Understanding the Differences Between the Expansion of Christianity and Islam

Nineteenth-century Christian missions exploded across the globe with the general expectation that the gospel would penetrate the whole world, and that the evangelism of the world would conceivably be completed within a century or so. That sense of optimism is not so prevalent today, probably in part because of the decline of Christianity in parts of the world that were at one time the fountainhead of Christian faith. A review of the past century reveals that regions in which Christianity had at one time taken root have not always remained Christian for long (think Europe). In contrast, Islam’s progress has tended to be more stable, rarely giving up territory once it has been claimed.

In his book, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (T&T Clark, 2002), Scottish historian Andrew Walls explains the difference between the expansions of the two major religions:

Islam can point to a steady geographical progression from its birthplace and from its earliest years. And over all these years it has hitherto not had many territorial losses to record. Whereas the Jerusalem of the apostles has fallen, the Mecca of the prophet remains inviolate. When it comes to sustaining congregations of the faithful, Christianity does not appear to possess the same resilience as Islam. It decays and withers in its very heartlands, in the areas where it appears to have had the profoundest cultural effects. Crossing cultural boundaries, it then takes root anew on the margins of those areas, and beyond. Islamic expansion is progressive; Christian expansion is serial (p. 13).

If Walls is correct, this raises some troubling questions. Why does Christianity wax and wane so consistently, while Islam rarely experiences the same fluctuations? Why do the faithful of Christianity possess what seems to be a more tenuous faith?

Walls asks and answers some of his own questions to provide some answers:

Do the resiliency of Islam and the vulnerability of Christianity reflect something of the inherent nature of the two faiths? Does the very freedom of response inherent in the Christian gospel leave it open to ultimate rejection? Is the Christian impact durable only when there is sustained, unceasing penetration of the host culture? Christianity has no culturally fixed element, as is provided by the Qur’an fixed in heaven, closed traditions on earth, perfection in law in shari’a, single shrine in Mecca, and true word every where in Arabic. If the acts of cultural translation by which the Christians of any community make their faith substantial within that community cease—if (if one may use such language) the Word ceases to be made flesh within that community—the Christian group within that community is likely to lose, not just its effectiveness, but its powers of resistance. Most cultures are in frequent change or encounter with others, so the process of translation is endless (p. 13).

In other words, Islam survives in a given culture because it remains unchanged and sees itself as embattled against cultural difference or change. As a result it can remain monolithic and isolated from the culture. In a world distressed by the culture-destroying power of technology, secularization, urbanization, and other such forces, the unchanging nature of Islam provides a rare sense of security and stability. There is no need to contextualize or adapt. Americans, who have grown up in a constantly changing culture, often forget that not everyone in the world embraces cultural change or the overturning of traditional practices to the same extent that they do.

On the positive side, Christianity has thrived in many parts of the world precisely because the gospel is a message to every tribe and tongue, and while the message must remain the same, the medium and the method are readily adaptable to other cultures.

Walls explains further:

This vulnerability [of Christianity] is also linked with the essentially vernacular nature of the Christian faith, which rests on a massive act of translation, the Word made flesh…Christian faith must go on being translated, must continuously enter into vernacular culture and interact with it, or it withers and fades. Islamic absolutes are fixed in a particular language, and in the conditions of a particular period of human history. The divine Word is the Qur’an, fixed in heaven forever in Arabic, the language of original revelation.

For Christians, however, the divine Word is translatable, infinitely translatable. The very words of Christ himself were transmitted in translated form in the earliest documents we have, a fact surely inseparable from the conviction that in Christ, God’s own self was translated into human form (p. 29).

