An excerpt from:

Mission to Islam and Beyond: A Practical Theology of Mission

By Jens Christensen

ISBN 0 86408 224 X


Chapter 15

Is Christianity Universal?

1. In this and the following chapter we will discuss the question of the universality of the two religions which both claim to be universal. Universal should be understood to mean: applicable to all men, because true in an absolute sense. Obviously, then, only one of the two can be universal. Why does the Muslim think Islam is universal? And why does the Christian think Christianity is universal? You have probably all been brought up with the idea that Christianity is for everybody, everywhere, as the song says it:

Brown and yellow, black and white
All are precious in His sight.

2. Taking the universality of Christianity for granted may be all right wherever no one questions it, but many a Christian has been shocked when the Muslim begins arguing about it.

3. I will give you a very common Muslim point of view. Muhammed Ali, in his The Religion of Islam (p. 225) says:

Jesus Christ was the last of these national prophets; and though the message of Christianity has now been conveyed to all nations of the world, yet that was never Christ’s own idea. He was perfectly sure that he was ‘not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 15:24); so sure indeed that he did not hesitate to call those who were not Israelites ‘dogs’ in comparison with ‘the children’ who were the Israelites (Matt. 15:26), and the bread of the children could not be cast to the dogs. Nevertheless, the idea of casting the heavenly bread of Jesus to the same non-Israelite ‘dogs’ entered the head of one of his disciples, after ‘the children’ had shown no desire to accept that bread.

4. This passage from Matthew 15 is, of course, the one easiest to find, and is therefore the one most often used by Muslims in their polemics. There are, however, others you will come across:

(a) In Matthew 1:21 the angel is represented as saying to Joseph concerning Jesus: He shall save HIS people (the Jews) from THEIR sins. Purely tribal.

(b) In Matthew 10 where Jesus sends out the twelve to preach, you hear him saying that they were NOT to go to the Gentiles, nor to the Samaritans (a half-heathenish tribe) but ONLY to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

(c) In John 12 some Greeks want to see Jesus. We do not know if they succeeded or not. Nothing seems to have come of it.

If the Muslims find others and show them to you do not be surprised.

5. Now, however you may answer the Muslim about the separate episodes, one fact remains clear and indisputable: Our Lord did stay definitely inside the frame of Jewry in His work and preaching. An indirect proof of this statement may be found in the attitude of His disciples after His ascension. Think this over. In Acts 1 our Lord, just before leaving them, gives His disciples the commission to be His witnesses unto the farthest ends of the earth. In our way of thinking, that command is as clear as words can make it. But in Acts 10, when St Peter went to Cornelius’s house, it took special vision and command from God to move him outside Jewry. And when he had gone there, the pillars of the Church in Jerusalem questioned him for having overstepped the bounds. They all knew of the command
to witness to the ends of the earth but, in their way of thinking, that did NOT include non-Jews. If our Lord had preached for and worked with Gentiles as well as Jews, all the details of opposition recorded around the Cornelius episode would never have been written. It could not have happened.

6. Better read Muslims know all these facts from Christian writers, and they never hesitate to use them in their attack on Christianity. Your question is: what are you going to do about it? If the Muslim succeeds in shutting your mouth about the validity of the claim of Christianity to be universal, he has stopped you even before you get started.

7. I find that in most cases, both Pakistani and foreign, the Christian has received little or no teaching on the subject. On the contrary, the universality of Christianity is taken for granted, and the emphasis is put on your personal responsibility to propagate the universal religion universally. The argument in your case has in all probability been either moral or philosophical.

8. The moral argument is illustrated this way: If you were seriously ill and some remedy was found to save your life, then you would be duty-bound to pass on the good news of that remedy to all others. I have heard a two-edged argument from Muslims in answer to this: (i) the fact that it was a good remedy for you does not necessarily mean it is good for everybody; and (ii) the fact that you found that remedy does not exclude the possibility that someone else had found another, and even better, remedy. Actually this moral argument comes from an age when Christians, in the light of worldly-wise philosophies, were rather ashamed to admit that there was a ‘Thus saith the Lord’ that motivated their actions. If you have been playing around with this superficial, rationalistic argument, my advice to you is: Drop it like a hot brick. It is no good. It proves nothing as far as the universality of Christianity is concerned, and it makes your ego the centre of attention and attraction.

