Wednesday, September 13, 2006

One God: The Deity Revealed in Jesus

Book Review: Peter Cotterell, One God: The Deity Revealed in Jesus, Spring Harvest, 2006.

Peter Cotterell, says the hard-to-read mauve-on-purple print on the back cover.... ahh I can't read it anyway. The London School of Theology website says his distinguished career includes 19 years lecturing at London School of Theology, where he also served as Principal, and 23 on the mission field in Ethiopia, where he founded the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology. His publications in Linguistics, Missiology, Islam and Communications total 17 books.

The phrase 'mission field' connotes 'conservative evangelical', and yes, Peter is one of those. This little book, comparing and contrasting the 'essential/historic' Christian view of God with the beliefs of other major religions is an easy read, even though the author is discussing some big, and sometimes complex, ideas. He writes irenically, with lots of quotes from here and there, and, on the whole produces an excellent introduction to comparative religions from a Christian perspective. Being 'conservative evangelical' the book is strong on Western classical views of, say, the Atonement, and is also therefore fairly weak on social justice/love; strong on ideas, weak on stories, (though the one about the Ethiopian debt-collector is a beauty, p. 93).

Dr. Cotterell begins with a chapter about the 'meaninglessness of life' and Why we Need God. Life isn't fair, people break the rules and get away with it, and though the UN has a Universal Declaration of Human Rights which most countries signed, it isn't universal: Saudi Arabia isn't a signatory because they believe Islam does not give Muslims the right to change their religion. And in countries which did sign, those rights are trampled on all over the place... In such a world is it surprising that the number of atheists has grown (according to Barrett and Johnson) from 226,000 in 1900 to 107 million in 2004?

Where is God when a Tsunami or Auschwitz happens? Did God plan those things? 'The Muslim answer is "Yes, Allah did." The Christian answer is, "No, Yahweh didn't".' (p. 22). This 'either/or / yes/no' polemic is common: 'Either Jesus did die on the cross (and the Bible is right) or else he did not die on the cross (and the Qur'an is right).' (p. 35). Cotterell says he prefers 'credible answers' (p. 53) to, presumably, living with unanswered questions. Which is why it's important for him when discussing the Qur'an to underline the Islamic notion of 'abrogation': 'Allah can abrogate, cancel out a verse of the Qur'an already given, and replace it with something else'... [thus]Muslims 'can show from the Qur'an both that it teaches peace and that it teaches war' (p. 61). All this is clear enough for a beginner, but a more mature thinker will want to know if/whether the Christian Bible doesn't do the same thing - with a warrior-God in the Old Testament (and the Book of Revelation) contrasted with a peace-loving Jesus. And whether the paradigm-shift of accepting Gentiles into the Christian Church without their having to submit to Jewish laws isn't also an example of 'abrogation'...

Cotterell quotes John-Paul II (1994) with approval: 'There is no room [in Islam] for the Cross and the resurrection. Jesus is mentioned, but only as a prophet... not only the theology but also the anthropology of Islam is very distant from Christianity' (p. 70).

The author's conservative evangelical credentials are everywhere. For example: 'In Jesus we had God incarnate, God in human flesh' (p. 71); 'Jesus was not just a prophet, not just a remarkable teacher, in fact not just a man, but God come to us as a man, come to die for the sins of the world' (p. 86). What does the death of Christ mean? For Cotterell, there are eight dimensions: ransom, redemption, expiation, propitiation, atonement, sacrifice, reconciliation, and substitution. My response: all of these are 'classical Western' theories, but it can be argued that in the New Testament there are two other dimensions which are equally, if not more important: the death of Christ as a demonstration of the love of God, and of the victory of God (see ).

After examining all of the 'great religions' - Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Traditional Religions - Cotterell offers (after Eric Sharpe) four dimensions of religious belief and practice - existential, institutional, intellectual and ethical. He then suggests three approaches to them from a Christian viewpoint (after Lesslie Newbiggin and others) - pluralist ('all religions can save'), inclusivist (all religions do save), and exclusivist (his own, of course - 'religions other than Christianity are human constructions... and cannot lead their followers to salvation') (p. 107).

The book ends with a discussion of the best way to 'do dialogue', and makes this important point: 'We have been quick to apologize to the Muslim world for what so-called Christians did in the Crusades, although we have been less ready to own up to our mistreatment of the Jews' (p. 115). He re-tells the best story for Muslim-Christian dialogue - that of St Francis visiting Egypt during the Fifth Crusade in 1219, 'not to fight but to talk about Jesus'... 'Just after his meeting with St Francis, the Sultan ordered the release of some 30,000 Christian prisoners, and commanded that they should be treated with respect...' (p. 117).

Which suggests that if we too treat others with deep respect, despite our ideological/theological differences, we're more likely to celebrate an outcome like this one.

In the 'Did You Know?' category:

* 'If David Barrett and Tod Johnson are right there were 167,000 Christian martyrs in 2004' (p. 13).

* [According to John Polkinghorne, previously Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge, now retired and an Anglican minister]: 'If I took a target an inch wide and placed it on the other side of the observable universe, eighteen thousand million light years away, and took aim and hit the target, then I would have attained an accuracy of one in 10 [with superscript/to the power of 60]'. Cotterill notes: 'But this incredible balance is necessary if on the one hand stars are to form and on the other hand the entire universe is not simply to collapse back in on itself before anything interesting could emerge from it' (p. 28).

* 'We can date [the modern worldwide reawakening of Islam] from Gamal Abdul Nasser and his resistance in 1957 to France, Britain and Israel when they attempted to take over the Suez Canal. He became a hero to the Muslim world' (p. 65).

* [After Constantine's conversion to Christianity] 'Christians were not merely allowed in the Roman army: *only* Christians were allowed in the army' (p. 71).

It's a good read, and especially recommended for new/young Christians and others who want a clear outline of the differences between Christianity and other faiths. See for a review of a similar book, by Dr. Mark Durie, and for an important article 'Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?'

Copies of Dr Peter Cotterell's book are available at (AUD $17-50).

Rowland Croucher

September 12, 2006.


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