Five approaches to the Qur'an by Christians

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Work of the devil? Work of the Triune God? Work of angels? Work of humans? Touchable? Untouchable? Genius in its composition? A disordered work of fiction? These are no new questions for the Christian who would approach the sacred text which Muslims describe as "noble" "unchanged" "final" and "superseding all previous revelations." Ever since 788 AD, when the Anonymous Apology also called On The Triune Nature of the One God,  the first recorded response in Arabic--the essential language of Islam--by a Christian to a Muslim, at least five different approaches can be observed. Each of them has its strong defenders, but in the final analysis, we will make five recommendations which derive from the text of the Holy Bible and from a Biblical Christian worldview.

Background:

At the Lausanne Mini-Consultation on Reaching Muslims held in Pattaya, Thailand in 1980 it was decided to compose a response to various opinions on the use of the Qur'an. Likely this was an offshoot of a ground swell in mission's thinking that used phrases like "find the Christian potential of the Qur'an" [Kenneth Cragg], that through Muhammad "God has spoken to mankind" [Hans Kung], "we thus regard the faith of Islam as an imperfect form of Christianity, plainly it requires to be reformed rather than subverted" [Isaac Taylor] and it "is of first importance to try to find a positive attitude towards Muhammad and the Qurʾān, that is, one which acknowledges and admires whatever is true and admirable in them" [Montgomery Watt]. Largely these were a complete pendulum swing reaction to attitudes up to about 1940 which were for the most part extremely critical of the Qur'an, to the point of calling it the written "doctrines of demons."

The consultation developed a list of responses and they are quoted directly below. Additionally a further meeting in Nicosia, Cyprus in 1995 complemented these findings.To a large extent both are taken up in David Emmanuel Singh of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies 2011 book called Jesus and the Incarnation. At this juncture in history, it must be noted, as well, that there is a ground swell of atheistic thinking in Arabic speaking countries, and for these people, the Qur'an has no authority.

The five responses:

After a preamble concerning both the "should one use the Qur'an" and the if so, "how should it be used" the 1980 committee acknowledged that this is a "controversial issue" said to be held in five ways by Christians who "have the same understanding of the authority and inspiration of the Bible." Whether that last phrase is true, will be investigated shortly. To quote directly:

(a) The Qur’an should never be used in discussion with the Muslim, because using it implies that we accept it as inspired, and are putting it on the same level as the Bible.

(b) The Qur’an should be studied, but only to help us to know and appreciate what Muslims believe, and to enable us to learn Muslim terminology.

(c) The Qur’an should be used against itself, to demonstrate that it is self-contradictory. Such a polemic use of the Qur’an will show its weakness and create a hunger for something better.        

(d) The Qur’an should be used as a starting point; e.g., the many verses that speak about Jesus and other biblical characters can be used to point to the biblical version of these same stories.

(e) The Qur’an can be used as a source of truth. Our recognition of all the truths which the Qur’an does contain makes the Muslim much less defensive and more open to read the New Testament. Since the Muslim has been told that the Bible has been corrupted, it is an enormous step forward for him even to read the Bible alongside the Qur’an. This view can be supported by a study of the ways in which biblical writers handle non-biblical material—e.g., Jesus’ use of apocryphal writings of the inter-testamental period; Paul’s quotations from Greek poets and his use of words like musterion (mystery).

The critical question is whether any or all of these approaches can be supported by a Biblical Christian worldview, and by an orthodox view of Christian revelation and inspiration, and also a Biblical Christian view of the sacred texts of other religions. Some references for further reading are below as this is only an introduction to the subject. To help sort through the options, let us look at a number of word-pictures used to describe the use of the Qur'an.

1. Bridges---the Qur'an can be a bridge to the Bible [e.g. the CAMEL method of evangelism]

2. One part of three or four---the Qur'an, Hebrew Testament [sometimes divided into the Pentateuch and the Psalms] and the New Testament all form one revelation [e.g. Anton Wessels' The Torah, the Gospel, and the Qurʾān. Three Books, Two Cities, One Tale  and radical contextualizers who take Q. 9:111 literally: ..." It is a promise in truth which is binding on Him in the Taurat (Torah) and the Injeel (Gospel) and the Quran."]

3. Stepping-stones---the Qur'an can be a stepping stone to the Bible [e.g. Don McCurry's Stepping Stones to Eternity: Jesus from the Quran to the Bible?]

4. The seed and the plant or the faint light and the fuller light---the Qur'an contains seeds of the Gospel which can flourish only in the right conditions, or the Qur'an has "flickers of truth" or it is like a crescent moon of reflected light with darkness in the center [e.g. the CAMEL method uses he 'flickers of truth' image, and Lausanne 1995 uses the moon imagery]

5. Common ground--the assertion is made that there is "common ground" or even a "common word" (c.f. Q.3:64)  between the Qur'an and the Bible. The accent is on common meanings that can be derived from common terminology. [e.g. The Common Ground Conference, or the Common Word initiative].

