Textual Criticism and Inerrancy

P52-2-450hGreetings once again, and welcome to a fun and controversial topic!  Rest assured, as usual we will ensure we think clearly about it.  Over the past few months, I’ve been taking a New Testament Textual Criticism course from Dr. Dan Wallace, who is likely one of the greatest New Testament scholars and textual critics alive today.  Textual criticism is not simply criticizing the New Testament text, it refers to the science and the discipline of trying to recover the original text of the ancient autographs (original writings themselves).  I thought I’d share a few lessons learned and observations from this fascinating course (link above if any would like to take it).

  1.  I suspect most Christians think we are more sure than we actually are about what the originals said.  Now, I am a Biblical inerrantist, but I may have to adjust my view to encompass the autographs only.  That is, do our current translations accurately reflect what was originally written?  The fact is, we just don’t know.  We do not have any of the originals, and within the first few decades after the originals were written, we see differences in the texts.  Which (if any) accurately reflects the original?  We can’t be sure.
  2. The Bible we have today is sound in its history and its doctrine, but likely contains text that was not in the original.  Let me tell you what I mean by this.  We know, with a high degree of certainty, that there are passages in our Bibles today that were almost certainly not in the originals.  Some of the passages may have been in the originals, but have been edited or altered.  However, all of these variations make absolutely no difference whatsoever in the core doctrines and history of Christianity.  Textual critics today have categorized all variants (there are literally hundreds of thousands of them) into viable and not viable, and into meaningful and not meaningful.  Many of the variants are viable (they are actual variants, real no-kidding differences in the texts), but are meaningless.  An example here might be the spelling of the name “John,” which in some manuscripts has one “n” (Ioanes) and in other manuscripts has two (Ioannes).  This is a viable variant, but it is meaningless.  Those that concern us today are those variants that are both viable and meaningful, which Dr. Wallace says encompass less than one half of one percent of all known variants.  Of all these meaningful and viable variants, only two are longer than a word or a phrase — the long ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) and John 7:53 – 8:11.  Let’s look briefly at these two.
    1. Mark 16:9-20.  If you have a Bible handy, turn to this passage and it is almost sure to have a caveat — after verse 8, mine (NET) says, “The Gospel of Mark ends at this point in some witnesses [manuscripts], including two of the most respected manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Vaticanus)…”  It goes on for several paragraphs, in quite some detail.  My NIV also says, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9 – 20.”  According to Dr. Wallace, there is not a textual critic alive today who thinks that these verses were in the original.  However, there are many scholars who think the case against these verses is weak, and many believe firmly that they belong in the Bible.  Without the original, there is no way to be sure — but this is a prime example of a meaningful and viable variant.
    2. John 7:53 – 8:11.  This portion of the Bible, called the pericope adulterae (story of the adulteress) is well known to most Christians.  “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!”  We’ve all heard the story.  But, like the long ending of Mark, this is not in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts we have, and most textual critics today do not think it was part of the original text of John.  It is another meaningful and viable variant, but again without the original we cannot be certain, and it makes no difference in the core doctrines of the Christian faith.

These are the two most famous textual variants, but there are many more.  Others are shorter — only a word or two in many cases — but they cast additional shadows on how sure we can be that we have an accurate representation of the original texts.

The last verse of Luke is likely a conflation (combination) of two different texts (text types) — my NIV and NASB say the disciples went about “praising God,” but others say “blessing God.” What did the original text of Luke say?  Again, we don’t know — and many modern translations today simply say, “…praising and blessing God.”  They combine the two.

We also see differences in the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:7.  The oldest and most reliable manuscripts are missing the Trinitarian formula, called the Comma Johanneum, they say simply, “For there are three that testify, the Spirit and the water and the blood” (NET).  Some translations (KJV) have added a second trinity to read, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost:  and these three are one.  And there are three that bear witness in Earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood:  and these three agree in one.”  However, this longer trinitarian formula was likely added by the church at a later date, to solidify the doctrine of the Trinity in Scripture.  It is almost certainly not in the original.  The longer reading is absent from nearly all manuscripts, only present in a few very late ones.

