How Should the Reformed Church Respond to Islam?

Bryan D. Estelle

Ordained Servant: January 2008

Encountering Islam

Also in this issue

Paul in Mecca

City on a Hill: Caesar's or God's?

The Truth about Islam

The Crisis of Islam

Only a month ago, the following corporate (almost imprecatory) prayer was uttered from an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) pulpit during the morning worship service: "Oh Lord, we do pray for the destruction of Islam and our enemies (read, 'Muslims')." Recently, following many discussions on an executive board of a local Reformed Christian school and evaluation of results from a survey disseminated among students' families, a board member registered a lonely negative vote at a board meeting. He was opposed to the retention of the current school mascot name and the mascot itself which was a Crusader mounted upon a mighty war-horse with pike in hand, ready for battle. One of those was subsequently changed.

These issues and experiences, and the emotions attached to them, would probably not have surfaced fifteen or even ten years ago, at least with the same passion that they seem to generate these days. Today, however, we live in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Furthermore, Islam is growing rapidly. There are at least one hundred mosques or Islamic centers and over 350,000 Muslims in Chicago alone. New York is home to at least 700,000 Muslims. An average of one new mosque per week opens in the United States.[1] One thing is clear from the above statistics. Orthodox Presbyterian officers and members in their churches will probably have more and more opportunity to have contact with and bear testimony to Muslims in the years to come. We have become neighbors with many in the world through the mass media and ease of travel.[2]

My primary objective in this brief article is to talk about how the Reformed church, as a church, should respond to Islam. My point is simple: we have one duty and that is to bring the gospel to bear upon the souls of Muslims as we have opportunity. Although I did learn Arabic in graduate school and I have had some contact with Muslims and converts from Islam, I know little about Islamics. My experience is very limited. Nevertheless, the time to think and write on this subject is long past due.

In the OPC, we could talk about the duty of individual military soldiers, for some in our congregations are soldiers and will have very real contact with Muslims in other countries around the world: sometimes confrontations of violent combat. However, that is not the focus of this article. We could talk about what engagement with Islam would mean for those in our church that are involved in the business of national security, for some in our churches are involved in protecting the safety of our country through their work in the intelligence community. However, that is not the focus of this article. My goal in this article is simple. I want to answer the following question: How should the Reformed church and her officers, as a corporate church, respond to Islam, a growing and thriving religion in this country, Europe, and around the world?

Prolegomena (or first things)

Bernard Lewis is one of the world's foremost scholars on Islam. He has been hailed as the "doyen of Middle Eastern studies." As the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies (emeritus) at Princeton University, not only does he have an extraordinary command of the languages of the Middle East, including Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Indonesian, he is also a first class historian.[3]

One repeated theme in Lewis's books is the distinctiveness of Christianity through the ages with regard to understanding the difference between the realms of the secular and the sacred, or stated differently, the relationship between the state and the church. He writes tersely in What Went Wrong?:

Throughout Christian history, and in almost all Christian lands, church and state continued to exist side by side as different institutions, each with its own laws and jurisdictions, its own hierarchy and chain of authority. The two may be joined, or, in modern times, separated. Their relationship may be one of cooperation, of confrontation, or of conflict. Sometimes they may be coequal, more often one or the other may prevail in a struggle for the domination of the polity. In the course of the centuries, Christian jurists and theologians devised or adapted pairs of terms to denote this dichotomy of jurisdiction: sacred and profane, spiritual and temporal, religious and secular, ecclesiastical and lay.[4]

Lewis takes pains in his books to distinguish between Christianity's recognition of the separation of church and state early in Christian history and the rise of real secularism, which he sees as a fairly recent development.[5] Lewis's point (and mine as well in this article) is that this distinction between the authority of Caesar and the authority of God and the church and the different duties owed to each has been a fundamental teaching of Christianity from the beginning: not so with Muslims.[6]

