Written by Kyuboem Lee Wednesday, 23 October 2013 00:00

[The following is the Foreword I wrote for The Urbanity of the Bible: Rediscovering the Urban Nature of the Bible and What it Means for Today, by Sean Benesh, an upcoming publication from Wipf & Stock Publishers. Used by permission.]


The writer of Hebrews pictures God as the builder and architect of the city that he has prepared for his people (11:10, 16)—God is the Urban Planner par excellence. The corresponding portrait of New Jerusalem is the culmination of God’s redemptive and creative work—a place of beauty, human flourishing, and joyous community where men and women eternally live in righteousness, justice, and peace with each other, as well as in worship, love, and obedience under the rule of their God and King; a place where God dwells forever with his people finally redeemed from sin and death; the place where the hopes and dreams of all creation are realized at last. This city is “the joy of the whole earth” (Ps 48:2). Through his urban planning and building activities, God himself has prepared the habitation, garden, and tabernacle that he always had in mind for us his creatures. It awaits those who seek God’s country—they will one day arrive at their destination, and finally say, “We are home.”

As God’s image bearers, the children of Adam and Eve have been planning and building cities from the very beginnings of the biblical story. Because of human sin and the resulting fall from shalom, however, the cities that we have built experience and promulgate corruption, unbelief, injustice, and death. On the other hand, because of God’s good urban plan, the city also gives refuge, nurtures creativity, enhances human flourishing, grants a more abundant life, and glorifies the divine Urban Planner after whose image we engage in city-building.

But I am getting ahead of the action. In the following pages, author Sean Benesh will be your able guide to this ages-old, ongoing story of the city. He will narrate the urban story of the Bible. He will make a convincing case that today’s astounding urbanization around the globe is part of the outworking of God’s urban mandate for his image bearers. He will connect the everyday work of the citizens for the common urban good to God’s desire to create an urban society that is just and compassionate, a city that is a refuge to those who are strangers and aliens. He will argue that the missio dei finds its context squarely within the divine urban design.

His voice is a welcome one. Christians in North America have long failed to see the city as a good place. Many joined the flight out of dirty, crime-ridden, impoverished and impersonal gothams that they deemed irredeemable. Those who did choose to serve in cities thought of rescuing the city dwellers out of urban conditions. Missing was a biblical vision of God’s good design for the city.

Now, in the early twenty-first century, the tide has turned on the public perception of the city. For young gentrifiers and hipsters moving into lofts in post-industrial neighborhoods, the city has become a desirable locale to live in. Churches, seeking to court them, have also moved into formerly struggling inner-city communities. But, often out of the newcomers’ sight, former residents who were unable to join the former flight out of cities because of their socioeconomic standing are being displaced, making room for coffeeshops and quirky eateries. Globalization and its attendant migration patterns have also brought floods of new immigrants from every corner of the world into the cities—endowing the urban communities transnational identities. Zooming out, we also note that we have recently crossed a vital milestone; there is now more people living in the cities around the globe than there are people living in rural areas. We live in an urban world.

In the midst of these great urban transitions, we wonder whether God’s people have developed a robust urban theology that will sufficiently shape and invigorate their witness among the nations in the city. There is much to catch up on and learn about how the Lord is moving his mission forward in our global, urban world, and how his church is called to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in our new urban context. Sean Benesh will help us to do just that. As a minister of the gospel living, working, and learning in a rapidly transitioning community in Portland, Oregon, his is a unique vantage point to perceive the ongoing missio dei. My prayer is that the Lord who has prepared a city for his people will use this book to edify and direct their conversation and ministry in the cities around the world today and into the future, until the culmination of history when we will at long last reach the city that is the joy of the whole earth. May the urban communities of our day reflect more and more that city of joy, and may the church seek that city in our urban neighborhoods today with more and more of all that the Lord has given us, to God’s glory.

