Islam and Peace

Like many people I suspect, I am bewildered by, on the one hand, acts of terror by Islamist radicals, and on the other, claims that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’. Islam can mean ‘peace’ – it seems that the words that convey the concepts of ‘peace’ and ‘submission’ are closely related – but as I understand it, peace pertains only if you are a Muslim who is submissive to the teachings of the Koran. In some readings of the Koran there is no peace for those who do not submit.

Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo is an Anglican clergyman who works for Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity. He has recently published an article in the current issue of the Spectator which examines the claims of those who propagate the ‘Islam means peace’ line. This is a thoughtful piece which takes seriously what Muslims say themselves. I find these paragraphs most interesting:

It is probably true that in every faith ordinary people will pick the parts they like best and practise those, while the scholars will work out an official version. In Islam the scholars had a particularly challenging task, given the mass of contradictory texts within the Koran. To meet this challenge they developed the rule of abrogation, which states that wherever contradictions are found, the later-dated text abrogates the earlier one. To elucidate further the original intention of Mohammed, they referred to traditions (hadith) recording what he himself had said and done. Sadly for the rest of the world, both these methods led Islam away from peace and towards war. For the peaceable verses of the Koran are almost all earlier, dating from Mohammed’s time in Mecca, while those which advocate war and violence are almost all later, dating from after his flight to Medina. Though jihad has a variety of meanings, including a spiritual struggle against sin, Mohammed’s own example shows clearly that he frequently interpreted jihad as literal warfare and himself ordered massacre, assassination and torture. From these sources the Islamic scholars developed a detailed theology dividing the world into two parts, Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam, with Muslims required to change Dar al-Harb into Dar al-Islam either through warfare or da’wa (mission).

So the mantra ‘Islam is peace’ is almost 1,400 years out of date. It was only for about 13 years that Islam was peace and nothing but peace. From 622 onwards it became increasingly aggressive, albeit with periods of peaceful co-existence, particularly in the colonial period, when the theology of war was not dominant. For today’s radical Muslims — just as for the mediaeval jurists who developed classical Islam — it would be truer to say ‘Islam is war’. One of the most radical Islamic groups in Britain, al-Ghurabaa, stated in the wake of the two London bombings, ‘Any Muslim that denies that terror is a part of Islam is kafir.’ A kafir is an unbeliever (i.e., a non-Muslim), a term of gross insult.

In the words of Mundir Badr Haloum, a liberal Muslim who lectures at a Syrian university, ‘Ignominious terrorism exists, and one cannot but acknowledge its being Islamic.’ While many individual Muslims choose to live their personal lives only by the (now abrogated) peaceable verses of the Koran, it is vain to deny the pro-war and pro-terrorism doctrines within their religion.

Read the whole article (you have to register, but it is free, and well worth it just for this article). He goes on to examine the state of the Muslim community in Britain.

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Islam and Peace

Calvin and Severity

In my recent post on Calvin’s call to Geneva I identified with his feelings about the prospect. He was timid, bashful, full of feelings of inadequacy.

It is clear, however, that having accepted the call he developed a reputation for severity in his ministry in Geneva and later in Strasbourg. It is interesting that such a thing seemed to be the case. Fighting spiritual battles may seem to come easy to certain kinds of people. We can often believe that the severest people are somehow like that because of a personality that revels in controversy. However, this example highlights what may be a more widespread truth: often the spiritual battles begin within the individual and stepping into the public fray is not without an initial cost. The call of God may require a certain course of action which cannot be pursued without first summoning considerable courage to face down inner fears before carrying it out. This internal battle may take its own toll on the individual. I believe Calvin was such a man of inner sensitivity yet was courageous when God’s honour was at stake.

Nevertheless, severity was a problem as the following passage shows. Calvin returned to Geneva for a second time in 1541 with a resolution in mind:

Over one person Calvin determined that he would exercise control. This was himself. He had been blamed for being too severe, too unaccomodating. He acknowledged the reproof and set himself to correct the fault. So well did he think that he had learnt, that for the same fault he could even in his turn reprove Farel, who had got on the wrong side of his congregation at Neuchatel. To Oswald Myconius at Basel he was able to report that his gentleness was winning him friends.

