Category Archives: World religions

A Case Against Islam

Islam image

I’ve just finished reading K. Scott Oliphint’s Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practices in Defense of our Faith.  It was a refreshing and in some ways innovative approach to Reformed apologetics following the general trajectory of Cornelius Van Til’s presuppositionalism.  One unique feature of the book is its presentation of several “dialogues” between a Reformed (“covenantal”) apologist and various forms of unbelief or wrong belief.  Wrong belief is what we find countered in chapter 7.  Oliphint demonstrates how Christians might respond to the apologetic challenge of Islam, both exposing its weak points and presenting a better way with Christianity.  I found especially his presentation of the weaknesses of Islamic theism to be compelling.  He argues that we need “show how the religious system of Islam cannot stand of its own rationalistic weight” (258).  I’d like to share the best part of the dialogue between Covenantal Apologist (CA) and the fictional Ishaq Muhammad (IM):

CA:  …if I have heard you correctly, Allah’s will does not in any way constrain him.  Allah does now, and will always do, whatever he wants to do.  And what he wants to do later could be the opposite of what he has revealed through Muhammad.  This is why you can have no guarantees with respect to Allah’s will, which is the sum and substance of Islamic religion.  Is that correct?

IM:  Yes, theoretically, that is correct.  He cannot be constrained because he transcends all.  But Muslims have hope that Allah will delight in our deeds and so bring us to heaven.

CA:  I understand.  But that hope is only an empty hope.  And, like your understanding of mystery, it has no basis in knowledge.  It is, as we like to say, a blind faith.  Since the Qur’an is a revelation of Allah’s will, what he wills to do in the end may be the opposite of his will revealed in the Qur’an.  Correct?

IM:  Yes.  Allah be praised.  That is correct.

CA:  Well, Ishaq, if that is true, then it just may be that what I believe and what you believe are the same thing, though you could never know that.

IM:  What?  This is blasphemy.  I do not believe that Allah is three gods; I do not believe that he has a son.  I reject all that you hold to be true.

CA:  Yes, I know.  I did not say that you believe what I believe.  What I said is that it may be the case that what you believe and what I believe are the same.  Allah is free to will such a thing.

You will have to admit, Ishaq, that Allah is free enough to decide and to will that he will bring all Christians to heaven and reject all Muslims.  You will also have to agree that he may determine to have a son.  He may, if he so wills, determine that Christian belief is to rewarded eternally and Muslim belief is to be condemned.  If this were true, would you say, ‘Allah be praised’?

This, it seems to me, is the only ‘reasonable’ conclusion to your own religion.  There is nothing in the transcendent necessity of Allah, since that necessity includes his absolute freedom (except, as I have said, not the freedom to relate to anything), that hinders him from accepting all Christians.  So it just may be, based on what you have told me, that Christianity is the true religion and Islam is not, at least from the perspective of Allah’s absolutely free will. (247-248)

This is definitely one of the best examples I’ve seen of Reformed apologetics applied to Islam.


Why is Pentecostalism Popular in Latin America and Elsewhere?

Introduction to Pentecostalism Allan Anderson

I was looking for a book about Pentecostalism and its history and theology.  I wanted to get something from a sympathetic perspective.  I found it with this volume.  Allan Anderson is a former Pentecostal pastor and apparently a global authority on the subject.  He seems to know what he’s talking about.

One of the questions I had coming to this book was why Pentecostalism appeals so widely in developing countries.  Anderson partly answers this question in chapter 10, “A Theology of the Spirit.”    Here’s what he says:

The popularity of Pentecostal and Charismatic forms of Christianity in the developing world can also in part be attributed to a particularly contextual spirituality.  Pentecostalism purports to provide for much more than the ‘spiritual’ problems of life.  The important role given to divine healing and exorcism, the particular emphasis on the power of the Spirit, but also the comprehensive community projects and significant involvement in political and civic organizations and trade unions, represent a new and vigorous spirituality offering help to human problems.  This spirituality is a holistic approach to Christianity that appeals more adequately to popular worldviews than older Christian traditions had done, and in some respects was also more satisfying than ‘traditional’ religions had been.  Furthermore, throughout Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and Latin America, Pentecostalism has been more meaningful precisely because it has continued some pre-Christian religious expressions and symbols and invested them with new meanings. (202)

A little further on the same page, Anderson refers to Amos Yong and his attempt to develop a Pentecostal theology of religions.  Writes Anderson:

