The Reformers and Islam

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Some have called the age we live in an “age of terrorism.” The world is experiencing conflict between Muslims and Christians in a number of places throughout the world. Much of the conflict is driven by extremist Islamic groups and their ideology.

The Protestant Reformation also occurred in a time of conflict as Christian Europe was threatened by the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin lived with the ongoing tension of a possible invasion of Europe by the Turkish armies. The Reformation period was bookended by two attempts to conquer the city of Vienna, in 1529 and 1683. This meant that there was a lot of fear and tension in the hearts of Christians towards Muslims.

Today, that tension is again apparent. Groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabab actively target Christians and this has led to mounting fear among the global Christian population.

Luther and Calvin had similar reactions to this perceived Islamic threat, although Luther was more sympathetic to Islam than Calvin was. Luther believed that Muslims and Christians worshiped the one Creator and Eternal God, albeit Muslims worshiped Him incorrectly. In his final sermon, Luther preached that “Muslims, Jews and some heathen worship the one eternal God, the wise and just Creator of heaven and earth to whom all human beings owe obedience” (Allah, 65).

Luther also believed that Muslims were lost because they did not believe the Gospel. In his treatise War Against the Turks (1529) he wrote “Muslims destroy true religion by denying Christ as God’s Son and his sacrifice.”

In a similar way, Calvin believed that Muslims, Pagans and Jews were cut off from the church because they resisted the Gospel. Calvin wrote in his Sermons on Deuteronomy (13.1f), “The Christian faith is impugned by the wicked which pretend not to come unto God and by the Turks, the Pagans, and Jews. They blaspheme with open mouth…they be utterly cut off from the Church – like rotten members. Their resisting of the Gospel and their striving to abolish the Christian Religion – is no great wonder to us…”

While Luther was willing to admit that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, Calvin was not. In his Institutes (Book 2, chapter 6:4) Calvin writes, “So today the Turks, although they proclaim at the top of their lungs that the Creator of Heaven and earth is God, still, while repudiating Christ, substitute an idol in the place of the true God.”

Both Luther and Calvin did note the devotion of the Turks to their religion and directed Christians to observe and learn from their devotion. Luther writes, “The modesty and simplicity of their food, clothing and dwellings and everything else, as well as the feasts, prayers and common gatherings of the people that prevail under Ottoman rule, are nowhere to be seen among us” (Allah, 66).

Luther believed that Muslims were responding to the sensus divinitatis in their search for God. The Reformed missiologist J.H. Bavinck believed that this is what allows people of different religious traditions to enter into dialogue with each other – because all people share a common religious consciousness and are equally the recipient of God’s general revelation.

Calvin did agree that if a Turk (Muslim) gave a satisfactory confession in the church he or she could be baptized. (Institutes 4:16.24).

John Calvin did not read the Quran. Luther and Melancthon did. What I think is significant is that none of the Reformers interacted with Muslims. Muslims were an external threat, both geo-politically and theologically. The Reformers rightly critiqued Islam for repudiating the Christian Gospel while at the same time respecting Muslims for their simplicity and devotion. Later missiologists such as J.H. Bavinck and Samuel Zwemer, who lived among Muslims, Bavinck in Indonesia and Zwemer in the Middle East, sought to build bridges of awareness and love for Muslims among Christians. Zwemer himself said that he sought to, “awaken sympathy, love and prayer on behalf of the Islamic world until its bonds are burst, its wounds are healed, its sorrows removed and its desires satisfied in Jesus Christ.” (The Moslem World, 2-3).

While we continue to heed the theological caution of the Reformers as they faced the Islamic faith on the borders of Europe, we need to seek new opportunities in the spirit of Bavinck and Zwemer to engage with our Muslim neighbors in respectful ways that build trust and peace. While always being willing to speak of the hope we have in Jesus Christ, we also seek to learn and grow in our relationships with Muslims. As the Spirit leads, more and more Muslims will come to know Jesus Christ in this way. In the 21st century, let us hold onto doctrine, but let us pour our hearts into relationships. Let us see Muslims less as an external threat and more as an opportunity for witness and dialogue.

