Mars Hill Forum #126: What is the Nature of Revelation in the Bible and the Qur’an? June 24, 2007, New Life Christian Church, Meriden, CT, Guest: Dr. Imam Talal Eid

Mars Hill Forum #127, What is the Nature of Revelation in the Bible and the Qur’an? June 25, 2007, Covenant Presbyterian Church, Simsbury, CT, Guest: Muslim and Classics Scholar, Professor Mary Knight, New York University.

Prepared Remarks by John C. Rankin

Good evening. As I address the topic of revelation in the Bible and the Qur’an, my key concern will be “checks and balances.”

[Thank you again to Imam Talal Eid for joining me in another Mars Hill Forum. Given Imam Eid’s recent appointment by President Bush to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, this conversation – and the good questions it draws forth – should prove valuable to all of us here tonight.] [Good evening, and thank you Professor Knight for joining us.]

I am in pursuit of intelligent and gracious conversation between the Christian and Islamic communities; with prior Jewish reality in the background. I desire:

  1. To equip Christians and Jews to learn how the Qur’an understands itself on its own terms; and to equip Muslims to learn how the Bible understands itself on its own terms; and
  2. To maximize religious, political and economic liberty for all peoples and nations equally.

The challenge is to navigate through the shoals of two temptations, and attain a third possibility:

  • No to meaningless dialogue rooted in the fear of giving offense.
  • No to cowardly debate which has the goal to give offense.
  • Yes to honest conversation in the face of real debate for the sake of mutual understanding; this requires humility and courage in equal measure.

This series is sponsored by the Theological Education Institute (TEI), which is rooted in a classic Protestant and evangelical faith. I seek to articulate “The Six Pillars of Biblical Power,” out of which come “The Six Pillars of Honest Politics,” with conviction that they are universal to human nature.

   The power to give affirms that the unalienable rights given by the Creator belong to all people equally, and human government serves such a gift.

   The power to live in the light means that all people, and human government at every level, should be as fully transparent as possible.

   The power of informed choice is rooted in an honest definition of terms in theological and political debate, apart from which informed choice is not possible.

   The power to love hard questions is in place when religious and political leaders honor those who pose them the toughest questions.

   The power to love enemies recognizes that even the harshest of religious or political opponents share a common humanity and are to be treated with the most respect possible.

   The power to forgive extends mercy to those who seek to overcome past sins and transgressions, and become honest participants in religious and civic life.

These six pillars are by definition pre-partisan. In other words, they set the foundation for healthy partisan debates over religion and public policy, in service to the consent of the governed. The deepest partisanship is the creation of a level playing field for all partisan ideas to be heard equally, knowing that truth will rise to the top.

This is a radically biblical presupposition, rooted in the Garden of Eden, and exemplified by Jesus in his debate with his enemies during Passion Week. It is the essence of the Golden Rule where biblical people are to treat all others as we ourselves wish to be treated. Thus, I never want one inch of greater liberty to speak what I believe, than the liberty I first honor for those who believe differently. This is at the core of religious and political liberty, and it is at the core of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ addresses national and international politics. If the Gospel were to be truly lived by those of us who claim to be biblical, the world would be transformed.

When I express confidence, that on a level playing field of ideas, the truth will rise to the top, I am also driving at a common anthropology, a shared humanity. Namely, how often do we who are Jewish or Christian properly wince at hypocrisy in our midst – someone who professes orthodoxy, but is dishonest and manipulative in the pursuit of selfish goals? With whom would we trust our treasure and safety – a putatively Christian preacher who is a liar, or a Muslim preacher who keeps his word to all people equally? This raises many theological issues. Let me briefly touch on two.

First, a religious lawyer tested Jesus in Luke 10, asking him “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“ ‘What is written in the Law?’ Jesus replied. ‘How do you read it?’

“He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God will all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

“ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’ ”

Note how Jesus did not quote a doctrinal formula, or a series of religious rules – but the ethical core of the Bible. How many of us have perfect theology? … Are we saved by our theological constructions, or by God’s grace which is greater than our fallible understandings? Theology and true doctrine are crucial – I have spent a lifetime studying and seeking to apply it. But is it properly formulated “doctrine” which leads us to love God and neighbor? Or is it the pursuit of loving God and neighbor which most readily frees our souls from the shackles of darkness and deceit so as to see true doctrine?

