This article is posted as a 5-part series. You can find the other parts here:

A Critical Evaluation of Three Contextualization Proposals

III. New Favorable Approaches to Islam and the Qur’an

In a witnessing conversation with a Muslim, it may be unavoidable to mention the Qur’an or some contents in the Qur’an. How to deal with the Qur’an has been an important question for a long time. 1 Several peculiar proposals in recent contextualization discussions are noteworthy. First, some contend that one can proactively use the Qur’an or the Qur’anic verses for the gospel presentation. These proponents have noticed the affirmative value of some Qur’anic verses that portray Jesus in a positive light, such as Jesus’s miracles and his titles as “Al-Masih.” 2 They contend that these verses can be utilized for the confirmation of biblical truths about Jesus in regards to his death and resurrection as long as these Qur’anic verses are rightly interpreted. This approach is fundamentally different from quoting the Qur’anic verses as a point of contact before quickly moving to the biblical truths of Jesus. 3

Second, in the process of using these Qur’anic verses affirmatively for biblical truths, this approach usually employs a different set of hermeneutical lens to the Qur’an that is foreign both to an traditional evangelical hermeneutics and to an Islamic theology. For instance, Higgins contends for the Christocentric hermeneutical lens in order to reinterpret the Qur’an to find common grounds for Muslim evangelism. 4 His reasoning is based on two biblical antecedents: Jesus reinterpreted the Old Testaments from a Christocentric perspective, and Paul preached to Athenians “by applying a ‘Jesus Key’ to the interpretation of their poets and religious hymns.” 5 Third, there is yet a more striking attempt to discover the authentic religion of Islam and the “historical Muhammad” with his original teachings through re-examining all the historical resources and re-interpreting them. 6 This approach is to separate the historical Islam and the authentic meanings of the Qur’an during the lifetime of Muhammad from the traditional Islamic teachings that have evolved over 1400 year Islamic history. The core contention of this reasoning lead to the conclusion that Islam has many common grounds with biblical truths, and that these common grounds can provide a space for Muslim Insiders to remain within the Islamic community and to observe Islamic practices through reinterpretation.

In an effort of evaluating these proposals and trends, two related aspects at least deserve a careful assessment. First, one must notice that all these proponents fundamentally employ a specific form of theology of religions. Second, since several proponents establish their own arguments on the passage in Acts 17 and develop their theology of Islam and the Qur’an accordingly, it is necessary to evaluate their interpretations of this passage. Due to limited space, this section only highlights the main points of their interpretation of Acts 17 with some exegetical responses before assessing their specific theology of religions (Islam).

Several of Higgins’ interpretive results can be summarized as follows: First, when Paul affirms the religiosity of Athenians in Acts 17:22, Paul assumes that they worship the true God. Second, Paul sees “the altar to an unknown god as preparation for what he will say about the gospel” (Acts 17:22). 7 Third, based on Acts 17:26, Higgins contends that “God is at work in the world, including the religions of the world, and [that]God is drawing people to Himself beyond the confines and boundaries we normally refer to as ‘His people.’” 8 All these statements carry significant implications for radical contextualization approaches and for a troublesome theology of religions.

While commending the exegetical efforts of Kevin Higgins for the methodological arguments and a theology of religion, one will easily find his exegetical methods and conclusions problematic. His exegetical analysis contains several critical problems. In response to Higgins’ contention that Paul affirms Athenians for the worship of the same God based on the expression “you are religious,” it must be noted that the Greek word, δεισιδαίμων, can be used either in a laudatory sense (“sincere pursuit of a divine transcendent being (whether a true pursuit or not),” or in a denigrating sense (am embracing of superstition).” 9 From the contextual reading of the entire passage, it is certainly correct to take this to mean a positive recognition of their religious devotion to “an unknown god.” It is not, however, because Paul affirms their religion to be valid, but because Paul simply used this rhetorical device for drawing their attention in the beginning of his speech. 10 This is further supported by the fact that Paul’s spirit is provoked in him when he saw that the city was full of idols (Acts 17:16). Moreover, Paul talks about the future judgment of God and invites Athenians to repentance (17:30-31). Paul could not possibly have meant to affirm their religious pursuits with the assumption that they had been worshipping the same God he was about to preach.

