by Richard Heldenbrand
If revival movements have often led the way to missionary advance, philosophical and theological speculation have too frequently cut the nerve of biblical evangelism and contributed to missionary retrenchment.
If revival movements have often led the way to missionary advance, philosophical and theological speculation have too frequently cut the nerve of biblical evangelism and contributed to missionary retrenchment. Today such speculation, coupled with the disciplines of anthropology and sociology, has markedly influenced certain innovative missiologists, particular, their views about missions to Muslims.
In recent years at least two evangelicals, Charles Kraft and Phil Parshall, have published their versions of what, has been called the "Christian-Qur’an Hermeneutic." This has been one of the most significant attempts at theological contextualization. Samuel Schlorff discussed it in a 1980 article in this journal.1 However, with the recent publication of Phil Parshall’s book, New Paths in Muslim Evangelism,2 further analysis seems required.
Parshall frankly states his purpose: "I am writing a book which deals with the subject of possible adaptations of Islamic forms of Christianity."3 He reassured his readers, "This book is dedicated to the formulation of a contextualized Christianity that in no way disturbs basic Biblical truth."4 This is subject for question, since he equates "Islamic forms" with the "Five Pillars" of Islam, the Creed, Ritual Prayers, the Fast Month of Ramadan, Almsgiving, and Pilgrimage.5
On the basis of his missionary experience Parshall favors the keeping of the Fast Month. He asks, "Should missionaries and converts keep the fast in the prescribed Muslim manner?" His response: "There can be no dogmatic answer. I do feel Muslims would appreciate such a gesture of identification. However, the Christian position on fasting should be made clear.6 In much the same way he commends the observance of the Muslim Sheep Feast, Qurbani Id, quoting Erich Bethman, "If converts emphasize the elements of remembrance, might they not be allowed to continue to observe Qurbani Id much as traditional Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper?"7 Not only So, but he would bypass the term "Christian": "The word Christian is avoided because of negative connotations. Presently ‘Followers of Isa (Jesus)’ is being used" in Bangladesh.8
The question is whether forms which, Parshall concedes, are deeply imbedded in the very innermost being of every "Muslim," can be retained with Christian integrity, or whether the Christian understanding of things is lost in practices which, far from being even syncretistic, remain essentially Islamic.
I asked a new convert from Islam what he thought about Christians who keep Ramadan and the Sheep Feast. He replied that since Islam includes teachings about Moses and Isa, in his opinion such people are essentially Muslim and not distinctively Christian. Both his and my own observations over many years force me to consider very naive indeed the assumption that making clear "the Christian position on fasting" or attempting to associate the Islamic sheep sacrifice with the death of Christ alter in any measurable way the real meaning of these Muslim practices for the people who engage in them.
Let us suppose that Christians in Islamic lands were to adopt the Sheep Feast as practiced by Muslims and to teach that it was in memory of Christ’s death. What would this accomplish? In point of fact, the sheep, at least to all Muslims, would still be sacrificed in memory of Abraham’s offering of Ishmael, a complete twisting of the biblical facts of the case. More serious, the Lord’s Supper concept of believers as a people set apart by God from idolatrous feasts and sacrifices would be lost. Most serious by far, the once-for-all nature of the death of Christ would be compromised, for the Sheep Feast involves an annual sacrifice. In suggesting that missions to Muslims utilize the Sheep Feast Parshall proposes something that would be fully as great a problem as the Roman Catholic mass.
Little better can be said for the substitution of Isa for Jesus. Far from the Qur’anic Isa calling up only positive mental images, it has negative historical connotations. More to the point, the Isa of the Qur’an has different attributes from the Jesus of the Bible. The Sidna Isa of current Muslim theology never died. He was a prophet superseded by Mohammed. Because man, according to Islam, must stand on his own merits, Isa is not only not the savior of the world,, he is not a savior at all. While Jesus Christ is a stumbling-stone because he became a curse for us, Isa is not a stumbling-stone for he never became a curse because he never died. In the interests of both candor and cross-cultural communication, I would advocate the transliteration of the Hebrew word YASHOUA, meaning "salvation." When in any language we call Jesus Savior, we call him by his name.
Such, in brief, is the outward shape of Parshall’s "new paths" for influencing and winning Muslims. But what of the inner rationale behind such proposals? Charles Kraft has spelled out some of the presuppositions. He distinguishes between the form of theological terms and their real meaning. At a 1974 conference he emphasized "the sonship analogy in speaking of Christ."9 For him the term "Son of God" is analogical rather than definitive. In this Parshall follows him: "The words Father, Son, and begotten must be viewed as figurative and metaphysical. Arabs utilize such figures of speech as ibn al’sabil, which literally means ‘the son of the road.’ All Arabs know that a road has no son and that the real meaning is ‘traveler.’10 Thus he places "Son of God" on the same level as an Arab figure of speech, quite forgetting that the Arab figure is human whereas Christ’s eternal Sonship is a truth divinely revealed.
Again, Kraft laments "the extremely high value that we put on the necessity of knowledge to faith." Whereas "God requires faith alone, we, due to our peculiar cultural conditioning, often cannot even conceive of true faith without a rather detailed, often philosophic, knowledge of an elaborate doctrinal scheme." He feels that it is wrong to hold the potential convert from Islam "’accountable for a type of knowledge that (1) may be true, (2) may be appropriate for us, but (3) is not necessary and often very misleading for him."11 Parshall approvingly quotes Kraft as saying, "Christianness lies primarily in the functions served and the meanings conveyed by the cultural forms employed, rather than in the forms themselves."12 But what if the forms themselves are supracultural, as suggested by Paul’s words to Timothy, "Hold fast the form of sound words"?