Calvin went on to say to Myconius,

I value the public peace and hearty concord among ourselves so highly that I restrain myself.

(Both quotes from John Calvin, by T. H. L. Parker, p. 101.)

Clearly, Calvin had overshot in his earlier ministry and subsequently learned how to handle people better. Though still driven by a desire for reform of the church and its worship, he remembered that he was dealing with real people whom he must win over to his side rather than face them down.

Calvin appears to have been a better man than I have previously given credit!

Calvin and Severity

Jump the High Bar

Jesus said in Matthew 5:20,

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

As a young Christian I would read that verse with a degree of fear and trepidation. The Pharisees were pretty righteous, weren’t they? Who could jump this bar of righteousness better than they? Were they not professional models of righteousness, the top athletes of the Righteousness Games? Until I remembered (ah, of course!) Jesus was perfect – 10s across the board. What’s more, by his death, his righteousness is imputed to me! Now I have 10s across the board too. Thus fear dissolved away. I could, and still can, rest content in the gracious saving act of the Saviour on the cross.

One nagging doubt, though. Is that what Jesus really meant me to infer from Matthew 5:20? I thought that then, but not now. The trouble is it does not seem to fit with the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. For example, what did Jesus mean by verse 17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them“? I can understand this within the classical confessional view of the law as ceremonial, civil and moral. Ceremonially, Christ was the fulfilment of the OT sacrifices. He was the was the true sacrifice of which the OT was but a shadow. Civilly, the nationhood of Israel pointed to a future kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, about which Jesus preached in his earthly ministry. Jesus is the king of the new kingdom.

What of the moral law? We could argue that Jesus fulfilled that too. He lived a pure life after all. Doesn’t it avail for us? And therefore does that not mean that for us the law is abolished in the sense that there is no need to keep it any more? But if true the question would remain: why did Jesus teach about moral requirements in the Sermon on the Mount, commanding his disciples to live this way?

First of all, some background. I think the key to understanding Jesus teaching is the New Covenant promise of Jer 31:31-34. There, God says he will write the law in the hearts of his people. It will be no longer be an external code. There would be no point to this work of God if He did not require us to be conscious of the law in our lives day by day. Indeed, the fact that it is in our hearts makes it a motivating principle, a desire. Why would God do such a thing if the law were abolished? Rather, in the New Covenant, the moral requirements of the law are fulfilled in the believer in a new way. The believer sees the moral law as a delight, a joy. He or she wants to do it.

I believe this is consistent with Paul’s teaching in Romans 8:3,4 where he says “He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit“. Note the preposition: “fulfilled in us“. Paul is not talking about imputed righteousness, but about the grace of righteousness expressed in the believer – a righteousness worked out.

Now, this line of thinking brings us back to the original problem. OK I, as a Christian, need to live a holy life which conforms to the law. Doesn’t Matthew 5:20 show that, in the face of such excellence in righteousness from the Pharisees, it is impossible?

Here I think I have misunderstood the the true extent of the righteousness of the Pharisees. Yes, Jesus words sound daunting. Yet his subsequent exposition of the law showed that more was required than simply outward conformity. The law is deeply spiritual and applies to the parts people cannot see. It is inner, too. I believe that by this exposition Jesus showed that the righteousness of the Pharisees was no righteousness at all. At best it is an outward formalism which hides a deep hypocrisy in them. As a result, when Jesus is saying that the righteousness of the believer must exceed it, he is not presenting to them a hypothetical option which is impossible to achieve, and so implies the need for imputation. But he is saying that the keeping of the law is deeply spiritual for which the New Covenant arrangement is essential. It is no surprise then that at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount it is those who are poor in spirit who are identified as blessed, who will cry out to God for the help they need to keep the law. We knew from Paul in Romans that the power for this is given by His Spirit.

