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.
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)