Christology in Dialogue with Muslims. A Critical Analysis of Christian Presentations of Christ for Muslims from the Ninth and Twentieth Centuries

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Muslim World, TheOct 2008

by Smith, Jane

Christology in Dialogue with Muslims. A Critical Analysis of Christian Presentations of Christ for Muslims from the Ninth and Twentieth Centuries By Mark Beaumont Regnum, 2005

Beaumont’s book is one of the most helpful in understanding the theological dimension of Christian-Muslims relations that I have read in a long time. It does precisely what its title and subtitle propose by carefully summarizing and critiquing some of the major Christian texts of these two centuries and illustrating for the reader what have lieen the major issues as Christian apologists have presented and tried to defend major elements of their respective Christologies.

Beaumont makes the argument effectively that the 9,h and the 20″‘ centuries have been key in the exercise of interfaith engagement. The choice of theologians is to some extent a matter of interest and availability. There simply were not very many Christian theologians in the earlier history of Islam who engaged in the kind of apology that might sound reasonable to Muslims, so his selection of three primary figures is logical. His choice of Kenneth Cragg as a key figure in 20″‘ century Christian thought alxiut Islam is also obvious, although one might argue that other figures would have been more appropriate for the task he sets forth than Hans Kung and John Hick. Nonetheless, those three do serve to illustrate a wide range of theological possibilities in the approach to faiths other than Christianity.

After some brief introductory comments about the themes that the Qur’an and Bible might seem to share – specifically, narratives about Jesus and his mother Mary – and how they also differ, the author sets the scene for the beginning of dialogue on Christology in the 8,h century. Old favorites such as John of Damascus, the Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I, in dialogue with the Caliph al Mahdi are outlined in brief form. Beaumont then presents the three 9* century Christologues whose writings are selected as proof of the vitality of that age in presenting doctrines of Christ to Muslims. It is immediately evident that the differences between the Christological positions of the three thinkers he selects are determinative in a very significant way of the ways in which they make their arguments for real, or potential, Muslim readers. The Middle East was divided into three communities according to their Christologies (Melkite, Jacobite, Nestorian), and the thinkers whose works he chose to illustrate are the Melkite Theodore Abu Qurra, the Jacobite Hahib ibn Khidma Abu Ra’ita, and the Nestorian Animar al-Basri.

It would lie difficult to recommend this book for the novice in understanding either Christian theology or the intricacies of Christian-Muslim theological exchange, especially in the early period. The respective Christologies represented here that emerged from the earlier Chalcedonian consultations see the relationship of God in the following way: Christ has two natures and one hypostasis (Melkite), Christ has one nature and one hypostasis (Jacobite), and Christ had two natures and two hypostases (Nestorian). Arguments with Muslims are, in fact, really arguments with each other about how it was possible for God and man to lie united in the person of Jesus Christ.

Theodore Abu Qurra (d.c.829) was the leading Middle Eastern Calcedonian after John of Damascus. As a theologian he tried to take Muslim reservations seriously, and felt that the Islamic conviction that God is Merciful and Compassionate and thus forgives wrongdoers should go far in helping Muslims understand the saving act of Jesus Christ. Habib ibn Khidma ibn Ra’ita, a contemporary of Abu Qurra and a Jacobite from Takrit, wrote in Arabic both to debate with other Christians and to explain Christology to Muslims. Beaumont is of the opinion that he would probably have had more trouble trying to explain Christ to Muslims than Abu Qurra, because his “one nature” view of God and Christ left no room for human thought and action, which is so important to Muslims. Nonetheless, in using Islamic beliefs to show that Christian faith in the incarnation is not totally incompatible with Islam, he provided a fine model of interfaith dialogue and understanding.

Ammar al-Basra, a younger contemporary of Abu Ra’ita, represented the Nestorian claim that Christ had two natures and two modes of being. Like Abu Qurra and Abu Ra’ita, he said that the human nature of Christ is different from that of other humans. Muslims responded by saying that means that Christians do not really think Christ was a normal human being. According to Beaumont, Ammar’s emphasis on the resurrection of Christ as a guarantee that death can be overcome for others is unique among 8lh and 9th century apologists. While defending the two natures of Christ he was still willing to develop new ways to formulate his Christology in the context of dialogue with Muslims. Beaumont considers that his presentation of Christ for Muslims was the most comprehensive of his time.

One of the most important lessons to Ix* learned from the first part of Beaumont’s study is that 9lh century apologists never criticized Islam or the Qur’an directly, but tried to use Qur’anic teachings as the basis of their various Christologies. This effort was obviously limited insofar as the Qur’an clearly denies the crucifixion of Christ. By the end of the 9Ih century, most Muslims lost interest in the dialogue, finding Christian notions of revelation to ultimately subvert the truth of the oneness of God. The few European Christians who did discuss Islam were antagonistic, and aside from a very few individual efforts, it was not until the 18th century and the beginning of serious academic study of Islam that their approach become more reasoned and sympathetic. Among those Christians who did study Islam with some seriousness before the 18″‘ century were Ramon Lull, who still accused Muhammad of misunderstanding Christian doctrines, Rocoldo of Montecrose, who likened the Qur’an to the teachings of the heretic Arius, and the more congenial Nicolas of Cusa, who made perhaps the most sustained effort of any Westerner of his time to read the Qur’an sympathetically.

Christology in Dialogue with Muslims. A Critical Analysis of Christian Presentations of Christ for Muslims from the Ninth and Twentieth Centuries