The Catechism, Biblical Worldview and Islam

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Introduction

Christian catechism and biblical worldview are related to Islamic theology though largely in a negative way. The theoretical categories such as God, man, sin, and salvation appear to be similar to those of Islam but the content is vastly different. Not only is the content different but also the worldview concepts that lie behind the content are understandably different. Because of this, it is possible for a Christian and a Muslim to discuss the nature of God without ever agreeing on any point even though they assume they are discussing the same God. In today’s world, there are Christian missionaries who are trying to blend biblical teaching with the theology of Islam without understanding that each aspect of doctrine carries different meaning for the two groups. When doctrine and practice differ, a fusing of the two is syncretism.

The purpose of this article is to discuss how some of the various characteristics of Christian catechism and worldview can enable a church leader to understand the difference between Christianity and Islam.

 

Catechism

Back in the 80’s when I was teaching a team of young Indonesia evangelists, I asked them to explain the difference between the theology of Islam and that of the Bible. I asked them about God, man, and sin, and for each category they replied that the two religions taught the same lessons. Only when I mentioned salvation did they register that there was a significant difference. Needless to say, I was shocked at their ignorance of biblical theology. At that time, I began to realize how poorly the Bible schools were educating young people in biblical doctrine and worldview. As time passed, I learned that many western missionaries were similarly poorly trained in doctrine and worldview. I began an intensive study of the catechism which led me to new insights.

Clement  (150-215 AD) was the second head of the Catechetical School at Alexandria. He is considered the great mind that spurred the understanding of biblical doctrine by explaining worldview aspects such as that man is made in the image of God, that he has free will, that justice is an aspect of God’s perfect love, and that atonement is the revelation of God’s mercy. Early church fathers like Clement created the dialogue that explained much of biblical theology and worldview to the common man. Catechism structure came out of their exegesis.

Catechism means to sound out or sound down and it seems to be a Greek word constructed to describe oral teaching. From early days, some forms of oral teaching have been a practice of the church to teach doctrine in a systematic way. The famous Westminster Catechism illustrates a question and answer format, which is usually thought of as typical for catechism. For example, “Q. What is the chief end of man? A. To glorify God and enjoy Him forever!” Something important about the nature of man and God is stated in this question and answer. A worldview factor emerges. Man has a purpose in life. He has a relationship with God. He not only glorifies God but he enjoys him. Enjoying God is a worldview not held by other religions.

The catechism has largely disappeared from many denominations in the West. Perhaps those who read this article will never have experienced a catechism teaching when they were baptized or joined their church. Some churches have a membership class in which the history and principles of the church are taught. Often, the Bible is not opened during these lessons. One church I noted taught some biblical theology from a catechism book but none of the participants owned a Bible. As the catechism has faded from use in our churches, the knowledge of biblical doctrine and worldview has also faded. This condition can be observed in some ideas promoted by the teaching of the emerging church movement in America and by some missionaries from American agencies who promote “insider movements.”

The catechism represents a selection of important theological and worldview teachings from the Bible. The structure of the catechism characteristically follows a systematic theological pattern. For example, topics will include God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit as persons of the Trinity. It will also typically cover the nature of man, sin, and salvation as well as that of the world, the Devil, and evil. By covering these topics, a new believer is introduced to major worldviews contained in the Bible because the Bible explains these subjects in ways significantly different from that of other religions. When a new believer is not introduced to some sort of catechism teaching, he continues to try to reconcile the theology and worldview of the Bible with that of his former religion. Syncretism occurs because he does not realize that biblical theology cannot be reconciled with other religions either in worldview or in practice.

The narrative theology of much of the Bible is a model for teaching worldview. The Holy Spirit led the writers to record stories that would teach lessons about the nature of God, man, sin, evil, and other aspects of life. These lessons are embedded in the stories. We often learn the stories in Sunday School but fail to fully grasp the theological teaching that we should apply to our lives as adults. For example, the story of David’s adultery is not just about adultery but it is a teaching about the abuse of power and the consequences of sin. David’s story is not only in the narrative but also in Psalm 51 where David cries out to God to have mercy “according to your steadfast love” and to “create a clean heart” and “renew a right spirit.” These and other statements relate important worldview factors concerning God and mankind.

There are worldview considerations in all the Bible stories. And these stories are about truth and how God reveals it to mankind. Catechism can take on many forms and structures to focus on truth which can be understood and absorbed by new as well as experienced believers. It lays the foundation for understanding more of God’s truth as one grows in relationship with him. As its biblical teachings are compared with other religions, the catechism points out significant differences that exist between them.

