Should Islam Be Considered an “Abrahamic” Religion?: Part 1

*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.

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14 Responses to Should Islam Be Considered an “Abrahamic” Religion?: Part 1

  1. anon says:

    Your arrogance comes through!!!—Just because the Rabbi’s explanation of Judaism does not fit your “Christian-centric” world view you complain!!!!—–why not simply accept that Judaism is a unique faith different from Christianity and built on a different premise!

    • Scott Bridger says:

      Anon, thanks for participating. I would say that the Rabbi’s explanation doesn’t fit with the flow of what the God of the Bible is doing in human history. How do you understand God’s promise to make the seed of Abraham the source of blessing for all families of the earth? What is the blessing and how has it been brought to all “families” of the earth? ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה Cf. Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14. I would say the Rabbi’s explanation is in keeping with what post 70 AD Rabbinic Judaism has formulated as its self-understanding, but this appears to be radically different than the redemptive intentions of the God of Israel.

  2. Very interesting.
    From experience, “though I’m doubtful my message in this regard was clearly understood” tends to be the norm in such interaction, but having “the implications of it” understood, is a breakthrough indeed and certainly a successful seed planting accomplishment.
    In Luke 5:39, Jesus warns of this difficulty of being understood saying “no one having drunk old wine immediately desires new, for he says, The old is better.”
    All we need to do is remember Jesus’ advice from Luke 12:12 that “the Holy Spirit shall teach you in the same hour what you ought to say” and then reply on His prompting, what we should, and should not say.
    I’d recommend Faisal Malick’s book “The Destiny of Islam in the Endtimes – Understanding God’s Heart of the Muslim People” where the author explains that in such discussions, in particular with Muslims, reliance on the prompting of the Spirit is critical, for the Lord wants conversions of hearts, not minds.
    Look forward to the next article in the series!
    Blessings, Angus

    • Scott Bridger says:

      Thanks Angus! Great insight and I appreciate the book recommendation. I’d say that the heart and mind are integrally linked and that it is particularly important when speaking with Muslims to know their worldview and how they are interpreting our words. Only then can a clear presentation of the gospel be given and understood that pierces the heart. Thanks for your interaction.

  3. R. Geoffrey Dennis says:

    Dear Dr. Bridger,
    I was delighted to come across your blog and see that you posted your reflections on our dialogue. This is a great opportunity for us to continue the conversation; both to clarify and expand our understanding of one another.
    In characterizing what I said about Judaism being a religious culture or ethnicity, rather than a religion in the sense used in the western world, which thinks about these issues in Christianity and Islamic-centric ways, you over-reach in your characterization of my remarks by suggesting that I, and other Jews, regard the Blessed Holy One to be a “tribal deity.” As I observed to you at the time, Jews certainly understand God to be a universal God, but one God Who can speak and enter into relationship with humanity in diverse ways, i.e., God does not require all humanity to adhere to one universal religion to enjoy communion with Him (Her). Moreover, this divine tolerance extends to the worship of Him by non-Jews through “intermediaries”, as is boldly demonstrated in Torah with a verse like Deut. 4:19, which we discussed at length during our meeting, but also elsewhere, in the Prophets, “From the [rising] eastern sun to it [western] setting, great is My name among the nation, everywhere incense and pure oblations are offered in My name; for My name is honored among the nations” (Malachi 1:11). Clearly, at a time when Israel was the only monotheistic nation in the world, these verses would be nonsensical unless God accepted forms of non-Israelite worship.
    If a seamless consistency between proof texts is the issue of the day, then we have to resolve how one can insist God has only one way to relate to humanity, when Scripture clearly states that non-Israelites are given permission to worship and acknowledged to worship the one God through intermediary aspects of Creation. The best solution to this conundrum, I would posit, is the Jewish position; that this strict prohibition from assigning divinity to anything (including, by every indication, another Jew), actually applies only to the Jewish people. These verses, interpreted in accordance with the Jewish theology of divine pluralism, should be both inspiring and comforting for Christians, who otherwise would seem to be violating the commandment (Ex. 20:4-5, “You shall not make unto yourself a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down unto them, nor serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate “ (cf. Deut. 4:15-19).
    This Jewish theology of non-exclusivism, derived from the verses of Torah – that God may create different, but valid, relationships /covenants with peoples other than the Jews – effectively gets Christians off the hook for what would otherwise seem to be a complete disregard for the verses prohibiting idolatry, which are quite unambiguous in their meaning.

    Faithfully,
    Rabbi Geoff Dennis

    • Scott Bridger says:

      Greetings Rabbi Geoff,

      Thanks for interacting and pardon my delay in responding. We’ve been celebrating the recent birth of our fifth child and fourth boy, Isaac.