In a nutshell each of these pictures is trying to describe the phenomenon of continuity and discontinuity of the Qur'an and the Bible.  Number 2 and 5 would stress continuity almost completely, and number three would stress discontinuity more strongly.

Five Biblical givens:

  1. The only sacred text that counts as entirely true truth is that which is given by the Triune God as His self-breathed out self-revelation (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21).
  2. As much as other sacred texts, including the Qur'an include something of the religious longings of every human and a sense of paradise lost, they are essentially creations of humans working in concert with the "ruler of this world, i.e. Satan" as larger part of their self-salvation scheme. Instead of finding the true image of God in Christ, they engage in the great "exchange" and make God in their own image (Romans 1). It might be noted that the same Abraham Kuyper who is often quoted with his "every square inch" idea about the Sovereignty of Christ, and a consequent appeal to common grace even in other religions, saw Islam as a "pseudo-religion" or a "counterfeit revealed religion" and Christianity as the only "absolute true religion."
  3. As much as other sacred texts, including the Qur'an contain some truths about the created order and its observable phenomenon just as all humans hold them, yet, they are witnesses to the fact that they have human origins and like their human authors serve as truth repressors in the sphere of unrighteousness (Romans 1:18-25; 2 Cor. 10:4-5). To say that such repressed truth is unalloyed under the rubric of "all truth is God's truth" is to act in the way of suppression itself.
  4. Humans in their unregenerate state are said to be  "devoid of revelation," "spiritually dead," "under the power of Satan," "in darkness," "[suffering from] ignorance," "idolatrous," "materialistic" and "unholy and unbelieving" (Luke-Acts). To ascribe saving revelatory material to the author of someone in this state, is akin to asking the subterranean inhabitants of a graveyard to sing Handel's Messiah.
  5. As much as a revelation such as the Qur'an might say that it was delivered by angelic means, and even say that it attests to Jesus, the Bible commands us to "test the spirits" (1 John 4:1) to be wary of the devil masquerading as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) and to be aware that "another Jesus" (2 Corinthians 11:4) is a possibility. The subversion of Biblical Truth by non-Christian religions is a given and must be factored into an approach to the Qur'an. For instance the Biblical story of Abraham is subverted by the Qur'an to turn him into an ideal ancestor for Muhammad, and the Islamic Jesus is no more than a John the Baptist figure for Muhammad.  

Five recommendations for use of the Qur'an:

  1. Bassam Madany in his description of the life of the Syrian Muslim convert Abdul Kamil described Kamil's use of the Qur'an as "tactical."  That is to say he gave only "provisionary" authority to the Qur'an in order to quickly establish the supreme authority of the Biblical revelation. Clearly, Kamil was not afraid to use the Qur'an and knew that he could use it to communicate to Muslims, but with well defined "guardrails" in place.
  2. As much as the Islamic Jesus and the Biblical Jesus share some superficial terminology, this may cause the uninitiated to declare sameness and in effect, Christianize the Qur'an. The nature of the Islamic Christ [or Islamic Christology] is anything but the Biblical Christ [or Biblical Christology]. This should cause the user of material from the Qur'an about the Islamic Jesus to be extremely cautious as Sam Schlorff points out below. Likely it is best to highlight discontinuity much more than continuity especially as the Christian and Islamic worldviews are radically different. . To simply state as Lausanne 1995 that Christians need to help Muslims see "see the biblical text beneath" the overlay of the Qur'an is to Christianize it as well.  
  3. A bridge implies some kind of permanence. As much as temporary communication bridges can be helpful, there is always the danger that bridges are two-way streets. History has shown many examples of "Biblical bridging" where Muslims use Biblical material strategically to win the unwitting over to Islam. There can be no permanent philosophical connection or common ground between darkness and light. Thus the motif of a bridge is likely an unhelpful picture. A stepping stone is likely more helpful as it implies no permanent connection, but of course we must be cautious to imply that this advocates only superficial friendships with Muslims.
  4. A number of authors, including David Emmanuel Singh, and to a large extent the Lausanne Committee suggest that that because non-Biblical texts were quoted in the Bible, thus the use of these texts is somewhat approved. If one reads the Bible atomistically, then this might appear true. The Apostle Paul at the Areopagus (Acts 17) was functioning in the larger context of his anti-idol polemic which he largely learned from the book of Isaiah, and the entire Scriptures are a polemic against the false religions which set themselves up against the Living God. To say with the CAMEL method as one reads the Qur'an "I pray that your eyes will be opened and you will understand the Truth" is tantamount to denying the Biblical and historically orthodox Christian view that only the Bible is the fountain of all Truth, as well as the reality that only the Holy Spirit can open sin-dead eyes to the spiritual truths of the Bible, the only source of spiritual Truth (I Corinthians 2:14).  
  5. The author of the Anonymous  Apology (ca. 788) used enough Qur'anic sounding language and allusions to draw the interest of the Muslim, but it was entirely strategic. It was to draw the Muslim into the Biblical worldview and to explain the Trinity in Biblical terms. What he has done is to subvert the Qur'an, especially in the area of prophet stories and used it to Christian ends. For example these stories are used in the Qur'an to strengthen Muhammad's heart, whereas the author of the Apology, as Professor Swanson notes, tactically used them to show that prophets and apostles are incapable of saving the world from Satan's tyranny. This stands in sharp contrast to those who would attempt to pull the Biblical worldview into the Qur'an in the way of Kenneth Cragg who said that we must find the "Christian potential" of the Qur'an.

