Author

About the Author

Dr. Craig Blomberg is currently a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. Dr. Blomberg completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. In addition to writing numerous articles in professional journals, multi-author works and dictionaries or encyclopedias, he has authored or edited 20 books, including The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.

Can “Allah” and “God” Be Used Interchangeably?

Dr. Craig Blomberg is currently a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. Dr. Blomberg completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. In addition to writing numerous articles in professional journals, multi-author works and dictionaries or encyclopedias, he has authored or edited 20 books, including The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:23)

Timothy George wrote an excellent book exploring the similarities and differences between central Christian and Muslim beliefs, published in 2002, and provocatively entitled Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? Among other things, George observed that Old Testament Jews were strict monotheists, much like Muslims. Without an explicit concept of the Trinity, prior to the coming of Christ and New Testament revelation, their doctrine of God closely resembled Muslim understandings of Allah. In fact, the etymologies of Allah and El (or Elohim), a common Hebrew name for God in the Old Testament, are probably related in pre-Arabic, pre-Hebraic Semitic tongues. Jews who did not become followers of Jesus often stumbled over the very thing Muslims do, the notion of the deity of Jesus or of a Triune God more generally. So perhaps Muslim views of Allah approximate pre-Christian Jewish understandings of Yahweh. Because the New Testament can properly speak of Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, as Jesus’s father, then maybe the Father of Jesus is the God of Muhammad.

George, however, concludes that this is going too far. The God of the Old Testament was a Triune God from all eternity past, whether most Jews ever realized it or not. There are at least hints of a plurality within the Godhead in the Old Testament in ways there are not in the Qur’an. There is nothing in the Old Testament that unequivocally states that God cannot have a Son, as repeatedly appears in the holy book of Islam. Read both the Jewish Scriptures and the Qur’an and despite the occasional picture of Allah as compassionate, the dominant impression one gets is of an all-powerful, all-knowing being whose mood is almost always one of judgment, primarily on outsiders to Islam. Read the Old Testament—actually read the whole thing and don’t just trust someone else’s simplistic summary—and Yahweh, God of Israel, is predominantly a God of love. When judgment does appear, most of the time it is against God’s own people. The major exception, with the inhabitants of Canaan in the days of Joshua, came only after centuries of God’s patience, until their sins had reached “full measure” (Genesis 15:16).

But one of our readers asks me to address this issue via a slightly different question: Can Allah and God ever be used interchangeably? Here I would agree with many missiologists, especially some who have served in Muslim contexts, that the answer is yes, so long as one goes on to define one’s terms carefully.

That’s exactly what Paul did on Mars Hill. Using theos, the general term for G/god in the Greek language, and based on an inscription to an unknown theos, he proceeded to define the term for the Athenians more accurately. But he never abandoned the term. “God” is an exceedingly common word for God in the Bible! There are plenty of accounts from the history of Christian missions of missionaries insisting on using a foreign word for God, or even creating a new word, in a given language because they cannot accept any indigenous word as close enough in meaning to the God of Scripture. Inevitably, additional barriers have been erected for the acceptance of the gospel. Now in some instances, this may have been unavoidable, if no term exists that is not inherently polytheistic.

But in Arabic, Allah is as monotheistic as words come. Arabic Christians, before Islam was even birthed in the seventh century, used Allah to translate the biblical words for God. Here is a history we can draw on. Theos, of course, was used by Greek translators of the Septuagint, long before the coming of Christ, despite it being a term very susceptible to polytheistic overtones, but not inherently so.

So it all depends on context. If one can use Allah and explain what one means by it and this is a bridge for sharing Christian beliefs, by all means use it. If among a different group of people, it is inextricable from distinctively Islamic tenets, one may have to abandon it. Great discernment is needed either way.

Two Kinds of Tolerance

Dr. Craig Blomberg is currently a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. Dr. Blomberg completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. In addition to writing numerous articles in professional journals, multi-author works and dictionaries or encyclopedias, he has authored or edited 20 books, including The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.

