Of Creeds and Christians from a Muslim Background, Part 1 of 2
What do Muslim believe? That there is no deity but Allah and that Muhammad is his prophet. That is the shahada of Islam. The Arabic root sh-h-d is also found in the word shaahid or witness and shahiid or martyr. Your Christian from a Muslim Background (CMB) knew the shahada and had probably born witness to it thousands of time during her lifetime, and this is likely true even if she was not very devout. There is a high probability that with any Muslim, anywhere in the world, at any time in history, the answer to the question above what have been the answer above.
Now what do Christians believe? Ask any evangelical Christian and you’ll get a half-baked answer that was made up on the spot. Now I’m an evangelical Christian, and the great majority of CMBs belong to some evangelical form of the faith. (Perhaps charismatic, perhaps not.) That is why I am focusing on evangelicalism here. You might get a Bible verse like John 3:16—which says nothing at all about the Holy Spirit. You might get something that sounds like it’s from a 1950s evangelistic tract: “You’re a sinner and your sin separates you from God, and a just God must punish the sinner, but Jesus takes the punishment for your sins upon himself on the Cross, so you can be forgiven and go to heaven.” One might note that even within evangelical Christianity there are many who are dubious regarding this rather specific formulation of what in theology is called penal substitution. You might get something true but very vague like “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
What do Christians believe? What exactly is the difference between Islam and Christianity? (Muslim friends have asked me that question numerous times.) If only we had a concise summary of they key beliefs of the Christian faith. Something specific enough to differentiate us from Muslims or Jews or Buddhists, but something broad enough to make room for Pentecostalism in Nigeria, Orthodoxy in Lebanon, and Catholicism in Peru, something that could be confessed by an ascetic hermit in the 7th Century, a circuit-riding Methodist a century ago and a megachurch pastor today.
Forgive me for belaboring the point; I am obviously referring to the creeds: specifically the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. There is also the so-called Athanasian Creed. I have heard even theologians claim that the Athanasian Creed “explains” the doctrine of the Trinity, but this is patently false. The Athanasian Creed formulates the mystery of the Trinity, it does not “explain” anything at all. So, whether to utilize that creed or not, I will leave it up to the individual practitioner to discern.
The Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Of course there are other translations, some more contemporary. I have no interest in advocating one over another. But here in this creed we have a concise, catholic (ie, not regional), and ecumenical (that is, not sectarian) answer to the question: What do you Christians believe?
Let us also remember that often when the CMB (Christian from a Muslim background) is confronted with this or a similar question it is in an antagonistic context. It is difficult enough to formulate an informed, concise summary of the Christian faith with time and in a peaceful context. How much better to have this creed memorized and be able to slowly recite it. The Muslim often prefaces the shahada with the words, “I bear witness that…” and this is not dissimilar to the firm, strong words, “I believe in God…”
There is also a historical element at play here that relates to our earlier article. It is the historical practice of most churches throughout history to make this confession—the Apostles’ Creed—at the time of Baptism. It need not be the only confession and normally is not. If your faith community does not in fact use the creed at baptisms it might be beneficial to prayerfully consider beginning to do this. But even if you decide against it, it can be a powerful thing to say, “Your fellow Christians, centuries ago, in your land [or, among your people] were baptized using these very same words. This can help to establish a sense of continuity, which can be beneficial for identity formation.
With the creed your CMB now has a resource at hand, which has the backing of Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox, dating back to the 3rd Century (if not earlier), and used in every continent (even Antarctica).
This article will be continued in Part 2 next Monday, July 1st.
Rev. Dr. Duane Alexander Miller lives in Madrid with Sharon and their three children where they teach and minister at the Anglican Cathedral of the Redeemer. He is associate faculty at the Protestant Faculty of Theology at Madrid (UEBE). You can contact Duane here