Since I first took an interest in apologetics, I’ve had the opportunity to hear some Islamic scholars debate the veracity of Christianity. I was particularly impressed with a gentleman by the name of Shabir Ally, who debated Mike Licona (a protege of Dr. Gary Habermas) on the historicity of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection at Regent University a few of years ago. Mr. Ally was highly conversant with a lot of Christian scholarship, and used terminology that only Christian seminarians and their professors would typically be familiar with. It was obvious that he studied Christianity carefully; for that, he earned my respect. I was also pleased by the demeanor of both Licona and Ally. They were respectful of one another, and they didn’t make any low blows or try to score points with mere rhetoric. The debate was very substantive and enjoyable.
In all candor, however, I have to state frankly that Ally’s arguments were not convincing. The core of his case was that the Christian Scriptures contain an accretion of unsubstantiated tradition vis-a-vis Jesus’ death and resurrection from Mark (the earliest of the Gospels) to John (the latest). But I never heard him advance any kind of critical model (textual or source/redaction) that would explain such a phenomenon. In the end, he spent two hours basically assuming what he was trying to prove: that the Gospels had been tainted, and that Islam’s account of the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection (which, according to Islam, never happened) is to be preferred.
From a forensic point of view, Ally lost the debate hands down. Licona relied primarily on the timeline of Paul’s life, his writings, and extra-biblical sources to establish his case; for the sake of argument, he didn’t even deal with the Gospel accounts. As well read in Christian scholarship as Ally was, I don’t think he was fully prepared to deal with Licona’s line of argumentation; he ended up beating a straw man the entire debate. Near the end, Licona finally managed to get Ally to deal more directly with the substance of his rationale. Ally’s only response was to assert that Paul fell prey to the same corrupted tradition that is contained in the Gospel accounts — again, without constructing any sort of literary or historical model that would support such an assertion.
I relate this story because Shabir Ally’s name came up again recently while I was bouncing around on the Internet. I stumbled upon the Alpha and Omega Ministries Web site, which is an outreach of apologist Dr. James White. He’s a sharp guy and an effective debater; I was previously unaware of his ministry, but now that I’ve had a chance to get better acquainted with it, I’m glad he’s out there. Incidentally, he travels in Reformed circles — which means he’s theologically Calvinist and apologetically presuppositionalist. As an aside, The MonT-SteR is still chewing on Calvinism (I have a REAL problem with total depravity and limited atonement), and although the presuppositional apologetical method is particularly effective against atheistic materialism, I typically find evidentialism a la Mike Licona and Gary Habermas to be a more comfortable and effective strategy in most conversations I’ve had.
Anyway, Dr. White has a weekly radio show/podcast called “The Dividing Line,” and a couple of months ago he devoted two whole shows to commenting on a debate between Shabir Ally and William Lane Craig. I should mention that Dr. Craig is partially responsible for sparking my own interest in apologetics in the early 90’s, so I’ve always had high regard for his keen intellect, his facility as a debater, and the character he exhibits when he goes toe to toe with ardent proponents of atheism and other anti-Christian worldviews. He really does know how to contend for the faith without being contentious.
But in his debate with Ally, he made some terrible blunders. Nobody is ever going to bat 1.000 in such circumstances, but Dr. White actually took the time to point out how Craig’s missteps were the result of his theological perspective on God’s love and original sin. It was the latter issue that struck me. Shabir was arguing that Allah creates people in a saved state; he then quizzically stated that Craig was asserting something outrageous: that humanity was innately depraved and in need of forgiveness from God on that basis.
This, of course, is one of the core messages of Christianity. Ally was nonplussed by it because it flies in the face of Muslim theology, anthropology, and soteriology. I was fully expecting Craig to leverage the fact that Ally more or less stumbled into Christian doctrine and argue clearly for it, but he didn’t. He said the following:
Shabir thinks that I’m presupposing that people are born depraved. Not at all. I’m willing to set aside the doctrine of original sin…
OOH, Dr. Craig — say it ain’t so! And Ally called him on it, as you can hear in Dr. White’s podcast. Now, I am not (yet) persuaded of the veracity of Calvinism, so I’m not prepared to embrace its conception of the doctrine of the total depravity of man (sorry Dr. White — please don’t beat me up!). But I do accept the premise of original sin and the noetic effect it has on our ability to respond to God. However one may define the depravity of man and its outworking, “setting aside” original sin — even as a debate tactic — is ceding sacred ground to your opponent. Why give away one of the central tenets of our faith? What point is there in arguing for the Christian conception of God’s forgiveness when you’re willing to ignore the very reason we need it?
I still have tremendous respect and admiration for Dr. Craig and his ministry, but I’ve never heard him step in it like that. Dr. White blames it squarely on Craig’s Arminianism. Perhaps. Like I said, nobody’s going to bat 1.000…. I know that all too well from personal experience.
aka The MonT-SteR