Monday, April 5, 2010

Shall we thank Islam for helping us sharpen our theology?

The more time I spend interacting with individual Muslims in particular, and with Islam in general, the more I realize how much Christian theology I have taken for granted!  Interacting with Muslims and Islam as a religious system has forced me to reconsider some of the core components of my faith, such as the Trinity, and the deity of Christ.  In fact, I am somewhat sorry to admit that my focus on the Trinity and on Christology has never been sharper, or more intense than in the past few years as I've contemplated apologetic stances in communicating the Gospel with Muslims.   Indeed, how can we expect to discuss the Trinity with those who deny it when we can't articulate it well ourselves?  Or how can we discuss the person and work of Jesus Christ with those who have such a contorted (docetic at best) view of him?

Yes, thanks to Islam, I have delved back into Church history and been forced to re-examine the creeds and confessions of the Church, and to be able to articulate their nuances not merely for the sake of theological reflection with other Christians, but for the sake of the salvation of many people who need to understand these distinctions!  In fact, to use Philip Jenkins' term in his book, The Lost History of Christianity (2008), one way to see Islam is as a Christian heresy.  Given this angle, some of the exact discussions that were had in the Church over fifteen hundred years ago are perhaps more pertinent now in the growing Christian/Islamic discourse than since the day they were first penned.  To that end, I just read the beginning of former Muslim now Christ follower Thabiti Anyabwile's new book, The Gospel for Muslims (2010).  He once embraced Islam because of the simplicity of the idea of the oneness of God (and perhaps partly because of Christians' inability to explain the Triunity of God?)  He says:

"Today, the Christian's task of proclaiming the gospel and persuading their Muslim neighbors and friends depends, in part, on faithfully embracing the mystery of the Trinity... Many Christians have a slippery grip on this cardinal doctrine of the faith, and it makes for rather uneasy discussions with our Muslim friends."

Thabiti, I couldn't agree more!  This is why I say we should thank Islam for forcing us to reconsider and sharpen our own understanding of foundational Christian doctrines.  One question that arises is this: why did it take Islam to force me to sharpen my theology?  I believe the answer is that if you look at the context of the formulation of historic orthodox theology, you see that none of the creeds or confessions arose in a historical vacuum.  Instead, this intense theological reflection on the Trinity and on Christology all arose in response to challenges to the faith (e.g. Arianism, etc.).  And I believe the renewed Christian engagement with Islam is forcing us back to those same roots.  Anyone else find this to be true?


Tim Herald said...


We must be willing to understand the Church's statements in their respective contexts.

Further, we must be able to articulate them into the contexts in which we serve.

Further, we must be able to perceive the questions which need answering in the contexts in which we serve... and they are not always the questions we might think we should answer.

And this naturally forces us to struggle with our own theology... and this brings us closer to God. I have never had such an appreciation for the Incarnation as I have had over the past few months... most of it has to do with struggling through how to communicate this beautiful aspect of the Gospel to Muslims.


Abu Daoud said...

I agree whole-heartedly, and my recent research has reinforced in me the impression that the most fruitful path to Christian witness in the Muslim world lies in the early church, and that includes those great, ancient documents like the Nicene Creed and the addition of Constantinople and the Definition of Chalcedon.

I have argued in SFM in a series of three articles under the theme of 'sacrament and mission' that this is the best way to proceed with our witness.

I have experienced the same thing as you--an appreciation for the ancient wisdom of the church and those complex but crucial doctrines they prayed and fasted and talked about with great perseverance.

hugh watt said...

When i started sharing my faith with Muslims, Ahmed Deedat was very popular. His propaganda was embraced by many and used to try to humiliate Christians. Sadly, many Christians do not know how to defend their beliefs and are easy targets for such people.

hugh watt said...

The issue of 'Trinity' is not a Biblical but Quranic problem. A reading of the verses in the Quran about the Trinity leaves you with the impression that Christianity believes in '3 gods!' This is proof that the god of Islam is not God! An All-Knowing God would not be wrong about this. Many Muslims use circular reasoning to 'prove' the Quran is God's book. This is where their main problem lies.

hugh watt said...

Jonathan said,
"What is a non-western way of understanding the Trinity? And how does that apply to explaining it to Muslims?"
So this doesn't come across as personal, i will be answering from an Islamic perspective.
In the Quran when the 'Trinity' is referred to it is in the context of "3 gods." Now, where does Allah get this from, the Bible nowhere suggests Jews and Christians believe that! Islam/ Quran/ Muhammad/ Muslism now have a problem. How do they prove the Bible teaches this and so proving Muhammad right? They simply do what Allah/ Muhammad did, apply human reasoning! The accusation must have evidence. So we ask Muslims where they get the "3 gods" from? They say something like, "Father is one, Son is one, and the Holy Spirit is one. 1+1+1=3." This is human reasoning and proves Allah can not be God! The Quran says Mary was part of the 'Trinity,' yet this is proof Allah did not know what he was talking about. For a Semitic ideology Islam should know not to take words in a literal sense when the context suggests otherwise.
In S:111.1 we read; "Perish the hands Of the Father of Flame!
Perish he!" This refers to Abu Lahab, Muhammad's uncle. To take this literally would be silly. Yet Muslims are content to apply literalism to Quranic verses when they need to support its claims against the Bible. Yet it has no choice, its existence is at stake.

Jonathan said...

How then does one explain the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to a Muslim in such a way that they don't jump to that conclusion?

hugh watt said...

They will jump to that conclusion because of what the Quran says. What i do is use their own sources and try to relate to what we mean.

Wudu. There are 10 steps to complete 1 Wudu. Yet they do not say it's '10', but '1'! Of the 10 steps only 1 is singularly performed the others are repeated 3X. Do they say 1+1+1=3? No. It's 1+1+1=ONE! So, when it suits Islam 3 can =1, unless it's in a Biblical setting. This is the inconsistency i see time and again.
"Wudu" is the washing(ablution), they perform before reading the Quran etc.
This is a big topic that i will have to carry on over a number of post; but for now, know that there are ways to communicate with them.
I should say you need to make it clear that you are not comparing God to the Ablution, it's the concept of 1+1+1=one, sometimes depending on the context.
I will be back in 50 mins.'

PS. The word verification i just got was 'COFFIN,' scary!