A charitable reading of Walls reminds us that the success of Christianity throughout history in so many cultures has been the gospel’s ability to reach people in any culture while maintaining the positive aspects of common grace in that culture. The vernacular nature of the Christian faith presents a temptation and an opportunity. The temptation is to contextualize the message of the gospel, and thereby to lose it. For this, Christians are rightly criticized by Muslims. The diluted gospel of much of evangelicalism and fundamentalism under the guise of being relevant or old-fashioned, respectively, bears constant witness to this tragedy. The temptation, however, is not necessary, and Christianity can be adapted to various cultures successfully, without compromising the message. Walls concurs:

Christian faith is repeatedly coming into creative interaction with new cultures, with different systems of thought and different patterns of tradition; that (again in contrast to Islam, whose Arabic absolutes provide cultural norms applying throughout the Islamic world) its profoundest expressions are often local and vernacular. It also means that the demographic and geographical centre of gravity of Christianity is subject to periodic shifts. Christians have no abiding city, no permanent sacred sites, no earthly Mecca; their new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven at the last day (p. 30).

At least two implications arise from these distinctions between Christianity and Islam. First, all of us, not just missionaries, need to translate the faith into the local vernacular in which we find ourselves without compromising the gospel. Christianity is not Islam, and so is not culturally monolithic. Second, rather than seeing the expansion of Christianity as a necessarily universal progressive missionary certainty, perhaps we ought to realize that the spread of the faith will probably always be influenced by the currents of culture and the degree to which Christians in a particular location remain faithful. The survival of the gospel in a particular area is not assured apart from the faithful preaching and teaching of the Word. This is an especially poignant reality for the church in America where attention and commitment to sound doctrine has fallen precipitously, and simultaneously, Islam has expanded exponentially. If Islam is hardly ever dislodged once it is established in a region, the only hope for the spread of Christianity is the wholesale commitment of the church to the centrality of the gospel.

 

The New Gnostic High Priests of Higher Criticism

In the last two years, few issues in biblical studies have been discussed more than the question of the historicity of Adam and Eve. More and more high profile evangelical scholars have made what would have been an unthinkable pronouncement just a few years ago—that Adam and Eve were probably not, or in some cases, definitely not genuine historical figures. Almost all the scholars who have surrendered to the tenets of higher criticism have done so because some “evidence” in science or history was found to be more convincing than the clear words of Genesis 1-3.

The problems with this popular theological shift are myriad. The focus of this post, however, is on the historical pedigree of the heresy that is introduced by well-meaning Christians who try to do exactly what the Gnostics did in the early church. Bruce Shelley describes the gnostic practice of disentangling the gospel from its involvement with “barbaric and outmoded” Jewish notions about God and history (Church History in Plain Language, 52). That is, Gnostics sought to separate the message of Jesus from the historic event of his incarnation, death and resurrection. In doing so they serve as a warning to all who “try to raise Christianity from the level of faith to a higher realm of intelligent knowledge and so increase its attractiveness to important people.”

Shelley explains:

In his effort to reconcile Christ and the gospel with the science and philosophy of the day, the gnostic denied the event and lost the gospel. Just as nineteenth-century defenders of the faith tried to present Jesus Christ in terms of evolution, so the gnostic interpreted the Savior in light of the fascinating ideas of the enlightened men of his day. But the attempt to tie the gospel to the latest theories of men is self-defeating. Nothing is as fleeting in history as the latest theories that flourish among the enlightened, and nothing can be more quickly dismissed by later generations (p. 52).

If the “evidence” of science and history is allowed to rule out the historicity of Adam based on the genre of Genesis 1-3, or the supposed incompatibility of the Genesis account with reigning scientific paradigms, why not apply the same criteria to the miracles of Jesus or his resurrection? Scholars who are denying the historical Adam are increasingly telling us that one has to be an expert in the Ancient Near East (ANE) to understand the Old Testament and in Second Temple Judaism (STJ) to understand the New Testament. Such scholars have become the new high priests who serve as intermediaries between the text of Scripture and the common man.