      I want to respond to a few ideas in your reply. First, I find the notion of a Torah-sanctioned religious pluralism based on Deut 4:19 quite novel. Unfortunately, I have to object to your exegesis of the Hebrew Bible at a number of points. I think it is important to interpret Deut 4:19 in light of Gen 1 where God creates all things as the inheritance of humanity, not for humanity to worship. These are portioned חלק to all peoples as their inheritance – property – not as objects that God sanctions for them to worship. Indeed, it is inconsistent with God’s unique identity that he would sanction the worship of anything other than himself. True monotheism must be coupled with its corollary, monolatry.

      Second, it is clear that the Universal God who speaks in the Hebrew Bible has the whole of humanity in view in the narration of the events that begin with creation, extend to humanity’s collective rebellion the “Fall,” and then issue in the selection of Abraham and his “seed” as the focal point of God’s plan of redemption and restoration. This is clear from the Table of Nations in Gen 10 and how God punishes humanity collectively throughout the early chapters of Genesis. Indeed, these events mark the first 11 chapters of the Torah and provide the keep points in the story the Bible is narrating about the whole cosmos. God’s choice of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the nation of Israel, and his prescription of not only adhering to monotheism but engaging in monolatry must all be viewed within the context of the Torah’s foundational document and foundational chapters within that document, Gen 1-11. There is only One God and He is both Creator and Ruler of all things. The gods that the nations worship are merely creations, demons (Deut 32:17) that are not worthy of humanity’s devotion. To legitimize them is to undo the foundations of monotheism and its corollary, monolatry. And this is probably where we part ways. For you appear to adhere to monotheism but not its corollary, monolatry (at least, universal monolatry). And historically I can see why. As Rabbinic Judaism developed in the aftermath of 70 AD it is clear that certain strands of the faith applied monolatry only to Jewish people (as defined by Halakha). It is in this sense that I interpret your belief that Jewish monolatry is only for Jews and classify your understanding of Judaism and the worship of the God of Israel as a type of “tribal monotheism.”

      Finally, as with other versions of religious pluralism (cf. Hick), I find the Torah-sanctioned version you champion suffers from the same inherent problems that plague all attempts at achieving a coherent pluralist account of human religiosity both phenomenologically and religiously/theologically/philosophically – they are all inherently exclusivistic. The proof of this is that each version inevitably comes to insist upon the redefinition of key tenets (e.g., Incarnation, Trinity) in the faiths they critique in order to comport with their understanding of religious tolerance/pluralism. Philosophically, this appears to be part of what is operating your critique of Christian worship of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. But I think it would also serve to inform/remind our readers that all of the first “Christians” were Jews. Also, the New Testament – הברית החדשה – is a collection of Messianic Jewish writings. And those writings bear testimony to two facts. First, the Jews who authored the New Testament documents were monotheists. Second, they viewed their worship of Yeshua as consist with both their monotheism and monolatry. It is clear that they viewed him as participating in the unique identity of the One God, not as some semi-divine intermediary (for more, cf. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel). While I recognize that there are quarters within New Testament scholarship that have sought to challenge this historic reading of the New Testament, it is telling that the vast majority of Messianic Jews in the US, Israel, and other countries would affirm this historic position in concert with their Christian brothers and sisters the world over.

      Warm Regards,
      Scott

      • Geoffrey Dennis says:

        Glad to be continuing our dialogue and mazal tov on the birth of your son, Isaac, a great m’chayyah. Kol tuv to your wife and your entire family.

        With regard to reading Deut. 4:19 in light of Gen. 1, your argument of what would be “consistent” with “God’s unique identity” is a plausible one, but hardly definitive, and in my opinion, not really probable. We cannot know what God, in His mysterious majesty, would sanction, except that which God chooses to reveal to us. And for that, we have foremost the claim of scriptures, so the Deut. passage stands on its own merits, and, I think you would agree, it read according to its own terms, rather than forced to conform to our preconceptions of what it “must” mean in light of our prior commitments (Hellenistic-medieval philosophy, or scholastic theology, for example, which I would posit has distorted the “original intent[ions]” of the Scriptures).
        Thus we are troubled by the meaning of Deut. 4:19 largely because Maimonides, or Aquinas, or Calvin, or Cohen, or Barth, have conditioned us to think that this cannot possibly be the meaning. But if we take it on its own terms, is pretty clear. The verse is quite evidently NOT about the Sun, Moon and stars, as the “inheritance of humanity,” since the clear issue in the verse (and surrounding context) is “what may an Israelite worship”? If your reading were correct, then these objects were “allotted” to the other nations “as an inheritance of humanity,” but not to Israel – Jews don’t get to participate in the sun, moon, and stars? From my perspective, that is incoherent, whether on its own, or in light of Gen. 1.

