“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with an inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23)
Timothy George wrote an excellent book exploring the similarities and differences between central Christian and Muslim beliefs, published in 2002, and provocatively entitled Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Among other things, George observed that Old Testament Jews were strict monotheists, much like Muslims. Without an explicit concept of the Trinity, prior to the coming of Christ and New Testament revelation, their doctrine of God closely resembled Muslim understanding of Allah. In fact, the etymologies of Allah and El (or Elohim), a common Hebrew name for God in the Old Testament are probably related in pre-Arabic, pre-Hebraic Semitic tongues. Jews who did not become followers of Jesus often stumbled over the very thing Muslims do, the notion of the deity of Jesus or of a Triune God more generally. So perhaps Muslim views of Allah approximate pre-Christian Jewish understandings of Yahweh. Because the New Testament can properly speak of Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, as Jesus’ father, then maybe the Father of Jesus is the God of Muhammad.
George, however, concludes that this is going too far. The God of the Old Testament was a Triune God from all eternity past, whether most Jews ever realized it or not. There are at least hints of a plurality within the Godhead in the Old Testament in ways there are not in the Qur’an. There is nothing in the Old Testament that unequivocally states that God cannot have a Son, as repeatedly appears in the holy book of Islam. Read both the Jewish Scriptures and the Qur’an and despite the occasional picture of Allah as compassionate, the dominant impression one gets is of an all-powerful, all-knowing being whose mood is almost always one of judgment, primarily on outsiders to Islam. Read the Old Testament—actually read the whole thing and don’t just trust someone else’s simplistic summary—and Yahweh, God of Israel, is predominantly a God of love. When judgment does appear, most of the time it is against God’s own people. The major exception, with the inhabitants of Canaan in the days of Joshua, came only after centuries of God’s patience, until their sins had reached “full measure” (Gen. 15:16).
But one of our readers asks me to address this issue via a slightly different question: Can Allah and God ever be used interchangeably? Here I would agree with many missiologists, especially some who have served in Muslim contexts, that the answer is yes, so long as one goes on to define one’s terms carefully.
That’s exactly what Paul did on Mars Hill. Using theos, the general term for G/god in the Greek language, and based on an inscription to an unknown theos, he proceeded to define the term for the Athenians more accurately. But he never abandoned the term. “God” is an exceedingly common word for God in the Bible! There are plenty of accounts from the history of Christian missions of missionaries insisting on using a foreign word for God, or even creating a new word, in a given language because they cannot accept any indigenous word as close enough in meaning to the God of Scripture. Inevitably, additional barriers have been erected for the acceptance of the Gospel. Now in some instances, this may have been unavoidable, if no term exists that is not inherently polytheistic.
But in Arabic, Allah is as monotheistic as words come. Arabic Christians, before Islam was even birthed in the seventh century, used Allah to translate the biblical words for God. Here is a history we can draw on. Theos, of course, was used by Greek translators of the Septuagint, long before the coming of Christ, despite it being a term very susceptible to polytheistic overtones, but not inherently so.
So it all depends on context. If one can use Allah and explain what one means by it and this is a bridge for sharing Christian beliefs, by all means use it. If among a different group of people, it is inextricable from distinctively Islamic tenets, one may have to abandon it. Great discernment is needed either way.
"There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that" (TNIV).
I continue to think a lot about apostasy. No, not as an option for me (!), but trying to make sense of the experiences and decisions of others. I also recently finished Robert Yarbrough's new Baker Exegetical Commentary on 1-3 John and gave it a glowing review (see under Denver Journal on our website). John has a lot to say about the topic in these little letters and the verse quoted above may be the most well known of all he has to say.
Ironically, his main point in this context is to encourage his congregations to pray for those who have committed all other kinds of sins besides the one that leads to death (vv. 1 John 5:16-17). But by setting up the contrast between the two kinds of sins, he naturally piques our curiosity about the more heinous of the two.
It is unlikely that John is talking about sins that lead to physical death, as with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. Every other use of "life" (zoÄ“) or "death" (thanatos) in the Epistles of John refers to spiritual life or death. In light of 1 John 2:19, it is unlikely that John thinks of these people who sin unto death as ever having been true Christians, though they may have fooled others and even themselves (the kind of deceit that should preclude us ever treating ‘eternal security" glibly or casually and that should ever keep us pronouncing with 100% assurance on the spiritual condition of anyone else).