The lawyer who was testing Jesus wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus who his neighbor was. Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan, where a man was beaten and left for dead on the road to Jericho. A priest, and then a Levite, passing by in succession, both crossed the road so as to ignore his need – and they were the theologically “orthodox” in Jesus’s day. But the despised Samaritan, the racial and religious half-breed, tracing back to the Assyrian conquest 750 years earlier, proved to be the one who loved his neighbor, taking care of the beaten man. In other words, those who pursue the truth of loving God and neighbor, regardless of their background, are those who seek the grace of God which leads to eternal life.

Second, despite many and important differences between the Bible and the Qur’an, such as the definition and name of the One True Creator – both profess the reality of the Final Judgment, the Last Day – where we will all stand before the One True Creator. Anyone who truly believes such a doctrine will never seek to impose him or herself on others – he or she will trust that the Creator alone is the Judge. Thus, with whom would we entrust our treasure and safety – to someone who lives as one yet to be judged by the Creator, or to someone who rationalizes otherwise?

Thus, a common anthropology emphasizes 1) the ethics of how we treat other people in the name of God; and 2) accountability to final judgment on how we lived our lives.

At the beginning of Luke 10, Jesus sent out the seventy-two to announce the Gospel in the towns of the Transjordan, some six months before his crucifixion. He encouraged them to find men of peace in each town. Across human history, every town – apart from cultures like Sodom and Gomorrah – had men or women of peace. These were people for whom the well-being of their communities was foremost, people who kept their word. With such men of peace, the goal of religious, political and economic liberty for all people equally is well received. And Imam Eid is such a man.

Thus, we are aiming at integrity – which, when you come to it, is the nature of biblical revelation. It is an integrity tested by a remarkable set of checks and balances. Such integrity means that when we approach those of a difference persuasion, we seek to grasp what they believe and why, and then celebrate the level playing field for any contrary ideas to be heard. Thus, with integrity, I can make the following summary statement of how Jews, Christians and Muslims understand themselves in a positive profile:

Biblically rooted Jews and Christians share the belief that the Hebrew Bible is given by Yahweh Elohim, is trustworthy in all it claims, and its text has been faithfully stewarded by the Israelite and Jewish community across four millennia. The key difference between a Jew and a Christian is the question of the Messiah’s identity. Christians believe that the New Testament is given by the Lord God, is trustworthy in all it claims, including Jesus as Lord and Messiah, and its text has been faithfully stewarded by the Christian community across two millennia. Muslims believe that the Qur’an was revealed by Allah to the last Prophet, Muhammad, it fulfills and completes the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, is trustworthy in all it claims, and its text has been faithfully stewarded by the Muslim Ummah (community) across its 1400 year history.

In international politics today where Jews, Christians and Muslims interface, the deepest questions are rooted in the interpretations of the Bible and the Qur’an. In looking carefully at the theological assumptions in place in both, only then can questions of political implications be fully understood and addressed. Any shortcuts in this regard will shortcut political health for all concerned.

Thus, for a vigorous dialogue in service to these ends, this series seeks to make sure that all perspectives are truly heard by all others present. Thus, there is no rush to accomplish anything apart from integrity in relationships.

For those who affirm the Bible on its own terms, as I do, and for those who affirm the Qur’an on its own terms, can we each accomplish the following goals?

  1. To articulate the positives of what we believe and why, and then listen to the positives of what the other believes and why;
  2. With humility and intellectual rigor, to have the freedom to question one another as equals on points where we may not agree;
  3. Upon such clear definition of terms, to then have the freedom to leave all open questions open; and
  4. Upon such a basis, to work together, each on our own articulations, to serve religious, political and economic liberty for all people equally.

When we know where we agree and disagree, and why, only then can trust be built, and only then can mutual positive goals be effectively pursued. Both the Bible and the Qur’an speak of light versus darkness – who among us, in mutual accountability, lives with open agendas in the light, and who retreats into the darkness?

