By Matthew Bennett
The Qur’an endorses and reveres Jesus, providing Christian missionaries with communicative traction as they can lean into a shared Messiah. Or does it? This article compares the qur’anic Jesus (‘Isa) and the biblical Jesus (Yasua’) in order to investigate whether or not the apparent similarity extends beyond superficial similarities. By employing Daniel Strange’s categories of “remnantal revelation” and “subversive fulfillment” as a helpful heuristic for assessment, this article contends that the two Jesus characters are not compatible. In fact, the Qur’an’s use of ‘Isa appears to be an attempt to subvert the message and work of the biblical Yasua’. As a result, it recommends rejection of the missiological impulse to utilize the qur’anic nomenclature in evangelism, discipleship, and Bible translation. Such attempts at contextualization are counter-productive since this name is inextricably tied to a character whose intent is to subvert the message and work of the biblical Jesus.
When Lesslie Newbigin arrived as a missionary in India, he quickly identified a major communication problem. Since the local language was permeated by Hindu theological presuppositions, the danger of syncretism attended any and all communication of biblical teaching. Newbigin reports,
I saw how, inevitably, the meaning of sentences spoken by my Christian friends was shaped by the Hindu background of the language. The words used, the only available words for God, sin, salvation, and so on, are words that have received their entire content from the Hindu religious tradition. 1
Newbigin’s observation reveals a perennial missionary problem: How does one communicate biblical truths using language that derives its meaning from non-Christian religious sytems?
Two Competing Missiological Realities
One of the realities that cross-cultural communicators around the world encounter is the one that presented itself to Newbigin in India. Language is not a value-neutral communications vehicle. In the quote above, Newbigin highlights the fact that Hindus use the word “god” to refer to one of the many deities in a polytheistic pantheon. When a Christian is forced to use the same word to identify YHWH, intentional labor is required to distinguish and define the term Christianly since the default understanding of the word is neither monotheistic nor biblical.
Whereas the polytheism of Hinduism allows a Christian to readily distinguish a biblical use of the word “god” from one informed by the Vedas, such distinction is not as easily communicated when the concepts are less apparently divergent. In fact, the danger of miscommunication and even syncretism is far higher when the difference between the concepts carried by shared vocabulary is less pronounced. Hence the perennial conflict over the question, “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” 2
In tension with this vocabulary difficulty, a missionary also encounters the need to find some point of contact or common ground with the host culture. If one is unable to make the biblical story connect with the life, experience, concerns, and hopes of a people, it is difficult to imagine how biblical truths will present themselves as relevant. Therefore, missionaries desire to find inroads into a culture that capitalize on shared concepts and ideals as vehicles by which to introduce biblical truth.
Cross-cultural communicators thus face the Scylla and Charybdis of the need to communicate clearly and biblically on the one hand and the need to communicate meaningfully and contextually on the other. Over-correction to either side threatens the success of the communication process. When communicating the gospel of Jesus to Arabic-speaking Muslims, missionaries must chart a course between those two dangers.
Among the first decisions one must make in this process is to consider what posture one will take towards the Jesus character in the Qur’an. In other words, is ‘Isa in the Qur’an a bridge or a barrier to understanding the biblical gospel? Though many missiologists argue that it is crucial to recognize the qur’anic ‘Isa as a shared prophet, this essay argues that the biblical Jesus (Yasua’) should be presented in contrast to—rather than compatibility with—the Jesus character in the Qur’an (‘Isa). In order to provide some context to this contextualization discussion, however, let us first consider our overall approach to a Christian philosophy of religions.
Daniel Strange: Categories of Revelation
As our world is increasingly hyperconnected, it is all but impossible to ignore the questions that arise from exposure to religious plurality. For Christians—such as myself—who hold an exclusive perspective on soteriology and who understand the Bible to be the sufficient, inerrant, inspired, and authoritative revelation of God to humanity, the questions become more pronounced. Specifically, how are we to understand non-Christian religions when they espouse similar ethical ideas, they tell similar stories, and their sacred texts contain biblical characters?
This is the question that prompted Daniel Strange to write a Christian theology of religions entitled Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock. In this book, Strange employs two unique phrases as he argues for his theology of religions that prove helpful to this essay’s task: “remnantal revelation” and “subversive fulfillment.” 3 Employing these two concepts in the task of assessing the Jesus character in the Qur’an will provide a helpful heuristic structure for missiological assessment by offering one of the most optimistic approaches to the religious other available among exclusivists. If, then, even such a positive approach to the phenomenon of Islam yet reveals basic incompatibility between the Yasua’ of the Bible and the ‘Isa of the Qur’an, this essay’s thesis that the two characters should be contrasted will stand.