The list is actually quite long — in Phil 1:14, 1 Thess 2:7, Mark 14:65, Luke 5:30, Mark 1:1 and Mark 1:2, John 14:17, Rev 1:4, and numerous other places in Scripture.  However, we’ll stop here, as I think the point stands.  So, where does that leave us?

3.  We can have confidence that our text reflects the original in well over 99% of cases, but there are some that remain in question.  So, what’s the bottom line for the Christian? We can have confidence in Scripture, and in our history and our core doctrines, but we need to be careful in our definition of inerrancy.  Our Bible today, no matter which translation you use (NIV and NET are my favorites), contains text that likely wasn’t in the original, contains additions and deletions and adjustments by scribes, and includes mistakes (scribal errors).  Does this mean Jesus didn’t exist?  No.  Does this mean the Bible is unreliable?  No.  Does this mean Christ wasn’t raised from the dead?  No.  Does it mean Christianity is false?  No.  But I think it’s important for Christians to realize that our beloved Bible is subject to the same “messy” process of transmission and translation as any other ancient work.

For further study, look at the course referenced above, or the book “The Text of the New Testament” by Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, check out the website for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts or the Evangelical Textual Criticism website.

Why Do We Suffer?

polycarpIn the prior blog, we presented the logical problem of evil — how can evil and suffering exist if God is perfectly loving and all-powerful?  Upon closer examination, there is no contradiction here.  It simply means that God allows man free will, and God allows Satan some degree of freedom to tempt and to act.  In other cases, God causes what seems evil to us in order to accomplish some greater good.  In short, God may — in fact, God must — have a morally sufficient reason for allowing suffering.In some cases, suffering works to glorify God.  We know from Romans 8:28 that all things (not just good things) work together for the glory of those who know the Lord, and are called according to His purpose.  There are also times when what man intends to be an evil act can be redeemed by God for good, such as when Joseph was sold by His brothers to slave traders and then to Pharaoh (Genesis 50:20).  Of course, the ultimate example is Jesus Christ Himself — tremendous evil was done to him, and it was the greatest act of goodness (love) in all of history.  In my case, I know that my cancer will glorify God.  I may never see it, and I may die not knowing exactly how my cancer brought Him glory, but I know that it will because Scripture assures me so.

So given that evil and suffering exist, and we are promised that we are going to suffer (1 Tim 3:12, elsewhere), why does God allow it?  We know that he must have a morally sufficient reason, and that it will eventually glorify Him.  But Scripture is even more explicit.

  1.  Suffering is necessary for conforming to Christlikeness.  We are all in the process of sanctification, the process of conforming to Christlikeness (Romans 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18).  But we also know that Christ suffered tremendously, and therefore to be like Christ we must suffer as well.  Fortunately, that’s not all…
  2. Suffering brings us closer to God.  As Paul outlines in 2 Corinthians 1:9, “Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death, but this happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.”  Yes, there are times God allows us to suffer in order to bring us to reliance on Him.  I believe this is the case in my own life.  In fact, I have received “the sentence of death” four times, with four separate cancer diagnoses, each one supposedly “terminal.”  And, like Paul, I think it happened to force me to rely on God rather than myself.  C.S. Lewis agrees, calling pain “God’s megaphone,” and explaining in both “The Problem of Pain” and “A Grief Observed” how pain and suffering (his own, and his wife’s) initially drove him away from the faith, and then back to it in even stronger faith.
  3. Finally, suffering not only conforms us to Christlikeness and brings us closer to God, it can be a tremendous evangelistic tool.  It reaches unbelievers.  We see this throughout Scripture — Jesus didn’t heal blindness, He healed the blind man.  He didn’t eradicate leprosy, He healed the leper.  Why?  Because in both cases, and in many others, those who were healed then went back to their families, towns, and villages to tell them what Christ had done.  Even the way Christians handle suffering — not just Christ and Paul, look at the history of the Christian martyrs from Polycarp forward — has been used to change the hardened hearts of unbelievers from the earliest centuries.

So, did God give me cancer?  I’ve struggled with this one for almost two decades.  I think He did.  His goal in causing or allowing my cancer was to knock props out from under our hearts so that we rely utterly and only on Him.  It has worked for me!  Paraphrasing John Piper, cancer doesn’t win if I die — that’s going to happen anyway.  Cancer wins if it succeeds in turning me away from Christ.

