Responses: World Magazine

Can we talk?

Religion: Muslim “A Common Word” statement and the Christian response spark as much controversy as they hope to resolve

by Richard N. Ostling


After years, indeed centuries, of hostility, is a new and friendlier era in Muslim-Christian relations emerging?

That seems as improbable as the starting point for such a prospect: Muslim ire over a 2006 lecture by Pope Benedict. His talk provoked an immediate statement of defense from Muslim thinkers, followed last October by a dramatic declaration from a broader Muslim assemblage about improving interfaith harmony. A Christian group then seized the moment, issuing an optimistic November response.

That Christian rejoinder has attracted hundreds of endorsers, not only Catholics and liberal Protestants but such evangelicals as Bill Hybels, John Stott, Rick Warren, Christianity Today’s David Neff, and Wheaton College president Duane Litfin. However, some conservatives expressed alarm, and Litfin and others have now withdrawn their endorsements.

Benedict’s speech, at a German university where he once taught, mentioned a 14th-century Byzantine emperor’s assertion that Muhammad’s innovations were “only evil and inhuman,” for example spreading the faith “by the sword.” Only later did the pope clarify that he was not affirming such words.

The initial Muslim response informed Benedict that the Quran says “let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256), so that Islam opposes forced conversions. Under established Muslim morality, these scholars added, “we totally condemn” violence against innocent noncombatants—though without discussing Muslim terror attacks on Sept. 11 and before and since.

Many signers of that statement also joined last October’s remarkable letter from 138 Muslim religious authorities and organizational leaders, representing 41 nations and all major schools of thought. They addressed the text to the pope, other world hierarchs, and “leaders of Christian churches, everywhere.”

“Never before in modern times has such a ‘Who’s Who of the Muslim World’ signed such a document,” J. Dudley Woodberry, a Fuller Theological Seminary expert on Islam and signer of the Christian response, wrote on (The Muslims’ “A Common Word Between Us and You” and Christians’ “Loving God and Neighbor Together” are posted at

The Muslims said the two religions together claim more than half of humanity, so “the very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake” in peaceful relations. In obedience to the Quran, they asked “Christians to come together with us on the common essentials of our two religions,” defined in detail as love of God and love of neighbor. Most surprising, perhaps, the Muslim leaders affirmed that “justice and freedom of religion are a crucial part of love of the neighbor.”

The Christians’ response, organized by Yale Divinity School’s Center for Faith and Culture, agreed with all that and urged ongoing dialogue. It acknowledged that “in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the ‘war on terror’) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors.” The Christians said “God is dishonored” and neighbor-love violated when religious freedom is curtailed.

That seems a promising starting point, but conservative Protestants have raised vigorous objections to the substance of both statements.

Some noted that the Muslims, unlike the Christians, expressed no regret for past or present atrocities. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, commented that he wouldn’t apologize for the Crusades because there was sin on both sides, and he’s thankful that Muslims failed to conquer Europe. He also rejected the apology for the “war on terror” because that wrongly identified Christianity with U.S. foreign policy.

Minneapolis pastor John Piper complained that the Christians’ approach was “to deceive, to be unclear at best” because they provided no “clear statement about what Christianity really is” and ignored that “the love of God is uniquely expressed through Jesus Christ.”

Australian Anglican pastor Mark Durie, among others, observed that the Muslim text repeatedly defined love of God in terms of the central dogma of tawhid, God’s unity in absolute monotheism, and rejection of shirk, “association” of God with what is not divine. The cited Quran teachings directly attack Christian belief in Jesus’ divinity within the Trinity.

To Durie, the Christian response either implied acceptance of, or overlooked, this Muslim belief, which is “problematic for interfaith harmony.” A Focus on the Family article agreed that the statement “appeared to leave the fundamentals of Christianity—especially the deity of Christ—open for discussion.”

Conservatives also questioned the Muslims’ affirmation of religious liberty, given the faith’s history and problems in Islamic countries (regularly monitored by groups like the Barnabas Fund and International Christian Concern). Traditional Muslim law relegates Christians and Jews to second-class status and imposes other restrictions. Saudi Arabia prohibits churches altogether.

Muslims even teach that believers who convert to another religion are “apostates” subject to the death penalty. Durie noted that the “Common Word” website is linked to an archive where one Muslim endorser explains that the death-to-converts demand is implicit in the Quran and explicit in the Hadith, authoritative teachings of Muhammad.