        I realize how contrary to expectations this verse is. It has tormented a few Jewish thinkers also. I think specifically of RASHI, whom, I hope you will agree, is among the most insightful close readers of the Hebrew Scriptures to ever live. He understood exactly what the verse is saying, but was dumbfounded by its implications, which he (reading through the prism of Hellenistic-medieval assumptions) found intolerable. But the verse says what it says, so his solution was to conclude “allotted” meant – “Which God assigned to them as deities; He did not prevent them from erring after them; rather, He caused them to slip, [i.e., to err], with their futile speculations, in order to drive them out of the world.”

        This conclusion acknowledges the correct meaning while trying to force conformity to RASHI’s (and your) preconceptions, but he does so at the expense of declaring God a “trickster god,” Who deceives the bulk of his creation to ensure their downfall. This kind of quasi-gnostic solution is certainly not unique, since Paul makes essentially the same exegetical move when he declares that God gave the Torah to Israel only to teach us that it is impossible to fulfill, that it is a curse, not a blessing (Galatians 3:10-13). Since God clearly states it “is not beyond [your] reach” in Deut. 30:11-14, Paul, too, has to paint God as a trickster god, a deceiving god. He knows the clear meaning of the Torah, yet still needs the Torah text to serve his theological agenda, so he is forced to contrive a twisted purpose.

        My assumption is this: God does not deceive us. If God states that other people may fruitfully worship Her through intermediaries, than that is the true nature of things. Monotheism and monolatry “must” be yoked – for Israel. Deuteronomy 4 makes this explicit. But the issue of monotheism (only one God) and monolatry (only one object of worship) are explicitly unyoked in verse 19. Again, I would see this as plus from a Christian perspective, which has made Jesus your primary object of worship. This verse reassures both Christians and Jews that the way of Christian worship is not, in fact, a kind of idolatry, but rather in its own way a “pure offering” as described by Zechariah.

        It is my position that its only when we let go of that self-imposed Greek stuff (the perfection and unchanging nature of God; simultaneous omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, impassivity, etc.) and understand God as described in Scriptures (dynamic, changing, full of pathos, embracing human diversity, tolerant of human imperfect, etc.), can we truly approach understanding the God of Israel as He is, rather than as reason requires us to believe, or want Her to be.
        On your second point, I notice you do not address my earlier critique of “Fall” head on, either because you haven’t gotten to it, or because you realize I’m on to something. Instead, you assert the reality of the “fall” categorically, which is your right, it’s an axiom – of Western Christianity. But I have to say your “plan of redemption and restoration” is effectively an eisogetical imposition onto the Hebrew Scriptures. This is especially the case in Genesis, where there is precious little (really, no) condemnation of people for paganism. Arguably, there are no pagans to be found, anywhere, in Genesis. People are condemned for their hubris and ambition (the Tower), their promiscuity and violence (the Flood), but where in the first 11 chapters does God condemn humanity for either their “falleness” or their idolatry? (the answer: nowhere). The only moment where we might have an actual pagan appear in Genesis is the King of Salem (Gen. 14), who blesses Abraham in the name of “El Elyon koneh shamayim v’aretz.” Is that the Canaanite El [see Ras Shamra and the Siferi treaty of Aleppo]?. Melchizedek invokes neither Adonai, El Shaddai, nor Elohim, the three “authorized” names for God, AND ABRAHAM ACCEPTS THE BLESSING by spontaneously combining the name Adonai with El Elyon (22). Is that syncretism? Perhaps Abraham accepts that this foreigner worships the same god as he does, even if he names him with a pagan moniker? My reading is hardly definitive, but I would say it is as plausible as the Christian one that declares the king to be the pre-existent Christ.*
        And once again, you give a universal cast to Deut. 32:17 which is simply not there in the text. It is Israel, not humanity, being addressed in 32:9-31, and it is Israel who has failed in correct worship, not the nations. As I like to say, read it — here is no condemnation of the nations here for false worship.

        Look, we both believe God has double standards. For you, as you stated in our meeting, God is gracious and forgiving to all humanity – yet – yet activates that grace and forgiveness only towards those who worship Jesus, a striking double standard from my perspective that privileges Christians within God’s supposedly universal love. God supposedly loves non- Christians, but God nevertheless lovingly stuffs them into the oven of eternal punishment and abandons them for their failure to accept Christian doctrine. For me, God is gracious and loving toward all humanity, even though he establishes a “double standard” concerning monotheism: one for Jews, one for non-Jews. You like to characterize this as “tribal monotheism,” and I guess embrace the phrase, but on my own terms, in that I believe God is gracious toward every tribe, nation, and religion, and does not abandon the rest of humanity simply by calling one of them “treasured” or “first born son.”
        I don’t have time now to consider your third point, but I will. Thanks for your scholarship and your thoughtful engagement — Geoff Dennis.

        *the philological and historical issues around the origins of El Elyon are bested summarized in Frank Cross’s Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (pp. 46-52). I discover I have, quite unconsciously, pretty much reiterated the argument of my teacher, Dr. Hanan Brichto, z’l, in my reading of Gen. 14 (SEE: The Names of God, pp. 199-201).

