Books Theology of religions

A “subversive fulfilment” interpretation of other religions


Daniel Strange gives a third Christian perspective on other religions, in chapter 3 of Only One Way? Three Christian Responses to the Uniqueness of Christ in a Pluralistic World.

Daniel Strange’s proposal

Since Dan is the only one of the three authors whom I know personally, I am going to switch to referring to him that way in this section dealing with his material. Calling him “Strange” sounds a bit too distant for my purpose, but I do not mean to imply any less respect for him than I have shown for D’ Costa and Knitter, whom I know only through their writings. He identifies his perspective as “’Protestant Reformed orthodoxy’ or ‘conservative evangelical,’” which means that his proposal will draw supremely on biblical revelation, but secondary sources are ecumenical creeds, the five solas of the Reformation, the creedal affirmations of Reformed orthodoxy, and several pan-evangelical statements and covenants which have been developed in the last 40 years. Additionally, he notes a particular indebtedness to the thinking of J. H. Bavinck (92-93).

Dan sums up his proposal as an argument

 “that non-Christian religions are essentially an idolatrous refashioning of divine revelation, which are antithetical and yet parasitic on Christian truth, and of which the gospel of Jesus Christ is this ‘subversive fulfilment’ ” (93).

YHWH’s transcendent uniqueness

Focusing on Acts 17:24-28, Dan posits that Paul’s setting in Athens included philosophical and religious diversity similar to that of our situation, so that claims he makes to Christian uniqueness are “self-conscious and stark” (103). Furthermore, Paul’s understanding is not novel, since his presentation of the triune God as distinctively “a personal absolute and absolute personality,” both transcendent and immanent, is consistent with OT revelation. Of particular importance is God’s self-existence (aseity), which is complemented by God’s simplicity and implies God’s sovereignty (104-05).

This portrayal of God implies, with regard to a theology of religions, God’s incomparability and transcendent uniqueness. One either worships this God or one worships idols (106-07). Consequently, God is jealous of his own name (108). Furthermore, God’s transcendent uniqueness leads to the “incomparability and uniqueness of both Israel and the Church” (108), but this is complemented by themes of “universality, inclusion, diversity and tolerance” (109).

The perilous exchange: creation and fall

In light of the biblical doctrines of creation and the fall, non-Christian religions are evidently an “idolatrous refashioning of divine revelation” (109). They are human answers to what they allege to be divine revelation. This means that there is both principial discontinuity/dissimilarity and practical continuity/similarity between Christianity and other religions. Consequently, the salvation offered only in Jesus should be understood as “the ‘subversive fulfilment’ of other religions” (110).

The doctrine of creation preserves the essential distinction between the Creator and his creation. Metaphysically, humans are made in God’s image, “with the purpose of worshipping and glorifying the one who made us.” Epistemologically, “we were created to depend upon and obey God’s authoritative and benevolent revelation” (110). In that light, we can see the fall as a blurring of the Creator-creature relationship, involving (in Turretin’s words) an act of “false faith” (111). The lies Adam and Eve believe about God are leaps of faith. Thus all beliefs or worldviews, including religions, that do not cohere with God’s revelation of himself,  are rightly described, says Dan, as idolatrous because they are acts of false faith, “not just displacements of the triune God, but also distortions and even denials” (111).  They tell a story about God but it is fictitious.

In Romans 1:18-32, Paul teaches that the created order gives true and objective knowledge of God’s eternal power and divine nature, and it therefore inevitably elicits a reaction. In the case of unbelievers, this entails immediate suppression and substitution (what Bavinck calls “a perilous exchange”). God’s universal revelation is not obliterated, but it is perverted, twisted and distorted so that “complexes of a totally deviant nature crystallize” around the “sparse, totally decontextualized elements” that unbelievers derive from revelation (113). The variation in the depth of suppression and substitution found in human beings is the result of God’s restraining grace through the Holy Spirit’s work.

Fundamentally, there are only two kinds of worldview and religion in the world: “those rooted and built up in Christ, and those founded on ‘philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ’ (Col 2:6-10),” i.e., the worship of YHWH and the worship of idols (115). Because of this fundamental antithesis between true and false religion we must speak cautiously about “truth” in other religions. Because religions are “hermetically sealed interpretations of reality (worldviews),” they are incommensurable, and isolated elements of truth can not exist in the midst of falsehood and error (117).

Despite this radical antithesis between religions as a whole, we find internal inconsistency within religions, so that we do, in fact, encounter a mixture of truth and error in the religious experience of individuals. The truth derives from common grace and from the creation of humans in the image of God, and it enables missionary communication. Furthermore, revelation is active within the formation of religions, not just general revelation but also special revelation, whether through the communal memory (my term) of original revelation or through contact with covenantal revelation at points in the history of the formation of religions and the religious conviction of individuals (121).

The precious ‘good news’: Christ and salvation

Jesus is identical with YHWH and is the person who brings fulfilment of all that was anticipated in the OT. He is the answer to the human predicament, the one in whom the wrath of God against sin is dealt with by God himself. This is why it is necessary to salvation that people hear the verbal revelation concerning this good news and that they are spiritually illumined and regenerated. But saving faith must have Jesus as its object; it is not enough for one to have faith in God (126-27). In fact, one must be a Christian in order to be a theist (125). Furthermore, all New Testament accounts of conversion include the activity of a human messenger, and any other modalities that God might use in revealing himself to people should be viewed as pre-evangelistic (128).

What makes Christianity the subversive fulfilment of other religions is that it gives ultimate answers to the questions that other religions ask but cannot answer. Thankfully, however, because of the positive factors in human religious experience which have previously been identified, there is a point of contact for the gospel in the experience of individuals within other religions (129).

Let the nations be glad: the Church, mission and eschatology

Reconciliation and peace, in the context of religiously inspired conflict, can only come effectively through the doctrinal distinctives of Christianity, because only these ground truly loving behavior and sacrificial service. Christians are motivated by their desire for the glory of God and by their confidence that God will bring his kingdom to consummation through Christ. Christian mission should be holistic in its transformative efforts, and should be ready to co-operate in limited ways with adherents of other religions who desire the sort of good that is taught in Christian truth (133). Nonetheless, evangelism must be ultimate in Christian mission. Where the gospel bears fruit, it should be worked out in contextually appropriate form, without compromising the truth of biblical revelation.  Dialogue with the adherents of other religions is worthwhile precisely because God is already at work in the context of those religions by his Holy Spirit (135). Discerning what God is already doing in religious contexts will require careful listening on the part of Christian missionaries, whose gentleness and respect for others is not inconsistent with their belief in the exclusive truth of God’s revelation in Jesus.

In the next post on this book, I will sum up the critique offered by D’ Costa and Knitter and then offer my own reflections.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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