Language: March 2008 Archives

In my last post on this subject [see links to all the posts here], I said I was covering the first of two posts that have seriously challenged the thesis I've been defending about the God of Christianity and the God of Islam. This post looks at the second post, Who's Allah? by Kevin Courter.

Kevin's argument is much more difficult for the position I've been taking than any of the other arguments I've been responding to. I actually think it's devastating to the position as I've sometimes stated it, but it shows that taking the biblical data seriously requires a position that's neither exactly what I've stated nor what the other side is saying. I do think my position is revisable to deal with the text he points to, and I don't think the other side is revisable to deal with the texts I've mustered or the arguments I've put forward.

Kevin presents two biblical arguments. The first is from II Corinthians 11:4:

For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. [ESV]

This way of speaking shows that Paul thinks someone who teaches a different gospel is teaching a different Jesus. Kevin also points to the discussions in I Corinthians 8 and 10 about eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul speaks of such idols in two ways. At one point, he flat-out says that the idols are nothing, and there's nothing in principle wrong with eating meat sacrificed to non-existent beings (unless there are weak brothers or sisters around who would be led back into a life of idolatry if they saw mature believers doing that).On the other hand, Paul insists that there are demons standing behind them, and involvement in idolatry is involvement with demons. Kevin thinks that's a good reason to think false worship involves inadvertent demon-worship, and thus there must be some being Allah who is a demon rather than the word referring to God or not referring to any being. My argument assumed that the word 'Allah' either refers to God or does not refer to anything.

I'll come to the demon argument at the end. I think the more serious difficulty comes from the other issue, so I'll look at that first. I want to narrow my view down to its fundamental root. My original point in all this was twofold. One side of it is that you can speak of Muslims talking about God, and they do talk about God, the actual God that I believe in as a Christian. The other side of it is that they're getting it so wrong that it's wrong to speak of them as worshiping God if you mean a certain thing by that. I don't think any of what Kevin has said threatens either of those points, although I do think I need to modify how I put it to account for the two points he makes. There's a tension in scripture between (1) passages that speak of false worship as wrong worship of God and (2) passages that speak of false worship as not worship, false worship of God as not being about God, and false views of Jesus as not being about Jesus.

The discussions of whether Muslims worship the same God as Christians have continued in a few places since my recent post. Two posts in particular deserve some attention, raising issues that didn't really come out well in my own post or in my previous discussions of this subject. I'll treat them in separate posts. The second one will probably appear tomorrow.

The first is another Justin Taylor post. Justin quotes a section of a book by Timothy Tennent, in which he argues that 'God' in English is a descriptive term, while 'Allah' in Arabic is more like a proper name. I disagree. He's right about 'Allah', but I think 'God' in English also functions like a proper name. Otherwise we shouldn't capitalize it as a name. We should speak of the god but not of God. So the two are used similarly. But there's a more interesting argument that I thought was worth responding to:

The phrases "God of Muhammad" and "Father of Jesus" are spoken by communities of faith with important books of revelation that provide hundreds of predicates, all helping to set forth the full context for the meaning of thee two phrases. From the perspective, I must conclude that the Father of Jesus is not the God of Muhammad.

I'm with Tennent that it sounds so wrong to say that the God of Muhammad is the Father of Jesus. I'm even close to him on why it sounds so wrong. But I don't think he's quite clarified what the problem is. That sentence involves two terms that aren't mutually acceptable. No Christian will say that God is the God of Muhammad, since that means he's a true follower of God. No Muslim would say that God is the Father of Jesus in the way Christians mean that. So putting the two expressions together in an identity statement is extremely funny, linguistically speaking, and it's strange to affirm such a sentence. Affirming the sentence seems to amount to affirming that both descriptions apply, and no faithful Christian or Muslim would do that.

But you can say all that while still thinking that the referent of the two funny statements is God, even if in one case you think the expression gets something fundamentally wrong about him (just as I can refer to the red-haired man across the room drinking champagne when the guy is actually a bald woman in drag drinking wine in a champagne glass while wearing a red-haired wig). It's technically false that the guy with red hair across the room drinking champagne is my English teacher, even if the woman I'm referring to is my English teacher, and I don't know she's a woman. I still refer to her when I describe her that way. So I don't think this argument counts against the view I've been defending.

Rick Love and John Piper have reinvigorated the debate over whether Muslims worship the same God as Christians. See Justin Taylor's summary of the reasons for the Piper position. I'm of course on record taking the opposite view (see here), but in contributing to the comments on Justin's post I ended up putting my reasoning in a different enough way that I wanted to post it here as well. What follows is a slightly modified version of my comment on Justin's post.

First, let me present an issue in the philosophy of language. There's some difference of opinion about how words acquire their reference, i.e. how it is that a word comes to refer to the thing that it does. The dominant view in philosophy of language today is that a word comes to refer to what it refers to because of an initial "baptism" that declares what it refers to, along with various processes that happen along its continued usage. But there's a causal chain back to the original "baptism".

The name "George W. Bush" refers to the guy who happens to be the current president because his parents gave him that name and continued to use it to refer to him without changing it, and he continued to use the name without changing it. Its reference is because of that causal chain back to when his parents declared it to be his name.

Now suppose someone comes along and enters into the causal chain, calling him George W. Bush and engaging in the normal process of using the name. But this person starts claiming that the guy called George W. Bush is a clone of the original and has only existed for a few years. That amounts to denying an essential property of George W. Bush, i.e. his origin. Someone can't be him without having that origin. Nonetheless, the person with the cloning theory successfully refers to the real George W. Bush, despite having a view that denies one of his essential properties. So it can't be that denying an essential property of a being means you're not referring to that being. Some claim that because one of God's essential properties, according to Christianity, is his existence in three persons, then someone who denies that element of God's nature must be talking about a different (and non-existent) being. Not so. That's not how language works.

Muslims use certain words to refer to the being they worship (to remain neutral at this point). The linguistic practice that involves those words referring to the being they worship traces back to the time of Muhammad, who wrote a series of Surahs that ended up becoming the Qur'an. In these writings, Muhammad claimed to have received them from an angel, and they spoke of the being worshiped by the Christians and Jews. The word 'Allah' was initially a description for a divine being in Arabic, not a name, although perhaps it now functions in a namelike way, much like 'God' in English. 'Allah' thus referred explicitly to the God that so far had been worshiped by Jews and Christians. Muhammad went on to say a whole bunch of things about God that Christians would deny, including some things that amount to denying some essential properties of God. Islam is a false religion that is worthless in terms of knowing God, according to Christian teaching, and the worship of this being under Islam does not count as genuine worship.

Nevertheless, it seems completely ludicrous to me to claim that this being that is falsely and ungenuinely worshiped by Muslims is not God. Muhammad intended to refer to the God long worshiped by Jews and Christians that Muhammad when he said all those false things about God. The being he misrepresented and twisted all sorts of things about is the God of the Bible. I don't know how the historical facts can get around that.

There is an issue of how a Christian should make this point. Perhaps Love didn't go far enough in distancing himself from how people might hear it. But that doesn't mean what he says is false.

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