Dr. Kyuboem Lee serves as Adjunct Faculty at Biblical Seminary. He is the founding pastor of Germantown Hope Community Church in Philadelphia, and the General Editor for the Journal of Urban Mission.


Written by Dave Dunbar Monday, 21 October 2013 00:00

Dr. Dave Dunbar

OK, I admit it:  I have shamelessly borrowed most of the title of Robert Pirsig’s 1974 novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As you may have heard from our new President, Dr. Frank James, I recently retired from the president’s office to the blessed, carefree life of a Biblical faculty member.  As part of my retirement, my wife allowed me to purchase a motorcycle and now I am driving on two wheels for the first time in over 45 years.  And yes, October was created with motorcyclists in mind.

Getting back into “biking” has made me freshly aware of the multi-cultural reality of contemporary America.  The motorcycle culture has its own distinct qualities of dress, values, life-style, etc.  And for the most part this cultural reality possesses little in common with Christian practice or world-view.

But as a Christian who is now coming into contact with aspects of the “biking” culture, I am thinking more about how my Christian life and my “riding life” might intersect.  Recently the local cycle shop had a special weekend devoted to store-wide sales, free seminars on cleaning and maintaining your bike, and just having an enjoyable gathering of the community (like church?).

A member of our church works at the shop, and he invited me to stop by on Sunday for their “chapel” service. It seems that members of a local chapter of a Christian motorcycle club regularly come to this event on Saturday and Sunday to give out tracts and have a Christian presence.  As part of their activities they have a chapel service at the dealership early Sunday morning.

I didn’t attend the festivities on Sunday morning (although I did drop by on Saturday).  However, my friend’s invitation got me thinking about this basic approach to evangelistic outreach which is fairly common among evangelical Christians.  It is the approach of creating parallel organizations and inviting non-Christians to join.  My observation is that usually the people who join are already Christians.  I don’t know if that is true of the Christian motorcyclists, but I suspect it might be.  And even if it is true, I still appreciate the effort that is being made to present the gospel in a cultural context where Jesus has little visibility apart from profane expressions.

Of course there are other possibilities for bringing Christian witness to the various subcultures around us. Rather than develop parallel Christian organizations we might consider a program of infiltration.  This has been illustrated for me by two friends who are pastors. Both of them are cyclists—that was part of the rationale I gave my wife when I got back into the sport—and both of them ride with secular biker clubs.  Both men have developed deep friendships within the cycling community, regularly pray for and with club members, have given counsel and even conducted funerals for some of the members. On the strength of these relationships one of the pastors hosts a “biker Sunday” at his church once a year that features an outdoor service, a barbeque, and afternoon bike tours—they get a couple hundred bikers to the event.

Now I am not suggesting that these two approaches are mutually exclusive . . . if you had time, you could do both. It seems to me, however, that evangelicals have tended primarily to employ the first approach which is “safer” but probably less effective if we want to bring the gospel to other cultures. The second is more challenging and even threatening, but in talking with my pastor friends, it sounds much more interesting!

Dave Dunbar served as President of Biblical for 27 years before transitioning to the role of Professor of Theology at Biblical on July 1, 2013. He has been married to Sharon for 44 years. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren.


Written by Phil Monroe Friday, 18 October 2013 00:00

Dr. Phil Monroe

Those of us who teach others exert tremendous power with our words. With words we name things into categories, what is good and bad, right and wrong. With words we dismiss some ideas and baptize others. Even those of us teachers who want to be known for our Socratic methods must admit that our choice of questions may wield the same power as those who teach by divine fiat.

Counselors too exert this same power over clients. If we are honest, we tend to provide empathic validation of feelings when we agree with our clients and silence when we do not. We offer “insight” to name our clients neuroses.