The relatively new fields of ANE and STJ (only a century or so old) allow a few “qualified” individuals to feel that they alone can interpret the milieu of Scripture for the rest of us. We are told to simply trust them, despite the weight of church history and the perspicuity of Scripture. Almost invariably these scholars over time find less and less in Scripture to be historically accurate or scientifically verifiable. The trajectory is almost always away from belief in the historicity of biblical events and people. What these scholars perceive to be the rescue of the faith from literalistic readings of Scripture is actually the wholesale undermining of any confidence in God’s Word.

The accommodation of higher criticism by evangelicals is ultimately nothing more than a new Gnosticism that privileges a few experts, and will finally eviscerate the faith of many. The historicity of Adam may not seem like a major issue to some, but I believe it is foundational to the reliability of Scripture, and indicative of the sort of doctrines that need to be retained purely on the testimony of Scripture, regardless of what science or history “prove.”

 

The Sacrifice of Christmas

“Good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10)

For most of us here in America, Christmas is a season associated with great joy and happiness, a time to enjoy the comforts of home and family. But have you ever thought how different the very first Christmas was? For Joseph and Mary, that Christmas included some experiences that were not joyous or comfortable.

For them Christmas was about sacrifice, and sacrifice they did. They sacrificed socially. This is one of the reasons the young couple were so troubled by the angel’s announcement that Mary was with child miraculously. Betrothal was a serious social observance, much more serious than our custom of engagement before marriage. The culture, and most of the laws of the ancient world, would require a husband to publicly repudiate his wife through divorce if she was found to be with child during the betrothal period. Only then could he retain his honor and recover the “bride price” he had paid to the family when the betrothal was contracted. To marry her would be to admit promiscuity and would validate all the circulating rumors.

They would sacrifice physically. The discomforts of a long and arduous journey on the back of an animal, in the last days before delivery, are difficult to exaggerate. The aged prophet predicted that many years later, Mary would experience intense pangs of grief as she beheld the sufferings of her son (Luke 2:35).

They would also sacrifice spiritually. Instead of living a quiet, peaceful village life, what God was asking Joseph and Mary to do would place them at center stage in the greatest drama of human history.

All of this is what makes their responses so amazing. Mary responded, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to Your Word” (Luke 1:38). Joseph, “. . .did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He took his wife” (Matt. 1:24). Craig Keener wrote, “Through the willing sacrifice of these exemplary human servants, God brought salvation to the world.”

God is still calling His servants, people like you and me, to sacrifice in ways large and small so that others might hear the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). Let’s enjoy all the joys that Christmas brings to us. And when God leads us to sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel, let’s do so with joy – knowing that through people like us, God is saving the world.

Rest from the Christmas Rush

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son. . .” (Gal. 4:4).

I don’t know about you, but for me the words “Christmas” and “rush” are too often synonymous. The “rush” part is no doubt the evidence of procrastination and poor planning. I begin the season with the best of intentions, but before I know it the schedule just seems out of control. Balls get dropped. Deadlines are missed. Good intentions remain unfulfilled. (This may explain the New Year’s Resolutions tradition!)

I guess that’s why I find Galatians 4:4 such a comfort at this time of year. When it came to providing a Savior for sinners like me, God didn’t miss any deadlines. He didn’t procrastinate or fail to plan. He wasn’t one second late.

Reflect with me for a moment on just how our sovereign God had been working so that human history had reached a state of “fullness,” the climactic time for Jesus to take the stage in the drama of redemption:

1. God used the Jews to provide the Old Testament law so that every person could see their guilt and need of a Savior;

2. God used the Jewish synagogues throughout the world to strategically proclaim monotheism;

3. God used the Greeks to provide a common language so the whole world could hear the gospel;

4. God used the Romans to provide roads and a political peace, making possible safe and efficient travel for gospel preachers.

Just think of it! God was working sovereignty in history, causing dynasties to rise and fall, so that you might come to know the only true King, Jesus Christ – and to know Him so intimately that you can call Him, “Abba” (“Daddy”).

Now, there’s a thought that can transform a frantic rush into a holy hush. I pray that it transforms yours.

