Discerning the Doctrines: Interspirituality, Pt. III

Part I
Part II

In October of 2007, 138 Muslim leaders wrote an open letter “to leaders of Christian churches, everywhere”. This letter was entitled A Common Word Between Us And You, the text of which can be found at www.acommonword.com. This letter calls for Christians and Muslims to “come together… on the basis of what is common between us, which is also what is most essential to our faith and practice: the Two Commandments of love.”

These Muslims see this letter as a fulfillment of the Qur’anic mandate in Aal ‘Imram 3:64 to issue the following call to all “peoples of the Scriptures”, meaning Christians and Jews, who all claim Abraham as a common ancestor: “Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God.”

It is easy for many Christians to read this and agree with what is said. We do believe that there is one God, and that we must worship Him alone. It is also true that the Torah, Bible, and Qur’an refer to many of the same characters, and many congruent passages. However, this does NOT mean — as many believe, both outside and within these communities of faith — that we all worship the same God. Christians worship Jesus Christ as God. Muslims claim Jesus was a prophet, but that he did not die on a cross, and that his teaching was replaced by the prophecies of Muhammad, just as Jesus’ teachings replaced those of the prophet Moses. Jews reject Jesus as a blasphemer. While all three faiths “believe” in the person of Jesus, their views of Him are mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, many Christians are either unaware of or do not understand these distinctions, which can make quotes from the Qur’an such as the one above seem confusing. Do we really have “a common word” between us? Further reading of the Sura Aal-’Imram reveals that Muslims understand there are distinctions between our faiths, even if Christians do not: Abraham was not a Jew nor yet a Christian, but he was true in faith and bowed his will to Allah’s (which is Islam) and he joined not gods with Allah. (3:66) “He joined not gods with Allah” implies that we ought not believe in a triune God — which they see as joining gods with Allah — because Abraham did not. (There is some debate as to whether this is true, though, as there are clear intimations of a Trinitarian God in the Hebrew Bible, and Galatians 3:8 tells us that God Himself “preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham”.)

Further down in the same Sura, we find a rebuke for those who teach others to “take angels and prophets for Lords” (3:80). This is consistent with other passages that explicitly reject Christ as Messiah:

O people of the Scripture! Do not exceed the limits in your religion, nor say of Allah aught but the truth. The Messiah ‘Isa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary), was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah and His Word, (”Be!” – and he was) which He bestowed on Maryam (Mary) and a spirit (Ruh) created by Him; so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not: “Three (trinity)!” Cease! (it is) better for you. For Allah is (the only) One Ilah (God), Glory be to Him (Far Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. And Allah is All-Sufficient as a Disposer of affairs. ~An-Nisa’ 4:171

In light of these passages, it would seem that agreeing with or affirming the Muslim open letter would be an implicit endorsement of the Islamic view of Jesus, as this is the context for the “common word” reference. At the very least, Muslims would see it that way.

Why, then, did 130 Christian leaders respond to this open letter a month later by taking out a full page ad in The New York Times to announce that they “share the sentiments” of the Muslim leaders? This Christian response called for Christians and Muslims everywhere to “love God and neighbor together”. You can read the full page ad here.

Besides simply seeking to work together for peace, these Christian leaders affirmed the belief that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, also asking the forgiveness of all Muslims for the past sins of Christians, such as the “war on terror”. (I have no problem admitting that many atrocities have been perpetrated in the name of Christ, but find it interesting that rather than claiming this to be the work of extremists who do not represent the true Christian faith, they sought the forgiveness of all Christians for these acts. This seems inconsistent with their being so quick to claim that terror acts committed in the name of Islam are the work of extremists and not representative of all Muslims… though Muslims themselves are often reluctant to condemn these acts. Hmmm…)

While the list of Christian signatories of this letter does include several representatives of more liberal denominations and emergent-type churches, it also has its fair share of very prominent evangelical leaders. These include Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church and Chairman of the Willow Creek Assocation (of which Stevens Street is a member); and Rick Warren, senior pastor of Saddleback Church, named by Time magazine as the “most influential evangelical in America” (Hybels and Brian McLaren also made the Top 25).

As we saw with The Purpose Driven Life phenomenon, where Warren leads, many, many Christians will follow. Will we follow him into the sorts of “interfaith projects” he described when speaking at the Islamic Society of North America conference this past July 4? (Video; transcript) Don’t get me wrong: I agree with Warren (and McLaren) that we ought to love and respect our Muslim neighbors, and seek to live peacefully with them, but it is not loving to withhold the gospel from people who desperately need Jesus! When he speaks for more than twenty minutes about not compromising our beliefs and celebrating our differences — because “God made you to be you” — without preaching the gospel of Christ, he has missed a huge opportunity that most of us will never have (sound familiar?). This is just like fasting for Ramadan with no intention of sharing Christ… what’s the point?

I don’t question — as many others have done — the sincerity and personal faith of guys like Warren and Hybels (McLaren makes me wonder…), but this “seeker-sensitive” movement of theirs presents a watered-down gospel message with some serious flaws. It is my prayer that the American Church would wake up and grow a backbone. I pray that our preachers would “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” (1 Corinthians 16:13) I thank God that each Sunday I am led by a pastor who does that.