 

The Problem of Evil

evil-emoticon_318-40171Well, the clear-thinking Christian is back!  After almost a year off, I’m back to blogging with a great deal to share.  In short form, I’m now retired…after 24 years of Active Duty in the Air Force, I’m moving on to other things, one of which I hope to be blogging more regularly.

Shortly after my announced retirement from the Air Force, I was invited to White Sulphur Springs — a Christian retreat center in Pennsylvania — to give eight talks in six days on this extremely difficult topic.  I have an interesting perspective here, since I can speak to the topic both as a theologian, and a brain cancer survivor who has known more suffering than most.  For those who attended that retreat, this blog is for you — essentially the written form of the first lesson or two I taught during the plenary sessions.

So if there is a God, at least the Christian concept of Him, why do we suffer?  Why is there so much evil in the world?  This is classically known as “The Problem of Evil,” and an attempt to answer it is formally called a “theodicy.”  If God is loving as we claim, then He would want to prevent all evil and suffering.  If God is omnipotent as we claim, then He would be able to prevent all evil and suffering.  Yet, it exists in abundance — so which is it?  Does it exist and He allowed it, so he is not loving?  Or does it exist and He couldn’t prevent it, so He is not powerful?  This is traditionally presented in this form as the “logical” problem of evil, often offered by atheists or critics of Christianity as a potential inconsistency or even a contradiction in the Christian concept of God.

But is there a contradiction or inconsistency here?  As Christians, we cannot deny either His sovereignty and omnipotence or His goodness.  Scripture is clear with regard to both.

  1.  God is loving.  We know from Scripture that our God is a loving God.  We can read in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love,” and we can read in 1 Corinthians 13 how He defines love.  That means we can take the description of love in Corinthians and actually apply those as attributes of God.  This means God is patient, kind, does not delight in evil, always protects us, hopes, and perseveres.  His love never fails.  Of course, the greatest expression of His love is found in John 3:16 and Romans 5:8, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us — and greater love has no man than this.  Why did He do that?  Because He loves us.  Ephesians 3:18 tells us that even the saints of God struggle to comprehend the width, length, height, and depth of the love of God.  There can be no question that God loves us beyond comprehension.
  2. God is powerful.  This is hardly in dispute, but Scripture is equally clear here.  This is evident from the very first chapter of Genesis — as the One who has created the universe — all space, matter, and time — He is spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, and immensely powerful.  Job tells us in Chapter 42 that “…you can do all things [this is omnipotence], no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”   Who can thwart God’s plans?  No one.  He is too powerful.
  3. Evil exists.  This is likely the least disputable of the three points normally offered in the “problem of evil” critique of Christianity.  Worthy of its own blog, evil is generally categorized into two “camps” — moral evil (man’s inhumanity to man), and natural evil (natural disaster, disease, etc).  In his book The Many Faces of Evil, John Feinberg documents the true extent of man’s inhumanity.  Dr. Clay Jones, my professor on this topic at Biola University, also wrote an article several years ago on human evil.  The facts are chilling.  In the 20th Century alone, communism has killed between 20 and 26 million, most in horrible fashion — such as the forced starvation of 6 million Ukrainians.  Under Mao, it is another 30 million, and Mao at one point bragged that he had buried alive 46,000 scholars who disagreed with him.  Read the Rape of Nanking — and we haven’t even mentioned the Holocaust yet, with its 17,000,000 dead.  This only scratches the surface — the human capacity for evil is unimaginable.  Natural evil is often more inexplicable, from the Asian tsunami in December 2004 to the Haitian earthquake a few months later, even cancer…if God is good and powerful, how are these things possible?

This is the “Problem of Evil,” classically presented.  The world is full of evil, both moral (human) evil and natural evil.  As a five-time cancer survivor, I have seen it and felt it first-hand.  In the next blog, we will work to present a basic theodicy — that is, a basic explanation of how the three facts presented above are not contradictory.  God is good.  God is powerful.  Evil exists.  This is not a contradiction.