This raises the inevitable thought that Jesus is requiring a certain level of obedience in order to qualify for entry into the kingdom. However I believe this also to be a misreading of the text. Jesus is not saying “If you do this then you will get in. ” He is saying “If you don’t do this you won’t get in”. As you can see these are not saying the same thing. A simple illustration of the logic is: “If something is a square then it is a rectangle” is not the same as “If something is not a square it is not a rectangle”. (Pause for a moment to think about that!) What this means is that works cannot get you entry, but the absence of them will exclude you. Why? Because it is necessary that a believer’s life is transformed if he/she has been regenerated. The absence of works, therefore is evidence of the absence of regeneration, or to put it another way, evidence that that which was promised in the New Covenant of Jeremiah 31 has not been applied.

So, is righteousness that is greater than the Pharisees possible? When we remember, first, that the standard was actually lower than we thought, and, second, that God makes it possible for us in Christ by his Spirit. I think the answer is yes.

What do you think?

Jump the High Bar

Call of Calvin

I have just finished reading Boettner’s The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination and I have enjoyed it immensely. As usual, a rapid read needs to be followed up with a more considered read at a later stage.

At the end of the book Boettner presents a short biography of Calvin. (This has been useful since it may come as a surprise that this Calvinist should know so little about the man! I suspect I am not alone.) One cannot but be amazed and stirred by the portrayal of a man who was converted to evangelicalism and pursued the reformation of the Church single-mindedly to the point of risking his life.

I was particularly struck by Boettner’s account of how he came to be the pastor of the evangelical Church of Geneva. Calvin had always seen himself as a theologian not as a pastor. As a fugitive, he was only passing through Geneva, planning only to spend one night there. Yet Farel, the Genevan reformer, saw him as God’s man to save the reformation in that city. A quotation from Schaff’s account of the meeting between the two men:

Farel at once called on Calvin and held him fast, as by divine command. Calvn protested, pleading his youth, his inexperience, his need of further study, his natural timidity and bashfulness, which unfitted him for public action. But all in vain. Farel, ‘who burned with a marvellous zeal to advance the Gospel,’ threatened him with the curse of Almighty God if he preferred his studies to the work of the Lord, and his own interest to the cause of Christ. Calvin was terrified and shaken by these words of the fearless evangelist, and felt ‘as if God from on high had stretched out His hand.’ He submitted, and accepted the call to the ministry, as teacher and pastor of the evangelical Church of Geneva (Boettner, pp. 401-2)

Like many others, I can relate to the feelings of Calvin at being presented with this daunting task. But what about Farel threatening ‘…him with the curse of Almighty God’? Now, that’s what I call a ‘call’ to the ministry!

And, of course, the rest is history…

Call of Calvin

Not Your Run-of-the-Mill Evening

Last night, a woman phoned Bryn, the elder at Derwent Free Church, about a problem she had. She was worried because she and her family had been experiencing some strange happenings in her house – seeing figures, faces, lights, feeling things on their skin. These had mostly happened to the teenage children. She said she had taken a video on her phone of one of the phenomena. Could he come round and help? Bryn phoned me and we went together.

What would you do in a situation like that?

When we arrived there was nothing odd or spooky about the situation. A single parent family, a nice working mum, well ordered home.

There was a lot of superstition, though. Part of the reason for phoning a church leader was I think she was hoping we could perform some kind of blessing that would give protection. It turned out that some years before a similar thing had happened and that a vicar or priest had come with holy water, he had blessed the house and copies of the New Testament. There were other things which she thought might have been helpful in the past: a necklace with a cross, a video tape of the ‘blessing’ of one of the children after birth, where the vicar says, “…in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”.

After a while she showed me the phone-video. To my eye it looked unconvincing, though the woman was sure it was clear evidence of some supernatural event. But we did not dismiss her testimony, since she was there at the time.

Our response? We said that we did not believe that there was protective power in things or mere forms of words. But we said that there was one who had all power, and that he asked his people to pray for what they needed. We had no power other than this. All we could offer to do was pray for them. So we did there and then, for the situation, and that God would give them grace to trust in Christ.

