Book Review – God’s Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? by Gerald McDermott
In the opening paragraph of the Introduction, McDermott sets the stage by asking his readers a question that will direct and shape the remaining portions of the work; a question that turns out to be particularly relevant to the current religious climate in North America, and one that is foundational to all related endeavors – “Why are there other religions at all? If the true God is the Father of Jesus Christ, why did this God permit the rise and flourishing of other religions?” (11) He responds by laying out a progressive series of arguments, each chapter building on what preceded, culminating with a number of general conclusions and practical instructions.
The journey continues in chapter one where he provides an overview of the discussion to date; one that has historically centered on issues relating to the question and possibility of salvation in non-Christian religions. While such questions are important and should have a place at the table, McDermott intentionally shifts the focus to more foundational matters, particularly those that surround why God permitted different religions in the first place.
Chapter two begins by highlighting the idea that God desires all nations to know him. With this in mind, he then presents examples from both the Old and New Testaments where knowledge of God had been found in religions outside the Hebrew and Christian traditions. In some cases, this knowledge had sometimes resulted in God’s people learning things about God from those within these various non-Christian religions and helped them better understand their own revelation.
In chapters three and four, he surveys various Old and New Testament texts that seem to suggest not only a human component to religions, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a spiritual dimension as well. Typified as ‘gods’ in the Old Testament and ‘powers’ in the New, he promotes the idea that the origins of some world religions came about through a series of cosmic events between God and angels, where many of those who originally followed God rebelled and became the vehicle for competing religious ideas and practices. The supernatural character of some religions has resulted in their acquiring some limited truths which God then uses to further his redemptive plan.
With the biblical backdrop established, he attempts to illustrate in the next four chapters how four key theologians from the early church, Justin Martyr (chapter five), Irenaeus (chapter six), Clement of Alexandria (chapter seven) and Origen (chapter eight), seem to validate this hypothesis. Justin believes that philosophers who teach truth are followers of Christ insofar as they follow those truths. Their knowledge, however, is incomplete because they do not have a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ. Irenaeus promoted the idea that God might be using the religions in a developmental way to prepare the nations to receive the fullness of the gospel at a later date. Clement agreed with Irenaeus that religions were part of God’s redemptive plan, and were permitted as secondary way stations on the path to fullness of faith in Christ. Origen concludes the discussion by warning that while exploration of non-Christian religions can be potentially dangerous for young believers, mature Christians can take what is true in religions to help lead seekers to the Truth found in the person of Jesus Christ.The final chapter presents a summary of what had been discussed in all the previous sections, and includes a number of practical instructions for those who engage the religions.
Gerald McDermott’s treatment of the nature and place of non-Christian religions is very helpful and answers many of the questions associated with why these religions exist. While most texts to date have dealt almost exclusively with questions surrounding soteriology and the religions, that is who can be saved; the focus of this book intentionally shifts from this traditional focus to more fundamental concerns, relating specifically to the ‘causal factors’ within each religious expression. The underlying premise for this book then, and one that has often been overlooked by most moderns after the Enlightenment, is that many religions began not only as human constructions, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as spiritual projects as well. In fact, this theme relating to the supernatural element of some religions is one that runs like a ‘red thread’ through the whole of the text. He promotes the idea that many of the biblical authors and early church theologians believed likewise and communicated this in their writings.
McDermott’s evangelical commitment, particularly in relation to the primacy of Scripture, shines through with clarity. Believing that the Bible is the Word of God and that the Spirit speaks through its witness, shedding new light on how Christians understand and relate to other religions, is to be commended. Rather than starting with a series of hypothesises derived from the social sciences, which would focus exclusively on the human aspect of religions, he attempts to begin with the spiritual dynamic communicated in the biblical writings. He evaluates well the idea that the biblical writers had more to say about ‘pagans’ than most of its readers have realized.
Gerald McDermott has offered another fine evangelical response to the issue of world religions. His dedication to the primacy of Scripture, the particularity of Jesus Christ, and appreciation for the witness of the early church, is to be commended. He nowhere claims the final word on the subject, but offers his proposal with passion and careful research. Written for those in the academy and pew, his language is generally accessible and clear. His underlying concern shines through when he states in the conclusion: “Other religions may be inspired in part by other powers, but God has not abandoned whole cultures to perdition and untruth” (168). His conviction proves to be the catalyst behind this latest attempt to address the place of religions in relationship to Christianity.