(Note:  You can listen to audio from this presentation here:

Part 1:  Introduction and the Logical Problem of Evil 

Part 2:  Can God be Both Good and Sovereign, Given Evil?  

Part 3:  The Kinds of Evil, Mankind’s Capacity for Evil  

Part 4:  God’s Sovereign Will, Why God Allows Suffering  

Part 5:  Sermonette:  God, Evil, and Suffering  

Four Quick Tips on Conversing with Muslims

ChristianityIslam    Many times, when fellow Christians hear of my apologetic and evangelistic focus on Muslims, they are simply aghast. “I wouldn’t even know how to talk to a Muslim!” they say. “Weren’t you scared?” ask others. “How did you know what to say?” Well, I don’t always know. But I’ve talked to Muslims in Egypt and Turkey, and I’ve had lengthy conversations – some spanning years – with Muslims from Oman, England, Pakistan, and elsewhere, and I’ve never been scared, and I can hopefully shed some light on how to approach these difficult conversations.

  1. Approach them prayerfully.

If prayers for Muslims are not a part of your regular prayer life, they should be. As I pointed out in a previous blog, these wonderful people are beautiful creations of God, and God has already told us that He desires all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4) and come to a knowledge of God. We are also clearly instructed by Jesus Himself to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us – this may apply to Muslims, or atheists, or almost any other unbeliever. How many of you have made ISIS a topic of regular prayer (for their salvation, not their destruction)? You are clearly commanded to in Matthew 5:44. The first step to any successful engagement with Muslims is to make them a regular part of your prayer life, and this may include your own attitude as well, so that your heart is “in the right place” to converse with Muslims.

  1. Approach them respectfully.

Muslims, and unfortunately many others in our society, are quite used to being disrespected and “talked down to” by Christians, especially those who are trying to evangelize. Muslims are not just backwater Mongols who led the Ottoman Empire to conquer a third of Europe in the 16th Century – they are prominent members of American society today, from doctors and lawyers to educators, business owners, even Nobel prizewinners in physics (Abdu Salam) and molecular biology/chemistry (Aziz Sancar). This is actually a good rule of thumb for all engagements in life, as you never know when you may be talking to a Muslim (or a Nobel prizewinner). I have a friend who is a devout Muslim, but rides a Harley and looks the part! Not all Arabs or middle-easterners are Muslims, and not all Muslims are middle-eastern or Arab, so approach each conversation with great respect for the person and the religion. You don’t have to agree with it, but my all means don’t disrespect it.   If you do, your conversation will be over before it starts.

  1. Approach them fearlessly.

This may come as a “shocker” to some. Let me say it again, very clearly – I am not afraid of Muslims, and you shouldn’t be either. When I left for Cairo to continue my Middle Eastern focus for my last Master’s Degree, many of my Christian friends strongly cautioned me not to talk to any Muslims (probably not possible in Cairo), and certainly not to advertise or talk about Christianity. Others assumed that every Muslim in the world is just wandering around looking for Christians to behead. This is ridiculous and ignorant. Though the numbers vary depending on which study you read, militant/jihadist Muslims constitute between 5 – 15 percent of all Muslims, and they are largely concentrated in certain areas overseas (Syria, eastern Sinai, parts of Saudi Arabia). In other words, there is about a 95% chance that any Muslim you encounter wants the exact same things that you want – to go to work, perform well, feed their family, and essentially live their life in peace. There is absolutely no reason to fear them, and no reason to be afraid of talking to them about nearly any topic. Others believe that all Muslims live by the mantra “convert or die,” which is more misinformation and ignorance. This is a good segue into our last point…

