Misreading the Qur’an

A lot of work is being done on what the Qur’an refers to [it is largely incomprehensible without exegesis]. Gabriel Said Reynolds has helpfully summarized some of these developments in this article. Another helpful source is this Wikipedia entry on the Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran. I came across another example of this dependence on the Bible today in an article about the Corpus Coranicum project:

Gerd-R. Puin, a retired professor of Arabic studies at Germany’s Saarland University, has been working for decades on a trove of Korans from a mosque in Yemen — possibly the oldest ones in existence. Because they were primarily memory aids, early Korans were written in a vowel-less “skeleton” language. Deciphering those clusters of consonants requires a sense of what languages and what cultural and religious traditions Mohammed and his earliest followers were borrowing from and reacting against. Much of the wording and imagery of the Koran are borrowed from Christian and Jewish texts, Puin argues. In fact, he says, much of the Koran is incomprehensible unless read alongside those earlier texts. As an example, he points to the term “sakina,” which Muslim scholars have translated as a spirit of calm — Puin argues that it only makes sense as a descendant of the Hebrew term “shekhinah,” which means the presence of God. The more one studies its historical context, Puin argues, the harder it is to resist the sense that the Koran itself was, at least in part, pieced together from parts of other religions.

I would love to see a version of the Qur’an in the future that fully cross-references these notional Christian sources: liturgies, Creeds and the Bible itself. That should be fascinating.

N.T. Wright on Predestination

In Wright’s commentary on Romans, he says:

Foreknowledge is a form of love or grace; to speak thus is to speak of God’s reaching out, in advance of anything the person may do or think, to reveal love and to solicit an answering love, to reveal a particular purpose and to call forth obedience to it…More particularly, this foreknowledge produces God’s foreordaining purpose…What we have here, rather, is an expression, as in 1:1, of God’s action in setting people apart for a particular purpose, a purpose in which their cooperation, their loving response to love, their obedient response to the personal call, is itself all-important. This is not to deny the mystery of grace, the free initiative of God, and the clear divine sovereignty that is after all the major theme of this entire passage, here brought to a glorious climax. But it is to deny the common misconception, based on a two-dimensional rather than a three-dimensional understanding of how God’s actions and human actions relate to each other, that sees something done by God as something not done by humans, and vice versa….Woe betide theology if discussions of grace take their coloring from the mechanistic or technological age where all actions are conceived as though performed by a set of machines. God’s foreknowledge and foreordination, setting people apart in advance for particular purposes, are not equal and opposite to human desires, longings, self-questionings, obedience, and above all love. You do not take away from the one by adding to the other….Christian faith, ultimately irreducible to any analogy, and certainly not reducible to terms of “yet another odd paradox,” involves wholeheartedly and responsibly answering the call of sovereign love, gratitude, and obedience that come from the depths of one’s own being and are simultaneously experienced as a response to sovereignty, a compulsion even, to which the closest parallel remains that of the highest love. (on Rom 8.18-30)

He affirms predestination, but seeks to guard from an overly-deterministic mindset – something where I believe the Reformers agree with him, despite perceptions to the contrary.

In a footnote of his Romans commentary, Wright comments on Douglas Moo’s recent commentary which adopts the standard view of predestination in Romans and says:

…Moo allows his discussion to be overshadowed by the anachronistic debates between Calvinism and Arminianism…

Some of his comments:

