuities’, between religious traditions” (120). This is a stimulating chapter and, though somewhat speculative, adds a significant building block to his argument.[6] Strange’s conclusion here is that there is a revelatory single source out of which “non-Christian religions” are fashioned.

In chapter 4 Strange continues his speculative reflections on OT prehistory, focussing on what he argues persuasively, along with a number of recent commentators, is the dischronologically-ordered single literary unit of Genesis 10–11. Here he very helpfully introduces the work of Mark Kreitzer on ethnicity.[7] Running with Kreitzer’s argument and finding agreement from the likes of Peter Harrison, Franz Delitzsch, C. A. Auberlen, Robert Candlish and Herman Bavinck, Strange argues that the Babel incident is the explanation, not only for linguistic and cultural diversity, but also for religious diversity (125-54). He then argues, after Meredith Kline, James Jordon and James Montgomery Boice, that such religious diversity is intimately connected to the demonic realm (Gen 6:1-4 and Deut 4:19; 32:7-9, 15-17, 21).[8] At this point I think Strange overstretches himself, as we find him concluding with Rohinton Mody that demons “stand behind” idols (149).[9] He argues that the speculations of this chapter are not game-changers for his argument but I wonder if a more chastened view of the connection between idols and demons might undermine his argument more substantially than he thinks.

In chapters 5 and 6 Strange expands on his theme of idolatry as “perhaps the hermeneutical master key with which to unlock the nature of non-Christian religion and religions” (156, original emphasis). Strange argues that the Old and New Testaments are “testimony to the condensed picture” sketched out in Romans 1:18-32, that of “idolatrous human response to divine revelation” (236), and that “the Old Testament’s positive affirmation of Yahweh’s transcendent uniqueness reveals a corollary negative assessment of the religious Other, witnessed in the strong denouncement of idolatry” (210).

After Larry Poston,[10] Strange asserts, wrongly I think, that religion outside of the OT covenant community is always viewed as something negative (158). Melchizedek’s priesthood is viewed without a shred of negativity (Gen 14; Heb 5:6; 7:1-10) and the repentance of Nineveh was met with the salvific response of the Lord (Jonah 3).

Strange seems to assume that biblical chronology is to be understood in a strict way. He speculates that, since Babel was a “fresh religious memory” to Abraham and Abimelech (Gen 20) “we are at an early stage where knowledge of the true God and his actions was still widespread” (190). That presupposes that the chronologies of Genesis 5 and 11 are strict, which is surely a moot point with which evangelical commentators are not agreed. The distinguished Old Testament scholar, Bruce Waltke comments on Genesis 4:17-18, 5:1-31; 11:10-26 in this way: “linear genealogies... establish continuity over stretches of time without narrative. Because the genealogies are concerned to propel the story and establish relational links, they cannot be used to compute absolute chronology.”[11] So the religious memory of Babel may well have been quite stale by the time Abraham and Abimelech came along. That is not to say, however, that it had disappeared altogether.

In chapter 7 Strange pulls the threads of the previous argument together to argue that the relationship between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the religious Other is, to borrow a phrase from Kraemer, one of “subversive fulfillment” (273). Chapters 8 and 9 introduce missiological and pastoral implications, respectively, of this central idea.

Topographic Features

I want to return now to Strange’s approach and method. While acknowledging that there are great difficulties in defining the terms, Strange argues that there are “inextricable links between ‘culture’, ‘worldview’ and ‘religion’” (68), a position I share. Culture, he says, “...is worldview exteriorized, and worldview is culture interiorized, and both stem from the religion of the human heart. In other words, the specific contours of the products we use to ‘make a home for ourselves’ come from our understanding of the world, our Weltanschauung, and, as carriers of worldview, these cultural products (or ‘texts’) contour our consciousness along the lines of the worldviews they carry” (69). A note of ambiguity is introduced here in the relations between these three concepts. Both worldview and culture are said to “stem from” one’s religion but it is not clear in Strange’s construction how this happens.

Furthermore, Strange argues that, though a Christian worldview is singular it should not give rise to a singular culture: “...the Christian worldview is never to be equated and wedded to any one cultural context” (85, note 101). By what process does a singular Christian worldview give rise to a plurality of cultures when culture is “worldview exteriorized”? Clearly, there are other factors involved in the creation of culture that Strange hardly addresses.

