To argue for a Christian assessment of Islam, in the sense which I elaborated in the prior post (A Christian Assessment of Islam, Part 1), may strike some of the readers as contrary to Christian principles and even the command to love one’s neighbor. I suggest to those readers that any such concerns should be carefully critiqued in light of the example of the writers of Scripture and secondarily in consideration of the examples of Christian writers.
I would argue that our modern sensibilities about being “sensitive” to others is based upon a hyper emphasis upon the fragile psychological moods which people tend to take as a standard of health and happiness. That is an illusion and we should not condone it as believers—even as we seek to learn how to “meet people where they are at” (as the saying goes). God speaks to the human will and reveals his purpose to those who will look beyond transitory emotional states to the Lord who created us for love so we could live in his truth. Even those who have been abused and emotionally scarred need more than empathy—they need to have someone speak the truth in love to them.
Our Lord Jesus spoke frankly and clearly to people about their evil motives and erroneous ideas about God and their two-faced way of life. He primarily focused his “harsh” words on the religious leaders in Judea in his day. He did this precisely because he loved them and was testifying to the truth so that they might hear him and repent. When was the last time you heard these “hard words” of Jesus taught on by your pastor? I would hope that some of you can answer “recently” and “often” but I doubt very much that many of us can report that.
Peter the Venerable did not mince words nor attempt to be “nice” when he wrote about Islam in A Summary of the Entire Heresy of the Saracens and Against the Sect of the Saracens. This is part of the reason why I enjoyed reading them—how refreshing it is to hear someone write with clarity and conviction from a distinctly orthodox Christian perspective. I would suggest that the value of reading works like this is to put a check on our irrational preference for not offending other people. When it comes to assessing Islam and its claims the goal of maintaining subjective psychological comfort as Christians must be renounced.
We must be willing to give a defense of the faith and to be critical of the ideas and beliefs of other people. Loving God and loving one’s neighbor requires that we learn to avoid being doormats and to stand firm in our faith. That means we need to articulate a strong rational defense of the faith. Relating our experience of God and the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit is essential but incomplete without the articulation of the reasons for our faith.
Such defenses of the faith have a long and noble series of precedents in Church history—too many to list here. Peter the Venerable’s writings about Islam are one more example worth studying. Such Christian writings are not merely answers to the critics of Christian faith but they help to fortify and encourage the faithful ones who would otherwise not know how to respond to the claims of other religious or philosophical traditions. Or to those people who are determined to take down people’s confidence in the Person of Christ as he is presented in Scripture and taught about in Christian orthodoxy.
Peter, in his letter to Bernard of Clairvaux, states that writing books against ideas which are opposed to Christian faith (polemical) form a kind of defensive shield.
“For even though it cannot profit those who are lost, in my opinion, nonetheless just as it is fitting to have an appropriate response to other heresies, so too it is fitting to have a Christian arsenal against this plague [Islamic teaching] as well. If anyone shall allege that this is unnecessary, since they are not in the presence of those they ought to oppose when supported by such arms, he should know that some things are done in the realm of a great king for protection, and some things are done for honor, and some are done for both reasons.”[i]
The tactics and tone which Peter used in his book are not palatable to most of us. We would find it difficult, if not morally questionable, to write in the way that he did. However, I think that this reflects our cowardly reticence to speak the truth more than compassionate concern. We are prisoners to the doctrines of tolerance and inclusion and many of us, the truth be told, are simply not confident about what we believe. This is why I think his book presents us with a healthy challenge and a model worth considering.
For example, in discussing the Qur’an’s use of the Bible and biblical names, events and people, he says,
“I do not cease to be amazed, nor can I be amazed enough at the reason why that prophet of yours mixed together in his Qur’an some things selected from the Jewish religion and some from the Christian religion and, since he showed himself with all his might to be a great enemy to both peoples, why he confirms, as though he were a Jew or a Christian, many things that he writes based on the authority of their Law. Now if he believes in those things that are ours [Bible], certainly insofar as he believes, he agrees with us rationally, with no resistance. If he agrees with us in part, why does he not give assent to everything that we believe? If he is content with the Jewish or Christian writings in part, why is he not content with the whole? Why does he reveal himself as monstrous by taking from our writings what he wants, and by rejecting what he does not want? Now, I read [the Qur’an’s many references to biblical persons] . . . Why did he call the Jewish Law good, which he does not follow; why does he preach the Christian Gospel, which he disparages? Either these scriptures are wrong and ought to be rejected, or they are true and ought to be proclaimed.”[ii]
These are quite reasonable questions. Anyone who has attempted to study Islamic teachings and particularly the statements in the Qur’an about the Bible should be asking this question. Peter simply highlighted a point of contradiction and challenged his reader to think critically about the matter. What are the implications of this?
