It's more pervasive than I thought.
The idea that Muslims and Christians worship the same god.
It's not just a diplomatic fallacy some of our political leaders like to posit when attempting to diffuse Islamic extremism. Worshipping the same god has become one of the rationalizations some translators use for advocating a major change in how our orthodox understanding of a trinitarian God should be described.
Last week, the Associated Press broke to the world a story that has been brewing within Wycliffe Bible Translators. It's a controversy based on words used to describe the Trinity - itself a word which doesn't appear in the Bible. Some linguists question whether Muslims who read translations of God's Word in their native languages will understand how our holy God could debase Himself by being both a Father and a Son.
After all, aren't supreme beings supposed to be superior to humans?
Lost in Translation?
Some translators at Wycliffe have proposed substituting "God the Father" and "God the Son" with "God the Lord" and "God the Messiah." Which, technically, isn't inaccurate, is it? God is all four of those things. He's Father, Son, Lord, and Messiah. The problem with Wycliffe's changes is that some translators want to omit the Father and Son distinctions, to avoid getting into details about the Trinity that none of us can fully explain.
On Friday, my essay was intended to show how Wycliffe shouldn't be trying to incorporate any doctrinal obfuscations into their translations of God's holy Word. Instead, any translator's task is to translate God's inspired teachings in native languages so that the Holy Spirit can speak truth through those words to whomever reads them, whether they initially understand these Biblical concepts or not. After all, no translation saves anybody; Christ does, through the work of the Holy Spirit.
I understand that mine is a simplistic view of Bible translation. I also understand that coming up with appropriate words to describe nuances in theology for languages that have never been written down before can be a daunting process. I even realize that Wycliffe has a history of eschewing strict - and sometimes complex - theological wording for more culturally-relevant, more easily-conveyed wording. I wrote on Friday about some friends of my parents who changed "Christ wants to live in your heart" to "Christ wants to live in your throat," since the people group to whom they were ministering thought life came from the voicebox.
But changing "heart" to "voicebox" is hardly as crucial to learning about the personhood of God and Christ as changing, well, the personhood of God and Christ.
And I assumed that those folks who think Muslims and Christians worship the same god comprise a fringe group of rabble-rousers.
I was wrong.
God is More Than a Word
I'm learning that some folks who think Muslims and Christians share a god are well-educated, well-connected, and widely-respected. They're global citizens who function with remarkable efficiency in both First World and Majority World countries. And one of them even attends my church, and is a regular reader of this blog!
Yesterday, between services, he loaned me a book by Miroslav Volf entitled Allah. He had read Friday's essay and wanted me to consider another perspective. After lunch, I began to browse Allah, but froze stock still upon reading the dedication page: "To my father, a Pentecostal minister, who admired Muslims and taught me as a boy that they worship the same God we do."
After needing a few minutes to collect myself, I pondered what I should do. Was there any point in reading any further? There was no way Volf was going to convince me that Muslims and Christians worship the same god. I had assumed the book would have something to do with how evangelicals could more effectively minister to Muslims. Again, I had been wrong.
Like anybody, I hate being wrong. Especially when I know I'm in the right! And I'm in the right on this one, right?
So I e-mailed my friend and apologized, but no, I can't read that book you loaned me. The confusion and even betrayal another Wycliffe friend had expressed to my small group last year about this controversy became more real to me. I could sense the fear that she felt - how could we partner together for so long for the sake of the Kingdom and hold such irreconcilable views on the Trinity? On the very nature of God Himself?
My friend who had loaned his book e-mailed back with a link to a series of essays between Lausanne Global Conversation members on this topic. I think my friend was trying to be helpful, but I only got more discouraged! Apparently, this debate has been raging in the scholarly linguistics world since before 2009. Among people with a far greater theological pedigree than mine.
Which just may go to show how valuable theological pedigrees are these days. (Present company excepted, of course! I know my friend who loaned me Allah will be reading this.)
What do I mean by that? First, did you know that there's a C1-C6 contextualization debate going on right now? Or a C4-C5 debate? Do you know who Nabil and Ibrahim are? These are all catch-phrases for some heady intellectual consternation between some so-called Muslim Christians, Messianic Jews, and Christians. It's all very culture-sensitive and historically linked, which immediately makes me suspicious regarding its Biblical integrity. Isn't excusing a person's viewpoint of the Bible because of how they grew up a slippery slope to heresy? Whether they grew up in Israel, Saudi Arabia, or the United States?
Consider this defense of Muslim-Christian god-sharing by a Syrian named Mr. Mallouhi:
A Muslim follower of Jesus is someone, like me, who comes from a Muslim family and chooses to maintain his or her culture after being irretrievably transformed by the saving power of our Lord. Being born in a Muslim family automatically makes one a Muslim and part of the Muslim community. I was born a Muslim, not a Hindu nor a Christian nor a Jew. I am a part of the Muslim community even if I do not practice or believe all of it. But the day I reject it outright, I disavow myself of my family, my community and my people.
Doesn't Christ teach that His followers may need to abandon houses, land, families, and everything else for His sake? Doesn't this include any cultural traditions and belief systems that obscure our view of our triune God's deity and holiness? Didn't Job lose everything and still refuse to renounce His faith in God? Don't Christians in China get detained - or worse - because of their faith? What's intrinsically valuable about cultural traditions that they're sacrosanct when it comes to how we incorporate them into our faith walks?
Isn't the Bible trans-cultural? Doesn't God intend it for people from "every tribe and nation?" When Philip evangelized the Ethiopian eunuch, did the eunuch ask Philip how he could contextualize the scriptures? Or did he immediately do something counter-cultural - get baptized right there by the roadside? And what about we American believers? Don't we need to also renounce our culture, with its social perversions, wealth-driven economics, and misguided political rhetoric, so we can follow Christ?
If Mallouhi is talking about simply retaining the innocuous customs of his native country that are unrelated to blasphemous Islamic teachings, such as traditional foods, clothing, and language, then I'd agree with him. I think it's good for people to maintain their ancestral heritage when it doesn't conflict with Biblical teaching. But how can a follower of Christ affirm his insistence that he can retain the distinction of being both Muslim and Christian? Sure, some Islamic scholars say the Koranic texts denying the deity of Jesus can be interpreted multiple ways, but the salvific crux of the Gospel of Christ is not open to interpretation. Isn't that one reason we can rely on its veracity?
Isn't being both a practicing Muslim and a practicing Christian about as possible as an American insisting that he can enjoy everything in our culture and still be a devoted follower of Christ? Let's face it, when Christ teaches "nobody can serve two masters," He's talking about the gods in our lives, and there is only one true God. It's not money, sex, Republican politics, children, education, cultural traditions, language, worldview, or Allah. It's the triune God: God the Father, God, the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
How can the Kingdom of God possibly permit "dual citizenship?"