Kevin Vanhoozer, who agrees with Strange’s view of the relation of worldview and culture, is keen to avoid “simplistic theories that account for everything in culture in terms of one factor only”.[12] “Everyday theology”, he says, “is faith seeking nonreductive understanding”.[13] “In order to make sense of culture as a complex whole, then, we must use a wide-angle lens” and “a variety of academic disciplines and approaches to illumine what is going on in cultural discourse”.[14] Strange is aware of the danger of a simplistic and reductionist explanation (237) but it seems to me that his construction of the meaning of religion is indeed limited by his narrow, theology-specific approach. To be fair, he acknowledges this in his recognition of his own strengths and weaknesses and his call for evangelical scholars who come from different disciplinary backgrounds to offer “more rigorous contributions” to the development of this field (336-37). But other theologians, historians and social scientists would do well first to deconstruct what Strange calls his “skeleton” (36) before they can put flesh on the bones. It may be that the animal, to pursue this metaphor, will turn out not to belong to that particular order of creature at all.

A major problem with Strange’s construction, then, is his failure to distinguish sufficiently between “religion” and “religions”. This is most plainly seen in his explanation of his approach (36-38). Acknowledging that the term “‘religion’ as a defined category is more ‘Western’ than biblical”, he nevertheless wants to use it inclusively “in terms of one’s ultimate heart commitments and presuppositions concerning reality” (37): so far so good. But Strange then explains that his “focus will be on what are often called ‘world religions’”. The argument is suddenly and with little explanation turned away from ultimate heart commitments to “rival social realities... that are competitors to Christianity”. And so we are introduced to the world of “‘other religions’”. J. H. Bavinck, as Strange himself recognises (70), warns us that, in dealing with the “adherents of other religions” “[e]ach generalization, every systematization, carries within itself the danger that one will do injustice to the living person.”[15] But Strange is happy to argue that “Religions are hermetically sealed interpretations of reality (worldviews) and as such are incommensurable” (242). No place seems to be allowed for the phenomenon of syncretism or of someone following Christ within a non-Christian religious tradition.[16] This, it seems to me, is a problem inherent in the method that Strange has adopted.

The author then goes on to explain his definition of “Christianity” as a “wholistic worldview that produces cultural fruit” (38). He acknowledges that the gospel critiques “not only the religious Other but any lived expressions of Christianity not keeping to the revealed pattern of sound teaching (2 Tim 1:13), and ethically not living lives worthy of Christ” (38) but wants to reserve a sui generis place for Christianity as a category that does not belong to the “world religions” because of the “inextricable link between Christ himself, Christ’s gospel, Christ’s bride (the church), consisting of Christ’s people (Christians) and given sacred historical, social and institutional expression in what we call the ‘Christian faith’ and ‘Christianity’” (39). In so doing Strange commits a logical fallacy that has serious implications throughout his argument.

Seismic Analysis

Strange argues elsewhere that, “[b]oth ‘the light of nature’ and ‘Christian prudence’ mentioned in the WCF are necessary to give us guidance, not by adding to Scripture but by applying the ‘general rules of the Word’. They are ‘a means of determining how the sufficient word of Scripture should be applied to a specific situation’.”[17] I take this to mean that the application of the sufficient word of Scripture is shaped, at least partially, by the situation itself. It is vital, therefore, that we use all available evidence, interpreted through Scripture, to prudently apply the Scriptures. It is for this reason that missiology has developed an interest in the social sciences and, in particular, anthropology with its method of ethnography. This is not to be put down or minimized, but rather encouraged as an exercise in Christian prudence, or sapientia as Augustine called it.[18]

How should the relationship of ethnography to missiology (and thereby to theology) be conceptualised? Theology has traditionally drawn on the disciplines of philosophy and history as well as biblical studies in order to construct a faithful, accurate and coherent account of the things of God. Good theology, then, draws on the best that those disciplines have to offer. Take the discipline of history, for example: A careful reading of history helps us to appreciate doctrine by enabling us to understand the contemporary circumstances in which that doctrine was worked out.

If history is “‘remembered past’”, as Carl Trueman reports John Lukacs as saying,[19] then ethnography is observed present or, rather less snappy but slightly more accurate, recently observed past. It is the synchronic partner to the diachronic of history. Ethnography is a representation of the present among the incredibly wide diversity of societies and their cultures around the globe. As such, like history, as Trueman rightly asserts,[20] it is not, and cannot be, a neutral exercise. The ethnographic present is an account by a person with all the limitations that people bring to such a project. But those limitations do not, in spite of the postmodern criticism of the discipline, render all such accounts invalid. Careful accounts by reflexive observers can be hugely enlightening to the reader. The “light of nature” and “Christian prudence”, then, are not just necessary for the appropriate application of the sufficient word of Scripture but also necessary for the appropriate construction of a theology of religions. Any theology of religions can only be as faithful to Scripture as its understanding of religions permits it to be.[21] Strange’s “rival social realities”, then, need to be subjected to careful sociological analysis, without which theological reflection on the reality will be misplaced. So why is it that there seems to be a retrenchment by conservative theologians so as not to acknowledge the valuable place that chastened social science can play in missiology? Calvin reminds us that it is to dishonour the Spirit of God if we “despise truth wherever it shall appear”.[22] I, therefore, am mystified that such truth as that discovered by the social sciences is thus despised.[23]