  1. Approach them deliberately.

What do I mean by “deliberately?” I mean that in order to engage in meaningful and productive conversations with Muslims, especially on the topic of religion, you must learn about them, study them, and truly work to understand them. By doing so, you are respecting them (point #2), you will quell many of your fears about them (point #3), and you will not make key errors that could derail the conversation. If you believe that all Muslims want to convert you or kill you, or that all Arabs are Muslim, or that all Muslims hate Christians, these false impressions will dramatically affect how you approach any conversation with Muslims. You must be deliberate – intentional – about how you approach them, and about with whom you converse. If your friend is a devout Muslim and you start the conversation with whether or not Muhammed is a real prophet, your conversation won’t get far. If your friend is a Sunni and you start trying to convince him that the twelfth or “hidden” Imam isn’t really coming back, you’ve just exposed your ignorance (this belief in a “hidden” Imam is exclusive to a subsect of Shi’a). Educate yourself about the basics of Islam – two great resources are “Understanding Islam” by Thomas Lippman or “Islam: A Primer” by John Sabini. When a Muslim you’re conversing with realizes – and it won’t take long – that you’ve made the effort to understand their religion and just want to talk, you’ll be amazed at the doors that will open.

Conversations with Muslims don’t have to be tense or standoffish, nor will they inevitably devolve into violence or disagreement. If you prepare for these conversations prayerfully, respectfully, fearlessly, and deliberately, you’ll find most Muslims to be kind, engaging, respectful in return, and willing to answer nearly any question you ask. And if you’re still not sure where to start or still have questions, just comment on the blog – I hope these past few blogs have helped your understanding, and I’ll answer any other questions that come up in my final blog next week.

The Doctrine of God: Tawhid versus Trinity

Allah    This topic has absolutely ignited the media in recent months. For whatever reason, this question – whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God – has been all over my Facebook feed, and just in the past few weeks has been posted by Ravi Zecharias, Franklin Graham, Billy Graham, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, and Answering Islam, among others…and not always with the same answer.

Without question, there are many similarities. Both Muslims and Christians (and Jews) trace their lineage back through Abraham (Muslims through Ishmael, Christians and Jews through Isaac), and all three maintain a largely Old Testament-based view of monotheism. If a Muslim and a Christian were to list the attributes of God, the lists would look remarkably similar – a “spaceless, timeless, immaterial, powerful, personal creator God” would accurately describe both. However, similar descriptions cannot mask clear and critical differences. While my perspective may not agree with all these other bloggers, at the very least I hope to clarify the Christian concept (the Godhead or Trinity) as well as the Muslim concept (called tawhid), both of which are frequently misunderstood by Christians.

  1. The Christian Concept: The Godhead.

Most Christians likely (hopefully) have a basic understanding of the Biblical concept of God. He is manifest in three persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – each a separate person, but all sharing one essence (Godhood). The three are equal in status and power, but distinct in personhood. This has frequently been mischaracterized as polytheism or as an outright contradiction, though this usually does little more than expose a misunderstanding of the theology behind the belief. Some have tried to construct analogies to understand the Trinity (an egg, water, even my role as a father/husband/son/brother/etc), but all of these analogies fall short or commit a logical or theological fallacy. When it comes to really trying to understand the idea of “three in one,” I side with Martin Luther, who said, “Show me a worm that can comprehend a man, and I’ll show you a man who can comprehend the triune God.”  Though this may border on the incomprehensible, it is without a doubt Biblical. The word “trinity” doesn’t appear in Christian doctrine until the middle of the third century,[1] it is clearly taught through five basic points in the Bible:

  1. There is one God (Isaiah 43:10, 44:6, 8, 45:5, 14, 18, 21, 22, 46:9, 47:8, John 17:3, 1 Cor. 8:5-6, Gal. 4:8-9).
  2. God the Father is God (Deut 6:4 and throughout the Old Testament, as well as John 6:27; 20:17; 1 Cor 8:6; Gal 1:1; Eph 4:6; Phil 2:11; 1 Pet 1:2).
  3. Jesus Christ is God (John 8:12-59; Mark 2:3-7, Col 2:9; John 1:1-4; Acts 5:31; Col 3:13; Ps 130:4; Jer 31:34).
  4. The Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3-4, 9; 1 Cor 2:10-11; Romans 8:9-11).
  5. These three are equal, co-eternal, and distinct (Eph 3:15; John 5:18; 1 Cor 2:10).

Understood this way, it is clear that the actual word “trinity” doesn’t have to appear in Scripture, the concept is clearly taught. There are book-length treatments of this topic (especially good is James R. White’s The Forgotten Trinity), but this will have to suffice for now, and it is sufficient to point out the differences.

