How About Some Evangelical R-E-S-P-E-C-T for the Truth?

On May 18, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was featured as a guest columnist for the online Christian Post with an article entitled “R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Should Christians ‘Respect’ Other Religions?” The burden of his piece was to respond to remarks made by Pope Benedict during his recent visit to the Middle East. This is enough of Mohler’s response to grasp his argument:

The Vatican’s official transcript of the Pope’s comments at the Amman airport records him as saying:

My visit to Jordan gives me a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community, and to pay tribute to the leadership shown by His Majesty the King in promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam.

There are so many different angles to this situation. First, we have the spectacle of a Pope being received as a head of state. This is wrong on so many counts. Second, we have the Pope speaking in diplomatic jargon, rather than in plain and direct speech. Third, we have the Pope speaking of “respect” without any clear understanding of what this really means. Does the Pope believe that Muslims can be saved through the teachings of Islam?

Actually, he probably does — at least within the context of a salvific inclusivism. The Roman Catholic Church officially teaches that Muslims are “included in the plan of salvation” by virtue of their claim to “hold the faith of Abraham.”

In the words of Lumen Gentium, one of the major documents adopted at Vatican II:

But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.

The same language is basic to the current official catechism of the church as well. Within the context of the document, this language clearly implies that Muslims are within the scope of God’s salvation. While the Roman Catholic Church teaches that Islam is both erroneous and incomplete, it also holds that sincere Muslims can be included in Christ’s salvation through their faithfulness to monotheism and Islam.

Thus, when the Catholic Pope speaks of “respecting” Islam, he can do so in a way that evangelical Christians cannot. …

Let’s see what we have here. First of all, the pope is a head of state. Since to Mohler, a Baptist, the pope is no spiritual authority at all, he is nothing other than a head of state. Certainly Mohler can understand why a head of state would be welcomed as such on a foreign visit. However, when Mohler says that it is wrong for the pope to be welcomed as a head of state, he saying that it is wrong for someone in the pope’s spiritual position — a position Mohler does not recognize as real — to be treated that way. Either there is an actual spiritual office the pope holds or there is not. To Baptists there is no such thing as the papacy. Now, if there really is and Mohler wants to address the way the office is handled, that is one thing, but to claim an office does not exist and then criticize the way it is carried out is as silly as criticizing a bald man’s hair style.

Second, the pope is not speaking in diplomatic jargon. The pope is not speaking in euphemisms or coded language. The pope is being forthright, but with kindness and tact. The kindness and tact recommended in that book that Evangelicals claim is their “sure norm”: “Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Col. 4:6) and “[A]lways [be] ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).

Third, Pope Benedict XVI really does understand what respect means. Mohler is the one with the problem.

Mohler says: “Thus, when the Catholic Pope speaks of ‘respecting’ Islam, he can do so in a way that evangelical Christians cannot.” His detour into the teachings of Vatican II and the Catechism very conveniently separates that criticism and claim of difference from the actual words that the pope said. It’s convenient because it allows time for the reader to forget what the pope actually did say — which was nothing at all about respecting Islam! Look again at the quotation from the pope:

My visit to Jordan gives me a welcome opportunity to speak of my deep respect for the Muslim community, and to pay tribute to the leadership shown by His Majesty the King in promoting a better understanding of the virtues proclaimed by Islam.

Respecting the Muslim community — those made-in-the-image-of-God human beings who are adherents to Islam — is not the same thing as respecting Islam. Mohler knows this; really he does, because later on the article he says:

Thus, evangelical Christians may respect the sincerity with which Muslims hold their beliefs, but we cannot respect the beliefs themselves. We can respect Muslim people for their contributions to human welfare, scholarship, and culture. We can respect the brilliance of Muslim scholarship in the medieval era and the wonders of Islamic art and architecture. But we cannot respect a belief system that denies the truth of the gospel, insists that Jesus was not God’s Son, and takes millions of souls captive.

