I enclose a short update on some of the work of All Nations Tutorial College over the past year. My prayer is that this will be an encouragement and inspiration to you!
The completion of the first year of our Applied Theology course was crowned by the following testimony of Chinese evangelist David Xia on completion of an essay on the Trinity in the New Testament. The course is run over skype.
Here is his testimony:
'On the morning I laid down my work on the Trinity, it was the first time I was revealed by the grace of God that Jesus is indeed the true and only manifestation of the invisible almighty eternal One - nothing less but equivalent to The One in nature. It was not by rational speculation or academic research that I was led to this point for sure. I have to say that all along the time by that morning I was unable to 'think' through how Jesus the Son of God could be the very 'God' per se, and have been therefore holding a view of error that God the Father is 'in a superior and mightier position than Jesus', who acted merely as 'the ambassador' working out God's will and plan on earth.'
...In my cultural environment 'Academy' is manipulated and controlled by secular government and thus only serve for the purpose of the legitimacy and survival of the sovereign regime on earth. It is a complete different cultural case where the human freewill does not act at all, where in its counterpart West the human freewill has over-worked to such an extend that it does not give much way to inspirational revelation.
China is a difficult context in which to work, but lessons learnt are nonetheless applicable to us all as believers, and in this regard I enclose a work on Christianity and other religions. This I have found to be an especially helpful boundary setting resource that God by his grace has helped me develop for the course. This proved decisive in working through the polytheistic religious context of China, and our own secular and denominational contexts that fail to acknowledge one true religion founded on the Lord Jesus Christ, and are often keener on state religion and denominational interpretations than they are on Jesus Christ. Those of you who are keen on Barth get ready for a healthy challenge to him in this resource!
in Christ Jesus our Lord,
PS Having read the resource I hope that the words 'Christianity is a relationship and not a religion' will never cross your tongue again, if they ever have! (said with respect and a smile). Too often the burden is on compromise among us. i.e. we want a relationship with God, but are not prepared to meet the exacting requirements of that relationship.
Christianity and other religions
This is an unashamedly academic approach to this topic, yet it is intensely practical in it’s outworking. Many Christians today glibly claim that Christianity is a relationship and not a religion, simply as an excuse not to prove the reality of Jesus’ Lordship among those who profess God either falsely through another religion, or without thorough conviction in a mere ‘Christian’ denominational capacity. The implications of not making Christianity comparable to other religions in the proper way, following our Lord Jesus’ incarnation are very significant, leading on an international level to inappropriate approaches to war and terrorism, and among Christians to denominational divisions that deeply shame the Lord Jesus Christ.
So is Christianity in the proper context, a religion? And why is that significant?
The theologian Karl Barth's famous essay, 'The revelation of God as the abolition of religion' concentrates on the superlative of GOD to the extent that the abolition of religion is recommended. This treatise takes the view that this is based on an existentialist interpretation of the apostle Paul, and that Barth has not in fact got Jesus right here. Please refer to the final comment, following the quotation of Barth’s words in full for a proper explanation.
This view confuses the superlative of GOD and the 2nd person of GOD, the Lord Jesus Christ to the exclusion of the necessity of Christianity as the supreme religion, and the function of other religions in this life. Jesus Christ was a religious Jew and could not have made God's superlative comparable without this aspect of his being. Nevertheless he retained all the attributes of God in this, and this is the point Barth is trying to make perhaps, although he doesn't need to exclude the necessity of Christianity expressing it's truth among other religions in order to make it.
It should become apparent to all Christians that we need to be cautious in our approach to comparative religion, ensuring we maintain focus on exalting God above all, and at all times.
- An example from the English language.
Adjective, comparative, superlative: high, higher, highest.
In comparative religion we must first of all remember that GOD is the highest or the Most High. He not only is this, and always has been this, he has proved this by coming amongst the religion of man, and yet still retaining all of who he is as God (Colossians 2 vs. 9-10).
