The term ‘religion’ is a hot topic of debate in the literature on Insider Movements. Some even question whether it is a meaningful concept. In this post we will explore three questions: “What is religion?”, “What is the source of non-Christian religions?” and “Is God at work in non-Christian religions?”
What is “religion”?
In Understanding Insider Movements, one writer states, “One of the most instructive definitions of religion is provided by Clifford Geertz. He defines it as a ‘cultural system’ or ‘worldview'” (UIM, Kindle loc. 8297)
Harold Netland writes,
…Roger Schmidt and his colleagues offer the following definition: “Religions … are systems of meaning embodied in a pattern of life, a community of faith, and a worldview that articulates a view of the sacred and of what ultimately matters.” Religion, on this understanding, includes a pattern of life or way of living; a community of faith; and a worldview, or basic beliefs about what is ultimately real and of value. -Netland, 2001, Encountering Religious Pluralism, IVP, 193.
Insider Movement advocates emphasize the ‘cultural system’ aspect of religion and downplay the ‘worldview’ aspect. The frequent use of the term ‘socio-religious’ displays this emphasis. One writer states, “a religion is more than a set of beliefs and practices …A religion is a cultural system of teaching …” (UIM, Kindle loc. 8383). There is often a tendency to subordinate doctrine to relationship and experience among Insider Movement advocates. Yes, religion is more than a set of beliefs but not less than a set of beliefs. While there is diversity within any religion, there are essential ideas that define a particular religion (see “Why I am an Essentialist about Islam and Why that is important?“, April 2017, GlobalMissiology.org).
All the aspects of religion mentioned above are highly integrated. One cannot simply exchange one component without altering all the other components. Meaning and form are tied together. Changing the meaning of a socio-religious form takes a lot of time and effort. Religion and culture are woven together in a way that always makes conversion difficult. It seems to me that trying to follow Jesus within a religious context which denies his unique person and work will bring confusion and misunderstanding for both the individual and the community.
What is the source of non-Christian religions?
In his book, Their Rock is not like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions, Daniel Strange argues that,
the raw revelatory material out of which idolatrous religion is fashioned comes from four sources: the imaginal, the remnantal, the influental and the demonic. (259)
The imaginal refers to humankind being made in the image of God. The remnantal refers to the common memory of God’s revelation in the early history of man. The influental refers to the historic impact of the Judeo-Christian worldview. The demonic source acknowledges what the Bible clearly teaches about demonic activity in false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1). The first three sources account for the appearance of some truths within non-Christian religions. Yet, all three have been affected by the Fall, resulting in distortion and rebellion against the true God.
In essence, what the religious Other consists of is the dynamic of a subjective idolatrous response to an objective divine revelation, summarized in passages such as Romans 1:18-32 but evidenced throughout the entire biblical plotline. -Daniel Strange, 2014, Their Rock is not Like Our Rock, Zondervan, 335.
Insider Movement advocates seek to find room for “following Jesus” within other religions. But I would argue that following the Jesus revealed in the Bible does not fit within religions whose sources are opposed to biblical revelation. One cannot mix the biblical story of Christ with the Qur’an’s description of Jesus and come up with the true Christ. The Bible is the only authentic revelation of the person and work of Jesus Christ and the only context in which biblical faith can flourish.
Is God at work in non-Christian religions?
Certainly God’s sovereign providence encompasses non-Christian religions. But that does not necessarily mean that he is at work within them. The rebellion of both Satan and humankind are under God’s control and judgment. There is a zeal for God in non-Christian religions but not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). Non-Christian religions are rebellious distortions of God’s general revelation and as such are antithetical to God’s special revelation in the Bible.
Daniel Strange argues that,
… non-Christian religions are ‘subversively fulfilled’ on the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Their Rock is not like Our Rock, 335.)
By this he means that what the religious Other is looking for in his religion, but cannot find, is found in Jesus Christ.
It seems to me that the nature of non-Christian religions is antithetical to following Jesus. Their systems of meaning, patterns of life, community of faith, and worldview do not allow for an incarnate God to die on a cross, rise again from the dead to redeem fallen mankind. Biblical faith cannot flourish within a socio-religious context opposed to the unique self-revelation of God in the Bible. God has spoken in these last days through his Son, Jesus Christ, who has made purification for our sin (Hebrews 1:1-4). He has made God known (John 1:18).
On these questions, I recommend two additional resources:
- J. H. Bavinck, The Church Between the Temple and Mosque
- Edward Rommen and Harold Netland, eds. Christianity and the Religions: A Biblical Theology of World Religions
How would you answer these questions, and what implications do you think these questions might have for those who seek to make followers of Jesus from among those who are Muslims? We would invite your comments below.