Saturday, 19 September 2015
God's Rivals, by Gerald R. McDermott
Gerald R. McDermott, God's Rivals: Why has God allowed different Religions? Insights from the Bible and the Early Church, 2007 InterVarsity Press
God's Rivals examines the problem of the particularly and exclusive claims in the light of a world with many religions. The author brings to this subject some voices from the Scriptures and also from the Early Church. Exploring the problem of religious diversity, McDermott rejects the idea that there are many routes to salvation. He also argues that the theory of Inclusivism is inadequate, though it might be suggested that some of the Early Church ideas that he explores later in the book are moderate forms of Inclusivism. McDermott then goes on to show that this is not a new problem. The Israelites of the Old Testament were aware of the gods of other nations and the early Christians were surrounded by idol worship. We can learn from how they approached this reality.
Delving into the Scriptural data, he finds examples of knowledge of God outside of the covenant nation of Israel. He also demonstrates that the ancient Hebrews did not hold to an absolute, unqualified monotheism. Though they were called to worship only Yahweh, they believed in the existence of the gods of other nations in some sense. He then moves on to show how the Hebrews believed in 'gods,' the Divine Council, a much neglected but very important theme in Scripture. The Old Testament portrays Yahweh as being accompanied and assisted by a council of heavenly beings. Of course, not all the spiritual beings are on the side of Yahweh, and at times the Old Testament offers a model of cosmic war between competing celestial powers. The foreign religions are followers of Yahweh's rivals. Moving into the New Testament, he finds this theme continued in Paul, with his talk about an array of celestial intermediaries between God and man, principalities, powers, thrones and dominions. There are many lords and gods. The author also explores how Paul sees idolatrous religion as a corruption of the truth.
In the next chapters, McDermott offers critical reflection on how several of the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers dealt with the theme of heathen religions. He looks first at Justin Martyr and his idea of the Logos being universally at work in humanity. He then goes on to look at Irenaeus idea of universal natural revelation and his thoughts on righteous pagans. Next up is Clement of Alexandria and his positive views of Greek philosophy. He also considers Origen's radical ideas about the spirit world.
This book attempts to consider a modern issue by paying heed to voices from the past. In this it is Paleo-Orthodoy at its best. I would have liked the author to have looked at how some of the Post-Nicene Fathers approached these questions. I also would have liked him to have spent a little longer talking about the Divine Council, but he did have a loot of material to cover in a relatively short book. He does not spend much time talking about the question of the fate of the unevangelised, which is likely to be paramount in the minds of readers, but there is more to the issue of religious diversity than this. This is not a book that gives definite answers to every question, but it offers a lot of food for thought.