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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

"God Among Sages" (Kenneth Richard Samples)

TITLE: God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader
AUTHOR: Kenneth Richard Samples
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017, (288 pages).

Who is Jesus? Is he simply another religious leader like those of the other major religions of the world? Who does he claim he is? Is he God? This book sets out the facts and compares the various philosophies, religions, worldviews in this world of pluralistic thinking and beliefs. Author Kenneth Richard Samples asserts that Jesus is matchless throughout history in terms of his self-understanding; his identity; his way of life and consistency in teaching. Part One essentially deals with what Jesus talks about himself. Part Two deals with the lives and accomplishments of four major religions and then each is compared with Jesus. The four major religious leaders are Krishna (Hinduism); Buddha (Buddhism); Confucius (Confucionism); and Muhammad (Islam). Part Three goes beyond these four religions to cover a bigger sphere of the world's perspective on Jesus. This includes the different types of pluralistic beliefs; tolerance/intolerance; inclusivism/exclusivism; and many more. Simply put, this book is about understanding who the Person if Jesus is both to Christians, other religions, and the world at large. Though not all perspectives are covered, the selected ones represent a large proportion of the world.

In reviewing Jesus' self-understanding, Samples combs the Bible to parallel Jesus' comparison with the Hebrew God of the Bible. Through the five divine prerogatives, he shows how Jesus refers to Himself as God. Through his lifestyle and practices on earth, Jesus shows himself as Truth, Compassion, Fellow Sufferer, Forgiving, Altruistic, and kind to many who are marginalized. Jesus is morally consistent and is often referred to as the Great Physician. He teaches powerfully. Samples also briefly talks about the historical views about Jesus with regard to the development of the creeds, the doctrines, the understanding of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and how Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Due to the heavy use of Scriptures, he also defends the use of source and why the Bible is fully dependable and reliable.

It is interesting to see how others view Jesus. From Hinduism standpoint, readers get to understand the popular path of Bhakti spirituality, the concept of rebirth, the avatar, the person of Krishna, before comparing  him with Jesus. The worldview differences are many even when comparing the two. The same approach is applied to Buddhism where we learn about the similarities and differences of Buddha and Christ. Key teachings include the Four Noble Truths; the Eightfold Paths; Nirvana; and a point by point comparison between Buddha and Jesus. Samples highlights the different perspectives on suffering, which is the key reason why many people embrace Buddhism in the first place. As far as Buddhism is concerned, life is suffering and the solution is detachment. In contrast, Jesus does not run away but walks with us even in the midst of suffering. On Confucius, we learn about the Confucian Canon; the philosophy of Five Moral Ideas (Ren; Li; Junzi; De; Wen). On Islam, he compares and contrasts Muhammad and Jesus, pointing out that they are the founders of the two most populous religions that are over a billion adherents. Both have Holy Scriptures and both share a lot of common things like importance of prayer, giving, and spiritual practices. He makes some comments with regard to the war on terrorism and points the finger at ideological conflicts. This statement alone raises the profound importance of books like this: Understanding.

As an apologetic, the main interest will probably be the Christian perspective of all the four major religions. Samples recognizes how objections and challenges can come from so many different angles. There are challenges from the historic front where he shows that the New Testament is historically reliable and textually trustworthy. There are lots of credible biblical and extra-biblical evidence on the physical existence of Jesus. He addresses skeptics like Bart Ehrman by showing us the earliest Christians, staunch Jewish monotheists recognized Jesus as divine. Hinduism challenges Christianity by saying that all gods are similar. Samples then takes time to point out significant differences in the avatars (cf: incarnation); extending favour (cf: grace); and forgiveneness (cf: atonement). Buddhism provides many good attributes of human behaviour and a strong philosophy of life. Unfortunately, the teachings of suffering, impermanence of all things; and the lack of a human soul bring the religion at odds with the claims of Christ. Confucianism too has many good teachings but is not compatible with Christianity's teachings about one God; human nature; and worldviews on ultimate reality and salvation. Arguably, one of the most formidable challenges come from Islam in history as well as numerical adherents. The secular world might even lump Islam and Christianity together and call them radicals negatively. Any Islamic links to terrorism can spill over to Christianity too on the basis of violence recorded in the Bible. Some good features of this comparison and contrast include:

  • Pointing out the strengths of each religion
  • Giving readers and overview of the history, uniqueness, and key features
  • Charts on worldview differences
  • Perspectives on Human Nature; Sin; the World
  • Suggestions for Evangelistic Encounters
  • Ways to Explain Christianity to each religious group
The last part of the book deals with the challenges of pluralism: religious pluralism that see all religions as similar; and social pluralism that tolerates all kinds of religious expression to the point of assuming all are true. Such beliefs challenge the foundations of logical thought such as, how can two totally different religions ever be the same? Samples shows us how to decipher the different types of understanding on tolerance. It could very well be an attempt to belittle all religions and enshrine humanism and human subjective choices as supreme over all. There needs to be a proper way to respond to such errors. Samples shows us five ways to respond:
  1. Affirm the existence of truth
  2. Recognize that contradiction cannot be just swept aside as "similar"
  3. Be persuasive about the claims of Christianity
  4. Admit faults in Christian behaviour in the past
  5. Witness to the truth of the gospel
The summary of the claims of Jesus and the foundations of Christianity are then given at the final chapter to give readers a ready reference guide. This is a useful book for comparative religion and for training in how to speak and share the gospel with the different religions. Do not expect this book to turn you into some expert in the four major religions. The best thing is to be humble about our approaches and to be ready to defend our faith. Knowing the differences will help believers not to be so easily swayed by deceptive philosophies or erroneous religious thoughts. This is where this book could help. With the easy to understand tables and explanations, readers will be empowered to understand and to share. 

Kenneth Richard Samples is senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe. He is a student of American history, holds a BA in History and Philosophy from Concordia University, and an MA from Talbot School of Theology. He has hosted radio programs like "The Bible Answer Man" and has published articles for Christianity Today, Christian Research Journal, and Facts for Faith.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Books and Graf-Martin Communications without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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