Daniël Maritz & John Nerness

Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock: An Introduction to “Subversive Fulfillment”

Daniël Maritz & John Nerness | 23 March 2021 | 12 min read

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 the apostle Paul introduces a practical example of what has come to be known as “subversive fulfilment.”[1] The phrase, “subversive fulfilment,” is used to creatively and theologically explain the relationship between Christianity and the “religious Other.” The “religious Other” refers to religions and worldviews which are fundamentally other than or different from Christianity.[2] “Subversive fulfilment” considers the “religious Other” in relation to God’s general revelation and more specifically the relationship of the “religious Other” to the Person and work of Jesus Christ.[3] “Subversive” refers to the tension (antithesis) that exists between the gospel and the “religious Other” while “fulfilment” refers to the truths that the “religious Other” has and needs which finds ultimate fulfilment in the gospel of Christ.

In his definition of non-Christian religions, Daniel Strange indirectly explains “subversive fulfilment.” He mentions that religions are

“sovereignly directed, variegated and dynamic human idolatrous distortions of divine revelation… Being antithetically against yet parasitically dependent upon the truth of the Christian worldview, non-Christian religions are “subversively fulfilled” in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”[4]

There are continuities and discontinuities between Christianity and the “religious Other.” An introduction to the concept of “subversive fulfilment” gives a rich and fruitful way to express these. As an introduction to the concept of “subversive fulfilment,” this article will assume the truths of Christian theology.[5] However, for us to meaningfully discuss the idea of “subversive fulfilment,” we first have to back-up a little bit to another important phrase called the “perilous exchange.”

The fresco with the image of St. Paul preaching, basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, Rome, Italy.

The “Perilous Exchange”

In God’s written Word we are confronted with a theological explanation of why unbelief exists. This explanation takes the shape of a deep revelational diagnosis of the human heart. The “perilous exchange” takes place in the context of the relationship of the religious consciousness/conscience of man and God’s general and special revelation. Christianity always “stands before humanity as revealed, and therefore addresses us as a word to be believed or disbelieved.”[6] The question arises, if this revelation from God is objective and clear, why is there such a thing as unbelief which manifests in the “religious Other”?

The locus classicus explaining unbelief is Romans 1:18-32. The phrase “perilous exchange” is based on Paul’s words in verse 25 where he explains that unbelief is the result of an exchange of “the truth about God for a lie.” In other words, it is an act of idolatry where the creature instead of the Creator is worshipped.[7] The human heart is “a perpetual factory of idols,” where “the mind begets an idol” and “the hand gives it birth.”[8] Idolatry includes both mental and physical creations resulting in displacements, distortions, confusions, and denials of the one true God.[9] Instead of seeking truth, one’s idolatrous desire chooses, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, “the suggestions of [one’s] own mind.”[10] This primal exchange of the Creator for the creature treats the creature as if it were the Creator.[11] This act of idolatry ends up divorcing persons from God, persons from other persons, and also persons from God’s creation.[12]

It is also important to note that this exchange takes place because human beings have always “been incurably religious” and share an “unshakable religious heritage.”[13] By virtue of being image bearers of God, humans are irreducibly religious and will always posses an “awareness of divinity” by natural instinct.[14] By virtue of our created nature as God’s image bearers, we are made to move towards God; we are worshippers with a religious consciousness/conscience. However, by virtue of our fallen “nature” we move away from God; we worship something other than God.[15]

J.H. Bavinck explains it in this rather provocative manner:

“Every world view is living proof of the strange discord existing in the human soul. No human person can rise above this internal unrest inasmuch as the relationship between man and God is invariably twisted and contorted. The subtle poison of sin creeps into all of man’s faculties and appetites. Humans can do nothing other than seek God in view of the fact that they yearn after Him in the very depths of their being, and they can do nothing else than sidestep Him because they fear Him and hate Him with every fiber of their nature.”[16]

This means that the fallen religious consciousness is in constant contact with God whilst constantly suppressing this revelation. In Romans 1:18 the apostle Paul indicates that unbelief implies a suppression of truth. That is, a suppression of the truth that created reality is known to be a revelatory gift (i.e., a composed gift with intelligible essences that are given particular acts of existence) given by the simple Triune God. In this sense, God is the One who constantly upholds and sustains the existence of everything outside of Himself, and He is also the One who informs and predefines the essence of everything outside of Himself to give it intelligibility.

