A C-5 Critique
16 August 2010
A Mentally Ill God?, which is followed by part two: Messianic Muslims?
Back in March I reviewed the book Breaking the Islam Code: Understanding the Soul Questions of Every Muslim by J.D. Greear. I was so impressed by what Mr. Greear had to say that I put this book at the top of my Recommended Reading list. In the appendix of this book he writes in-depth about the whole issue of the contextualization of the gospel, and the C-1 to C-6 Spectrum of Contextualization.
I feel that Mr. Greear's insights into the problems with the C-5 approach are so valuable that I couldn't do better than to quote that part of the appendix in full. I STRONGLY encourage you to buy this book for yourself and read all of the important things he has to say on each page. There is also more of the contextualization discussion in the appendix that you won't want to miss. I was able to quote only part of it here. It's not a long book — only 160 pages — and not a hard read at all, so be sure to get it today!
Problems with the C-5 ApproachThere is certainly much to learn from those advocating the C-5 approach. However, the case for C-5 rests largely on a false premise: that because both Judaism and Islam play a "preparatory" role to Christian faith, Islam's role in the Muslim-Christian convert's life will be the same as Judaism's role in many Jewish-Christian converts' lives.
This premise misses the crucial distinction between special and general revelation. The Jewish Old Testament was the verbally inspired Word of God, not simply the "best" of the pre-Christian religions. Jesus acknowledged every word of the Hebrew Scriptures to be true. If a Jewish prophet was not accurate in all he said, he was to be stoned! In other words, Muhammad cannot be compared to a Jewish prophet. He may have gotten a few things right, but he did not speak with divine authority.
Still, couldn't Islam be recognized as a divinely given, "prophetic" (even if imperfect) precursor of Christ? And if so, can we not acknowledge Muhammad as a "prophet" in that sense?
The answer is no. The Old Testament prophets preached about God's salvation, by grace, through faith. Old Testament prophets did not simply "prepare" the Jewish people for the gospel, they preached the gospel themselves. Israel was a covenant community, not simply a "prepared" people. Muhammad did not preach salvation by grace through faith. He preached works-righteousness, which is the enemy of the gospel. Islamic communities never have been, and never will be, covenant communities.
There is only one gospel. Some Christian traditions mistakenly have taught that men pre-Christ were saved in a way other than by faith in God's redemptive work — by the keeping of the Law, obedience to conscience, and so on. In this sense, some assume that just as Moses "prepared" the Jews to receive the "new gospel" or "new Covenant," so Muhammad prepared the Muslim peoples to receive their new covenant.
But this is to terribly misunderstand the Old Testament. The apostle Paul explains that the gospel of Jesus is nothing fundamentally new to Jewish religion. David, Abraham, and Moses all preached the same gospel that Paul preached — justification by faith in God's promise (Romans 1:17; 4:7-8; 4:12; Galatians 3:5-12). The Jewish religion and customs were to be Christ's perfect shadow, an infallible imprint of the gospel. The second commandment of the Law had made clear that one could worship God only in the way he prescribes — and that way, the apostle Paul explains, has always been through faith in the gospel. Even though Old Covenant believers did not understand the fullness of the gospel, they were worshipping God through it in the Passover and Sinai covenant! The "by grace alone and faith alone" gospel of the New Testament was nothing truly new — it was what God's prophets had always taught.
Paul and the apostles could still worship at the Jewish temple after Christ's resurrection without violating the gospel of faith or the second commandment because the synagogue, they understood, had always been established on the basis of the gospel. In so doing, they understood that the fulfillment of all the symbols was Christ. To worship in any other temple would be a violation of the second commandment, however, as you would be worshipping God other than in the way he prescribed.
Furthermore, Israel's history makes up Christianity's present identity. The New Testament presents Jesus as the New Israel, called up out of Egypt, tempted for 40 days in the wilderness, betrayed by his brothers, and sent into exile at his death. His resurrection was the fulfillment of the promises God gave of Jewish restoration from the exile.
Not only is Judaism part of Christianity's past, it is also integral to its future. Paul's epistles and the book of Revelation also speak of the future of the church in Jewish terms, and a completed, restored Israel is a major component of the future of Christ's work on earth. Ezekiel describes the future of the Messiah's people in terms of Jewish forms and temple customs.
In other words, Judaism is not just a chapter in Christianity's past, but a divine picture of Christ and, in that sense, the very gospel itself.
The Qur'an is not the gospel. In contrast, the Qur'an is not a perfect shadow that Jesus would fulfill. Parts of the Qur'an are tragically misleading. A "fulfilled Qur'an" would yield a drastically distorted Jesus! Taken as a whole, the Qur'an preaches a different gospel — at no point did Muhammad proclaim the gospel "by grace alone and faith alone," as did Moses, David, Abraham, and the other Old Testament prophets. To say that Jesus fulfills the Qur'an downplays the central role the gospel plays in the Bible.
Both Jesus and Paul insisted that Jews alone were given "the oracles of God" and that "salvation was of the Jews" (Romans 9:4; John 4:22). The Qur'an, on the other hand, is not a divine covenant offered by God, nor is it a bearer of divine promises. Thus, it is not comparable to the Old Testament. It is in no way special revelation. Islam worships God apart from the ways he has directly commanded in the Old and New Covenants, and is thus a clear violation of the second commandment.
As I have noted throughout the book, there are elements of truth in the Qur'an. The Qur'an says some general and true things about God and repeats bits and pieces of the special revelation given to Jews and Christians. These can be helpful for pointing Muslims to the Bible, but that is not at all the same as saying that Islam is a divinely established forerunner to Jesus Christ.