      • Geoffrey Dennis says:

        Concerning your final point, I have to say I do not understand what you mean when you write, “the same inherent problems that plague all attempts at achieving a coherent pluralist account of human religiosity both phenomenologically and religiously/theologically/philosophically – they are all inherently exclusivistic.” In what way to you mean “exclusivistic”? And I’m not clear on how your “proof” relates to being “flawed…phenomenologically…etc.” I think what you are saying is that my efforts to read the Torah in the pashat (its obvious meaning) undermines established (Christian) dogma. I suppose that could be a result, though it is not my point. You are right, as I wrote earlier, our inherited doctrines of late antiquity and the middle ages, which insist that the Bible means “x” even when it doesn’t say “x,” are problematic from my perspective. Since you shifted the conversation to specifically Christian doctrines, I will acknowledge it’s hard for me personally to embrace triniterianism when the Bible itself never describes God as “father, son, and holy spirit.” It’s equally difficult for me as a Jew to embrace the claims of John 1.1 when Deuteronomy 4:12-18 expressly forbids us to worship “the form of a man.” As I said before, I take the text at its word, and do not think this was some “trick” to make Israel reject the incarnate God in order to advance a larger divine purpose. I actually think God forbids Israel to worship a man, or, in due deference to Christology, “the form of a man.” But I have no interest in offering a “critique of Christian worship of Jesus” at all. Rather, I think I’ve repeatedly pointed out this verse serves as biblical grounds I readily embrace for why that worship is acceptable to God. Deut. 4:19 is an endorsement, not a condemnation. What you apparently dislike is the fact that this text does not privilege Christian worship over other non-Jewish faiths (I think Islam started this conversation).

        On to the next thing. Of course, no one called the New Testament (written in Greek and not translated into Hebrew until done so by missionaries) the Brit heHadashah until the invention of Christian marketing to Jews in the 19th Century, so we’ve left a scholarly conversation and are heading into polemics (and I assume the adjective appears before the noun in Hebrew you published because of your word processor. I know you know better). Certainly several of the authors (Mark and Matthew) appear to be Jews, but Luke is certainly not, and John is either not a Jew, or a remarkably self-hating Jew.

        Without question, the first followers of Jesus were Jews. Whether they were Christians by your definition of a “Christian” is much more debatable. That they might have thought of Jesus like Elijah or Enoch, undergoing a transubstantiation into an angel, is certainly plausible. Perhaps they leaped to a full-blown theosis, the elevation of Jesus to divinity, which the later church coined “adoptionism,” but that what of it?

        I’m afraid your argument: because some Jews followed Jesus, that therefore makes Christianity somehow “Jewish” is not very compelling. You are certainly sharp enough to understand why, so I am left wondering why you are making it to me; perhaps you are not speaking to me, but to a presumed audience for our dialogue. We both know very well that people in the pews are rarely sophisticated theologians. To offer an analogy: Virtually every one of the many, many early Mormons was raised and educated as a Protestant Christian. Now, by your logic, that would make LDS a legitimate and valid form of Christianity – they would have known what was valid and what was not- and so the new doctrines they professed are fundamentally Christian. Maybe you believe that to be true. If so, say so, but I bet you won’t. Good for the goose is good for the gander.

        As for today, the messianic movement is a remarkable creature of modern Christian marketing. I’ve spent time hanging around several “messianic” churches and the first thing that strikes me is how few Jews there are. These congregations give gentile philo-semitic Christians the “authentic deli experience” of “Jewish” worship, yet these churches are actually made of relatively few Jews (In one case, I found only one, in a paid position as “minister” or “rabbi”) and many non-Jews. Moreover, it is clear that for every Jew there who has made an authentic conversion (and I respect all decisions of conscience), there is another who is there for ulterior reasons – “the people are so welcoming,” “I’m in an interfaith marriage, and this seemed like a good compromise,” etc. Your whole line of argument, in fact, opens up a whooping big can of worms, as my own congregation has a sizable core of Jews who are gerim – converts, most of them directly from Christianity. What are we to make of their decisions in the context of this dialogue? The argument cuts both ways. This is not a “proof” I would have put forward.

        Let me conclude by observing that by drifting into asserting that I am trying to cause “the redefinition of key tenets (e.g., Incarnation, Trinity),” you express a misdirected anxiety. As I said at our meeting, I don’t really object to what Christians believe, up to the point where they try and impose their beliefs on me, my children, or my congregants. In the end, what we seem to be debating is whether the Hebrew Scriptures validates your claim that Christianity is the one true faith, and I hope you can see the ample biblical grounds for why I, and other Jews, cannot accept that claim.

