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Mark Beaumont: Christology in Dialogue with Muslims.

[This article first published on the EFAC Australia blog]

Is apologetics any use?

An overview and comments on Christology in Dialogue with Muslims. A Critical Analysis of Christian Presentations of Christ for Muslims from the Ninth and Twentieth Centuries, by Mark Beaumont.  Carlisle, Paternoster, 2005. ISBN 1-84227-123-7.

Mark Beaumont’s PhD thesis is a careful and detailed study of three Christian apologists from the ninth century, three from the twentieth century plus a twentieth century harmonisation of the gospels in Arabic using Qur’anic language, and the way they dialogue with Muslims of their era.

Theodore Abu Qurra (c.755-c.829) was one time bishop of Harran in Syria before being deposed by the Patriarch of Antioch. He was a defender of the Chalcedonian definition against other Christians, Jews and Muslims. He defends the incarnation to Muslims by identifying common ideas about God limiting himself to one place (his throne) but also being everywhere – so why not limit himself to a human body while still ruling the universe. He also “questions the Islamic belief that God’s forgiveness can be obtained directly without the help of an intermediary.” (p39).  Only the death of Christ on the cross allows for forgiveness of sins. Others had tried to argue for the death of Christ by using various Qur’anic texts. Abu Qurra’s approach here might be termed polemical rather than apologetic according to Beaumont. He says, “Abu Qurra’s aim is to show the necessity of the sacrificial death of Christ by spelling out the conditions laid down in the Bible. So the truth of Christ’s sacrificial death for sin is based on the premise that God must judge sin rather than overlook it. ... Whether Muslims would be impressed with such an argument is doubtful given the denials of the crucifixion of Christ and human ransom for sin in the Qur’an. His unwillingness to tackle these Qur’anic beliefs, even in an indirect manner, means that his argument for the death of Christ as an atonement for sin would most probably fail to convince a Muslim.” (p41).  More about this later.

Habib ibn Khidma Abu Ra’ita as a Jacobite theologian upheld the miaphysite theology of the Council of Ephesus and opposed the Chalcedonian definition (not one hypostasis and two natures but one hypostasis and one nature which was the same as the hypostasis of the Word). Abu Ra’ita debated with Melkites (the Chalcedonian’s), including Abu Qurra, as well as Muslims, but approached the two groups differently. He explains to Muslims that the human and divine in Jesus are two attributes of Jesus. As for Mary’s role, it was not that God took to himself a son, but rather that “the Word took flesh from Mary, so the eternal Word is the actor, not the product.” (p65). He appeals to various Qur’anic ideas  to support his argument. In general Abu Ra’ita “attempts an encyclopaedic survey of all the issues Muslims raise on the topic.” (p66). His is a model approach of taking seriously the questions Muslims have, according to Beaumont.

`Ammar al-Basri represents the Nestorian church. He attempts a broad explanation, in terms he hopes the Muslim will accept, of both the incarnation and the death of Christ. In terms of the latter, it is the glory given by God after his suffering that mitigates the humiliation; the distinction between divine attributes related to Christ’s human nature and others that are not part of his humanity helps explain that “there is a temporary loss of these divine attributes between the time of death and the resurrection of Christ in God’s power and authority” (p91), and the resurrection is the guarantee that death can be overcome.

Beaumont’s evaluation of these approaches is to note that Abu Qurra and Abu Ra’ita tried to argue for the incarnation on Islamic grounds. Ammar tried to present arguments based on Islamic ideas, from within an Islamic thought-world, but neither he nor Abu Qurra wanted to use Islamic terminology. However his analysis of Muslim responses was that arguments based on Islamic foundations were regarded as weak at the time, but a century later Muslims were still taking issue with their arguments which started with the gospels’ portrayal of the incarnation and an explanation that tried to distinguish between God’s transcendence and his immanence. In the process the apologists themselves were pressed to refine and develop their ways of presenting the faith.

