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God by any other name

A judge’s ruling in Malaysia that Christians there can use “Allah” to refer to God set off violence against churches with several being fire-bombed or vandalized.

Christian leaders in Malaysia are calling for calm and unity, but some Christian groups there say they will continue to use Allah for God.

Coverage of the attacks focused on Muslim anger over the decision, but some Christians also oppose using Allah to refer to God.

The court decision in Malaysia was the result of a lawsuit filed two years ago by The Herald, a Catholic newspaper. The suit asked the court to set aside a government regulation that only Muslims could refer to the deity as Allah. Enforcement of the ruling is delayed while the Malaysian government appeals.

The Herald’s editor told the London Times that his paper’s references to Allah are not an effort to convert Muslims to Christianity. Other uses of the term, however, clearly aim to evangelize Muslims. One such effort, based on the book “The Camel — How Muslims are Coming to Faith in Christ,” is promoted by the Southern Baptist Convention‘s International Mission Board.

Wade Burleson, a former trustee of the IMB, wrote about discussion of the method while he was on the board in July 2007. He said the book teaches a “unique method of sharing the gospel to Muslims” using parts of the Quran to convince them that the “true” Allah can only be known through his son, Jesus Christ.

Kevin Greeson, the author of The Camel, told the Texas Baptist Standard that the name of the book comes from an Arabic says that every good Muslim knows 99 names for Allah, but only the camel knows the 100th name.

“We tell them we know the 100th name. It’s Jesus,” Greeson said.

Burleson said that during the 2007 IMB meeting Gordon Fort, vice-president of overseas operations for the IMB, talked about why it was essential that the name “Allah” be used for “God” when speaking to Arabic speaking people in their native tongue. Gordon said there is no Arabic equivalent to convey the idea of a Supreme Being other than “Allah” and when missionaries use the word “Allah” for God, they tell the listeners that the only way to know the one true “Allah” is to come to faith in Jesus Christ.

Winston Curtis, another trustee, followed Fort’s remarks by saying that only “Bible” names like Yahweh, Elohim, and El-Shaddai should be used by Christians when referring to God.

Burleson said Curtis used the word “God” 35 times during his remarks, in effect using the English word “God” the way Arabs would use the Arabic word “Allah.” Burleson further pointed out that missionaries who use the word “Allah” for God “are only doing what the Apostle Paul did on Mars Hill — starting at the very place the people who need Christ are — and taking them to where they need to go — to repentance from their sin and faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.”

But Bart Barber, a Southern Baptist pastor and blogger, said Paul’s evangelistic efforts at Mars Hill included confrontation.

“Greeson’s book very delicately avoids confrontation with Islam,” Barber said. “Indeed, the fundamental distinctive of The Camel seems to be its way of trying to present Christianity without confronting Islam.”

Others in the SBC have debated the wisdom of using “Allah” to refer to God.

Fred Smith, a professor at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote an article for the blog SBCToday taking issue with a post on the blog SBCImpact written by an anonymous writer identified as “From the Middle East.” The writer’s use of Allah for God was among Smith’s issues.

Smith said that Allah in the Quran is remote from creation, promotes salvation by works, and “begets not, nor is he begotten.”

“This is a completely different person from the God of the Bible who is deeply involved with His people, who calls us to repentance and faith, and who ‘sent His only begotten Son’ that we might be saved. These two beings are not the same god and cannot be!”

In a separate post, the anonymous blogger defends his use of the term, saying that the word was used by Christians before Islam existed and pointing out that Arabic translations of the Bible refer to God as Allah.

Emir Caner, a former Muslim who was then dean of the College at Southwestern in Texas but is now president of Truett-McConnell College in Georgia, wrote a column for Baptist Press in 2007 saying “the god of Muhammad is not the Father of Jesus.”

“The subject in its essence is not a linguistic issue, but a theological matter with eternal ramifications. To say that since Allah is Arabic for God and YHWH is Hebrew for God, Christians and Muslims worship the same God is beyond naive –- it is blasphemous.”

Former SBC president Jerry Vines got national attention in 2002 when he called Mohammed “a demon-possessed pedophile” at an SBC Pastors’ Conference.

“Allah is not Jehovah, either. Jehovah is not going to turn anyone into a terrorist that will try to bomb people and take the lives of thousands and thousands of people.”

But one can refer to God as Allah without equating the Muslim deity with the Christian supreme being. The larger issue is whether missionaries and Christians in general are being completely honest when they use the term in their discussions with Muslims.

If you have to ask if the end justifies the means, the answer is almost always no.

Christians are used to asking “What would Jesus do?” Ruth Gledhill, the religion correspondent for the London Times, asks her readers a similar question in a column about the upheaval in Malaysia.

“What would Allah say?”

Unfortunately many Christians will be too offended by the question to even consider it.

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January 12, 2010 - Posted by | Religion | , ,

1 Comment

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