        So there’s my reflections on your most recent post. I look forward to your response. As always, I appreciate your engagement with me in this dialogue.
        Geoffrey Dennis

      • Scott Bridger says:

        Hi Geoff,

        Thanks for interacting. I want to respond to one part of your most recent reply before moving on to the other parts concerning the Fall, hermeneutics, and cultural/linguistic diversity (all within separate replies that may be slower in coming… Summer is a busy time for a father of 5 all of whom are 9 and under! :-)

        You seem to be hanging a lot of your theological edifice on your particular interpretation of Deut 4:19. For the sake of argument, let’s concede your interpretation. Let’s say that God allotted (temporarily) certain deities (created beings) to rule over the nations during the “former times” and that for a period of time he “turned the other way” while those nations worshiped his creation. Does this therefore legitimize that worship (either then, but more importantly, now)? You might argue that there was a degree of legitimization during the period in which the Torah was authored, but to argue that this was and remains God’s intention till today is a stretch. It is simply out of step with the progressive flow of redemptive history stretching from Gen 1-11 to the Patriarchs, etc. Moreover, it is out of step with express declaration and intention of God in the Psalms and Prophets.

        Ps 89 says that these “so-called” elohim (the language used to describe these beings in the late Bronze Age), think they have knowledge (an echo of the serpent’s presumption in the Garden) but yet compared to God, they are ignorant. Indeed, in Ps 82:7 the Psalmist declares that they “will die,” like “man/Adam” (probably a dual meaning), another echo of the Garden and the death that was brought to all humanity in the Fall (in time, I’ll hopefully address the Fall in another post). Moreover, the Psalmist, in concert with other Psalms and the Prophets (particularly Isaiah 40-66) declares that God will inherit the nations. Cf also Ps 67.

        When we turn to the New Testament, it is clear that the Jews who authored the NT documents interpret the coming of Messiah Yeshua as the end of the “times of ignorance.” Shaul (Paul) states this clearly and he and the other NT Jewish writers view the gospel as the mystery unveiled; the mystery of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles in the monlotrous worship of his covenant people. They are now included by virtue of their faith in Israel’s Messiah; indeed, all people/nations are now invited to participate in his covenant relationship and become true sons of Abraham through the seed he promised to bring (Gen 3:15; 12:3, et passim). Covenant faithfulness is now interpreted by participation in the New Covenant (Jer 33; NT). Yeshua is the blessed seed; the gospel is the blessing that has come to all, regardless of ethnic or cultural situation, and all are now called upon (and condemned for rejecting) to join themselves to the God of Israel in worship of the Messiah who uniquely participates in the Life of God as the Living Torah and means through which all people can become Sons of Israel – his covenant community.

        Indeed, Isaiah anticipates this in Isa 60:3,5 where he talks about the (pagan) nations bringing their treasures to the temple as an acceptable act of worship to the God of Israel. This eschatological vision is echoed in Rev 21:24 where we see this fulfilled as the nations bring in their treasures/glory in worship of Yeshua.

        This brings me to address your comments about cultural and linguistic diversity, which I hope to do in a separate reply.

        Shavua Tov!
        Scott

      • R. Geoffrey Dennis says:

        A good post (6/17), raising great issues. I may indeed hang a lot on a single verse, but then, orthodox Christianity hangs a ?central? doctrine of Christology, the virgin birth, on a single verse (Isa. 14:7). I think Det. 4:19 can bear the weight I place on it.

        I love your phrase “the progressive flow of redemptive history.” First, I appreciate the word “progressive,” because I thought that was out of fashion in so many Christian circles, but also, it reflects your love of a good story. Of course, that flow is one you have read onto the biblical narratives – not that I am objecting. We all draw together over-arching meaning from the unwieldy elements of Scriptures. But it all depends on where we choose to stop and things we choose to highlight, doesn’t it. Since Jews read the Scripture in a different order, with different highlights, and we don’t find the life of Jesus a meaningful highlight, or the NT a source of sacred history (more on that in a moment), forgive me if your flow doesn’t flow for me.

        There is no question that Israel is vouchsafed a higher understanding of God and the The nations apparently must make due with a (more) imperfect grasp of God, but that doesn’t mean God flatly rejects their worship, as I have shown. Now, if they come to a better understanding, great, but that does not negate the tolerance God grants for those who have not “caught up.” Again, you conflate the expectations God sets for Israel with the expectations God has for the other nations and peoples. I can’t emphasize this enough.

        Which brings me to a digession (apologies) on something that has always intrigued me. How do Christians determine what features of the Hebrew Scriptures are only in force in “former times.” What are the principles you use to dismiss a mitzvah (commandment), but retain another. Why is this revelation out of date, while others remain in force? This for example, as compared to the prohibition against men laying with each other as a woman? Why does Christianity treat this as in force and a critical prohibition when Shabbat, lending at interest, or a hundred other examples are now things of “former times?” I fully grasp the notion of the “commandments nailed to the cross, which I have heard many times, a uniform and graspable hermeneutic, but so why do selected commandments get ‘unnailed?’

