Review: God's Rivals

Gerald R. McDermott. God’s Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? 2007, IVP.

McDermott raises an interesting question with his subtitle, and he turns to the Bible and to early Christian writers for some answers. A great idea: in North America, where Christianity is by far the most dominant religion, it’s easy to forget that the Bible and the church were birthed in societies obsessed with a multitude of gods and religious systems. McDermott notes, as well, that Greco-Roman philosophy was itself a religious system, based on the idea that God could be discovered through reason. McDermott devotes one chapter each to surveys of the Old Testament, New Testament, and the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen.

The insights that McDermott are surprising, at least to me. Using passages such as Daniel 10:13 (referencing the “prince of Persia,” a spiritual being with authority over Persia) and Deut. 32:8-9 (where God allots nations “according to the number of the gods” – McDermott favors “sons of elohim” instead of “sons of Israel” based on manuscript evidence), McDermott argues that the OT hints at the following:

  • YHWH created “the hosts” as spiritual beings with varying degrees of authority.
  • Some of the spiritual beings were given authority over nations or ethnic groups, such as the archangel Michael over Israel.
  • These spiritual beings have largely rebelled against YHWH. This is connected to the fall of Lucifer.
  • Because of their rebellion, these spiritual beings have led men and women to worship them instead of worshiping the true God.

It’s important to note that McDermott only suggests this as a possible reading. The early Christian writers he covers, however, take it as a given that the gods of other nations are fallen angels. In subsequent chapters, McDermott reviews Paul’s famous words regarding principalities and powers, and the varying views of the four early Christian writers he chose. The Christian writers wrestled with the major question of how much truth other religions contain. Their answer, to differing degrees, is “some.” Clement goes so far as to suggest that other religions may be God’s covenants with other nations, analogous to God’s covenant with Israel, covenants which point to and are to be replaced by the new covenant of Jesus Christ.

Two concluding thoughts: First, McDermott wants to recapture the Bible’s and the early church’s view of other religions as having spiritual components. There are real spiritual beings behind these other religions; they are much more than simply “mistakes” or human searches for God. Because they originate with spiritual beings originally created by God, other religions contain some kernel of truth. McDermott writes,

This also means that other religionists are not our enemy…Our real battle, as Paul advises us, is not against human beings – flesh and blood – but against “the cosmic powers of this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12). (165)

Thus, our attitude toward other religions should be respectful and characterized by “patient persuasion, not hostile argument.”

Second, McDermott does an excellent job of bringing early Christian writers to life. Using Eusebius‘ history of the early church, McDermott interweaves the theologies of these writers with their personal testimonies and contexts. He leads me to desire to read them for myself.

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