Praying that we all keep Christ at the center of our Christmas.

 

“Is Your Mud Sterile?”

It sounds like the lead-in line for a joke—“Is your mud sterile?” Actually it was a serious question from a young mother. Her son had spent a week at our camp—their first experience with camp. Once her son got home, he told her about the joys of playing volleyball in the mud pit. Of course, he was thrilled; but she was a bit distraught. Consequently the call to the church office, “Is your mud sterile?” As serious as the mother was, the question did elicit some laughter.

Yet it is a question that demands our individual consideration. After all, we are mud! We are mud from creation. Genesis 2 tells us that God made mankind (‘adam) from the ground (‘adamah). Not only are we literally made from mud, but our name is basically “Mud.” We are “houses of clay” (Job 4:19). We are “earthy” (1 Cor. 15:48). Our nature reflects our origin. Our origin and heritage during our time on earth reflects the fact that we are mud.

At the same time we are admonished to be pure! 1 Peter 1:15 “As he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation.” Our God-given goal for life may not be to be sterile, but it is to be sanctified. Leviticus 20:7 “Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy: for I am the LORD your God.”

Sanctification is not the result of an act . . . or of a decision . . . or of an intention. It does not come from the company we keep or the environment we frequent. It does come from a lifelong pursuit. “Flee fornication” (1 Cor. 6:18). “Flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14). “Flee also youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22). There are no rest areas and there can be no detours.

So let me ask you—“Is your mud sterile?”

 

Servant of Friend?

A few weeks back I came across Jesus’ comments to his disciples in John 15:15, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

An observation: Christ is making a distinction in levels of relationships. Relationship #1 is that of a master to a servant. This relationship is characterized at best by minimal communication and knowledge (“does not know what his master is doing”). Relationship #2 is that of a master to a friend. This relationship is marked by regular communication that is distinctly personal (“I have heard from my Father I . . . to you”).

Being a friend is definitely better than being a servant. The deeper and more intimate the relationship, the more communication of a personal nature. However, with intimacy comes the risk of exposure and repercussion. The closer the friendship, the greater the risk—but with greater risk comes the possibility of greater reward.

Wanderings and wonderings: My initial thought was—“What are the implications here for pastoral theology?” “How should this affect pastor-staff relations?” After a couple of weeks of reflection, I’ve come to realize that this is a basic principle of leadership. The principle of close, regular, and personal communication brings equal rewards to every leadership situation. What marriage or family or church could not benefit from this type of communication? Too many mates and children and congregations or pastoral staffs feel more like servants than friends.

While intimate communication may not be a requirement for a pastor (1 Timothy 3) or a husband (Genesis 2), it is definitely a great gift that any pastor or husband or father could give those entrusted to him by God. Though not required, it is a reflection of Christlikeness.

Rationality and Irrationality in History

Have you ever read history and wondered, “What in the world were these people thinking?” Have you ever been tempted to question the sanity and rationality of an historical figure? In his essay, “Interpretation, Rationality and Truth” (in Visions of Politics, vol. 1; Cambridge University Press, 2002), Quentin Skinner makes a compelling case for the granting of the rationality of beliefs held in the past, unless strong evidence exists to the contrary. He warns against the common practice of the historian accusing historical figures of irrationality when those historical figures held beliefs that contradict his own. By doing this, says Skinner, the historian sets himself up as the authority on rationality.

This is a significant mistake by the historian. As a fallible human being, the historian is in no significantly better position than any other person to determine what is rational, since he is finite and prone to error himself. It is a sign of hubris to think that a historian is in some privileged epistemological position that grants him a transcendent view of rationality. That is not to say that no historical belief can be judged irrational. But if a historian is to judge a particular belief irrational, it ought to be because it was “not an appropriate belief for that particular agent to have espoused in that particular society at that particular time” (p. 38). The standard for rationality moves away from the historian’s judgment, which is anachronistic, to the time, place and culture of the subjects under consideration.

