Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of ReligionsWritten by Daniel Strange Reviewed By Charles E. Farhadian
If seeking guidance about the relationship between Christianity and other major world religions from a Reformed evangelical perspective, one that firmly upholds an exclusive perspective on Christianity, then Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock is the book for you. With the worldwide resurgence of nearly every major religion, particularly in their fundamentalist variations, the topic of the theology of religions is immensely pertinent today. Daniel Strange sets out to provide “a biblically rich and nuanced theology of religions” (p. 32). As Academic Vice Principle and Lecturer in Culture, Religion, and Public Theology at Oak Hill College, London, Strange contributes an important voice to the theology of religions that would resonate with many Christians grappling with the relationship between Christianity and other religions. The book opens with quotations from Deuteronomy, Hendrik Kraemer, and Max Müller that emphasize “otherness” and discontinuity between Christianity and the other world religions. The author frames his comments by noting that the book is not about soteriology, but rather is a “Reformed evangelical theological religious studies.”
The book offers biblical grounds for constructing a theology of religions. Strange builds his case for a Reformed evangelical perspective by employing insights from notable Reformed theologians—Hendrik Kraemer, Herman Bavinck, Cornelius Van Til, Samuel Zwemer, and Jonathan Edwards. Likewise Strange’s biblical reflections, particularly on Genesis 1–11, on which he lays much of this theological advocacy, rely heavily on Reformed scholars such as Mark Kreitzer, Franz Delitzsch, Meredith Kline, among others. Bottom line: readers are getting an unashamedly strong dose of Reformed evangelical thought throughout the book. Sprinkled throughout are helpful missiological insights and implications.
Strange’s understanding of the religious “Other” (his term) is set in stark terms, along the lines of Kraemer, Barth, and Van Til’s exclusivistic theological orientation that upholds discontinuity between Christianity and other world religions as though there is no revelatory truth outside of the biblical orbit. Strange’s view is that demonic forces are behind the world religions and that, similar to Barth, human religions are a manifestation of human idolatry. Strange’s view of religion is put in bold relief:
From the pre-supposition 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. (p. 42).
Strange advocates this perspective based in part on his belief in a single-source theory of religion, which argues for a single origin for both theology and history, and the fundamental Creator-creation distinction, which he holds to be crucial to the Reformed worldview.
There is much to praise about Strange’s book, and there is much about which to be concerned. On the positive side, Strange’s biblical exegesis of Genesis 1–11 and other crucial biblical texts reminds us that the articulation of a robust Christian theology of religions needs to be grounded in the biblical witness. It is refreshing to know that Strange maintains a high view of Scripture and highlights the redemptive biblical narrative against which our theology should be measured. Furthermore, he maintains a high Christology rather than succumbing to an anthropocentric or more general theopocentric view. This is good news in an arena of discourse that often marginalizes Jesus Christ.
What concerns me is the author’s view of culture. Again, basing his thinking on Kraemer, Strange admits to being “cautious of speaking about ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ in other religions” (p. 242), exclaiming that there is “a radical difference” between Christianity and the other religions and that religions are “hermetically sealed interpretations of reality (worldviews) and as such as incommensurable, defying superficial comparison” (p. 242). Closer contact with and more personal relational investment in other religious communities around the world may require a more modified position. Strange overlooks the messiness of the world religions, and perhaps that of Jesus himself. That the Word would become flesh and not be recognized as divine by many reminds me that the activity of God is often hidden. Bracketing out soteriological concerns, I would maintain that the inclusive vision of God working in and through other religions has warrant within the biblical narrative and the history of the church. Recognizing the good in other religions and the fact that God has not left them without a witness—regardless of their salvific possibilities—seems a more fruitful approach for the mission of the church.
Can we admit that there is in fact good in the world religions? While Christians may not agree on precisely what is “good” in other traditions, how about the Buddhist notion of one not being overly attached to things that pass away, the Muslim idea of submitting to God above all else, or the Confucian ideal of filial piety? To be fair, the author’s purview is narrowly theological in that he offers very little evidence for his theological approach in the specific world religions beyond a few statements about Islam. In this regard, a follow up book would be helpful, one in which the author details the history of idolatry replete in all religions, discussing the particularities and how his theological approach might engage those carefully and critically.
A second issue is the author’s view of single-source origins of the history of religions and theology, which underscores an anthropological archetype between Old Testament gods and contemporary gods. After arguing, nearly convincingly, for a single-source perspective, to my mind he is unable to sustain his argument with force when applying his theory to the post-biblical world. That is partly due to Strange’s assumption about the genealogy of the gods. In Strange’s own words, “there may well be ways in which one can trace phenomenologically historical lineage between the localized deities of the Old Testament and particular gods worshipped today” (p. 211). If a major part of the thesis is just this—that is, defending a single-source theory of revelation—then there needs to be strong post-biblical follow through with examples. The approach in this book sounds like a big-bang theory of cosmology applied to the history of religions. Readers would need to see actual detailed evidence in support of the statement that unearths the genealogical histories that connects the gods of biblical times to the deities in today’s world religions. Otherwise, the theory itself may need to be adjusted.
While I did not agree with some of the perspectives presented in the book, Strange’s work is well worth reading and I thoroughly enjoyed engaging it. For university or seminary teaching, its value is in representing a particular Reformed perspective that would either be embraced or put into dialogue with other Christian understandings of the theology of religion.
Charles E. Farhadian
Charles E. Farhadian
Santa Barbara, California, USA
Other Articles in this Issue
Although evangelicals agree the church must be fervent in seeking to reach those who have little or no access to the gospel, this missiological consensus has not led to a theological consensus regarding the salvific state of those whom the church never reaches...