Concerning Higgins’s second point, one must first ask why Paul quotes such pagan sources in his evangelistic approach, specifically in Acts 17:28. John Polhill states: “For Aratus ‘we are his offspring’ referred to Zeus and to humanity’s sharing in the divine nature. In the context of Paul’s speech, it referred to God and to humanity’s being his creation.” 11 It is certain that Paul cited this simply because his audience was well acquainted with this statement. His purpose was to set a stage in preparation to make a counter argument against idol worship of the Athenians (17:29-30). Even based upon what they knew from general revelation revealed in creation, they should have avoided idol worship in fashioning images with gold or silver while they were still in desperate need of special revelation. Therefore, the Athenians are condemned by what they already know about the divine nature of God given through general revelation (Rom 1:18-23; 2:14-15). This was an effective Pauline rhetorical device employed to condemn the audience by what they already knew. 12 Therefore, this passage cannot support the idea that pagan sources play a preparatory role for the gospel proclamation as Higgins asserts.

Concerning the third point, the previous section on the IM already pointed out several faulty exegetical conclusions of Higgins. He claims that God is at work in the religious life of mankind under the divine coordination of God’s sovereign will for human cultures and religions (Acts 17:26). By implication he concludes that since the Qur’an contains significant factors of general revelation for Muslims to know about Christ, it is valid to use the Qur’an to affirm biblical truths. All these, however, are much wider theological assertions than what he can prove from this single passage. To provide such a theology of religion, he must rely on a much wider biblical theological ground rather than solely depend on some ambiguous biblical accounts. 13

Based on the problems mentioned above, the faulty biblical interpretation and the unproven theological assertions, the proposed methodologies must be rejected. One cannot accept the possibility of using Christocentric hermeneutics to the Qur’an to prove the Qur’anic support for the biblical truths about Jesus. Even though one may find some Qur’anic or Islamic terms that appear also in the Bible or in Christian theology, one should not confuse them with Christian meanings. The terms used in the Qur’an must be defined within Islamic theology. Il Joo Kong, an expert in Arabic language studies and a long-time investigator of the Qur’an, convincingly argues that the Qur’anic terms such as “the word (Kalima)” or “Ruh (spirit)” cannot be equated with “the incarnate Word (the Logos)” or “the Holy Spirit” of the Bible respectively. 14 Can it be acceptable for Muslim apologists to use the Bible to affirm Islamic teachings through an arbitrary Islamic reinterpretation? How valid then is it to use certain parts of the Qur’an that seem to coincide with the biblical truths and reinterpret them while ignoring all the other conflicting statements in the Qur’an? Therefore, one must conclude that it is a completely unjust treatment of the Qur’an to use Christological hermeneutics in attempts to reinterpret the Qur’an for the purpose of affirming biblical truths about Jesus. One must read and understand the Qur’an holistically within the Islamic theological framework, and use proper Qur’anic hermeneutics.

One may simply use Qur’anic verses as points of contact and even as bridges where Christian witness converses with Muslims. Some representative concepts or terms may include sin, judgment, forgiveness, sacrifice, and God’s love. As this writer argues in another paper, Paul’s use of the pagan poem is simply an attempt to build a bridge with the Athenians. The next step, though, as is in the case of Paul, must be to cross over the bridge to proclaim biblical truths about Jesus. Therefore, one must perceive the points of contact as “points of departure” rather than “common ground.” 15 In this sense, one may find the Camel Training Method less problematic because it only uses a certain part of the Qur’an as a stepping-stone or a point of contact before moving rather quickly to the biblical truths. However, there still remain concerns that selective Qur’anic verses are interpreted from a Christological lens and that this method provides a wrong impression that the Qur’an is taken to be a valid Scripture of God’s revelation.

