Thanks again for posting my first response to your thoughts about "A Common Word" on your website and for further engaging with me about these crucial issues! Here is my second response to your article, "How Shall We Love Our Muslim Neighbor?"
My goal (or “end game”) is the same as yours, John—to communicate the good news about the person and work of Jesus through word and deed to Muslims. Thus, I believe that both of us agree on apostolic doctrine—the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
I agree with you on apostolic doctrine, but I am also concerned (as I am sure you must be as well) for apostolic practice. I believe that it was Paul’s apostolic practice to find a point of contact and build bridges in order to share apostolic doctrine. As I said in my first response, I try to model my approach to Muslims after the Apostle Paul’s approach to the Athenians in Acts 17.
The idolatry of the Athenians incensed Paul’s monotheistic heart—“His spirit was being provoked within him as he was observing the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Nevertheless, his passion for apostolic doctrine, did not keep him from a gracious, bridge-building approach to the Athenian heart. After winning their attention, Paul noticed an altar (not an idol) “to an unknown God.” This altar was an admission on the part of the intellectual Athenians that their knowledge of the supernatural was incomplete. Paul had found his point of contact. With a note of apostolic authority, he exclaimed, “What therefore you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (v 23).
Paul then “starts with his hearers’ belief in an impersonal divine essence, pantheistically conceived, and leads them to the Living God revealed as Creator and Judge.” (F.F. Bruce. The Acts of the Apostles, p. 336). In other words, it is apostolic practice to meet people where they are—to find a starting point—to build a bridge.
Certainly Athenian worship was not “genuine” worship, nor was it worship of the “true” God. But Paul did not say “your worship is not genuine!” Paul does not try to set them straight on every point of theology. This is evangelistic discourse, not theological discourse, so Paul seeks to build a bridge and focuses on proclaiming the proper object of their worship.
(Please note: unlike the polytheistic Athenians, Muslims already worship God as the One Living God—Creator and Judge of the Universe.)
Paul not only uses an altar as a bridge, but also quotes from two Greek poets, Aratus and Epimenides, to support his belief in God’s immanence and our sonship:
He is not far from each one of us; for in him we live, move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘for we also are his offspring.’ (Acts 17:27-28)
In their original context, these quotes refer to Zeus. It is worth noting that the Greeks’ conception of Zeus was much more foreign to the biblical view of God than the Muslims’ conception of God.
I do not think that Paul believed these quotations carried all the truth content of the biblical doctrines of “God’s immanence,” “adoption,” or “sonship.” But Paul used it because it was a point of contact and a bridge. He was not engaging in theological discourse in this passage (as he does in Romans or Galatians), but rather initial evangelistic discourse. Initial evangelistic discourse (including what missiologists call “pre-evangelism”—the teaching of truths that ultimately lead to the full and clear proclamation of the gospel, often does not use a lot of nuance and in-depth clarification like theological discourse.)
Paul was amazingly positive to these polytheistic idolators. He did everything he could to meet them where they were and take them where they needed to be. He even built what some evangelicals might think were “dubious” or “risky” evangelistic bridges—using the altar as a starting point and quoting the poets to explain truth.
(Please note: bridges are built to walk over some gulf or body of water to get to a certain destination. The destination of an evangelistic bridge is to help people grasp the person and work of Jesus).
Thus, in light of Paul’s apostolic practice described in Acts 17, I made the following statements:
I do not hesitate to refer to the God of the Bible as Allah, since Arab Christians before and after the birth of Islam use the term Allah to describe the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Christian and Muslim views of God are similar in that we both worship the one true God, creator of the heavens and the earth. We both believe this God will judge all peoples at the end of history. We both believe this God has sent His prophets into the world to guide His people. Christians and Muslim views of God differ primarily regarding the Fatherhood of God, the Trinity, and especially regarding the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I believe that Muslims worship the true God. But I also believe that their view of God falls short of His perfections and beauty as described in the Bible. Thus, I try to model my approach to Muslims after the apostle Paul who said to the Athenians: “What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you (Acts 17:23).”
Muslim background believers all over the world testify that they were previously worshiping God in ignorance and now they have come to know him in Jesus Christ.
It seems you fastened onto one statement in this explanation, "I believe that Muslims worship the true God," without regard for the context which was clearly nuanced and which clearly stated the differences between Muslim and Christian beliefs. Secondly, you implied that my statement gives Muslims false hope.
Let me respond to both points.
- When I write public statements I assume that Muslims will read what I say. I have every reason to believe they do and will. I seek to write with them in mind. I see this as apostolic practice in a globalized world.
- Re: giving Muslims false hope. I have dedicated my life to sharing Jesus with Muslims. I do not believe that my statement, taken in context, would in any way give Muslims false hope, and I think I have a fair understanding of Muslims.
- By contrast, strong statements about the gospel given without regard for Muslim worldview or sensitivities can give evangelists a false sense of assurance that they have carried out their task, when in fact they have prematurely turned off their Muslim neighbors because they did not take time to love them and build bridges. In this context, Muslims are not rejecting Christ, but a misunderstanding of Christ. This is an example of people affirming apostolic doctrine without following apostolic practice.
- I believe that anyone who affirms monotheism—whether Muslim, Jew, Sikh or Tribal—are worshiping the true God. How can it be otherwise, since there is only one God? But I hasten to add that these monotheists are worshiping in ignorance and they are not saved. I like how the Masai Creed from Africa describes this: “We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know Him in the light.”
So the issue is, how do you come to know this true God personally resulting in salvation and everlasting life? The answer, of course, is the gospel.
- Suppose a monotheist sincerely seeks to love, honor, and serve God. I think the story of Cornelius (Acts 10) describes what will happen. Ultimately, God will bring a follower of Christ to the sincere monotheist so they can hear and respond to the good news about Jesus.
John, I affirm both apostolic doctrine and apostolic practice. Thank you again for challenging me and for giving me a chance to respond.
Yours for the sake of following apostolic practice and proclaiming apostolic doctrine among all peoples, including Muslims,
Rick Love is the former International Director for Frontiers and is presently on sabbatical as a Post Doctoral Fellow in the Yale Reconciliation Program.