The gospels as well as the writings of Paul and the other authors of N.T. letters show a particular concern with the differences between the gospel and the non-biblical philosophies and cosmologies of their day. Since most of these non-biblical constructs have continued in one form or another, we still must wrestle with them. The type of catechism that Paul develops in his letters emphasizes the worldviews that counter non-biblical teachings. When this is not understood and initiated by those who evangelize or mentor new believers, syncretism will result. Syncretism is always a challenge but it is particularly dangerous when new believers are not taught that the biblical worldview is vastly different from that of other religions.

The great themes of the Bible such as those of the Trinity, humanity, sin, and salvation are replete with worldview concepts that must be addressed in any responsible Christian nurture. Even practical functions such as Baptism and the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) involve worldview factors that should be recognized, explained, and incorporated into the life of a believer. This is the goal of the catechism. Failure to teach a proper catechism to a new believer leaves him or her in a liminal state between religions where he/she is likely to blend beliefs in order to answer worldview questions.

 

Worldview

In a particular leadership-training program developed in Indonesia, the candidates are instructed in various aspects of ethics and biblical character traits using Bible stories where worldview is embedded. We attempted to correlate as many of these stories as possible with catechism categories. I can’t relate all of the categories and Bible verses because there are more than 72 biblical catechism topics with nearly 100 passages of the Bible that illustrate them. I offer the following as a brief example.

For the theme of God we chose the following 6 sub-themes: Father/Child Relationship, Faithfulness, Nearness, Goodness, Love, & Forgiveness (mercy). These were the lessons about the nature of God that we gave to show the difference between the teaching of the Bible and that of Islam. Each of the 6 sub-themes was illustrated with Bible stories. For example, under the first sub-theme (Father/Child Relationship), we used the following:

The God of all creation is not impersonal but longs to relate to us as a Father.

A.  God is a personal father to those who believe in him.

Luke 15:11-32 – The Prodigal Son

B. God is a redeemer father to those who believe in him.

Judges 6:11-18 – Gideon

C.  God, the Father, gives good gifts to those who believe in him.

2 Samuel 5:17-25 – David defeats the Philistines

 

Under the sub-theme of Faithfulness, we made this statement: God the Father is faithful forever.  He will never abandon us; he will always be with us. We illustrated it with the following:

A.  God, the Father, is faithful to keep promises.

Exodus 4:1-17- God promises Moses; Genesis 15:1-6 – God promises Abraham

B.  God, the Father, is faithful to never lie.

Joshua 1:1-9 – promise to Moses given to Joshua

2 Samuel 5:17-25 – David obeys God

C.  God, the Father, is faithful to give us his salvation, which establishes us in faithfulness

2 Chronicles 7:11-22 – God’s promise to Solomon

We constructed the same sort of worldview teachings for the other themes so that the candidates for leadership would struggle with the incompatibility of biblical and Islamic doctrine. We did not want any of the candidates for leadership to remain in the confusion of Islamic doctrine. Although most of them were converts from Islam, we wanted to encourage them in their movement out of Islam rather than allow them to remain in it. One of our teaching models for doing this was to introduce worldview questions that related to the Bible stories. This was an effort to get them to compare the biblical worldviews with those of their local Islamic community. As they recognized the differences between what the Bible teaches and what they had been taught in their former religion, they were able to grow spiritually. Although a convert’s spiritual movement out of Islam may take many months or even years for some people, knowledge of biblical worldview will increase this movement drastically. We wanted these candidates for leadership to be able to facilitate that movement.

 

Worldview and Islam

In his excellent book, Ideals and Realities of Islam, Seyyed Hossein Nasr (prominent Islamic philosopher) outlines the basic “catechism” of Islam and some of the worldview components in it while comparing it with Christian beliefs. He states his purpose in this way. “I have attempted to present what is most universal in Islam and underlies the beliefs of all the orthodox branches of the tradition” (p.9). This leads into a particular disagreement about the nature of God. As Nasr says, “Islam is based from beginning to end on the idea of Unity (tawhid), for God is One” (p.29). This concept of unity forms the basis for multiple worldview concerns. God is remote and unknowable but there is revelation through the Quran. “What Islam does not accept in Christianity is first of all the idea of filial relationship and secondly the Trinity as usually understood, both of which are alien to the Islamic perspective….” (p. 34).

Nasr’s description of the alien nature of “filial relationship” causes us to question the decision by Wycliffe Bible Translators, Frontiers, and other mission agencies to remove, change, substitute, or diminish the terms for Father, Son of God, and Lord in some of their translations for Arab and other Muslim populations. From what Nasr has said, we know that Muslims do not want to hear about the filial relationship of God the Father to God the Son. However, diminishing the impact of that biblical teaching in any way shields the Muslim reader from the very concept that needs to be heard and considered.

