New Testament Implications of the Kerygma: A Response to Martin Accad’s “Christian Attitudes Toward Islam and Muslims”

Gordon Nickel, Ph.D. — January 24, 2020

Christian scholars of Islamic Studies who offer advice on the proper approach to Islam and Muslims from a thorough knowledge of both Islam and the Gospel are quite few and far between, and thus deserve the respectful attention of the global Church. Whether one agrees with their advice or not, such scholars should be appreciated both for their work of research and writing and the risk they take by exposing their views to the fickle fashions of missiology. Readers who find help in the advice should affirm these scholars. Those who disagree should state their reasons in an open and amicable way.

A good example of an initiative to set a direction for “Christian-Muslim interaction” is the article by Martin Accad, titled “Christian Attitudes Toward Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach.”[1] The article proposes a spectrum of five “dialogical positions,” then recommends the “kerygmatic” approach, which the author describes as “the gospel as God proclaimed it” (31–37). There are many interesting points in this article that would be profitable to discuss. This short response picks up on only one of these points: the implications of the New Testament material on the kerygma indicated by the article.

According to this article, the “kerygmatic” approach follows “the nature of the kerygma,” which the article describes as “God’s gracious and positive invitation of humanity into relationship with himself through Jesus” (38). This description in turn seems to base itself on a selection of occurrences of the noun kerygma and the verb kerysso (37). The article then states that no other approach is needed, and proceeds to draw a series of conclusions about what the “kerygmatic” approach means for Christian thinking about Islam, its messenger, the Quran, and Muslims (38–43). The reader may wonder whether the New Testament provides sufficient support for these conclusions. If the verses selected and briefly summarized do not adequately represent the range of meanings of kerygma, then the conclusions based on these verses would seem to restrict both theological reflection and practical application.

The article is right to start with scripture. One assumes that the article’s analysis of the language of kerygma is brief because of the shortness of the article, and that the author would welcome a more extensive exploration of its appearances. Following through on the use of the word kerygma in the New Testament—and its associated verb kerysso—opens up a much broader discourse on the preaching of the gospel. The circle of significance is especially widened through attention to the contexts of the noun and the objects of the verb. One also notices through this study that the language of kerygma is virtually synonymous with several other expressions for both the act of proclaiming and the content of the proclamation.

Most of the references offered in the article are occurrences of the verb kerysso, and of these most are from the Gospel accounts (37). In all, there are 61 occurrences of the verb in the New Testament, 19 found in the letters of Paul. Most of the nine occurrences of the noun kerygma are found in the letters of Paul.

Many occurrences of kerysso in the Synoptic Gospel accounts (there is none in the Gospel of John) have objects like “God’s good news concerning repentance, the kingdom, and Jesus,” as the article correctly summarizes (37). But the contexts of some of those occurrences merit closer scrutiny. In Luke 4, Jesus read from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Nazareth. Luke renders the two occurrences of “to preach” in Isaiah 61:1–2 by the verb kerysso (4:18–19). The listeners seemed pleased with Jesus’ reading from the Isaiah scroll, but when Jesus began speaking of how “no prophet is accepted in his hometown” (4:24–27), the hometown people became enraged and tried to throw him off a cliff (4:28–29). The noun kerygma only appears three times in the Synoptics, and two of those occurrences are in the phrase, “the preaching of Jonah” (Matt 12:41; Luke 11:32). The preaching of Jonah, of course, was a message of judgment that demanded a radical response: “He proclaimed, ‘Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned’” (Jonah 3:4). The context in Matt 12 is a scene of controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees and teachers of the law, whom Jesus calls “a wicked and adulterous generation” (Matt 12:39, cf. Luke 11:29). In both passages the crux of contention is the identity of Jesus (“now one greater than Jonah/Solomon is here,” Matt 12:41–42), which seems to signal that one aspect of gospel preaching will be resistance to open confession of the truth about Jesus. The Luke 4 context seems to suggest that such resistance can be deadly.

