The Pope, Islam, and Us
A Bible Study by Rev. Jayson S. Galler
(Go directly to related links.)
That this topic came to be addressed in this particular class is the result of a class on this topic at Grace Lutheran Church, Elgin, Texas, in the wake of the pope’s controversial comments and an initial substantial Biblog post addressing them. Pastor Harris thought the topic would be worth addressing at Trinity also. Since that class other information has emerged and a subsequent Biblog post was made. While much of the content is similar, this particular presentation of the material is largely original for this class.
- Pope Benedict spoke about Islam’s violence in remarks September 12th at the University of Regensburg in Germany. Islam’s reaction was violent, including threats against the pope, the burning of churches, and apparently the killing of a nun.
- The remarks were in German, with a title translated into English as “Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”. The pope described his remarks as “a critique of modern reason from within” and said his intention was to broaden “our concept of reason and its application”. He concluded as follows.
1) The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university. (Pope’s remarks, from paragraph 16)
- Manuel II Paleaologus was a Byzantine emperor, whose “dialogue” with an educated Perisan about Christianity and Islam and the truth of both (possibly to be dated around 1391) the pope said he had just read an edition of and thus used a part of as a starting point in his remarks.
2) In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the jihad (holy war). The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. It is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threaten. [sic.] But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he turns to his interlocutor somewhat brusquely with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence in general, in these words: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached”. The emperor goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God is not pleased by blood, and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...”. (Pope’s remarks, from paragraph 3)
- One commentator on the Quran says that verse answers the concern that Mohammed offered pagan Arabs Islam or the sword.
- Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone expressed the pope’s regret that his words offended and emphasized the consistency of the pope’s remarks with the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), which documents are also cited by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
- Bertone said the pope did not mean to and does not take the emperor’s opinion as his own but was simply speaking in an academic context on the relationship between religion and violence, rejecting a religious motivation for violence regardless of who offers it. Strikingly, the Christian Crusades against Islam were never mentioned by the pope or his cardinal, and if the pope really intended to distance himself from the emperor’s opinion he could have done so rhetorically.
- Bertone referred to the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate (“In this age of ours”, dated October 28, 1965), saying that the pope holds the same position as the Roman Catholic church, which is expressed in that document, and therefore “regards Muslims, ‘with esteem’”.
- Nostra Aetate is the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”, and it begins with a paragraph about a statement about the strengthening of friendships between different peoples and the common descent of humanity from God’s creation. The second paragraph remarks on Hinduism and other such religions that are aware of a supreme being, even a “father” and thus live “with a deep religious sense”, but to which it says the Catholic church must “still proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn. 1:6)” [sic for Jn. 14:6]. The third paragraph, the one in question, begins as follows in the translation I have.
3) The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting. (Nostra Aetate, par. 3, tr. Austin Flannery, pp.739-740.)
- The paragraph continues with a call for Christians and Muslims to forget the past and strive for mutual understanding. The fourth paragraph of the document deals with the Jews, and the fifth paragraph calls for Roman Catholics to treat all people in a brotherly fashion and not discriminate against people or harass them “on the basis of their race, color, condition in life, or religion.”
- The problem arises, however, in that Cardinal Bertone did not quote the document as I just quoted it. The key phrase from his English translation is as follows.
4) They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; … (Nostra Aetate, par. 3, Vatican translation)
- The Latin clause qui unicum Deum adorant is perhaps better translated “who adore the one God” and perhaps not “God, who is one”, as in the English version of the document in the book I have by Austin Flannery. A person I talked with in the Communications Office of the Austin Roman Catholic Diocese indicated that Flannery’s translation and others that differ are not necessarily “wrong” but that “translation, by its very nature, is interpretation”. If so, the Vatican and other translators appear to be following a standard literary tradition that holds Muslims worship the one God, where Father Flannery seems to be more sensitive to the fact that the Council’s treatment puts them in the category of non-Christians. Can someone worship the one God and be a non-Christian? I would say, “No”, where Rome, on the other hand, seems to say “maybe”. The person from the Austin Diocese did not answer my question about whether the translations are significantly different, seemingly suggesting instead that differences in the translations were over words and phrases of lesser importance and that a spirit of charity ought to prevail. Perhaps that understanding of “charity” or “love” includes ambiguity.
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the Roman Catholic relationship with the Muslims in the words of another Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”, dated November 21, 1964).
5) The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day. (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 841, Lumen Gentium 16.)
- Yes, God wants the Muslims to be saved, but are they really “included” in “the plan of salvation” by acknowledging the Creator while rejecting the Redeemer? They might “profess to hold the faith of Abraham” but do they actually hold the faith of Abraham, whose belief in the Triune God was credited to him as righteousness? (Lumen Gentium includes, as does The Catechism of the Catholic Church what might be termed “crass universalism”.)
- Islam denies the divinity of Christ, and therefore rejects the Trinity itself.
- A passage on the “sonship” and thus “divinity” of Christ is a sufficient example.
