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An Invitation to Adultery:
A Response to Religious Pluralism In Light of Divine Jealousy

By Erik Thoennes, Biola University


ETS* Annual Meeting 1999

A shift away from the distinct teaching of the particularity and exclusivity of Jesus is pervading the Church at every level. Even if religious pluralism is not explicitly affirmed, it is often the implicit understanding. N. T. Wright observes that pluralism is "perhaps the greatest unspoken premise of modern thought within the Christian church."

The Foundational Issue of Authority

Pluralists like John Hick, Paul Knitter, and Sallie McFague have been greatly influenced by Kantian dualism, which confines knowledge of God to the unknowable nouminal realm, as well as a Troeltschian historicism, which rejects a salvation history scheme. Consequently, they do not believe that absolute truth is accessible to humans. Proper theology is now expected to be done with an understanding that theology is a constructive enterprise and Christianity is but one religion among many. God is not found in a one particular "deposit of sacred writings" or in one paradigm for the divine-human relationship. Rather, it is now realized by the contemporary mind, that God is found in the existential experience an individual has with it through whatever means his culture provides. Leslie Newbigin defines religious pluralism as "the belief that differences between religions are not a matter of truth and falsehood, but of different perceptions of the one truth; that to speak of religious belief as true or false is inadmissible. Religious belief is a private matter"

The Christian pluralist finds God when he has an experience with the relative truths of the Christian way. This way is just one of many also valid ways to approach God. Therefore the contemporary Christian must be open to and "seek correctives from other religions." This is because the model that Jesus offers is only one historically conditioned symbol among humankind’s vast offering of equally valid symbols of the divine-human relationship. Once the relativity of religion is acknowledged, the theologian is no longer bound to the "idolatry" of a fixed absolute concept of God.

An Evangelical Response

So how do we as Evangelicals respond to these claims? Often we have rightly sought to refute the pluralist on his own terms. Because he has rejected our the Bible as the last word on who God is and how he is to be worshipped, we have often sought to point out the philosophical, logical and experiential inconsistencies of claiming that all religions are fundamentally the same. However, Evangelical theological method does not see our reason and experience alone as the norm of our method but rather Jesus Christ himself. Because we believe that Jesus is not a "bygone savior," as Mcfague would call him, but that he is alive and actively involved in our search for understanding God. He is the starting point of our theology. God is not an inanimate object knowable through sense perception alone. He must act if we are to know Him. And we believe that God has done this ultimately in Jesus Christ. The transcendent, eternal incomprehensible God of the universe has broken through the barrier of Kantian dualism and has shown us that history is heading somewhere. The radical and central teaching of the historic Christian faith is that God definitively revealed himself in time and space and became a man 2000 years ago.

So, for we who rely on God’s definitive revelation of himself in his word we appeal to Scripture in response to pluralism. We often point to key texts that teach that Jesus is the exclusive way to know and approach God.

NAB John 14:6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

NAB Acts 4:12 "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved."

NAB 1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,

NAB Romans 10:13 for "WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED." 14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? 15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, "HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GOOD NEWS OF GOOD THINGS!"

We would be well served however to put our emphasis on the basis for this exclusivity found within the Christian way - the very nature of God. God is personal, and this personal God has entered into a personal, covenant relationship with his people that he compares to a marriage. A relationship that makes the invitation to "seek correctives from other religions" nothing less than an invitation to adultery. And God’s response to this adultery is intense and consistent jealousy.

God’s Jealousy for His Glory and His People

That God is a jealous God is a clear teaching of the Bible. Gerhard von Rad believed God’s jealousy to be one of his most foundational attributes. He understood it as "an emotion springing from the very depths of [his] personality." Walter Eichrodt considered the jealousy of God to be the "basic element of the whole Old Testament idea of God."

Divine jealousy is fundamentally God’s inherent self-directed jealousy. It is more than a passing mood. It springs from his innate character. It is one of the enduring characteristics that make up his communicable attributes. It is with jealousy that God always responds to the abrogation of his exclusive right to something. God "will admit no derogation from his majesty." God demands that his people recognize his exclusive claims on them (Dt 6:13-15). This absolute exclusivity is unprecedented in other religions, and when it is violated, God becomes jealous.

Jealousy is the reason God gives for the second commandment,

You shall have no other gods before Me. "You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. "You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me (Exod 20:3-5).

When God renews the covenant with Moses in Exodus 34:14 he tells him that he is a jealous God, and that ‘Jealous’ is an appropriate personal name for himself. "--for you shall not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God." Repeatedly throughout the Bible God reminds his people that he is a jealous God. Of the 90 occurrences of the kana and zealos roots that should be translated jealous, 64 are used positively and 43 are used to describe God himself. His jealousy is for his own honor, and for those with whom he has established a covenant relationship.

Divine jealousy is a consuming single-minded pursuit to maintain possession of exclusivity in a relationship. Positive usage is frequently associated with the marriage relationship where a jealousy for the exclusiveness of the relationship is the necessary condition of its permanence. The objects of God’s holy jealousy are the honor of his name, and his people who are bound to him in the marriage of the covenant. The jealousy of God is of the essence of his moral character, a major cause for worship and confidence on the part of his people and a ground for fear on the part of his enemies.

