Revelation is the foundational theological issue in contextualization (see my “Contextualization: Theological and Cultural Issues in Evangelical Models” on the SEND U wiki). Evangelical Christianity maintains that the Bible is God’s unique self-disclosure. Our SEND statement of faith says, “that it is the only infallible Word of God, and the supreme and final authority in all matters of faith and conduct” (italics added).
How does this commitment to the uniqueness of the Christian Scriptures guide our contextualization in the presence of competing revelational claims such as the Qur’an, the Book of Mormon, or the Hindu Scriptures?
Te-Li Lau writes:
…it is difficult to accept the Bible’s authority solely based on its explicit claims to be the word of God since other sacred texts make similar claims. The Bible witnesses to itself: but the Bible is not only or primarily self-referencing. It is primarily about God and his plan of salvation for humanity from sin. In presenting this message of salvation, the Bible also makes other assertions that can be externally verified and that implicitly support its contentions to be the Word of God. Due to space constraints, I will only examine two areas: (1) the historical reliability of the Bible, and (2) the coherence and unity of its message. – “Knowing the Bible is the Word of God Despite Competing Claims” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, 2016, edited by D.A. Carson, Eerdmans, 995,6.
The Bible is rooted in history and can be verified by other historical documents and archaeology. This “puts Christianity apart from Buddhism, Islam, and Mormonism” (Lau, 1005). Lau’s article argues that:
We know Scripture to be the Word of God in three interdependent ways: through its explicit or direct claims to be the Word of God, its supporting implicit or indirect claims, and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. (Lau, 1011.)
How do we approach people of other religions committed to an alternative sacred text? We will focus on the Qur’an as an example. Ida Glaser challenges us to read the Qur’an, examine what Muslims say about their own beliefs, and keep a gospel focus in our relationships with Muslims.
The Qur’an claims continuity with the Bible providing a starting point for comparison. So Glaser encourages comparing the Bible and the Qur’an from both the Muslim and Christian viewpoint. Concerning this comparison she writes:
In Sum, our study has led us to the conclusion that, from a biblical perspective, the Qur’an cannot be a post-biblical revealed book. The process of “judging by the Bible” turns out to challenge fundamentally Islamic views of the Qur’an: Muslims are right in thinking that, if the Qur’an is entirely true, the biblical writings must have been changed. -Ida Glaser, “Qur’anic Challenges for the Bible Reader” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, 1034.
This seems to be quite an impasse! There is an opportunity to discuss the reliability of the biblical texts at this point. Yet a relationship needs to be establish a foundation for this discussion. Glaser focuses on four clues for effective communication with Muslims:
- there are points of agreement with which we can start.
- the Qur’an has accounts of the biblical characters that we can discuss.
- the calls to biblical faithfulness mean that we can explain to Muslims how we are trying to use the Bible as a basis of our lives.
- there are many Islamic interests that can be addressed from a biblical point of view.
In developing relationships along the lines mentioned above, opportunities may develop to discuss what the Bible says about Jesus. While there are Qur’anic accounts of Jesus that are compatible with the Christian Scriptures, at key points the claims of the Qur’an and the Bible are mutually exclusive. Glaser points out, “the Qur’an, as interpreted by most Muslims, denies that Jesus died on the cross: the way of the Jesus of the New Testament leads directly to it.” (1056). In No God but One: Allah or Jesus?, Nabeel Qureshi examined the competing claims for 4 or 5 years before committing to the authority of the Bible. Working through the competing claims will take time and authentic relationships.
Contextualization is not a synthesis of various religious texts. Fallen mankind retains the image of God which makes one accountable for recognizing and honoring the knowledge of God through nature and conscience. But fallen mankind is in a state of rebellion and distorts both general and special revelation. The sacred texts of non-Christian religions represent the reflection and distortion of this state of rebellion.
The Bible functions as the unique authority in our contextualization of the Gospel. The Gospel only makes sense in the context of the Bible. The Bible alone is God’s Word to us, providing us with a coherent story of God’s creation, mankind’s rebellion, God’s redemption in Jesus Christ, and the completion of our salvation when Christ returns.
Timothy Tennet concludes:
Therefore even though the sacred texts of other traditions sometimes make statements that are true and insightful, inspirational, and even spiritually edifying, these texts cannot be regarded as inspired or revelatory since they lack the proper Christological and ecclesiological context. – Timothy C. Tennent, “Can Hindu Scriptures Serve as a ‘Tutor’ to Christ?” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, 1088
For Further Reading:
- Chapters 31-34 of The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures
- Harold Netland, Dissonant Voices: Religious Pluralism and the Question of Truth, 1991, Eerdmans.
- Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism: the Challenge to Christian Faith and Mission, 2001, IVP.
- Timothy C. Tennent, Christianity at the Religious Roundtable: Evangelicalism in Conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, 2002, Baker Academic