[Yong] points out that Pentecostals in the Third World, especially those who are part of Christian minorities, are in constant interaction with other religions.  He says that the experiences of the Spirit common to Pentecostals and Charismatics demonstrate ‘indubitable similarities across the religious traditions of the world.’  This opens up the way for a constructive Pentecostal theology of religions that explores ‘how the Spirit is present and active in other religious traditions.’ (202-203)

This does explain a lot.  To put it in my own words, Pentecostalism is popular in part because it accommodates other religious traditions.  Pentecostalism is popular partly because it assimilates pre-Christian religious expressions and symbols.  At least some Pentecostals believe the Holy Spirit is living and active in non-Christian religions.  If we take Anderson’s word, Pentecostalism does something like what the Roman Catholic Church did in Latin America and elsewhere.  The Roman Catholics took a pagan goddess and transformed her into Our Lady of Guadulupe.  Today this is widely applauded as a form of contextualization.  Unfortunately, that word is often a euphemism for syncretism.  Interestingly, in the previous chapter, Anderson bemoans a previous generation of Pentecostal missionaries who regarded non-Christian religions as wicked paganism.  Therefore, in an earlier period, it appears there was inconsistency in Pentecostalism on this point.  Whether Anderson and Yong’s views are widely held in Pentecostalism today, I don’t know.

What I do know is that the alleged holistic appeal of Pentecostalism mentioned in the first quote doesn’t seem to reach very far.  In my estimation (based on my reading of this book and conversations with Pentecostals) Reformed theology and worldview is far more holistic than Pentecostalism, but it doesn’t carry the same cachet in Latin America and elsewhere.  Why not?  I think Anderson answers that question when he write this:  “…as I have elsewhere observed, a criticism often justifiably levelled at Pentecostals is that sometimes a theology of success and power is expounded at the expense of a theology of the cross” (198).  A theology of the cross never plays well for the crowds, and that’s at the center of the gospel as proclaimed in Reformed churches.  If you want the crowds, promise them signs and wonders.  If you want to pull in the masses, promise them experiences.  Promise them padded bank accounts.  Sadly, the trajectory of all this is what Michael Horton called Christless Christianity.

Life of Pi

Life of Pi

I mentioned this novel yesterday morning.  The recent release of the movie prompted me to have another look at the novel and make mention of it in my sermon on John 14:5-7.  The novel was first published in 2001, but it wasn’t until 2007/2008 that it became popular.  Around that time, I posted something about it on my old Xanga Yinkahdinay blog (now defunct).  This is what I wrote back then:


I don’t read too many novels, especially outside of the summer months.  But it was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and I received some money and so I decided to head over to Chapters and splurge.  I bought this book because one of the members of our Mission Team to Quebec was reading it on the flight back and she said that it had been recommended to her by someone else.  I checked out the book at Chapters and it looked interesting, so I bought it and just finished it the other night.

I enjoyed it.  As far as the literary quality goes, this is good stuff.  It’s very well-written and it easily pulls you in.   It’s filled with many surprising turns and a few extraordinary literary devices.

But what I really wanted to comment on was the character of the book.  How would I characterize it?  I’d say that it’s a literary apology for buffet spirituality.  Pi, the main character of the book, virtually simultaneously becomes a Christian and a Muslim, in addition to being Hindu.   Pi sees these religions as being essentially the same, “…Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims.” “Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’  I just want to love God.”  At another point he interacts with his mother and says he doesn’t see why he can’t be Christian, Muslim, and Hindu.  But the Jesus whom Pi believes in obviously never said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  And the Islam that Pi believes in obviously doesn’t confess, “There is no true god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah.”  With his buffet spirituality, Pi actually attacks the heart of the religions he claims to hold.   He is neither authentically Christian nor authentically Muslim, though perhaps he could be authentically Hindu.

The main body of the novel is a shipwreck story filled with several unbelievable events.  When he finally lands up on the shores of Mexico, the ship’s owners send a delegation to interview Pi about the shipwreck.  He tells them the story, but they don’t believe him.  So, he tells them another story, one that might be more believable.  Then he says, “You can not prove which story is true and which is not.  You must take my word for it.”  He then asks which is the better story.  The delegation prefers the story with the animals.  Pi responds, “Thank you.  And so it goes with God.”  As I understand it, essentially this is the spirit of our age:  you create your own reality and your own truth, you select the story or stories that appeal to you.  According to this outlook, there is no such thing as public, objective truth that exists outside of ourselves.