Summary:

The Christian's orthodox view of Biblical revelation and inspiration, contrary to the Lausanne document of 1980 is not universally held by all Christians. It will and must shape the approach to using the Qur'an. There is no possibility that one can simultaneously say as Hans Kung did, that through Muhammad "God spoke to mankind" [somehow implying the Biblical revelation of the Triune God speaking "in Son"--Hebrews 1:1-2] and at the same time say that the only true revelation of the Triune God is found in the Biblical Scriptures. The law of non-contradiction will simply not permit it. 

What is noteworthy about the Anonymous Apology and Kamil's use of the Qur'an is that they were both completely saturated with the Biblical Christian worldview, yet had taken the time to be acquainted enough with the Qur'anic material to establish the continuity of communication between humans all in the image of God, yet to establish strong discontinuity between the Islamic worldview and the Christian worldview, as opposed to merging their belief systems.

 For further reading:

1. Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, "Lausanne Occasional Paper 13: Report of the Consultation on World Evangelization; Mini-Consultation on Reaching Muslims" [Pattaya, Thailand from 16-27 June 1980], On-line: http://www.lausanne.org/content/lop/lop-13

2. Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, "Ministry in Islamic Contexts: Lausanne Occasional Paper 28" [Nicosia, Cypress from 3-8 December 1995]

3.  David Emmanuel Singh.   Jesus and the Incarnation. Regnum Books International, 2011, especially pages 204-207.

4. Bassam M. Madany, "The Missiology of Kamil Abdul Messiah: A Syrian Convert from Islam to Christianity" On-line:                                                                         www.answering-islam.org/authors/madany/kamil_jessup.html

See also his chapter "From Faith to Unbelief" about the phenomenon of atheism http://www.unashamedofthegospel.org/chapter13.cfm

5. The Anonymous Apology [=Defence of the Gospel] from M. D. Gibson ed. An Arabic Version of the Acts of the Apostles and the Seven Catholic Epistles. From an eighth or ninth century ms. in the convent of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. With a treatise on the Triune Nature of God with translation ... (London : C. J. Clay & Son, 1899)               Online: https://archive.org/details/arabicversionofa00gibs

6. Mark N. Swanson,  "Beyond Prooftexting : Approaches to the Qurʼān in Some Early Arabic Christian Apologies,"  Muslim World, 88 no 3-4 (Jl-O 1998), pp. 297-31.

7. Carl Henry's "On Finding Christ in Nonbiblical Religions" is a very useful theological response to the assertion that Christ is in seed form in the religions of the world, just waiting for the right conditions to come along. In his God, revelation, and authority. Originally published: Waco, Tex. : Word Books, c1976-c1983. (6:360-369). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.

8. Daniel Strange. For Their Rock Is Not As Our Rock: An Evangelical Theology of Religions. (Zondervan, 2015). For an interview with the author see: On-line

http://biblicalmissiology.org/2015/01/21/book-review-for-their-rock-is-n...

9. Samuel P. Schlorff, "The hermeneutical crisis in Muslim evangelization," Evangelical Missions Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 3 (July 1980) Schlorff gives an overview and the history of the idea of Qur'anic bridging from Roman Catholic, main-line Protestant, and Evangelical vantage points.  Schlorff wisely points out that attributing too much authority to the Qur'an can cause an "authority conflict" for Muslim inquirers and converts. He states: "

 The fact is that commitment to Christ inevitably involves commitment to the authority of the Bible. When a Muslim inquirer is confronted with the claims of Christ through the Scriptures, he is faced with a choice: he must either commit himself to the Bible and the biblical view of Christ, and forsake the Qur'an, or commit himself to the Qur'an and the Qur'anic view of Christ and reject the Scriptures. Even when the Muslim is initially led to the Scriptures and to Christ through his own study of the Qur'anic witness to Christ, the choice is still clear-cut; he is unambiguously confronted with a supernatural Christ only in the Scriptures, so if he would follow this Christ, it must be through the Scriptures.

However, when Christians try to lead Muslims down the ambiguous path of the Qur'anic witness to Christ, they only inject ambivalence into the picture.

 

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