Lewis's recognition of a separation of church and state authority and the respective duties owed to each since the beginning of Christianity is legitimate, and it is an idea that has been revivified in a Report recently submitted to our own General Assembly in the form of the doctrine of two kingdoms, the regnum gratiae (kingdom of grace) and the regnum potentiae (the kingdom of power). Stating the two kingdoms doctrine succinctly, the Report on Illegal Aliens asserts:

The regnum gratiae is Christ's rule over the ecclesia militans (the church militant) where he governs, blesses, and defends the church in its earthly pilgrimage for the sake of the salvation of believers. The regnum potentiae, on the other hand, is universal, general or natural—that is, Christ's rule over the world and its affairs through the civil magistrate, though his rule is based not upon his role as mediator but as the second person of the trinity.[7]

Respecting this as God's organization of the post-fall world, with its different ends and purposes for the church and the state, will help us in our attempts at the correct response to Islam as a church. In the secular civil sphere, natural law and the power of the sword primarily guide governmental rule. As the Report on Illegal Aliens recognizes, this position about natural law may presently be a controversial statement among some in the relatively newly formed OPC. But that should not deter us from accepting that our current perspective may need adjusting. Christopher Seitz, for example, is spot on when he says, "it is uncontroversial that until the nineteenth century, reason and natural law cohered and derived their status as Christian authority because of scripture's own revealed word about creation and God's sovereign design therein."[8] On the other hand, in the church conduct is formed and instructed by the word of God in the power of the Spirit. State authority is a manifestation of common grace for the purpose of stability in society and the restraint of evil. The visible church, however, is a manifestation of the outworking of the covenant of grace, whereby God pities the nations and brings in all his elect to be edified by his appointed means of grace, the administration of the Word and sacraments.[9]

From the standpoint of the Westminster Confession, it is clear that the church is the spiritual kingdom ruled by Christ through his Word and filled with his Holy Spirit. Herein lies the great difference between civil and ecclesiastical power as poignantly stated by Thomas Peck years ago:

Christians are all agreed that Jesus, their Saviour, is King of kings and Lord of lords, not only in the sense that He is the greatest of kings, but in the sense that all earthly kings and lords are subject to His authority. But the question is, whether civil rulers derive their authority from Him, as Mediator, or whether they derive their authority from God, as moral governor of mankind. Christ says that, "His kingdom is not of this world." This is His solemn testimony before a civil magistrate whose authority He recognises. (See John 19:10,11; Rom. 13:1, etc.)[10]

Although this doctrine of the two kingdoms is often caricatured as only a Lutheran teaching, such views are not novel in Reformed circles, nor are they merely idiosyncratic to Lutheran theology; rather, they have a long and well-established pedigree in Reformed doctrine and practice, although in the last century they have largely fallen by the wayside and been neglected. Although there have been attempts to read Calvin differently (including those by neo-Dooyeweerdians and neo-Calvinist transformationalists), it is clear that Calvin himself held to a two kingdom understanding of church and state.[11] Furthermore, until relatively recent years, the two-kingdom ideas expressed up to this point were a rather common staple in Reformed theology, although theologians and ministers did express themselves somewhat differently on these matters.[12]

Another related doctrine, albeit largely forgotten or at least abused and neglected recently, is the spirituality of the church. This doctrine should also inform our response to Islam. Far from merely being the lackey doctrine of the southern church to justify holding slaves, the doctrine of the spirituality of the church has been articulated by Presbyterian ministers in the South and the North (Charles Hodge, for example). This doctrine is not a new invention in the nineteenth century; rather, it is a restatement of the biblically warranted mission of the visible church. Her mission as the corporate church is limited to administering the Word of God rightly, the sacraments correctly, and church discipline when necessary.[13]

The state is inclined to tear the crown from Christ's head when it transgresses its proper boundaries, and this bestial impulse must be checked but it does not remove the secular state's legitimacy as a divinely ordered institution. Similarly, according to the Westminster Confession of Faith (31.4), the church, especially her synods and councils, must be held in check, and those courts are

to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate (emphasis mine).

