“When Religion Becomes Evil” author Charles Kimball says he is surprised as anyone that recent remarks have set off an “Allah” controversy between dueling Baptist bodies in Texas.
Speaking at a Baptist General Convention of Texas Christian Life Commission conference in February about a “clash of civilizations” between Christians and Muslims, Kimball reportedly had this to say about whether Christians, Jews and Muslims are all talking about the same God: “There is really not much ambiguity about this. Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. The name for God in Islam, in Arabic, is Allah. This is not another god. This is the same God that Jews and Christians are talking about.”
Kimball, professor of comparative religion at Wake Forest University Department of Religion
and Divinity School in North Carolina, told the Baptist Standard the comments weren’t significantly different from “anything I’ve been saying for 30-something years.”
But that didn’t stop furor from erupting in Texas, one of two states with separate moderate and fundamentalist state conventions, both affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, competing for hearts and minds of churches.
Two associations of local churches responded to Kimball’s remark with resolutions of protest.
Golden Triangle Baptist Association in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area called on state and national Baptist leaders to “separate themselves from this kind of pluralistic thinking.”
Basin Baptist Network in Midland/Odessa called on BGCT and CLC executives by name to “publicly denounce such false teaching and reaffirm the commitment to the doctrine of the triune God as clearly and correctly articulated in the ‘Baptist Faith & Message.'”
Recognizing a wedge issue, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention executive board passed a resolution affirming “that the God of the Bible is different in Person from the Allah of historical Islam and the Koran.”
The BGCT Christian Life Commission issued a “clarification” attributing much of the dispute to confusion over the context of Kimball’s remark and what he did and did not say. Kimball’s point, the CLC said, was that Judaism, Islam and Christianity all trace themselves back to Abraham, and therefore are talking about the same deity–the God of Abraham–even though they view him in different ways.
The CLC said Kimball’s statement was “less theological than historical,” while adding “that the CLC does not endorse every remark our conference speakers make, and that CLC does not speak for the BGCT on issues.”
Charles Wade, executive director of the BGCT, called Kimball’s language “a bit jarring” and said it is not how Baptists normally talk.
“We Texas Baptists affirm that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6),” Wade wrote in the Baptist Standard. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).”
“The call for all people to know the love of God in and through Jesus Christ is the good news we share,” Wade said. “Jesus loves us all.”
According to his biographical sketch, Kimball, the former director of the Middle East Office at the National Council of Churches, has visited the Middle East more than 35 times. He has been interviewed more than 500 times since 9/11 as an expert on Islam. His book, When Religion Becomes Evil was named one of the “Top 15 Books on Religion for 2002” by Publishers Weekly.
In the book, Kimball writes that Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. When Christians in the Middle East pray to God, they address him as “Allah,” he says.
Kimball writes that the Quran teaches that God has spoken to humankind through many prophets, including biblical figures like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and John the Baptist. Jesus is one of the most prominent figures in the Quran, which mentions him by name 93 times.
“There is simply no ambiguity here,” Kimball concludes in the book. “Jews, Christians and Muslims are talking about the same deity.”
In a recent interview with the Baptist Standard, Kimball said the three Abrahamic faiths have radically different understandings of God, but all trace their beginnings to a common heritage.
“When you’re talking about the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad, you’re talking about the same God,” he said. “It’s not Vishnu. It’s not Krishna. It’s the God of Abraham.”
Acknowledging that common ground as a starting place for dialogue, Kimball said, is “not the same as declaring they are equally valid paths to salvation.”
“To say that Christians, Muslims and Jews are talking about the same God is one thing,” he said. “To say that they are worshipping the same God–or that it doesn’t matter–that’s a whole different set of questions.”
Speaking last Sunday in Charlotte, N.C., according to the Charlotte Observer, Kimball said Christian leaders who claim Muslims worship a different God “are playing to people’s ignorance and fears and trying to dehumanize (Muslims) to make it more acceptable to fight and kill others ‘who really aren’t like us.””
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Click here to read EthicsDaily.com’s 2002 interview with Charles Kimball.
See our 2002 review of Kimball’s book.