Guest post by Dr. Craig L. Blomberg

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. (Romans 14:1–7)

From the Gloria Hotel just inside the Jaffa Gate to the old city of Jerusalem, you can walk a block and be at the beautiful and inspiring Christ Church for Sunday morning evangelical Anglican worship. On Saturday morning, a group of Messianic Jews celebrate Shabbat there, in Hebrew, but with English translation for visitors. Don’t be surprised if you see a small group of non-Messianic Jews in the street outside the church at either time, singing their own liturgy. Head toward the Wailing Wall and you can pass by a couple of small mosques and an Arabic-speaking Christian Missionary and Alliance Church. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you’re likely to find someone worshipping—Roman Catholics and various branches of Orthodoxy—Armenian, Greek, Ethiopic, Coptic, and Syriac all take turns. At the Wailing Wall itself, you’ll find orthodox, even Hasidic, Jews dressed in traditional black garb, praying almost any time of the day or night, while above and beyond them Muslims revere the Dome of the Rock and worship at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. And there are still other small, old houses of worship dotting the old city, as well as a quite new, large, and ornate Evangelical Lutheran Church in what was an empty plaza not many years ago.

“Tolerance” might not be one of the first twenty adjectives that would come to mind when someone said “Jerusalem.” Perhaps it should.

D. A. Carson’s recent book, The Intolerance of Tolerance, explains in frightening detail how a concept central to American history has morphed into something that could destroy us. Historically, tolerance, especially in religious matters, meant that every person or group was free to express themselves, even in the public square, so long as they did not try to impose their beliefs on others. Evangelism through rational and courteous forms of persuasion was expected, but coercive attempts to establish a state religion were forbidden. In the last generation, however, too often tolerance has been redefined as not allowing any expression of religion in the public square for fear that it might offend someone. But the people promoting such a definition of tolerance don’t abide by their own rules. They aggressively, even coercively, impose their restrictions on others no matter who it offends!

Paul in Romans 14 gives a good biblical example of Christian tolerance. Some people believed they were free to eat all foods; others still felt bound by various dietary restrictions, whether the Jewish kosher laws or various Greco-Roman religious taboos. Some did not believe the Sabbath command carried over to the Christian era; others still kept it. Paul asks each group to respect the right of the others to worship differently. No one is being asked to give up their own convictions, but they are to treat those who disagree with them courteously and with respect. They may well try to explain their own approach and convince someone else they are right, but it must be done in a spirit of kindness for the other.

For the most part, that is what one sees in old Jerusalem today. Oh, there are exceptions, to be sure. The extreme right wings of any religious movement seldom show either kind of tolerance and sadly make the news for their occasional violent action of intolerance. But many, many people of good will in all the major religious traditions in Israel recognize that if they want to be free to express themselves religiously, including in public, they must grant this right to the other groups in town.

This is largely also the America I grew up in. No one ever thought of banning religion from the curriculum of the public schools; it was just important to give all the major faiths coverage, and instruction was to be descriptive and not prescriptive. Now not only the public sector but many private companies as well violate their employees’ constitutional rights (and occasionally, though not typically, some lesser courts even uphold those violations when litigation is brought), because people are either too uneducated or too cowardly to distinguish “freedom of religion” from “freedom from religion.”

Jerusalem still struggles at times with “freedom of religion.” But it would be ludicrous to ever imagine Jews, Christians, and Muslims here ever imagining a state with “freedom from religion.”

America actually has freedom of religion enshrined as a constitutional right. And Jefferson’s famous wall of separation is all about no religion having the right to become a religion established by government or law. Nothing was ever implied by that about not establishing moral principles in the legislation of the land. It was always assumed the electorate would use their understanding of morality as they promoted laws for the country.

What’s frightening is how widely this revisionist definition of tolerance has spread. Freedom from religion is itself in violation of the American constitution—not that every person must have an institutional religion; far from it. But the attempt to impose freedom from religion within the public square is itself one of the most intolerant movements masquerading under the guise of tolerance.

It’s time to reread Paul. It’s time perhaps to visit Jerusalem, from where I’m writing this blog!

The “All or Nothing” Syndrome with Biblical Imprecision

Dr. Craig Blomberg is currently a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. Dr. Blomberg completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. In addition to writing numerous articles in professional journals, multi-author works and dictionaries or encyclopedias, he has authored or edited 20 books, including The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.

