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Miroslav Volf: Allah

It is in part III that we get to the heart of the theological matter. Is a positive response to Volf’s question defensible in light of the Christian affirmation of the Trinity and the Christian doctrines of divine mercy and unconditional love? In particular, Christians affirm that God is the Father of Jesus Christ—this is central to the Christian trinitarian claim. Volf’s response is at least threefold. First, what Muslims reject is not orthodox trinitarianism but caricatures, misunderstandings, and popular distortions of the doctrine, all of which Christians not only also have disallowed but should welcome from their Muslim co-religionists. Second, Volf attempts to avoid the scandal of attributing divinity to creaturely realities (which Muslim consider blasphemous) by reminding us that few orthodox Christian theologians claims in a straightforward sense that “Jesus was God” and that it is more appropriate to say instead, following the Apostle Paul, that “God was in Christ….” Last but not least, Allah prosecutes a rigorous and robust defense of the unity of God as central to Christian belief and doctrine. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Volf is dialectically subtle, theologically informed (by both biblical and Qur’anic traditions), and philosophically nuanced. Despite stellar efforts here, though, the scandal of Christian faith—the incarnation of God in Christ—probably cannot be avoided and not many Christians, nor Muslims, will think this specific theological and dogmatic hurdle has been overcome with this book. Still, whereas the preceding takes up only one chapter in this part of the volume, two other chapters are devoted to unpacking the claim that both Christians and Muslims believe in and live their lives according to the conviction that God or Allah is merciful, just, and unconditionally loving. Christians also go on to insist that such mercy and loving-kindness should extend to enemies (whereas Muslims have usually gone only so far as to assert the importance of being kind to all), which is all the more important in light of our contemporary “clash of civilizations” between “the West” and the “Islamic bloc.”

The final part of the book includes four chapters on the practical implications of Volf’s thesis. Here equally hard questions are confronted such as the possibility of joint or simultaneous Christian and Muslim identity or religious adherence (which Volf argues to be viable under certain conditions); the challenges of proselytization and collaboration amid Christian mission and Muslim dawah; the relationship between monotheistic faith and common government in a pluralistic world; and the Christian and Muslim quest for the common good in our time. The volume closes with an epilogue on a multipronged approach “combating extremism,” a task that is urged on both Christians and Muslims together, as well as with about 45 pages of helpful endnotes.

What is crucial about Allah: A Christian Response is Volf’s decision to bracket the question of eternal salvation from the discussion. At one level, this is understandable since in the end, eschatological salvation lies in the hands of God, not human beings. On the other hand, however, those Christians who have the most at stake in this argument are not the progressive or liberal ones for whom either the questions engaged by Volf are passé or his answers are non-controversial; instead, it is conservative and evangelical Christians who are most likely to be taken up with the thesis argued here. And in most cases—e.g., the book by the dean of Beeson Divinity School, Timothy George, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? (Zondervan, 2002)—the answer is, “no, Christians do not worship the same God as Muslims.” One of the major reasons for this is the reluctance to unhinge the ultimate soteriological question from the overall theological discussion. The result is a further irony: that it is those who emphasize the other-worldly dimension of God’s saving work as finally most important are also the ones who seem to minimize the possibility of rapprochement between Christians and Muslims on this side of the eschaton.

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Category: Fall 2011, In Depth

About the Author: Amos Yong is Professor of Theology & Mission and director of the Center for Missiological Research at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena. His graduate education includes degrees in theology, history, and religious studies from Western Evangelical Seminary and Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, and Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, and an undergraduate degree from Bethany University of the Assemblies of God. He is the author of numerous papers and over 30 books. Facebook

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