“Paul is not, then, producing an abstract essay on the way in which God always works with individuals, or for that matter with nations and races. This is specifically the story of Israel, the chosen people; it is the unique story of how the creator has worked with the covenant people, to bring about the purpose for which the covenant was made in the first place. It is the story, in other words, whose climax and goal is the Messiah;
…These sections tell the story of Israel’s patriarchal foundation (vv. 6-13), then of the exodus (vv. 14-18), and then of God’s judgment that led to exile and, through it, to the fulfillment of God’s worldwide promise to Abraham (vv. 19-24).
9:11-12. The second explanation occupies center stage in this brief telling of the Jacob/Esau story: it cannot be that God’s selection of Jacob had anything to do with Jacob’s merits, since the promise was made before he and his brother were born. God’s choice has nothing to do with merit observed.
Nor (to meet the objection of a latter theology) could it have been foreseen, and hence explained in terms of God’s knowing how the brothers were going to turn out; Jacob’s behavior as a young adult, cheating and twisting this way and that, would scarcely have earned him favor with an impartial deity. The point is, though, that Paul is not here discussing what an abstract, impartial deity would or should have done; he is discussing the long purposes of God for Israel, and through Israel for the world. Central to those purposes is the principle that all must be of grace, “not of works, but of the one who calls.”
Paul is not, then, using the example of Pharaoh to explain that God has the right to show mercy, or to harden someone’s heart, out of mere caprice. Nor is it simply that God has the right to do this sort of thing when someone is standing in the way of the glorious purpose that has been promised. The sense of this passage (9:17-28) is gained from its place within the larger story line from 9:6-10:21–that is, as part of the story of Israel itself, told to explain what is now happening to Paul’s “kinsfolk according to the flesh.”
As in the parable of the sheep and the goats, there is an imbalance between what is said about the “vessels of wrath” and what is said about the “vessels of mercy” (Matt 25:34, 41). The former are “fitted for destruction,” leaving it at least ambiguous whether they have done this to themselves by their impenitence or whether God has somehow been involved in the process. The latter, though, have been “prepared for glory” by God himself.
“It isn’t a matter of willing, or running, but of God’s mercy” (v. 16); that text alone, even without its context, can bring solace to a troubled and anxious heart. That, indeed, is part of the point of expounding God’s sovereignty: not to terrify us with the sense of an unknowable and possibly capricious deity, but to assure us that the God of creation, the God we know in Jesus Christ, overflows with mercy, and that even negative judgments have mercy in view all along, if only people will have the humility and faith to find it where it has been placed. To be able to rest in the sovereign mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ is one of the most valuable aspects of the Christian’s calling.”

The Reformers on Islam

At the time of the Reformation the Ottoman Empire was the leading Islamic power in the world. The Caliph or leader of Islam was the Turkish Emperor and to refer to the “Turks” was to refer to Muslims in general. It is interesting to read the opinions of Luther and Calvin on the Turks and what should be done about their threat. Luther observed that the Turks had no cause to invade the lands of others and saw them as God’s chastisement on a degenerate Christendom:

In the first place, the Turk certainly has no right or command to begin war and to attack lands that are not his. Therefore his war is nothing but an outrage and robbery with which God is punishing the world, as he often does through wicked scoundrels, and sometimes through godly people. The Turk does not fight from necessity or to protect his land in peace, as the right kind of ruler does; but, like a pirate or highwayman, he seeks to rob and ravage other lands which do and have done nothing to him. He is God’s rod and the devil’s servant [Isa. 10:5]; there is no doubt about that.

Martin Luther: On War Against the Turk

Calvin agrees that the Turks are being used to punish a wicked and superstitious people:

Accordingly, when the Turk now rises up haughtily against us, because he has already vanquished so great a multitude of Christians, we need not be alarmed on that account, as if the power of God were diminished, and as if he had not strength to deliver us. But we ought to consider in how many ways the inhabitants of Greece and of Asia provoked his anger, by the prevalence of every kind of base and shocking licentiousness in those countries, and by the dreadful superstitions and wickedness which abounded. On this account very severe chastisement was needed for restraining the crimes of those who made a false profession of the name of God. Hence came the prosperity of the Turk, and hence was it followed by a shockingly ruinous condition throughout the whole of the east. Yet we see him insolently raising his crest, laughing at our religion, and applauding his own in a strange manner; but still more does he applaud himself, and “sacrifice to his net,” (Habakkuk 1:16,) as we have already said of other infidels.

We ought, therefore, to direct our minds towards the judgments of God, that we may not think that the Turk acquired such extensive dominion by his own strength. But the Lord allowed him greater freedom, for the purpose of punishing the ungodliness and wickedness of men, and will at length restrain his insolence at the proper time. Now, although prosperity is a token of the blessing of God, yet we must not begin with it if we wish to form right views of God himself, as Mahometans and Papists infer from the victories which they have gained, that God is in some respects subject to their control. But when we have known the true God, blessings are added in the proper order to testify his grace and power.

