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".

Part 2

Before we deal with world religions separately, it will be the best to say something about the manner in which religions have been studied so far and the various ways of approach of the students in the field.

First and foremost it has been the Church which applied itself to this study. Maybe you're astonished to find the Church mentioned right here in this context, but it's not so strange. In understanding what is its proper task according to Matthew 28:18f., she has at her colleges and seminaries some of her ministers trained with a view to the work on the mission fields.

There those missionaries will come into contact with -people not only speaking totally different languages, but also being in another culture, having a completely different outlook upon life. All of these factors go together. For example, language is an apparatus adjusted to the level of culture and stamped by the view of life they have. All these three bear the stamp of religion.

Thus, study of these religions is on the program not only at state universities but also at reformed institutes of learning. Having learned about those pagan religions and having received the background information that is necessary, they know what can and should be the starting point for their missionary work.1

In the study of foreign religions it was first of all the information given by missionaries in reports and writings which acquainted Christian Europe and America with pagan religions. Sometimes their method of refuting paganism looked more like a confutation, reducing the opponents to silence with methods such as raillery and denunciation. One man who was famous for his disputes with Muslims in the Middle Ages was Raymundus Lullus, who tried to persuade them with all sorts of rational arguments. The Mohammedans were practically the only non-Christians "Christian" Europe came into contact with. In the Mediaeval period the Muslim culture flourished in the Near East, Sicily, Spain, and in Europe as well.

In this respect Europe owes much to the Arabs. In the sixteenth century, after the great discoveries, the horizon of Christian Europe was enlarged. America, Africa and the rest of Asia, the cradle of world religions — came within range of vision. Roman Catholic missionaries went there, and some of them, like Robert de Nobili in India and Matteo Ricci in China, adapted themselves to the manners and customs of the native peoples to a high degree. They had, according to what they said, met with so much agreement in the point of religion between Christianity and Hinduism or Confucianism as to consider the adherents as people well on their way to Christendom.

Among the Protestant missionaries since the 17th century we may mention Abraham Roecherius, the first to write a book on Hinduism and translate a Sanskrit text in Dutch. William Carey, a cobbler who became a missionary, was famous for his knowledge of the languages of India. In the 19th century, we mention Dr. Alb. C. Kruyt and Dr. N. Adriani, who worked in Indonesia among the Toradjas and Ds. S. Zwemer, member of the Dutch Reformed Church in the U.S.A. who aroused a new interest in the mission in the Muslim world.

It was at the turn of the 19th century that also in other repects interest in world religions was aroused, apart from mission. An important factor was the movement of Romanticism, which had a great impact on the spiritual life of those days. Characteristic of Romanticism is a certain love of what is foreign and far away, or what is at a great distance in space and time. A sort of nostalgia is the background of it.

What Romanticism had in view was a rehabilitation of emotional life after the period of Rationalism (the sovereignty of Reason) had dominated the scene for more than a century. Although the Church was and is opposed to Rationalism—the worship of Reason in the 18th century—that doesn't imply that Romanticism, the enthusiasm about feeling, met with her approval. There is a gulf between Church and Romanticism, especially because of the strange appreciation of what is mysterious, including evil and death.

Yet we can give Romanticism credit for having given the impetus to the study of languages and peoples and cultures of antiquity. Champollion deciphered hieroglyphic script of ancient Egypt. Grotefend did the same for the cuneiform script of the ancient Achemenids, the dynasty of Persia to which Cyrus and Darius belonged; so he was put on the track of deciphering the cuneiform script of Assyria-Babylonia. Thus the world of the ancient Near East was disclosed, and it has been of much avail to the understanding of the Old Testament.

The study of Old Persian had been taken up already in the 18th century, when the so-called Avesta, the "Holy Writ" of Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Iran, became known. A cognate language was Old Indian, a later development of which was Sanskrit. Since most of the sacred texts of India were written in this language, this culture came within the range of vision too. This culture included all the countries and areas influenced by Hinduism, e.g. India and Indonesia, and Buddhism, e.g. China, Japan, Indo China and Korea.

Because of the fact that Old Persian and Old Indian were closely related to the other Indo-european languages which are spoken in Europe and America today, the interest in these cultures increased.

Since such a pile of material became available, the study of foreign religions became a discipline apart, regardless of its use for mission, attracting a great many students. In those first times Mythology was in the focus and peculiar theories were launched. Some stated that mythology had arisen for want of a better way of expression. Instead of speaking in clear terms as we do today, people used to express themselves in figurative language.

For example, instead of using the word: to cause, they said: to engender. This would have given rise to the belief in a supreme begetter, procreator, a being who was father of all, a god. The belief in a god was viewed as the consequence of a lack of expressing oneself in the proper way. Man transmuted what he saw in nature around him into what he saw behind it in his imagination, i.e. the sun, moon, and stars became personal beings to him.