Kenneth Cragg is perhaps the best known twentieth century apologist. He begins with what Muslims know about Christ from the Qur’an  and focuses his understanding of Christ on the synoptic gospels. Unlike the ninth century apologists he avoids creeds and Johannine Christology and argues ‘from below’,  “away from the Incarnation of the eternal Son, to the human Jesus who is recognised as being in a unique relationship with God.” (p150).  He attempts to “read new Christian meanings into the text of the Qur’an to encourage Muslims to see Christ in a fresh way ...” (p151). He has a lot to say about forgiveness through the cross and little to say about the union of the divine and human in the person of Christ. He wants to proclaim Christ to the Muslim because only through faith in Christ can a Muslim find peace with God.

John Hick and Hans Kung are two others discussed by Beaumont. Hick’s Christology has changed over the years and seems to have abandoned all traditional beliefs in favour of living in harmony with others, but Muslims realise that he also does not accept their claims to revelation and are not happy with a reductionist attempt to see Islam and Christianity as essentially the same.  Hans Kung starts with the Qur’anic portrayal of Jesus and wants to improve on it. But Muslims see the Qur’an as the complete and authoritative Word of God. Nevertheless Kung favours leaving aside the creedal statements and trying to move from Qur’an to gospels. However his later writings suggest he may allow more than way for people to be saved (p170).

Beaumont sees that the three twentieth century apologists have not developed their Christology in relation to Islam but have presented a Christology they held prior to the dialogue.  What they have done is to try to make connections between Christian and Muslim understandings of Christ.

Beaumont also reviews an attempt to produce a harmonisation of the four gospels in Arabic using the terminology of the Qur’an in 30 chapters. Sira al-Masih was published in 1987. It uses the Qur’anic name Isa for Jesus for example. Beaumont thinks it should be seen more as an exercise in indigenous theology for Arab Christians from a Muslim background (p175). Sira downplays references to sonship, and the Johannine idea of being ‘one with the Father’ (a unity of thought or will), but makes clear the importance of crucifixion.

Overall Beaumont concludes that the “response by the Muslim dialogue partners shows that any insistence on aspects of Christology that contradict the Qur’anic account of Christ fails to convince.” (p198).  But there is an appreciation when Christians reinterpret Christ in human terms. This may be a way forward according to Beaumont.

Beaumont offers a number of reflections on prospects for dialogue between Christians and Muslims. These will depend on how Qur’anic denials of sonship, incarnation and crucifixion are handled. Some suggest ethics may be way to go, thus avoiding the big issues. But ethics involves listening to the teaching of Christ, which raises issues of his authority to teach and thus leads back to Christology.

This is a fine study. It provides many perceptive insights and clarifies lots of issues in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims.  In the end, however, it seems from this study that little progress is likely in the face of a determined, principled and unmoving commitment on the part of Muslims to the absolute truth and completeness of the Qur’anic testimony.

Beaumont’s evaluation of Abu Qurra’s approach “that his argument for the death of Christ as an atonement for sin would most probably fail to convince a Muslim.” (p41), reminds one of Paul’s statement  in 1 Corinthians 1 that when Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom he preaches Christ crucified – a stumbling block and foolishness maybe, but God’s power to save nevertheless.

Answering questions of those who want to know is very important. But trying to explain the truth about Christ on terms that deny its truth seems quite difficult. There is a difference between answering those who really desire to understand, and responding to objections from those who seem just to be opposed. Of course it is not always possible to see the difference at first. Questions and objections can have the effect of controlling and diverting the conversation away from the main topic. And although we want to respect those who question, there is a kind of respect that ends up not respecting the Lord Jesus and his proclamation.

In the case of dialogue with Muslims, as perhaps in a different way with modern Australians, part of the task is first to understand the language and thought-world of those we are talking with and then to attempt to express the message of Jesus in ways that could be understood in that world. The tension arises when we want the message to be accepted as well as understood. “Understood” and “accepted” are different ideas. I suppose apologetics always struggles with the tension.

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