Most High (intensifies the meaning of highest).
Original Word: עֶלְיוֹן
Part of Speech: Adjective
Phonetic Spelling: (el-yone')
Short Definition: Most
I. עֶלְיוֺן22 adjective 1 high; — masculine singular ׳ע Deuteronomy 26:19; Deuteronomy 28:1; 1 Kings 9:8 (? reading ׳הַבַּיִת הַזֶּה הָע as ᵐ5L Benz) = 2 Chronicles 7:21, of ׳י Psalm 97:9.
2 upper Bethhoron, ׳ע Joshua 16:5 העליון 1 Chronicles 7:24; 2Chronicles 8:5, the upper (opposed to lower), of house Nehemiah 3:25; compare 2 Kings 15:35; 2Chronicles 23:20 5t., + Genesis 40:17 (uppermost basket); feminine singular הָעֶלְיוֺנָה the upper pool 2 Kings 18:17 = Isaiah 36:2; Isaiah 7:3; the highest side-chamber (צֵלָע) Ezekiel 41:7; feminine plural הָעֶלְיוֺנֹת Ezekiel 42:5 the upper chambers (לְשָׁכוֺת).
II. עֶלְיוֺן noun masculine Highest, Most High (probably = foregoing); —
1 name of God Numbers 24:16; Deuteronomy 32:8; Psalm 18:14 = 2 Samuel 22:14; Psalm 9:3; Psalm 21:8; Psalm 46:5; Psalm 50:14; Psalm 73:11; Psalm 77:11; Psalm 78:17; Psalm 83:19; Psalm 87:5; Psalm 91:1; Psalm 91:9; Psalm 92:2; Psalm 107:11; Isaiah 14:14; Lamentations 3:35,38; with other divine names: אל עליון Genesis 14:18,19,20,22 (see Di) Psalm 78:35; יהוה עליון Psalm 7:18; Psalm 47:3; אלהים עליון Psalm 57:3; Psalm 78:56.
5 of rulers, either monarchs or angel-princes, בְּנֵי עֶלְיוֺן = אלהים Psalm 82:6.
[עֶלְיוֺן] adjective id. (Biblical Hebrew id.); — plural of God, קַדִּישֵׁי עֶלְיוֺנִין (double plural, Buhl, as sometimes Biblical Hebrew, Ges§ 124q Köii. 1. 438 f) Daniel 7:18,22,25,27.
Conclusion: we must build up the superlative reality of GOD in or lives if we are to impact other religions with the power and presence of the good news of Jesus Christ. This will certainly lead to more conversions!
The command to worship one LORD and God
The first and second commandments in the Old Testament are strongly focused on the idea that there is to be no other God besides the LORD.
Exodus 20 v.2 ‘I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’.
verse 3 ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow to them or worship them: for I, the LORD your God am a jealous God punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments’.
The reference to idols and other gods is very much interlinked, since Israel’s worship of other gods was represented by worshipping and bowing down to idols. All worship of other gods includes the worship of a power or powers that are not Lord of creation, and therefore means some form of worship of created things will be involved. Other religions all involve being weighed down, or distracted and misshapen by a focus on created things. They have form, but not power as the New testament puts it (2 Timothy 3 v.5). The power of God comes from his love. Jesus Christ reinforces this Old testament focus, but puts in more positively, since he was fulfilling these laws!
‘Love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment and the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. (Matthew 22 vs. 37-39).
- But how do we actually make a comparison with other religions? We could say we have already said enough. The comparison is implicit, since the general subject is religion, nothing more needs to be said other than to positively express Christianity.
e.g. Isaiah 40 v.18 “To whom then will you compare GOD? What image will compare him to…Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its peoples are like grasshoppers…
There is of course a great deal of mileage to this argument, but there are occasions in the Bible in which explicit comparisons, or proofs are made e.g. Elijah on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18 and God’s comparison to the gods of other nations by choosing to be Israel’s God in particular. Indeed the incarnation is implicitly a comparison with other religions, since in becoming man, and especially a religious Jew, Jesus Christ instituted a comparison with other religions. An even greater extremity was endured in that Jesus Christ suffered at the hands of a false religion. However, in a remarkable way the character and attributes of GOD were retained and proved on the cross. Thus a comparison is certainly not to be feared, and more than appropriate in certain circumstances.
