Thursday, December 27, 2007

People of the Book versus People of the Word (Part One)

The term People of the Book has loosely been applied to the three great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, referring to a particular holy book as the primary source of the religion’s beliefs and authority. This application has greater credence in the English-speaking western world, composed primarily of Protestants who view the Bible in just that light. For many, People of the Book seems to be an apt description of Judaism as the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) has always played a central role in the lives of Jews, a fact dating prior to the time of Christ. Historically and theologically speaking, however, Islam is the only true People of the Book.

Islam is said to have begun in 622 AD (nearly six hundred years after the birth of Christianity) when Muhammad fled the city of Mecca after being persecuted for preaching his new religion. Muhammad saw himself in a similar way that Buddha and the first Protestant reforms saw themselves: as a prophetic founder who simplified an older religion of its seeming theological contradictions and practices. For Muhammad, simplicity meant the deletion of the Trinity and the Incarnation from Christianity and the addition of the Koran and the five pillars of Islam, while for Buddha it meant the carving away of Hindu polytheism and the addition of the noble eightfold path to enlightenment. Protestants knocked out sacred Tradition and the authority of the Church, replacing them with the far simpler doctrines of scripture-alone, faith-alone, and grace-alone.

The Protestant sects within Christianity are, in the scripture-alone sense, a People of the Book. Like Islam, which has neither a strong Tradition nor central ecclesial authority, Protestantism has broken into many divisions. Islam, on the other had, has suffered few divisions over the course of fourteen hundred years primarily because it is both a religion as well as a political entity, uniting whole countries under its banner. Whereas Islam has split into several solid sects (i.e. the Sunnis and the Shiites), Protestantism, which emphasizes the individual’s relationship with God over the corporate body of believers, has split into thousands of theologically contradictory denominations. Based on that individualistic notion, each Protestant could consider himself his own denomination!

The term People of the Book, however, simply cannot be applied to historical Judaism and Christianity, which both held extra-biblical tradition and authority in high regard. Both religions find their origins in three-fold covenantal promises made by God to Abraham. In these promises God swore to 1) make Abraham’s descendants into a great nation, 2) to raise that nation into a kingdom, and 3) to bring forth a world-wide blessing through the promised king and his kingdom. For the Jews, the first two promises were fulfilled through Moses and David while historical Christians believed Jesus Christ and his Catholic (“world-wide”) Church, which is the Kingdom of God, to be the fulfillment of the third promise. Both ancient Jews and Christians, through the figures of Moses, David, and Jesus, understood that there must be an authority guiding their religion if that religion is to remain unified.

The Jewish concept of authority, however, extends beyond Moses, who was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the Torah, and the Davidic kings to include the queen and prime minister of the kingdom. In ancient times, the particular king could have many wives. This left the choosing a queen an impossible task. It was determined that though a king may have several (or even hundreds of wives) he had but one mother – thus one queen mother. Over the centuries, God would speak to His people through the prophets, but messages would often times be addressed to the king and the queen mother as those in authority over the kingdom. Moreover, the people of the kingdom would look to the queen mother for their intercessory needs, trusting in her relationship with her son for aid and support.

More to come..

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