The world of religions: a book review

A review of  A Trinitarian Theology of Religions, by Gerald R. McDermott and Harold A. Netland (Oxford University Press. 331 pages.  No price.  ISBN 978-0-19-975183-9).


In a world where four-fifths of the population worship gods other than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ such a volume as this is urgently needed.  The co-authors are both distinguished scholars, McDermott as Professor of Religion at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, and Netland as Professor of Religion and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.  It is no surprise, then, that this is a rigorous academic study in which non-specialists (like myself) will meet countless names they have never met before.

This is not a study in Comparative Religion, but in the relatively new discipline of Theology of Religions, which sets out to explore, first, why there is such a thing as religion and, secondly, why there are so many varieties of it.  I say, ‘relatively new’, because John Calvin had already noted that there is no nation on earth which does not have its God, he had explained this by the fact that God has sown the ‘seed of religion’ in every human heart, and he had accounted for the countless misshapen ways in which this seed develops by recalling our invariable tendency to suppress, distort and pervert our knowledge of God.

But while this is not a study in Comparative Religion it does alert us to some fascinating details.  For example, the Q’ran never explicitly commands either the love of God or the love of our neighbour; a scholar by the name of Amos Yong believes that the Holy Spirit may be at work even in religions usually considered demonic; and there are some anthropologists, apparently, who suggest that cannibalism can sometimes enhance social cohesion (on which it is tempting to comment, ‘Thanks for that little tit-bit.’)

McDermott and Young have misgivings about the traditional three-fold classification of Christian views on other religions: Exclusivist, Inclusivist or Pluralist.  This ‘taxonomy’, they say, assesses world-religions by a single criterion, their doctrine of salvation, ignoring wider issues such as, for example, their doctrine of God.  In addition, the category ‘exclusivist’ is entirely negative and leaves no room for the fact that there may be some continuity between Christianity and other faiths (partly because they all grow from the same seed, and partly because of the influence of the Old Testament on all three ‘religions of the Book’, Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

The key chapter is the one on ‘The Triune God’, which clearly highlights the indivisibility of the Trinity and underlines the importance of this for any dialogue between Christianity and other faiths.  This indivisibility is fatal to the Inclusivist idea that though salvation is through Christ alone, he may be found in other religions.  The underlying premise in such inclusivism is that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is wider than that of Christ and that the Spirit may therefore be working where Christ is not known.  This radically separates God the Son from God the Spirit, whereas in the Christian Scriptures the Spirit’s mission is precisely to bear witness to Jesus as the only way to the Father.

Similarly, Inclusivism and Pluralism create a division between the work of Christ (the historical Jesus) and the work of the Eternal Word, arguing, again, that the Logos may be savingly active where Christ is not known and where people are completely ignorant of the supreme fact about the Logos, namely, that he became flesh and died for our sins.  And linked to this is the division between the Son and the Father, as if the Father’s love could be known where the Son is not known.


Christian witness in a multireligious world

The final chapter addresses the question of ‘Christian Witness in a Multireligious World’.  McDermott and Netland insist that there must be an unashamed proclamation of the kingdom of Christ, and at the same time they reject the idea that this Kingdom is some this-worldly Utopia concerned only with the temporal well-being of humanity and with promoting such Liberal concepts as love, justice and equality (and democracy).  On the contrary, the Kingdom is the universal reign of Jesus, claiming lordship over every human life.

This inevitably raises hackles.  It is imperialistic, we are told, for Christianity to stand in judgement on other religions.  But Evangelical theologians, believing that Christ is the definitive revelation of God, have no alternative but to judge other faiths in the light of that revelation.  For them, a non-trinitarian God is a false God.  Christian witness cannot be neutral, even in a multireligious world.

McDermott and Netland also address the claim that we must not conduct our witness with an ‘ulterior motive’: in other words, it must not have conversion as its aim.  Of course, it is important that we listen as well as speak and treat the followers of other faiths as we would want to be treated ourselves.  Equally, it is important to contextualise, sensitive to what may offend ‘religious others’ and alert to what we hold in common.  But it is precisely where he speaks of becoming ‘all things to all men’ that the Apostle Paul adds, ‘that by all possible means I might save some.’  The point of all Christian witness is to make disciples, just as it is the very nature of the gospel to call for decision.  It is only when we pretend otherwise, as if we were interested only in talking for talking’s sake, that we become disingenuous.


Rigorous confrontation?

Among the other issues addressed are whether there can be any real inter-religious dialogue where both sides are convinced of the truth of their own position, and what role Apologetics should play in such dialogue.  The temptation for Evangelicals today is to avoid rigorous confrontation with such religions as Islam and to proceed instead by way of tentative inter-personal dialogue between, for example, Imams and Christian missionaries. 