Commentaries: Isaiah 36.20

Calvin also decried the attitude of those who thought that the threat from the Turks would never reach them:

…the Jews thought that there was no danger nigh them from nations so remote, as though we were to speak of the Turks at this day, “Oh!   they have to fight with other nations: let those who are near them contend with the Turks, for we may live three or four ages in quietness.” We see such indifference prevailing in the present day. Hence the Prophet, in order to deprive the Jews of this vain confidence, says that this nation was near at hand, though coming from remote quarters.

Commentaries: Jeremiah 5:15

Luther believed that the best weapon against Islamic expansionism was for Christians to repent and get right with God. He believed the gospel should be embraced more fervently. He taught that the Emperor should take up the war against the Turks and that if called upon by the Emperor, the Christian should join in the fight. Reading his On War Against the Turk can be instructive for how Christians should respond to the jihadi threat in our time.

Unfriendly Churches

Since moving to Virginia we have unfortunately visited a great deal of churches. With a few exceptions, these churches are all unfriendly. They are polite, very polite, but not friendly. Well, in some cases they are polite, not all.

And most of these churches are not large churches where you get lost in a crowd, they are small to moderately sized places. What blows me away about this is that when we were part of a start-up church in Idaho, we swarmed visitors. If new people came, which was rare, you asked them who they were, invited them over for dinner, and got to know them. But here we are in church after church where no one *ever* invites you over for anything. We went to one place for several months and knew next to nobody by the time we left. A small, struggling church that was in the middle of a big program to figure out how to grow and what was lacking. I almost laughed! I felt like standing up and saying, “how about saying hello and getting to know visitors instead of ignoring them?”

Do people not want their churches to grow? Do they not love their neighbors at all? If this only happened occasionally then I would think it was just me, or that we had hit one or two bad places, but it happens time and time again. We’ve been at the current church for about three months and the people are generally nice. We love the pastor and his wife, they are very welcoming. However, Sunday after Sunday I walk past people who don’t give me the time of day, or else politely say hello and move along. When the service is over, bam! – they are out of there. We went to a get together at someone’s house with tons of church folks there and basically one couple talked to us.

I’m not advocating getting to know people as a church-growth strategy, although I believe it is a key component. I would think that it is Church 101. You might want to know the people sitting in the next row from you, teaching your kids, or singing up there. And don’t give me a bunch of stuff about ‘you have to go to small groups…’ If I can’t even talk to people and establish some sort of working relationship with them on Sunday morning, then why would I want to go to their small group?

So, this is really making me mad and I just don’t get it. Is this what we have arrived at in the modern church? Show up, sing, listen and leave? I might as well stay home if that’s what it’s about.

“Is Mormonism Christian?”

The current issue of First Things, which I subscribe to, contains an article with a topic very familiar to those of us who interact with the LDS Church: Is Mormonism Christian ? The authors are Bruce D. Porter from the First Quorum of the Seventy on the LDS side, and Gerald McDermott a Professor from Roanoke College from the (ahem) Christian side.

There is nothing ground-breaking in either man’s presentation if you are at all familiar with the history of these debates. Mr. Porter outlines LDS differences with the Nicene Creed and then goes on to outline the LDS version of the creation, birth, life, death, resurrection and the atonement of Jesus Christ. He summarizes his article with this:

Are Mormons Christian? By self-definition and self-identity, unquestionably so. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints affirms that it is a Christian-faith denomination, a body of believers who worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and who witness that salvation is possible only by his atoning blood and grace. By the simple dictionary definition of a Christian as one who believes in or worships Jesus Christ, the case is compelling. To the title Christian a critic of Mormonism may add any modifiers he deems appropriate-unorthodox, heretical, non-Nicene, different-but blanket assertions that we are not Christian are a poor substitute for informed argument and dialogue.