These are the divinely wrought institutions of God: church and state. The state, when performing its divinely restricted duties, does not function spiritually and yet glorifies God within its prescribed limitations. This is most felicitously stated in the American revision of the Westminster Confession of 1788, chapter XXIII, Sect. 3, a revision that we may thank God for since it greatly improved the old confession and brought its principles into greater harmony with the Word of God. As William E. Boggs said years ago in his inaugural address to the chair of ecclesiastical history and church polity at Columbia Theological Seminary, "We should see everywhere the deplorable consequences of making religion and the church a part of the machinery of civil government."[14] With these preliminary matters before us, we are now ready to ask how these doctrines may inform the response of the Reformed church to Islam.

The Church and Her Responsibility

How should the Reformed church respond to Islam and Muslims? The answer to that question is simple if we keep in mind that we are talking about the church's responsibility as the church, that is, the function of the church in her corporate capacity. Our founder, J. Gresham Machen, gave an answer in another day and context that is simple, elegant, and timely for this question in our present context:

The responsibility of the church in the new age is the same as its responsibility in every age. It is to testify that this world is lost in sin; that the span of human life—nay, all the length of human history—is an infinitesimal island in the awful depths of eternity; that there is a mysterious holy living God, Creator of all, Upholder of all, infinitely beyond all; that he has revealed himself in his Word and offered us communion with himself through Jesus Christ the Lord; that there is no other salvation, for individuals or for nations, save this, but that this salvation is full and free, and that whosoever possesses it has for himself and for all others to whom he may be the instrument of bringing it a treasure compared with which all the kingdoms of the earth—nay, all the wonders of the starry heavens—are as the dust of the street.[15]

Remembering the importance of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church will help us in another area of our witness to Muslims. That memory will be prophylactic medicine against the toxic mixing of Western cultural messages with our gospel proclamation. This is very important to Muslims. Those who have extensive experience in sharing God's word with Muslims recognize the importance of proclaiming the liberating message of the gospel and not mingling Western culture with that proclamation.[16]

What about Islamization?

In light of the tremendous growth of Islam, what should our rhetoric be? The fact of the matter is that historically, where Muslim governments reigned, they were often tolerant of other religions and diverse opinions.[17] In other words, I suggest that it is not a fait accompli that the growth of Islam in America (or Europe) necessarily means the rape of those countries and the reduction of vibrant Christianity. If the previous point is accurate, it might mean developing a different attitude towards Muslims, Arabs, and Islamic countries in particular. Consider the government of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, which recently was working on a financial deal that could make it the first government in the Middle East to hold a large stake (and two out of sixteen board seats) in a U.S.-based stock operator, the London Stock Exchange.[18] I only share this example for illustrative purposes. Should such a business deal be viewed with suspicion as a possible surreptitious attempt to destroy the financial markets of the United States? Or, is it possible that a robust doctrine of common grace would have us welcome this potential financial development with Dubai as a way of fostering mutual involvement and exchange between East and West and discouraging isolationism? How we officers in the church parse the previous questions will undoubtedly affect our attitudes about current events in a number of areas.

The fact of the matter is that not all Muslims are Islamic fundamentalists. Sometimes this term is explained as an impulse among Muslims to return to the fundamentals of Islam as a response to world affairs.[19] More often, however, the term Islamic fundamentalist is loosely associated (often in a not very apt manner) with the militant and radical movements in certain particular countries that are trying to undo the secularization of the last century and return to the holy law of Islam and an Islamic political order.[20] This is the case especially in Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan, and the same trend is growing in other parts of the world. The enemy is defined in various ways in these countries; however, it is not merely Christians that are singled out. In fact, in an Islamic fundamentalist's mind, secularization is the archenemy. Even so, this previous point should not be construed as unthinking naiveté concerning the trends of Islamic fundamentalists and what those trends have done to change the political and social landscape of certain Arab and Jewish nations in the Middle East. Christian minorities have often been hard pressed, and migrated elsewhere as a consequence. Such a reduction of a Christian presence in the public square of certain countries in the Middle East may produce less stability in a location of the world that is already known for its fragility and violence.[21]