  1. The Muslim Concept: Tawhid.

In Islam, the doctrine of Allah is called tawhid. It is the central and defining doctrine of all Islam, and declares absolute monotheism, the unity and uniqueness of God as creator and sustainer of the universe.[2] More than just a religious belief, this doctrine has been central to Islamic reformers and activists as an organizing principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic, and world order. Muslims are fiercely monotheistic, insofar as anything that even approaches equating something to Allah is one of the most severe sins in Islam (known as shirk). This strict monotheism is the root of all other beliefs, and the root of all values in the Muslim worldview. All values in Muslim religion derive from devoting one’s heart to Allah, and it is through this singly and wholeheartedly devoted love that a Muslim comes to divorce him/herself from the ways and things of this world.  This level of devotion is actually something that many Christians could learn from, and all Christians should respect.

Despite the differences within Islam and the sectarianism discussed in the prior blog, on this topic Muslims are almost completely united. Tawhid has been a rallying cry of Islam for centuries, uniting the Muslims throughout their history under the banner of various leaders from Ibn Taymiyya (14th Century) to Abd Al-Wahhab (18th Century) to the present day. No matter how diverse Muslims history has been, they have always re-united around the central doctrine of the oneness of Allah, the tawhid.

  1. Key Differences

On the surface, this sounds remarkably similar to the Christian theology of God, but when we turn to the center of Christian faith – Christ Himself – the differences emerge irreconcilable. Muslims deny that God had a son, and deny that Christ is divine, and would never consider Allah a “father” in the sense that Christians speak of their God. They deny both the deity of Christ and His resurrection, going so far as to consider these beliefs blasphemy (Qur’an 5:17, 5:73, 5:75). If Christians were to speak only of God the Father, the divine Yahweh of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and describe His actions and His attributes, Muslims would likely agree with nearly every word. When we advance to the New Testament and the deity of Christ and the resurrection, arguably the two most central doctrines of the Christian faith, we must part ways with the tawhid of Islam and embrace the Trinity of the Bible. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? If we are willing to deny the deity of Christ and the resurrection, then yes — but we cannot. To claim Christianity is to affirm doctrines expressly denied by Islam, and therefore we cannot worship the same God. So how do we engage Muslims in conversation, and what common ground can we find for friendship and evangelism? That’s what we’ll discuss in the next blog.

[1] Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 122.

[2] The Oxford Dictionary of Islam, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England 2003.

Islam: Three Key Points for Christians

Islam1Happy New Year! In my last blog, I promised several follow-on blogs with regard to Islam, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long. Among other things, 2016 marks my 20th year as a Christian and my 11th year studying Islam. That experience has made me the frequent target of many questions, and uncomfortably frequent hostility (and not from Muslims).  As Muslim presence in America grows, and as events like those in Paris and San Bernadino dominate the headlines, it is more important than ever for Christians to understand Islam and work to reach this critical mission field.  In this series of blogs, I hope to bring readers to a better understanding of Islam, equipping them to engage in well-reasoned and informed conversation with both Muslims and fellow Christians.  To start, let’s look at three key points that may drive subsequent discussions:

  1. Islam is not monolithic. Broad generalizations, especially hasty or inaccurate ones, are unhelpful (even harmful) in understanding Islam. My Facebook feed is filled with memes and posts from friends around the world, many of them making this error. “Islam is not a religion of peace.” “Islam is evil.” “Islam is ________ .”   Fill in the blank however you like, I can assure you the sentence will be a gross mischaracterization, perhaps an outright falsehood. Like Christianity, Islam is not monolithic, and much like Christianity, Islam is plagued by sectarian strife and disagreement. Most Christians are familiar with at least the Shi’a and the Sunni, the two largest sects within Islam. The Shi’a and Sunni have been in conflict since the 7th century, and today their differences encompass a wide range of both political and religious beliefs. The Sunni comprise more than 85% of all Muslims, and are separated into four Islamic “schools of thought” or jurisprudence (the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i). The Shi’a, a small minority within Islam, share many of the same practices and beliefs as the Sunni, but also differ in key areas of authority, practice, succession, and worship. Beyond these two primary sects, Islam also encompasses the Sufi, Wahhabi, Druze, Alawi, Abadi, Ahmadi, and a number of other “denominations.”