A few days ago I ran across notes I took from a presentation made by Paul Wachtel, professor at CUNY. He pointed out how therapists use words to make power grabs in session. When a client is having a negative reaction to our words and work, we can distance ourselves with “pseudo-neutrality” by saying something like, “I’m wondering if your defensiveness to me right now is because…”  Such words imply that the event is merely happening within the client. Such words deny our own responsibility for all or part of the problem. Wachtel suggests that using the words, “Isn’t it interesting that you see/believe/think…” illustrates another power grab. It defines the therapist as the all-knowing seer and the client as some naïve child. These kinds of statements form a put-down even when that is not our goal. Even when the client does not feel judged, it is likely that they will not feel energized to change.

Is there a solution?

I do not advocate that teachers stop teaching or that counselors stop offering wisdom and insight. Nor is it always wrong to name things as right or wrong. Rather, I think we must consider how we teach and counsel. What words best help our students and counselees activate into critical thinking, evaluation, and action?

Acceptance before judgment, describing instead of telling

Before offering assessment, it may be better to enable students/counselees to accept what is in front of them—feelings, beliefs, and realities. Now, acceptance sounds like valuing. But by acceptance I mean to describe and acknowledge prior to judging whether something is good or bad. Consider these examples from Paul Wachtel to a client who keeps missing sessions,

You want someone to pursue you… OR It feels good when someone pursues you.

Or consider his examples with a client who says, “This counseling is superficial. I want to go deeper.”

You say you want to go deeper, but when I try to do it, you don’t want to… OR You want to go deeper into your experience, but it’s also frightening.

Notice that both name the thing that is happening but one offers blame while the other offers an invitation to accept a reality.

Notice the difference between the first option (telling) and the second (validation/acknowledgement). Which one might encourage more active response by the client? Paul suggests that when we accept a client’s perception, it offers an opportunity to stop defending self and to explore what may have been unacknowledged.

A corrective for Biblical counselors?

One stereotype of Biblical counselors is that they spend too much time naming sin. While not a fully fair stereotype, counselors may want to examine how Jesus works with the most vulnerable of sinners. Do we tell them what is wrong and the path forward, or do we engage them at their level of experience? John 4 depicts Jesus’ interactions with the woman at the well. This woman is of ill repute. She is at the well to avoid the judgments of her neighbors. She runs into a Jewish rabbi who chooses not to avoid her but to ask her for help. Instead of engaging in dismissive interpretations or debates about Samaritan versus Jewish worship practices, he offers her something she desperately wants. Then, he does tell her something about her history, but only after she has opened the door.

Or consider Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8) and how he does not directly name the sin but protects first, asks her to notice what is happening, and then encourages her to act in a new way regarding her sexual behavior.

On the flip side, consider Jesus’ interactions with the religious leaders of the day (Luke 11). Notice that he does not refrain from making some rather harsh judgments. Here’s the question I want you to consider: Does Jesus make these pronouncements in the hope that it will produce change? I think not.

None of these stories form a doctrine of counseling but may they encourage us to consider how we join our counselees first rather than stand above using words of assessment and judgment.

Phil Monroe is Professor of Counseling & Psychologyand Director of the Masters of Arts in Counseling Program at Biblical. He also directs Biblical’s new trauma recovery project. You can find his personal blog at www.wisecounsel.wordpress.com.


Written by Phil Monroe Wednesday, 16 October 2013 00:00

Phil Monroe Office

I’ve just moved my office here at the seminary after having been in the same office for 10 years or so. Several months ago I began the move process by weeding my library and paper files. But even as I moved this week into my new digs (for graduates, the counseling department is in the old development office building next to the main building), I am still sorting stuff and deciding whether to keep or throw the various and sundry items I’ve collected over the years.