This led to the interest in fairy tales, a form of literature in which underlying religious motives might have been preserved. The brothers Grimm have a reputation in this field. Folklore, the study of old customs and manners in ones own neighbourhood, also drew more and more attention. In folklore, the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, Easter eggs and bonfire are survivals of former heathenism.

In the course of the 19th century the study of religions came under the influence of evolutionism. At the base of it is the train of thought of the wellknown philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, with his conception about the absolute idea developing itself in the spiritual life of mankind in the course of history.

His viewpoint was applied by Darwin in the field of biology, and Marx in that of society. In the same vein, evolution was supposed to have taken place in the world of religion, religion gradually arose from the lowest level, called Fetishism, a cult of sacred objects inspiring awe, or Dynamism, the assumption that the universe is wholly permeated by supernatural impersonal powers, or Animism, a belief in souls existing independent from the body, to higher ranks of polydemonism or polytheism, and finally to the highest level: monotheism. So, christianity was considered to be the most developed religion, that is to say, what Hegel's adherents understood by christianity.

Over against evolutionism a group of scholars, relying mostly on information they got from Roman Catholic missionaries, stated that among the most primitive people, e.g. Australian native tribes, representations of a supreme god who once existed by himself had been found. They considered this a remainder of the religion of paradise. This theory met with great approval in Roman Catholic circles and missionaries set out to look for more evidence for the theory. It remains a peculiar thing, that while making a stand against evolutionism, this theory of original monotheism started from a similar presupposition, i.e. that the lowest level of culture must be the oldest.

In this century another school has been dominating this field of study, the school of phenomenology. This is a difficult word that is easy to explain however, if we note that it consists of two Greek words: logos, meaning doctrine, discipline, and phenomenon, meaning that which appears, or reveals itself. Originally it was a philosophical school advocating a new approach to reality. Phenomenology was in favour of letting all that appeared explain itself according to its proper character. As for the phenomenology of religion, its starting point was not what God has revealed concerning the service that pleases Him in His Word, as ours was in the previous article. We base ourselves on God's revelation.

But what about, the phenomenologist? He needs a point of departure, a principle, doesn't he? His starting point is religion itself and religious phenomena. He does not want to make judgments, saying this is true or that is false. Although he may have his personal opinion, it is not allowed to influence his work. Everything presenting itself in the field of religion, all that is called religion —and that is quite a bit taking into consideration the fringe areas of magic and superstition—should be taken seriously.

As often as he meets some man praying, offering, performing ritual or adorning himself, he should open himself for it and experience it. He should be closely attached to all forms of religion. He should be neither partial, nor neutral; he may have his own religion, on the condition that it is subservient to his work. What he sees someone else doing, e.g. a negro or an Indian, he should try to insert in his own life, in order to find out what is the sense, the meaning of it, the idea behind it.

This is an important point. His success is as much dependent on the phenomenologist he is himself as on the phenomenon revealing itself. Afterwards he is going to put it in its proper context of similar phenomena, pointing out what is the inner structure, the coherence in the phenomenon concerned, discovering an ideal type of offering, prayer, and ritual.

Consequently, phenomenology of religion means studying the matter of religion from a human angle. Whether there is above or behind the scene some god revealing himself is not denied but placed between brackets. It does not make so much difference. Only what "god" or a deity means to man who reveres him matters. As fellow-man of such a primitive, Indian or Muslim, the phenomenologist tries to understand him, to feel his way into that man's life. Besides, he has to have a wide factual knowledge of the field.

So, not God revealing Himself in His infallible Word, but rather man practising his religion is the standard for his considerations. That is all the difference! An outstanding man in this school was Prof. Dr. G. VanderLeeuw in Groningen.

In conclusion we may say that the study of world religions in this century owes very much to scholars who made a special study of the languages and cultures of the area concerned, e.g. India or Arabia and Persia.


1.) I don't speak of a point of contact here, for there is none, exactly speaking, but what I mean is something to hitch into their preaching, like the apostle Paul did on the Areopagus. At the Theological School in Kampen and the Free University in Amsterdam this discipline was taught by the late Professor Dr. J. H. Mavinck for years. After the Liberation he was succeeded by the Rev. D. K. Wielenga, lecturer in the missionary discipline in Kampen, whereas in the Reformed Churches (Synodical )and others Prof. Dr. J. Verkuyl, Prof. Dr. D. C. Mulder and Prof. Dr. A. G. Honig occupied Bavinck's seat after his retirement. Rev. VanDooren is lecturer in Missionology at our college, and has for some time now pointed to the need for further development in this area, (see Clarion, vol. 23, no. 19, p. 2).