It was interesting to read a novel that makes an apology (defense) for this worldview.  I’m sure that college and university English classes all over Canada are having a lot of fun with it.  But at the end of the day, this worldview is self-defeating and self-destructive.  Nobody can live consistently with this position.  And when they try, they sin against their better knowledge, for “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20).

Preparing for Combative Jihad

I first ran across this book in New Trails, the magazine for alumni of the University of Alberta.  It sounded like a good place to find primary source material on what Muslims are actually saying around the world.  According to the editor’s introduction, “one of the main objectives of this book is to help the reader come to grips with the conceptual worldview of Islamism as envisioned by its thinkers and ideologues.”  It certainly does help.

The second part of the book deals with jihad.  Chapter 7 is entitled “Preparing the Appropriate Climate for Jihad” and it’s by Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti.  He first mentions that there are two types of jihad.  There is peaceful jihad that takes place by preaching.  Then there is also violent, combative jihadJihad is called for with respect to the recovery of formerly Islamic territory (dar al-Islam) — think Palestine.  But then al-Buti begins discussing the question:  “What methods does jihad have to use to compel deviant, aimless, and sinful people to submit to Allah’s commands and orders?”  He notes that jihad was not originally devised for that.  But then read this portion:

Did not the Prophet himself send forces to areas outside the domain of the Islamic frontiers?  Did he not sometimes lead some of these detachments with the aim of compelling people to join Islam, consequently founding an Islamic state out of non-existence?

Which method should be used to guide people and establish Islamic rule?  The method is to follow the example of the Prophet who guided the deviants and unbelievers to Islam in increasing numbers until they formed a nation and, consequently, a state.

The Prophet continued to conduct such a unique peaceful jihad until he and his Companions achieved the most appropriate atmosphere for the second kind of jihad, combative jihad.  Today, what we, as Muslims, lack are men willing to follow the unique example of the Prophet to create a suitable environment for this latter kind of jihad, by means of which we could fulfill the ultimate aim of the Holy War, that is, victory or success.  (p.50)

In other words, preaching (peaceful jihad) is a means to an end (violent jihad).  Now I will hasten to add that not all the Islamic voices in this book would agree with al-Buti.  Yet many Muslims do.  And I do find it remarkable that a Canadian university press publishes this without anyone raising an eyebrow.

Contextualization (1)

Revised text of a lecture for the Grade 11 Bible class at Credo Christian High School, Langley, BC in 2007.

As most of you know, for the first few years of my ministry, I served as a missionary in Fort Babine, BC, north of Smithers.  There were many difficult issues to work through as a missionary.  One of these was the relationship between native culture and the Christian faith.  There were some native Christians who said, for instance, that when you became a Christian you could no longer go to potlatch feasts.  They said the potlatch was all tied up with native spirituality.  Others said that potlatch feasts were okay for Christians or at least some potlatches were okay and others weren’t.  These sorts of issues not only come up in Fort Babine – they come up all over the globe.  In what follows, I want to look at this relationship between Christianity and culture.

I’m going to speak about something called contextualization.  I know that’s a word you may not have heard of before.  But if you ever doing any reading in the area of missions, you’ll soon come across it.  It’s probably the subject that gets the most discussion by people who study mission.

So, what is contextualization?  We can define it like this:

Contextualization is taking the gospel of Christ to a new context and finding appropriate and effective ways to communicate it so the people in that context can understand it best.  It also includes developing a church life that is biblically faithful and culturally appropriate.

There is a lot there in that definition.  But it can be boiled down to two things:  communication and identity.  First, when we bring the gospel to people from another culture, how can we effectively tell them about Christ?  Second, there’s identity.  How do people from another culture take the gospel and make it their own?  What does accepting the gospel do to their cultural identity?  When we take these two things together, we’re looking at the interaction between culture and faith, particularly a new faith that comes from outside the culture.

Before we go any further, we have to think for a few moments on the definitions of communication and culture.  First, let’s define communication:

Communication is transmitting information that influences and/or informs the behaviour and thinking of other creatures.