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  1. Samuel Schlorff provides a careful study on the use/misuse of the Qur’an in Muslim evangelism. After making a distinction between the negative and the positive use of the Qur’an, he provides a very insightful evaluation from a biblical-theological basis. See Missiological Models in Ministry to Muslims (Upper Darby, PA: Middle East Resources, 2006), 3-27.
  2. One earliest proponent of this approach is Fouad Accad, Building Bridges: Christianity and Islam (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1997). The following statement demonstrates his view in a succinct manner: “Muhammad did not in any way intend for the Qur’an to be anti-Christ or an anti-Christian document… Because of the largely pro-Christian attitude in the Qur’an, it seems just as legitimate to use it in our witnessing as to use a pro-Christian quote from any other respected book or leader.” See his book, 28. See also his article “The Qur’an: A Bridge to Christian Faith,” An International Review of Missiology 4 (1976): 331-42.
  3. For example, Kevin Greeson, who has been working in South Asia, developed an evangelistic method called Camel Manual Method. This method uses Sura 3:42-55 for initiating a dialogue with a Muslim before a Christian witness moves to biblical truths of Jesus. Greeson reports this method very fruitful in several fields. Kevin Greeson, Camel Training Method (Bangalore, India: WIGTake, 2004).
  4. Higgins, “The Key to the Insider Movements,” 163-64; “Acts 15 and Insider Movements,” 38.
  5. Higgins, “The Key to the Insider Movements,” 163.
  6. Doug Coleman’s book introduces a portion of Kevin Higgins’s writing under the titles of “Islam As It Was: Abraham, Allah, and the Arabs, Muhammad’s Life, Muhammad’s Teaching” and “Islam As It Was: The Quran.” See Doug Coleman, A Theological Analysis of the Insider Movement Paradigm: Theology of Religions, Revelation, Soteriology and Ecclesiology (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2010), 256-308. Also see Harley Talman, “Is Muhammad Also Among the Prophets? IJFM 31 (2014): 169-90. Talman boldly claims to provide “a potentially more objective portrayal of Muhammad’s character and actions” when he says, “The sub-sections which follow reflect on various Christian views of Islam, a revised history of Muhammad and the movement he founded, and a theological reassessment of the prophet of Islam, all based on a potentially more objective portrayal of his character and actions.” See Talman, 171. (Italics added)
  7. Higgins, “The Key to the Insider Movements,” 161.
  8. Kevin Higgins, “Inside What? Church, Culture, Religion and Insider Movements in Biblical Perspective,” SFM 5 (2009), 85.
  9. BDAG, 216.
  10. Bock, Acts, 564.
  11. Polhill, Acts, 376. This poet is quoted from Aratus (ca. 315-240 BC), Phaenomena 5, but probably this appears in other Greek poets as well. Howard Marshall also notes Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus as a source. Paul indicates that this idea is popular among the Athenians as he uses the term “some of your own poets have said.”
  12. Polhill, Acts, 376. Bock shares the same view when he states, “Paul contextualizes the citation and presents it in a fresh light, setting up his critique.” Bock, Acts, 568. See Wonjoo Hwang, “Does the NT Quotation of Non-Canonical Sources Validate the Use of the Qur’an in Christian Witness to Muslims?” Journal of Arab and Islamic World Studies 2 (2015): 217-18. In this article, this writer demonstrates that the other non-canonical quotations in addition to Acts 17 passage share the following three common features: First, the tone of the quotes of non-canonical sources is entirely negative, and thus the biblical writers do not employ them to support or affirm biblical truth. Second, the quotation of non-canonical sources is entirely a rhetorical device because these sources were well known to the respective readers or hearers from a communication perspective. Third, the expected result of quoting these sources that the readers or hearers were familiar with was to create a self-condemning or self-defeating effect based upon their own sources. There is no effect such as affirming biblical truths by quoting these non-canonical sources. Therefore, it is concluded that the NT use of non-canonical sources cannot be used as a biblical support to validate the use of the Qur’an (or any religious Scriptures) in Christian witness in order to affirm biblical truths.
  13. Higgins uses the so-called “holy pagans” argument for the general revelation in other religions and the salvific factors of the general revelation. He thinks that the biblical examples of holy pagans demonstrate that “in at least some case that members of other religions are in a relationship with God.” See his article, “Insider What?” 85. However, according to exclusivism that is the position of the majority of evangelical community, general revelation is not salvific.
  14. Il Joo Kong, “Interpretation and Meaning of Arabic Words in the Qur’an from Linguistic and Hermeneutic Perspectives,” Journal of Arab and Islamic World Studies 1 (2014): 193-243 [in Korean].
  15. For a theoretical analysis of communication concepts such as points of contact or common ground, see an excellent book, Eugene A. Nida, Message and Missions: The Communication of the Christian Faith (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), 211-14.

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