Essay / Theology

The Coming of the Book

Today (August 10) is the day when, in the year 610, Muhammad began to receive the revelation of the Qur’an. That is, Muslims believe that Allah revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel, and most scholars believe that August 10 was the date of that event in 610. The event is called Laylat al-Qadr, “Night of Power,” but the annual celebration of it takes place near the end of Ramadan (first week of September this year), not here at the very beginning of Ramadan. Like all liturgical calendars, it’s complicated (the moon is involved!), and always easy to roll your eyes about the details in somebody else’s religion.

Speaking of somebody else’s religion, the anniversary Laylat al-Qadr is a good occasion to reflect on a point of difference between Muslim theology and Christian theology. The difference is based on an underlying similarity. Both religions are religions of the book: they have definitive and authoritative sacred texts, which they hold to be divinely revealed. According to Christians, the Bible is the word of God, and according to Muslims, the Qur’an is the word of God. Never mind, for now, the obvious fact that both claims can’t be true, since the books assert mutually contradictory claims. The point of similarity is that we have here two religions of the book.

The interesting point of contrast emerges when you ask what position each religion assigns to its book. For Islam, the arrival of the book, the revelation of the Qur’an, is the central event in the history of salvation. According to Islam, Muhammad entered a cave and Allah made his word known to him through Gabriel. The reason there is a Muslim religion, according to Muslim theology, is that the word came to the prophet: There is one God, and his prophet is Muhammad.

What role does Christianity assign to its book? Certainly a very high role, with a claim of divine revelation and therefore a position of authority. But the coming of the book is not the central event in the history of revelation. The coming of the Son of God is that central event. The Bible is the prophetic anticipation of Christ (OT), and the apostolic interpretation of Christ (NT). One part of it looks forward to the central event, and one part of it looks backward to the central event. But the central event itself is not the arrival of a book; it is the arrival of God the Son.

Christians have great and lofty things to say about the Bible and the Bible’s place in salvation history. The Bible is not just the result of human activity preparing for Christ and responding to Christ; it is the result of divine activity as God got personally into the business of making a book. It is inspired, set apart for God’s use in making himself known to souls and building up his church; it is authoritative and inerrant. Christians can even say that salvation history isn’t complete without God getting into the business of inspiring the documents of the New Testament.

But even as Christians prove their credentials as “people of the book” by saying all those things about the Bible, they can never cross the line into saying that the coming of the book is the central event. The place of the central event is already taken, by the Son of God incarnate, crucified, and raised.

The coming of the book, that is, the filling out of the New Testament canon, is something that follows after the central event of the coming of Christ. Compared to Islam, with its centralized singular prophetic spokesman and a special historical event of textual revelation that can be commemorated annually, Christianity looks downright sloppy. I speak reverently, but what God has given us is a series of documents written over a range of times by a range of authors, and gathered together somewhat unpredictably: many letters by Paul (but not every letter he ever wrote), multiple gospels, a history of the earliest church, and various letters by other apostles. Plus Revelation and the anonymous Hebrews! This is the word of God, but it did not descend all at once to a single authorized spokesman in a cave, or on golden tablets.

Out of all the possible dates to celebrate in the Christian calendar (Easter, Christmas, epiphany, pentecost), what would it even look like for us to celebrate a special day for the Christian Bible? Would it be the date of the writing of Mark, or the date of the receiving of Romans? Maybe the moment the ink dried on the Revelation of John? The coming of the New Testament is not one single event. I suppose we could celebrate Canon Day, but that too would be silly. The New Testament doesn’t fit into salvation history in that festival-celebrating kind of way.

Thinking about Muslim theology, especially the doctrine of the Qur’an, is not only a helpful step in understanding Muslim people. It also sharpens our understanding of Christian theology. These two religions of the book both have doctrines of Scripture, but they are very different doctrines of Scripture.

Islam has a higher bibliology (doctrine about scripture), but Christianity stakes its live on something higher than bibliology: “In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son.”

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