Review of Gerald McDermott's "God's Rivals"
The central question of the book is somewhat disconcerting. Why has God allowed different religions? The question implies a respect for God's sovereignty, but it might just as well open a door to universalism--that any religion can in some way lead one to God. But that is not the case with this author, who takes pains to demonstrate that even though valid truth can be learned from pagan religions, that truth never constitutes special (salvic) revelation.
The theme that emerges from the book is that from the perspectives of the Scriptures and the early church fathers (namely, Martyr, Ireneus, Clement, and Origen) the pagan religions are seen "not simply as human constructions but as spiritual projects as well" (11). In other words, the religions are based upon the reality of spiritual beings and forces ("gods" in OT and "powers" in NT). The author claims that modern views of religion have tended to deny the spiritual realities of gods and powers.
The idea of an invisible world of spirits, demons, and the like is familiar to missiologists, even though in Western cultures influenced by modernism and secularism, the spirit world is largely ignored and disbelieved. McDermott examines the Scriptures and early church fathers to discover that they all attest to the reality of pagan religions, though there is great diversity of views and perspectives of that reality.
The author notes that Christian attitudes toward pagan religions tend to fluctuate between two unhelpful extremes. On one hand, anything and everything associated with paganism and evil is to be avoided, rejected, and exorcised. At the other extreme would be the suggestion that any religion has salvic potential (13f.).
McDermott is professor of religion at Roanoke College and has written extensively on Jonathan Edwards and the relationship of Christianity among the world religions. He writes as a Christian who is clearly committed to the authority of the Bible. He attempts to show what benefits can be gained by a proper understanding of pagan religions, but he insists that true, saving knowledge of God (for salvation) is only offered through Jesus Christ (18).
The book is very applicable to reading required for seminary courses dealing with the occult in contemporary society. However, it manages to be both academic and practical. Whether or not one agrees totally with every point raised in the book, the author raises some issues that are very pertinent to ministry challenges in our day.
In the first place, we need to be attentive to the spiritual dimension when confronting other religions (158). In an age of secularism, the church can easily begin to lose sight of the spiritual reality of the opposition to Christ and the Christian faith. Pagan religions do not merely bring an intellectual challenge, but they are a part of a spiritual network opposed to the Lord Jesus Christ and the Gospel.
At the same time, as we are alerted to the spiritual nature of the opposition, the author also shows that some part of truth is evident even in non-Christian religion. Even if they twist the truth, there is at least some kernel of truth underlying many of the claims of non-Christian religions, which may serve as analogies or bridges for communicating the Faith.
Considering the reason God has allowed the rise of other religions, McDermott explains them as indications of God's respecting human freedom (162). In context, he appears to mean that since mankind is under the curse of sin and death, all human religions are a distortion of the truth. Although the religions may contain some elements of truth, they are a mixed bag that cannot save (163) and do not offer a path to salvation (169). But mankind, lost in sin, is doomed to distortion of the truth.
In an evangelistic sense, Christians should be attentive to others in these false religions--they are not our enemies (165f.). McDermott recommends persuasion rather than argumentation. In fact, it appears that part of the reason he offers this study is in some sense to encourage evangelical Christians to engage pagan religions rather than simply writing them off as unreachable. The book speaks in gentle terms but is clear that Christ is the only reliably true Truth.
For those interested in demonology, McDermott raises some interesting perspectives on what some have termed territorial powers. Although he does not specifically address the issues of territorial demons, he does show translations of Deut. 32:8 that would lend some weight to the idea of gods or powers having been assigned to specific people groups or territories (47).
In conclusion, McDermott's discussion of God's "rivals" actually demonstrates the sovereignty and incomparable greatness of God. His allowing other gods to exist and to deceive mankind is part of the curse of sin, a curse Christ has overcome through the cross. At the same time, the book manages to avoid minimizing the spiritual challenge of rival truth claims, providing a fresh look at an old battle.
McDermott, Gerald R. 2007. God's rivals: Why has God allowed different religions?
Downer's Grove: IVP Academic.
Reviewer: Dr. Paul Long, Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program
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