Here are some of the items I’ve come across for the first time in a while:

  • A plastic box full of my raw data from my doctoral dissertation
  • Notes from classes I’ve taken some 20 years ago
  • Cassette tapes of my first professional conference presentations
  • Miscellaneous articles I’ve read and thought, “wow, that would be good to use in a class”
  • A briefcase of articles and writing drafts on Multiple Personality Disorder back in 1993

Are these treasures or trash? And maybe the most important question is why I feel the urge to keep these old obsolete items. Some of these items (my dissertation raw data and cassette tapes) represent massive portions of my life as I was working to accomplish the goal of getting the position I now have.  Others hold little sentimental value but trigger that little portion of my brain that say, “Maybe I might use this in the future.”

As I have been contemplating my choices, I’ve also considered how this might be a life lesson.

Let Go!

What do you hold on to in your life that may need a good heave ho? We all carry some old baggage from yesteryear: shame, guilt, bitterness, or fantasies of the life we thought we would live?  There are times we create symbolic monuments that serve only to weigh us down and heap discouragement on our souls. Maybe for you, a memory keeps coming back from your past, a memory that reminds you of a failure. And when that memory comes back you repeat a well-rehearsed story line ensuring that you will continue to use that failure to define you present life.

Might it be possible to toss that storyline and practice a new one that is in closer keeping to God’s story about you? Imagine the Israelites continuing to remember their failure to avoid idolatry in this manner: “We’re the people who served idols and wandered in the desert for forty years. We’re the people who forgot God and were carried off by the Babylonians.” Although true, this storyline is not the whole truth. The whole truth includes a new narrative, “We’re the people God has pursued and rescued.” Period. End of story.

Keep It!

Some of the stuff we don’t use anymore still may serve a good purpose. When I look at pictures of my wife on her wedding day I remember the 23 years of God’s faithfulness. Even a pile of useless dissertation material reminds me how God saw me through a doctoral program and paved the way for a great job here at Biblical. It is easy to forget these mercies and gifts. So, feel free to keep a few Ebenezers to remind you of God’s handiwork in your life.

Phil Monroe is Professor of Counseling & Psychologyand Director of the Masters of Arts in Counseling Program at Biblical. He also directs Biblical’s new trauma recovery project. You can find his personal blog at www.wisecounsel.wordpress.com.


Written by Todd Mangum Monday, 14 October 2013 00:00

At the root of American culture’s “sexual revolution” are lies that need desperately to be reversed by the truth. Among those many, many lies, here are the top five I’d identify:

Lie #1: Sex is human beings’ greatest need.

The truth: Not even close. Intimacy may be among the greatest of human “needs,” but sex and intimacy are not the same thing. And mistaking biological coitus for human love is what’s screwing with the entire culture’s head.

Not to mention: intimacy with the Creator is actually the need that the whole sexualized culture races away from.  It’s like a person dying of thirst drinking salt water to quench it. 

Lie #2: Sex is an irrepressible, irresistible biological need.

The truth: Sexual urges come in the form of desire. They can be resisted; and human beings have resisted them for millennia. Believe it or not — and unlike food or drink, say — you can actually live your whole life without it if you had to.  Let’s get a grip; and put this into perspective.

Truth is, that this lie has been bought into so pervasively is a sign of the culture’s adolescent immaturity. Mature adults recognize that everything we may crave at the moment may not be good for us. You don’t have to pig out on French fries or eat the whole package of Oreos. You don’t have to guzzle down an entire bottle of wine.  This is true even if you have the opportunity, and even if you’re really hungry or thirsty.  Similarly, sexual urges and cravings can be resisted — and the majority of the time should be.

There was a time when this point would have been made and commonly accepted and instructed by the culture along with things like why it’s best to wear antiperspirant before you go out. 

Lie #3: Sex is naughty and is enjoyed the further away from God the better.

The truth: Sex was God’s idea. He made it. These are the kinds of gifts He enjoys giving to the human beings He made and that He loves and made in His image. And if sexual pleasure is any indication of the kind of gifts He enjoys and makes for His loved ones, maybe we should trust Him more to be looking out for our best, huh? He even designed the body parts so that human beings (unlike some other creatures in the wild) will make love gazing into one another’s faces — with the enjoyment of one another bringing greater enjoyment.  Pretty smart, huh?

