Gerald McDermott, in God’s Rivals, addresses an issue of major significance in the Church today, especially (so it seems to me) for the emerging crowd. The issue is the role of world religions and how Christians can explain them. In chp 4 he addresses the NT evidence suggesting early Christians believed in “real supernatural powers besides God.”
I apologize for accidentally shutting off the comments last week; the comments are open and I’d like to hear your thoughts on this book and its ideas.
One thing I like about McDermott’s book is its integrity: it discusses what we find in the Bible first. It does so with carefulness and clarity. It avoids riding hobby horses so the argument can lead to what he wants to say.
Chp 4 drives toward this conclusion: “For if Paul said that the powers used the law to keep people in bondage, and yet at the same time the law led them to Christ, perhaps the religions also, in all of their error and deception, are leading God’s people to truth about Christ that otherwise is unattainable” (83). How does McDermott get here?
1. Two new rules for Christians: the rule of love when it comes to eating food offered to idols and the rule that participation in pagan feasts is participation in demonic realities in and behind pagan idolatry.
2. Behind human opposition to God’s work in this world are invisible spiritual powers. These powers have limited potency, but a real potency. Their powers are not forever and Christians can tap into the power for victory.
3. The Roman, Greek and Jewish backgrounds assumed what Paul taught.
4. At his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus Christ defeated the powers — an inaugural defeat that will only be completed (as with redemption) at the End.
5. The powers — law, state and satan — are dialectical powers: they are both good and bad. They have been designed by God for good and have the capacity for distortion.
Acts 17 is a good example of all of this: Paul on the Areopagus. He is distressed by the pagan idolatry; he offers plenty of derogatory references to that pagan idolatry. And even the “groping” of Acts 17:26-27 is seen in Paul’s terms as negative. Paul thought it “unlikely that any seekers actually found God in these religions” (81). I think McDermott may overstate this one for, even if he says the pagan idolatry of Paul’s world was a “miasma of ignorance that leads to idolatry” (81), he finds elements of hope:
1. The pagan groping was a groping for the same God (17:23).
2. The pagan poets sometimes spoke God’s truth (17:28).
So, to sum up his study of Paul:
1. Pagan religions have supernatural origins.
2. Pagan religions teach some truth about God.
3. Pagan religions are used by God to advance his own plan of redemption.
Then he makes the statement we quoted above.