The gift of creation and its revelatory notes are psychologically rejected and in its place an ideological or idolatrous system is developed. This idolatrous development is done by making mal-conceptions, mal-judgements, malicious or pseudo-arguments, or producing malicious systems which suppress the truth.[17] R.C. Sproul et al. explain via the Scriptures that God’s revelation in nature “pours out speech” and “reveals knowledge”[18] and that this revelatory light is psychologically suppressed and substituted with false ideas.[19] Guinness goes on to add that in this sense the Bible takes one to “the very heart of its diagnosis of unbelief, for in the biblical view the central core of the anatomy of unbelief stems from its willful abuse of truth.”[20] This abuse of truth can either be regarding God’s general or special revelation.

Although Romans 1:18-20 explicitly refers to the truths of God’s general revelation, one must not exclude God’s special revelation from the theme of the “perilous exchange.” In 2 Peter 3:16 the apostle Peter identifies an instance of suppression and exchange of the truth regarding special revelation. He suggests that “the ignorant and the unstable twist” the scriptures which results in their “own destruction.” This typically happens when people “twist the meaning of Scripture so that the truth of God’s revelation is turned into a lie. As torturers make a victim on the rack say the opposite of the truth, so the false teachers place Scripture on the rack and distort its message.”[21] The twisting of special revelation inevitably takes away from the glory, work, and person of Jesus Christ to which the Scriptures attest.

The truth of neither general nor special revelation is therefore immune from being suppressed and exchanged in and through the act of unbelief.[22] This unbelief flows out of the fallen human heart in individual and corporate manifestations and may be influenced by dark spiritual forces.[23] Irrespective of all the forces at play in the “perilous exchange,” and of different manifestations of the “perilous exchange” in general and special revelation, there are four “prominent emphases” in this process[24]:

“[Unbelief] abuses truth through a deliberate act of suppression. Unbelief seizes truth, grasps it roughly, silences its voice and twists it away from God’s intended purpose. By itself, truth speaks naturally and clearly, but its voice is censored, blocked and silenced, so that it is no longer allowed to speak as it does naturally.”[25]

“[Unbelief] abuses truth through a deliberate act of exploitation. Unbelief not only suppresses the real truth and twists it away from God’s true ends, but wrests it toward its own ends and its own agenda.”[26]

“[Unbelief] goes further still and abuses truth through a deliberate act of inversion. Unbelief not only suppresses truth and exploits it for its own ends, but seizes it and turns it completely upside down, inside out and the wrong way around, and then holds it there for its own purposes. Above all, through inversion we as creatures put ourselves in the place of our Creator, and we believe our own lie rather than God’s truth. We make ourselves gods instead of God, so that proper self-love becomes prideful self-centering love.”[27]

“[Unbelief] abuses truth through a deliberate act of deception that ends in its own self-deception. Unbelief seizes God’s truth, twists it away from God’s purposes and toward its own, and is therefore forced to deny the full reality of the truth it knows. But in the futile act of trying to deny the undeniable, it both deceives others and deceives itself, and so becomes self-deceived. Unbelief therefore manufactures not only idols but illusions.”[28]

Unbelief, on the grounds of the “perilous exchange,” therefore does not face up to reality. It rather, as with a plane, attempts “to hijack truth and force it to fly to its own destination.”[29] This background better sets the stage to look at “subversive fulfilment.”

“Subversive Fulfilment”

Based on the “perilous exchange,” there will inevitably be agreements and disagreements, or continuities and discontinuities between Christianity and the “religious Other.” Therefore the relationship between them can sometimes be complex. The idea of “subversive fulfilment” is a helpful way to think about this issue.

In the same way as evil can be explained as a privatio boni (a privation of good),[30] following the idea of the “perilous exchange,” falsehood can be explained as a privatio veri (a privation of truth). A false system will inevitably parasitise on and rely on that which is true and real in order to build a pseudo-reality. These systems are always reductionistic and because they move away from God’s fullness of creation and redemption, they are always nihilistic in some sense. Maria Konnikova, when discussing the psychological success of modern cons notes:

“All cons… rely on a basis of some sort of truth and reality. What sets them apart from their more legitimate counterparts is where and how that truth is then used. Manipulate it well enough, and no matter the evidence, people will continue to follow.”[31]

Reflecting on the “perilous exchange,” one can posit that unless there is an absolute truth, there would be nothing for the “religious Other” to idolatrously suppress and exchange. Guinness, relying on Augustine, therefore notes: “A key part of deception and self-deception is the fact that evil must imitate good, unbelief must copy truth, and vice must mimic virtue.”[32] God’s objective and true revelation in nature and Scripture, which finds its fulfilment in the person and works of Jesus Christ, is therefore relied upon by the “religious Other” for its own existence as a false ideological system.

