Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Samuel Zwemer's Theological Judgments

Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Samuel Zwemer's Theological Judgments

Article excerpt

In an essay written for a collection titled Christian-Muslim Encounters, John B. Carman asks a haunting question regarding the suspension of judgment about Islam's claim to divine revelation. Carman writes candidly that after studying and teaching religions intensively for three decades, he does not find himself getting closer to a personal evaluation from a Christian theological perspective. "The object of understanding seems to recede as I advance," he writes. Carmen asks whether this indefinite postponement of evaluation is "just an excuse." Suspension of judgment is tempting, he writes, "because it is easier to remain silent in a theological environment where my 'Christian inclusivism' may be considered outdated in an age of 'religious pluralism.'" Carman adds with striking candor, "Whether my caution is growing wisdom or intellectual cowardice I do not know." (1)

A century ago, Christian scholars were generally not so hesitant to evaluate religious claims. But their voices have been muted in recent decades because of their association with a number of perspectives now deemed unfashionable. Has the time perhaps come to rehabilitate this scholarship for the help it can give us in the difficult theological challenges that missionaries still face today?

In 1905 Samuel Zwemer wrote at the end of his classic study The Moslem Doctrine of God, "In the comparative study of religious ideas there must be a standard of judgment, and a Christian can only judge other religions by the standard of the Gospel." (2) Zwemer and other missionary scholars were arguably as close to "the object of understanding" as any Western scholars have been since. They lived long-term in the heartlands of Islam, often in the Arabian Peninsula, became fluent in local languages, and enjoyed meaningful contact with ordinary Muslims.

In Moslem Doctrine, Zwemer took for granted a mastery of classical Arabic. He went straight for what most Muslims would agree are the sourcebooks of their faith, the Qur'an and the Hadith. He casually cited Beidhawi, Zamakhshari and the Jellalain, when many missionaries today would be hard-pressed merely to give the name of a classical commentator on the Qur'an. He was familiar with German scholarship on the theology of the Qur'an but could find no English monograph--so he set out to write it himself.

But there was more. Zwemer believed that Christians who encounter Islam deeply are responsible to demonstrate their loyalty to Jesus by evaluating what they learn. He believed that Christian scholars do not set their discipleship aside when they investigate the faith of others. Zwemer did not hesitate to judge according to the Gospel, something many scholars today shrink from doing.

The reasons why some recent readers are unable to appreciate the contributions of Zwemer and others appear rather tangled and could stand a good unpacking. One reason openly offered is the triumphalism of the Protestant missionary movement before the First World War. Another reason, less frequently stated, is a loss of confidence in the power of the Gospel and an ambivalence toward judging by its standard. John Hubers notes that the inappropriate triumphalism was "chastened." (3) By the time Zwemer wrote The Cross Above the Crescent (1941), he was firmly convinced that mission among Muslims must be done "not by might nor by power" but only by God's Spirit.

What is not helpful in some recent critiques, however, is the association of a proper confidence in the Gospel with political and cultural triumphalism. …

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