9. The philosophical argument is that since God is one God, and Jesus Christ is His only begotten Son, it naturally follows that there can only be one religion and it is therefore universal. St Peter’s words are used (rather, misused): ‘There is no other name given under heaven whereby men must be saved’. What happens when the Muslim hears this line of thought? (i) First of all, he refuses to accept the uniqueness of Christ. Therefore your argument means nothing to him. This point will come up again in the following chapter; and (ii) he will ask you if Abraham, Moses, David and all the other prophets are lost, since none of them believed on the name of Christ. The Muslim who knows the New Testament (and there are many of them) will tell you that St Paul says Abraham was saved by faith. He simply took God at His word and that act was accounted righteousness for him. Abraham knew nothing of Christ, and yet he is the father of all who have faith. In other words, it is not Christ but faith in God that is universally accepted. So says the Muslim.

10. Arguments of this kind are two-edged swords that cut to pieces the faith of unwary or uninformed Christians. The difficulty, as far as the Christian is concerned, is that he unwittingly has drifted off into philosophical arguments, instead of making sure that his every thought is taken captive by Christ. There is one fact that cannot be over-emphasised: anything and everything we know about God MUST be through Christ. Before Him, after Him or apart from Him we know nothing—nothing whatsoever. Let me assure you that philosophically the Muslim will present a better case for his Islam than you can for your Christianity. There are very good reasons for this state of affairs, as later chapters will show. Do not let that worry you. God’s foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of the philosophers. Only be sure it is God’s foolishness (not your own) you are presenting!

11. Before we get on to the positive side of the matter let us clear up a couple of points where Christians—only through sheer carelessness—get all muddled up:

(a) The Jewish Christians were definitely isolationists up to the time of the episode in Cornelius’s house. Admit that: it is history, pure and simple. Apparently the reason why the disciples did not understand the full implication of our Lord’s commission to them to witness unto the ends of the earth was that, in their mind, the Commission meant that they must also preach to the Jews of the dispersion. At the time of Christ there were Jews spread out in small colonies all over the face of the then known earth. There were more Jews living outside of their homeland than inside. It was quite reasonable to presume that also they should hear the good news. In other words, the disciples who heard the command of Jesus could easily have understood it to mean ‘for Jews only’, especially, as we have said before, since Christ Himself stayed inside Jewry.

There is nothing at all remarkable about this. Remember our Lord did not give the whole and complete truth to His disciples. Look again, for example, at the first chapter in Acts. The disciples connect the coming of the Spirit with the restoration of the kingdom. Not, mind you, with the ‘kingdom of heaven’ as we think of it, but with the Jewish theocracy. Jesus did NOT answer their questioning. He purposely left them in ignorance. Jesus in His teaching counted definitely on the work of the Holy Spirit. In John 16:12 He says there were many things they ought to know, but they could not yet bear them. Later, when the Holy Spirit had come, He would guide them in the way of Truth. Our Lord’s attitude was: Do not cross your bridges until you get to them. And when you get there the Holy Spirit will guide you across. When the time came—in the Cornelius episode—for them to cross the gulf between themselves and the world at large, the Holy Spirit was there and did help them. After Cornelius had received the Holy Spirit, our Lord’s command was seen in a new light. They knew then that Christianity was really and truly universal.

(b) Another thing Muslim writers (imitating certain Christian heretical authors) love to say is that St Paul, who never saw our Lord in the flesh, and whose ideas about Judaism were very loose, bridged the gulf between the Jews and the Gentiles. He changed the local prophet with his simple, beautiful message of trust in God to a complicated, universal demigod. St Paul is called the apostle to the Gentiles, and it was he, they say, who carried a gospel of his own making to the heathen.


St Paul did NOT bridge that gulf, as we have already seen. That had already been done by the very man who had been with our Lord from the start. It was done only after a vision had forced the truth into his mind that no man is unclean in relation to others, whatever his nationality or religion. Furthermore, the heads of the Church had debated his move and approved it. So when St Paul arrived on the scene, the gulf had been bridged, and the Church fathers in Jerusalem were able to accept St Paul and give him the right hand of fellowship and their blessing as he went out to the Gentiles with the very message the others were giving to the Jews. Said in another way: it was not a group of broad-minded hellenistic converts that adopted an innovation on moral or philosophical grounds, but the narrow, strict, Jewish group, who had their teaching from the very mouth of our Lord, who were instrumental in bringing about this vital and revolutionary change.

