What Does Christianity Have to Say about Islam?

In light of the recent tragedy in San Bernardino and the ensuing public debates between Christians concerning gun control, refugee policy, and Islam in the U.S., this post attempts to briefly explore a Christian theology of Islam.

Peter Leithart wrote:

Islam’s account of history has a place for Jesus and Christianity. To be sure, the Jesus of Islam is not the Jesus of the New Testament…Still, the prophet Jesus has a place in Muslim ‘redemptive history’…Has Christian theology been able to locate Islam within its history…Can Christians make theological sense of the persistence of Islam? Can we fit them into our story?

Nothing less than a thoughtful and theological perspective on Islam can provide direction on how Christians should respond to Muslims, while not falling into the sin of Islamophobia, nor blindly believing that true Muslims would never commit such heinous acts.

As soon as news got out about the mass shooting in San Bernardino and even before Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik were confronted by the police, the world buzzed with speculations regarding why. Why another mass shooting? Was it a personal reason? Was it ideological? Was it overtly religious? For most of us looking on, it did not appear to be gang-related, and the site was neither a black church nor a Planned Parenthood clinic, nor even a bank (sites that have been all too frequently attacked in recent memory). So, in light of current world events, America held her breath, praying that this wasn’t what many of us feared, yet suspected: another “Islamic” attack.

To the surprise of but a few, it was revealed that Syed Farook was pro-ISIS, and that on the day of this atrocious massacre, Tashfeen Malik publicly pledged allegiance to ISIS. Their support for the Islamic State only further fanned the flames of tension between divided political and religious groups across the Western world. In the U.S., Trump kept Trumpin’ about guns, the New York Times disagreed, and Former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh posted that “Muslims are killing us in the streets” on Facebook, while even the most nominal of Muslims’ hearts sank in fear of backlash.

Back and forth, Americans continued…

Some on the right: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

Some on the left: “No, people with guns kill people!”

More on the right: “No, Muslims with guns kill people!”

More on the left: “No, Extremist Fundamentalists, such as the white Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooter, with guns kill people, not TRUE Muslims!”

And on and on we will go, as the world continues to debate, not merely the benefits of a religious pluralism that includes Islam, but the essence of Islam itself or really any religion in an increasingly pluralistic global context.

In response to the San Bernardino shooting, the above mentioned former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh made clear what he thought of Islam:

I think Islam has a real freaking problem, alright? There is a cancer in Islam, and if they’re not going to learn to assimilate, I don’t want them in this country…I think Islam is evil. I think Islam has a huge problem. I think most Muslims around the world are not compatible with American values. I don’t want them here.

Yet, also in response to the San Bernardino shooting, Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was unequivocal:

This crime was not committed by a Muslim…It was committed by a criminal. By someone who has no value for life.… No one should feel [Farook] represents us.

Where does this leave us Christians, as we seek to think God’s thoughts after Him in history. Is Islam to blame for this massacre?

Christians, I plead with you. Do not believe the lie that determining whether the attackers were “true Muslims” or merely those who distorted the supposedly good and pure essence of Islam will rightly inform how you should respond.

Those on the left need to respect the fact that the Sunni extremists of ISIS are no mere psychopaths, but genuine interpreters of Islam and the Koran, who claim Mohammad just as much as any other convicted Muslim. President Obama insists that ISIS perverts the interpretation of Islam. Christianity insists that all Islam perverts the interpretation of every way YHWH has revealed Himself to humanity.

Those on the right need to respect the diversity of Islam (see James White), and the personal and contextual nature of religion, such that Muhammad’s Islam is not identical with the San Bernardino shooters’ Islam, nor are the shooters’ or Muhammad’s Islam identical with Mos Def’s. This diverse range in Islam is a common grace blessing, such that we need not shun and discriminate against every self-identified Muslim. Religion is one’s ultimate heart commitment toward what one considers to be divine, that is, what one considers to be the most absolute, basic, and independent being or principle. Therefore, everyone’s religion is in a sense different.

Discussing religion and Islam, J.H. Bavinck, nephew to the great Herman, hits on both of these concerns:

We must…distinguish between a religion as a certain system of thoughts, traditions and practices which has a long history behind it and which is believed by its adherents and, on the other hand, religion as a complex whole of the very personal experiences, emotions, ethical stimulations and longings of an individual.

So the answer to the question of whether or not the San Bernardino shooters were truly Muslim is a qualified ‘yes,’ or a qualified ‘no,’ depending on which perspective you’re coming from. Either way, the answer to this question is unhelpful for Christians seeking to respond Christianly.

So, 1) what does Scripture have to say about Islam? and 2) how then shall we live?

The seed of Islam was prophesied in the seed of the serpent in Genesis 3, when God put enmity between Eve’s head-bruising offspring, and the serpent’s heel-bruising offspring.

Islam is but one of the infinite ways that humanity has unrighteously suppressed the truth about God and exchanged His absolute and archetypal glory for counterfeit objects, created only to reflect the real thing (Romans 1:18-25).

In God’s eyes, Islam, in every manifestation, from Shiite to Sufi to Sunni, is one of countless irreligiously religious responses to the one true God of Israel and His people. Muslims of every variety join the Canaanite Baal worshipers, the Babylonian Marduk worshipers, the Greek Zeus worshipers, the Enlightenment worshipers of humanism, and the American worshipers of fame, sex, beauty, and wealth, all of them worshiping and serving created things rather than the Creator who is blessed forever!

So Christian, how then shall we live?

  1. We must not allow ourselves to get swept up in the politics of left vs. right, but affirm truths wherever they may be found, even if humbly in mysterious tension. The shooters were Muslim…in a sense. Whether we emphasize that they were truly Muslim, or that they were only Muslim “in a sense,” is a contextual issue requiring much prayer and deliberation. Practically, we must not be overly quick to choose sides and close our eyes to opposing positions. We must humbly believe that there are genuine and thoughtful people all around, who have perspectives that can enrich our own. Even Herman Bavinck said, “Calvinism isn’t the only truth” (HT: James Eglinton).
  2. We must see all non-Christian religions as rooted in the antithesis that entered the world at Genesis 3, where God set up the serpent and his seed against the woman and her seed, who Apostle Paul tells us is Christ. Practically, we must pray for the conversion of those who have not been united with Christ, and we must live missionally, persuading the nations that only the gospel of Christ can make sense of the world and fulfill the deepest longings of even the hardest and most murderous heart.
  3. We must also not generalize and insist that the antithesis is absolute. Because of common grace, not all Muslims are the same. Practically, let us thank God for common grace, and in our everyday interactions with good, kind, ethical unbelievers, let us use this point of contact to demonstrate how their goodness and religions unwittingly feed off of the revelation of the one true God. For an example, see Tim Keller. He’s the modern master of this.
  4. Lest we, Christians, only apply this idol-opposing theology of religions to the religious “other,” let us admit that we, ourselves, though having had the love of God poured into our hearts by the Spirit, have not yet fully arrived either. As we go about our “never ending reformation,” let us walk humbly, remembering that, but for the grace of God, there is no reason that the San Bernardino shooters could not have been any of us. Let me end with some words from Visser, quoting J.H. Bavinck:

The Christian church must never lose sight of the fact that it too, had been guilty of suppressing and replacing the truth…’in the Christian too, the pagan continues to live and breathe.’ And this holds not only for the individual believer but also for the church as a whole which has turned its entire history into a drama of ‘formation, deformation and never ending reformation.’


Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

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