But like most really expensive gifts, this one comes with an instruction manual. And if you discard those instructions, you can ruin this expensive gift and cause a LOT of damage — in this case, to the human psyche, to relational well-being, to self-esteem, and even to physical health. 

Lie #4: “Romantic love” is the highest form of love and the greatest virtue.

The truth: Romantic love is only worthwhile at all if it’s a reflection of greater, deeper love(s) and intimacy. Intimate friendship (of the non-biological, “Platonic” variety) is actually a deeper, richer form of “affection” (the real point of 2 Samuel 1:26, by the way). This is why a couple whose marriage knows this grows richer and deeper with the years, even as their bodies start to sag and wear out; but why even a young, vibrant couple whose relationship is devoted mostly to keeping romantic (biological) fire aflame is doomed to fizzle.

Most insidious, therefore, is the fact that most of the entertainment industry builds its plotlines on the false notion that culmination of a loving relationship reaches its zenith with romantic interface, displayed in physical sexuality. Movies, TV, music all seem to tout this plotline with its false baseline assumption, and it’s not just wrong; it’s destructive.

If we recognized 50 years ago that putting sugar on everything wasn’t healthy, and that it should be illegal to coat cereals with sugar and then sell it to children in Saturday morning cartoons, why can’t we realize that selling sex as a coating over love, acceptance, and fulfillment amounts to the same thing, at a far more corrosive level? 

Lie #5: Sexual attraction is the one non-negotiable foundation for a proper marital union.

The truth: Marriage is covenantal commitment to fostering a couple’s deep(er) love over a lifetime. I regret that intimate friendships between fellows now seems by our culture to need to be sexualized to be granted full recognition of their power. But there may be a blessing in disguise provided us in this whole discussion and controversy. Could it be that our culture may come to recognize that some deep relationships and loves are distinctly valuable and rich outside of traditional heterosexual biological attractions?  (Renewed recognition of that truth could make this whole morass worth it in the end, if so.)

Here’s my point, though: sexual intimacy is a great wonder and wonderful pleasure for a couple who are not just “in love” but have learned to truly love one another in the 1 Corinthians 13 sense. And, OK, it’s probably not a good idea for a couple to get married if they have no physical attraction to one another at all; but physical attraction is no FOUNDATION for a committed, lifelong, covenantal relationship. Beauty and virility fade; but love — true love — can and does grow ever stronger.

It is intriguing to me that love for God and relationship with God is commonly portrayed in Scripture as like unto love between a husband and wife, a bride and groom. There is some way in which the love between a married couple is analogous to the love between God and His people. There is some way in which sexually expressed love is analogous to the rich enjoyment of eternal walk with God. . . . A mystery worth pondering a lot longer. . . .

Anyway, those are just my top five and I could have easily gone on to five more or written five more pages under each of these!  You’re glad I didn’t, I’m guessing.  But what do you think?  Are my top five getting at all near the root, near the core?  How’s your “top five list of lies” compare to mine?

Todd Mangum is the Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Biblical. He is ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention. Todd is the author of The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift, and co-author (with Dr. Paul Pettit of the Howard Hendricks Leadership Center in Dallas, TX) of the just-released book, Blessed are the Balanced: Following Jesus into the Academy (Kregel), and of several articles seeking to bridge divides among Bible-believing Christians. He is married to Linda and they have three sons.  See also Todd's faculty bio.


Written by Todd Mangum Friday, 11 October 2013 00:00

I promise this won't be another conservative Christian rant from a crotchety middle-aged man against MTV. And, by the time this blog comes out, who knows what new Miley Cyrus item may be hot in entertainment news? The MTV show is now in the rearview mirror even now, passed at this point by her riding naked on a wrecking ball and seemingly breaking down emotionally on stage over the break-up with her fiancé.