        Back to the conversation. “End of times” ignorance is all well and good (the NT, remember, is offering a rationale for why things have gone so badly, not proof that this was the “redemptive plan”), if the 1st Century CE had been anywhere near the end of times. If the passage of time changes things or teaches us things, it has made abundantly evident that the life of Jesus really didn’t bring it any closer in any obvious way. For all the historical change the advent of Christianity has brought, the messianic times is clearly not one of them. And this is the nub of the Jewish-Christian debate. We are as deadly and brutal (Christians included) as we ever were. The laments of a world unredeemed we find in the Hebrew Scriptures are as relevant as ever precisely because Jesus has not changed this – and ending this lamentable condition of the world is the sine qua non of the eschatological messiah.

        Just let me also note, as our discussion progresses, that this argument for the messiahship of Jesus cannot be carried through citing the NT, at least not with me. Turning back to Man of Steel, it’s an easy thing to literarily tweak anybody’s biography in such a way that it can be made to (partially) fit a known and pre-existent template. Compelling evidence for the end of times messiah therefore must be found in the world, not in the (may I say, partisan) testimonies of gifted writers.

  4. R. Geoffrey Dennis says:

    Concerning your paragraph which begins, “Interestingly…” Actually, at the time I said the first 11 chapters, at the risk of seeming mikdakdaik about it. As we both know, everyone, even fundamentalists, make choices about the meaning of the Bible, especially about what passages of the Scriptures to treat as factual/literal, and what parts to regard as figurative/metaphoric. For example, (I presume) the professors at Criswell do not regard the world to be flat, an assumption which underpins Daniel 4:7-8. Nor do they believe that the planet is shaped like a matzah, a plane with four corners, as Is. 11:12 and Rev. 7:1 indicate. Nor do they think that the sun orbits the earth, as stated in Joshua. On the historical plane, we know that Darius did not conquer Babylon, as claimed in Dan. 6:1. Cyrus the Great did. No, a reasonable reader would take these to be human-limited perspective figures of speech and journalistic errors, not omnipotent declarations of scientific or historic reality. Historical accuracy continues to be an issue in the Gospels, where events and chronologies differ between the four books, and sometimes fail to correspond with extra-biblical historical evidence at all. So given that we all acknowledge some level of figurative expression is at work in various books of the Bible, why is it necessary to insist on the scientific and historic factuality of the first 10 (or 11) chapters of Genesis?
    I can see why you feel compelled to insist on the utter historicity of every story in Genesis – as Paul himself acknowledges, if The Earthling and the Living thing (Adam and Eve, as we have incorrectly dubbed them) did not, in fact, actually live and “fall” as described and interpreted, than the sacrifice of Jesus loses its metaphysical necessity. But that is a Christian problem.
    For Jews, with our silly tribal dual sense of people-hood/religion, the Bible has dual meaning. It is our sacred text AND our national story. The library of books that make up our Scriptures are to us what Beowulf, the Malbinogen, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and The Tales of King Arthur are to the English, or what the Iliad, Odyssey, the Histories are to the Greeks. The Scriptures are our stories, both sacred and important, even if they occasionally do not or cannot correspond with what we now know about actual scientific reality, or the actual order of historical events.
    The issue is even less pertinent to us as “the Fall,” with all the metaphysical consequences ascribed to it, is a post-biblical – really purely Christian – doctrine. Truly, I ask, if “the Fall” is the critical, defining event of human nature, why is it that Adam and Eve, and the expulsion for Eden is hardly mentioned by subsequent Hebrew scriptures, or by the Prophets? Look them up. How often are the Prophets framing anything going on between God and humanity in the context of what happened in Eden? Do Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Joel, Habakkuk, Zechariah, Malachi, any prophet, in fact, aside from Ezekiel, mention Adam, Eve, or Eden? And even Ezekiel only uses Eden as a frame for condemning the king of Tyre, hardly a global statement on human nature. And where, outside of the first 4 chapters of Genesis, are Adam and Eve invoked to teach Israel about humanity’s “fallen nature?” “The Fall,” it become evident, is an entirely Christian preoccupation. As is the case resurrection, eternal damnation, and other core Christian beliefs, it turns out that the story of the Earthling, the Living Thing, and the expulsion from Eden hardly figure into thinking of other books of the TaNaKH at all. It is only post-biblically that this mythic origins narrative is metastasizes into an important doctrine, and pretty much only by Christianity; the prophets simply did not share Christianity’s pre-occupation with the expulsion, or view humanity or history through “Falleness-colored” glasses.