Herein is an illustration of Peter attempting to make a Christian assessment of Islam. He will not merely accept as normative the assumptions made by the Qur’anic author about Scripture. Rather, he challenges it and turns these questions upon Muslims (and any of his Christian readers who may be sympathetic to Islam).
Another way that Peter attempted to make a Christian assessment of Islam was by assertively establishing a biblical conception of prophesy and prophets. Much of his book is taken up with these subjects. And once he had done that, he laid down this critique of the prophet of Islam.
“And although he [Muhammed] claims, asserts, and repeats almost ad nauseam that he is God’s prophet, he says nothing about the future, he says nothing prophetic, he does not disclose anything that has been foretold or fulfilled by him, but neither does he foretell what will be fulfilled. I remain silent over the pleasures he promises in paradise or the fantasies in hell, by which he cannot appear as a prophet before they are confirmed as fulfilled by those who were in paradise or hell. It was not difficult for him, or would it be difficult for me to call myself a prophet, if I wished; nor would it be difficult to write that and to introduce God to a text to call me a prophet; nor would it be difficult to proclaim to men that I am God’s prophet. I could make up whatever I want about things that will come to pass or not come to pass after the end of the world or after the destruction of things and I could not be proved to be a liar in this lifetime when foretelling things which may or may not come to pass after this lifetime. . . . A Christian believes in his prophets in this way and by just such manifest proof: not just because they called themselves prophets, but because they proved that they are prophets, without a trace of doubt, by manifest signs, clear miracles, and from the outcomes of the things they foretold.”[iii]
Again, Peter is here accurately stating what the Qur’an actually says about Muhammed as a prophet but then proceeds to critically evaluate those claims. He uses the biblical teaching and example of prophets and lays out a comparison between Muhammed and the prophets as described in Scripture. This book profoundly challenges both Muslims and Christians to think carefully about what they read in the Qur’an and also the Bible.
Finally, he does not hold back from asserting his convictions as an orthodox Christian. Nor from articulating clearly and forcefully why he rejects the most basic claim of the Qur’an: That Muhammed is a genuine prophet of God sent with a divine message. This is how his book ends. We do not know how he would have constructed a critique of other Islamic doctrines because he (apparently) did not complete writing on all the subjects which he had intended to address (based upon A Summary of the Entire Heresy of the Saracens).
The focus of much of the writing these days by Christians regarding Islam is on how to “contextualize” the Christian message so as to convey it effectively to Muslims. This is both necessary and valuable to seriously consider—because Islam has doctrines as well as “cultural” practices that are so deeply intertwined that we must identity both. And this intertwining of culture and doctrine and sacred writings is also characteristic of other people groups and religions (including forms of Christianity); thus we need to assess accurately what is the religious or cultural norms and beliefs of a given people group and then find ways to communicate the Gospel in ways which are most appropriate to them.
I grant that this is a very sound principle, rooted in Paul’s own model (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-27) for missionary workers to utilize. However, this must be counterbalanced with the need to articulate with clarity biblical teachings and to communicate them as authoritative. Otherwise, what do we stand for? Those devoted to other religious (or philosophical) traditions assume the truth of their traditions and are willing to base their destinies on that. Is it not strange that Christians today find this difficult—indeed repulsive to their sensibilities?
In this world we will encounter pressure to compromise our faith and conform to the norms of the culture we live in. Peter the Venerable left an example of standing firm in the faith of the Church and respectfully critiquing the views of those who are opposed to biblical teaching. I think it is worth considering in this permissive age where we are being constantly pressed to back off from affirming and practicing the faith of our Lord Jesus.
[i] See The Fathers of the Church Mediaeval Continuation, Volume 16, Peter the Venerable: Writings Against the Saracens, translated by Irven M. Resnick (The Catholic University of America Press:2016), pp.31-32.
[ii] Peter the Venerable, Against the Sect of the Saracens, paragraphs 55, 56; cited from The Fathers of the Church Mediaeval Continuation, Volume 16, Peter the Venerable: Writings Against the Saracens, translated by Resnick,pp.99, 101.
[iii] Against the Sect of the Saracens, paragraphs 129 & 130; cited from The Fathers of the Church Mediaeval Continuation, Volume 16, Peter the Venerable: Writings Against the Saracens, translated by Resnick,pp.145-146.