Christian Concerns About the Yale Response to A Common Word

Evangelical Theological Society

New Orleans, LA

[Stream or download the entire discussion from the 2009 Evangelical Theological Society.]

I agree substantially with the second sentence of A Common Word Between Us and You: “Without peace and justice between these two religious communities [Muslims and Christians], there can be no meaningful peace in the world.” I take that to be a reference to national, social, and personal behaviors, not to expressed feelings or expressed ideas. And I agree with the sentence from the last paragraph of commentary: “So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us.”

In John 18:36, Jesus renounced the sword as a strategy for his disciples in advancing his kingdom. “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting. . . . But my kingdom is not from the world.” Therefore, Christians should work together with people of radically different religious convictions in seeking ways to avoid unjust violence, and they should seek together to preserve freedom of religious worship and religious assembly and religious public proclamation. Christians should renounce the use of physical force—whether through illegal violence or legal punishments—aimed at restricting peaceful, non-coercive, religious expression and religious worship and persuasive religious speech.

A Flawed Central Summons

But the central summons of A Common Word is flawed. This summons aims to provide a foundation for all future interfaith dialogue. The document says (p. 15), “Let this common ground be the basis of all future interfaith dialogue between us, for our common ground is that on which hangs all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:40).”

What is the central summons of A Common Word? The phrase “a common word between us and you” is taken from the Qur’an (Aal ‘Imran 3:64; A Common Word, p. 13). Quoting God, it says, “O People of the Scripture [Jews and Christians]! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God . . . .” This quotation is important because it makes clear that the central summons of A Common Word is not that we agree as monotheists on the formal principles that love to God (whoever he is) and love to neighbor (whoever they are) are a formal common ground. That may be true. But what the quotation from the Qur’an makes clear is that the central summons of A Common Word is that Christians and Muslims actually love the same God.

Not Only Formal But Actual Shared Love for God?

The writers of the document show that this is what they mean in the following paragraph of A Common Word when they identify the summons in the Qur’an with the Great Commandment in the Bible. They say, “Clearly also worshipping none but God, relates to being totally devoted to God, and hence to the First and Greatest Commandment.” Thus we are summoned to stand together on the common ground of one worship of God, one devotion to God, and one love for God.

It’s clear that this is the intention of the document because it quotes (without interpreting comment) the Qur’an as follows: “Say (O Muslims): We believe in God and . . . and that which Moses and Jesus received. . . . And if they believe in the like of that which ye believe, then they are rightly guided. But if they turn away, then they are in schism, and God will suffice thee against them.”

So it’s fairly clear that the common ground held out in A Common Word is not a formal similarity in two monotheistic religions but an actual shared love for the one God.

The Yale Response

Before I mention what is flawed about that, a brief word about the Yale Response to A Common Word. Among the several very serious disagreements I have with the Yale Response, the most serious is the one that unites it with this interpretation of A Common Word. In the first paragraph of the section entitled “The Task Before Us,” the writers say, “We need to . . . work diligently together to reshape relations between our communities and our nations so that they genuinely reflect our common love for God and of one another” (emphasis added).

It’s clear from the phrase “our common love for God” that those who wrote this either misspoke (which is unlikely, since too many other traits of the document point in this direction) or that they agree with A Common Word that the common ground for Christian-Muslim dialogue is not a formal similarity in our religions but, in fact, a shared love for the one true God and for our neighbor.

This “Common Ground” Does Not Exist

The flaw in the common ground proposed by A Common Word and embraced by the Yale Response is that Jesus makes clear that this common ground does not exist. And my contention would be that this absence of such common ground must be made explicit—not to destroy dialogue or to undermine peace, but (from the Christian side) for the sake of forthright, honest, biblically faithful, Christ-exalting, trust-preserving dialogue, and for the sake of truth-based, durable peace.

  • Jesus said, “I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him” (John 5:42–43). When Jesus says, “receive him,” he means receive him for who he really is: the divine, eternal Son of God who lays down his life for the sheep and takes it up again in three days. If a person does not receive him in this way, that person, Jesus says, does not love God.
  • Jesus said, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:22–23). When Jesus says, “Honor the Son who sent him, he means honor the Son for who he really is as the divine, eternal Son of God who laid down his life for the sheep and took it up again in three days. The person who does not honor him in this way, Jesus says, does not honor God.
  • Jesus said, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (John 8:19). This means “know” Jesus for who he really is. So the person who does not know Jesus as the divine, eternal, crucified, risen, Son of God does not know God.

Historically Muslims do not know Jesus, honor Jesus, or receive Jesus for who he really is—the divine, eternal, Son of God, who laid down his life on the cross for sinners and rose again the third day. Therefore, Jesus says, such Muslims do not know God and do not honor God and do not love God. As offensive as this is, Jesus said it to the most Bible-saturated, ritually disciplined, God-aware, religious people of his day.

Those Who Deny Christ Do Not Love, Honor, or Know God

Therefore, the central summons of A Common Word, shared by the Yale Response, is deeply flawed. In fact, the proposed common ground does not exist. I believe there is a better way forward among Christian and Muslim scholars and clergy. From the Christian side, it will be honest, biblically faithful, cross-centered, Christ-exalting, trust-preserving dialogue.

I believe with all my heart that, as forgiven sinners, who owe our lives to blood-bought grace alone, we Christians can look with love and good will, and even tender-hearted compassion, into the eyes of a Muslim and say: I do not believe you know God or honor God or love God. I hope through our conversation that you will see the truth and beauty of Christ-crucified and risen for the sins of everyone who trusts him. And if we were threatened right now, I hope that I would lay down my life for you.

In This Is Love

If love toward God is to be spoken of as essential to Christian faith, it must be spoken of the way the apostle John does: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10–11).

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