  5. R. Geoffrey Dennis says:

    Professor Bridger,
    This brings me to the rest of your essay, starting at “Though I’m doubtful…” First, let me note that my observation on the 38,000-some non-Roman Catholic denominations was in no way a disparagement of Christianity, but rather an illustration of my point that diversity of Biblical interpretation is both the norm and (IMHO) the true measure of the divinity of that revelation, Which brings me to the rest of your essay, starting at “Though I’m doubtful…” First, let me note that my observation on the 38,000-some non-Roman Catholic denominations was in no way a disparagement of Christianity, but rather an illustration of my point that diversity of Biblical interpretation is both the norm and (IMHO) the true measure of the divinity of that revelation, rather than claiming there is a single, definitive meaning to Scriptures, and we all need to approach our singular truth claims concerning what the Bible “says” with utmost humility.
    But let’s turn to your fabulous argument about language, culture, and how those things demonstrate which is the “true faith.” I have to say, I was quite surprised by the direction your argument took, and at the time I failed to grasp what you were driving at. But I’ve thought about it afterwards, and I come to appreciate what a brilliant construct it is.
    That is an elegant bit of apologetics. You took what can be considered a major weakness of historical Christianity — the two-fold problem of a) being largely indifferent to revelation in the original languages, depending instead on problematic translations for major claims of truth and doctrine; and b) the well-documented practice of Christianity co-opting non-biblical, local, often pagan, customs (Christmas, Easter, bunnies, eggs, yuletime, Christmas trees, icons, etc.) and “baptizing” them – and you turned those weaknesses into strengths, the basis for claiming Christianity is the most true because it is the most trans-cultural. Awesome.
    Still, it leaves some problems unaddressed. First, how can we be confident that any translation of the sacred word, which was revealed in a specific language, a language made up of a distinctive range of connotative meanings, wordplays, allusions, and other specific features, adequately captures the full truth and multiple meanings of that revelation? As a speaker of several languages, you know as well as I that it is impossible to fully replicate the semantic range of one language in another. This is a problem especially for fundamentalists, who insist on both the absolute significance and the precise specificity of each and every verse, phrase, and word. The Latin saying, omnis traductor traditor, “every translator is a traitor,” sums up the quandary nicely. Unless one can demonstrate (how could one?) that every translation is a work of “the Holy Spirit,” one must view every Bible translation with a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Not only nuance or subtlety of meaning, but even important divine teachings (for aren’t they all important?) are lost when a Hebrew or Aramaic revelation is rendered into Greek, Latin, English, Bantu, and Turkic. A verse which conveys multiple vectors of meaning in its original language is often reduced to a single, incomplete, and therefore misleading, idea. The problematic nature of translating the Hebrew word almah as “virgin” is a well documented example, but only the most prominent among many.
    So let’s turn to the other side of your argument, the supposed “weakness” of a “mono-culture,” linguistically-centered faith tradition. Taking Islam out of the conversation for the moment and focusing solely on Judaism, I regard – and you must already know – this argument to be something of a straw man. The idea that Judaism is not a bearer of “linguistic and cultural diversity,” and therefore inadequate to God’s purpose, is simple not an honest assessment of the evidence. Judaism is a faith tradition of a shared language, but also a globe-spanning tradition embedded in and expressed in innumerable local minhagim (customs), a spiritual way of life fully realized in multiple languages, contexts, and cultures. While we Jews give Hebrew pride of place to ensure an element of global unity and the fullest possible understanding of Scriptures, we have simultaneously translated them into many vernacular languages for the edification of those who are not Hebrew-literate: Greek (the translation that midwifed the early church), Aramaic, Arabic, English, German, French, these are just the most famous of many Jewish translations. Jews simply insist that we be constantly engaged with the text in the original language to ensure fullness of understanding. I would, at the risk of sounding a little chauvinistic, describe this as “the best of both worlds” approach, a successful harmonization of the two polarities that form the basis of your argument.
    Which is not to belittle the achievements of Christianity (and Islam, which is also not a “mono-culture”) in conveying the God of Israel and God’s teaching to many nations and peoples, or to deny that cultural and linguistic diversity does indeed fulfill godly purposes. Bringing other peoples to God is not the Jewish commission, so we do not begrudge the honor due to the two other “Abrahamic faiths” in achieving this trans-cultural outreach. But we do not grant either’s claim to being the “standard of faith,” or the one true religion, and I do not see how this line of argument, clever as it is, requires any rethinking of that position. I agree, God’s love of human diversity is real, purposeful, and important, but that love does not logically stop at the boundaries of Christian doctrine; it just as readily justifies the existence of three, or more, great and very different faiths.

    • Scott Bridger says:

      Hi Geoff,

      I would affirm all that you have written concerning the linguistic diversity of Judaism. This is self-evident.

      However, the difference resides in the ethno-cultural identity that Rabbinic Judaism imposes upon its converts/adherents. As you are well aware, many of these minhagim are those that were the source of contention in Acts/Galatians as the New Covenant community was working out how Jewish followers of Yeshua could simultaneously be faithful to the Torah and participate in table-fellowship with Gentile followers of Yeshua. The way non-Messianic Jews engaged in proselytizing of Gentiles during the Second Temple period did this was to require conversion. Those who were not willing to fully convert were allowed to participate on a limited basis in synagogue worship as “God-fearers.” Thus, while many branches of Judaism today are not engaged in the commission of bringing the nations to worship the God of Israel, this was not always the case (nor is it uniformly the case today).

