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FIRST-PERSON: Seeking light in the heat of controversy

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The public panic attack over Dr. Jerry Vines’ statements on Muhammad remind us that controversies can produce both heat and light — but this will require cool and careful thinking.

Preaching to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Pastors’ Conference, Dr. Vines reminded the preachers of their responsibility to preach salvation through Jesus Christ, and through Jesus Christ alone. In the course of these remarks, he made comments about the biography of Muhammad, known to Muslims as the Prophet. Fury quickly followed.

The response of the Muslim community was predictable. The man they honor as the Prophet had been criticized as a “demon-possessed pedophile.” Given the sensitivities of our modern age, this seems an intolerable breach of inter-religious ethics. Those familiar with the history of Muslim-Christian relations would recognize old and enduring points of argument. Dr. Vines has invited Muslim scholars to explain the statements of their own historical sources, from which he had drawn his comments.

We should note, however, that the flashpoint of the controversy is really not the accuracy of Dr. Vines’ comments, and he has identified his sources. The real source of outrage is the fact that he — or anyone else, for that matter — would say such a thing in our politically correct age. His comments broke the rules that secular Americans and their liberal Christian counterparts had long ago adopted.

Tolerance has been repackaged to mean that everyone is right, no one’s deepest beliefs can be challenged, and one system of belief is just as good as another. Postmodern America has exchanged truth for therapy and is more concerned about how people feel than how they believe. Modern ideas of politeness trump concern for truth.

Historian John Murray Cuddihy calls this the “culture of civility.” The most that many Americans can say is they “happen” to belong to this or that “faith community.” It is as if they just fell into it — and it doesn’t really matter. It would be impolite to argue otherwise.

Modern Christians did not invent the idea that salvation comes through Jesus Christ — the sinless Savior — and through no one else. It was Christ who identified himself as “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” and specified that “no one comes to the Father but through Me.” Liberal Christianity has abandoned this belief — along with many others — but orthodox Christianity stands or falls with our commitment to hold all biblical truth as non-negotiable.

The authentic gospel includes hard truths that cannot be negotiated away with soft words. Dr. Vines is standing in good company as he preaches that salvation comes only through faith in Christ. He cannot escape teaching that Christianity is superior to all other systems of belief. He loves the gospel and he loves seeing men and women come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and receive the gift of eternal life. The First Baptist Church of Jacksonville is filled with such persons.

Dr. Vines has been accused of bigotry and hate-speech. He has been castigated as uncaring, uncompassionate and uncivil. I know Dr. Jerry Vines as a dear friend, and as a faithful pastor, compassionate evangelist, and seeker of souls. He did not question the right of Muslims to be Muslims nor would he coerce anyone to become a Christian. He loves persons enough to tell them the truth. He offers them the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Christianity and Islam have been engaged in a battle for souls for more than a thousand years. Postmodern politeness insists that none of this really matters. Bible-believing Christians and Muslims faithful to their own beliefs both agree that the truth matters supremely. We must respect each other enough to speak what we firmly believe to be the truth. We must love each other enough to be honest — even when it doesn’t seem polite.
Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Ky. This commentary first appeared in the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.

    About the Author

  • R. Albert Mohler Jr.