But Miley Cyrus told Robin Thicke as they practiced for their VMA awards performance that they "were going to make history". And I'd contend they did.

Yes, this was just the latest in a long line of child actors and actresses "making a statement" that they've now grown up, so quit type-casting them as innocent kids. At least 10 years ago, Britney Spears made certain no one any longer remembered her as a Mouseketeer; and 20 years ago, Macaulay Culkin made sure he got a long way from "Home Alone" with his performance (alongside fellow child actor Elijah Wood) in "The Good Son" (and I mention just two so as to provide one male and one female sample among dozens that could be listed). Childhood actors demanding they be viewed as adults through disturbing performances (which are often also very adolescent, ironically) are nothing new.

Yet Miley Cyrus did somehow still manage to cross a new line (or reach a new low) with her "coming out of childhood" performance. Now, it was deliberate, sure. It was in the line of deliberate deconstruction - and mockery - of chaste values embodied perhaps most forthrightly by Madonna (why she calls herself "Madonna" after all) and taken up by Madonna-heir-apparent Lady Gaga. That's who Miley was trying to one-up; and at that I'd say she succeeded.

So, that ratty hairstyle was supposed to mimic the teddy bears used in - and shed mid-way through - the "performance"; that was supposed to make a statement of overt discard of childhood. The song, "You Know You Want It" is all about, "you're a good girl . . . but you want it" heightened the deliberate "statement" of the "performance." Just can't help those insatiable sexual urges now that you're all grown up. Yeah, we get it.

And yes, Miley was going for shock value, and so she knew it had to reach new heights of extreme vulgarity to register that shock (given that she had to outdo not only Boy George, Madonna, and Jay-Z, but also - and at the same awards show even - Lady Gaga). It takes a lot to move the American shock-value Richter scale these days. But she did it, just as she hoped.

Except I'm not sure it was just as she hoped. Just as speech act theory teaches us that often we communicate more or differently than we intend by our words, so likewise Ms. Cyrus's "performances" conveyed some things more and differently than she realized or intended.

The shock value of her performance was not registered just by her extreme vulgarity - though that was certainly there. The American viewing public was confronted with a stripped down, made-to-look-naked, but nevertheless barely post-pubescent body simulating publicly on stage the most overtly raunchy copulative acts with a 37-year-old, married (with a 3-year-old son, by the way) man. Yeah, yeah; turns out that picture of the Will Smith family watching it was actually of them watching Lady Gaga - but no matter, the expressions on their faces about sums up the visceral reaction of anyone watching the Cyrus-Thicke spectacle - Ich!:

It wasn't that their performance was just shocking and vulgar. It was appalling. If it's all about in-your-face, brutally honest-but-real statements, then I'd say Cher's comments on the "performance" were most spot on. Not what Miley and Robin were going for, I'd bet.

Hollywood and MTV will get better at this. Now that they've seen what margins the American public will tolerate, be prepared for more provocative - only next time more attractive - in your face innuendos and indecencies. But the Miley Cyrus "sexual debut performance" reveals something that I'd say we missional Christians, especially, shouldn't miss.

American culture wants sexual freedom and unrestrained sexual promiscuity approved. Well, here’s what it looks like America. Do we really want a culture that expects girls to grow up into unashamed sex-crazed sluts as their rite of passage? Do American feminist ideals mean that we allow both women and men to be gluttonous sexual pigs — is that what our ideals of freedom embody?

In the fourth century, the newly converted Christian emperor Constantine was able to temper the paganism of the Roman Empire by gradually doing away with the gladiatorial games — in part because it was dawning on even the most pagan of Romans that the fostering of primal bloodlust in their culture had just gone too far.  It just wasn’t right. And deep down, even they knew it.

So curdle at that Miley Cyrus-Robin Thicke performance one more time, America. And, missional Christians, here perhaps is a window of opportunity for us to say to American culture, “Look, we know we at times have mistakenly presented Victorian-era prudishness as the Christian ideal. We’re on a pilgrimage and we’re learning, too. But, come on. Look at this. There has to be a more excellent way.”  