Jealousy, in distinction to envy and zeal always carries with it a relational element in which the one who is jealous desires the exclusive favor in the relationship. At its core this is an emotion based in a perceived infidelity to covenant exclusivity. This desire to remain exclusively favored in covenant relationship grows out of recognition of the righteousness of this fidelity. It is also based in the desire for the pleasure this fidelity produces.

God’s Jealousy for His People

The object of Gods’ jealousy is the people with whom he has established a covenant relationship. Key passages in this category are: Exodus 20:5 "You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me"; Deuteronomy 32:16, "They made Him jealous with strange gods; With abominations they provoked Him to anger"; Joshua 24:19, "Then Joshua said to the people, ‘You will not be able to serve the LORD, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgression or your sins’"; Ezekiel 5:13, "My anger shall spend itself, and I will vent my fury on them and satisfy myself; and they shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken in my jealousy, when I spend my fury on them"; Ezekiel 16:38, "Thus I will judge you like women who commit adultery or shed blood are judged; and I will bring on you the blood of wrath and jealousy"; Zechariah 1:14, "So the angel who was speaking with me said to me, ‘Proclaim, saying, "Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and Zion’"’"; James 4:5, "Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: ‘He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us?’" Here we see God’s jealousy expressed toward the object that exclusively belongs to him. He not only has the right of protection of his people through the covenant, but of possession as well because he is God. His people are in a marriage relationship with him and any violation of it is cause for a jealous reaction. Jealousy is the foundational emotion that causes God’s wrathful response to infidelity.

Man for God

Godly human jealousy that has God’s honor at its object represents the highest form of human jealousy. This emotion earnestly desires that God be recognized for who he is and is responded to accordingly. It is to take God’s side and represent his case before man. Many of the great leaders of God’s people have exhibited this emotion. A godly perspective causes one to act on his behalf to bring about justice and covenant fidelity. This emotion is a primary basis for the courage, boldness and integrity with which great leaders of God’s people lived their lives.

Whether is Moses grinding up the golden calf an making the Israelites drink it, Phineahas killing Zimri and Cosbi for their insolent disregard for God’s commands, a young shepherd boy named David taking the challenge of the giant who dared challenge the armies of the living God, Elijah taking on the prophets of Baal, or the God man flipping over tables in the temple we can clearly see godly jealousy as the motivating emotion behind their actions.

Whenever religious reform and revival was brought about in Israel, behind it always stood a jealous leader. Whether it was Hezekiah smashing the sacred pillars and cutting down Asherah poles, Jehoiada tearing down the house and altars of Baal, or Josiah removing the high places, a jealousy for God and his exclusive right to worship and covenant fidelity is the motivating emotion behind the actions. Jealousy is always the proper response when there is a perceived violation of fidelity in relationship.

Contemporary Theological Implications

The jealousy of God affirms and demonstrates his personal nature and relational nature that must be done away with if pluralism is embraced. His jealousy shows that he is not the impersonal force that we can only call "the real," but rather the personal, loving, jealous God of the covenant.

While God’s jealousy stands behind his wrath and indignation, it also stands behind his relentless pursuit of his loved ones when they go astray. It does not allow him to remain ambivalent when his betrothed wanders from his side. Like Hosea, God pursues his wayward bride when she is unfaithful. "It is our confidence that the divine Lover will win His bride."

The Christian Response to Religious Pluralism

How should Christian’s respond to invitations to religions that fall outside of the bounds of the historic Christian faith of the Bible?

The Bible declares again and again that "For all the gods of the peoples are idols . . . " (Ps. 96:5). Any representations of gods that would compete with the true God for Israel's devotion are to be destroyed. God claims the right to an exclusive relationship. This exclusivity is not merely because of the ethical insufficiency of alternative religions but it is found in God's nature. He alone is to be worshipped because he is a jealous God. All forms of idolatry are outlawed because God will not allow for it.

God’s intense desire to protect his own glory and covenant exclusivity,(Ex 20:4-6; Ezk 39:25) is not a peripheral or accidental attribute. It is a necessary aspect of his divine nature and a necessary aspect of divine love. Divine jealousy demands the best of interpersonal relationship.

To understand this jealousy it is crucial that we realize the marriage metaphor the Bible uses to describe God’s relationship with his people. It is in this marriage concept that the exclusivity is grounded. As Raymond Ortland explains;

The bond of marriage reunites what was originally and literally one flesh. All other relational claims must yield to the primacy of marital union. It requires an exclusive life-long bonding of one man with one woman in one life fully shared. It erects barriers around the man and woman and it destroys all barriers between the man and the woman.

Whenever this sacred relationship is violated God views it as adultery and his love for his bride results in godly angry jealousy. "God is provoked to jealousy whenever we substitute our figments in place of him, as when a lewd woman, openly parading her adulterer before her husband's eyes, infuriates his mind all the more." The Bible views religious pluralism as whoredom. As defined by Ortland, whoredom is the "sharing of one's faith, devotion and obedience with any other than Yahweh." In Scripture, seeking alternatives to worshipping the true God are not seen as harmless excursions from the truth but as rebellious acts of adultery. Other religions are either seen as pitiful idolatry or the outright worship of demons (Lev 17:7).