Guest post by Dr. Craig L. Blomberg

In the late 1970s, the “battle for the Bible” pitted inerrantists against others with a high view of Scripture but who stopped just short of belief in inerrancy. A common argument in this debate featured “the slippery slope.” Give up inerrancy, it was alleged, and at first you may rest content with just minor historical or scientific errors in Scripture, but soon you’ll be questioning the theology and ethics of the Bible as well. Next you’ll doubt some of the fundamentals of the faith, and finally you’ll chuck Christianity altogether.

There were, of course, numerous examples of people and institutions doing precisely this, which made the case persuasive to many. What was ignored was the long-standing rejection of inerrancy in the former British commonwealth, combined with a robust affirmation of the inspiration and authority of Scripture and the fundamentals of the faith in evangelical circles in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc. Ignored also were those who had “climbed back up” part or all of the slippery slope, most notably Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy, moving from thoroughgoing liberalism to something much closer to, though not quite, full-fledged evangelical thought.

I remember once talking to D. A. Carson when I was his student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School about the consummate published version of this slippery slope argument, by Harold Lindsell, in his book The Battle for the Bible. I think I can still quote him verbatim. Carson replied, “Lindsell is on the side of the angels, but it’s a bad, bad book.” Human responses are just too diverse to package them into a “one-size-fits-all” model with respect to the apparent contradictions in and harder-to-accept parts of Scripture.

Ironically, Bart Ehrman’s account of his pilgrimage from evangelicalism to agnosticism, in his introduction to Misquoting Jesus, offers support for Lindsell and his followers. On one occasion a professor at Princeton, responding to a paper Ehrman wrote trying to harmonize Mark’s reference to Abiathar in Mark 2:26 with the OT character in question (Ahimelech), inquired of Ehrman why he didn’t just accept that Mark made a mistake. Already well aware of the fact that we do not have the original autographs of any of the books of the Bible, and that minor (and once in a great while, larger) changes were introduced by scribes in the copying process, Ehrman now felt free to apply the same language of “mistakes” to what the writers of those autographs themselves may have done. Oversimplifying the rest of his autobiography, but remaining true to its gist, we may then summarize what he says happened after that as one domino of his faith after another being knocked down until he came to call himself an agnostic.

Why do I call this ironic? Because when I was an undergraduate in a liberal college department of religion, it was all the liberals who consistently pooh-poohed this all-or-nothing mentality. The professors at that institution hold the same view today. Plenty of professors at Princeton when Ehrman was a student there, and again still today, would have agreed. It was always those rigid, inflexible fundamentalists who couldn’t see the many viable options for genuine Christian belief apart from the inerrancy of Scripture. But then Ehrman went to a fairly rigid, inflexible fundamentalist school for his undergraduate studies, so perhaps he had not previously heard those claims; I don’t know.

What I do know is that in the blogworld, among the so-called new atheists (by which is usually meant newly aggressive, unusually scornful of and discourteous toward believers), and in their small but influential collection of published works (particularly from Prometheus Books), I keep running into this same all-or-nothing mentality. I get e-mails from unbelievers who can’t accept this idea that ancient writers were satisfied with reporting accurately the “gist” of someone’s words, in a world before the invention of the quotation mark or any felt-need for it, and it reminds me of Christian fundamentalists’ responses. I have non-Christian friends tell me they’ve read some strange uses of the Old Testament in the New (who hasn’t?) and before they even start looking to see if there is some legitimate explanation for this, they say they are almost ready to give up on considering that the Bible is reliable anywhere. As many observers in other realms have pointed out, truly there is a fundamentalism of the left as well as of the right!

If trends continue, thoughtful inerrantists may discover they have greater allies in non-inerrantist wings of Christianity than they thought, and that they have far more in common with them than they do with those who hold the “all-or-nothing” mentality outside or inside the church!

Why Go to Church?

Dr. Craig Blomberg is currently a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. Dr. Blomberg completed his PhD in New Testament, specializing in the parables and the writings of Luke-Acts, at Aberdeen University in Scotland. In addition to writing numerous articles in professional journals, multi-author works and dictionaries or encyclopedias, he has authored or edited 20 books, including The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.