One gains the impression in Kraft’s writings especially that in his eagerness to find common ground with Muslims he has clearly overstepped the biblical boundaries. When he speaks of the faith which God accepts as having been originally "a behavior;"13 when he suggests that a man can be saved independently of any conscious faith in Jesus Christ, that "he simply has to pledge in faith as much of himself as he can to as much of God as he understands, even the Muslim Allah;"14 when he assigns our contemporary Christian stress on individual guilt to Western acculturation-in each of these matters he has crossed over onto Islamic turf.
Nor is Parshall on much safer territory when he presses his thesis that "the transforming of the world-views and allegiances of Muslims should be carried out as a process which involves minimal dislocation."15 With respect to sin, he proposes a Muslim-Christian synthesis: "Guilt is a normal reaction of a Western Christian to sin …. By contrast the Muslim focuses on the penalty for sin. He does not usually experience sin as guilt but rather as shame and embarrassment … the ideal would seem to be a merger of the vertical and the horizontal-of guilt before God along with the shame and embarrassment one feels in relation to other human beings."16 I contend that this accommodation effectively negates the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin, all of it, as first and last against God.
In summary, what shall be said of this well-meaning but sub-biblical approach to the Muslim World? It is evident that anthropology and sociology, rather than theology, are the determining disciplines. Kraft states quite frankly, "The issues that we deal with, even the so-called religious issues, are primarily cultural, and only secondarily religious."17 How can we exchange revelational absolutes for cultural relativities? We cannot abandon both absolute truth and an objective revelation so as to be free to interpret Scripture as we please.
This faulty method of Bible interpretation is seen in Kraft’s call for Christianity and Islam to discover "communality" in the imposing figure of Abraham. He finds backing for a common theology centered in "the faith of Abraham" in Romans 4, Galatians 3 and Hebrews 11. It would seem, however, that he is more interested in finding a basis for communication with Muslims than in sticking with biblical facts. What about the fact that Abraham, contrary to Islamic teaching, was not a Muslim and that the son whom he would have offered was not Ishmael but Isaac. Does not Kraft validate the nonhistorical elements of Islam in order to promote Christian-Muslim synthesis? "I would press hard for a faith relationship with God and for a faith renewal movement starting within Islam as a culture based on the faith of Abraham (or Ibrahim), pointing to Qur’an, Old Testament and New Testament as the source of our information concerning this faith…"18
Kraft apparently follows existential relativism, as for example in this statement regarding the nature of faith and the one who believes: "What is necessary to faith, apparently, is some feeling of need or inadequacy that stimulates a person to turn in faith to God. Similarly, he doesn’t have to be convinced of the death of Christ; he simply has to pledge allegiance and faith to the God who worked out the details to make it possible for his faith response to take the place of a righteous requirement. He may not, in fact, be able to believe in the death of Christ especially if he knowingly places his faith in God through Christ, for within his frame of reference, if Christ died, God was defeated by men, and this of course is unthinkable."19 Here there is no recognition of a biblical frame of reference, only of various human frames, each of which is to be honored more than the Scriptures themselves. It is one thing to be sensitive to human feelings,, but quite another to avoid an open declaration of God’s revealed mind and will.
It is that the gospel might be faithfully proclaimed and Muslims truly won to Christ that numbers of us object to certain of the Parshall and Kraft proposals. By way of contrast, I would propose the following affirmative guidelines for the evangelizing of Muslims: (1) Evangelism should be defined in terms of a message delivered, not an effect produced on the hearers; (2) Christ must, from the start, be presented for who he is, God’s eternal Son and the object of our faith; (3) The divine command to repent of sin must be proclaimed; (4) Christ Jesus, the living Savior and reigning Lord, must be set forth as he himself is, not simply as an historic figure of significance or an effective communicator; (5) His saving work on the cross must be central in the presentation, since it is central in the message we have been charged to deliver as his ambassadors; (6) We must exhort Muslims as sinners to accept Christ as their Savior and Lord, recognizing that they are lost without him, rather than presenting him as a subject for critical and comparative study.
1. Schlorff, Samuel P., "The Hermeneutical Crisis in Muslim Evangelization," Evangelical Missions Quarterly, July, 1980.
2. Parshall, Phil, New Paths in Muslim Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980).
3. Ibid., p. 257.
4. Ibid., p. 196.
5. Ibid., p. 58.
6. Ibid., p. 210.
7. Ibid., p. 146.
8. Ibid., p. 26.
9. Kraft, Charles, Conference on Media in Islamic Culture Report. Marseilles, 1974, p. 68.
10. Parshall, op. cit., p. 143.
11. Kraft, op. cit., pp. 69, 70.
12. Parshall, op, cit., p. 56.
13. Kraft, op, cit., pp. 69, 71.
14. Ibid., p. 71.
15. Parshall, op, cit., pp. 90-1.
16. Ibid., p. 77.
17. Kraft, op. cit., p. 65.
18. Ibid., p. 76.
19. Kraft, op, cit., pp. 70-1.
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