Colossians 2 v.15 ‘And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross!’.
- Although, the notion of comparative religion is unavoidable, as we have seen, we must still face the fact that making Christianity comparable is not the core missionary project, it is rather an aspect of the extension of the notion of God to all, including other religions. The three Abrahamic faiths could be understood to be under Abraham’s tent. But there is still the question of which faith erects the tent and makes the rules on religion. This is a further reminder of expressing God as a superlative reality. We need reminding because Satan is an arch-enemy, a deceiver, continually seeking to usurp the place of God.
- Satan seeks to occupy the minds and hearts of Christians with false gods and false religions. Instead of their minds being filled with love for God, he would rather their minds be led astray to the worship of other gods. The Christian’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – it is place of worship, that should be occupied and filled with the Holy Spirit, in order that he or she can worship the true and living God in spirit and in truth. Worship is literally ‘worth’ ship. It involves ascribing and assigning the worth that is due to God’s name. No other God is worthy of our worship. Other gods are not worthy of our undivided attention and loyalty- no-one and nothing can take second place to GOD. Only Jesus Christ is Lord, and only he is the Messiah.
- False spirituality
Messiah means anointed King and refers to the fact that only Jesus is the one to share an exclusive, perfect and undivided relationship with the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ relationship with the Holy Spirit was and is unique. The Holy Spirit is described as ‘a wind from God’ in the beginning, and it was through the direction of the Son that he worked on creation and works today in the new creation.
Why is this information important in comparative religion? False religions seek to deceive Christians and others by a reference to spirituality. Yet this spirituality has no explicit connection with Jesus Christ, and so can be deceptive. The claim of the spiritual person is to know God, but one’s action can deny one’s language. Man is composite- body, soul and spirit and he needs a body in which to act out his faith. When taught a false religion or denied an active expression for a true faith, the Christian can be deceived by false spirituality- the collection of beliefs which are essentially untrue in terms of their belief system, but also in their incapacity to produce meaningful action in society.
- Christianity’s comparison with other religions is to be made only in the sense that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, and that no-one comes to the Father except through him. No other way of approaching God is the true way to do so. It is a lie or a deception. Not even the Old Testament sacrificial system, if relied on, can enable us to approach God today. The closest religious system to Christianity is obviously Judaism, but even this is judged to be false by Jesus Christ. (see the book of Hebrews for a close comparison).
- An enquiry into other religions is fraught with danger. We must first of all clearly mark out the boundaries of our own faith, before undertaking such a work. A Christian will very often have challenge enough simply studying Theology and philosophy and founding his thoughts sufficiently on Scripture, before engaging in detail on the complexities of other religions.
Appendix- extracts from Karl Barth’s essay, ‘The revelation of God as the abolition of religion’
‘..The image of God is always that reality of perception or thought in which man assumes and asserts something unique and ultimate and decisive either beyond or within his own existence, by which he believes himself to be posited or at least determined and conditioned. From the standpoint of revelation, man’s religion is simply an assumption and assertion of this kind, and as such it is an activity which contradicts revelation – contradicts it, because it is only through truth that truth can come to man. If a man tries to grasp at truth of himself he tries to grasp at it a priori. But in that case he does not do what he has to do when the truth comes to him. He does not believe. If he did, he would listen; but in religion he talks. If he did, he would accept a gift; but in religion he takes something for himself. If he did, he would let God himself intercede for God: but in religion he ventures to grasp at God. Because it is a grasping, religion is the contradiction of revelation, the concentrated expression of human unbelief, i.e. an attitude and activity which is directly opposed to faith. It is a feeble but defiant, an arrogant but hopeless, attempt to create something which man could do, but now cannot do, or can do only because and if God himself creates it for him: the knowledge of the truth, the knowledge of God. We cannot therefore interpret the attempt as a harmonious co-operating of man with the revelation of God, as though religion were a kind of outstretched hand which is filled by God in his revelation.