The death commandment occurs in only one of the six standard Hadith collections, where Muhammad prescribes execution for murderers, adulterers, and anyone who “reverts from Islam and leaves the Muslims” (Bukhari 9,83,17). Strict Muslims believe that even one such citation is binding, while moderates require only tenets found in two or more Hadith collections.

Rick Love, international director of Frontiers, which seeks to evangelize Muslims, explained why he endorsed the Christian response. Yes, the Muslims presented a different view of God, he admitted, and in resulting discussions both sides will profess contrasting beliefs. But if Muslim leaders treat love as more central than Christians have supposed and favor religious freedom, he said, Christians should be delighted.

Love believes that “Muslims worship the true God,” though this “falls short of his perfections and beauty as described in the Bible.” But Litfin wrote in Wheaton’s campus newspaper that to say “the Quran’s Allah and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ were one and the same” is “more than I am willing to grant.”

Litfin, who declined an interview request, said he originally endorsed the Christian response in the interest of peacemaking but withdrew his name after critics prompted a rethinking. However, “I do not criticize others who do not share these qualms.”

By coincidence, there’s simultaneous debate over whether Britain should grant Muslim immigrants limited recognition of their religious law (Shariah). That proposal did not come from Muslim agitators but a speech and radio interview by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the Church of England and the world’s 80 million Anglicans.

Like the pope, Williams is a onetime university professor who apparently forgot the difference between campus theorizing and the discretion expected of ranking churchmen. In the ensuing fury, some church delegates and numerous bloggers said Williams should resign, though that is unlikely.

A great debate

Religion: Christian thinkers Patrick Sookhdeo and Miroslav Volf face off on the response to A Common Word’s call to Muslim-Christian dialogue

by Patrick Sookhdeo and Miroslav Volf

Patrick Sookhdeo is the international director of Barnabas Fund, a guest lecturer at the NATO school, adjunct professor at the George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies, and a cultural adviser to military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a native of Guyana.

In February, Wheaton College President Duane Litfin and two colleagues requested that their names be removed as signatories of the “Christian response” drafted by the Yale Center for Faith and Culture last October in response to the Muslim clerics’ letter, “A Common Word Between Us and You.”

Concerns about theology and what is being “put on the line” in the Yale Center response have caused serious reconsideration and an increasing debate among evangelical leaders since the Yale Center published its response on Nov. 13, 2007.

Litfin focuses his primary concern on the conflation of Muslim and Christian theology into something “encouraging that basic premise of civil religion, i.e., that we are all worshiping the same God.” This premise of whether or not Christianity and Islam are to be understood as Abrahamic faiths revealed by the God of the Bible is indeed crucial. The Yale Center’s “Christian response” takes pains not to address the question.

The Founding Director of Yale’s Center for Faith and Culture, Dr. Miroslav Volf, did address the matter on the April 2, 2004, episode of the PBS television program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly: “[The] Christian God is different, is different than the Muslim God, but it’s not other than the Muslim God. I do believe that Muslims and Christians and Jews pray to the same God. And yet they understand who God is in significantly different ways.”

But what “significantly different ways” of understanding God aren’t described in the Yale Center statement, and they are left unaddressed in the newer FAQ document which means to clarify key issues and to respond to concerns, such as those detailed by Litfin, John Piper, Albert Mohler, myself, and others in the West who are able to speak freely about the more difficult matters of Muslim and Christian relations.

The Yale Center response is silent about Christian and Muslim relations, other than its “acknowledging that in the past (e.g. in the Crusades) and in the present (e.g. in excesses of the ‘war on terror’) many Christians have been guilty of sinning against our Muslim neighbors.” It makes no mention of the systematic persecution and abuse experienced by Christians and other minorities (under Islamic law and at the hands of Muslims) nor does it encourage Muslims to first begin their dialogue and efforts at loving their neighbor toward those Christian minorities living in their own societies.

In the months subsequent to the Yale Center letter, church leaders and Christians across the Muslim-majority world have conveyed their bitter disappointment, concern, and sense of betrayal over the Yale Center response to the church in the West. One church leader in a largely Muslim country told me, “Now armed with apologies of Christian leaders of crusade (sic), our pressure has increased. . . . We have now been lumped with all the West is doing. . . . What we now have is Western Christians leading in apology implicating many others. . . . This situation plays perfectly into their hands to put us on that guilt trail that we cannot offer Christ for who He is to them.”

