World Religions - "In Holy Array" - Sept. 1974 - by Prof. Heinrich M. Ohmann
'Prof. Heinrich M. Ohmann, Th.Drs. (1928-2006) was a Professor of Old Testament at the Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches, Hamilton, Ont. He has writtten a similar series of articles in Calvinistisch Jongelingsblad, entitled "De Godsdiensten van India".
In introducing a series of articles on world religions, I need hardly say that at the present day these religions are in the focus. That's the why it is with the new generation in general, the generation to which the readers and subscribers of "In Holy bray" belong.
What about this widespread interest? Why can you find shelves full of books on the subject in the average bookstore? Do you get the impression that he or she who does not know about Yoga, Zen-Buddhism and other peculiar cults seemingly cannot (is not able) to "join in the conversation"? Anyway among the youth where Hinduism, Buddhism and other variants on the theme of "Religion" are discussed in all seriousness? Is it just a fashion? And is it nothing but following the (spiritual) fashion with the youth concerned? Which may consequently have its influence on our young people and thus the need for a series of articles like this? I do not think so.
We all may really wonder what is at the root of such a remarkable conspicuous interest. How come present day youth, fascinated by things like evolution, drugs, and sex, are discovering "the religions''? Isn't is a thing which sets one thinking? They approach life having their questions, desires, needs (wants), asking for a solution and seeking it among other places in the idea of "Religion". In case you meet someone interested it is an advantage that you know something of the subject — not just to join the conversation, let alone to play up to him, nor to show off what you know, but rather to inform yourself about what 's going on in this world.
Apart from that our interest may have been aroused; why? Well, now we do not look at others but at the people we are ourselves. Those are foreign religions, from far-away countries; from another continent, Asia. And much as they are propagated all over the world today — and Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism do have their missionaries no less than the church does — wherever you happen to meet them, they bear the mark of the land of origin. Whether in Amsterdam or in Montreal or in New York, they show themselves to be Eastern Religions. You cannot divorce form from matter.
Well then, let's be honest, what comes from afar has a power of attraction somehow or other. We are not romanticists, I mean adherents of the trend prevailing in the beginning of the 19th century, (though it is remarkable that right then the impulse was given to the excavations in Egypt and Irak and the investigations into the ancient cultures of Arabia, Persia and India) but a romantic trait (feature) is unmistakably present with quite a few of my readers, I presume, though it comes to light with the one sooner than with the other. What I mean is something like what Ecclesiastes is speaking about, whe nit says: He has set the world in man's heart, (Eccl. 3:11).
Furthermore, finding such an inclination to make investigations in man's heart, what are we going to do with it? and how are we going to judge of this general interest in world religions? In my first article I would like to go into this matter trying to take up a position to define our own viewpoint before going into details about the subject of world religions. I think this will be the right way to come to grips with the matter.
There are other ways as well. I can reason this way: My readers are interested in world religions. Everybody is supposed to know what is meant by it, having seen an Indian pilgrimage at the Ganges, a meditating sadhu, a Mohammedan mosque called up before his mind. Well then, let us tell them all kinds of interesting details about the background, history, ritual, customs, strange sects, and let us test the religion concerned with respect to its viability in present-day life, in the changing world of today.
It is an easy way, but not the way. It is not the way because in doing so we run the risk of getting into a labyrinth, we do not see a way out and so we cannot distinguish a clear pattern in the midst of the innumerable, multifarious phenomena so as to be able to say: this is the point everything pivots around in this particular religion and that is the point at stake in that completely different religion. However, I wonder, is that all there is to it? And I answer no, because in going this way, we also try to keep out of the way of something we should face. What I have in mind is not a difficulty. Oh no! It is the fact that we ourselves are going a way already; our own way, I better say, GOD's way.
Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc., are called ways, paths; but as far as we are concerned we do not stand beside the road as mere spectators. We are not neutral. We have learned Him who once spoke: "I AM THE WAY, AND THE TRUTH AND THE LIFE". We cannot break away from Him. And even if one would break away from the Church, denying his faith, you'll always perceive that a Christian influence of days gone by still lingers, making itself felt.
What are we going to do now? As believers in God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are going to study world religions. Is that good? Are we allowed to do so, taking into consideration what has been said about the WAY we are going ourselves? Perhaps there are members in our societies, who say 'No, that is not lawful'. They make a reference to what it says in Holy Writ about the idols (Ps. 96, 97, 115, 135) and to the first commandment: "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me". So they'll say: That point is settled. GOD disapproves. Period.
If during your discussion someone speaks that way, do not dispose of him or her saying that he is narrowminded nor pass it off with a joke or worse, by letting him talk. He speaks in all seriousness and so do you, anyway you should be in earnest, since your belief is at stake. Otherwise you had better skip the subject world religions and these articles had better never occurred . But now I have taken up my pen and I do not give up writing and I can do so from this clear starting point that we are going to study world religions in the light of what it says in the Bible, the Holy Scripture concerning Religion.
First and foremost we are to face the point: Are they really religions?
Do they meet these requirements? Do they answer the purpose? The adherents do not serve the only True God who has revealed Himself in His Word, but the idols. "WE KNOW THAT AN IDOL HAS NO REAL EXISTENCE AND THAT THERE IS NO GOD BUT ONE," Paul writes in 1 Cor. 8:4. I totally agree. An idol has no real existence, and heathen bow before such dead things. However, the service of the idols with everything that is implied is unmistakable reality. I say: reality. I do not say Truth. Those two are to be distinguished clearly.
Truth is everything revealed to us in Holy Scripture and everything believed, taught and done in accordance with it. Reality is all that is going on in this world. Good as well as evil. GOD and His Son and His angels, but also Satan and his angels are real, however much the latter has nothing to do with the truth. All our sins and transgressions are real; all sorts of spiritual movements in the widest sense: humanism, freemasonry, marxism, atheism are real; pagan religions are real.
They are not the Truth, nor do they contain part of the truth, yet they are a piece of reality, that piece (part) that is to pass by the name of religion or play the part, the role of religion in the life of heathen people. With those people religion has to function as the true religion does in the life of GOD's children; and the idols likewise. The late Prof. Dr. K. Schilder once said: Idols do not exist really but rather "functionally". By believing in idols a gap, an hiatus, is filled in the life of the pagans. Since it is a significant fact, that among people which do not know the only true GOD (which is a guilt), such an hiatus is felt (which is tragic) and they try to supply their want in such a way as to be very much in the limelight today and to come to our notice, therefore we are going to pay attention to it in a series of articles.
However, not as mere onlookers, but rather as prejudiced in the true sense of the word. On our voyage of discovery we will take along our christian idea of Religion. That is no drawback. On the contrary, in this way we are enabled to observe and to evaluate sharper what's really going on in the field of religions. That is why first of all we will try to give a circumscription of what religion is. I do not say: a definition. It is only a circumscription. Throughout the centuries many scholars have tried to define religion, but time and again it turned out to be unsatisfactory. Other scholars arose and criticized them. The big problem was that in the field of comparative religion, as it is called in English speaking countries, everybody tried to be as unprejudiced as possible, considering himself to be obliged to combine as many phenomena in his definition, down to the most eccentric details. Afterwards he was given to understand that as general as it might be, his definition was still too christian, because you could gather from it that secretly christendom was considered as a standard for other religions somehow or other. And those who were criticized were not just Reformed scholars, but liberal or modern scholars as well. Here you see the influence christianity has had on the way of thinking.