There are peaceful Muslims, and there are violent Christians. There are large subsets of Islam that are horribly violent, and there are large subsets of Islam that practice almost total pacifism. When discussing Islam, or when talking to Muslims, Christians should never make the mistake of thinking all Muslims believe the same things, act the same way, or feel the same way about those who disagree.

  1. Every Muslim is a precious child of God in dire need of salvation. Yes, this includes every member of ISIS, and every ruthless killer who has beheaded, burned, crushed, and tortured Christians (and many fellow Muslims). I am frequently shocked by the responses I receive from other Christians when confronted with this challenging topic – unbelievably, these response have ranged from “a good Muslim is a dead Muslim” to “kill them all.” No doubt these responses are highly emotional and reactionary, but I can’t help but think that they also couldn’t be more unbiblical. 1 Timothy 2 tells us that God “desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” – all men, including Muslims, lost souls that God wants. In Acts 19, Paul pleads with the idolaters worshiping false gods in Lystra, saying “…turn from these [false gods] to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them.” Paul is beaten and stoned, dragged outside the city, and left for dead. In verse 20, we read that Paul got up and went back into the city, then continued to preach. Think about that for a minute. Beaten, stoned, and left for dead, he thinks, “But there are still unsaved people in the city…” Similarly, we all know well that Jesus prayed for the savage guards who flogged Him and crucified Him. And our response to Muslims, engaged in comparative acts in today’s age, is “kill them all”? No, as Christians one of the most important things we can realize, which should guide every thought and action with regard to Muslims, is that each and every one – from Hilmi, the rug dealer I befriended in Istanbul to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS – is a precious child of God, in desperate need of the saving grace of Christ and our help to guide them to it. The Gospel Coalition recently wrote a blog about this approach, encouraging us to treat Muslims with dignity and respect, to find common ground with them, and to look for opportunities to show love and compassion to them. I couldn’t agree more.
  1. Understanding is key. Many Christians I encounter would rather hate Muslims than understand them. Others prefer parroting (repeating what they’ve heard someone else say) or emoting (saying what they feel rather than what they think), instead of doing the difficult work of understanding how Muslims think and what they believe. I’ve spent more than a decade trying to understand Islam, and I’m just scratching the surface – so please don’t think you can read a blog, see a meme on Facebook, or watch a special on Discovery, and understand Islam.

Three areas are really essential to a thorough understanding of Islam – history, culture, and (by combining those two) context. Muslim theology has adapted to cultural change from the start, and even adapted as Mohammed moved from Mecca to Medina in the seventh century. If you don’t know why Mohammed moved the early Muslims to Medina, or the history of the rise of the Ottoman empire, it will be very difficult to accurately understand Islam. Similarly, Islam for Muslims is more than just a religion – like the early Jews under the theocracy, Islam defines not just their religious beliefs but also their legal, political, and economic systems. If you only look at Islam as a religious worldview, you’ll miss an enormous and critical part of what it means to be a Muslim. Islam simply cannot be understood in isolation from its historical and cultural context.

In future blogs, we’ll look at how to engage Muslims in conversation, some key differences between the Muslim and Christian concepts of God, and perhaps even tackle some of the bigger issues like violence and jihad. Let me know what you’d like to hear about, any and all questions welcome!