1 John 3:10 offers us considerable help here: "This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Those who do not do what is right are not God's children; nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters." No, the kind of help I'm thinking of is not what some might immediately think of - that professions of faith must be complemented and thereby demonstrated by love and obedience to the commandments, though that is a central theme of John. Rather it is the simpler but subtler observation that those whom one category of "fake Christians" fail to love are called adelphoi ("brothers and sisters," or "siblings" for those who prefer an accurate, one-word English equivalent).
But the way this term of biological or spiritual kinship is used involves reciprocity. I never call someone my brother who cannot in turn call me his brother. So that means that the fake Christians in John's community would have also been called brothers (or sisters). Thus when this same language of siblingship reappears in 1 John 5:16, we dare not assume that it proves John has true believers in mind. He is simply echoing the language of the community itself as they refer to one another as brothers and sisters. Tragically, some who have these terms applied to them and perhaps apply them to themselves as well may turn out to have been masquerading, wittingly or unwittingly.
Are we therefore never to pray for such people? As Paul would say, mÄ“ genoito ("by no means," or for Denver Seminary grads who had Elodie Emig or me for Greek, you'll know the more accurate though dynamically equivalent translation that might offend some readers)! One has to recall that Greeks didn't put their negations in misleading places in their sentences like we do. John very intentionally says that he is not telling them, on this occasion, to pray for those who sin unto death. This is quite different from him telling them not to pray for them! He's simply saying that he's not talking about the sin unto death in this context but those sins that aren't unto death.
Of course, if we knew who those people were who had so hardened their hearts that they had committed what Jesus calls blasphemy against the Spirit (Matthew 12:32) so that God gives them over to their depravity (Romans 1:24-28), we could stop praying for them, knowing it was pointless. But we don't have such knowledge and when we guess as to who such people might be we often guess wrongly. So we dare never stop praying for anyone no matter how much it seems like they might be sinning unto death. Deathbed conversions remain surprisingly common even today, including by some of the once-most-hardened atheists and "believers"-turned atheists!
So what is the sin leading to death? Yarbrough puts it well: it "is to have a heart unchanged by God's love in Christ and so to persist in convictions and acts and commitments like those John and his readers know to exist among ostensibly Christian people of their acquaintance, some of whom have now left those whom John addresses" (p. 311). The assurance John offers is always for those who are presently believers (1 John 5:13), not for those who have repudiated their professions of faith. But as long as the breath of life remains in a person, repentance unto eternal life is always possible. The only unforgivable sin is the sin of unwillingness, in the final analysis, to repent and come to Christ.
I knew I was in trouble when I saw the Scripture chosen for the header at the top of this pastor's blog: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be anathema" (Galatians 1:8). Without reading a single post, I accurately predicted what its contents would be -- tirades against all the ways mainstream evangelicalism had gone "liberal." I was actually honored to be included with the many wonderful godly leaders and scholars who were attacked, including former teachers and colleagues, current peers with whom I went to school, and leading pastors on the American evangelical scene.
The blog was extreme, but the use of Galatians 1:8 was not unusual. There is a large segment of very conservative evangelicalism or fundamentalism that regularly appeals to the seemingly harsh language of the New Testament in combating false teachers, whether in Galatians, or in 2 Corinthians 10, or in Philippians 3, or in 2 Peter 2 or in Jude 1 to justify using harsh invective against those with whom they disagree. How can anyone object? They are following inspired, inerrant models!
One can and should object for at least five reasons. First, such rhetoric was more common and acceptable in the first century than it is today. Read the Old Testament prophets, the diatribes at Qumran, or the full text of the Hippocratic Oath and Paul seems almost mild in comparison. Yet this language was understood as neither ad hoc nor ad hominem but conventional, culturally acceptable ways of strongly disassociating oneself from certain perspectives.
Second, even in Paul's world one had to balance this text against his quite different command in Galatians 6:1-"if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently."
Third, as I showed in a paper published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2002, the harshest, condemning language in the New Testament is consistently reserved for those who challenge the very heart of the saving message of Jesus Christ. Unless a false teacher's beliefs or behavior, if imbibed, would prove so damaging that a person would actually be lost who adopted them, then the inspired authors' tones remain quite different.
Fourth, even when it is a core doctrine that is at stake, it is those who have distorted the gospel in an overly conservative, legalistic, works-righteousness direction who come in for the strong denunciation, not those who are flirting with "left-leaning" boundaries.
