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.