Skinner gives as an example Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s classic study, The Peasants of Languedoc, in which Ladurie attributes the 16th century belief in witchcraft to “mass delirium.” According to Ladurie, belief in witches could never be rationally held. He proceeds to infer, therefore, that the peasants were slipping savagely into irrationalism and pathological beliefs. He speculates that the peasants were reacting to the loss of traditional spiritual assistance as the Reformation progressed, and so gave in to their anxieties and primordial fears. They felt a deep sense of frustration at the social upheaval and failure of social reform, and so their desire to improve their lot took on a mythical dress with demonic forms of escape.

Skinner disapproves of so much speculation, noting that Laduries’ presupposition of the peasants’ irrationality precludes a number of possible explanations. Skinner suggests one alternative theory that is certainly more plausible in the historical context of the events. He suggests that the peasants also held to the belief that the Bible constituted the directly inspired Word of God, a belief that was widely accepted as rational and indeed indubitable in sixteenth-century Europe. Since the Bible affirms the existence of witches and proscribes that they not be allowed to live. Within this historical context, therefore, it would have been the height of irrationality to disbelieve the existence of witches. To do so would have also been tantamount to denying the credibility of God’s Word, something very dangerous (and therefore irrational) in that day.

From this, Skinner derives a principle of judging the rationality of historical beliefs.

We need to begin by recreating as sympathetically as possible a sense of what was held to connect with what, and what was held to count as a reason for what, among the people we are studying as historians. Otherwise we are sure to commit the characteristic sin of ‘whig’ intellectual history: that of imputing incoherence or irrationality where we have merely failed to identify some local canon of rational acceptability.

It seems that this principle can be applied to at least one twentieth-century belief system that seems to commit this same fallacy of anachronistic judgment of irrationality. The evangelical and liberal retelling of the history of American fundamentalism in the twentieth-century often evidences this unjustified accusation of irrationality. Not that there were no irrational beliefs held by fundamentalists. There were plenty, and the historical evidence bears this out. But the number and severity of these accusations is grossly and inexcusably exaggerated. Only recently have we seen more sympathetic readings of fundamentalist history that have extended this assumption of rationality. Some may also see the postconservative revision of evangelical theology’s so-called reliance on Greek philosophical metaphysics regarding the nature of God as another example, but this is technically wrong, because the postconservative accusation is more often that evangelicals through the ages were simply dead wrong, not that they were irrational.

On the other hand, some fundamentalist histories violate this same principle in their accusation of irrationality on the part of their antagonists. It may very well be that a fair reading will reveal that on some points, some of the opponents of fundamentalists through the years were the rational ones. One need only review the proceedings of the Scopes Trial of 1925 to see that, at a few select points, Clarence Darrow’s beliefs about the need to engage the cultural challenges of that day seemed more rational than William Jennings Bryan’s desire to pretend they didn’t exist.

The point is simply this: ascribing rationality and irrationality to a belief held in the past needs to be done carefully, taking into consideration the cultural and intellectual climate of the time, the place and the individuals under consideration. Only then will we achieve a more objective evaluation of the past and avoid such gross anachronisms.

As Christian historians, we believe that man is made in the image of God, but was ruined spiritually and intellectually at the Fall. We believe that man is essentially the same throughout history (contra evolutionists), and therefore we can assume that our ancestors shared at least some of our beliefs about the importance of coherence and consistency. We can assume, then, that our ancestor’s utterances are a guide to the identification of their beliefs, and that generally, they sought to have coherent and consistent belief systems (p. 54). When we encounter a people for whom it is no problem to affirm and deny the same proposition, we must ascribe irrationality, and admit that there is no prospect of reporting what they believed.

While these historiographical principles may prevent us from understanding the histories of a few self-consciously irrational objects of study, they will also guard us from a speculative hagiography of our historical heroes and a demonization of those whose beliefs we find distasteful.

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