We sometimes think communication is just a simple matter of using words to get something across to somebody else.  But the reality is that communication is a very complicated thing.  It’s not just about words.  Whether we realize it or not, a lot of our communication is non-verbal.  We send messages with our body language.  When we communicate with one another, we also work with a shared understanding of what the world is like, or worldview.  Coming from the same culture, we share the same understanding of the various social structures – so we know that talking to our parents or teachers is different than speaking to our friends and so on.  Communication is a complicated thing.  When we’re in our own culture, we can take it for granted.  But when you go to another culture, if you want to be effective as a missionary, you have to be sensitive to the complexities of communication.

Culture is also complex.  What is culture?  There are dozens of definitions floating around.  For our purposes, we can use this one:

Culture is the complex, dynamic whole of human existence which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs, and the resulting artifacts.

The two key words I want you to note there are complex and dynamicComplex means it’s made up of many parts.  Dynamic means it’s constantly changing.  Someone once said that culture is like a lava lamp – very true.

So, it’s these two things that contextualization is concerned with:  culture (identity) and communication.  Up till now that sounds a bit abstract and theoretical, but we need to get a bit of background before we move into the more concrete side of things.  Let’s do that now.

Sometimes in our churches collections will be taken for Middle East Reformed Fellowship (MERF).  This is an organization that does mission work primarily among people in the Middle East who are Muslims, followers of Islam.  Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of discussion among missionaries and mission scholars about missions to Muslims.  The hot issue is contextualization.  How can Christian missionaries effectively communicate the gospel to Muslims, people who have their own unique culture?  What does it look like for a person with a Muslim background to become a Christian?  To help in discussing and answering these questions, one missionary who goes by the name of John Travis (not his real name) came up with what he called the C-spectrum.

The C-spectrum gives a framework of different ways of being a so-called Muslim Background Believer (MBB) – this is related to the question of identity. The framework looks like this:

C1 refers to a traditional Western church that uses a language foreign to the people (English, for example).  The people in this church are trying to be culturally Western and the believers there openly refer to themselves as Christians.

C2 is a traditional Western church using the language of the people (Arabic, for instance).  The believers found here refer to themselves as Christians, but some of their language reflects their Muslim background.  However, their most important religious vocabulary is definitely Christian.

C3 is used to describe churches that use the language of the people but also other cultural forms (music, dress, artwork, etc.) that these believers consider to be neutral.  They still refer to themselves openly as Christians.

C4 is similar to C3.  However, it includes more Islamic practices that are considered to be biblically permissible.  For instance, C4 believers will pray with raised hands, avoid pork and alcohol and they will use more Islamic language.  Also, C4 believers do not refer to themselves as Christians.  Instead, they will say that they are followers of Isa the Messiah (Isa is the Arabic name of Jesus).

When we come to C5, we’re speaking about Messianic Muslims.  Legally and socially, they remain within the Islamic community.  Parts of Islamic theology that go against the Bible are rejected or reinterpreted if possible.  Others in their community regard them as Muslims and they refer to themselves as Muslims who follow Isa the Messiah.

Finally, C6 refers to small communities of underground believers.  They typically live under totalitarian governments in closed countries.  For fear of persecution, they worship Christ entirely in secret.  As opposed to C5 and the other groups, C6 MBBs are silent about their faith.  They are regarded as Muslims by those around them and they simply identify themselves as Muslims without adding anything or qualifying that further.

The C-spectrum provides a helpful framework for debate and discussion about contextualization with Muslim background believers.  Some believe that only C1 and C2 are valid forms of contextualization.  Others say that C4 to C6 are equally valid.  From this you can concretely see the kinds of issues that are at stake here.

If we bring those issues down to one main concern for those who take the Bible seriously, it is the matter of syncretism.  Syncretism is what happens when two belief systems are brought together and then the resulting combined system is a dangerous compromise.  With the example above of the C-Spectrum some people are concerned about mixing Christianity and Islam.  If you want a clear example of syncretism, we could look at the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico.  Roman Catholics around the world worship the Virgin Mary, but in Mexico and other places in Latin America it gets very extreme.  This is because when the Roman Catholic Church came into Latin America, the native inhabitants had a pagan nature goddess named Cihuacoatl.  The Roman Catholic Church replaced this pagan nature goddess with Mary, whom they call our Lady of Guadeloupe.  This has taken place in other places in the world as well.  The Roman Catholics have always very easily incorporated pagan elements into their worship.  This is what we call syncretism and this is one of the biggest concerns when we discuss contextualization.  We want to avoid syncretism because that means compromise and possibly losing the gospel message itself.

Click here to read Part 2.