Evangelism is hard. Christians seek to spread the good news in a world that is increasingly hostile to our Lord, and we face growing competition from alternative worldviews. Among those are the other world religions, and none is more problematic than Islam. There are over one billions Muslims in the world, and the way to bring Christ to them is often unclear and rarely easy. So many Christians ask, “how can we bring the gospel to Muslims with integrity?”
Aaron Taylor, a frequent contributor to Sojourners, is seeking an answer to that question, but in a post today asks it in a way that points in the wrong direction. His piece is entitled, “Can Muslims Follow the Biblical Christ and Still Be Muslim?” He says that before going to Senegal as a missionary, he thought of taking a new approach, but eventually backed off, to his dismay:
I opted for the traditional apologetics approach, pointing out to Muslims why the New Testament is superior to the Quran and why they’re wrong about denying the divinity of Jesus and the atonement. I never seriously questioned this approach until I read Carl Medearis’s excellent book Muslims, Christians, and Jesus. In his book, Carl shares stories of his interactions with Muslims who deeply love Jesus and strive to follow his teachings — yet remain committed Muslims. I nearly wept thinking about how things could have been different if I had trusted my original instincts.
Here’s the first indication that Taylor is heading off the right road. I’m not familiar with Medearis’ book, but it doesn’t sound like it describes a genuine missionary endeavor. I’m not sure what it means to “love Jesus” or “strive to follow his teachings” and yet remain “committed Muslims.” The crucial question is not whether we love Jesus, but whether we trust in Him for our salvation. I love my wife, and strive to do everything that she asks or requires of me, but that doesn’t mean I think she’s going to save me from my sins, or secure for me the blessings of eternal life as a child of God.
I’ve heard that there are Muslim followers of Jesus who revere and strive to follow after the Jesus they see revealed in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but I’m wondering if these same Muslims can find a place in their theology to accept the rest of the New Testament as well?
I’m not sure who he’s talking about here. The Jesus revealed in the synoptics is, above all, the One who suffered, died and rose again to save us from our sin. He is not spoken of in quite the same terms as in John, but the passion and resurrection are absolutely central. As for the rest of the New Testament, I doubt that there’s any way of getting around the sacrificial, atoning, incarnate God-Man seen in Paul’s letters or Hebrews, for example.
And if they can, I’m wondering if Christians can find a place in their theology to make room for Muhammad as a pre-messianic figure, pointing people to faith in Jesus the Messiah (a term the Quran affirms, by the way), maybe not as authoritative as an Old Testament prophet, but perhaps on par with the status of local prophets in the New Testament?
I’m not sure what he means by this, either. If he means, can Christians look on the Koran as a kind of pre-evangelistic medium that lifts Jesus up, even if it is heretical in a lot of its affirmations about Him, perhaps. Truth is truth, no matter where it is found, and certainly Christians can point Muslims to Koranic statements to the effect that Jesus was the Messiah (Sura 3.45), that He was blessed with the Holy Spirit (Sura 2.253), that He ascended to God (Sura 3.55), that He did miracles (Sura 2.253), even that He raised the dead (Sura 5.110). On the other hand, the Koran also contains clear statements that contradict the New Testament, and I for one would find it impossible to say that Mohammad was a prophet of God considering that his writing says. in effect, that either God is a liar or that the New Testament fails to convey the truth of God.
Let’s break this down. Because most Muslims can’t bring themselves to say, “Jesus is God,” Christians write them off as heretics. The problem with this is that there’s nowhere in the New Testament that says, “Jesus is God”; so what we’re doing is insisting on non-biblical language as a litmus test for biblical faith. The doctrine may be true, and I believe it is, but should we really think of someone as outside the fold if they can’t bring themselves to say something that isn’t directly stated in the New Testament?
It is true that the three word statement, “Jesus is God” is not found in the New Testament, but that doesn’t mean that expression is “non-biblical.” It expresses clearly and concisely what is stated in John 1:1 in combination with John 1:14, and even Taylor suggests that this is something that he thinks Muslims should be encouraged to confess:
I wonder if a Muslim who respects the New Testament could find it in his or her theology to accept the statement, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1-14). If a Muslim can accept this statement as the inspired Word of God, could we not call them brothers and sisters even if our understanding of what these verses mean may be slightly different?