The circumscription we are presenting of religion now is obviously a christian one, The present writer is prejudiced and he is not ashamed of that. In the Christian Religion we meet religion in the true sense of the word. Is it pride or self-conceitedness? Not at all! The true religion is a gift bestowed upon us by GOD. It is in gratitude that we may speak so. It is a firm conviction based upon the infallible word of GOD. Furthermore a definition should be concise. We mention only what should be mentioned inevitably. So, do not be disappointed, when you do not come across wellknown terms of our confession like: election, creation, sin, justification, church, office, sacrament, etc., but here it is only the basic groundwork. So, I for one would like to present the following circumscription: Religion is the relationship between God and man, which called into being by God's revelation, guaranteed by the Mediator, and accepted by man in faith, is a covenant, in which man is made partaker of salvation and called to live before God.
Those are the headlines. Now the details. Purposely I speak of a relationship. Where religion exists, there are two parties, not only man, having his religious representations, performing pious acts like praying, offering, but from the very outset or rather before, there was GOD, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things. Without God, there is no religion. Therefore everything is dependent upon the REVELATION of this GOD. In the line of this revelation, in this same strain we see all the works in which God is taking the initiative: creation, election, grace. Further in our circumscription our Mediator should be mentioned. For it is He who has made the two one. In the line of his mediating office we notice the work of priests, prophets and kings under the Old Testament (which is part of our religion as well) and incarnation, atonement, redemption, justification, etc.
Third I mentioned man, that is: believing man. Faith is decisive. Without faith it is impossible to please GOD (Heb. 11:6). In this line the Holy Spirit comes to the fore working faith and repentance.
The two partners, united by the Mediator, continue to be united in the covenant of grace, of which is to be mentioned first of all: the promises, sealed by the sacraments, administered by the officebearers in the church; and subsequently, the requirements, the law of God in the Old and the New Testament; in the same strain we can speak of the cult, the liturgy and the cultural mandate.
Finally one question is left. Why have pagan peoples, after being apostatized from the Living God not become radical atheists? Why is it that beside the only true religion other false non-christian religions are found?
I can point to a threefold motive:
1) The influence of the original revelation. In Adam and Eve God has revealed Himself to the whole human race. There is no way of arguing out of that. That's why in all heathen religions we come across a story of creation, a myth of the flood, and so on. The original revelation lies at the base of it, we may say. The revelation by means of His word in the time before Abraham, but also the revelation in the work of His hands (Ps. 19, 104; Acts 14). That this revelation is used in the proper way by the believers only and abused by unbelievers doesn't remove the fact of this revelation. In the period after Abraham special revelation to other peoples was discontinued; the once known God becomes more and more the unknown God (Acts 17). The revelation is not carried along in its integrity anymore . Certain elements are omitted, others inserted and man is losing sight of what is the right viewpoint and coherence. If the preservation of what has been entrusted unto theChurch of all ages has been already a painstaking work, so much the more it must have been for the heathen.
2) Man's creation after God's image. Sin has disturbed this image, we all know and confess (Canons of Dordt III-IV). We are not going into details here about the glimmerings of natural light. (Read art. 4 of this chapter). What I want to point out is that, since man is created after God's image, it is only in relationship with God that man can develop and live according to his original nature. Originally man was oriented toward God. Consequently his fall and disobedience have caused a real lack, a want, which man tries to provide for on his own accord. So he is going to make, to invent gods, goddesses, ideals, projecting them at the sky, which is the screen of his ideas. A god after man's image, grotesquely enlarged. A matter of course, since man's sins and shortcomings and everything grown crooked is not eliminated from what appears on the screen. It is part of the game of religion, the corrupt man thinks. So he projects gods who have their good and bad moods, their likes and dislikes; gods, you never know where you are with them. Heathen religions are often cruel religions.
3) A third factor is what I would call the suitability of religion. I refer to Romans 2:14. A society that is to function in the proper way should obey certain rules. Doing what the law requires is not a matter of a high ethical standard or keeping an agreement, but rather of tradition. It is the sanction of tradition, the knowledge or "belief" that those ordinances date back to primeval times by the ancestors, which makes pagan peoples submit to them.