In order to utilize these categories in our assessment, we must first define them. In Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock, Strange builds upon Wilhelm Schmidt’s convincing argument for original monotheism. Schmidt’s single source theory of religious pluralism helps Strange to describe and define remnantal revelation, as he writes, “There is a historical remnantal revelation within religious traditions, which, though entropically distorted over time … gives us a comparative theological explanation of ‘commonalities’ and ‘continuities’ between religious traditions, for example certain events, themes and archetypes. 4 Thus, Strange anticipates finding bits of dislocated special revelation stemming from a single-source and carried on collective memory and scattered within non-Christian religious teaching and practice.
The Bible indicates that at various points in history—notably during the first three chapters of Genesis and then again after the flood—every human on the face of the earth was privy to some measure of special revelation by virtue of having interacted with God himself. Over time—particularly following the Babel account—human sinfulness, dispersion, and historical distance allowed true knowledge of God to comingle with superstition and sin, and eventually produced a variety of idolatrous faiths. While some may contest the wisdom of Strange’s argument that this “remnantal revelation” be recognized as a separate theological category of revelation, the basic concept appears to be plausible given the biblical narrative.
This posture towards non-Christian belief systems has inherent missiological value in that it optimistically inclines a Christian to discover biblical teachings embedded in other faiths. In Strange’s words, “While such revelatory material is always sinfully corrupted, distorted and degenerates to the point of being salvifically useless, it has to be factored into the phenomena of religion in general and therefore of the ‘religions’ in particular. 5 Believing that remnantal revelation might exist—though displaced and re-appropriated—within non-Christian cultural stories and more positively predisposes a Christian to find such common ground upon which one might gain momentum for communication of the biblical gospel. Since such remnantal revelation is dislocated from the biblical narrative, however, the missionary task involves resituating this material within the proper revelatory setting of the biblical canon.
It is at this juncture that Strange’s book makes its second missiological contribution. Building a case for viewing the gospel as the subversive fulfillment of non-Christian religion, Strange contends that recognizing bits and bobs of genuine truth is evangelistically helpful only insofar as one is able to demonstrate how such truth fits more appropriately within an original, biblical context than it does in the non-Christian metanarrative in which it is found.
Strange readily admits that this concept precedes him in the works of authors such as Herman Bavink, who writes, “Christianity is not only positioned antithetically towards paganism; it is also paganism’s fulfillment … What is sought there, is found here.” 6 He assumes that there are certain religious expressions that, though they are directed at idolatrous ends, are provoked by proper human desires and longings.
Again, whether or not one adopts this language, Strange’s proposal appears congruent with the biblical testimony. For example, as Rom 1:25 concludes Paul’s teaching on human depravity, Paul states, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever.” Thus, Paul sees the inclination to worship as essential to humanity, yet under the influence of sin, worship is misdirected to the created rather than the Creator.
The helpful categories of “remnantal revelation” and “subversive fulfillment” encourage a Christian analyzing a non-Christian religion to expect to find evidence—or remains—of dislocated biblical revelation embedded in the stories and ethics of the religious other. Yet they also remind the Christian that this shared content is not beneficial unless it is exposed as belonging more properly within the canon of Scripture and fitting within the narrative of the biblical gospel. Having defines these terms, this essay will now turn from the theoretical to the practical by applying these two fruitful aspects of Strange’s theology of religions to the specific case of missiological engagement with Muslims.
Originally published in the Southeastern Theological Review, 11.1 (Spring 2020): 99-117. Republished with permission.
Watch for Part 2 coming soon!
- Lesslie Newbigin, “The Cultural Captivity of Western Christianity,” in A Word in Season: Perspectives on Christian World Missions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 689. ↩
- For example one might consult the twenty-plus articles arguing the same-god question as published in the 2016 Special Edition of the EMS Occasional Bulletin. ↩
- Daniel Strange, Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 2014, 267. ↩
- Strange, Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock, 120. (emphasis original) ↩
- Strange, Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock, 104 ↩
- Strange, Their Rock is Not Like Our Rock, 267; Quoting from Herman Bavink, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 319-20. One the same page, Strange quotes Hendrick Kraemer, “Continuity or Discontinuity,” in The Authority of Faith: International Missionary Council Meeting at Tambaram, Madras, ed. G. Paton (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 5, who provides Strange with the phrase “subversive fulfillment” as he writes, “Only an attentive study of the Bible can open the eyes to the fact that Christ, ‘the power of God’ and the ‘wisdom of God’, stands in contradiction to the power and wisdom of man. Perhaps in some respects it is proper to speak of contradictive or subversive fulfillment.” ↩