Finally, the only acceptable reasons for such rhetoric can be the sincere hope that it will win the offending person or persons (back) to the Lord and/or keep others from following suit. In today's Western world, the latter almost never occurs when one replicates such harsh tones. Indeed, one's opponents are simply alienated even further and their antagonism is reinforced. Increasingly, especially among those not yet middle-aged, even Christians recognize that this flies in the face of the centrality of the command to love one's neighbor and even one's enemy. Those who weren't in any danger of doing so become likely to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject Christianity altogether when they observe Christians who are characteristically combative.
That ought to be more than enough to warn all of us who care about what God thinks and wants in this world to be extremely wary of ever sounding like Paul in Galatians 1:8--except, ironically, in the occasional need to censor people like the writer of the blog I stumbled across, since his legalistic theology actually turned out to be a close replica of the Judaizers Paul censored in Galatia!
He or she who has hears to hear, let them hear...
"Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and ear your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you" (James 5:1-6)
Of course these words don't apply to us! In the context of James these are most likely the rich non-Christian who were oppressing the largely impoverished congregations James pastored, made up of day-laborers, akin to our modern-day migrant workers, in agricultural settings. By not receiving their agreed-on wages at the end of each day, the workers might not have enough money to buy food for themselves and their families. If this happened often enough, they would have to borrow money in order to avoid starvation. But they would sometimes be unable to repay their debts and eventually could be thrown into debtors' prison. There they would have no way of earning any money. Unless they had friends, they would not eat in prison because ancient Roman prisoners did not bother to feed prisoners. But friends from outside could bring prisoners things to eat. Unless a well-to-do benefactor came to their aid from outside, they would languish in prison for life, a life often drastically shortened by the cruel conditions. It is this sense in which the rich oppressors were condemning and murdering innocent people.
The Sunday before Election day, I preached in the only Evangelical church of Meynooth, Ireland, home to the theological college that trains Ireland's Catholic priests and, until six years ago, was bereft of evangelical churches altogether. It was a small gathering of about one hundred people meeting in a large classroom of a secondary school. But what a wonderful gathering of people it was, welcoming, friendly, and yet serious about their faith. As has regularly been my experience in Canada, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand (but rarely in the United States except after special disasters or tragedies), part of the worship service was devoted to praying for the world and the nation in some detail, by a leader very abreast of the news of the week. The children's sermon even involved an explanation of American politics, the election, and the significance of the outcome in a very even-handed, unbiased fashion and with more political savvy than I often experience in American evangelical churches.
I shouldn't have been surprised. Most countries in the world spent a disproportionate amount of their recent news on the American elections, not because they were enamored with America, but because they realized that in our global village their political and economic well-being is closely tied to what the U.S. does. I was reminded once again of how evangelicals even in the comparatively prosperous nations of Western Europe (and Ireland had the fastest growing economy in the world at one point in the last decade until the recent financial downturn) still lag noticeably behind even the average middle-class American Christian. Not in a critical but merely in an informative way, the pastor in Meynooth reminded his Irish congregation before I spoke that 50% of all the military spending in the entire world was done by Americans in the last year, that Americans have one of the highest percentage of homeless people in the "developed" world, and that Americans still consume more of the world's resources than any other country on the planet, even though the Chinese have between four and five times as many people as we do.
How do we know that the rich in James 5:1-6 are non-Christian? The two main answers are (1) because of the behavior described of them, and (2) because God pronounces only judgment against them. But then if we are honest, we have to say that, by global standards, we are the ones who have lived in luxury and self-indulgence, especially in what we spend on our homes and on our churches, in how much we eat and how much we throw away on recreation and entertainment. At some point presumably this disqualifies any profession of faith in Jesus we might otherwise make. I wish I knew where that line was.
But that would only tempt me to get as close to the line as possible. Since I don't know, I have to consistently ask myself how I can do more and more to move away from the danger of being anywhere close to such a line. After all, the earnings on the investments I didn't give away in the last ten years have all disappeared in the last few months due to the financial crisis. Will I ever learn the lesson?
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg serves as Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary.
Dr. Blomberg completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. He received an MA from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Augustana College. Before joining the faculty of Denver Seminary, he taught at Palm Beach Atlantic College and was a research fellow in Cambridge, England with Tyndale House.
In addition to writing numerous articles in professional journals, multi-author works and dictionaries or encyclopedias, he has authored or edited 20 books, including The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Interpreting the Parables, commentaries on Matthew, 1 Corinthians and James, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts through Revelation, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions; Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions; Preaching the Parables; Contagious Holines: Jesus' Meals with Sinners; and Handbook of New Testament Exegesis.
For more, visit Denver Seminary.