This marriage metaphor only intensifies as we get a clearer picture of the bridegroom in the New Testament. God is seen as a loving God winning back to himself a pure bride for her one husband. As a leader of the church, Paul shares in the jealousy of God when he says to the church at Corinth,

For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband that to Christ, I might present you as a pure virgin. But I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, a different spirit which you have not received or a different gospel which you have not accepted you bear this beautifully (2 Cor 11:2-4).

If one takes this marriage metaphor seriously, the encouragement of the pluralist to enjoy, appreciate and seek correctives from other religions is nothing more than encouragement to harlotry. It is to suggest that a wife can love her husband equally effectively in the bed of another lover. The pluralist suggests that we commit adultery, and then tell our jealous and angry husband that when we were making love to that other lover we were really making love to him. If Jesus is our bridegroom, we must stay chaste and pure for him. "The covenant creates a sacred boundary not to be encroached upon. It warrants a lawful sense of entitlement within God which, when violated, generates intense emotional upheaval (Pr 6:34; 27:4).

It was during one of Israel's darkest times of her history that her harlotry was greatest. When she was in a danger of Assyrian assault in the eighth century and the pressures of the world closed in, she fled to the arms of other gods. She felt pressured to conform to the world around her by becoming more inclusive and open to other religions. The church of Jesus Christ is feeling this same pressure today. The situation in Hosea’s day as described by Ortland, could easily pass for a description of the church today.

Classical Yahwism was losing its compelling power among the people. It was being redefined with fewer sharp edges and more open doors as a broadly inclusive religion, increasingly tolerant of elements of paganism. What one observes in Hosea's historical situation is the admixture of contrary theologies made congenial not by logic of principle but by fashion and feeling.

The pluralist invites the people of God to act like the wild animals in heat to which Jeremiah likens the Israelites (Jer 2:23-25).

NAB Jeremiah 2:23 "How can you say, 'I am not defiled, I have not gone after the Baals'? Look at your way in the valley! Know what you have done! You are a swift young camel entangling her ways, 24 A wild donkey accustomed to the wilderness, That sniffs the wind in her passion. In the time of her heat who can turn her away? All who seek her will not become weary; In her month they will find her. 25 "Keep your feet from being unshod And your throat from thirst; But you said, 'It is hopeless! No! For I have loved strangers, And after them I will walk.'

Running to and fro, doubling back time and again, leaving wildly criss-crossed lines of tracks as she goes frantically after one Baal and then yet another, controlled by wild impulse, without a consistent pattern or meaning . . . faddish and insecure, nervously searching the latest offerings from neomania, for they do not grasp the true meaning and abiding claim of the covenant.

This offensive image is intended to show the people of God the disgusting nature of seeking Him in other religions. Although those who hold to the exclusive claims of Christ will be seen as arrogant bigoted and narrow, those wedded to him, and especially those who shepherd the flock have no other choice if they are to heed the words of their bride groom when he said, "For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in glory of his Father with the holy angels" (Mk 8:38).

Jealous Scholarship?

Any distortion of the true revelation of God and the proper means of relating to him amounts to idolatry and spiritual adultery. In light of this, the jealousy of God has great implications for evangelical scholarship. The jealous Christian scholar will react with godly jealousy whenever the clear teaching of Scripture is violated. In His proper effort to be irenic, gracious and fair, he will not be able to be ambivalent when the deposit of truth entrusted to him is distorted. An example of evangelical scholarship that seems to lack jealousy is in Alister McGrath’s response to John Hick’s testimony of how he went from believing the Gospel to embracing radical pluralism. McGrath begins his response by saying,

Professor Hick’s essay is lucid and articulate, and I found it easy to interact with. I particularly enjoyed reading the account of his conversion from conservative evangelicalism to liberalism, not least because my own intellectual pilgrimage was in the opposite direction (italics mine).

How could McGrath enjoy the story of a man who descended into apostasy? To enjoy reading Hick’s pilgrimage is as absurd as someone who had come out of a life of prostitution, saying how much he enjoyed hearing of someone plummeting into that wretched life. Godly jealousy demands that the Christian scholar lovingly abhor and denounce false teaching, even if he will be considered divisive, intolerant, and uncharitable.

When religious devotion is left in the realm of only philosophical ideas and ethical concepts openness to, and experimentation with other religions seem like obvious and potentially fruitful avenues. But when religious devotion involves an intimate love relationship with a personal God, openness to, and experimentation with other religions are nothing short of playing the harlot.

Leaders of the Church who wish to hold to a faith that even remotely resembles the true faith of Christianity, must hold to the exclusive truth claims of the church throughout the centuries. The God who is Jealous demands us to hold, and boldly proclaim that; Jesus is Lord of all, or not Lord at all.


* Evangelical Theological Society's annual meeting in Danvers, Massachusetts November, 1999.  Erik Thoennes is from Biola University in Los Angeles, California.

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