The article presents two examples of the noun kerygma: the preaching that “relies entirely on the power of God’s Spirit” (1 Cor 2:4); and Paul’s proclamation of the message at his “first defense” (2 Tim 4:17 and “Christian Attitudes,” 37). The first example provides an opportunity to discuss the influence of context; the second example will be picked up later to query the distinctions that the article claims for its “kerygmatic” approach.

The context of the occurrence of kerygma at 1 Cor 2:4 is well known: resistance to the “message of the cross” (1:18) from both Jews and Greeks (1:17–2:16). The content of his preaching, Paul writes, is “nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2). In fact, the verb kerysso appears in nearby 1:23 with a significant object: “but we preach Christ crucified.” Paul is explaining that no matter how positively the messenger may proclaim the good news of God’s love and grace, no matter how felicitous the invitation to a relationship with God through Jesus, Jews find it a stumbling block (skandalon) and Greeks foolishness (1:23). At the very least, the context of 1 Cor 2:4 alerts the reader to the possibility that the preaching of the gospel, the affirmation that “the Messiah was crucified,” will face resistance not in the first place for the manner of its delivery, but rather for the content of the message itself.

Two other important passages that use the language of kerygma, though not indicated in the article, are 1 Cor 15 and Rom 10. Paul uses the verb kerysso at 1 Cor 15:11: “Whether then it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” Paul is saying that the apostles are together on their message, which in turn is set out with great precision in 15:3–7: “that the Messiah died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter” and to many others. Though the apostles are on the same page, however, their message is not innocuous. Paul uses the verb again in verse 12, then the noun kerygma in verse 14, to deal with the denial of the resurrection from the dead. Again, the content of the kerygma is positive and full of hope, but there is resistance.

In Romans 10, the verb kerysso appears three times, in verses 8, 14 and 15. Again the context is worth noting. The “word of faith” that Paul proclaims is that “…you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead…” (10:9). The Lordship theme continues until verse 13, after which Paul asks how this redemptive preaching can reach people (vv. 14–15). The object of the preaching is the Lordship of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. There is good reason to understand that when Paul quotes Joel 2:32 in verse 13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” he is drawing a line from Yahweh to kurios to Jesus. Paul writes further that not all the Israelites accepted this news—however good—and quotes Isaiah 65:2 to say that those who refused God’s invitation were “a disobedient and obstinate people” (10:21).

Another appearance of the verb kerysso with Lordship as its object comes in 2 Cor 4:5: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.” The context for this occurrence is once more worth noting. In 2 Cor 3 Paul compares Jesus with Moses, asserting that “what was glorious” in the ministry of Moses “has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory” of the ministry of the Spirit in Jesus (3:10). Paul then puts this in capsule form in chapter 4 immediately preceding the occurrence of kerysso: he describes the message of the apostles as “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Immediately after 4:5 Paul writes that God “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (4:6). This high Christology, which spotlights the deity of Jesus, is the object of the verb kerysso. Paul also does not hesitate to compare Jesus with the figure of Moses, who is for Jews the prophetic figure that they most associated with glory.

Also noteworthy on the theme of the deity of Jesus is the Acts account of the very first sermon of the baptized Saul. “At once he began to preach (kerysso) that Jesus is the Son of God” (Acts 9:20). Just a few verses later Saul “baffled” the Jews in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah (v. 22), and the Jews made plans to kill Saul (vv. 23–24). Should the fact of Saul’s preaching be kept separate from its content and context? Saul’s powerful (v. 22), positive affirmations of the true identity of Jesus brought to him the danger of death in a similar way to how Jesus’ demonstrations of his own identity stirred up plans for his death especially among religious leaders (John 5:18; 7:19, 25, 44; 8:20, 40, 59; 10:31–33, 39; 11:53-57; 12:10).

