God’s Sovereignty Over World Religions

As a fan of the theology of Herman Bavinck, I fully expected to enjoy Daniel Strange’s new book, Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Zondervan, 2015). And I have. Strange returns to the works of Bavinck (and J.H. Bavinck) to fill an often overlooked gap in religious studies.strange

So what are we to make of the world’s religions? What we do with all the idols?

To put the matter in a blunt summary, Strange rightly contends that all non-Christian religions are idolatrous responses to God, each ‘subversively fulfilled’ in Christ. In other words, Christ simultaneously contradicts and then counter-intuitively fulfills religious hopes and impulses (see 1 Cor. 1:22–25). Years ago I found this point essential to my development as a Christian who reads and benefits from books written by non-Christians (see Lit!, 73–75).

But Strange presses deeper into the subversive side, asking how God’s sovereignty plays out over the world’s religions and idols. Here’s how he explains it in his new book, building off Piper:

We are within standard Reformed territory to say that all things were created by Christ and for Christ (Col. 1:16), including thrones, dominions, rulers and authorities, which (given Col. 2:15 and Eph. 6:12) includes evil supernatural powers such as demons.

Unpacking this a little further, John Piper notes ‘the apex of the glory of Christ is the glory of his grace . . . and the apex of this grace is the murder of the God-man outside Jerusalem around A.D. 33. The death of Jesus Christ was murder. It was the most spectacular sin ever committed.’ By his death, Christ defeated the ‘powers’ at the cross (Col. 2:15). Piper, linking Colossians 1:16 and 2:15, argues that Christ will be ‘more highly honored’ because he allowed Satan (and implicitly the demons) to do evil for millennia before defeating them at the cross, than had he eliminated Satan immediately.

Given the constraints of this study, such axiomatic truth can be but asserted here with little further justification.

Given this assertion, however, what does require further reflection and justification is precisely how the sovereignly ordained, ‘spectacularly sinful’ and essentially God-denying worship of the religious Other can glorify the living God. . . .

The Bible’s presentation of the nature of non-Christian religions indicates that they must be understood as the impulse of opposition in fallen humanity towards the Creator God, who has made himself known in Christ Jesus. Idols and false gods feature in the narrative of Scripture as God’s rivals. They are those things that, falsely credited with divine presence, vie for the affections of God’s people, those things that contend with God. By virtue of Scripture’s portrayal of this rivalry, idols are constantly set up in comparison with the one true God, a contest in which they always emerge as ultimately powerless and defeated.

By their very deficiency, therefore, idols are constantly pointing to God’s excellences, his holiness, his power, his faithfulness and his mercy. Inasmuch as the narrative of Scripture provides us with a portrait of God, a meditation on his attributes and actions, idols function as a foil, a device to throw that portrait of God into sharper relief. They fulfill, so to speak, a hermeneutic function. God allows the religious Other to flourish because then its final defeat will glorify him all the more. It is only when this impulse of opposition is recognized that its purpose in God’s economy may be understood properly. (309–310)

God’s Glory, Artistic Beauty, and Joyful Longings

Herman Bavinck

Herman Bavinck is one theologian who seems to have mastered the holistic Christian worldview as well as anyone, and it makes for glorious reading. I’m struck by how he weds the beauty of man-made art and the beauty of creation to show them both to be expressions of God’s glory, and then ties all that beauty to our joy, and then follows through to show how the piercing human longing for the re-creation of all things is there in the enjoyment of the created beauty.

One example comes from his excellent collection, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society (page 259):

We cannot express in words what a valuable gift the Creator of all things has granted to his children. He is the Lord of glory and spreads his beauty lavishly before our eyes in all his works. His name is precious in the whole earth, and while he did not leave us without a witness, he also fills our hearts with happiness when we observe that glory. . . .

Truly, awareness of beauty cannot be fully explained as “empathy”; when observing and enjoying true beauty, it is not man who bestows his affections and moods on the observed object, but it is God’s glory that meets and enlightens us in our perceptive spirits through the works of nature and art.

Humanity and the world are related because they are both related to God. The same reason, the same spirit, the same order lives in both. Beauty is the harmony that still shines through the chaos in the world; by God’s grace, beauty is observed, felt, translated by artists; it is prophecy and guarantee that this world is not destined for ruin but for glory — a glory for which there is a longing deep in every human heart.

Bavinck was beautifully wide-hearted, glory-thrilled, eschatologically-pointed.

(Note: You can find a complete list of Bavinck’s writings at hermanbavinck.org.)

Work Like A Calvinist

Herman Bavinck, “The Future of Calvinism,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review (Jan. 1894), 20:

Calvinism gladly honors the good features of the Christian labor of our age. It by no means favors the idea of fleeing from the world; it does not encourage idleness and somnolence. It is active, points out to each man his moral calling, and urges him to labor in this with all his might. On the other hand, it is no less averse to that worldly type of Christianity which would transplant the turmoil and clamor, the agitation and strain of our times, within the pale of Christianity.

Calvinism maintains the independent value of religion, and does not suffer it to be swallowed up by morality. It has a vein of deep mysticism and it cultivates a devout godliness. It considers God alone as the highest good, and communion with Him as supreme happiness. Calvinism sets the rest of being over against the restlessness of becoming, and makes us feel the pulsation of eternity in every moment of time. Behind the vicissitudes and transitoriness of this life it points to the unchangeableness of God’s eternal counsel. Thus it offers a place of rest to the weary heart, in which God has set eternity, and protects man from all overexcitement. Those that believe shall not make haste.

Calvinism is deeply convinced that the husband as father of the family, the wife as mother of her children, the servant girl in the kitchen, and the laborer behind the plough, are as truly servants of God as the missionary.