Mr. McDermott counters with two major points of disagreement:first, “The Book of Mormon, which is Mormonism’s principal source for its claim to new revelation and a new prophet, lacks credibility.” Second, “…the Jesus proclaimed by Joseph Smith and his followers is different in significant ways from the Jesus of the New Testament.”

The frustrating  thing about this exchange to me is the failure to define terms – granted there is a necessity for brevity in the magazine format. Porter at least puts forward a reductionist definition of Christian in his closing statement: “one who believes in or worships Jesus Christ.” My dictionary defines Christian as “a person who has received Christian baptism or is a believer in Jesus Christ and his teachings” but that is neither here nor there. McDermott does not even define what Christian means, he simply illustrates some areas where he thinks the two faiths contrast.

In some ways fighting over this term is unproductive and doesn’t get us anywhere, but on the other hand, we should be able to define what the word means from inside the Church itself. If we can’t define what Christian means, who can? But it is a vexing question – what is a Christian? If we say that it is one who has been born again then many thousands if not millions of Latter Day Saints will agree that they have been born again and are Christians. If we say that it is believing in the Bible, they would again concur, generally speaking. We could try Trinitarian baptism which gets close to the heart of the matter as the Vatican has noted. Mormons use the formula of the Trinitarian Name, but the meaning implied by their Father, Son and Holy Ghost is not the same as that of orthodox Christianity.

If we include Nicene orthodoxy as defined by the first 4 to 7 councils of the ecumenical church, we are getting somewhere. But this standard might rule out millions of folks whom we would be loathe to remove the Christian label from. And can we really expect the average person in the pew to be able to define Nicene Christology correctly?

I have argued before that the Trinity is the defining doctrine that separates a Christian from a non-Christian. I believe that the decisions of the councils, viewed through the lens of Scripture, are defining as boundary markers for what a Christian is. This doesn’t mean a believer has to know them and be able to talk about them. They don’t get tacked on to the end or our Bibles. But they function in an authoritative way in explaining the outlines of our faith. This is a high view of church authority, one that believes that the Holy Spirit did not vanish at the end of Revelation and cease guiding the church. I believe that our conflicts with Mormons and other heretics necessitates this view. The early Anglican theologians provided this view of the authority of the church:

The Church has power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

You Aren’t Called to Church Activities

Most of us have been in churches that equate being active in the church with being a true Christian. Contrary to this is the view that our duties of love to neighbor imply first and foremost those whom God has put in our path in the ordinary, every day life. For most this is their children when they live in their house. Your job, your commute, these are where you are called to serve. [1]Lutheran Steven Hein puts it well:

Luther depicted a piety of outward works that are devised by the religious opinions of men as Church- yard piety. Monasticism was the contemporary expression of Churchyard piety that Luther condemned as a false and empty piety that burdened consciences and took Christians away from the real tasks in the world that God would have them be about. This was cloistered monasticism. Today, Luther might well counsel the saints to beware of Church body or congregational Churchyard piety, a modern ecclesiastical monasticism that seeks to inundate the church membership with a veritable plethora of programs, activities and organizational events that lack the context of true Christian vocation of sacrificial service in the old world communities of life. Piety as program involvement is pressed on the congregation as the real higher calling of the Christian who is really interested in serving Christ. In some churches, if you are not scheduling life and the use of your gifts according to all of the week’s calendar of events, something is seen as terribly wrong. You have not been assimilated into the regimen of real Christian living. Some congregations are even calling a special pastor in charge of assimilating the membership into all of these super-spiritual events and activities – the Pastor or Director of Assimilation! The thinly veiled message seems to be; “blessed are the involved and assimilated, for they shall inherit the Kingdom of God.” Activism in works that do not flow from one’s vocational call is present in every age as a temptation to leave the ordinary duties of Christian piety for the extraordinary. This is Churchyard piety.