We Must Know Our Audience

When I began to read more about Islam, I realized how ignorant I was of Islam worldwide and especially in the modern Middle East. No specialist in Semitics, even in the ancient Near East, can afford to be ignorant of the contemporary scene.[22] But neither can officers in the church of Jesus Christ remain uninformed. Consequently, I am educating myself about major branches of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shi'ites, and the differences between them. I did not know what Sufism was, and so I needed to read about this as well since there are numerous Sufi orders present in the United States. Islamics is a huge field of study and complex. Indeed, one could spend one's whole life learning about it. My point is merely this: as Reformed Christians and officers in the church, we must be willing to familiarize ourselves with our audience in order to share the gospel with sensitivity and power. Islam is a complex phenomenon, and it warrants careful study in preparation for our sharing the gospel. In my experience, most North American Christians are unable and ill-equipped to deal with Islam despite its growing influence in this country. This includes many in the OPC.

To become sensitized to a Muslim audience takes real work. The Muslim, for example, thinks of the Word of God in categories simply of law.[23] We must show the Muslim the law and the gospel. Islam's view of mankind is definitely deficient. A Muslim thinks too highly of the goodness of mankind. In our view, man is wicked at his core, and he stands in desperate need of redemption from sin. In a word, he needs grace. Here lies the apt contribution of Reformed theology vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism. The Muslim needs grace, but as Michael Horton has recently said, "grace does not elevate nature, but liberates it from its bondage to sin and death."[24] We must learn how to communicate this truth so that the Muslim may see that God has come to offer liberation from the imperialism of sin.[25] There are other areas in which Christianity can provide solid answers for the Muslim: in the area of the so-called problem of evil, how to gain the peace of personal assurance of entitlement to heaven, our views on the sacraments, the temple, Israel and the land promises, the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible and particularly the Gospels, and the alleged corruption of the Bible through transmission.

In all these areas and more besides, we will have to work very hard. The compassion of God and the doctrine of the free offer of the gospel did not adequately seize the early church's conscience. Otherwise, our forefathers would not have been so tardy in translating the Scriptures into Arabic.[26] The plight of Muslim men, women, and children has probably not gripped the young OPC yet either.

Anyone who knows the history of the Crusades recognizes that it was a brainchild of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. How could it be otherwise at that time in history? But this does not release Protestants from thinking about what this means in the modern world and its residual consequences. It is true that Pope Urban II organized these military quests as a way to expand Rome's power. After his speech delivered at the Council of Clermont in 1095, which purposed to unite Christians in an effort to free Jerusalem from the infidels, the result was a frenzied crowd crying out, "Deus hoc volt!" (God wills this!).

Charles M. Sennott, a reporter assigned to the Middle East during the last decade, writes of the lasting impression those Crusaders left upon the so-called Holy Land:

The Crusaders carried out bloody assaults on Muslims and Jews (and local Christians of the Eastern Orthodox churches often were not spared), to shouts of "Deus hoc volt!" For three days they systematically slaughtered more than 30,000 inhabitants of Jerusalem—until there was no one left to kill. Crusade chroniclers were not shy about describing the "rivers of blood" spilled in the name of the Lord. Legend has it that tens of thousands of Muslims were slaughtered at Al-Aqsa—perhaps an exaggeration, historians say, but not by much. Jews were crowded into their synagogue and burned alive. The butchery is still seared into the memory of this land, scarring relations between Christianity and the other two religions of Abraham.[27]

What is a wise and appropriate response to this history?