Elsewhere, Strange affirms the God-glorifying work of science: “In a similar vein, inscribed in Latin over the door of the physics laboratory in Cambridge is neither ‘physics is fun’ nor ‘leave your faith before entering’ but Ps 111:2: ‘Great are the works of the Lord. Studied by all those who delight in them’, a verse chosen by the scientist and formulator of electromagnetic theory, James Clark Maxwell.”[24] Analogously, then, I argue that human societies are to be explored under the same framework as the physical world of atoms and stars and forces, while recognising that there are some profound differences as well: human societies are composed of individuals who are both made in God’s image, and therefore have real agency and are as much the constructors of their societies as God is, and fallen and, except for the grace of God, in rebellion against their creator.

Nevertheless, the objective reality of the social phenomena we call religions means that scientific methods of observation and analysis must have some validity. The differences between social phenomena and those of the physical world do not invalidate such methods but rather demonstrate their limitation. The apostle Paul, himself, demonstrates his appreciation of this in his address to the Areopagus in which he says that, he had “walked around and looked carefully at [their] objects of worship” (Acts 17:23). Strange, himself, is keen to “‘provide both a unifying paradigm for acquiring theological and scientific knowledge, and a model for interdisciplinarity’” (99), and accepts that we add further complexity to the already canonically limited polyphony of Scripture by adding insights from historical and phenomenological studies (237-38).[25] I hope, therefore, that Strange’s argument will be further developed by means of sociological and anthropological enquiry.

Hard Rock/Soft Rock

The confusion created by Strange’s logical leap from religion to “rival social realities” is made yet muddier in Strange’s apparent acceptance of an unreferenced “contemporary discourse between ‘religion’ (social) and ‘spirituality’ (individual)” (38). This distinction is surely as much a product of the Enlightenment asthe idea that monotheism evolved from animism and polytheism, which he rightly debunks (165).Clearly if, as Strange argues, culture and worldview “stem from the religion of the human heart” (69) then spirituality and religion should be treated as one and the same, as the human heart is an individual phenomenon. It seems to me that this distinction between religion and spirituality is a categorical fallacy that has been created by those who want to make a case for their own eclectic explorations of transcendence without the disciplined restrictions that come from having to accept a more formal tradition.[26]

If we do accept religion and spirituality as synonymous we are still left with the clear reality of social groups that share cultural systems that express, as Clifford Geertz put it, “powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by... formulating conceptions of a general order of existence…”[27]These observable social realities are then cultural systems and as such it seems to me to be completely inadequate to treat “Christianity” as a sui generis, utterly different sort of system. Strange has come under flak for such a treatment before[28] but, while he recognises “the finitude, failures and inconsistencies of God’s people, together with the terrible truth that judgment begins within God’s household (1 Peter 4:17)”, he is “still able to say that there is a fundamental, indeed antithetical, difference in principle between the regenerated and Spirit-enabled confession that Jesus is Lord... and every other confession where Jesus is not Lord...” (39, original emphasis). I could not disagree with such a statement but here the categorical fallacy is most clearly highlighted. The Scriptures make it clear, and this is borne out in our experience, that not all those who confess “Jesus is Lord” are doing so as “regenerated and Spirit-enabled people”, as the Lord Jesus himself strikingly warns us (Matt 7:21-23). Christianity, then, as a broad collective of social groups that express an allegiance to Christ (rightly or wrongly conceived) is a social reality (or better, a complex of social realities) that deserve sociological analysis every bit as much as other such realities. Is this then to completely relativise the truth in Christ alongside idolatrous rivals? This is certainly not my intention as the orientation of the heart to the Lord Jesus is indeed at the heart of true religion. Such an inward “spiritual” phenomenon cannot be observed and analysed by the social sciences. What can be observed is the way this is worked out in the diverse modes in which believers in Christ express their discipleship in the cultural pluriverse of the world.

Strange contends that “deeply sunk (and cherished) theological, epistemological and anthropological foundations should not be ignored or, worse, ‘dug up’, when faced with the religious Other” (54). In chapter 2, then, Strange seeks to describe those foundations, largely through an exegesis of Genesis 1-11. Given my argument above, however, and our common desire to have a sound theological building, it would seem that careful excavation does indeed need to take place in order to put that construction on a sound footing.

Religions that do not identify with the Christian tradition, then, are not necessarily, in my view, any more idolatrous than those that do. Since the hearts of many who identify themselves as Christian are themselves captive to idolatry this should be no great surprise.