Thoughts on Islam and the Middle East

Turkey   I recently returned from two weeks in Muslim countries in the Middle East, part of my Master’s Degree in National Security Studies, where I’m focusing on the Middle East. I spent about a week in Turkey and a week in Egypt, learning about their culture, religion, economy, politics, and many other aspects of the region. These two weeks — combined with the last eight years of study on Islam — have really opened my eyes to this religion, and I’ve since received many questions about the trip and about Islam. I’ll spend the next several blogs sharing my thoughts and observations about the trip, and answering some of your questions. Is Islam inherently violent?  Are Muslims on a mission to kill all unbelievers?  What is jihad?  Is the Islamic State (IS) acting in accordance with what the Qur’an teaches?  Who decides what “true Islam” is?  This is timely, as I know many are concerned about the recent actions of IS and other militant groups. I’ll do my best to address those concerns, but first a few thoughts on the trip…and maybe a few cool photos as well!  Yep, that’s me…on a camel…at the pyramids…
Pyramids
 1.  I never felt unsafe. I traveled extensively, both on foot and in vehicles, through Ankara, Istanbul, Luxor, and Cairo, and felt no less safe than I would doing the same thing in San Antonio, Charleston, or Montgomery. We were smart about it — normally traveling in groups, and never alone — and when on official business, we had a private security detail. However, this was largely precautionary, and in retrospect I’m not sure it was even necessary. In Istanbul, a friend and I walked several miles from the Hagia Sophia back to our hotel — through the Grand Bazaar, the Sultan Ahmet spice market, along the Bosporous, into the underground and up the hill, through the pedestrian district and back to the hotel. It was dark, most of the shops were closed, and we never felt threatened. Several other members of our group went for runs along the Nile, and all was well. Years ago I made a poor hotel choice in Shreveport, Louisiana…and two years ago I got lost on the South side of Capitol Hill in DC…and I felt far more threatened in those two days than I ever did in thirteen days in the Middle East. This is not to say that everywhere is safe — I certainly wouldn’t spend a lot of time in the Sinai, or on the Eastern Turkish border with Iran or Syria — but the fact remains that never felt unsafe during my two weeks there. That comes from an American Christian in the military, placing me in three demographic groups that are all relatively unpopular in the region at the moment.
2.   The people are simply beautiful. The country, the city, the people, all of it was beautiful. In the a Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, I met an artist named Nick who creates the most incredible artwork, where his only canvas is a plant leaf. Using a cat hair brush sometime Mike and Nick, The Grand Bazaar, Istanbulonly a few hairs thick, Nick scribes Muslim, Christian, and Jewish verses surrounded by the most beautiful artwork you can imagine (watch one of the videos at the link — it’s truly breathtaking). After spending more than an hour listening to him passionately describe his art and how he does it, I asked how he learned to do it or where he saw it done. He simply replied “No one taught me.  I know of no one else who does this. My talent is only from God.”  This generated further discussion, where we shared our faith with each other and I learned that he was an Armenian Christian who fled persecution and had been living in Istanbul since 1968. Simply amazing.
Coptic Prelate, Cairo   In Cairo, we met with the Coptic Prelate (the bishop over all Coptic Christians in Cairo). This amazing, articulate, intelligent man patiently answered our questions, then tearfully asked for our prayers for the families of the 21 Coptic Christians who had recently been murdered in Egypt. As we left, the Bishop said a blessing over me, gave me a replica of the icon of Mary and Jesus that hangs in his church, and even let me choose a small piece of chocolate from the dish on his desk.  He knew the way to reach my heart, no doubt!
3.  Islam is quite misunderstood in the West.  I’ll address this point in much greater detail in future posts.  I was one who thought, after 8 years of study, that I was developing a respectable understanding of Islam — until I spend two weeks in their cities, their culture, talking with members of their religion, visiting the mosques, and hearing their language.  I have much to learn — we all do.  I spent an afternoon at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, which was the Sultan’s palace for about 400 years of the Ottoman Empire.  Beyond its undeniable beauty, I saw an order from the Sultan to have the palace walls torn down and rebuilt so that the local Christian church — the Church of St. Irene — would fall under the protection of the Sultan.  I listened to a former Turkish Ambassador to the UN (a Muslim) speak passionately and tearfully about the 21 Christians who were killed in Egypt a few weeks before our trip.  He was followed by a retired Egyptian 2-star General, now running for public office (also a Muslim) who wants to work toward a community where Christians, Muslims, and Jews can all live in harmony.  As I mentioned previously, I’ll delve more deeply into this topic in future posts, but for now it’s important to understand that any impression that all Muslims want to kill all unbelievers, or that Christians can’t go to Muslim countries without getting beheaded, or other crazy ideas — these are all gross misunderstandings.
In all, it was a wonderful and educational trip.  I’ll share more thoughts, and answer your questions on Islam, in the coming weeks.  Stay tuned!