Courtesy and fairness are, of course, imperative at all times, but there can be no Christian evangelism without polemics.  Tempting though it may be to concentrate on the things Muslims and Christians agree on, rather on than on those on which they differ, it is precisely the disputed doctrines that constitute the essence of Christianity.  No witness to Christ can tread softly on his resurrection, his atoning death and his eternal deity.  Nor can we ignore the models of inter-religious dialogue which have come down to us from the New Testament itself.  The differences between Jesus and the Pharisees were much less serious than those between Christians and Muslims, yet Jesus’ polemic with these ‘whited sepulchres’ was uncompromising.  We find the same pattern in St. Paul’s attitude to the Judaisers.  The Epistle to the Galatians is not an exercise in religious diplomacy.  It is aggressively, almost angrily, confrontational, declaring roundly that the Gospel according to the Judaisers is no gospel at all. 

It was from Jesus and St. Paul that the Reformers took their cue.  They may have gone too far in identifying the Pope as the Man of Sin and the Church of Rome as the Whore of Babylon, but they were not wrong in questioning the pretensions of the Vatican, the doctrine of Transubstantiation and the gospel of justification by faith-plus-works.  The fifty volumes apiece bequeathed to us by Luther and Calvin are full of robust rebuttal and coherent biblical apologetics.

It was this same course that was pursued by the early Christian respondents to Islam.  Today, John of Damascus is best remembered as the last of the great Greek fathers of the church, but he was also one of the very first to engage with Islam, and he engaged with it as one who had been familiar with it all his life.  His grandfather, an orthodox Christian occupying a prominent public position, had negotiated the capitulation of the city of Damascus to Turkish forces in 635, and John’s early schooling was along with the children of the Saracens.  In his early life he served the Islamic administration as a financial official, but after retiring from public life he moved to a monastery near Jerusalem, and it was there that, as an ordained priest, he lived and wrote till his death around 750.

 Among his works was a treatise, De Haeresibus, and it is here that he deals with Islam.  He had a clear strategy, stressing the need to find common ground with Muslims and to deploy arguments which they could understand.  His decision to treat Islam as part of a comprehensive discussion of ‘heresies’ reflects this approach.  He wants to avoid giving the impression that he sees ‘the heresy of the Ishmaelites’ as the only heresy, and treats it, instead, as the last in a series of one hundred heresies, many of them Christian.  At the same time, his classification of Islam as a heresy reflects the common Christian view of the time: like Arius, Nestorius and Eutyches before him, Mohammed’s cardinal error was Christological.  But by calling Islam ‘the heresy of the Ishmaelites’ (or, alternatively, ‘Hagarism’), John is also denying that Mohammedanism is in the line of legitimate descent from Abraham through Isaac. 

 Yet John was also aware that finding common ground with Muslims was no easy task.  When preaching the divine sonship to Jews, for example, Christians could appeal to the Old Testament, but no such approach was possible when addressing Muslims, who simply replied that Christians had tampered with the Scriptures.  On the other hand, if Christian apologists deliberately avoided calling Jesus ‘the Son of God’ and referred to him instead as the ‘Word of God’ or the ‘Spirit of God’, Muslims replied that in that case he was no different from other prophets.  He ‘bore’ the word and he was ‘empowered’ by the Spirit, but he was not the Word, and he was not the Spirit.  And when they spoke of the Messiah dying on the cross, they were met by outright denial.  Someone else (possibly Judas Iscariot) was crucified in his place. 

This denial of the crucifixion still lies at the heart of Muslim attitudes to Christianity.  Indeed, according to some contemporary Muslims the crucifixion is ‘the one irreducible fact separating Christianity from Islam’, and this in turn highlights that, however much Christians want to avoid confrontation, it is unavoidable.  Any Christian apologetic has to begin with the most basic question of all, ‘Was Jesus crucified?  (and, if not, were such witnesses as the Apostle John and the Apostle Peter, not to mention the women who anointed his dead body, merely mistaken?  Or were they lying)?

Four hundred years after John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas wrote his Summa contra Gentiles, consisting of three books, including two on ‘Divine Providence’.   This work, completed in 1259, was written at a time when the Moors (Muslims of North African descent) were in control of Spain, and Thomas intended it as a manual of apologetics for Christian missionaries working in that country.   The title, ‘Against the Gentiles’, is deliberate, grouping Muslims together with pagans because in his view they both posed the same challenge to Christian apologists (and missionaries).  As we have already seen, whereas one could argue with Jews (and Christian heretics) on the basis of the Scriptures, this was impossible in the case of pagans and Muslims, who didn’t accept the authority of either the Old Testament or the New.  Mission to Muslims had to proceed (in Thomas’s view) on the basis of natural reason.  But, by any standards, this is a tall order.  While reason might just be able to offer proofs for such beliefs as the existence of God, it is ill-furnished to vindicate core Christian beliefs like the divine sonship of Christ and the doctrine of atonement by his blood.  All it can do is show that while such beliefs are above reason they are not contrary to reason; and even then, any missionary message that proceeds along the stepping-stones offered by reason will inevitably keep the cross well out of sight.

