Grant Horner | The Master’s College | Thursday, May 01, 2008
April 30, 2008
I like a number of things about Barack Obama. He appears to be intelligent, articulate, passionate and engaging. Of course, I’d never vote for him—he’s basically a socialist and I’m a conservative libertarian. And though many Americans view the “Wright issue” as a Fox News slam-job, there’s no doubt that as Wright keeps talking and talking and talking, everything just gets “curiouser and curiouser.” If Senator Obama loses the nomination (or the general election) it may well be because of his complexly problematic association with the fiery preacher.
The issue is not Wright’s radicalism, political or philosophical. Nor is it whether he has the right to express his views, or whether the good folk of his church have the right to go there to learn and to worship as best they see fit. Religious freedom is precious and crucial. The issue is the senator’s judgment. In fact, I’d link Barack Obama’s judgment with the philosophical and theological judgment of the man Obama claims as his mentor. Ideas do matter, and influence is, well, influential. Let me provide an example of why I find the thought of both men rather troubling, at least on a particular theological matter—one which speaks to their thinking in general.
At his session with the National Press Club on April 28, Reverend Wright offered commentary on the reactions to his preaching and responded to questions. At one point Wright was asked an incredibly important theological question: Jesus claimed (John 14:6) that he was the Way, the Truth and the Life—and that no man comes to the Father but by him. In other words, Jesus was not very politically correct, sensitive, inclusive or open-minded. He claimed absolute exclusivity—and he claimed it for himself. One may not like it, accept it, believe it or even care, but that is the record. According to classical, orthodox, biblical doctrine, the most important question a person will ever respond to is the one Jesus posed in Matthew 16: “Who do men say that I am?” The questioner at the Press Club asked Wright about Jesus’ exclusive claim from John 14: “Do you believe this? And do you think Islam is a way to salvation?” A Christian, preacher or no, should love hearing this question asked.
Yet Pastor Wright’s answer was nothing less than appalling to anyone who holds to orthodox Christian doctrine—or even to a non-believer passingly familiar with the New Testament. He paused, and then responded, “Jesus also said, ‘Other sheep have I who are not of this fold.’” The applause lasted nearly 20 seconds. That was also how long my jaw remained on my lap.
Unfortunately, Wright’s rapid-fire quotation is wrenched horribly out of context—and context is central to the process of interpretation (hermeneutics). Wright in fact makes the passage say precisely what it does not say. The passage is from John 10, where Jesus is speaking to the Jewish leadership that is opposing him. He then reveals something which clearly shocks and offends them: God’s salvation will be offered to non-Jews as well as Jews!
So: Jesus tells the Jews they’re in—if they believe he is their messiah and savior. And Jesus tells the Jews that there are other sheep—non-Jews, “goyim,” who are also in—if they believe. And now Reverend Wright says Muslims are in—that they are (either generally or specifically) the “other sheep.” Now, on the one hand, Wright is right—Muslims who repent of their sins, believe the childlike simplicity of the gospel, and follow Christ, are “in.” On the other hand, Wright is desperately wrong. Islam denies, with absolute clarity, the divine nature and messianic role of Jesus Christ. It is this very issue—the deity claimed by Christ—which causes the Jews to prepare to stone him (John 10:31). He calls himself the Good Shepherd—clearly the “Lord” of Psalm 23, and tops this off by saying he and God are one. They knew exactly what he was saying—and they viewed it as blasphemy worthy of death.
Islam expressly denies the deity and the messianic role of Christ. Look at the Qur’an and see for yourself: Sura 5:72, Sura 5:75, Sura 9:30. I won’t quote the verses themselves. They are easy enough to find online; those who believe in the deity of Christ are “blasphemers” who are “cursed” by Allah.
So, Jesus says believing Jews are in. Jesus says believing Gentiles are in. Muslims can’t be in yet, they don’t exist. Islam won’t even get going for six more centuries! But certainly, Muslims who later come to Christ in repentance—just like Jews or pagan Gentiles—will be “in.”
So, Wright says Muslims are “in.” They are the “other sheep.” But there’s one problem: Muslims say Jesus is “out.” I’m trying to imagine Wright at the throne of grace, explaining to Jesus that the Muslims are in, while the Muslims explain to Christ that Jesus is out.
Of course Muslims can be “in”—but then they are no longer Muslims. I remember a conversation in October of 2004 with a Bedouin Muslim driver in Old Jerusalem who was interested in Christianity. He asked, “Can I be a Christian and a Bedouin?” “Of course,” was the answer. Then he asked, “Can I be a Christian and a Muslim?”
Ahhh … as Hamlet said, “There’s the rub.”
Grant Horner is a professor at The Master’s College in Santa Clarita, California where he teaches classical literature and writing, specializing in the theology and philosophy of the Renaissance and Reformation. Contact Professor Horner at [email protected]