The Convert’s Blindness

Writing in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says of G.K. Chesterton:

In these books, Chesterton becomes a Pangloss of the parish; anything Roman is right. It is hard to credit that even a convinced Catholic can feel equally strongly about St. Francis’s intuitive mysticism and St. Thomas’s pedantic religiosity, as Chesterton seems to. His writing suffers from conversion sickness. Converts tend to see the faith they were raised in as an exasperatingly makeshift and jury-rigged system: Anglican converts of Catholicism are relived not to have to defend Henry VIII’s divorces; Jewish converts to Christianity are relieved to get out from under the weight of all those strange Levitical laws on animal hooves. The newly adopted faith, they imagine, is a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday. An outsider sees the Church as a dreamy compound of incense and impossibility, and, overglamorizing its pretensions, underrates its adaptability. A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the Church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on a label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts time-servers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post office alone provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you’re new to mail.

Hitler’s new religion

Ex-Nazi Hermann Rauschning reports on a conversation between Hitler and Bernhard Forster, Nietzsche’s brother- in-law:

Hitler would be the first to achieve what Christianity was meant to have been, a joyous message that liberated men from the things that burdened their life. We should no longer have any fear of death, and should lose the fear of a so-called bad conscience. Hitler would restore men to the self-confident divinity with which nature had endowed them.

Dusty Sklar writes of this new religion that it was:

…a mixture of paganism, Gnosticism, and magic. Its true purpose could only be revealed to the initiated, and only at the proper time, because only they would really grasp its import, and only when the way had been prepared.

All of this is from Sklar’s book The Nazis and the Occult.

What would Calvin have thought of ‘Calvinists’?

Probably not much. He attacks the idea of factions in the church being called by a leader’s name when he writes about monasticism:

And that there might be no doubt as to their separation, they have given themselves the various names of factions. They have not been ashamed to glory in that which Paul so execrates, that he is unable to express his detestation too strongly. Unless, indeed, we suppose that Christ was not divided by the Corinthians, when one teacher set himself above another; and that now no injury is done to Christ when, instead of Christians, we hear some called Benedictines, others Franciscans, others Dominicans, and so called, that while they affect to be distinguished from the common body of Christians, they proudly substitute these names for a religious profession.

Yoga leads to possession

This probably puts me firmly into the fundamentalist camp, but I don’t mind. An article says that yoga can lead to demonic possession, and I tend to agree. All kinds of non-Christian practices that were anathema when I was a kid (not that long ago) are now widely embraced, including horoscope reading, acupuncture, and yoga. Many of these eastern practices have their roots in the idol worship of false religions, and open the mind by making it blank. The article:

LONDON: It’s a spiritual practice that provides all the health benefits of physical exercise. Yet, a British exorcist has claimed that yoga could put people in danger of being possessed by evil spirits.

According to Father Jeremy Davies, exorcist for the leader of Catholics in the UK, yoga puts people at risk from devils and the occult is closely associated with the scourges of “drugs, demonic music and pornography” which’re “destroying millions of young people in our time”.

But Madhavi Padhy, one of the foremost yoga exponents based in New Delhi, laughed off the claims of the 73-year-old Catholic priest, saying “they are baseless”.

“Yoga originated in India thousands of years back. It has no connection with evil spirits. On the contrary, it helps you become more aware of your body, mind and environment. It also plays a key role in relieving stress and bringing inner peace,” Padhy said.

Father Davies has argued in his new book ‘In Exorcism: Understanding Exorcism In Scripture And Practice’ published by the Catholic Truth Society, that people who practice yoga may end up afflicting themselves by demons, British newspaper the ‘Daily Mail’ has reported.

“The thin end of the wedge (soft drugs, yoga for relaxation, horoscopes just for fun) is more dangerous than the thick end because it is more deceptive — an evil spirit tries to make his entry as unobtrusively as possible.

“Beware of any claim to mediate beneficial energies (eg reiki), any courses that promise the peace that Christ promises (eg enneagrams), any alternative therapy with its roots in eastern religion (eg acupuncture),” he wrote in his newly published book.

Father Davies has also said that occult practices such as magic, fortune-telling and holding seances to contact the spirits of the dead are “direct invitations to the Devil which he readily accepts”.

“Even heterosexual promiscuity is a perversion; and intercourse, which belongs in the sanctuary of married love, can become a pathway not only for disease but also for evil spirits… young people especially are vulnerable and we must do what we can to protect them.”