What Hath Jerusalem to Do with Mecca? Evangelicals Respond to “A Common Word”

This year the Evangelical Theological Society holds its annual meeting in New Orleans on Nov. 18-20, and one session warrants special attention. On Wednesday, Nov.18, 8 – 11 am, J P Moreland will chair a panel discussion of A Common Word, with John Piper and Al Mohler among the participants (a schedule of the program can be found here).

What is A Common Word? In October 11, 2007, 138 Islamic clerics and scholars from 43 nations issued a joint statement called A Common Word Between Us and You. It invited Christians to come together with Muslims on the basis of what the two religions have in common. And what do they have in common? The document argues that Christianity, Islam, (and Judaism) all hold to the same two great commandments: love for God and love for neighbor.

The impetus for A Common Word began with a lecture given in September 2006 by Pope Benedict (found here), which was interpreted by many Muslims to be disparaging of Islam. Riots ensued, Christians were assaulted, and the Pope issued an apology. One month later, in October 2006, 38 Muslim clerics and scholars responded to the pontiff with An Open Letter to His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, which accepted his apology. A Common Word was published exactly one year later to the day, and was addressed to 27 leaders within Christendom, including the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches. The total number of Islamic signatories to the document has now grown to over 300.

For the most part, responses from Christians have ranged from polite to banal, with a few bordering on embarrassing. One of the better replies came from the Baptist World Alliance. After commending A Common Word for its irenic spirit and expressing willingness for further discussions, the BWA document listed a number of concerns. First, it pointed out that, though A Common Word assumed Christians and Muslims worship the same god, Christians affirm the doctrine of the Triune Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Second, the BWA response noted that A Common Word seemed to say that God loved those who love Him. The BWA document disagreed, saying that Christians believe we are to respond in love because God graciously first loves us. And third, while commending A Common Word‘s call for religious tolerance, the BWA statement noted that the most egregious cases of religious persecution are occuring in Islamic cultures.

One disappointing portion of the Baptist World Alliance document is its presentation of the death of Christ. Jesus’ death is described as merely as the supreme demonstration of the love of the Father. Indeed, Christ’s death is the ultimate expression of the love of God, but it was also so much more. The document gives no mention of the atoning, substitutionary aspects of Calvary.

Perhaps one response, called Loving God and Neighbor Together, has created the greatest stir. Written by the Dean and three faculty members of the Yale Divinity School, it was published in the NY Times along with over 300 signatures of various Christian theologians, pastors, and other leaders. Among the signatories were evangelicals such as Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, and Leith Anderson. Loving God and Neighbor Together applauded the spirit and message of A Common Word, asked forgiveness for the Crusades, and called for dialogue between the significant representatives of the two great world religions. I think it would be safe to say that Loving God and Neighbor Together has elicited greater criticism from evangelicals than has A Common Word.

Missing from Loving God and Neighbor Together is any mention of the uniqueness of Christ, of the distinctives of the Christian faith, or of the differences between Christianity and Islam. Several evangelicals have expressed their disappointment with the statement. A video of John Piper’s response can be found at Justin Taylor’s website, and an audio of Al Mohler’s comments can be found at the website for his radio program (11:20 into the program).

This brings us back to the meeting scheduled for the ETS meeting in New Orleans in November. The list of slated participants is quite impressive. Joseph Cumming, one of the framers of Loving God and Neighbor Together, has agreed to take part. Joining him will be Joseph Lumbard, an American Muslim, along with Caner Dagli, who is the special adviser to the king of Jordan for interfaith affairs. Scheduled for the other side of the panel are Al Mohler, John Piper, and Donald Smedley. This has all the makings of a very interesting panel discussion!