Todd Mangum is the Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Biblical. He is ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention. Todd is the author of The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift, and co-author (with Dr. Paul Pettit of the Howard Hendricks Leadership Center in Dallas, TX) of the just-released book, Blessed are the Balanced: Following Jesus into the Academy (Kregel), and of several articles seeking to bridge divides among Bible-believing Christians. He is married to Linda and they have three sons. < a href="http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/todd-mangum">See also his faculty profile.


Written by Steve Taylor Monday, 07 October 2013 00:00

Any Christian pursuing deeper relationships with Muslims eventually has to struggle with this question: Allah and Yahweh—are they the same God? This question became the topic of heated discussion at the annual convention of a notable evangelical denomination this past summer.  Delegates to this gathering were put off by a paragraph in an appendix to a minority report from a study committee working on evangelism in Muslim contexts. (Yes, it was buried that deep!) Here is the offending paragraph:

Are Allah of Muslims and Yahweh the same God? Yes, when the veil is lifted from their eyes and Muslims see Him as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Fine-tuning to see Yahweh as He truly is takes place through Christ. Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.

Pastors, elders, and theologians weighing in subsequently on denominational discussion boards and affiliated blog sites have accused the author of the statement of peddling a rehash of the old line, classical Liberalism opposed by J. Gresham Machen or of enticing the denomination to the cliff of a “syncretism” in which “Islam remains but Christianity is not needed”. The firestorm has not abated.

The author of the minority report, Dr. Nabeel Jabbour, a Syrian Christian by birth, is a veteran of over 40 years of ministry to Muslims in the Middle East. In his minority report and in other writings,* Dr. Jabbour amply evinces a clear commitment to the gospel and to the exclusive supremacy of Christ as the climactic and final revelation of God. The issue Dr. Jabbour raises is, rather, how best to dialogue with people who are still unconvinced: what kind of persons should we be and where should we start?

Context Matters

These concerns are evident even in the immediate context of the offending paragraph (repeated below in bold font):

There is only one God, and He is Yahweh, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the tendency of all human beings to bring down, as it were, that almighty God and to place Him in our little boxes. Those little gods that we tend to create are not the Almighty God. The Jews at the time of Jeremiah did it, although they gave him the name Yahweh. . . . Yahweh, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, cannot be placed into a box.

Are Allah of the Arab Christians and Yahweh the same God? Yes, when we do not have a veil over our eyes and when we do not bring Him down to become our servant who is supposed to answer our prayers and do what we think He should do. . . .

Are Allah of Muslims and Yahweh the same God? Yes, when the veil is lifted from their eyes and Muslims see Him as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Fine-tuning to see Yahweh as He truly is takes place through Christ. Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.

There is only one Yahweh, yet all people in all religions project their image of what He is like and assume that they are worshipping that Yahweh when in reality they are worshipping their own creations.

The Allah or God in Islam has 99 attributes, and we would agree with most of them. But the huge missing names are “Father of the Lord Jesus Christ” and “our heavenly Father.” . . . (Emphasis added; repetitive sentences omitted)

Critics insist that it is precisely these missing names (and attending concepts), which are so central to the Christian concept of God, that demand a complete and explicit rejection of any identity between Yahweh and the Allah--as a precondition for any meaningful discussion or evangelism.

An Historical Analogue

But consider this definition for God taught to Christian children for several centuries in certain sectors of the Church: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (Westminster Shorter Catechism [1674]). Most thoughtful Muslims could agree with this statement; there is nothing distinctively Christian in it. Could this definition serve as common ground in a Muslim-Christian discussion?

This could be pressed further: Why would Christian theologians intent on instructing future generations of the Church write such a definition? Why not follow the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed with explicitly Christian claims like, “God is the all-mighty, all-knowing Tri-Personal Creator who was active in the story of Israel, and who is ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and dwells among us in the person of the Holy Spirit . . . ”?