      I would argue that this commission is present from the beginning and is directly tied to God’s choice of Abraham. Granted, there was a progressive revealing of the full implications of this calling and it wasn’t nor could it be fully realized or launched until the Messiah had come; yet it is there throughout the Tanach in embryonic form. Indeed, Abraham’s “negotiations” with God over Sodom/Gomorrah appear to be a manifestation of his realization that God had called him to be a blessing to the nations. God’s destruction of these nations for engaging in idolatrous sexual practices would appear to contradict his calling to be a blessing to them (though I would say it is simply a manifestation of God’s wrath against sin; as was his destruction of the Amorites/Canaanites by the hands of the Sons of Israel upon their capturing of the Land).

      I want to take issue with two of your comments. Transculturality is not, in and of itself, a standard for determining truth, nor did I argue so. It’s simply an observation of reality when it comes to Christianity that it is the most culturally, ethnically, and geographically dispersed and diverse faith tradition on the face of the planet. I would argue that this is in keeping with the progressive flow of redemptive history; in particular, the current era of “redemption” that we are now living in. But in and of itself this cannot be used to determine the truthfulness of the faith.

      Moreover, “baptizing,” as you state, of culture practices and filling them with biblical meaning is manifestation of the Gospel’s inherent translatability (the technical term for this in missiology and theology is “contextualization”). This is not a new idea and has been well-documented in the history of the expansion of the gospel by scholars like Andrew Walls at Edinburgh and Lamin Sanneh at Yale.

      But neither is this a “weakness” of Christianity; on the contrary, it is the strength of the faith (but not necessarily an argument for its truthfulness), and this is the point of my emphasizing it in the context of discussing the differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There is no imposition of a set of standardized cultural practices to which all those who accept the Gospel must adhere. There is no one sacred language. All languages are sacred and viewed as viable conduits for communicating/expressing/embodying the gospel. “Christmas” is not a required celebration and, indeed, is not celebrated on the 25th of December by many evangelicals around the world. Yes, the gospel is transcultural and is true, I would argue, but the way that it manifests itself and grows among each people and the way they express it is will continue to be as diverse as the peoples under the stars of the heavens. This is why evangelicals (Baptists included) view the Bible as the sole source of transcultural authority, and not our various interpretations of it. This does not mean all interpretations are equally valid or equally true. Nor is it a license for reader-response hermeneutics. Meaning is in the text and it is independent of our minds (which, as a Reform Rabbi, seems to be your stance as well, which is as refreshing as it is surprising). When it comes to the diversity of Christianity, many Christians view this cultural-ethno-linguistic diversity as a blessing and indeed a manifestation of the glorious unity and diversity that exemplifies both our God, his creation, and his redemptive intentions for humanity stretching from Genesis to Revelation.

      בברכה
      Scott

      • R. Geoffrey Dennis says:

        Dear Scott (may I be so bold?)

        A very interesting and useful answer. I appreciate what you are arguing, and yours is a fair (though only one or several) way to read “the progressive flow of redemptive history.” I agree, to a point. I would rephrase your observations about my hermeneutic stance as “meanings are in the text.” As I said earlier, part of the divinity of the sacred text is it’s multi-vocality, that a verse bears “70 faces,” as Rabbi Akiba puts it. So we can simultaneously read the same story and draw different, equally inspired, conclusions. i.e., both Jews and Christians can read the same text differently and still draw inspired conclusions from them. If you can concede that, then we are are on mutual ground. To pull an analogy from a secular source, I just saw Man of Steel, and was struck by the archly christological reading given to Superman. If you are a fan, you know that for decades Jews have seen Superman as a bearer of a Jewish narrative and values. You are too young, but in the 70s, there was a strong interpretation among evangelicals of Superman as the anti-christ. It’s amazing how a good story can be the vehicle for so many diverse interpretations. Kal v’homer, how much more so, the Scriptures.

        I think you are entitled to celebrate Christian diversity, its adaptability, and global reach. But any claim that this perceived historical arc validates Christianity as necessary and only vehicle of redemption. By saying, “Transculturality is not, in and of itself, a standard for determining truth,” I think I am right that we fundamentally agree.

        Some side thoughts – Is Sodom condemned for it’s idolatry? I missed that. I thought it was condemned for its cruelty to outsiders, it’s culture of rape. i.e., it’s amorality, not for its purity of cult or worship (see my reflections of the absence of idolatry in Genesis in an earlier response).

        You have enough children, you’ve probably intuited this by now – you’ll start getting a full night’s sleep around the time Isaac reaches 12-14 lbs.

        Shalom uv’rachah,

        Geoffrey

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