On this proactive basis, let me posit five elements of revelation in the Bible:

  1. The Bible is a story line – the only fully true story ever told, out of which comes true doctrine. In Genesis 1-2 we have the biblical order of creation, where we find the original revelation of the God of the Bible – Yahweh Elohim, he who is greater than space, time and number, whose power is unlimited, whose nature is good, and whose purpose is to bless all of us equally. All that Yahweh Elohim creates is good, and Genesis 1-2 is the only such text in human history that is originally and entirely good. There is no brokenness, distrust, divorce, war, disease, death etc. Sin, which means brokenness of trust, follows later as a result of deceived human choice, and redemption then follows through the Messianic promise – restoring us to the original trajectory of the good order of creation.
  2. Revelation is a word which means to reveal, as light reveals what the darkness obscures, and as such it is the basis for true communication. Genesis 1:1-5 starts off with God who reveals himself, and his first spoken words are “Let there be light.” In John 1:1-5, a deliberate parallel to Genesis 1:1-5, we read concerning Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood (or overcome) it.” Jesus, as God in human flesh is the One who communicates to us, who reveals the redemptive power and agenda of our heavenly Father. This is why Jesus later says, “I and the Father are one” and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
  3. Men and women are made in the image of God, which means that we in our finite nature reflect who God is in his eternal nature. As God created the universe out of what is invisible, so we are called to be creative with what he has made visible and given to us. Part of being made in God’s image is that we are stewards of his good creation, and designed to be free and responsible, to guard and pass on his revelation. This freedom was given to us in the metaphor of a feast of an unlimited menu of good choices, versus only one poisonous choice. This was the original level playing field between good and evil. And because the first Adam failed in freedom and chose evil, Jesus came as the Second Adam to restore true freedom to choose the good.
  4. In 2 Corinthians 4:7, the apostle Paul says that “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” Paul speaks these words in the face of enduring hard trials, reflecting a deeper reality that this treasure – the gift of the Holy Spirit – is given to a broken people. We are cracked pots, leaky vessels, and if we admit such a humanity, then we do not become crackpots – people out of touch with reality. God is able to give his perfect revelation to an imperfect people, and produce a perfect result. God reveals his words to the covenant people from Adam to the apostles, and through them comes our written Word of God. Only a truly sovereign and good God can pull this off.
  5. This leads us to the definitive nature of checks and balances. Namely, God reveals his Word, beginning with Adam and Eve, and through all the history of the covenant community and the prophets, priests, kings, apostles and disciples. We are all image-bearers of God designed to steward his revelation, and in the face of a fallible human sin nature among those who still seek God, the truth is revealed faithfully by having as many multiple eye-witnesses as possible – this is the explicit nature of the Law of Moses. It preserves God’s revelation until completed in Jesus who fulfills the Law; and then the proclamation of Jesus is preserved through the checks and balances of the Christian community until he returns again. When polluted water reaches the ocean, its impurities are eventually purified by a host of filtration realities as it reaches back to a mountain spring. So too the written Word of God comes to us despite our pollutions, and across the millennia the Israelite, Jewish and Christian scholars faithfully preserved it for us through the filtration realties of checks and balances in covenant community, certifying what is true.

Turning to Islam, its holy book, the Qur’an, on the one hand speaks of looking at the Torah and the Gospels for the truth, but on the other hand, it indicates – and most of Islamic history affirms this view – that the Jews and Christians corrupted the revelation in the Bible, and thus their Bible cannot be trusted. It is all superceded by the Qur’an, and indeed, the Qur’an says that all faithful Jews and Christians beforehand lived in times of ignorance, and were really “pre-Muslims.” Yet the Qur’an does this while a) depending on the Bible in order to speak about Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and others; b) at the same time not once quoting the Bible, but it does quote some pseudepigrapha – false Gnostic gospels – which were then being circulated in Arabia; and c) the Qur’an contains only doctrine – it does not come to the Muslim Ummah in its own story line.