The authors of the Shorter Catechism were defining God in a context framed by a long discussion spanning over 1700 years and reaching back to Greek philosophers: the Supreme Being had to be defined first in these “essentialist” terms. The “Westminster Divines” wanted to speak into the long conversation about that particular Referent, not start a new conversation about another. Whatever its other merits and demerits, this definition is, in itself, pre-Christian if not “sub-Christian”; but that is part of the necessary price paid to intelligibly inject new meaning into an old and venerable conversation. And the willingness to join that conversation is itself an act of faith in the God who has already been at work in the great conversations of history.

Conceptual Help

It might help to borrow some distinctions from linguistic philosophy. Swiss thinker Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) described meaningful communication as the interplay between three factors:

  1. The “signifier” – the sound or marks on a page that one recognizes as a sign, in our case, the words “Allah,” “Yahweh” or “God.”
  2. The “signified” – the concept, idea, or mental content that a sign (“signifier”) expresses or evokes, in our case the different concepts and theologies that characterize the various Christian and Islamic systems.
  3. The “referent” – the actual thingor person, or set of things or persons, to which a sign (or “signifier”) refers, in our case the actual person God is in God’s self.

The critics of the offending paragraph above assume a virtual identity between their set of “signifieds” (concepts, ideas about God) and the “referent” (God). For them the obvious differences between what they mean by God and what the Muslim theologian means is so great that there cannot possibly be a common referent for a Christian and any Muslim. The Christian is thus duty-bound to start with a different “signifier” (a different name for God) or to start with a list of differences about the “signified.”  The proclamation of the absolute antithesis becomes the sine qua non of faithful evangelism.  For them the conceptual cup of shared language and concepts for evangelism is always less than half empty and the contents poisonous.

The author of the contested quotation, on the other hand, is acutely aware of how all our concepts and systems of concepts about God fall short of God’s true glory and that there is individual variation; not all Muslims are in precisely the same place. The cup of shared concepts is frequently half full and represents a God-engineered starting place for the mysterious process of making disciples.

Pauline Precedent

Paul is the first Jewish preacher on record who, upon observing  rank pagan idolatry, did not heap scorn on it (like the Old Testament prophets rightfully did—Isa 44:18-20, Jer 2:27, Hos 4:12) but rather used it as a starting point: “the God you already worship in ignorance is the one I want to tell you about. . . . he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him -- though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. As some of you own poets have said, 'We are his offspring'” (Acts 17:23-28). Paul did not lead with, “Let me tell you about a different God” but rather with “This is what the God you and your poets have been groping after is really like.” Paul was alert to a rather small set of shared “signifieds” and assumed that he could talk about the same “referent”—he could start where his audience was.

Of course there are risks, dangers of syncretism. This, however, is the point: there are dangers on both sides. Dealing faithfully with the gospel is always a matter of walking a ridge route; one can fall off the path both to the left and the right. The gospel demands a creative faithfulness by which we avoid sliding down either the slope of syncretism (compromising the faith) or the slope defensiveness and fear (bridling the faith). In that spirit we can join with the author of the minority report and issue the Muslim this sincere invitation: come know the Creator God more fully; discover that the one you and your poets have served as “Allah” is the God who through His Son Jesus and by His Spirit wants to be embraced as “Abba.”

  • NOTE:  Dr. Jabbour’s The Crescent through the Eyes of the Cross: Insights from an Arab Christian (Colorado Springs, CO: NAV Press, 2008) is a must read for any Christian serious about befriending Muslims and reaching them with the gospel.

Stephen Taylor is Associate Professor of New Testament. He is a missionary kid fascinated with the question of the relationship between culture and understanding the Bible. Steve is married to Terri who is also intimately involved in global issues; and together they have five fantastic kids. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/stephen-taylor.


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