The Summa is addressed to Arab intellectuals of the 13th century, for whom Arabic translations of Aristotle were the norm of all wisdom.  Thomas’s answer is an alternative Christian Aristotelianism, and this clearly limits its usefulness as a manual for the typical modern missionary to Muslims.  It is clear, however, that Thomas’s approach was a robust one, not least in its comments on the Prophet himself, whom he describes (Bk. I:6 [4]) as a founder of sects committed to erroneous doctrines and as a teacher who ‘seduced the people by promises of carnal pleasure’.  Such truths as he taught were ‘mingled with many fables and with doctrines of the greatest falsity’; and instead of relying, as Christ did, on the persuasive force of his own message, he had to rely on the armed forces of ‘brutal men and desert wanderers, utterly ignorant of all divine teaching, through whose numbers Mohammed forced others to become his followers by the violence of his arms.’  The Moorish conquest of Spain was itself sufficient testimony to Islam’s reliance on this form of ‘evangelism’. 

Neither civic Britain nor ecclesiastical Britain has yet begun to take the threat of Islam seriously.  The recent EU referendum debate focused largely on the problem of European immigrants and ignored the fact that the Commonwealth immigration of fifty years ago changed the demography of Britain for ever and brought to our shores thousands of people who not only compete for jobs (a minor point) but find it hard to accept a position as a religious minority.  The prominence of Muslims in so many professions shows that they are driven by strong (and entirely legitimate) personal ambition.  But many among them are drawn by equally strong religious ambition, and it is time for us to give serious thought to the question, ‘What would an Islamic Britain look like?’

Christians cannot give unthinking support to the hysterical chorus now being raised against immigration.  We are bound to welcome people fleeing from poverty, and even more bound to welcome those who are refugees from the horrors of civil war.  Closed borders have been the cause of countless humanitarian tragedies. 

But at the same time as we welcome strangers we have to brace ourselves for a co-ordinated attack on Christianity.  Secularists will be only too glad to raise their voices in support of Muslims as a way of undermining Christian Britain.  It doesn’t seem to occur to them that when, if ever, Islam becomes dominant, the secularist voice, too, will be silenced.

What can we do?

First, our pulpits and our local congregations must take responsibility for bringing the gospel to Muslims.  We cannot leave it to individual ‘workers’ or selected congregations.  It is the responsibility of preachers and churches everywhere to adapt their witness to a situation where Muslims are no longer thousands of miles away, but on our door-steps.

Secondly, we must not let Islam keep us on the defensive, forcing us to spend all our energy rebutting objections to such doctrines as the eternal sonship of Christ.  We have every right to go on the attack, focusing not only on such issues as Islam’s inherent intolerance, its attitudes to women, its reliance on force of arms, and its endorsement of jihad,but also on its portrayal of God as an eternal solitary who, until the creation of the human race had no one to love or to enjoy communion with.  The Allah of Islamic Unitarianism is a much poorer vision of God than the Trinitarian one we find in the New Testament, where the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit live in eternal love as the one God.

And, finally, despite the authority of Aquinas, we cannot expect to win hearts and minds by an appeal to natural reason.  The fragility of Thomas’s proofs for the existence of God have been exposed long since, and in any case he himself acknowledged that the special truths of revelation (the very points in dispute) were beyond reason.  It is impossible to imagine any Muslim being moved by merely rational argument to the conclusion that God has a Son.  The only way forward is to present Christ as the New Testament presents him: his arrival in the world heralded by the miracle of the Virgin Birth (which Muslims do believe); his counter-intuitive teaching as recorded in, for example, the Sermon on the Mount; his witness to his own divine sonship; his death on the cross; his post-resurrection appearances to his disciples.

Muslims, like the rest of the world, need to meet Christ himself as the one who, driven by compassion for the human race, took our human nature, shared our human experiences, bore our human sin, bore the curse our sin deserved, rose triumphant over death, and now has all authority in heaven and earth.  The persuasive force of the gospel lies not in force of arms, and not in natural reason, but in him: the one to whom, and not to Allah, we can apply Anselm’s definition of God as the one ‘than who a greater cannot be conceived’; and our confidence in preaching him rests not on the percipience of human reason, but on the power of the Holy Spirit.



This is an expanded version of a review which first appeared in Evangelicals Now, July 2015.