In order to pretend that there is some great divide here between the Evangelical viewpoint and that of Catholics regarding the Muslim faith, Mohler has to ignore what the pope actually said, (which he quoted!) and ignore his own quotation from Lumen Gentium — which does not say that Muslims are included in the plan of salvation “by virtue of their claim” to hold the faith of Abraham. It does not even say that Muslims hold the faith of Abraham, merely acknowledges that they claim to.

Yes, the Catechism says that God’s plan of salvation “also includes… the Muslims.” That’s because the Catechism says that all men are included in God’s plan of salvation! Nowhere does it make the assertion Mohler is trying to attribute to it: that sincere Muslims can be included in Christ’s salvation “through their faithfulness to monotheism and Islam.” What the Catechism does say is reasonable, balanced, and scriptural; read it for yourself and see:

841 The Church’s relationship with the Muslims. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

842 The Church’s bond with non-Christian religions is in the first place the common origin and end of the human race:

All nations form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth, and also because all share a common destiny, namely God. His providence, evident goodness, and saving designs extend to all against the day when the elect are gathered together in the holy city. . .

843 The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.”

844 In their religious behavior, however, men also display the limits and errors that disfigure the image of God in them:

Very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator. Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair.

In addressing the issue of how those who do not hear the Gospel might come to be saved, the Church does not attribute salvific power to any false belief system, whether Islam or any other, but rather to God’s mysterious ability to sow faith in Himself into every human heart that sincerely seeks HIm. But even this acknowledgment of God’s power does not diminish the world’s need to hear the Gospel:

848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”

It was just such evangelistic zeal that motivated the Holy Father’s historic visit to the Middle East, where over and over he turned men’s attention to Christ as the hope for peace. One of his themes was the need for honest, humble dialogue based upon respect for the dignity of every person. I submit that contrary to Mohler’s assertion that the pope is “without any clear understanding of what [respect] means,” the pope’s understanding of it surpasses that of Dr. Mohler. The pope understands that one of the first requirements of respectful conversation is to seek to clearly understand and then to fairly represent the position of another.

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  • GaryT

    thanks for writing this. It is interesting that given his education and position, he seems as equally ignorant and un-ecumenical as pastor “Bubba” (his real name by the way).

    For many protestants, it seems like they still define themselves by what they are not: Catholic.

    Basic human humility might cause anyone pause to consider what the pope says, given that he is probably smarter than all of us combined. He doesn’t say things that he doesn’t mean, and maybe, just maybe, he has studied scripture for several decades.

    We should pray for him and others like him.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    The real problem I have here is that the path that led Baptists out of the Catholic fold is not at all dissimilar to the one that led Mohamed to pick up a bit of Catholicism here, some Judaism there, mix it with some of the redeemable elements of Arab paganism, and call it Islam. Mohamed was no fool. The Middle East of his day was surrounded and inundated by the descendants of those evangelized by the Apostles. Those Christians all acknowledged themselves as Catholics, and they contended culturally with pagan Arabs in much the same way that other Catholics contended with pagan Europeans. Many of Mohamed’s teachings are simpler expressions of deep Catholic Truth: one God but no Trinity; belief in Jesus the prophet but no scandalous Cross that killed God; honor for Mother Mary but no complex notion of her being the Mother of God, etc.

    Evangelicals actually do exactly the same thing. They keep the Trinity. They keep most of the Bible. They even keep alive the notion of the virgin birth, Mary’s motherhood of the divine Jesus, and the scandal of God dying on the Cross. But they skip the hard stuff about eating God’s flesh and drinking his blood. They ignore Mary’s Queen Mother role and sidestep the deeper Marian doctrines. They honor Christ’s death on the Cross but then remove Him therefrom in their daily devotions. While you are living and breathing in the world, they pray with you and for you and even ask for your intercessory prayer, but once you have departed, they’ll stop troubling you over these things even though (according to their beliefs) you are already necessarily in heaven. In recent years, they have introduced contraception (talk about a tradition of men!) and deepened their recognition of divorce. All of this allows Evangelicals to get at the “simple” Gospel without being burdened by the complexities and richness of Catholic Truth. The result is not Islam.

    But the process by which that result came about is not so unlike that followed by Mohamed.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    Which leads me back to the point of the article, namely this: If Catholics were to deny the possibility of Muslims being saved, then we would also have to deny the possibility of Evangelicals being saved — and for the same reasons. Both have departed from necessary elements of the salvific Gospel, offering a simpler and supposedly superior teaching about God, humanity, and history. But if explicit acknowledgment and perfect understanding of the “full Gospel” were an absolute requirement for salvation, with no exceptions offered for those who reject portions of this Gospel through no fault of their own, then eliminating Muslims from God’s plan of salvation also eliminates Evangelicals (and a lot of Catholics, for that matter).

    The fact is Catholics eliminate neither. Nor does our teaching equivocate about Who does the saving (Jesus). The fact that we don’t always understand all the specifics of how this comes about is a fact we simply acknowledge.

  • Heidi

    Great article, Mary. So respectful and insightful. I don’t think most of us, and I’ll represent Jane-Average, Catholic in the pew for a moment, understand the nuances of Pope Benedict’s meaning versus the words that he spoke (or that we read in print) nor can we dissect another’s (Dr. Mohler’s in this case) critisism of the Catholic point of truth with the eloquence that you just did.

    This is unfortunate, a regretable situation about so many statements of respect and truth that are put forth from the heart of the Church. We need more articles like this one in order to better evangelize within our own pews and to politely, but firmly defend ourselves and our hiearchy from those who only smear our collective good name in the world. Thanks, again for this excellent article.


  • plowshare

    Excellent article, Mary! Do you think Mohler might deign to answer you if you sent him a copy of your column?

    In any event, you show a far better grasp of theological issues than he, a President of a theological seminary, did in the text by him that you’ve quoted.

  • janedoe

    Yes! Thank you, Mary! I work for a radio station that plays Mohler Mon-Fri.

  • denise

    Thank you, Mary, for your article. As a convert, the great divide between Mother Church and separated brothers and sisters (in other faith communities) saddens me beyond words.

    I remember what my husband said as he was entering the Church (after vowing that it would never happen). He was raised Southern Baptist.

    As he was entering the Church, he was completing a doctorate degree. He said, regarding that course of study, that he would show up for class, ready to learn, willing to be teachable. He entered that doorway, realizing that the professors were there to lead the way and that he trusted that they knew what they were talking about, because they had studied for years in the field and had learned from other experts who came before them. And he said becoming Catholic was much the same.

    At some point, he realized that this Church has indeed been around for over 2000 years. He simply had to trust that the Pope and the Bishops knew what they were talking about, having studied for years in the field and learned from the saints who came before them. He simply had to show up and be teachable. And when he did that, he realized that the Catholic Faith is completely reasonable and true.

    For many, perhaps even President Mohler, spiritual pride is the root problem. He is sure he is right. He is sure he has it figured out. He is sure people should listen to him. (Odd, he really considers himself to be his own pope, doesn’t he?)

    But, until he is willing to “show up” and be “teachable” he will continue to see matters of faith with a distored view.

    There is hope. Prayer works miracles. My husband’s conversion is a case in point. What I could not accomplish with words, Our Lord and Lady accomplished through grace.

    And there are many other incredible examples of Protestant “greats” who showed up and were teachable. Dr. Scott Hahn. Marcus Grodi. Stephen Ray. Alex Jones. (According to the Coming Home Network there are over 1000 former Protestant clergy/missionaries to make the leap). It does happen – but only if they are willing to seek truth without preconceived ideas.

    You have tried to put the truth out there. Now it is up to grace to break down spiritual pride.

    Thanks again for your article.

  • willmary

    Thank you, Mary, for your article. I had read the original article from Mr. Mohler and it seemed very disrespectful toward the pope. I am not as good as analyzing an article as you are, so I really appreciate you going point by point and giving reasoning for your opposition to his statements; it helped me to understand more completely why I felt offended by the original article. God Bless You for your work!