Some brief reflections. When Jesus was in the world, there was an upsurge in demonic activity. The redemptive-historical significance of the coming of Jesus was not lost on the devil. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry was marked by an onslaught on the Son of God. See, for example, the temptation of Jesus in Luke 4 straight after his baptism in the Holy Spirit. The ministry of Jesus is marked by confrontation with demons and the evil one.

We must remember that victory has been won on the cross (John 12:31). This does not mean that there is no demonic activity. Acts records several incidents. But there is much less than in the gospels. I expect therefore that in the modern day there is much less to be expected. We must not be quick to accept such claims, though we should not doubt strange experiences. The experiences may be real, though the explanation may not be valid.

This brings me to the next thing. For all the apparent rationalism and modernity of the day, this case adds to my belief that there is a great deal of superstition around. People do have a sense of powers greater than themselves and this is to be expected. It is part of the way we are ‘wired’ to have a sense of the presence of God from creation and conscience (Rom 1:19,20; 2:14,15). The truth may be suppressed, even repressed (Rom 1:18) but people cannot deny the sense of ‘something out there’. Our corrupt nature distorts what we may perceive it to be, and it is not helped by uncritical consumption of fantasy TV, movies and games. Nor is it helped by quack religion that believes that things can be blessed and provide protection from spirits. There is plenty to feed the mind and imagination to create superstition.

The last reflection is a practical one. It did not go unnoticed that most of the happenings occurred at around the same time: 11pm to midnight. Also, this was a house where the teenage children have TV in their rooms and are allowed to watch it as late as they like. As the father of a 12-year old, I know how grouchy and irrational such charges can become if allowed to stay up as late as they want and get tired. Left to herself, my daughter would stay up too if there was something worth watching. She would be willing to wobble along the line between consciousness and unconsciousness in order to keep watching. What tricks does the mind play when one is in that state?

I was reminded that it is hard for a lone mum to have the will to guide teenagers, especially in a society that places a higher value on individual freedom over true parenting. It reminds me how blessed Christians are to live together in unity and to be a source of love, care and encouragement in all things, including parenting. Of course, the church doesn’t get it all right, doesn’t always know what the answers are. But with Christ in our midst, there is no better place to be.

I hope our contact with this woman conveyed something of that.

Not Your Run-of-the-Mill Evening

Drink Deep, Or Not At All

The doctrine of predestination appears to to be foolishness to someone who has only studied it a little. Of such a person Boettner gives gives this advice from experience:

…we can most fittingly say of this subject: “A little Predestination is a dangerous thing; Then drink deep, or else touch not the sacred spring.” Here, as in some other instances, first draughts confuse and unsettle the mind, but deeper draughts overcome the intoxicating effects and bring us back to our right senses.
(Predestination, p.341)

Drink Deep, Or Not At All

Weekend Report

It has been a busy weekend. I had one of those weeks last week where I thought I had plenty of time, then suddenly it all disappeared. By Friday afternoon I had barely started sermon prep for Sunday evening. Major disaster looming! I am still at the stage where it takes nearer 15 hours to prepare the 30-minute sermon rather than the target 8 hours which I think I need to have a fighting chance of surviving full-time ministry. Otherwise, when you fit in other distractions and necessary things, time pretty soon disappears.

E.g. Last week Daughter was in the end-of-year school show for three nights, finishing Friday around 9:30pm. She also wanted to go to the Woodlands “Yoof” Weekend at Quinta in Shropshire. In a fit of enthusiasm over a week before, I said I would drive her there immediately after the show. Nutcase! So, at 10pm Friday we set off on the 2 hour drive. I got back at 2am. Oh, the things we Dads do for our children! So, much of Saturday and a chunk of Sunday was spent preparing John 15:1-8, while in a tired state. It was a wrestle, I tell you.

However, I am encouraged! We had one new visitor on Sunday evening, who normally attends another church. As he left he said to me, “That was brilliant!”, and went on to explain why. He made my weekend. It is good when God sends encouragement when we need it.

And finally:

Daughter survived “Yoof”.

Wife survived a tense me.

Weekend Report