Another dimension of good news proclamation related to the vocabulary of kerygma is the tremendous importance that Paul gave to the correct content of the message. In 2 Cor 11:4 Paul mentions people who preach (kerysso) “a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached” or “a different gospel from the one you accepted.” Paul relates this to the danger that the minds of Christians could be “led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (v. 3). In Galatians 1-2, however, Paul is more straightforward about how he views “another” Jesus or gospel. Paul writes that he set before the leaders in Jerusalem the gospel that he preached (kerysso) among the Gentiles (2:2). That gospel (euangelion), he says, is a message that he received by direct revelation from Jesus Christ (1:12) about Jesus’ divine Sonship (1:16; cf. 2:20). When he considers “a different gospel” (1:6), Paul uses some of the most intense language in the New Testament to characterize it: “…even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned [literally anathema]!” (1:8). So strongly does Paul feel about the correct content of the preaching that he repeats the condemnation of anyone who preaches a gospel other than what the Galatians had accepted (1:9).

It is important to emphasize from this crucial passage that along with his counsel elsewhere to love all believers and to live at peace with all people (e.g. Rom 12:14–19), Paul shows no tolerance for someone who preaches a different message about Jesus. Paul calls such a message “really no gospel at all” (1:7) and characterizes such a “preacher” as throwing believers into confusion and “trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7). On the basis of the language that he uses to make his argument, one could reasonably conclude that this is the place where Paul cannot be moved. He writes that in response to some “false brothers” (2:4), “We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you” (2:5).

The context in Galatians 1-2 also demonstrates that the language of kerygma is virtually interchangeable with other nouns and verbs in the semantic field of preaching and message. The alternate verb for preaching the gospel in Gal 1:8, 9, and 11 is euangelizo. The same is true in 1 Cor 1-2 (kataggello, 2:1) and 1 Cor 15 (gnorizo, 15:1). Examples of synonymous nouns are Romans 16:25: “…my gospel (euangelion) and the proclamation (kerygma) of Jesus Christ”; 1 Cor 2:4: “My message (logos) and my preaching (kerygma); and Rom 10:8: “the word of faith (rhema tes pisteos) we are preaching (kerysso).” This suggests that the New Testament implications of kerygma are not yet fully explored until one also considers the uses, contents, and contexts of equivalent language. One might also consider the New Testament’s positive use of nouns and verbs like apologia (Phil 1:7, 16; 1 Peter 3:15)[2] and dialegomai (to reason, dispute, or argue with, Acts 17:2 and nine other times in Acts), etc. “Approach” in Christian witness must not proceed until the completion of careful theological reflection. And theological reflection must be based on a rock-solid foundation of biblical study.

In any case, the passages using kerygma and kerysso associate these words with a gospel message about the divine Lordship of Jesus, his identity as the Son of God, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead. The passages in the letters of Paul, at least, indicate these objects not merely as four among a variety of concerns, but rather as matters “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3). Paul did not take kindly to people who preached a different story about Jesus, even those from his own ethnic background who might call themselves Christians. For Paul there was too much at stake. In most kerygma passages the preaching of these positive truths was met with resistance and unbelief, in a range from scoffing (“foolishness,” 1 Cor 1:21; cf. Acts 17:32) to obstinacy (Matt 10:14–15, cf. 10:7) to arrest and attempts to kill (Acts 9:23; Matt 10:28, cf. 10:27). Yet rather than rolling with this resistance to relativize religious truth claims, followers of Jesus take their stand on the truth about their Lord.

Readers of Martin Accad’s interesting article who have experienced the joy of participation in the apostolate to Islam will have some practical knowledge about how the open confession of these affirmations of the kerygma is generally received by Muslims. This raises the question of whether nothing more than “positive invitation” is needed in witness (38). The manner in which Paul took his stand on the correct content of the kerygma, and what the article calls “a theological understanding of revelation and inspiration,” (39) also question the article’s approach to Islam, its messenger, and its scripture. That would be another profitable discussion for another time.

[1] Martin Accad, “Christian Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims: A Kerygmatic Approach,” in Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims: Essays in Honor of J. Dudley Woodberry, ed. Evelyne A. Reisacher (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2012), 29–47.

[2] The article seeks to distinguish the “kerygmatic” approach from apologia. Accad, “Christian Attitudes,” 38.

Gordon Nickel, Ph.D., is the author of multiple books, including  The Qur’an with Christian Commentary, which is forthcoming from Zondervan in 2020.

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