*Posted by J. Scott Bridger. Bridger is Assistant Professor of World Christianity and Islamic Studies at Criswell College.
In order to answer this question, I need to take you on a backwoods detour through a conversation I recently had with a Jewish Rabbi. I met him while participating in a roundtable discussion with a group of church planters and staff members at a local evangelical church. The Rabbi, Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis of Kol Ami Congregation in Flower Mound, Texas, was also participating in the discussion. Rabbi Geoffrey is a Reform Rabbi and graduate of Hebrew Union College. He teaches Jewish Studies at UNT and is a published scholar. For those of you who may not know, Reform Judaism is one of the three major branches of Rabbinic Judaism in the United States. The other two, generally speaking, are Conservative Judaism and Orthodox Judaism. There are, of course, non-Rabbinic forms of Judaism, such as the Karaites, but their numbers (and influence) are far smaller than their co-religionists within the world of Rabbinic Judaism.
The pastor of the church invited Rabbi Geoffrey as part of a discussion of the differences between Christianity and Judaism. The Rabbi began with an overview of his religion. He noted that the terms “Jewish” and “Judaism” were appellations given to the Jewish people by their enemies and that the biblical designation for referring to Jews is “Sons of Israel.”
As the Rabbi told the story of Judaism (from his perspective), I found several of his statements puzzling. He compared Judaism to Native American religion in that it is both an ethnicity and a religion. He also emphasized that it is more of a “culture” than it is a faith or set of beliefs. The Rabbi’s explanation in this regard reminded me of the numerous conversations I had with (religious) Israeli Jews during the 10 years I lived in Israel. When the topic of God’s identity and unique relationship to the Jewish people would come up, I often noted that their depiction of God in Judaism makes him sound more like a tribal deity than the God of the Bible who desires the worship of all nations (cf. Psalm 67 et passim).
Interestingly, of those seated around the table, it was telling that only the Christians held that the foundational events depicted in the first 10 chapters of Genesis are historically true. The Rabbi held them as a sacred story, but not history. Moreover, as he described the formation of the “Sons of Israel” as a special covenant people, I couldn’t help but want to push against his understanding of “specialness” in light of his denial of the historicity of the events that led up to God’s choice of Abraham and his “seed.” When given the opportunity to speak, I pointed out to the Rabbi that God’s choice of Abraham in Gen 12 (and the subsequent formation of the Jewish nation) must be seen in light of the brokenness resulting from the Fall. God’s mercy and grace are seen in the fact that he did not leave humanity to their own devices, but he set in motion a plan of redemption that was both particular and universal in scope. It was particular in that it centered on one man and his family, but it is universal in that the one was chosen for the sake of blessing “all families of the earth” (cf. Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4). God’s singling out of Abraham, I noted, was for the benefit of all humanity, symbolically represented by the number 70 in Gen 10. Indeed, God’s purpose in selecting the one was for the benefit of the many.
As I relayed the story of redemption to the Rabbi, I noted that Jesus (according to Paul in Galatians 3) is the fulfillment of God’s promise to make Abraham’s seed a blessing to all peoples. It is in the gospel that we see God’s universal intentions realized, thereby explaining the “particularness” of his choice of one. Chosenness is always for a purpose; the purpose of spreading the knowledge of God throughout all creation for the glory of God.
Though I’m doubtful my message in this regard was clearly understood (or clearly communicated on my part), the implications of it were. Earlier in his discussion the Rabbi made a comment about the existence of some “38,000” Christian denominations within Christianity, as if the diversity Christianity exhibits somehow detracts from its legitimacy as a true faith/religion. In reply, I noted that part of the explanation for this diversity is that, unlike Judaism and Islam, Christianity is a faith without a sacred language or a sacred culture. Put another way, all languages and all cultures are sacred for Christians (or, at least, potentially so). This is because the gospel is a message that is inherently translatable. This is evident in the diversity of languages God used to reveal his Word to humanity in the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). And it is evident in the whole flow of redemptive history from the Tower of Babel, to Pentecost, and into the eschaton where we witness the preservation of linguistic and cultural diversity in those gathered around the throne to worship the Lamb (cf. Rev. 5:9; 7:9; 21:24). How else can one explain the insatiable drive by Christian communities from the time of the New Testament (cf. Acts 11) till today to translate the Bible into every language on the face of the planet?
While pointing out some (not all) of these facts, the Rabbi quickly interjected that Islam is also a culturally diverse religion. In principle, the Rabbi is correct. Islam (both Sunni and Shiite branches) boasts adherents from a large and diverse number of people on the planet. However, my point seemed to fall on deaf ears. The difference is that all of these peoples are required to conform both culturally and linguistically to the dictates of Islamic law. Prayers must be conducted in Arabic. Females cannot marry without the permission of a wali (a “guardian”), etc.
According to normative forms of Islam, being a good Muslim entails conformity to dictates that are derived from Arab culture (and the Arabic language) and preserved in Islamic law (shari’a). The Arabic language and Arab culture contain the ideal forms within which God revealed his laws to the Muslim community. God’s expectation in Islam is that every Muslim community will conform and replicate those forms regardless of their mother tongue or birth culture. Linguistically, the idea of translating the Qur’an into the vernaculars of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation is a foreign concept since qur’anic revelation is only valid when perfectly replicated in Arabic and in accordance with the heavenly (and eternal) tablet preserved above. Culturally, the idea of “contextualizing” or utilizing indigenous music, art forms, dance, etc., to express or convey biblical meaning within a particular community is generally frowned upon in Islam as acts of innovation (bid’a). Moreover, as has been noted by the African Yale scholar, Lamin Sanneh, a convert from Islam to Christianity (cf. Translating the Message), the preservation of local languages and cultures is something uniquely Christian. And it is due to the realization by many generations of Christians (but unfortunately, not all), that each language and every culture is beautiful in God’s eyes. Granted, every culture, including evangelical American culture, is fallen and corrupt by sin. Yet, each culture has within it the potential for glorifying God in ways that reflect his manifold beauties. This is the role of kingdom communities; churches possessed by the gospel of God’s grace who are committed to exhibiting their devotion in kingdom service.
Ultimately, the act of translating the faith is built upon an assumption that validates each language and each culture as legitimate arenas for gospel-contextualization–for the planting of kingdom communities. And this activity itself is intimately related to the nature of the gospel, which as the NT asserts, was proclaimed beforehand to our father Abraham (cf. Gal 3). Jesus–the seed of Abraham–is the blessing that God has promised in the gospel. Those who hear and accept the gospel become his children; the heritage of Abraham is now their heritage. Therefore, this standard of faith becomes the standard by which we determine which faiths are truly “Abrahamic” and which are not. In the next post, I’ll explore this thought in more detail, and apply it more specifically to Islam.