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.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3]

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. [4]

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).”[5]

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. [6]

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"

[1] 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.
[2] Ibid., 76-78.
[3] 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.
[4] They do, however, ruin this by writing, “Through these writings, the church ‘hears the word of God.”
[5] George, The Father of Jesus, 77.
[6] 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.

18 comments:

Dave Hackett said...

A valuable contribution, Viola. I'm Kindlizing this article because it's a keeper.

Viola Larson said...

Thanks David. And that is a new word for me-if I was back on the farm I might think you were getting ready to use it to start a fire:-)

king james bible online said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Viola,

At the core of your critique seems to be your belief in more than one God. You summarize your belief well in your closing statement “[This paper] 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”.

Your belief is at odds not just with Islam but also with Judaism and Orthodox Christianity.

At the root of Islam's polemic with Christianity is the perception that Christians are polytheistic. It is the very reason Islam begins with the Shahada, the confessional witness “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”.

Unfortunately your critique enforces Islam's perception.

If there is more than one God, then the conflict between Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a battle between Gods and we are mere puppets in a battle between cosmic superpowers. And one could argue that Evangelical Christians do not worship the God of Jesus but some other god they inherited from the Greco Roman pantheon. And Roman Catholics, another. And Anabaptists, yet another.

But if God is indeed only One, then what else can our differences be, but different understandings of the great and wonderful One Who Is?

Carlos José

Viola Larson said...

Carlos,

When I read this which you have written, "If there is more than one God, then the conflict between Judaism, Christianity and Islam is a battle between Gods and we are mere puppets in a battle between cosmic superpowers" I believe that you have misunderstood me.

I am not saying that there is more then one God, I am saying that the one God can only truly be known in Jesus Christ and his written word. I am also insisting that the paper “Toward an Understanding of Christian-Muslim Relations,” fails to acknowledge that.

Obviously I believe the god of Islam is a false god.

If you chose to write again please put your city and state.

Pastor Bob said...

The core issue between Christianity and Islam is not the issue of the Trinity, although that is certainly a large disagreement. This issue grows out of the following. The core issue is that Christians do not recognize Mohamed as a prophet while in Islam Mohamed comes to correct the errors of the Christian and Jewish traditions and scriptures. Christians and Jews do not recognize Mohamed as a prophet and therefore the Koran is not God speaking.

From a Christian point of view then Mohamed is not different than Joseph Smith.

Bob Campbell
Sharon Hill, PA

Viola Larson said...

Bob,
I agree that one of the big issues with Islam is a false prophet and false holy book just like Latter Day Saints. But if one is looking at God and comparing the two then the Trinity is definitely the priority. It was amazing to me at the last GA when this issue came up there was a total misunderstanding among many in the committee dealing with the issue. They felt that if both religions were monotheistic then they both believed in the same god. It never occurred to them that one singular god could be different then another.

But here the thing I was trying to point out is that we only know God through Jesus Christ who is God incarnate. And this does not eliminate the Old Testament as it does the Koran since the Jews are the people of God and all of the Hebrew Bible points to Jesus Christ in both shadows, rites and promises, even typology.

Pastor Bob said...

Hmmm and our Jewish friends I think would say that we do not worship the God of Israel because we are Trinitarians. The monotheism of both Judaism and Islam are probably more alike than Christian monotheism.

Viola Larson said...

I realize that, I am just saying the promises are there, and God did make his covenant with Israel. And actually the monotheism of the Jews is different than the Muslim’s, in that God is willing to interact with his people; the oneness of Islam means that their god although compassionate and forgiving does not enter into a covenant relationship with people.

Anonymous said...

Viola,

I think you are confused about what it means that there is one and only one God.

The followers of Islam call on the one and only God. They recognize God as the God of Abraham. Their holiest shrine is the burial place of the mother of Abraham's oldest son. He is not a false God.

They may be mistaken about Jesus, about Mohammad, about Christians, just as we may be mistaken about many things as well. And the Fundamentalist Muslim clerics misrepresent their own faith to their own people. But God is not false, and regardless of how they perceive Him, and regardless of our differences, when they pray to Him, the God of Abraham, the One and Only God, you can be sure that God does not turn a deaf ear to their prayers.

This is the only possible starting point of dialog with Islam, whether it be interfaith dialog, or cross faith evangelizing.

The burden of the proof is upon us to demonstrate to Islam, by word and deed, that faith in Jesus Christ is a better path to enter into the presence of God than the teachings of Mohammad. The burden is ours to show that Jesus Christ is the answer to their prayers.

In doing so, the burden is also ours to show all Muslims the respect we owe those whom God so loved that he gave them his only Son.

Accusing them of worshiping a false god is a non starter. Better to take a page from the apostle Paul's play book and start instead by congratulating them on their tenacious devotion to God and willingness to put all that they are at His service. Christians should be no less passionate.

Carlos José

Viola Larson said...

Carlos-otherwise known as - Jodie,

You are not supposed to be commenting here. I did not with my post accuse Muslims of worshiping a false god, and you know that. But I did say that to you in order to answer your comment. Hopefully you are not now trying to suggest that I am witnessing to a Muslim when I am answering your comment. This is why you are not allowed to comment here because of the way you twist words. You have now added deceit to your twisting. Do not comment here again under any name.

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute Viola, you just got finished telling Carlos in a comment that you believe the God of Islam is a false God. The actual wording is: "Obviously I believe the god of Islam is a false god." You follow that up with the very confusing and curious remark: "I did not with my post accuse Muslims of worshiping a false god, and you know that." So, were you trying to be deceptive in your post, and did Carlos drag the truth out of you, or maybe you think the god of Islam is a false god and Muslims don’t worship him? This is all very confusing to me.

Clark Hazlett
Lake Mary, Fl

Anonymous said...

Viola - I think you've been quite clear. If I understood you correctly you were objecting to a rabbit trail built on comments that had little to do with your initial post.

The commentor seemed originally to object to your assertion that Islam and Christianity do not worship the same God - self-evident in the sense that Christianity non-negotiably claims that Jesus is God - on the grounds that this indicate you believed in many gods. As if saying the tri-une God of Christianity and Allah as understood in Islam were not the same indicated that you believed both exist.

Clearly this was neither implied nor stated in any way in your post.

Will Spotts
North East MD

Anonymous said...

It seems odd to me that someone would accuse you of being deceptive in your post. As I said, I found quite clear. And you have been openly consistent in your beliefs in your many writings over the years.

The truth being somehow "dragged out of you" is an absurd contention.

Will Spotts

Viola Larson said...

Thanks Will, I don't think I need to say anymore. And by the way, no one from Florida visited my blog today. I guess Clark must have been on vacation or something: )

Anonymous said...

Viola, I travel all over, and I'm not on vacation, but I am headed toward home.

Clark

Viola Larson said...

Okay, Clark I see that.

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