Starting with the theme of subversion, one could say that “the gospel of Jesus Christ stands as the subversion, antithetical contradiction, confrontation, condemnation and crisis of all manifestations of the religious Other.”[33] In other words, the Gospel, grounded in reality, will ultimately contradict other false ideological systems. This is the discontinuity between Christianity and the “religious Other.” J.H. Bavinck fittingly captures the notion of subversion in saying that the real Christ will differ drastically from the “redeemers and saviours” which “the religions of man” evoke. According to him, the true gospel of Jesus Christ is the condemnation of “such human fancy and speculation.”[34]

The notion of fulfilment emphasises the continuity between Christianity and the “religious Other.” In this regard Strange notes that there “is a relationship between the disastrous dream and glorious reality… Biblically speaking, the cracked cisterns of idolatry that bring only disillusionment, despair and unfulfilled desires are wonderfully fulfilled and surpassed in the fount of living water, Jesus Christ the Lord.”[35] In this sense, all the attempts of the “religious Other” to erect for itself a “tower of Babel,” so to speak, exposes its desire for salvation and mediatorship between God and man. Their idolatrous response to God’s revelation, however, is what causes them to create illusions and hold these as reality and truth. Herman Bavinck explains it as follows:

“The human heart is created for God and is restless until it finds rest in him. Insofar as every human more or less consciously strives for a lasting happiness and an unchanging good, one can say, with Augustine, that every human also seeks God, who alone is the highest good and our eternal salvation (Acts 17:27). One must immediately add, however, that in the darkness of our understanding and the evil thoughts of our heart, we seek him not in the right way and not where he may be found.”[36]

To finally illustrate this, we can go to 1 Corinthians 1:8-25. Here Paul is saying that the Greeks want wisdom, and the Jews want power. One could say that the Greeks are contemplatives, and the Jews are pragmatists. The cross confronts both these narratives. The cross is foolishness to the Greeks and weakness to the Jews, since a crucified Saviour is not a philosopher nor a military general. However, Paul then turns around and states that for the Greeks and the Jews who are saved, the cross is the true wisdom and the true power of God. They were looking for wisdom and power in the wrong place and they will only find what they really need and ought to want (if they were wanting what is really true and good) in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Suggested Readings

Bavinck, J.H. An Introduction to the Science of Missions. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1960.

Guinness, Os. Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. Downers Grover: InterVarsity, 2015.

Strange, Daniel. Their Rock is not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.

[1] The primary influence on the content of this article comes from the writings of Hendrik Kraemer (1888-1965), J.H. Bavinck (1895-1964), and Daniel Strange. These men have therefore undoubtedly inspired the ideas presented here, however we attribute no mistakes found in this article to any of these men.

Additionally, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 is certainly not the only example of “subversive fulfilment” in the Bible. Another rich example to consider is Acts 17:16-34. Since the Greek poets had some features of metaphysics right (Acts 17:27-28), the apostle Paul had enough reason to show that the truth that they do have is “subversively fulfilled” in the Gospel of Christ (Acts 17:29-31).

[2] Daniel Strange, Their Rock is not Like Our Rock: A Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 37. The “religious Other” is therefore anything from other world religions and counterfeit Christian movements (cults) to the different forms and expressions of atheism.

[3] The gospel fulfills the human longing to be right with God and to be right with other human beings. This however, assumes that we know at some level we have not loved God and others as we ought to love them. We need a Mediator to set things right between us and God. This Mediator must be fully God and fully man, as Norman Geisler and Ron Rhodes explain: “as mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), Jesus had to be both God and man. As God He could reach to God, and as man he could reach to man. So, to bring man to God, God had to be first brought to man” (Norman L. Geisler & Ron Rhodes, Conviction Without Compromise: Standing Strong in the Core Beliefs of the Christian Faith [Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2008], 54).