12. With your background you may not see much sense in putting so much stress on this point. It is however of utmost importance, (i) because it is historically true; and (ii) because it takes the question out of the sphere of morals and philosophy, and puts it back into Jewish history where it belongs.

13. We can now proceed to put the question as the Church must put it. If Christ means Christianity to be universal why did He confine Himself to the Jews? The Church has a right to ask and expect an answer to that question. So has the Muslim. The answer starts way back in Genesis 12 with God’s promise to Abraham. There God tells Abraham that all the nations of the earth should be blessed through him. Again in the seventeenth chapter the promise is renewed in that God said He would make Abraham the father of many peoples.

14. When our Lord was talking to the Samaritan woman in John 4 He made the assertion that salvation is of the Jews. And there is no doubt whatsoever that the first Church tied up this promise of God to Abraham in Genesis with the coming of Jesus Christ. Actually all Jews were expecting the fulfilment of that promise as well as those mentioned later in their history.

15. In the New Testament you will find this promise brought in, in two ways. First specifically of Christ Himself, as in Acts 3:25 and thereafter, the true olive tree was the house of Israel on which wild olive branches are grafted. Those two do not contradict each other, they are supplementary or complementary. Certainly the ‘blessing’ is Christ, but this blessing was channelled through 2000 years of Jewish history. Without this channelling in history Christ could simply never have been Christ. The very name Jesus Christ means the anointed Saviour, and throws you back at once into Jewish history, if you want to understand it. The Jews alone, in all the world, could understand the significance of Christ when He came and they alone in all the world were in a position to make Him universally available. Therefore the history of a small nation, insignificant and unimportant in itself, became the object of more concentrated study than any other nation on earth.

16. Not so very many years ago liberal theologians, and not a few missionaries, threw out the Old Testament as an antiquated and useless book full of myths. The theologians claimed that the moral beauty of Christ and the sublimity of His ethical precepts were such that He needed no background, and they plucked Christ out of history by the roots and transplanted Him into every kind of modern ground. The missionaries, influenced by these theologians, tried to substitute the scriptures of Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. for the Old Testament as background material for Christ. As all are now aware, the result was catastrophic. The New Testament Christ was lost, and the one they retained became a weak, hesitant voice in the wilderness, crying out precepts of a beautiful but impractical and impossible idealism. Thousands of people all over the world accepted Christ as an ideal, an example, a hero and a great teacher—and all of them remained in their own particular brand of darkness, spiritually; and in their own ethical failure, morally. In other words, history in very recent times has clearly shown that Christ is not Christ in the Christian sense, when He is not channelled in Jewish history.

17. Now you should be able to see that if you are going to explain Christianity as universal your very first step is to maintain, as our Lord Himself did that:

Salvation is of the Jews.

It should not be too difficult to point out how God brought the Jewish nation into line and prepared it to receive the Anointed One, the Christ, when the time was at hand.

18. The next step is to see how Christ, when He did come, was lifted out of the channel of Jewry to become the universal blessing that God promised to all the nations of the earth, through Abraham.

19. The whole question of revelation is being taken up fully in a later chapter. However, we must touch on it here also in order to understand our subject today.

Revelation is (and must be) historical. When God says ‘Let there be . . . ’, and that which was not comes into being, then, as far as we are concerned, it is always inside history. It is true that we often, in a slip-shod manner, speak of the Book as revelation, just as we call a biography: ‘The Life of So and So’. The biography is, of course, not that man’s life, but only a record of it. Likewise the Book, historically speaking, is not the revelation, but the record of revelation. It is exclusively through the Book that revelation becomes revelation for us, and therefore we call the Book revelation.

