Pope Benedict XVI's speech in Germany last month was widely criticized as offensive to Muslims. But the violent reaction of some Muslims to a 14th-century interfaith dialogue he quoted obscured the broader theme of the address: "the reasonableness of faith."
Indeed, the point of the controversial reference was to emphasize that those who spread religious teachings must do so by reason, not by force. And it is on the basis of reason that he hoped to build a framework for interreligious dialogue.
But how can faiths firmly different from one another ever truly agree without one side converting? The Roman Catholic Church has dialogued for years with many faiths, from Muslims to Buddhists to Baptists, with no real doctrinal agreement.
Even supposed recent achievements of Christian unity fail on closer inspection.
On Oct. 31, 1999, after 30 years of serious dialogue, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a docu- ment at Augsburg, Germany, titled "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" (JDDJ).
It purported to reach agreement on this central issue of the Reformation. But today, it's seen as more of a political document than a shared creed. In their actual beliefs and practices, both sides remain as far apart as ever.
The Reformation began Oct. 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his disputation to the Wittenberg church door. He was angered by the pope's offer to release dead relatives from purgatory to heaven for a fee. The sale of indulgences ignited the Reformation. Yet this critical issue is not even mentioned in JDDJ. So much for 30 years of dialogue. Is it fruitless?
Dialogue wrongly assumes that opposing ideas can be harmonized. Jesus Christ did not command His disciples to dialogue, but to "preach the gospel." The gospel claims that Jesus died for the sins of the world, was resurrected, and, as Peter declared, "Neither is there salvation in any other..." (Acts 4:12). The gospel leaves nothing to "dialogue" about.
That doesn't mean Christians shouldn't talk with others. From scripture alone, Paul "reasoned with them ... disputed in the synagogue ... and persuaded the Jews and the Greeks" (Acts 17, 18). He declared that Jesus was the Messiah because He fulfilled biblical prophecies. Everyone was free to check the evidence and decide for themselves.
The pope's call for dialogue rings hollow. He mentioned the 16th-century Reformation and its motto, "sola scriptura" – the principle that the Bible is the only, not just primary, spiritual authority. But he failed to admit that his church still opposes this concept as firmly as it did at the Council of Trent (1545-63).
The Vatican no longer uses torture or the sword as a threat, but it hasn't rescinded its anathemas, or curses, against Protestants. For all the current talk about dialogue and ecumenism, its earlier decrees declaring that there is no salvation outside submission to the Catholic Church have never been rescinded.
Pope Benedict argued, and rightly so, that "Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats...." Indisputably, such threats prevent a reasonable faith from being formed.
Truth is not created by government legislation nor by church decree. It simply is, awaiting discovery, acceptance, and obedience. The Bible declares: "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord" (Isaiah 1:18). On this basis the early church was established, and this consensus should still be possible today.
• Dave Hunt is cofounder of The Berean Call and author of "Judgment Day! Islam, Israel and the Nations."
Excerpts from the pope's talk at Regensburg, Germany last month:
...[14th century Byzantine emperor Manuel II] addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
...For philosophy and, albeit in a different way, for theology, listening to the great experiences and insights of the religious traditions of humanity, and those of the Christian faith in particular, is a source of knowledge, and to ignore it would be an unacceptable restriction of our listening and responding.
...The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the program with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God," said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.