What Does God Care What We Call Him?
- Friday, August 24, 2007
A retiring Roman Catholic bishop in the Netherlands has been making headlines around the world in recent days with his suggestion that Dutch Christians should pray to Allah.
Bishop Tiny Muskens of Breda, a former missionary to Indonesia, suggested that conflict between Christians and Muslims could be lessened if Dutch Catholics followed the lead of some Christians in Muslim-dominated lands and adopted Allah as the preferred name for God..
From Catholic News:
Speaking on the Dutch TV programme Network on Monday evening, Bishop Muskens says it could take another 100 years but eventually the name Allah will be used by Dutch churches. And that will promote rapprochement between the two religions. Muskens doesn't expect his idea to be greeted with much enthusiasm. The 71-year-old bishop, who will soon be retiring due to ill health, says God doesn't mind what he is called. God is above such "discussion and bickering". Human beings invented this discussion themselves, he believes, in order to argue about it.
Is there a valid linguistic basis for his argument? It is certainly true that the word Allah is the Arabic word for deity. Those supporting an argument like that of Bishop Muskens suggest that the Arabic word can be used as a generic term for deity.
In common English we use the word God as both a proper name and a noun. We differentiate between the two usages by capitalizing the word when we mean to refer to the specific personal God of the Bible, and by not capitalizing generic uses of the word. Thus, we might paraphrase the First Commandment like this: "God commanded His people to have no other gods before Him." The correct interpretation of this sentence requires the use and understanding of the habits of capitalization.
Those making the case for a Christian appropriation of Allah must take their argument in one of two trajectories. The first trajectory is to argue that Allah can be used in a generic way to refer to any (presumably monotheistic) deity. This case will be very difficult to make. Language, theology, and worship are so closely intertwined that it is difficult, if not impossible, to argue for a generic use of Allah. Further evidence against this trajectory is the fact that non-Arabic speaking Muslims also use Allah when referring to their god.
The second trajectory presents even more of a problem. Those following this line of argument must make the case that Allah and God refer to the same deity. This represents a huge problem for both Muslims and Christians. Allah is not a personal deity in the sense that the God of the Bible is. Furthermore, the Qur'an explicitly denies that Allah has a son, and Islam considers the notion of a triune God to be blasphemy.
Thus, from its very starting point Islam denies what Christianity takes as its central truth claim -- the fact that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of the Father. If Allah has no Son by definition, Allah is not the God who revealed himself in the Son. How then can the use of Allah by Christians lead to anything but confusion . . . and worse?
The most dangerous (and theologically dishonest) part of Bishop Muskens' argument is found in these words:
The 71-year-old bishop, who will soon be retiring due to ill health, says God doesn't mind what he is called. God is above such "discussion and bickering." Human beings invented this discussion themselves, he believes, in order to argue about it.
According to The Herald Sun [Melbourne, Australia], Bishop Muskens commented: "Allah is a very beautiful word for God... What does God care what we call him?" What does God care what we call him?
Has the bishop read the Bible? God takes his name with great seriousness indeed. Moses discovered this when heard God speak from the burning bush [Exodus 3:13-22]. God did not leave himself nameless, nor did He invite Moses to devise a name for him. Jesus used this name [I AM] to refer to himself.
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