As Congress is considering the extent of Islamic extremism in America, scholars on both sides of the Atlantic wonder whether the liberal Protestant theology of the last two centuries must share some blame for the violence committed by Muslim radicals.
According to Thomas Schirrmacher, a German sociologist of religion, this debate is based on the following conjecture: Until the 18th century, few Muslim theologians questioned the authenticity of Christian Scriptures, given that the Koran acknowledges the Old and New Testaments as “divine books descended from the heavens to guide mankind.” But since the Enlightenment period, Protestant scholars began casting doubt on the Bible’s reliability thus ceasing to accept it as the living word of God.
This in turn led prominent Islamic leaders to conclude that these texts were clearly not entirely true and therefore evidence of a false religion, and that false religion must be destroyed. In some theological circles, this is seen as a major cause of Muslim hostility against the Christian faith, an antagonism that has been increasing in virulence in the last decades.
Schirrmacher allows that this summary of the present quandary between these two monotheistic religions seems somewhat simplistic. Moreover, it risks leading to the false assumption that the entire Islamic community is seeking the destruction of Christianity, warned Rev. Albrecht Immanuel Herzog, a confessional Lutheran theologian in Neuendettelsau, Bavaria. “Nonetheless, it is undeniable that two centuries ago, liberal Christian theologians have handed Muslim apologists a powerful argument in their fight against missionaries in 19th-century British India,” argues Christine Schirrmacher, director of the Islam Institute of the Evangelical Alliance in Bonn, and Thomas Schirrmacher’s wife.
The argument can be made that this laid the foundations of today’s assessment by Muslim radicals that Christianity must be squashed forcefully, and that it also contributed to the conviction of more moderate Islamic theorists that Christianity is so weak that it only requires a little patience to anticipate its implosion and replacement by Islam and the rule of Sharia law in Europe.
As one persuasive example of how Koran scholars have turned the critical study by Protestant theologians against Christianity, Christine Schirrmacher cites Maulana Rhmatullah Kairanawi navi (1818-91), an Indian Muslim sage. She points out that in his campaign against Christian missionary activities in British India, Kairanawi navi cited 18th and 19th century Protestant academics whose books had been translated into Arabic.
Among these were the German theologian and adventurer Karl Friedrich Bahrdt (1741-92) who promoted an “anabionic” explanation for Jesus’ empty tomb; according to this theory Christ did not die on the Cross but faked his death and walked away from his grave.
Another 18th-century German scholar Kairanawi navi quoted in his anti-Christian polemic was Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a naturalistic Deist. Deism was a view widely held in England, North America and northern Europe. It saw God as a kind of clockmaker who wound up the chronometer (meaning creation in this context) but did not interfere with its progress. Raimarus denied that the Bible was God’s revealed word and that miracles ever happened. He opined that Christ’s disciples had stolen his body from the tomb to feign his resurrection.
Kairanawi navi stressed that both Bahrdt and Raimarus confirmed Islam’s rejection of the key Christian doctrine that Jesus had died, was buried and rose again for the salvation of all believers. Islam equally rejects Christianity’s teachings about Jesus’ divine nature, much like the German theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74) whom Kairanawi navi quoted as well.
Significantly, Kairanawi navi is once again en vogue among contemporary Muslim scholars arguing the superiority of their faith. Last year at a conference of the “Institute of Objective Studies” at Patna, India, Prof. A.R. Monin reminded his listeners that Kairanawi navi had offered the writings of European Biblical scholars as evidence of the “interpolation and corruption” of Christian scriptures. This prompted Karl Pfander, a 19th-century German missionary, to agree with Kairanawi navi and then “beat a hasty retreat,” Monin said.
In reality, though, it is now liberal Christian theology’s turn to be in retreat. Gone are the days when the most pressing topic at Princeton Theological Seminary was what to preach on Easter Sunday after the doctrine of Christ’s Resurrection had been disproven, Rev. Fred Anderson of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church once told me. It is no longer considered intellectually fashionable to question basic tenets of the Christian faith.
To some extent, this is even the case in Germany, cradle and most significant holdout of liberal Protestant thought. “Twenty or 30 years ago, theology professors at the divinity schools of our state universities even denied the existence of God,” Thomas Schirrmacher relates, “but this is no longer the case.”
Rev. Herzog, CEO of a conservative Lutheran publishing house, agrees that a confessional movement among young Lutheran theology professors and ministers is slowly evolving, “but they don’t yet dominate church chancelleries and academe.” Muslim immigrants in Europe are not yet aware of this development. “Most of these immigrants still believe that Christianity’s collapse in Europe is imminent,” says Adam Francisco, an Islamic studies specialist teaching history at Concordia University in Irvine, Cal.
To paraphrase Thomas Mann, Germany, once in the intellectual avant-garde worldwide, always tends to be late these days. James W. Voelz, professor of exegetical theology at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, agrees, citing as an example the annual meetings of the illustrious Society for the Study of the New Testament (or SNTS for Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas), where English and French-speaking scholars have long stopped belaboring the historical-critical method of interpreting Scripture; this method aims not to discover the meaning of a Biblical passage as the original author would have intended, and what the original listeners would have understood, but, rather, speculates on the circumstances behind the text that led to its composition.
“Most SNTS members are beginning to return to a traditional way of studying the Bible seeking to discover what the text is actually saying,” Voelz continues. “This has been facilitated by various literary approaches, which do not seek to attempt a reconstruction of the factors leading to the composition of the text but take the text as the actual object of investigation.
“The object is to discover first and foremost what it intends to tell its original hearers and readers, and then to see how that meaning might impact hearers and readers in the years to follow, including today. But German Biblical scholars still stubbornly cling to historical criticism, thus missing what the books of the Bible actually say.” Voelz continues.
Seminaries of liberal Protestant denominations in the United States follow the German lead with disastrous theological consequences, such as chipping away at the traditional understanding of law and Gospel, the nature of original sin and of salvation by grace through faith in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and his resurrection.
This does great harm to the thriving Christian communities in the southern hemisphere, especially in Africa. “You are literally killing us,” Archbishop Peter Akinola, the former primate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, charged U.S. Episcopal leaders during the controversy over the consecration of an openly homosexual priest as bishop of Concord, New Hampshire.
During a meeting in Vienna, Austria, Akinola told me that the homosexual agenda was a “diabolical attack upon the Church,” providing Muslim extremists in Africa with a pretext for murdering Christians.
Next: Faith Matters (II): Muslim immigration – a great opportunity for the Church.
Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 54 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto currently directs the League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.