Reflections on Plurality of Religions

I am currently enrolled in a seminary course called “Religions, Salvation and the Gospel.”  I have just completed an assignment reflecting on seven questions.  I am posting them with my responses, hoping for responses from any who are interested.  🙂

1. What is the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 affirming?

At a minimum, Deuteronomy 6:4 is affirming the following:  (1) that Israel should hear/obey the prophetic word from and about YHWH,  (2) that YHWH is Israel’s God, and (3) that YHWH is a singular God.

2. Does the OT deny the existence of other gods?

In a few but key passages, the prophets preclude the possibility of other gods (Isa. 44:6; 45:5,21; Jer. 2:11).  But in the overwhelming number of passages which refer to other gods, the OT does not deny their existence– not in so many terms.  In fact, at many points, the OT seems to affirm or even assume the existence of other gods.

Rather than denying their existence, the writers of the OT tend much more interestingly and powerfully to hold up all other would-be gods to a side-by-side comparison of YHWH.  Time after time, all other gods come up short.  They are merciless; YHWH is merciful.  They are powerless; YHWH has unlimited power.  They do not hear the prayers of their worshipers; YHWH hears, cares and responds.  And so on it goes.

3. Is there a shift or development with regard to the existence of other gods from the NT to the OT?

Yes, there is a shift, but it is neither sudden nor simple.  It is not that the OT admits of the existence of other gods, and then the NT abruptly denies it.  Near the end of the OT story, YHWH is being revealed as a being of such magnitude that there can be no other at or near His level.  This is the essence of monotheism.  That is, monotheism does not have to deny the existence of impressive and (from the human perspective) powerful spirit beings.  It merely denies that such beings can compare in any way to the one true, living, Supreme Being – the Creator God.

But what is interesting to note is that, in the books of Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah, YHWH begins to be called “the God of heaven” by both Jews and Gentiles, servants and kings.  In fact, in two key passages, King Nebuchadnezzar distinguishes YHWH, the God of Daniel, as a “God of gods” and “the King of heaven.”

Another contributing factor to the shift in ‘other god’ language is in the NT’s major use of Discourse as a literary type.  Narrative and Poetry teach us theological truths in indirect ways.  But much of what the NT teaches us comes in the form of epistolary Discourse.  Consequently, truths such as “there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and… there is no God but one” (I Cor. 8:4) are put in more straightforward statements.

4. Consider Melchizedek in Genesis 14:17-20.  What is his significance for a theology of religions?

In the context of thinking about a plurality of religions, the question seems to assume that Melchizedek was not a legitimate priest of the true God.  However, I believe he was.

Prior to beginning a special covenant relationship with the people of Israel, YHWH had prophets, priests and kings among (many?) other peoples.  Melchizedek is a priest-king of the true God but specifically refers to Him as El-Elyon.

Moses’ father-in-law Reuel/Jethro is said to be “the priest of Midian” (Ex. 2:16; 3:1).  But rather than portraying him as the priest of a false god, the text seems to suggest that he was, among the various priests of various Midian deities, he was the priest of the God who was beginning to align Himself with the people of Israel, the One known as El-Elyon, El-Shaddai, and soon settling on the name “Yahweh.”

The text of Numbers does not clarify the national derivation of Balaam son of Beor, but he is definitely not an Israelite.  Yet he is well-known by the elders of both Moab and Midian as a prophet of YHWH.  Indeed, they seem to be seeking him out for the very reason that he is a prophet of the same God who is reported to have empowered the mass of Israelites camped within Moab’s borders.

In the story of the Hebrew Scriptures, we see that it is with Abraham and his descendants, particularly through his grandson Jacob, that God is (slowly) making Himself known as YHWH, the God who is not only the maker of heaven and earth, but also the cutter of covenants with people.  By the time Moses meets Him at Sinai and receives his covenant name, YHWH has already been known and authentically worshiped by many people groups.  People had been calling on His name (an expression of saving faith [Joel 2:32; Rom. 10:13]) since the time of Seth (Gen. 4:26).

The real news that is breaking in the story of Torah is that this God is beginning to pull together His program of saving the world through a special people, a particular nation.  As the story of Israel as God’s special people begins to develop, we see the thinning out of Yahwhism among the other peoples.

But for any true prophet or priest of YHWH, the news that God was entering into such a relationship with a nation – even a nation not one’s own – would be good news (or at least bittersweet news), for it would mean that God was making significant strides toward His plan to redeem the world.  Melchizedek, it would seem, is this sort of person.  In addition to being a type of Christ as described by the author of Hebrews, he was a man who was delighted to see Abraham’s day as surely as Abraham rejoiced to see the Lord Jesus’ day.

5. What is the OT disposition to religion and religious activity?

Our culture assumes that most or all of us are deeply interested in romantic love.  Rarely, do those who speak and write for public consumption feel the need to make a case for the existence of romantic love and relationships.  And although our entertainment media and other shapers of culture constantly work to undermine relational fidelity, they also continue to play on what they can easily see is our basic human demand for it.  So it is that the same pop stars who erode relational constancy will write songs and scripts in which we hear the heart pain of someone saying to a lover, “You hurt me!  I trusted you to be true to me and to be romantically committed to me and only me!  But you cheated on me!  You broke my heart!”