20. Now the point here is this, just as sure as revelation is to be found inside history, it must be localised and channelled at one particular point somewhere in history. If you go off into the sand dunes of natural religion, where God is seen in everything, you will find He is revealed in nothing. We may or may not see God in history or in nature, but we cannot say that God reveals Himself in history, as such, or in nature. If this statement seems strange to you, read carefully the first chapter of Romans. That which the heathen should know of God through history and nature is His eternal power and Godhead. The two words can only mean one thing: that God is outside the range of our natural thinking. Who can comprehend what eternal Power and Godhead are? Their sin was that when they knew Him as God, that is, as unknowable, outside their natural intellectual abilities, they refused to accept that position and through natural religion found gods in nature and history. And the result was, as we can read, horrible. But if you cling to the biblical (and not the philosophical) conception of revelation you will find that there are certain quite definite events, episodes, and occasions inside history which, because they are accepted as revelational, become the touchstone by which all history is judged.

21. Revelational events, episodes and occasions were localised and channelled through Abraham and his people. Almost from the very start of Old Testament history one thought goes through it all like a red thread, mainly, choice and separation. God chose Abraham and separated him from his own people. Then Isaac was chosen and separated, and thereafter in a very dramatic manner, Jacob. In Romans 9 Paul places great emphasis on this point that God, according to His own purpose and will, chooses and separates men and nations for carrying out His plans. David stands out clearly as another chosen and separated man. Later the ten tribes are discarded and disappear, and only two were retained. The tribe of Judah was the ‘Lion’, again chosen of God and kept separated from the overwhelming forces of heathenism. Finally, after the Babylonian exile we can follow the house of Israel until John the Baptist is chosen and called out to prepare the way for Christ Himself.

22. The point we want to make here is that even inside God’s chosen people revelational acts, events and occasions were constantly channelled. Jewish history as a whole is not the bearer of revelation, for there is constant localisation and channelling also here. It could not be otherwise if we are to have revelation in history, without history itself becoming revelation.

Let me illustrate my point in this way. The British built some wonderful irrigation systems in India. The water is channelled and localised by means of head works, canals, viaducts, tunnels and channels. The water is carefully kept inside the system until it reaches the fields where it is then allowed to flow out freely and cover all the ground bringing great blessing to the whole countryside. The universal watering of the countryside is only possible because the water has been localised, restricted, channelled. Without the irrigation system, no water.

Now to retain the metaphor, at what point in biblical history does the water, the blessing, flow freely out into the fields? We saw in the beginning that it is NOT at the point where Christ was introduced into the picture. Christ, as the Revelation of God, the blessing promised to all, worked in the same way as His Father in heaven. He chose and separated unto Himself certain men who had been with Him from the beginning, who had seen, heard, understood, and believed. These men became His apostles. Not the whole nation of Jews, not even the whole body of believers, was chosen. These men—the Apostles—were the final gates through which the blessing was to flow out into the world.

23. Apart from this ACT of our Lord in choosing and separating unto Himself these men, as His authoritative Apostolate (which in itself constitutes a very clear proof of the fact that Christ was planning along the lines found in the Old Testament), there are many indications in the Gospels that Christ’s teaching was such that with the later enlightenment of the Holy Spirit no mistake could be made regarding His universal intention. The Gospel of St John abounds in statements of this kind, but also the synoptics have them. See for example Matthew 8 where Christ says that many shall come from the east and the west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Likewise His final commission to the disciples (with any wording you prefer) is always of a universal character.

In other words, serious students of the New Testament documents cannot doubt that our Lord Himself was aware of His own universal significance.

24. I am perfectly aware of the fact that the use of the word ‘apostle’ in the New Testament does not have cast-iron rigidity. It is used loosely as well as in the official sense. This is as might be expected, for in the final analysis it is a very common Greek word indicating one who has been sent. There is therefore no reason to feel uneasy because it is used in both ways. History teaches us that in the early Church and right on down, the historical basis of the truth of the Christian religion was the Apostolate, a group of men chosen by our Lord to be His official spokesmen and interpreters. Thus when the Nicene Creed was written the Church was conceived of as being one holy, catholic, apostolic Church. This was not an innovation at the time but a part of the faith of the universal Church from the very start.

25. But what are we confessing when we say we believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic Church? Undoubtedly there are many overzealous Protestants who are afraid of that word, because of the Roman Catholic use of it. But whatever the Roman Catholics may or may not teach regarding their apostolate, the fact still remains that historically the true Church is apostolic. That simply means the Apostles were the final floodgates through which the blessing pours out into the world, and any attempt to tap the water supply independent of the Apostles is surely doomed to failure. We cannot therefore discard the universal teaching of the Church about the Apostolate because certain people misuse it, or ignore it.

