The Yale Response and "the Prophet Muhammad"

Four academics from Yale University wrote a "Christian response" to the Muslim Open Letter "A Common Word Between Us And You" which addressed the Leaders of all Christian Churches. There have been a number of very substantial critiques of this response which are listed on this page, and I highly recommend to study them carefully. In this short article I want to reinforce one point that I consider to be particularly problematic.

Note that the following is not my response to the Muslim Open Letter, but it is a critique directed at the authors of the most prominent "Christian response".

Three times in the response from Yale, we find the expression "the Prophet Muhammad". What does this mean? What is the message that is sent by this choice of words? And was it really the intention of the authors to send this message?

In the Bible we read of two kinds of prophets: true prophets and false prophets. Christians are called to test the prophets, to reject false prophets, and to beware that we are not deceived by false prophets.

Which kind of prophet did the Yale academics have in mind when they used the expression "the Prophet Muhammad"?

If they consider Muhammad to be a false prophet then they were deceptive, because the vast majority of people reading their text will understand that this expression means that Muhammad is a genuine prophet of God. Was this deceptiveness intentional or unintentional? Should we believe that these top-notch scholars from a leading university are so naive, not to say incompetent, that they did not realize that this expression would be misunderstood?

Or did they mean to say what most readers would understand when confronted with these statements? Are they convinced that Muhammad is a true prophet of God? Why then are they not believing in him? Why have they not converted to Islam? If God truly spoke through Muhammad, then Islam is the true religion and Christianity is false, because Muhammad's message denies essential elements of the Gospel, specifically the Trinity, the Incarnation of Jesus, the divine Son of God, and his death on the Cross.

Accepting Muhammad as a true prophet from God means accepting his message as true. It makes no sense to say that Muhammad was a true prophet, but his message was wrong. Accepting Muhammad as a true prophet from God means denying the Incarnation and the Crucifixion of Jesus. Anyone who denies these core truths of the Gospel cannot be called a Christian. And if they are not Christians, if they do not believe in the Gospel, then they have no business speaking on behalf of Christianity in this dialogue, or in any other dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

Consider the following statement by the Apostle Paul:

“Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God.” 2 Corinthians 4:2

Does the Yale response satisfy this Biblical criterion?

Perhaps, the authors used out of politeness a terminology without meaning to them? That means they used it without thinking carefully about the implications. After all, the expression "the Prophet Muhammad" is not an empty phrase, and one should not use it as if it is. It is certainly not meaningless to the Muslim recipients of the letter. To them, it makes a very clear statement. With that option, we are back to the category of naivety and incompetence.

Whether the authors were deliberately deceptive, naive and incompetent, or testifying to their apostasy from the Christian Faith, I question their qualification to act as representatives of Christianity.

It is clear that one cannot enter into a fruitful dialogue with formulations that will be received as insults. I do not suggest that the response should have contained an explicit statement that "Muhammad was a false prophet", but one could have been diplomatic without being dishonest or deceptive. They could have used formulations like "Muhammad the founder of Islam", "the prophet of Islam", or "your prophet" when directly addressing the Muslims. All of these would have been respectful without implying that we as Christians accept Muhammad's claim to be a prophet of God. But using the formulation "the Prophet Muhammad" was a horrible choice with far-reaching implications.

On the other hand, what formulations do the Yale academics use to define the status of Jesus? They only use a title he also has in the Quran: Christ (al-Masih = Messiah). They do not even mention any of these essential titles of Jesus in the Bible: The Lord, the Savior, the Son of God, let alone expanding on them. How then is their answer a Christian response? What is Christian about it?

The Yale response submitted in its language to the Muslim terminology. It is a dhimmi response, not a response of equal dialogue partners who both assert and explain what they truly believe.

The Muslim scholars throughout their letter proclaim their distinctly Islamic understanding of Jesus, and the Yale scholars simply imitate it without registering any disagreement with or correction of this understanding and putting the Biblical understanding against it.

The Muslim Open Letter was not merely an invitation to love one another, it was also a proclamation of Islam, a call to faith. It called Christians to abandon the belief in the deity of Jesus. The Muslim letter had serious theological content (cf. the detailed responses listed on the overview page). On these issues, the Yale response was absolutely silent. That is a serious failure.

Even more, as well-meaning as it may have been, does the combination of accepting the Muslim terminology "the Prophet" for Muhammad, and their silence on the status of Jesus not actually constitute a betrayal of the Christian Faith, and a betrayal of the person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?

Muslims do not want Christians to speak of Jesus as the Lord and as the Divine Son of God. Does that mean we should not do so? Remember what happened only weeks after the religious authorities had put Jesus to death? They threatened the disciples

and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." Acts 4:18-20

Am I alone with the impression that the Yale Statement was not issued in the same Spirit that emboldened the Apostles? Are we praying with the first disciples:

“Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.” Acts 4:29

Or is our first concern that our words may not offend the sensibilities of anyone and we always remain within the boundaries of political correctness?

