According to the U.S. Census of 2010, Islam is the fastest growing religious movement in America, increasing 66.7% over the previous ten years, as compared to only a 1.7% increase among evangelical Protestants. How do we best relate the Gospel to Muslims? Here is a nugget from church history on Thomas Aquinas and the influx of Islam into medieval Europe with lessons for today.
So, how did the medieval church respond to the overwhelming cultural influence carried by the Arab Muslims into Christian Europe? Enter in Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was a young Dominican monk in the 13th century as he thought about the growing influence of Islam throughout the known “Christian” world. But Aquinas knew that the famous ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, was perhaps the most important thinker enlisted by the Muslims to support Islamic belief. Aquinas began a nearly lifelong study of Aristotle. His magisterial Summa contra Gentiles was written in about 1264 largely as an apologetic treatise for use by Christian missionaries when explaining the faith to Muslim critics. In Summa contra Gentiles, he comments extensively on Aristotle, the great pagan thinker, in an effort to defend the Gospel.
Contemporary evangelical apologist, Dr. Norman Geisler, observes that Thomas Aquinas almost single-handedly turned back the tide of Islamic theological influence in Western Europe. But he did it not by fighting with the sword. He did it by fighting bad ideas with good ideas. Geisler notes that Aquinas took the time and the effort to carefully understand the thought-world of Aristotelian-inspired Islamic philosophy. By investing in the pagan thought-world of Aristotle, Aquinas was able to appreciate the good but also to explore ideas that challenged Islamic self-understanding in accordance with a biblical perspective. Despite some language constructs that seem out of place, Summa contra Gentiles (online-reading) remains a classic work with relevance for today.
I really do not know what Carl Medearis would think about my example of Thomas Aquinas. In previous Veracity postings, Medearis suggests that we need to be more creative in our approach to Islam. Does Aquinas provide the best model?
A few times, Aquinas could be very direct and confrontational in his critique of Islam. Lest you think that Aquinas was naive, he argued that while Christianity’s beginnings were associated with signs and wonders, early Islam was not founded on the basis of supernatural signs, but rather on the use of force, conquest, and even carnal desire (starting at note #4). Tough words, for sure.
Nevertheless, Aquinas was persuasive. Instead of attacking the Koran, Aquinas made his appeal to the common ground of natural philosophy shared by Muslims and Christians alike. When enlisting Aristotle, Aquinas found not an enemy but rather an ally to the Gospel. For example, Aquinas articulated numerous examples to argue for the existence of God, presenting the case that God is the “Prime Mover”. Perhaps you think differently, but as far as I am concerned, the apologetic approach of Thomas Aquinas that Norman Geisler favors is at least worthy of our consideration.
Another recent study shows that the number of mosques in the United States has doubled since the beginning of the 21st century. I have personally met more people from a Muslim background in the past couple of years than I have had any prior time in my life. How can the church respond? Perhaps we need followers of Christ who will do what Thomas Aquinas did in the 13th century, making the effort to better understand what our Muslim neighbors think, and then nudging them along towards Jesus.
Here is a great interview with Norman Geisler where he discusses the inspiring example of Thomas Aquinas. Geisler is going out a bit on a limb here, as not everyone in the evangelical community has such a favorable opinion of a Thomistic theological approach. For example, Francis Schaeffer produced a famous film series that was shown in hundreds of churches during my college years that has greatly inspired today’s evangelical intellectual renaissance. In How Should We Then Live?, Aquinas represents all that is wrong about Catholic rationalism. But Geisler has an answer to those criticisms. Find out for yourself and read the interview.
If you want to dive deeper into what Aquinas was really after with an application to the supposed “conflict” between science and faith, check out R. C. Sproul’s critique of what I call a Dualist approach to science and faith issues.
And for those of you with a mystic bent, who observe that Aquinas eventually laid down his pen and likened his previous intellectual work to “straw”, well…. we will get to that some other time.