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Duane Litfin: The Real Theological Issue Between Christians and Muslims

Whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God or not is substantively the wrong question. And even if it weren’t, it’s almost impossible to answer to nearly anyone’s satisfaction.

Now let’s turn directly to Duane Litfin’s “The Real Theological Issue Between Christians and Muslims: It’s not about a different God, but a different Jesus”. This is well thought out and well written work. Litfin does an excellent job of lifting up the complexities and intricacies of the topic, and of refocusing attention where it belongs—on Jesus Christ. Basically, Litfin argues that whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God or not is substantively the wrong question. And even if it weren’t, it’s almost impossible to answer to nearly anyone’s satisfaction. Rather, he says, we should focus our efforts on the nature of the gospel as the all-important point. Of course, this avenue turns attention to the person and work of Jesus Christ, and their significance. To me, this is the greatest strength of Litfin’s comments. In fact, in my aforementioned article I conclude that the all-important issue, suggesting everything else becomes secondary and diversionary, is not whether we worship the same God but what we do with Jesus Christ. And Litfin goes to some trouble to accentuate the missiological and theological implications of his position. Specifically, he doesn’t wish to handicap efforts at mutual understanding and dialogue between Christian and Muslims as he nevertheless holds up the importance of evangelistic priorities. Accordingly, I’d like to register upfront that I am largely in agreement with much of what Litfin says.

The question is not to which religion does God belong but who among us belongs to God and in what way.

That being said, I suggest that Litfin’s efforts to simplify the current theological debate about God and Allah by re-centering on the gospel of Jesus Christ may be only partially successful. First, as already noted, they are successful in turning our attention to Jesus Christ as the definitive and decisive issue for Christians. Second, they may not be fully successful in simplifying the debate after all. For example, and most obviously, I think, cannot the same kind of mindboggling complexities apply to (mis)understandings of Jesus as well? If it is challenging to think and talk about the identity and nature of God, isn’t it, if anything, even more challenging to think and talk about the identity and nature of the Son of God? The Incarnation is an incredibly, and perhaps ultimately, indescribably, profound truth. What about the atonement? Even affirming Christians don’t agree on how to understand it. I’m not sure but I think Litfin is assuming his own (and, for the most part, mine) Christology as the starting point. In reality, there are differing understandings among Christians regarding Christ.

Even if we assume a generally shared Christology among at least most Christians, it is not as if Muslims don’t believe anything about Jesus. Neither we nor they start with a blank slate.

However, even if we assume a generally shared Christology among at least most Christians, it is not as if Muslims don’t believe anything about Jesus. Neither we nor they start with a blank slate here. In fact, they do have strong beliefs about him. The Quran, which mentions Jesus (or Isa) by name in 93 verses, teaches that Jesus is the virgin-born son of Mary, and thus without sin, a great prophet and teacher, a worker of miracles, and a holy man who is sometimes called the Word of God or the Spirit of God. The Quran also teaches that Jesus will come back in the last day to defeat the Antichrist.[1] More amazingly, there are many Muslims who go even farther. I’ve a Muslim friend whose father was raised as a Christian in Lebanon. Oddly enough, after coming to the United States he converted to Islam, in part through marriage to an African-American Muslim woman. Significantly, he raised his daughter to know that when he became a Muslim he did not see himself as leaving Jesus Christ. Of course, issues of syncretism come up. And I’d be the first to suggest that the Jesus of the Quran clearly seems to be a different Jesus than the Jesus of the New Testament—thus inevitably entailing a different gospel (Galatians 1:6-10). And Christians simply cannot compromise for a different Jesus or a different gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4). Yet don’t we well know that Jesus is capable of appearing in a different form, a form unrecognizable even to his own disciples (Mark 16:12)? Can it be that the form of the true Jesus somehow shows through the diminished and distorted (in my opinion) version in Islam? In seminary, I had a fellow student who had begun a search for Jesus when reading about Jesus in the Quran that eventually led him to accept the Jesus of the New Testament. Isn’t the Holy Spirit at work in such cases? If so, what are we to make of that possibility? Remember the woman at the well in John 4? Didn’t Jesus choose to take her Samaritan religion’s misunderstanding of the coming messiah up to the level of real Christian faith and truth? Was she wrong about who and what the messiah meant? Undoubtedly! Wasn’t Jesus able to reach her anyway?

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Category: Fall 2016, In Depth

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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