In a way quite similar to this presumption of romantic love and the ethics it implies, the OT presupposes the religiosity of human beings.  The OT writers do not have to make a case for religion to get people interested.  They rightly assume that people are, by nature, deeply religious.  And as YHWH God reveals Himself in the OT Scriptures, He demands the fidelity of His people, but does not need to explain the concept or give reasons why a god should expect loyalty from a people.  It is a given from the nature of things.  A spouse or lover whose ‘partner’ takes up with another lover feels pain and jealousy.  So it is with God. And we all know it intuitively.  The notion of whether human beings will have lives full of romantic-sexual thinking and activity is never really in question.  Of course we will!  And the notion of whether or not human beings will have lives full of religious thinking and activity is just as basic – even more so.

6. Why the dramatic increase in demonic activity from the OT to the NT?  Why the development in demonology from the OT to the NT?

I would say that the increased angelic activity of both the elect and fallen angels which we can see in the NT is revving up at the end of the OT.  Toward the end of the OT story, we see major angelic activity in the book of Daniel.  Also, in the returning prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, angels play a major role.  Haggai is actually called the “angel (mal’ak) of YHWH” (Hag. 1:13).  In Zechariah, the prophet has a number of apocalyptic encounters with angels.  And the name Malachi literally means “My messenger/angel” (in fact, the lack of mention of Malachi by name in Ezra 5:1 causes me to wonder whether ‘Malachi’ might have been just a pen-name of Haggai’s).

It seems that, when God is gearing up to make a major change (a dispensational shift) in the world scene and in His dealings with man, angelic activity on earth increases dramatically.

7. Describe the evangelistic strategy of Paul in Acts 14:8-18 and 17:16-33 as he preaches the gospel to religious others.  How is it different than his evangelistic sermons in the synagogues and to the Jews?

In general, Paul’s evangelistic messages to Jews are similar to those of Peter in which the Galilean apostle refers to his audience as “men of Israel” and “brethren.”  But when Paul faces Gentile or pagan audience, his approach is more neutral; that is, he does not take knowledge about the true God for granted.

A little over ten years ago at Multnomah, I took a class called “Life and Thought of C.S. Lewis,” taught by Garry Friesen.  One day I was walking with Dr. Friesen after we had been discussing The Last Battle in class.  In reference to the fate of the Calormene character, Emeth, I asked, “So do you believe that, as Christians, we can look at orthodox Jews and say, ‘Well, they’ve got the right God, but they misunderstand Him’?  And if so, could we say the same thing about Islam?  Is Allah the true God just misunderstood?”

Dr. Friesen’s answer was to affirm the first and deny the second.  “In the case of Allah,” he said, “I think we have to say that that is another god.”

Among the several interesting implications of this thinking is that evangelization to Jews can – and should – take a very different tack from evangelization to Muslims.  When speaking to his brother, a kid will refer to their father as “Dad;”  but when speaking to a neighbor, he will say “my dad.”  This is not to say that Jews, by virtue of their ethnic or religious identity as Jews, are already saved and are automatically spiritually kindred with Christians.  But they have true Scripture for their guide, and they worship the true God, though they misunderstand Him and His offer of salvation through His Son.

But in dialogue with Muslims, we would be right to distinguish between their god and our God.  The same is true of Mormons, Jehovah’s witnesses, New Agers, even atheists.


5 thoughts on “Reflections on Plurality of Religions

  1. James, you are too kind. “Depth and breadth” may be right, but “knowledge”?… Well…
    Since writing these responses and posting them here on ‘The Long War,’ I have been to class, where we discussed these and other things. My prof and classmates pointed out that I was perhaps over-assuming certain things. For example, one classmate with a laptop and heavy-duty Bible software was able to find that Balaam is never actually called a prophet. Rather, he is referred to as a “diviner.” So I may be assuming too much in what I have written above.
    Still, I am not ready to abandon the idea — at least the theory — that, prior to the formation of Israel as YHWH’s special covenant nation, there were prophets among the various people groups of Genesis 10 who were receiving some sort of special revelation from God. There may have been a Yahweh cult being carried on in various places. My guess is that this is so. And a further guess is that the prophets and priests of YHWH among those people would have been informed by God somehow that He would soon be focusing His redemptive story on a particular people group (which would turn out to be Israel).

  2. Well, it sounds like your class is super intense! Except for Mr. laptop software wet blanket… No, but that’s great that you guys can bounce ideas off of each other and work things out. Are you really enjoying the class? It sounds like something you might enjoy just a little bit. Your cult idea is really interesting. What happens between Adam and Eve, and Abraham? I feel like if God revealed himself to me as in the case of Adam and Eve, and Noah (only two that come to mind) I would remember Him and tell my family and friends, and maybe have some sort of cult going on… and at some point one of us would discover how to make a ceremonial beverage which we would call cool-aid. Oh and how we would drink that cool-aid.

    • Cool-aid?…
      Now you’ve done it, James…
      Somebody’s gonna google the words “cult” and “cool-aid” and they’re gonna end up finding this blog instead of info about the Jonestown tragedy… 😉

  3. KC,
    This is a great set of responses. I particularly like the second response. It reminds a lot of the book of Job, where Job brings complaints and a lawsuit before God, but God responses by showing the might and power he contains. What is important is that God is not a nice, tidy formula and his power is unlimited and awesome.

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