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Knowing the Elephant: Revelation's Place in a Theology of Religions
Maybe you’ve heard the famous story of the blind men and the elephant. The story is told from the vantage point of a king who watches as men grapple with the reality of the massive creature:
One man holds the tail, another its tusks; one person grasps the elephant’s ears, another touches its massive body. Each person insists the creature is as his perspective allows, which is why the story is often quoted in the interest of religious pluralism, even agnosticism.
Except, as Daniel Strange notes in his new book Their Rock Is Not Like Our Rock, the story demonstrates epistemic arrogance, for the king insists he sees the whole elephantine truth that all the world religions miss!
Given this story, when it comes to a theology of religions Strange insists one needs to reveal the foundation upon which they base their authority. “For pluralism, it is the exclusive claims of Kantian modernity.” (43) For him, his foundation is of a different source: the doctrine of revelation.
As he argues, “knowledge of the elephant is possible only because the elephant speaks and tells us who he is. Without this self-disclosure we may speculate, guess or dream, but we have no secure starting point for knowledge: we remain blind.” (43)
Strange outlines five important aspects of his foundation for a theology of religions:
1) Ontology Precedes Epistemology
Strange insists that “the self-attesting, personal and ultimate authority of divine revelation is what it is, solely because it is derived from a God who is self-attesting, personal absolute.” (43-44) Quoting James Sire, Strange argues “before there can be revelation, there must be something to be revealed and someone or something to reveal it.” (Sire, Naming the Elephant, 68)
2) Beyond Modern Rationalism & Postmodern Irrationalism
Taking his cues from Mark Kreitzer’s transcendent foundationalism, Strange argues, “The nature of human knowledge is a reflection of the creature’s metaphysical total dependence upon, and distinction from, a totally independent Creator.” (44) What knowledge we can know comes to us from God himself.
As such, Strange insists we require multi-perspectivalism, because “there are both continuities and discontinuities between God’s knowledge and our own.” (45) Leaning on the work of John Frame and Vern Poythress, we understand religious truth when we incorporate different Christian theological perspectives into our formulations, ensuring they will more likely be biblically accurate. (45)
3) The Necessity of Sola Scriptura: What It Is
Strange confesses his theology of religions is decidedly Reformed. As such, he places a large importance upon the doctrine of Scripture and meaning of sola Scriptura: “The Bible has a unique role in the organism of revelation, as both a verbal and written revelation is understood to be necessary.” (46)
Given the universal human propensity to suppress and distort the truth of God’s revelation, “the gospel message, now exclusively revealed in the Bible (for Jesus has ascended and the apostles have died), is necessary to ‘correct’ our vision.” (46)
4) The Necessity of Sola Scriptura: What It Is Not
Yet, in adopting the Reformation view of Scripture, Strange is quick to argue he is “not divinizing the Bible, distracting from Christ, dismissing the role of the ‘rule of faith’ or dichotomizing Scripture.” (47-48)
Regarding the second charge, he is especially keen to explain sola Christus is enhanced, rather than compromised, because “all of Scripture points to him; he is the fulfillment and climax of all God’s promises.” (48) And for the third, Strange distinguishes sola Scriptura from solo Scriptura, for the creeds and councils are still important subordinate authorities, even if they are under the supreme authority of Scripture. (49)
5) Scripture and Other Media of Revelation
Finally, Strange insists we must be careful not to dichotomize Scripture from such other forms of revelation. He notes, “while the dogmatic distinction between general revelation and special revelation is generally useful, it can be a rather blunt instrument.” (49)
He quotes Frame, here, to emphasize the gospel cannot be so easily siphoned off as merely special revelation, “for the gospel is a segment of history, that segment we call redemptive history.” (Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 136, n. 6) Frame argues this category is “artificial.”
Strange promises to study the multi-faceted nature of God’s self-disclosure in full order by engaging the relationship between various media conveying God’s redemptive work.
In the end, Strange acknowledges summarizing and synthesizing a theology of religions that is faithful to the whole biblical revelation seems “presumptuous and insurmountable.” Yet he believes such a task is not impossible, “given the nature of divine revelation and [his] subscription to the Reformed theological tradition…” (51)
The remainder of his important book builds upon this sturdy foundation, as rooted in the doctrine of revelation, to present a detailed, comprehensive, biblically faithful analysis of other religions. Join us next week for a closer look at how he interprets the religious Other. Buy his book to join the exploration in what it means for Christians to proclaim Christ's exclusivity with bold humility.
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