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Islam, Christianity, and Redemption History

By Matthew Claridge–

[photo source]

Islam claims to be the final revelation of God to men, superceding all previous revelation. But its polemic does not stop there; it also claims to be the only pure revelation of God to men. This further assertion, of course, serves a particularly effective if not somewhat self-serving end. Islam can dismiss all previous revelation with a sweep of the hand, declaring it all corrupted by human error, ignorance, or even by human malice.[1]The immediate apologetic value of this stance is tempered by some profound epistemological liabilities, particularly a vicious form of question begging.

That problem aside, Islam’s stance on revelation also suffers from a distinct theological liability—a liability brought to mind by a review in the New York Times of an exhibit on display in the New York Public Library entitled, “Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.” The exhibit displayed sacred texts and artifacts from all three religions. According to the reviewer, the ostensible purpose of this exhibit was to demonstrate the commonalities between all three faiths and also suggest that Islam is not an estranged or deranged member of this triad. While there are undoubtedly many similarities, the reviewer concedes that profound differences nevertheless remain. Yet at the point where he attempts to suggest what the greatest difference between the three faiths might be, he misses the mark: “Each religion aggressively reinterpreted its predecessors, accepting its sacred texts but radically altering their implications and meanings. And each predecessor religion, in turn, opposed attempts to treat it as a prelude to something greater.” Certainly, there has been reinterpretation, but is it true that Islam accepts the New Testament as a “sacred text” in the same way Christianity has accepted the Old Testament? I don’t think so. Both the New and the Old Testaments are hopelessly corrupt documents as far as Islam is concerned. This belief not only reveals a profound difference between the two faiths, but also one of Islam’s greatest theological weaknesses.

By claiming that all God’s previous revelation has been corrupted by human error or malice, Islam effectively cedes away God’s sovereignty, a doctrine of great importance to the Islamic tradition. As it is, according to Islam, God could not or would not preserve his revealed Word in previous dispensations from the sinful meddling of men. Perhaps this point can be ameliorated by asserting that Allah did indeed intervene at precisely the moments when a new, more pure revelation was needed as in the case of Islam itself. If that is true, however, we have no historical record of it. All previous revelation is deemed corrupt with the exception of the last revelation given to Mohammed. This attempt at defense would remain, at best, academic.

Yet there is another theological problem afoot here. By eschewing all previous revelation, Islam effectively adopts a cyclical rather than a linear view of history. Islam is not only the purest revelation, it is for all intents and purposes a novel revelation. It bears absolutely no positive relation to the historical records of its faith “family,” Judaism and Christianity. To be sure, Islam claims a sort of historical precedent as it freely spins its own renditions of Adam, Moses, Abraham, and Jesus. It does this, however, not by adopting the existing sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity, but by denying any validity to them. The history of revelation according to Islam may be summarized thus: revelation is given then corrupted then given anew. There does not appear to be any deeper plot than this. The restriction of pure revelation to the life of one man corresponds to Islam’s rather anthropocentric view of salvation. Salvation in Islam is ultimately a matter of a-historical moral enlightenment or ritual mandates, not a historical redemption. Interestingly, only once a static sacred text is presupposed (i.e., the Koran) does Islamic history truly begin.

By contrast, Christianity claims not only to supercede but to adopt all God’s previous revelation. Perhaps the word, “fulfill” captures best the way Christianity does this. Christianity adopts the Hebrew Scriptures as is and argues that the ancient canon indeed anticipates the events and claims of the Christian era. There have been long debates, of course, over whether the writers of the New Testament are justified in arguing this way (and I think they are), but one cannot deny the significance of this claim and its significant difference from the theological method of Islam. By appropriating the Hebrew Scriptures entirely as the Old Testament, Christianity truly represents a linear rather than cyclical view of history.

Historic Christianity did not adopt a “pick and choose” approach to the Old Testament, as Islam might be willing to do with the New Testament. At no point does historic Christianity (never mind its Liberal incarnations) suggest the Old Testament got this particular idea about God or this historical event right but that little bit over there wrong. No, it adopts the Old Testament in its entirety and interprets every aspect of it along redemptive-historical lines. This is a tall order, to be sure, but if successful it represents a compelling argument in its favor unmatched by any other religion.  Not only would it support a robust view of God’s sovereign oversight of his own revelation in history, but it would affirm the integrity of the history of God’s revelatory words and works. All moments in this history are legitimized because God has not only been active but has also been made known.

Islam makes the claim that it is the final revelation of God to men, superceding all previous revelation. But this rejection of all previous revelation is not an help to Islam but a total theological disaster. It narrows and truncates the work of God to one particular man in one particular cultural context. It is little wonder, then, that the Arabic language is the only official access point to an understanding of the Koran. The apologetic value of the Koran is ultimately reduced to the span of one man’s life; but the apologetic value of the Christian scriptures extends over the span of millennia through the lens of God’s own life and saving acts for men (Heb. 1.1-3).

Matthew Claridge (M.Div. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Th.M.  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor with Credo Magazine and the senior pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist church in Grangeville, Idaho. He is married to Cassandra and has two children.

[1] As one summary of Islamic teaching on this point states, “Islam asserts that variations of space and time, acculturation by alien influences, and human whims and passions caused people to slip from the truth. The result was that the religions of history all erred more or less from the truth because none has preserved the original text of its revelation.” Isma’il R. Al Faruqi, Islam (Niles, Ill.: Argus Communications, 1984), 10.

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