[4] Daniel Strange, “For their Rock is not as Our Rock: The Gospel as the ‘Subversive Fulfillment’ of the Religious Other,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society: 379.

[5] This includes the truths of natural and revealed theology which are both grounded in God’s objective general and special revelation, fulfilled in the person and works of Jesus Christ, i.e., the Logos in creation and redemption. It is important to note that everything mentioned and unpacked in this article nowhere foregoes the need of the Christian to also argue for the truth of Christianity. The Christian can both give theological explanations like this article will attempt to do, but also give arguments and present evidences for the truth claims of Christianity.

[6] Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press), 232. The revelation of God includes the book of nature and the Scriptures. Article 2 of the Belgic Confession of Faith summarizes this well: “We know him by two means; first, by the creation, preservation and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely His power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says, Rom. 1:20. All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse. Secondly, he makes himself more clearly fully known to us by his holy and divine Word, that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.”

[7] One can see a clear manifestation of this in the life of king Saul. In 1 Samuel 15, after he is disobedient to God’s explicit command, he still goes and erects a monument for himself as if he achieved something through his disobedience (1 Sam. 15:12). He, in effect, dethrones God, and enthrones himself. Idolatry is therefore “the substitution of a lie in place of the truth of God” which consequently blurs the antithesis “between truth and falsehood” (R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner & Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan], 55).

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.), 108, 605.

[9] Strange, Their Rock, p. 77.

[10] Saint Thomas Aquinas, 2018. Summa Theologiae (The Aquinas Institute, ed., Green Bay, WI; Steubenville, OH: Aquinas Institute; Emmaus Academic), STh., II-II q.11 a.1 resp.

[11] This exchange can be stated in other ways, i.e., exchanging the truth for a lie and then calling the lie the truth; exchanging good for evil then calling evil the good; exchanging reality for pseudo-reality and then calling pseudo-reality the reality.

[12] According to Romans 1 and 2 we know God through our consciousness (direct knowledge of self and the world and indirect knowledge of God mediated through knowledge of self and the world) and conscience (knowledge of God’s law through knowing the nature(s) of reality, especially human nature, and the proper actions that follow from those predefined natures especially as it relates to persons). The Adamic covenant of works is attested to by “the work of the law written on the heart of man” (Rom. 2:15). The Westminster Confession of Faith, section 7.2 states: “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” The covenant of works with Adam was unique to the garden (i.e., prohibition based on the sacramental nature of the trees) but was grounded in the good law that was written in his heart because he was made in the image of God which is the basis for the drive to do good works but is perverted after the fall. Francis Pieper states it this way: “But it is only the non-Christian religions that ask men to save and better themselves by their own striving and efforts. Because of the opinio legis inherent in man, the religion of all unbelievers is the religion of works” (Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics: Vol. 1, 1st ed. [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House], 18). Christ perfectly fulfills the work of the law on behalf of those he is united with, so the believer receives all of what Christ is including his perfect obedience.

[13] Norman L. Geisler & Winfried Corduan, Philosophy of Religion (Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers), 26.

[14] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, p. 43.

[15] Whatever is meant by a fallen “nature,” it should be seen as a privation of the created nature. That is to say, that the fallen “nature” of man is a corrupted, false, and distorted parasite of the created imago dei; that instead of imaging God, this fallen nature, images false “deities.” The assertion here is not that the fallen “nature” is not real, but it is real akin to blindness, deafness, and darkness. It is therefore a real corruption with real ramifications.  

[16] Quoted by P.J. Visser, Heart for the Gospel, Heart for the World: The Life and Thought of a Reformed Pioneer Missiologist Johan Herman Bavinck (1895-1964) (1st ed. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers), 107-108.

[17] A mal-conception distorts the nature of things in reality; mal-judgements confuses and fabricates reality by putting together subjects and predicates that do not correspond to created reality; mal-arguments put together false statements either in a valid or invalid manner; malicious systems participate in any or all of the above by reducing reality away from being an irreducible gift that reveals God to some kind of deflated fabricated system grounded in nothingness and chaos. All of the above is “subversive movements” which are grounded in unbelief or a “false faith.”

