The Incarnation: bridge or barrier in Christian dialogue to Muslims?

Pat Brittenden
CMCS Scholarship Recipient, DPhil Candidate, University of Oxford

Kenneth Cragg writes “It would seem naïve to ask whether the Christian’s faith in the incarnation and ‘the Word made flesh’ separates him from the Muslim. For manifestly in history it does. Christology, as the New Testament, the Fathers, and the Church through the centuries has confessed it, has consistently found, and spelled, rejection on the part of Muslims.”

The Qur’anic testimony has been consistently been held by both classical and contemporary Muslim apologist as an irrevocable prohibition to the idea of the pre-existence or divinity of Christ and a compromise with the Islamic concept of the greatness and purity of God implied by God’s ‘association’ with humanity in the Incarnation. Yet for the Christian believer the Incarnation is the defining revelation of God.

This paper will explore what appears to be nothing more than a ‘hopeless’ barrier throughout the history of Muslim-Christian relations through the contrasting contributions of two broadly evangelical Anglican clergymen with substantial experience of mission and dialogue with / amongst Muslims. The paper will begin with a brief presentation of the extent of the Incarnation as a ‘barrier’, by assessing Muslim objections to this doctrine and Western Christianity’s failings in communicating and demonstrating the Incarnation throughout our mutual history. Then, having established Cragg and Nazir-Ali’s respective positions in the ‘continuity-discontinuity’ continuum of Christian mission, it will present their theological perspectives on this doctrine as they engage with Islam. It will pay special attention to how they treat the Incarnation as a ‘bridge’ to the greatness of God and to God’s ‘association’ with humanity, inherent in Muslim rejections of the doctrine. Finally, based on the discussion above, it will explore a narrative of engagement in dialogue with Muslims that alters our perception of both Christian mission to Islam and the doctrine of the Incarnation. This is done through; (1) a ‘theo-dramatic’ understanding of the Incarnation in the 5th Act of God’s redemptive mission story, (2) the priority of orthopraxy in all assessments of the Incarnation in mission and finally, (3) a vision of the doctrine, not as a proposition but as a window through which Christians in mission and dialogue can invite Muslims to articulate and experience the doctrine of the Incarnation.