Reflection on Dr Accad’s Proposal of a Kerygmatic Approach

The following is a reflection by Sam Nwokoro, a PhD student in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at the University of Edinburgh.

The Christian-Muslim Studies Network co-hosted Dr Martin Accad, professor of Islamic Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, along with the Centre for the Study of World Christianity and the Theology and Ethics seminar in November 2019. This was a unique opportunity to hear directly from Dr Accad on his recently published book Sacred Misinterpretations: Reaching across the Christian-Muslim Divide at the School of Divinity, University of Edinburgh. Dr Accad, presents his book as a mediating attempt at some of the long-standing differences between Christians and Muslims.

Dr Accad’s presentation began with an outline of five kinds of interaction that often characterize the spectrum of approaches in Christian-Muslim relations. These interactions are: (a) the syncretistic (b) the existential (c) the Kerygmatic (d) the apologetic and (e) the polemical. With a clear preference for the third, Dr Accad discusses the Kerygmatic as a Christ-centred approach that derives from the depth of personal faith as opposed to religion as a system. Drawing on a Barthian dichotomy between faith and religion, Dr Accad argues that faith-based communication translates into simply witnessing one’s peculiar experience of the Jesus of history.

From the outset, an assumption that could jump out at anyone from this proposal is that faith has a passive nature of witnessing or reporting an experience. In other words, narrating one’s own experience comes with less proclivity for self-justification; the opposite would be the case if one were to represent a religious system or tradition. This assumption implies that faith has a better communicative quality that is enhanced by a level of non-institutionalized religious commitment, not minding that the personalized quality of any revelatory experience could equally make for inordinate fervency. Be that as it may, the Kerygmatic framework makes me wonder how consistently one could separate faith and religion in Christianity. It seems that in order for this framework to function, the teaching and person of Jesus are made to be non-institutional.

Dr Accad argues that this faith-based encounter with the ‘religious other’ finds its best example in the first-century Jewish figure himself, Jesus of Nazareth. Dr Accad cites Jesus’ intra-Jewish relations, particularly with Nicodemus, the Pharisee, and the Samaritan woman in the gospel as recorded by John. To these two individuals, Jesus appeared to have challenged the basis of their religious identity. To Nicodemus he proposed that rebirth by the Spirit was most suitable for one’s participation in the Kingdom of God. This was in confrontation of Nicodemus’ absolute dependence on the Abrahamic bloodline as a means to salvation. To the Samaritan woman, Jesus of Nazareth is reported to have downplayed the significance of the well of Jacob, thereby mentioning that he could offer her water that eternally quenched her thirst.

I reckon that the question of clarity in representation also arises from this proposal. When faith comes into an interreligious dialogue setting as an experience and not a religion, what religion does it represent? Where does the meeting point lie between someone who comes to the dialogue table as a person of faith and another for whom such dichotomy does not fully represent their religious worldview? Perhaps the practical note on which Dr Accad’s presentation ended was an indication that imitating the love and kindness exemplified by the Nazarene Christ could be the best expression of the Christian faith identity in an interfaith encounter. If this is correct, then perhaps there is something of an existential approach right at the heart of the Kerygmatic proposal.

In the Kerygmatic approach, however, faith is presented as being more active in proclamation and less concerned with explanation. It proposes that faith is presented as something received rather than something manufactured. As humans, we tell about what we receive but we explain the workability of what we make. The advantage of the Kerygmatic approach would then be that it invites religious adherents to inquire into what should be considered central to their sense of belief. Dr Accad’s proposal of the Kerygmatic places the focus of Christianity on the examples of the professed Christ. This certainly invites the Muslim faithful to reflect on what is most crucial in Islam. The experiential witnessing character of the Christian perspective does equally make interfaith dialogue something that engages persons who wish to witness their faith, not from a theologically sophisticated perspective but from the simplicity of relating a spiritual experience.

Where does theology belong in this emphasis on faith as an experience? It is interesting that Dr Accad does affirm the place of theological reflection as a historical part of interreligious encounters without seeing a potential contradiction in how theological debates allude more to religion as a system. Theological exchanges and debates between Christians and Muslims have been largely shaped and conducted by religious authorities and doctrinal elites of institutional repute. This perspective is echoed by historians of early Christian-Muslim encounters. A case in point would be Jack Tannous’ recent discussions on the practical disposition of ordinary believers in the religious happenstances of early Medieval Middle East (see Michael Rozek’s reflection on Prof. Tannous’ recent keynote).

For Dr Accad, however, witnessing to the person of the historical Christ may not stand in stark contradiction to understanding the theological issues that were largely shaped by religious institutions. Dr Accad highlighted the understanding of the intellectual history of Christian-Muslim relations as a means to innovative contribution. He underlined that identifying deadlocks in the history of Christian-Muslim doctrinal exchanges is a way of unlocking theological knot-points.

In the end, the question that Dr Accad has postulated and tried to answer, using the Kerygmatic approach, is that of the role of faith as an expression of personal spiritual experience in interreligious exchanges. The Kerygmatic approach derives from Dr Accad’s recently published Sacred Misinterpretations: Reaching across the Christian-Muslim Divide. I have no doubt that many historians, theologians, as well as practitioners of faiths in dialogue, will find Dr Accad’s book well worth engaging.

This post represents a reflection on a lecture. See this post for a detailed discussion about Sacred Misinterpretation with the author.