Thursday, April 22, 2010
"Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslim Relations": a critique
“Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslim Relations,”* written by the offices of Interfaith Relations and Theology and Worship in consultation with Christian and Muslim scholars and sponsored by the General Assembly Mission Council, contains some excellent ideas and recommendations. However, theological confusion causes this document to be unacceptable. Misusing the Christian doctrine of revelation and the Trinity, the authors see the God of Islam and the God of Christianity as the same God.
Some excellent recommendations contained in “Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslin Relations” are befriending Muslim neighbors, obtaining correct information about Islamic beliefs, and confessing that Christians in the past have, with the crusades, sinned against people of the Muslim faith.
Some important understandings are acknowledging that both Islam and Christianity believe their faith is a revealed faith and that their God is one. Explaining that the Muslim believes he is capable of living up to all that his God requires, while the Christian believes that she is unable to do so, is also an important clarification of the differences in the two faiths.
However, the scholars who wrote this paper see the two faiths worshiping the same God; each faith with a different understanding of that same God. They write, “For both Christians and Muslims, each in our own way, God is one—unique, infinite, immutable, eternal, eternal, and omnipotent—and to deny this in any way is a grievous transgression.” (Italics mine)(9)
And they write:
“Both Muslims and Christians who speak Arabic call God ‘Allah.’ Christians who are not Arabic speakers often assumed, wrongly, that because Muslims use the word ‘Allah’ it means they have a different name for God, or are referring to a different deity than Christians. But Arabic translations of the Bible use the word ‘Allah’ for God.” (Italics mine.)(9-10)
I think it should be pointed out that many Christians understand that both Muslims and Arab Christians in some parts of the world use the same name to refer to their God. But this does not mean that they believe in the same God, just that they use the same name. And in fact Arab Christians used the name Allah for God before their Muslim counterparts did.
At this point in the paper the authors write that Christians “speak of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” And then they list the various attribute and names that Christians and Muslims use to express their understanding of who their God is. For Christianity such names as Redeemer and Holy One. For Islam such names as “All Compassionate” and “All Merciful.”
The authors write of the Trinity, “Christian faith has always been clear, and distinct from Islam, in affirming that within God’s unity there is a Trinity or ‘tri-unity’—God is simultaneously one and three. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three ‘persons’ constitute the one God.” So, one must ask the authors, “How can it be that the Christian God who is both one and three is the same God as the Muslim God who is one alone?"
It is perhaps their failure to connect two different understandings of the Christian view of revelation and how we know God. And they must be connected if Christians are to be faithful to their Lord. We are speaking here of the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity. One has to do with God’s outward actions to humanity the other is the inner life of God.
One view of revelation, which concerns the economic Trinity, is given in the paper using the 1987 General Assembly theological statement “Nature of Revelation.” In the section chosen from the statement, after speaking of God’s revelation of himself as resembling how one human encounters another there is this, “Reformed views of revelation have emphasized that God’s self-disclosure gives knowledge of God’s will or disposition toward us , and not only (or even primarily) of God’s inner nature, which remains mysterious and veiled in its revealedness.”
This idea of God's mysterious and veiled inner nature, flows from Immanuel Kant, that is, we cannot know a thing in itself. Therefore we can only know about God from the use of analogy and metaphor which describes our experience of God. And it is apparent that another paper is troubling the paper “Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslim Relations”, that is the Trinity paper, “The Trinity: God’s Love Overflowing.”
An echo of the Trinity paper is heard in this statement “God’s overflowing love, known by us in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit, draws us out of ourselves and into life in right relationship with God and others.” (6) The problem, the troubling is that it is not just God’s overflowing love we know in Jesus Christ; we as believers are united to Christ and so we enter into fellowship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We truly know God.
And yet at the same time, after encountering a God we barely know, we learn, later in the paper that Jesus Christ is God’s sufficient revelation. And happily that is connected to the Scriptures. Using both Scripture and the 1967 Confession as their foundation the authors write, “It is in the person of Jesus Christ that we have the ‘one sufficient revelation of God.’ The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are also revelation because through them, the Holy Spirit bears ‘unique and authoritative witness’ to Jesus Christ. 
However, that Jesus Christ is God’s revelation means a great deal more than is explained in the paper. Here, in God's revelation in Christ, the ontological understanding of the Trinity is wed to the economic view of the Trinity. It means that through Jesus Christ and our union with him we do know something about the inner-nature of God. As Timothy George points out:
“In John 17:3, the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity are brought together in a single verse: ‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.’ The God who wills to be known and the Christ who has been sent to make him known belong inseparably together—which is why Jesus can say with such boldness what no other religious leader has ever dared to claim: ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).”
We know that God is three; we know that God’s inner being is a relationship of love between, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We also know that since God is revealed in Jesus Christ, as he is known in the written word of God, that Jesus is the only way that God can be known. We know we are his and loved. And we know that behind the back of Jesus Christ is no other God. 
So the understanding of God’s disclosure of himself must be cemented to his revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, who is very God of very God. There is much to be praised in this paper, but despite all of the distinctions made between Islam and Christianity it fails to make a complete distinction between the God of Islam and the God of Christianity and rather focuses on what is referred to as different understandings of one God. But Christians are admonished to worship only that God known in Jesus Christ. Doubting Thomas worshipfully said to Jesus, and we must also, “My Lord and my God.” (John 21:28)
*Go here to see the paper "Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslim Relations"
 The statement, “within God’s unity there is a Trinity” is not quite right. God’s unity is the Trinity. As Timothy George puts it, “In the eternal and blessed intercommunion of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the one true God is united without confusion and divided without separation.” Timothy George, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad?: Understanding the Difference Between Christianity and Islam, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2002) 81.
 Ibid., 76-78.
 For an excellent understanding of the problems with the Trinity paper see, Andrew Purves & Charles Partee, “A Name is Not a Metaphor: A Response to ‘The Trinity: God’s love overflowing, Theology Matters Vol 12 # 2 Mar/Apr.
 They do, however, ruin this by writing, “Through these writings, the church ‘hears the word of God.”
 George, The Father of Jesus, 77.
 As Thomas F. Torrance puts it, “He [God] cannot be known aright apart from his own self-imaging or self-naming in Jesus Christ, for there is no God apart from him, and no knowledge of God behind the back of his self-revelation. Thomas F. Torrance, “The Christian Apprehension of God the Father,” Speaking the Christian God: The Holy Trinity and the Challenge of Feminism, Alvin F. Kimel, Jr., Editor, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans 1992), 140.