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Thank you Greg for this enlightening article. I think you an I would agree with Luther that it is important to understand Islam. :

       Alongside of your article, I read Sarah Henrich and James L. Boyce, "Martin Luther—Translations of Two Prefaces on Islam: Preface to the Libellus de ritu et moribus Turcorum (1530), and Preface to Bibliander’s Edition of the Qur’an (1543)" in  Word & World , Volume XVI, Number 2, Spring 1996. It can be found on-line.

    These two Lutheran scholars translated two of Luther's works from Latin into English, and I thought they might give your readers a more nuanced view of the fact that Luther was not entirely enamoured with religiosity or papist--and made a critical distinction between someone who worships a generic Creator, and someone who worships the Trinity.   Here are a few excerpts from their document:

[at times I have put the word "Turks" in brackets as that is how he referred to the Muslims of his time]

 

II. LUTHER’S 1530 PREFACE TO THE TRACT ON THE RELIGION AND CUSTOMS OF THE TURKS

p. 259 

"Nevertheless, they  [i.e. the Turks] continue to deny and ardently persecute Christ,

p. 260  

.." these evils [i.e. of the Turks] are concealed by such a beautiful, effective, and robust show of ceremonies, good works, and false miracles..... the religion of Christ is something other than ceremonies and customs and that faith in Christ has absolutely nothing to do with discerning what ceremonies, customs, or laws are better or worse, but declares that all of them squeezed together into one mass are not enough for justification nor are they a work for them to perform. Unless we learn this, there is danger that many of our people will become Turks, disposed as they are to much less splendid errors.

p. 261-261

These defenses are the articles about Christ, namely, that Christ is the son of God, that he died for our sins, that he was raised for our life, that justified by faith in him our sins are forgiven and we are saved, etc. These are the thunder that destroys not only Muhammad but even the gates of hell. For Muhammad denies that Christ is the son of God, denies that he died for our sins, denies that he arose for our life, denies that by faith in him our sins are forgiven and we are justified, denies that he will come as judge of the living and the dead (though he does believe in the resurrection of the dead and the day of judgment), denies the Holy Spirit, and denies the gifts of the Spirit. By these and similar articles of faith consciences must be fortified against the ceremonies of Muhammad. With these weapons his Qur’an must be refuted.

 

III. PREFACE TO THE QUR’AN OF DR. MARTIN LUTHER, PROFESSOR OF THEOLOGY AND PASTOR OF THE CHURCH AT WITTENBERG

 

p. 264

Muhammad acknowledges, however, that he is devising a new belief that dissents from the prophets and apostles. Therefore, as you firmly repudiate the beliefs of the Egyptians who worshipped cats and of the Arabians who worshipped dogs, so you shall denounce the new creation of Muhammad, because he himself openly admits that he does not embrace the teaching of the prophets and apostles.

 

p. 264-5

But since this punishment is already in sight, may it warn us, as I have already said, to separate ourselves in prayer from the Turks, from the Jews, and from the other nations, and to invoke the eternal and true God, the creator of all things, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified for our sake and raised from the dead.

 

p. 266

The following corollary assertions provide a source of great encouragement: Just as the church of God is eternal, so it is fitting that the church’s teachings be eternal; yet this book witnesses that this creation of Muhammad is a new thing. The church of God by necessity embraces the prophets and apostles; Muhammad rejects their teaching. In the church of God from the very beginning this voice of the gospel has always been handed on: that the eternal Father willed that the Son of God become a sacrifice for sins; Muhammad scorns this sacrifice and propitiation.

Therefore, it is of value for the learned to read the writings of the enemy in order to refute them more keenly, to cut them to pieces and to overturn them, in order that they might be able to bring some to safety, or certainly to fortify our people with more sturdy
arguments.

 

 

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Thanks Salaam for adding more material from Luther. Very interesting that he was worried about losing people to Islam because they were "disposed to much less splendid errors," and that he advocated fortifying the people with more sturdy arguments.

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