Now for some tough issues for Islam to grapple with. Muhammad was one person, and he claimed that through the angel Jibril, Allah revealed to him the entire Qur’an, written in Arabic from eternity, completely perfect, without any human involvement at all; yet in several cases, the Qur’an abrogates itself, replacing one revelation with a different revelation which changes the old one. These factors are found in the original nature of revelation in Islam. Yet Muhammad – unlike the prophets and apostles in the Bible – had no checks and balances in this process. No one else heard Allah speak through Jibril to Muhammad. No other revelation came through another person. So the Islamic Ummah places its entire trust in something that came without multiple eye-witnesses.

Having said this, Islam also has its element of the checks and balances of multiple eye-witnesses. A Muslim student at Brooklyn College in New York once spoke to me about how the Qur’an is perfect, and the Bible is fallible because it has human involvement in its revelation. So I spoke of how the Bible has both the story line and doctrine in it, and how the Jewish and Christian scholars faithfully preserved its revealed text through the most critical of historical criteria to establish the eye-witness confirmation of checks and balances in the covenant community.

In the Qur’an there is no historical storyline or order given on how its text came to be. It is essentially doctrine, organized, after the first surah, roughly from the longest to shortest. But in the compilation of the Hadith, for example, in Sahih al Bukhari’s most widely respected collection, we have the eye-witness reports of Muhammad’s life brought to us through a process of checks and balances, but also relayed across several generations before written down in its most extant form. It has no theological order, or even a storyline order – just a compendium of stories, arranged by topic through human input which claims no divine inspiration. Therefore, the interpretation of the Qur’an has historically required human input. The Qur’an is not self-descriptive whereas the Bible is.

There were some 300,000 oral ahadith in circulation following Muhammad’s death. Through a process of tracing the chain of command and multiple eye-witness agreements to what Muhammad actually said, Sahih Al Bukhari whittled down the trustworthy ahadith to some 7,000 in the Sunni tradition. These ahadith, or the shorter Shi’ite versions, have been necessary for the Muslim Ummah to properly interpret the Qur’an – to know the story line of Muhammad’s life, and how to put the Quran’ic surahs into context.

Thus, both the Jews and the Christians on the one hand, and Muslims on the other, have the need for story line to interpret doctrine. The difference is that for Jews and Christians, both are present in the Bible, with story line and doctrine being part of revelation; but in Islam, they are separated between the Qur’an and the Hadith, where the doctrine claims revelation, but the story line recollection of Muhammad’s life does not.

Most importantly, we have a common anthropology. The question ultimately is whether Jesus is the Son of God, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, in whom all divine revelation is present and completed; or if he was not the Alpha and Omega, and thus Muhammad had to come as the last Prophet and supercede the Bible’s proclamation of who Jesus is with the Qur’an.

In the face of such profound disagreement and agreement, side by side as we look at the need for storyline and doctrine, is it possible, in face of a 1400 year history of distrust – and with the international roiling of political and military discord today – for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike to employ the same checks and balances in historical verifiability, as we pursue truth? Is it possible for Jews and Muslims, in the face of the war over modern Israel and Palestine, along with Christian involvement, to all submit to rigorous historical verifiability, beginning with Abraham up to the present, in search for true shalom, the Hebrew word for integrity, wholeness and peace, from whence comes the later Arabic word for peace, salaam, both rooted in a prior common Semitic linguistic reality? Can Muslims see that the same multiple eye-witness criteria that Sahih al Bukhari employed in compiling the Hadith is the same ethical instinct in how the Jews and Christians preserved the Bible? Is it possible, therefore, for all of us to articulate and honor religious, political and economic liberty for all people equally?

I am willing to give it my best, investing trust in any person of any persuasion who desires the same.

In sum, biblical revelation involves the Holy Spirit working through fallible people and a rigorous system of checks and balances – where first the story line is told, and then the doctrines are understood and are life-giving. Islamic revelation comes only through one man, Muhammad, and does not posit the need for checks and balances in how the Qur’an came to be. But in the Hadith, which is necessary to interpret the Qur’an, multiple-eyewitnesses to the story of Muhammad’s life are recorded, and their integrity is guarded through human devotion to the Qur’an.