Guest post by Dr. Craig L. Blomberg

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24–25; Today’s New International Version)

In our consumer culture, I shouldn’t be surprised that people treat church like a product. But I confess I continue to be surprised how long-time, faithful churchgoers can suddenly “kick the habit” with seemingly little regret! Whether it’s a recent, young Denver Seminary graduate who was training to be a church leader or a middle-aged individual who just got tired of putting up with someone or something undesirable in their local congregation, people are abandoning regular church attendance in record numbers.

Hebrews 10, however, takes such a departure very seriously indeed. In the context of growing persecution of Christians in Rome in the early-to-mid-60s, one could almost understand why Jewish believers might want to play down their distinctives as followers of Yeshua and retreat to a form of worship indistinguishable from orthodox Judaism. They would thus retain their unique privilege as a religio licita, and not be forced to offer a pinch of incense in honor of Caesar as “Lord and God” as everyone else had to do. Once Nero unleashed his official, state-sponsored persecution against Christians in 64, they would be immune from imprisonment and martyrdom. Today, one can empathize with believers from North Korea and China to Iran and Afghanistan to Morocco and the Maldives, who might similarly hide their Christian identities and not gather regularly for worship and instruction with other believers, lest they be arrested and/or killed.

Ironically, it is precisely in such contexts where we also hear stories of great faith, great perseverance, and great sacrifice for the sake of Christ and fellow Christians, including for gathering together with them. It’s here in the U.S., in the Western world more generally, where so much less is at stake that we offer up such pathetic reasons (at least I suspect God considers them pathetic) for not joining together with fellow believers on a regular, weekly basis. And almost all of the excuses are anthropocentric rather than Christocentric. That’s a fancy way of saying we’ve in essence reworded the well-known praise song to make it say, “It’s all about me, Lord,” rather than “It’s all about you, Jesus!”

We all know the excuses. We don’t like the style of worship or music. We don’t like the preaching. We don’t like the new time for Sunday School. We don’t like the way the church spends our money. More seriously, we don’t like certain people we have to see when we go. The list seems almost endless. Yet the other irony is that we in the West, especially in the United States, have far more choices of churches than anybody has ever had anywhere else in the history of the world! Before the advent of modern transportation, the two major criteria for why a given person belonged to church x (rather than church y) was because it was (a) the closest church to where they lived (b) in their denomination. Before the Protestant Reformation, only (a) applied, except in those comparatively few places where both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy existed side-by-side. One generally learned to work things out with the same group of people over a long period of time.

Today we are victims of our plethora of choices. Now hear me well. I’m grateful for those choices. There do come times when churches have substantially changed their beliefs or practices that for a person to be faithful to their own basic convictions they must move to a different congregation. If that happens, then move! But don’t just stop going anywhere.

Hear me, too, please, when I say that “church,” as the New Testament defines it, can be a house-church; it can be independent of all denominational affiliation; and it can take many creative forms and gather at many different times. I’m not saying all believers have to gather on Sunday morning, in a distinctive church building, with one prescribed liturgy or order of service. Not by a long shot. But consider the implied hubris (a fancy Greek word for “arrogance”) implied by the person who claims to be a Christian, claims to be in submission in Scripture, and yet also claims that no existing expressions of Christianity anywhere close to them are sufficiently God-pleasing for them to favor those gatherings with their presence!

The book of Hebrews supplies the key to how to change one’s attitude in such situations. One goes to church not for what one can get but what one can give. Spur one another on toward love and good works and encourage one another. One of the occupational hazards of having studied the Scriptures to the extent that I have, and having visited as many diverse expressions of God’s family of faith worldwide as I have, is that it’s hard for any given worship service to affect me emotionally at the very core of my being with something that jumps out at me and says, “yes, that’s exactly how we should be doing things!” I occasionally experience a little something along those lines, but I stress the words a little.

But it doesn’t take much at all to get me pumped with the idea of going to see friends and acquaintances, and to meet new people, whom I can encourage and love and teach. If I keep track of how much attention, gratitude, and concern I am showed in return, I usually go away depressed (except when I’m a guest speaker somewhere, because at least some people have been trained to do such things). But if I remind myself that I shouldn’t be trying to keep track of such things, then I usually feel fulfilled. But even that is an anthropocentric criterion. I need to keep reminding myself that I go and do what I do simply because that’s what God wants and it’s what he has made me for.