6) And they say: The Beneficent has taken to Himself a son. Certainly you make an abominable assertion! The heavens may almost be rent thereat, and the earth cleave asunder, and the mountains fall down in pieces, That they ascribe a son to the Beneficent! And it is not worthy of the Beneficent that He should take to Himself a son. (Quran, surah 19, 88-92)
- One commentator on this text from the Quran makes it clear that these verses emphatically and clearly condemn the Christian teaching of the Godhead of Jesus Christ.
- What are the Muslims’ intentions regarding their belief? What is the significance of that intention?
- Lots of people are sincere in their beliefs, and we at least want to think that no one gets up in the morning and sets out to be a heretic. At the same time, however, we cannot ignore what the Quran says and what at least Muslims faithful to it likely believe. (The fact that so-called “moderate” Muslims depart from their sacred text makes them akin to “moderates” in other religious groups, including so-called Lutherans, who rationalize away the very salvation on which they depend.) Still, we might hold out the same hope of some sort of “felicitous inconsistency” for individual Muslims that we hold out for other individuals in other religious groups that officially teach something that clearly contradicts the Bible’s teaching of Christ. God alone judges what is in people’s hearts, but we must let His Word judge all false teaching.
- How does a Christian respond?
- Jesus is the only way of salvation Scripture reveals. Several passages come to mind.
7) John 14:6: “Jesus saith unto [Thomas], I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (KJV)
8) Acts 4:10-12: [Peter said,] “Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (KJV)
- Scripture ascribes to Jesus divine names, attributes, works, and honor and glory.
- We can argue passages from the Bible, but Muslims believe it to be corrupted and an authority second to the Quran.
- We can argue the need for the divinity of Christ in order for His fulfilling of the law to be sufficient, that His life and death might be a sufficient ransom, and that He might overcome death and the devil for us. At least some Muslims don’t believe there needs to be atonement, and the Quran teaches that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, and didn’t rise again.
- What do we as Lutherans say about what Muslims believe?
- There’s a quotation from the Large Catechism that is somewhat contested in a way similar to that from Nostra Aetate. That Large Catechism paragraph comes near the conclusion of Dr. Luther’s treatment of the Apostolic Creed and reads as follows:
9) These articles of the Creed, therefore, divide and separate us Christians from all other people upon earth. For all outside of Christianity, whether heathen, Turks [for our purposes Muslims], Jews, or false Christians and hypocrites, although they believe in, and worship, only [the?] one true God, yet know not what His mind towards them is, and cannot expect any love or blessing from Him; therefore they abide in eternal wrath and damnation. For they have not the Lord Christ, and, besides, are not illumined and favored by any gifts of the Holy Ghost. (LC II:66, Triglotta translation)
- All the early English translations of The Book of Concord (Henkel, Jacobs, Bente-Dau in the Triglotta) and the most recent McCain translation in the so-called “Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord” do not have the “the” that indicated in square brackets. The widely-used Tappert edition and the more recent scholarly Kolb-Wengert translations do, however. (Incidentally, the doctrinal certification of the McCain edition was revoked earlier this year, seemingly in part because of its translation of this paragraph, but I am told that after further doctrinal review it will be reissued with this paragraph intact nevertheless.)
- The definite article equivalent to “the” is not present in either the authoritative German of the Large Catechism in The Book of Concord or the Latin translation. What Luther means in this paragraph is that Muslims and Jews and others might be monotheists (that is, believe in only one god), but they do not believe in the one, true God. (Nor do they believe in “the one God”, as the quotation from the Roman Catholic’s Nostra Aetate might suggest.) Muslims reject the divinity of Christ and thus do not believe in or worship the Triune God, which leaves them outside the Christian church (which is also where Nostra Aetate puts them) where there is no forgiveness of sins (a point Luther made just a few paragraphs earlier in the Large Catechism [par. 56]).
- All of what is going on with the flap over the pope’s statements is relevant to us in the LCMS because there are those in our midst who think that Muslims, Jews, and others worship the same God we worship, and some of those same people in our Synod wrongly have joined in worship with them. Their supporters use LC II:66 to claim that even Luther thought Muslims worshipped the same God, when nothing could be further from the truth.
- What does all of this mean?
- The pope rightfully condemned Islam for spreading its religion at the point of a sword, although Christianity is hardly innocent of the same crime over its extended history. We should today respect people of all kinds and establish honest and frank conversations with them about matters of faith. To that end, too, the pope and the Second Vatican Council can themselves be regarded “with esteem”.
- What cannot be regarded with esteem is any placation, especially by those in our own midst, of those who want false religion and false gods to be given the same status as Christianity and the one, true God. I temper my criticism of Rome knowing we have those in our own midst who are equally unclear as to just how necessary belief in Jesus is for salvation. People in every denomination will teach what they want, sadly, despite what Scripture and their confessions, if they have any, might say.
- As true Christians, we cannot—in the name of the false god of tolerance—grant equal standing to any other ideology, religious or secular. While some in society, such as governments and schools, may have to grant all religions equal standing, when we as Christian individuals do so, we deny our Lord and Savior and risk finding ourselves outside the church and without the forgiveness of sins.
- God bless us as we with love and gentleness give the defense of the hope that we have, and may His Holy Spirit create faith when and where He pleases in those who hear the Gospel and do not reject it.
Some related links:
Back to top