Gerald R. McDermott. Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions?: Jesus, Revelation & Religious Traditions. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2000.
I would like to thank Intervarsity Press for my review copy of this book.
Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? Professor Gerald R. McDermott answers yes. McDermott sees examples in Scripture of God using concepts or people from non-Israelite religions to teach God’s people. There is Abraham’s equation of the Canaanite god of Melchizedek with his own God, the ancient Israelite appropriation of the Canaanite god El, the way that God functioned as Abraham’s personal deity (a type of deity that was common in ancient Mesopotamia), and Jesus’ appeal to certain Gentiles as exemplars of faith. McDermott looks at church history, noting times when concepts in non-Christian religions helped notorious Christian thinkers through intellectual snags, providing them with resources to arrive at reasonable explanations for puzzles in the Christian faith. McDermott also discusses how concepts from Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and Islam can instruct evangelical Christians, as they highlight to evangelicals elements of Christianity that might be neglected, teach evangelicals a new way to understand and apply their tradition, or demonstrate piety and devotion to evangelicals.
Another significant feature of this book is that McDermott interacts with the question of how God might be involved in world religions. McDermott notes that non-Christian religions have concepts that overlap with Christianity, and McDermott believes that God is somehow behind that, revealing himself to non-Christians. Why doesn’t God provide people in non-Christian religions with a fuller revelation, rather than just dropping some concepts here-and-there that overlap with Christianity? McDermott notes that there are times when God does provide a number of people with a revelation that is incomplete: Jesus, for example, spoke to the multitudes in parables, while offering fuller explanations to his disciples; ancient Israel had a conception of God that was incomplete, at least in comparison with the revelation in Jesus Christ. According to McDermott, God may be using “veils to protect His pearls from being trampled by swine” (page 102), or God may be basing his level of revelation on where people are spiritually. God may not want to reveal grace fully to some cultures, preferring instead to allow them to be in a system of salvation by works so that they can learn human inability. McDermott also refers extensively to Jonathan Edwards, who offered reasons that God put Israel through a system of animal sacrifices rather than revealing to them grace through Jesus Christ at the outset: so that ancient Israelites could learn respect for God’s law and the necessity for atonement, whereas ancient Israelites might take God’s mercy for granted had they been permitted at that time simply to flee to God’s mercy. Similarly, McDermott contends, God has reasons for giving an incomplete revelation of himself within non-Christian religions.
Does God reveal bits and pieces about himself within world religions to bring non-Christians to salvation? McDermott says a couple of times that his focus in this book is revelation within world religions, not the question of whether or not non-Christians can be saved within those religions. But McDermott does say on page 103 that “some of the religions may be providential preparations for future peoples to receive the full revelation of God in Christ” (page 103). Whether or not McDermott believes that people in non-Christian religions can be saved with the light that God gives them, or that non-Christian religions can provide the soil for non-Christians in the afterlife to receive salvation through Jesus Christ, McDermott does appear to maintain that God’s incomplete revelation of himself in non-Christian religions may have a salvific purpose: that God could be setting the stage for future generations to receive Christ.
On some level, I have encountered the sorts of arguments that McDermott presents in other sources. C.S. Lewis stated in his chapter “Nice People or New Men” in Mere Christianity that “There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it.” (Not that McDermott explicitly believes that those non-Christians are saved, for he does not take a position on that in this book, but C.S. Lewis, like McDermott, talks about people in world religions responding to Christian-like themes within their own religions.) David Marshall’s books talk about areas in which world religions overlap with Christianity. Ron Dart, a preacher I listened to growing up, said that the sacrificial system within the Old Testament was designed to reinforce to ancient Israelites that they needed a substitutionary death to atone for their sins. (I don’t know if I agree with Dart on this, for I don’t think there is evidence that the animals were expiating sin by dying in place of the sinners, but I don’t want to get too deeply into that topic here.) Paul Knitter and William Placher discuss what Christians can learn from non-Christian religions, and how non-Christian religions can deepen Christians’ appreciation of themes within the Christian faith.
I cannot say, however, that McDermott’s book was boring to me, or that it was a “Been there, done that” sort of book, as far as I was concerned. I learned from McDermott’s book about the differences between fundamentalism and evangelicalism (since I, as one who is rather liberal, tend to conflate the two), and the significance of the filoque (the idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son) to the question of whether God is involved in other religions. I also found McDermott’s discussion of practical ways that world religions can teach evangelicals to be quite edifying. As one who is insecure about whether people like me or not, I especially appreciated McDermott’s discussion of how certain Asian religions address what attitude one should have when one is disliked.
I was recently telling my Mom that McDermott’s book is actually one of the best books about theology that I have read as of late. (I distinguish theology from biblical studies.) I have been reading more liberal theologians, and their language is often dense, plus I wonder where exactly they are going with their arguments, if anywhere. McDermott, however, managed to be deep and scholarly, and yet lucid and practical. While some of his abstract discussions were not exactly neat (since, well, conceptualizing things accurately with all of the exceptions to the rule can be a difficult task), I did appreciate that he provided examples from church history of the sort of thing that he was talking about: Christians learning from other religions.
Do I have any disagreements with McDermott’s arguments in this book? Well, I have questions that are rooted in some of my own outlook. I tend to gravitate towards the historical-critical method of interpreting the Bible—-a method that interprets the biblical writings in light of their own historical contexts. I believe that there are areas in which the historical-critical method overlaps with and diverges from McDermott’s approach. Where the two overlap is that both essentially acknowledge that biblical religions have been influenced by other religions. (Well, some scholars would minimize that influence, but my impression is that many biblical scholars acknowledge it.) Where the two diverge is that historical criticism would say that we should attempt to understand the Hebrew Bible in light of its ancient Near Eastern context, while denying that we can understand it in reference to early Christianity, Asian religions, Neo-Platonism, or Islam. My impression is that historical criticism would also treat the biblical writings as rather static—-that they meant something to their original authors and audiences, within their historical context, and that is their meaning—-whereas McDermott presents a more dynamic process in which the Spirit supposedly highlights fresh implications to the biblical writings and brings the church to newer understandings (without contradicting earlier orthodoxy). A historical critical reading, to use an example, would probably say that the Hebrew Bible was okay with slavery, and that’s that, whereas McDermott argues that the Spirit brought the church to the realization that slavery was wrong. McDermott also apparently disagrees with how historical criticism highlights tension within the Bible, for he believes that the Bible has a coherent narrative.
I wouldn’t exactly say that McDermott should have devoted a section to the topic of historical criticism, but I do believe that the topic is relevant to the sorts of issues that he is discussing. How can we justify hermeneutical approaches that go beyond the historical-critical method, as McDermott’s approach seems to do? On what basis can we justify interpretations of the biblical text that don’t limit themselves to the text’s original, historical meaning? Reader response? Intertextuality? McDermott’s approach is arguably rather intertextual in that McDermott, as a reader, juxtaposes the Bible with the teachings of other religions, allowing the latter to influence his understanding of the former. But, in contrast to many reader response and intertextual approaches, McDermott does not seem to locate interpretive authority in the reader, but rather he appears to believe that the Spirit helps people to interpret the text as God desires. I find that approach rather subjective, but I do admit that McDermott’s intertextuality does generate interesting thoughts.
I also question whether McDermott should be so quick to dismiss the tension within Scripture (if I am correct that he does that). Perhaps biblical diversity has the same theological significance that McDermott sees in the existence of diverse religions throughout the world: that God is interacting with people in different ways, based on where they are.
That said, this is an excellent book. Click here for information that Intervarsity Press provides about it.