Influential Theologian Troubled By Christian-Muslim Dialogue

A prominent theologian expressed concerns this week about the recent Christian response to a historic Muslim letter in which signers appeared unclear about their Christian identity and different beliefs of God.

The letter, titled “Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to a Common Word Between Us and You,” failed to clearly define the Christian understanding of God as the trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, pointed out R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, on his national radio program Tuesday.

Mohler explained that Muslims also believe in Jesus but only as a prophet, not as the son of God. Therefore, Christians must distinguish what kind of God they believe in when responding to the Muslim letter, which emphasized love for a common God.

“We don’t believe that Jesus Christ is our hero. We don’t believe that Jesus Christ is merely our prophet. He is Prophet and Priest and King,” Mohler said, according to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Towers news service. “He is the incarnate Son of God. He is the second person of the Trinity. He is the Lord over all. Any minimization of that is a huge problem.”

The high-profile Southern Baptist theologian was responding to a full-page letter endorsed by nearly 300 Christian leaders that appeared in a December issue of The New York Times. The letter was drafted by scholars at Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture in response to an October letter signed by 138 Muslim scholars, clerics, and leaders that encouraged Muslims and Christians to work more closely for world peace.

At the heart of the Muslim letter was the “common ground” that believers of both faiths share – love for God and love for neighbors.

Signers of the Christian letter included Rick Warren, founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of The Purpose Driven Life; Bill Hybels, founder and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; and David Neff, editor-in-chief and vice-president of “Christianity Today” Media Group.

Mohler did not sign the letter.

The SBTS president was also disturbed by the Christians’ request for forgiveness of sins committed against Muslims, including the Crusades and excesses in the war on terror.

“I am sure that all kinds of sin went on with the Crusades on both sides,” he said. “But I am not going to apologize for the Crusades because I am very thankful that the Muslim effort to reach a conquest of Europe was unsuccessful.”

“Otherwise, we would be speaking Arabic on this program right now and we would be talking about the Muslim continent of Europe and potentially even of North America.”

The war on terror, he also noted, is the responsibility of the United States so he was “not sure” why Christians are apologizing for that as a sin against Muslims.

“I don’t think that is the right way to put it,” Mohler said. “I don’t think we associate the United States of America with the Christian church. For whom are we apologizing and for what are we apologizing?”

But others disagree with Mohler, including members of his own Southern Baptist denomination.

Mike Edens, a professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said while he agrees with Mohler’s arguments on a theological level, he disagrees with him in methodology. Edens has signed the Christian response to the Muslim letter.

“Many of us have chided Muslims for their unwillingness to address the culture fostered by their co-religionists which breed violence and death in our world in the name of Islam,” wrote the former missionary with over 25 years of work in the Muslim world, according to the Baptist Press.

“This is the first time I have seen a document from Muslim scholars seeming to respond, in the aftermath of a violent clash between East and West, with a request for a reasoned discussion between Muslims and Christians. Such documents need a response,” he contends.

Edens said Muslims misunderstand the Bible, Christ and Christianity and the best way to clarify the confusion is through close conversation.

“From my experience where Islam is dominant, our witness with individuals is hurt when Christian leaders refuse such offered conversations,” the former missionary said.

At the end of his program, Mohler recognized the good intention of the signers of the Christian letter but still held onto his concerns.

“Now, I want to be very clear: we should have nothing against a conversation. But I don’t think this is the way to get into the conversation,” Mohler clarified.

“My concern is that when Christians enter the conversation with Muslims we must enter the conversation as Christians,” he said. “I think when you address a letter to Muslims and refer to God in their terminology then there is a big problem…when Christians enter a conversation, we have to show up as Christians.”

Christians believe in the God who reveals Himself through the Trinity and the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the theologian said.

“This is the God who very clearly identifies Himself and says, ‘I am this and I am not anything else.’ If you disagree about the identity of Jesus Christ, then you disagree about the identity of God,” he added.

“The most important issues about the dialogue with Muslims is that Christians are very clear about the Gospel,” Mohler said. “It is not enough just to say, ‘we renounce violence.’ It is important, but it is not enough.”