The following quote from Francis Turretin may be helpful: “But unbelief could not have place in man, unless first by thoughtlessness he had ceased from a consideration of God’s prohibition and of his truth and goodness. If he had always seriously directed his mind to it (especially in the moment of temptation), he could never have been moved from his faith and listened to the tempter. Hence, therefore, unbelief or distrust flowed first. By this man did not have the faith in the word of God which he was bound to have, but shook it off at first by doubting and presently by denying; not seriously believing that the fruit was forbidden him or that he should die. Again, note the credulity by which he began to listen to the words of the Devil (engendering a false faith from his lies), believing that God envied him the fruit and that he would be like God and omniscient. Thus he made an erroneous judgment by which he determined that the object presented by the Devil was good for him. Hence presently his appetite and the inclination of concupiscence and its motions influenced the will to the eating of the fruit. At length, the external action followed. This inconsideration may well be called the beginning or first stage of sin. As it could fall on man mutable, so it could not be exercised in act by man standing (rather already beginning to recede from God and to corrupt himself through his own mutability and the seduction of the Devil)” (Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology [ed. Jr James T. Dennison; trans. George Musgrave Giger; 3 vols.; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992] 1:605).

[18] Ps. 19:2.

[19] R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner & Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics, p. 59-60.

[20] Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 85.

[21] Simon J. Kistemaker & William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Epistles of Peter and the Epistle of Jude (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House), 346.

[22] A Good example of the suppression of truth and the exchange thereof for a lie regarding special revelation is the cults, since they often use the same Bible, but then produce a twisted translation of the Bible, or, even with the same translation still end up rejecting essential Christian doctrines.

[23] This perilous exchange takes place in the context of other spiritual forces working beyond and behind human activity. One confession captures the imago dei after the fall this way: “and from the state of being wise, good, just, truthful, merciful, and holy he was rendered ignorant, evil, impious, a liar, and cruel, clothed in the image and likeness of the devil toward whom he moved as he departed from God, with the loss of that holy liberty with which he was created (Eccl. 7; 2 Peter 2), and thus was made a slave and servant of sin and of the devil” (Confession of the Spanish Congregation of London cited in Dennison, and written by de Reina, 2010:376).

To be in the image of the devil is to have the drive to pervert the nature of things into a false image, purpose, and definition. Hendrik Kraemer calls the demonic influence in non-believing thought the “dark margin.” He expands on this as follows: “We often have said that one should not forget the demonic side of the religious, Christianity included, and of the expressions of spiritual life in man. Many scholars are always so exclusively concentrated on building bridges, pointing to continuities and fulfillment, that they become wholly blind to the realism of the Bible, which calls Peter by the name of Satan, when he expresses his loving concern for his Master; which sees in the most interesting religious phenomena the demonic perversion of God’s will; which repeatedly speaks about the Devil appearing in the figure of an angel of light. All this simply means that not only patently deranged types of religion, but also highly efficient saviors and leaders, and very attractive and magnificent expressions of insight and spiritual counsel, may be the demonic perversion of genuine truth; the more dangerous, because it commends itself to strongly to sensitive high-minded persons” (Hendrik Kraemer, Religion and the Christian Faith [1st ed. London: Lutterworth, 1958], 379-380).

[24] Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 86-90.

[25] Ibid., p. 86.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid., p. 87.

[28] Ibid., p. 89.

[29] Os Guinness, Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, and Spin (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books), 116.

[30] This term, meaning a “privation of the good,” is used to explain the nature and origin of evil. This means that there is no such thing as absolute evil. Richard Muller explains it as follows: “Since God did not create evil and since evil is not an actuality but a falling short of actuality, it cannot be a substance (substantia, q.v.) or a thing (res, q.v.) but, if it exists in any sense, must be in a substance or thing. In other words, evil is not a created thing or an actual substance but rather wrongness or distortion in a thing or substance” (Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic], 293).

[31] Maria Konnikova, The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We fall for it Every Time (Edinburgh: Canongate Books), 309.

[32] Guinness, Fool’s Talk, p. 89.

[33] Strange, Their Rock, p. 269.

[34] Johannes H. Bavinck, An Introduction to the Science of Mission (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing), 136.

[35] Strange, Their Rock, p. 270-271.

[36] Herman Bavinck, Reformed dogmatics. Volume 3, Sin and salvation in Christ, edited by J. Bolt and translated by J. Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic), 491.



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