If Western evangelicals, and especially the signees of the Yale letter, aren’t having these conversations, they must have noticed the recent news reports in the English and Arabic press about the expulsion of more than two dozen expatriate Christian families and individuals from Jordan, or the eight more Christian workers arrested there last week. This action comes from a government pursuing “dialogue” with Western Christians through the “Common Word” letter of its Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought.

Is there a Christian response?

See more from Sookhdeo at


Miroslav Volf is director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology. He is a native of Croatia.

Gratified and puzzled, pleased and disappointed—these words express how I feel about the varied reactions to the Yale Response to A Common Word.

Why gratified and pleased? Because the Yale Response has generated a booming, positive echo in many Christian circles, including deeply conservative clergy and senior missions leaders. Some of the most prominent evangelical leaders are its signatories. Their endorsement is a sign that, without giving up their fundamental convictions, Christians and Muslims can overcome deep suspicions and burning animosities. A ray of light from influential places has penetrated the darkness of tense relations between the two most numerous religious groups in the world. In A Common Word, a group representative of most influential Muslim leaders worldwide has subscribed to Jesus’ summary of the Law and the Prophets: God is one, and we must love God with our whole being and our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). Even more, they affirmed that this dual command of love belongs to the heart of Islam. Along with the drafters of the Yale Response, many Christians found these affirmations reason to celebrate. Who wouldn’t?

Well, some influential evangelical leaders have complained bitterly not only about A Common Word but especially about the Yale Response. That’s what puzzles and disappoints me. Here are just three complaints about the latter and my reasons for thinking they either rest on a misunderstanding or are mistaken.

(For others see

The Yale Response gives up key Christian convictions, such as that God is triune.

It doesn’t. A Common Word didn’t contest the doctrine of the Trinity, and it was an attempt to find common ground. Therefore the Yale Response didn’t explicitly affirm the doctrine. But it is clearly implied in the statement that God is love—not just that God loves human beings but that God’s very being is love (1 John 4:8). For if God weren’t the Holy Trinity, God couldn’t be love before creating the world as the object of God’s love.

The Yale Response apologizes for Christians’ violating Muslims in the course of the Crusades but doesn’t ask Muslims to apologize to Christians.

The objection assumes an un-Christian understanding of apology. When Christians apologize, we’re not striking a deal—I’ll apologize if you apologize—just as we’re not striking a deal when we forgive. We apologize because we’ve wronged someone—irrespective of whether or not the person we’ve wronged has wronged us or apologized to us.

The Yale Response hasn’t taken up the cause of Christians persecuted in some Muslim countries.

A Common Word states twice that love of neighbor demands respect for religious freedom. The Yale Response insists: “When freedom to worship God according to one’s conscience is curtailed, God is dishonored, neighbor is oppressed, and neither God nor neighbor is loved.” This statement issues a mandate to all to take up the cause of religious freedom, including that of Christians in Muslim countries.

The Yale Response couldn’t address all issues in relation between Muslims and Christians. It’s a first word in a long conversation about all issues of concern. And it’s a word primarily about the topic at hand: love of God and of neighbor. In this regard, the Yale Response highlights what is absolutely essential to the Christian faith: God loves even the unlovable, and so should we.

As a 20-year-old, I came from Yugoslavia to the United States to study at Fuller Theological Seminary. Some among the student body were suspicious of me, coming as I did from a communist country. They were scandalized that I didn’t speak with animosity about the “godless communists.” They doubted the sincerity of my faith. When I reminded them that Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Matthew 5:44), they acted as if I were quoting from the Communist Manifesto. Even when told that I was discriminated against, beaten, and jailed on account of my Christian faith, their suspicions remained. Why, I wondered? Did they fear communists more than they loved God, who loves all people (John 3:16)? Don’t they blatantly disobey Christ and despise His example of love for the ungodly (Luke 23:34; Romans 4:5) just to protect “Christian civilization”? Was nation their god, and the Father of Jesus Christ its servant? Reading some of the reactions to the Yale Response, it is hard for me to avoid asking the same questions.

If our lives were aligned with God’s, would we not love—truly love—our Muslim neighbors, including our Muslim enemies? Anything less than that is sub-Christian.

Copyright © 2008 WORLD Magazine 
March 08, 2008, Vol. 23, No. 5