But of course no Muslim can accept John 1:1-14 and remain true to the teaching of the Koran, which says:
O followers of the Book! do not exceed the limits in your religion, and do not speak (lies) against Allah, but (speak) the truth; the Messiah, Isa son of Marium is only an apostle of Allah and His Word which He communicated to Marium and a spirit from Him; believe therefore in Allah and His apostles, and say not, Three. Desist, it is better for you; Allah is only one God; far be It from His glory that He should have a son, whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth is His, and Allah is sufficient for a Protector. (Sura 4:171)
To say that John 1:1-14 is true is to say that the Koran–which is supposed to be the very words of God dictated to his prophet–is not only wrong, but blasphemously so. Of course, the Muslim would say that the New Testament is blasphemous in saying that Jesus is God’s Son, and that’s OK. That’s where we disagree, and trying to cover up and obfuscate that disagreement is to essentially say, at the very least, that one of the central tenets of Christian faith, the identification of Jesus as God incarnate, is relatively unimportant. That’s a road down which we should never go.
Let’s talk about the cross. Mark Siljander has done an excellent job in his book, A Deadly Misunderstanding, showing that the case can be made in the Quran that Jesus died and rose again. If this is true, might it be possible for a Muslim to accept that the Messiah’s death has saving significance even if — to my knowledge — the Quran doesn’t explicitly say so? After all, the Quran does confirm the authenticity of the gospels, and the case can be made from the gospels that the blood of Jesus was shed for the remission of sins (Matthew 26:28).
Somehow I doubt that Siljander (a former Michigan congressman with no training in either the Bible, the Koran, or Christian or Muslim theology) was able to make that case, especially since the Koran is explicit about the matter:
And their [Jews] saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the apostle of Allah; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Isa) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure. (Sura 4:157)
As for the gospels, the Koran may “confirm the authenticity” of those books (whatever that means–Muslim scholars also generally claim that the New Testament has been distorted through the addition of Christian ideas or subtraction of Muslim ones), but that doesn’t mean that it has any hesitance to “correct” or “supplement” them, either (for instance, the reference to Jesus bringing a clay bird to life in Sura 5.110 comes from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas). And why a Muslim who wishes to remain a committed Muslim would believe that the death of Jesus had anything to do with the forgiveness of sins, I’m not at all sure.
If we look at the sermons of Peter and Paul in the book of Acts, we see neither a very high Christology, nor do we see the doctrine of penal substitution — a doctrine highly offensive to Muslims — and yet we’re told explicitly that those who heard and believed their message received eternal life (Acts 13:48). The Apostles’ message in the book of Acts was essentially “Jesus was crucified, but God raised Him from the dead and through this man is preached to you forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life” (see Acts 10:39-43, 13:37-49, 17:31-32).
Again, I’m not sure exactly what Taylor’s point is. The idea of penal substitution may or may not be in Peter and Paul’s preaching in Acts, but the crucial point is that Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection–rejected by Islam–is intimately connected to the forgiveness of sin and the gift of eternal life. Believing this is true may or may not make you a Christian, but it certainly entails rejecting the Koran’s claims about Jesus.
Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not denying the deity of Christ, and neither am I saying that the doctrine of penal substitution is wrong, per se. I’m simply raising the issue that if a Muslim can believe and practice the bare essentials of what biblical faith in Jesus requires and still be true to their own faith, then not only have we figured out a way to build a bridge of peace between the historic religions of Islam and Christianity, we’ve also figured out a way for Christians to be faithful to the command of Jesus to “Go and make disciples of all nations,” without using our faith as a battering ram to demonize people of another faith.
A couple of points. One is that the Great Commission is not about “the bare essentials.” It is about a life-giving, life-transforming personal encounter with Christ. The result of that encounter is the forsaking of any other faith, any other spiritual loyalty, for the sake of a single-minded devotion to the Son who brings us to His Father through the work of His Spirit. Why exactly would we want someone to be “true to their own faith” is that faith explicitly rejects salvation through Christ?
The second point is that the Great Commission is not about “build[ing] a bridge of peace” between Muslims and Christians. Yes, we should seek to live in harmony with everyone, regardless of their religion, and yes, we should treat every person as a bearer of the image of God. But that doesn’t mean that we compromise on the most central beliefs of our faith, which in turn are the foundation of our discipleship. We don’t need to demonize anyone, or demonize their religion, in order to offer the good news and the opportunity to become a child of God. We need only be respectful of all of God’s creatures, and faithful to our calling.
Aaron Taylor has raised some good questions, but I think where he goes wrong ultimately is in mistaking Christian beliefs for mere intellectual adornment to the faith. Instead, those beliefs inform us Who it is that has made us a member of His family, how we may relate to Him as a loving, graceful Father, and how we should relate to one another as brothers and sisters. Diluting those beliefs for the sake of what we think is “evangelism” is not a service to our Muslim neighbors, but a barrier to their reception of Christ’s abundant life.