Plate Tectonics

Strange’s schema includes a fundamental role for worldview (68-69). I agree that worldview is a very significant element in the life of both individuals and collectives of individuals, or societies. Strange depends heavily here on the work of David Naugle[29] and that great champion of worldview analysis, James Sire, whose more recent revision of his work[30] also owes much to Naugle.

Worldview to Strange is concerned with horizontal relationships whereas religion is more to do with the vertical (69). Sire, after Naugle, argues that “there is... an interactive or reciprocal relationship with the external world”.[31] I agree. Worldview, then, is not a faculty that is formed purely out of one’s heart commitment to or against God but also by a lifetime of experiences in the particular circumstances that one has lived in. In other words there is a reciprocal relationship between worldview and culture. Furthermore, worldview is not a purely cognitive faculty but is also affective and volitional. Summarising Wilhelm Dilthey’s (1833-1911) groundbreaking work on worldview, Naugle says that “worldviews spring from the totality of human psychological existence: intellectually in the cognition of reality, affectively in the appraisal of life, and volitionally in the active performance of the will”.[32] If this is so, as I believe it is, then clearly there cannot be a singular “Christian” worldview. There are as many worldviews as there are people. Such a reality could, of course, put an end to all attempts at analysis as we become mired in the particularities of human existence. This need not be the case, however, as significant and life-shaping experiences of individuals are almost without exception shared by communities of people as they create culture. Generalisation and systematisation are, therefore, legitimate tasks, as Strange himself argues (70). So the traffic of influences between worldview and culture is not one-way – the worldview giving rise to the culture – but two-way, with culture also giving rise to worldview.

This being so, if we are committed to a single Christian worldview then we must also be committed to a single Christian culture: all believers in Christ must speak alike, eat alike, dress alike, play alike and worship alike. On the basis of the “manyness” of the Triune God, in whose image we are made, Strange recognises and celebrates cultural diversity (85, footnote 101). But this seems to be predicated on a definition of worldview that has been made to produce such a conclusion. If a worldview is a set of presuppositions, as Sire would define it,[33] then it must include such presuppositions as, that children are to be nurtured rather than abused, a presupposition that, as far as I know, is shared by all societies everywhere, though, of course, by no society consistently. Worldviews, then, cannot be neatly divided between one that is “Christian” and all the others that are not. Sire, I think, senses this tension: “Even the way I have described the Christian worldview may constitute only my version of that worldview” he writes.[34] To acknowledge variation within a worldview then is also, I would argue, to acknowledge the fuzziness of the boundaries between them. So, although, with Strange, I would recognise the biblical insistence that “the antithesis means that in reality there are only two categories of human beings that operate as bounded sets [i.e. those in Christ and those outside of Christ]” (85) I cannot identify these bounded sets as the “rival social realities” that he calls Christianity and other religions.

Types of Rock

I have been arguing that, contra Strange, “Christianity” is not sui generis, of its own category, to be contrasted with “other religions”. The religions and cultures of the world are broad, or not so broad, constructs that enable us to compare and contrast human communities from the small scale to the global. Though culture, as Strange argues, is the exteriorisation of religion (as the fundamental orientation of the heart), the relationship of religions (as social realities) to cultures is not the same. We should conceptualise that distinction as being two sides of the same coin, or two perspectives of the same reality.

What factors, then, have shaped our cultures and religions? In Strange’s definition “non-Christian religions are sovereignly directed, variegated and dynamic, collective human idolatrous responses to divine revelation, behind which stand deceiving demonic forces” (98, original emphasis). Given that I am including “Christianity” in the rubric of the “religions” I can hardly be content with that definition. Strange’s emphasis is entirely negative, which is understandable if we consider that “non-Christian religions” are the outworking of deceiving demonic forces.[35] But if, as I am attempting to demonstrate, religions and cultures (being virtually synonymous, whether called Christian or not) are under evaluation, then demonic forces cannot be the sole factor in their development. All religions and cultures, rather, are the products of human agency (Geertz’s “webs of significance”[36]) interacting with a multitude of influences thrown up by our spiritual, ecological, social, political and economic environments.[37]

Conclusion

This volume is, as William Edgar writes on the back cover, “deeply learned” and “theologically solid” but I disagree that it is “well-informed in anthropology”. Strange’s argument, therefore, suffers from an ethnographically poorly informed and resultantly insufficiently robust method. I hope that correction in this will result in much more valuable work in future. Such work will be able to provide a mature and sophisticated response to the Japanese student mentioned above, and millions of others like her who love Jesus but just do not seem to fit into the global phenomenon commonly called Christianity.

Mark Pickett
Lecturer in missiology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology