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Interpretation Matters: Baptists, the Bible, and Muhammad’s Words

How are Christians to understand the words of Muhammad as preserved in the holy writings of Islam? What will Muslims find in the Bible? The method of interpretation matters.

Most people know by now that Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently preached, “Islam was founded by Mohammed, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives—and his last was a 9-year old girl.” As his source, Vines cited Unveiling Islam: An Insider’s Look at Muslim Life and Belief, a book by brothers Ergun and Emir Caner.  <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Joining other SBC leaders in defense of Vines’ attack, Emir Caner, assistant professor of church history and Anabaptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Wake Forest, N.C., said, “It’s simply a matter of quoting [Islamic] sources.”
 
As numerous critics have pointed out, this simply-quoting-sources method of interpretation leaves much to be desired. Does the Christian God require that rebellious children be stoned to death (Deut 22:18-21), that every male in every conquered population be massacred (Deut 20:13), or that “nothing that breathes should be left alive” in conquered cities (Deut 20:16)? 
 
Is understanding “simply a matter of quoting sources,” or is simplistic proof-texting without context at best an unfair, and at worst an intentional distortion of the Bible (or the words of Muhammad, for that matter)? Interpretation matters because how one reads a text is as important as what text one reads. Method is critical to understanding.
 
Southern Baptist scriptural interpreters Vines and the Caners are inheritors and promulgators of a peculiar method of biblical interpretation forged in the defense of slavery. Northern abolitionist Baptists interpreted Scripture as setting out general principles that contradicted certain cultural norms—including slavery—present in the biblical texts. Southern Baptists employed a method of interpretation that accepted as universal certain cultural norms of ancient Hebrew and early Christian society—including slavery. 
 
The SBC’s wooden, literal method provided proof-texts for SBC leaders such as Richard Furman of South Carolina, who said, “The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” 
 
This same manner of understanding sacred texts remains influential in official Southern Baptist interpretations of the place of women in the church. Slaves are to submit to their masters; women are to submit to their husbands. 
 
Both precepts can be defended by “just quoting [Christian] sources”; both can be held with logical consistency within this system; both are wrong if interpreted by broader criteria, such as the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. 
 
A basic principle for comparing religious traditions in historical perspective is this: Put the best of one tradition up against the best of another. Only then can a fair comparison be made. Most Baptists have made a space for this kind of enlightening exchange by advocating religious freedom as the level playing field for the pursuit of truth. 
 
A prime example of this Baptist distinctive is found in a 44-page pamphlet produced jointly by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and the Muslim Peace Fellowship titled Peace Primer: Quotes from Christian and Islamic Scripture and Tradition. Editors Baptist Ken Sehested and Muslim Rabia Terri Harris say the goal of this publication is “to allow Christians and Muslims to listen to each other’s scripture and tradition, particularly to hear what each has to say about seeking justice, pursuing peace and working for reconciliation.”
 
Each editor presents brief principles on peace drawn from their respective traditions; each provides texts supporting these principles from their respective Scriptures; and each adds a final essay on sacred texts from their faiths sometimes used to defend violence. 
 
In the pursuit of truth by this baptistic method, we find “Do not look at the wrong actions of other people as if you were lords. Look at your own wrong actions as if you were servants” (al-Muwatta, a text containing prophetic traditions about Muhammad) alongside “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Mic 6:8).
 
Loyd Allen is professor of church history and spiritual formation at the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology, a graduate school of Mercer University.