We are at war on terror even as I write this. We should be concerned for our military personnel and particularly for our Christian brothers and sisters who are in harm's way. We should be concerned for the families of those who have been killed and also for those who have been injured physically, psychologically, and emotionally by the horrible ravages of war.

Even so, I wish the reader to return to the focus of this brief article. How should the Reformed church respond to Muslims and Islam? What is an appropriate prayer from an OPC pulpit on the Lord's day concerning Islam? As officers in the church, let us not forget that we should be thinking deeply about the complex world events swirling around us. And furthermore, as a corporate church, our mission has not changed: we are to bring the claims of the gospel upon souls.


[1] The Statistics quoted above come from Bruce A. McDowell and Anees Zaka, Muslims and Christians at the Table: Promoting Biblical Understanding Among North American Muslims (Phillipsburg, NJ: P and R, 1999). Also see more recent statistics in J. Dudley Woodberry, Russell G. Shubin, and G. Marks, "Why Muslims Follow Jesus," Christianity Today (October 2007): 80-85.

[2] Bassam M. Madany, The Bible and Islam: Sharing God's Word with a Muslim (Palo Heights, IL: The Back to God Hour, 1987), 109.

[3] See Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[4] Lewis, What Went Wrong?, 98. Also see 103. See also, Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans, 319.

[5] See, for example, Lewis, What Went Wrong?, 104-116 and Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans, 57.

[6] Lewis, What Went Wrong?, 103-104.

[7] Report on Illegal Aliens, 1617.

[8] Christopher R. Seitz, Figured Out: Typology and Providence in Christian Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 60.

[9] See Agenda for 74th GA (2007), 1615-21.

[10] Thomas E. Peck, "Church and State," Southern Presbyterian Review 16:2 (Oct. 1863): 121-144, especially 135.

[11] See David VanDrunen, "Natural Law, Custom, and Common Law in the Theology of Aquinas and Calvin," University of British Columbia Law Review, vol. 33, no. 3 (2000): 699-717; VanDrunen, "The Context of Natural Law: John Calvin's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms," Journal of Church and State 46 (Summer, 2004): 503-25; VanDrunen, "The Two Kingdoms: A Reassessment of the Transformationalist Calvin," Calvin Theological Journal 40 (2005): 248-266; See also, Paul Helm, John Calvin's Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 347-388; William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 73-76.

[12] See David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (forthcoming).

[13] The secondary literature on the Presbyterian doctrine of the Spirituality of the church is enormous. One may begin with D. G. Hart and John R. Muether, "The Spirituality of the Church," Ordained Servant 6, no. 1 (1997).

[14] William E. Boggs, "Church and State in their Reciprocal Relations and Fundamental Contrast," Southern Presbyterian Review 35/1 (January, 1884): 137-180, especially on 154.

[15] J. Gresham Machen, "The Responsibility of the Church in Our New Age," The Presbyterian Guardian 36:1 (January 1967), 13.

[16] See Madany, The Bible and Islam, vii, 9, 42, 45.

[17] Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans, 70.

[18] See "Dubai Exchange Vies for Global Role," in the Money and Investing section of the Wall Street Journal (Thursday, September 20, 2007), C1-C2.

[19] See Madany, The Bible and Islam, 97-104.

[20] Lewis, What Went Wrong?, 96-116, especially 106-08.

[21] See, for example, Charles M. Sennott, The Body and the Blood: The Holy Land's Christians at the Turn of a New Millennium (New York: Public Affairs, 2001).

[22] Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans, 10.

[23] See Madany, The Bible and Islam, 55-57.

[24] Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 193.

[25] Madany, The Bible and Islam, 39.

[26] Madany, The Bible and Islam, 76.

[27] Sennott, The Body and the Blood, 9.

Bryan Estelle, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is associate professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant, January 2008.

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Ordained Servant: January 2008

Encountering Islam

Also in this issue

Paul in Mecca

City on a Hill: Caesar's or God's?

The Truth about Islam

The Crisis of Islam

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