Any clouding or obfuscation of biblical theology and worldview concepts blinds the enquirer to the irreconcilable differences between Islam and Christianity. Embedded in many of the Old Testament stories and revealed dramatically in the coming of the Savior is the worldview that God is a Father. The revelation of the Fatherhood of God and the belief in his personal relationship with humans is a primary tenet of biblical worldview.

Nasr also points out that there is no original sin belief in Islam and this worldview shades all meaning as to the nature of mankind. “It is only through participation in a tradition, that is, a divinely revealed way of living, thinking and being, that man really becomes man and is able to find meaning in life” (p.24). Contrary to biblical teaching, Islam teaches that man’s identity is not what the Bible states, that is: “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Instead, Islam teaches that man’s identity is in a religious construct called Islam.

The first time I attended a Muslim wedding was quite an eye-opener. The general layout for the wedding was more like a reception. People arrived and gathered around, talking and enjoying snacks. As my wife and I milled around with the guests, I begin to wonder when the wedding was going to take place. After a while, a friend asked me if I wanted to observe the wedding. I was a bit puzzled by the question but said yes. My wife was not invited. He then took me to the place where a group of men were gathered with the groom. He was talking with an official and the men signed a book. That was the wedding. After everyone had gathered again, the bride showed up with her retinue. The legal wedding had been conducted without her or any other female member of the family.

The worldview aspects of the Islamic wedding ceremony are symptomatic of the status of women in the religion and illustrate the contrast with the biblical worldview where the woman is highly regarded. In the late 19th and early 20th century, one of the famous evangelists among the Javanese was Kiai Sadrach. In Sri and Christ, Philip Van Akkeren records that Sadrach created a Christian marriage ceremony to replace the Islamic one (p.145). In effect, this helped change the believers’ worldview concerning marriage. In ways like this, these early leaders embedded an entirely new set of ideas and truth into the culture. In the beginning, Sadrach and others retained some of the Islamic “clothing” that was so familiar but they were continually moving away from Islamic practices that were based on non-biblical worldview. The interaction of both worldviews was constant throughout the formative years. Eventually, biblical theology and worldview became dominant in the church.

The clear differentiation of the gospel from their other belief systems has allowed Javanese to make a choice between worldviews. The gospel is not considered the completion or the apex of other systems. It stands alone as the revelation of God. It is a choice, not an echo. At certain periods of the church’s development, it depicted Jesus as the “Ratu Adil” (the Just King) who was to appear for the Javanese. At other times, Jesus was presented as the “Imam Mahdi” who completes the Muslim faith and delivers the people from spiritual bondage. Eventually, however, the dominant view of Jesus Christ became that of the Savior God who delivers from sin and demands total obedience from all people. The uncompromising message of moving away from Islamic theology and into biblical theology and worldview has produced good fruit in Java’s soil.

Today, there are cross-cultural church planters who are making catastrophic mistakes in accommodating Islamic theology and practices in their fledgling congregations. They are intentionally incorporating Islamic practices that they do not understand. Instead of allowing the converts to move away from Islam, they are encouraging them to stay within the socio-religious community and continue to participate in the practices, which are formational for Islamic theology and worldview. While it is hoped that these converts will continue to grow in Christian nurture and practice, it is difficult to conceive how this will happen as long as they are being directed back into Islam rather than out of it.

 

Conclusion

Biblical theology informs both Christian catechism and biblical worldview. These are teachings that God has given which expound the nature of God and mankind and the universe in which we live. With this knowledge, a leader can understand the difference between Christianity and Islam. When we integrate these teachings with Islamic or any other kind of religious doctrine, we confuse believers and hinder their spiritual growth. Catechisms are guides to biblical theology and they explain aspects of biblical worldview. While the catechism may only be a beginning tool to investigate biblical theology and worldview, it serves a critical role in putting a new convert on a solid spiritual foundation. Any attempt to mix biblical teachings with those of other religions is bound to result in syncretism and believers who are adrift spiritually.

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About Author

Roger Dixon has been directly or vicariously in some way involved in cross-cultural church planting for nearly 50 years. He and his wife lived in Indonesia for over 30 years and raised 3 children while working among the Sundanese Muslim peoples. Roger has achieved a MDiv at Drew University, a Th.M at Fuller School of World Mission and a Ph.D at Biola School of Intercultural Studies. He was ordained in the Methodist Church in 1963.

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