As far as we are concerned the Apostolate means three things:

(a) It is ONLY through the Apostles that the world knows of Christ. He is undoubtedly mentioned a couple of times by outside historians, but destroy the apostolic witness to Christ in history, and Christ is lost.

(b) It is ONLY on the authority of the Apostles that we have the true understanding of and interpretation of all revelational facts inside history. Take away the Apostolic interpretation of revelational facts, and Christ—even if He were known in isolation from His background—would become a weak voice with an uncertain sound, drowned out by the blare of the ever present trumpets of the wise men of the world.

(c) It is ONLY through the agency of the Apostles that the world at large and every individual person can attain to a true (saving) knowledge of God. For there is no other way of gaining such knowledge of God except in and through Christ.

26. If you know something of Church History you will realise that practically all that I have said in this chapter is pre-Reformation teaching. The Reformation itself did NOT alter anything in this doctrine of the universality of Christ as based on the Apostolate. What happened was this. The purely mechanical aspect of the continuation of the Apostolate was rejected. The Church itself (understood as the whole body of Christ and not the priesthood within the Church) became the bearer of the Apostolate. Even if any one Church did have its priestly genealogy in perfect order right from the hands of the Apostles themselves, that would not constitute a guarantee that that Church really was a worthy successor to the spirit and faith of the Apostles. The point is that the pastor is in the apostolic succession, not exclusively because of the laying on of hands, but because he is ordained in and by the Church in the spirit, faith and obedience of the Apostles.

27. However, in post-Reformation times innovations have been introduced into large sections of the Christian Church whereby men try to short cut the historical and get knowledge of God in different ways.

28. The three most common are intuition, mysticism and pietism. Think how often the word ‘feel’ is used discussing matters pertaining to Christianity. ‘I feel this must be the right interpretation of this or that passage.’ ‘I felt that God wanted me to do this or that.’ ‘I felt that God was sending me to the mission field.’ Now intuition may be a good and useful thing in our daily lives, but it is not the channel through which knowledge of God and His will comes to us. And when you are facing the Muslim, if you cannot say something stronger than ‘I feel . . .’, you might as well go home.

Mysticism is, of course, an age-old, monotonous trick of fallen man in all religions. You simply bypass everything historical and learn to know ‘ultimate reality’ without the help of your senses or your thinking. But a true mystic in Christianity can never believe in the universality of Christ, for as the mystic in every religion bypasses history, so also he bypasses history.

Pietism says: I have experienced the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, therefore I know it is true. And what is true for me may also become true for you. But when the Muslim (or anyone else) answers: ‘Oh but I already have a rich spiritual experience of God. I have no need for preaching’—then what? Either you must call him a liar (which is not wise to do) or else you shut your mouth.

29. In other words, if you want to make the Muslim understand that the Christian faith is universal in every way, you can only hope to do so by trying to show him that only as God’s revelational acts were localised and channelled from the call of Abraham to the call of the Apostles of Christ could the meaning of those revelational acts convey to all men, in all countries and in all ages, a true knowledge of God, of man, and of God’s relationship to man. And only with that knowledge present is there a possibility for faith in every tribe and every nation on the face of God’s green earth.

30. Finally, I want to anticipate the next chapter with just one remark. If you stop with our Lord in your argument about the universality of Christianity, the Muslim is very likely to maintain that Muhammed is a further and final link in the chain of history. If, however, the Apostolate is the point at which the channelled revelation breaks out into the world, it automatically excludes Muhammed or any other prophet coming after the Apostolate.

>> The complete book is now available in PDF format.

An excerpt from:

Mission to Islam and Beyond: A Practical Theology of Mission

By Jens Christensen

ISBN 0 86408 224 X

New Creation Publications Inc. is proud to announce the reprint and release of one of the most stunning, explosive books ever written on mission to Islam. Jens Christensen, 1899 - 1966, was a theologian of great calibre. A Lutheran Bishop and pastor, he was a man who worked most of his life amongst Muslims. Few men have loved and understood the Muslim as he did.

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