Another pastor who exemplifies these attributes is John Piper. His website offers some great resources for how to properly relate to those of other faiths. Here are just two of a multitude of these resources: One God and One Salvation for all the Nations; Tolerance, Truth-Telling, Violence, and Law. He has also given us a great, Godly response to the series of open letters mentioned above:

I pray that our interaction with those of other faiths would bring honor and glory to God. We should not be praying WITH Muslims, but FOR them. There is one God, and He is NOT the Allah revealed in the Qur’an! Jesus Christ is the one true God. He is mighty to save, and He is the power of salvation for ALL who believe, even those who have been Muslims. There is a massive Christian revival going on in the “Muslim world” (Why do we call it that? This is my Father’s world!) right now, and I can tell you it’s not happening because Christians are trying to be more understanding and “tolerant” of the Muslim faith. It’s happening because faithful brothers and sisters are proclaiming the Truth to the lost!

Thank you, Father, for sending your Son Jesus to die for the sins of the world. Thank you for sending your Holy Spirit to convict the world of its sin, and to guide your children into all Truth. Thank you for being a merciful God who does not give us what we deserve, but who instead graciously gives us another Way. Please bring revival to the people of this nation, just as you continue your work throughout the world. Raise up pastors and evangelists who are more concerned with bringing souls into eternity with you than with bringing bodies into buildings. Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever, amen!

Note: This post has been slightly revised on 10/1/09 (see comments)

2 comments on “Discerning the Doctrines: Interspirituality, Pt. III

  1. To be honest, I found some of this confusing. You showed a diagram illustrating that classic Christian and Muslim views of Jesus partially overlap, yet you then went on to call them “mutually exclusive”.

    Then you emphasized that the differences between Muslims and Christians about the character of God likewise have some commonalities, yet added the very strange statement that “There is one God, and He is NOT Allah! Jesus Christ is the one true God.” There are at least two problems here. One is that Allah is the Arabic word for “God”, not a name, and so in essence you’ve said that there is one God, and he is not God. What’s more, you’ve denied that even Arabic-speaking Christians worship the right God, since presumably the right God can only be denoted in English. I sincerely doubt that this was your intention, but it is what it sounds like you are saying.

    If that weren’t enough, the way you use “the one true God” strikes me as different from the usage in John 17:3 of very similar language.

    These are just a few points I think it would be worth addressing/clarifying.

    Thanks for posting this interesting series – precisely because we don’t see eye to eye on a number of issues, I find it helpful to hear your perspective and, when I can, participate in the conversation here.

    • John Gardner says:

      Thank you again for your thoughts. I too have enjoyed this dialogue. Viewing my writing in the light of other perspectives helps me to refine my own beliefs, which is something that I hope to continue doing until the Lord takes me home!

      I’ll take your concerns out of order if I may. First of all, I agree with you that my wording was slightly confusing in the section you quoted. I hope that readers will indulge me in something that I rarely do, which is to edit a post once it has been published. I have changed the wording to “is not the Allah revealed in the Qur’an”, which will hopefully clarify that I meant to challenge a particular realization of the concept of “god”, rather than a translation of the word “god”. There are many English-speaking people who claim belief in “God” that do not know Christ. In fact, many who even publicly profess Jesus Christ as lord do not know Him (Matthew 7:21-23).

      The rest of your confusion is not likely to be addressed by a simple re-wording, so I’ll elaborate a bit on my points. First of all, the diagram is meant to show that, while there are some similarities in our beliefs about Jesus, the “big picture” is, in fact, mutually exclusive. Is Jesus God, or is he not? The entire source of Christian faith hinges on that question, and the answer given by Islam is in no way congruent with the answer given in the Bible.

      Muslims often approach Christians and others by pointing out the overlap in our views of Christ in an effort to convince them that we worship the same God. This is willful deception in an effort to further Islam, and is all part of the 3rd Sura (Al-’Imram) teaching from which “A Common Word” originates. Sura 3:54 states that “Allah is the best of deceivers”, and is (and throughout the history of the Islamic religion has been) used as justification for lying and deception for the purposes of war, safety, commerce, and the advancement of Islam. This view of Allah as a deceiver (see also Suras 7:99; 27:50; 13:42; 14:46; 43:79; 86:15f.; 7:100; 4:142) is yet another of the many ways in which Islam contrasts the God of the Bible, who does not lie (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Hebrews 6:18). Satan, not God, is the father of lies (John 8:44).

      John 17:3 does not at all contradict the Trinitarian view of God. This is Jesus in dialogue with His Father. In this same prayer he refers to being one with the Father (17:11, 21-23), which is in line with the statement in John 10:30 that caused the Jews to want to stone him for “blasphemously” claiming to be God.

      The concept of “oneness” is central to Trinitarian doctrine. God’s Word outlines a social order built on the same model as the Triune Godhead: One whole consisting of multiple parts. For instance, a husband and wife retain their unique personhood, and are yet one (Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:31). When I speak to my wife, I address her by a term of endearment or familiarity (as Jesus addresses the Father in John 17:3), but we remain one flesh. Paul correctly identifies this type of oneness as a “profound mystery” (Ephesians 5:32)! Similarly, the Church is called to be one body with many parts (Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12). This is the unity for which Christ prayed in John 17:11 and in verses 21-23.

      Sadly, the Church today is fractured along many doctrinal fault lines, just as marriages are fractured within the Church at the same rate they are in the world. The fact that we have failed to accurately model Unity to the world does not alter the Biblical mandate we have to do so. The Church must be united, but it cannot come at the expense of compromising the core doctrinal beliefs of who God is, and who man is in relation to Him.

      The call for oneness is tempered by the instruction to avoid the false doctrines and teachers who would arise (Matthew 24:11; Mark 13:22; 1 Timothy 1:3f, 6:3; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1). We are commanded to teach sound doctrine, exhorting what is true and rebuking what is false with all authority (Titus 1:9, 2:1,15). This is why doctrinal discernment is so vital, thus the conception of this series.

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