Again, we cannot say of the evident religious capacity of man that it is, so to speak, the general form of human knowledge, which acquires its true and proper content in the shape of revelation. On the contrary, we have here an exclusive contradiction. In religion man bolts and bars himself against revelation by providing a substitute, by taking away in advance the very thing which has to be given by God ... He has, of course, the power to do this. But what he achieves and acquires in virtue of this power is never the knowledge of God as Lord and God. It is never the truth. It is a complete fiction, which has not only little but no relation to God. It is an anti-God who has first to be known as such and discarded when the truth comes to him. But it can be known as such, as a fiction, only as the truth does come to him ... Revelation does not link up with a human religion which is already present and practised. It contradicts it, just as religion previously contradicted reve- lation. It displaces it, just as religion previously displaced revelation; just as faith cannot link up with a mistaken faith, but must contradict and displace it as unbelief, as an act of contradiction ...
‘It is not inherent in the nature and concept of man that he should be unrighteous and unholy and therefore damned and lost. He was created to be the image of God, i.e. to obedience towards God and not to sin, to salvation and not to destruction. But he is not summoned to this as to a state in which he might still somehow find himself, but as one in which he no longer finds himself, from which he has fallen by his own fault. But this, too, is a truth which he cannot maintain: it is not present to him unless it comes to him in revelation, i.e. in Jesus Christ, to be declared to him in a new way – the oldest truth of all in a way which is quite new…’
‘The preceding expositions have established the fact that we can speak of ‘true religion’ only in the sense in which we speak of a ‘justified sinner’. Religion is never true in itself and as such. The revelation of God denies that any religion is true, i.e. that it is in truth the knowledge and worship of God and the reconciliation of man with God. For as the self-offering and self- manifestation of God, as the work of peace which God himself has concluded between himself and man, revelation is the truth beside which there is no other truth, over against which there is only lying and wrong. If by the concept of a ‘true religion’ we mean truth which belongs to religion in itself and as such, it is just as unattainable as a ‘good man’, if by goodness we mean something which man can achieve on his own initiative. No religion is true. It can only become true, i.e. according to that which it purports to be and for which it is upheld. And it can become true only in the way in which man is justified, from without; i.e. not of its own nature and being but only in virtue of a reckoning and adopting and separating which are foreign to its own nature and being, which are quite inconceivable from its own standpoint, which come to it quite apart from any qualifications or merits. Like justified man, true religion is a creature of grace. But grace is the revelation of God. No religion can stand before it as true religion.’
These extracts illustrate and explain Barth’s notion that there can be no ‘true religion’, apart from the notion of ‘justified sinner’. There is in fact very considerable truth to this as it is founded to a significant degree on the apostle Paul’s preaching. It is therefore a very considerable and weighty judgement to consider. However, to make such a distinction as has been noted is indeed an incidence of monophysitism, because it does not bring about the reality of Jesus’ Lordship. Jesus was only Lord because as Almighty God he came as a man, and in particular as one born under the Jewish law (Galatians 4 v.4). From the very circumstances of his birth, through to his death, resurrection and ascension there is an implicit ruling comparison, not an abolition of Judaism nor other religions. The language of ‘abolition’ is based on Barth’s existentialist interpretation of the apostle Paul, which is common today among many, who glibly say that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion without truly understanding what they mean and the implications. This gives them the opportunity to excuse themselves from the more difficult road of actually humbling themselves to make their Christianity comparable to other religions and to all cultures and peoples. If they did so they would find that their confession ‘Jesus is Lord’ would be from the heart and accompanied by his resurrection power.