It would be more accurate to compare believing Muslims to the converted Platonists of the first centuries AD than to "completed Jews." Platonists arguably had been prepared by God for the message of the gospel. Many terms from Platonic thought were employed in the worship and practice of Greek converts. Platonist converts did not remain in pagan temples, however, nor did they retain their identity in the Greek religions. They converted to Christianity.
That being said, it would be foolish for Christian missionaries not to use the Qur'anic admonitions to Muslims to study the "previous holy books" to their advantage. If Paul could use even the Cretan philosophers when it served his purpose, certainly believers can use the Qur'an for theirs. We should be thankful for the elements of special revelation repeated in the Qur'an and use them whenever we can to point Muslims to the Bible.
I find the biblical examples offered by "insider movements" to be unconvincing. It can hardly be said that Elisha gave Naaman God's go-ahead to worship him in pagan temples. The book of Daniel lauds Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for refusing to bow to pagan gods and allows no implication that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could have worshipped the golden statue as a symbol of God. How much easier would it have been for them to bow before Nebuchadnezzar, knowing that in their hearts they were "really bowing down to the real God" behind the statue? In Exodus 32 the children of Israel are rebuked for attempting to worship God "through" a golden calf!
Elisha's words to Naaman can, at most, only convey God's forgiveness for the wrong that Naaman would commit in weakness. Forgiveness, after all, implies sin, and to use God's grace in one situation to encourage sin as a general practice would be a blasphemous presumption. (Elisha's words, might, however, convey the mercy with which God looks upon an isolated C-6 convert who, overwhelmed with the weight of the world upon him, does not know what to do.) Examples of God's mercy are not a license for a programmed abrogation of the second commandment.
Jesus' words to the Samaritan woman in John 4 were about the true nature of worship, which is in spirit and truth. His words were not a license to worship in whatever temple one grew up in, but an invitation to move beyond the temple to him. Jesus' point was that true believers worshipped through his body, the new temple, in spirit and truth. Jesus' statement made temples obsolete. He further discouraged her from worshipping at the Samaritan temple by saying salvation was not found there, since "salvation is of the Jews." If any Samaritan went back and tried to access God through the Samaritan temple, he had clearly not understood what Jesus had explained. Jesus was not validating their religious system, he was making it obsolete.
Perhaps most importantly, we have no example in the book of Acts or Paul's epistles of a Christian convert remaining in a "pre-Christian" context to worship God, other than the earliest Christians continuing to worship occasionally at the synagogue. (And, as I noted above, the synagogue is clearly the exception, not the rule because the Jewish form of worship embodied the gospels.) There were plenty of opportunities for Luke, the author of Acts, to tell us about pagans going back to "redeem" their temples, if this had been God's plan.
Phil Parshall has pointed out another major problem with the C-5 approach, and that is the integrity of the matter. How will local Muslims feel when they find out that a Christian has converted to Islam solely for the purpose of leading them to embrace blatantly non-Muslim beliefs, such as substitutionary atonement and the Trinity? To put this in perspective, how would you feel if a Muslim moved into your community, "converted" to Christ, was baptized and joined your church, began to lead a Bible study ... and began teaching in the Bible study that Muhammad was a superior prophet to Jesus? What emotional reaction would you have when you discovered this had been his purpose the entire time? How would you feel when you discovered that his "conversion" was really a strategy for your conversion? Parshall gives a number of examples where the C-5 approach has produced understandable hostility among Muslims who feel they have been deceived.
Parshall also notes that the C-5 approach has produced a disturbing number of doctrinally unsound Christians. In a case study involving one of the largest C-5 movements, Parshall notes that 96 percent of the converts still believed the Qur'an to be the inspired word of God, and 45 percent did not believe that God is a Trinity. C-5 advocates like to say they are a stream flowing toward C-4 Christians, but it appears they are, instead, a stagnant lake breeding dangerous confusion!
Another thing to consider is whether or not the C-5 approach removes one of the primary arenas in which God has historically demonstrated his power — a chance to show the superiority of Jesus above all other gods. The Scripture is replete with examples of Jehovah taking on rival claims to the universe's throne. Jehovah loves to show himself as the God who alone rules — superior to Pharaoh, the Canaanite gods, Goliath, Nebuchadnezzar, or Baal. His most effective witnesses (such as Moses, Joshua, David, Daniel, Elijah) literally provoked contests in which God could show his power above rival gods.
Moses declared that it was God's answering of prayer that would distinguish Jews from the other peoples (Deuteronomy 4:7). Solomon said that all peoples would know that Jehovah is the Lord by the fact that he answered prayers prayed at the Jewish temple. Peter interpreted healing miracle of Acts 3 as God's desire to show the absolute distinctiveness of the gospel (Acts 4:12). God is determined to show his superiority to all rival gods through his willingness to answer prayers prayed in the name he has chosen and placed above every name, Jesus.
Doesn't the C-5 approach undermine God's strategy to glorify the name of Jesus by removing the distinction between the gospel and rival approaches to salvation? Would it not be better to stand on the distinctiveness of the gospel and trust God to show his great power, again, on behalf of the only name under heaven by which we must be saved?
We may choose not to refer to ourselves as "Christians" when asked what religion we are because of the baggage that word carries in the minds of Muslims. We may describe ourselves as "follower of Jesus Christ" using the Arabic name, Isa al-Masih. However, we should not, if pressed, deny that we are Christians and we should use that opportunity to explain the distinction between followers of Jesus and merely cultural Christians. We can never deny that Jesus is the Son of God, nor that we worship him as God. This is the essence of the Christian confession, and it is worth dying for.
While doing all we can to make the gospel understandable to Muslims, we must not corrupt its message or dilute its distinctiveness. We should, like Paul, be "unashamed" of the gospel, because it really is the power of God to all those who believe ... to the Jew first, and also to the Muslim.