It is all the more amazing to observe how the Response by Mor Eustathius Matta Roham, Archbishop of Jezira and the Euphrates, of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch is much bolder and clearer than the Yale Statement. This bishop and his church are living in a Muslim society, under the dominion of Islam. They know what persecution from Muslims means, but he is able to formulate a clear message. His response is respectful and acknowledges what is praiseworthy in the Muslim letter, but he also challenges the Muslims to deal with a number of important issues. He mentions point where clarification is needed, or areas where the words need to be followed up with deeds, and he addresses serious shortcomings of the Muslim statement. He focuses on the topic of "the love of neighbor" and its connection to human rights issues in Muslim societies. He does not deal with the theological questions. Nevertheless, it is a clear and courageous letter.

Compared to this, the Yale Statement is spineless, is an expression of submission to Islam. From start to finish, it is only agreement with the Muslim letter, praise for its content, and praise for Muhammad. Despite the fact, that the Muslim letter challenged the Christians in many points, and directly or indirectly questioned their faith repeatedly, I could not find in the Yale Statement even one point on which the Muslims were challenged in any way. Not on any theological issue, nor on the sad reality that Christians in Muslim countries do not experience much love and respect.

Further reading: The section entitled "The marginalisation of Christ and the Bible" in the Response to "Loving God and Neighbor Together" published by the Barnabas Fund also deals with the issues raised in this paper.

Where do we go from here?

I do not know the motivations of the many signatories of the Yale Response, and will not speculate about them. Why have these people apparently not seen at least some of the MANY serious problems with this response? Will their endorsement of this letter — in the long run — really help or rather hamper their ministry to Muslims and/or the credibility of their teaching about Islam in front of Christian audiences? Does association with this letter help them to have a clear voice of witness for Jesus and the Gospel to the Muslim world, or has it muddled the testimony of those who signed it? In my opinion, the signatories should seriously rethink their support of this letter and ponder the possibility of retracting their signature. I am glad that some have already done so, and others have at least stated that they are not entirely happy with this letter despite the fact that they have signed it (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

The Muslim letter included a strong testimony of their faith, it was a proclamation of Islam. The Yale Statement calls itself "A Christian Response" but completely lacks any component of witness to the essentials of the Christian Faith. On the contrary, instead of being a testimony, it may rather be called a betrayal of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Jochen Katz

Appendix: A foundation to build upon?

As mentioned above, the use of the expression "the Prophet Muhammad" has far-reaching implications. And so does the lack of testimony to the true nature of Jesus. I want to expand on this matter in the appendix.

Some of the defenders of the Yale Response claim that their response was only "a cordial reply to a request by 138 Muslim scholars for civil dialogue and increased understanding between Christians and Muslims." [Cf. Brian McLaren's response (*) to a critique published by Focus on the Family.]

I am very much for respectful dialogue. I have been involved in Christian-Muslim dialogue for more than 15 years, both face-to-face and on the internet. But I doubt that this Yale letter is going to help to achieve "increased understanding" of the Christian Faith by Muslims. Responding to the charge that the Yale response leaves "the deity of Christ open for discussion", McLaren writes, "Wouldn't it make sense to try to better explain what we mean when we call Jesus Lord and Son of God, so as to correct this misunderstanding?" However, in order to "better explain" this, we have to call Jesus "Lord and Son of God" in the first place which the Yale response never did. That was the whole point of the critique. The letter did NOT ever call Jesus Lord and Son of God, so that this cannot be "better explained" in any follow-up.

The huge problem is that this first response has defined the parameters for subsequent meetings or correspondence.

After the authors (and signatories?) have already conceded that Muhammad is a prophet of God, how will they then explain to the Muslims that they do not accept his teaching about Jesus? Do they want to say: Okay, now that we are sitting around the same table, we sadly have to retract that statement? Or do they want to explain to the Muslims that Muhammad is a true prophet with a wrong message about Jesus? Will the Muslims not feel like these Christians have tried to dupe and deceive them?

It is similar in regard to the status of Jesus. The Yale response has laid the foundation, and this foundation is too weak and too small to support "tall claims" about the nature of Jesus. The framework has been set, and it is the full agreement with the Muslim letter without any reservations. The Muslim letter was an attack on the deity of Jesus, and the "Christian response" was only praise for that wonderful letter. You have already lost. You are already trapped. How will you come out in your second round with critique of the original Muslim statements? The track has been established and it will be very difficult to get off that track again and turn into a new direction without the other side feeling that you tried to mislead them with the first response. "Naiveté that borders on dishonesty" was Dr. Alfred Mohler's verdict on this letter, and in my opinion, that was absolutely correct.

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