Another Problem with the Inaugural Prayer

I’ve already listed Five Issues with the Inaugural Prayer. Now there’s a sixth. I didn’t hear or see the inaugural prayer but I have read it. One thing that Newsweek’s Lisa Miller didn’t mention is that, as part of the prayer, Warren not only invoked the name of Jesus but he did so in several different forms. “Harmless enough” you say “after all, everyone knows that Jesus’ Aramaic name was Yeshua and not ‘Jesus.’ That’s a translation, so what’s wrong with translating Jesus’ name?” Nothing necessarily. 

We ought to be as inclusive as possible, even if its not satisfactory to the Lisa Miller’s of the world, but there’s a difference between being inclusive and universalist and it may be that Warren crossed a line.  As part of his prayer he invoked the Muslim name for Jesus. According to the text published by the AP, Warren said, “I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus, Jesus (hay-SOOS), who taught us to pray, Our Father….”

The name “Isa” occurs several times in the Quran (e.g., Surah 2.87; 3.45-62; 4.156-72). It stands for “Jesus.” The great problem is not translation per se but the Christology that translation evokes and invokes. The “Isa” of the Quran is not the Jesus of the NT. The “Isa” of the Quran and of Muslim tradition is merely another prophet of Islam inferior to Mohammed. According to the Quran, Jesus was wonder worker, he was crucified, but he did not die and he was not raised on the third day. As the Apostle Paul says, if Jesus was not raised then the Christian faith is meaningless (1 Cor 15:14). 

If there is only one word for Jesus in Arabic, if “Isa” is the only way to say “Jesus” in Arabic then Warren was stuck (and I go back to my original five objections) with an inherently ambiguous designation but if he had an Arabic alternative (namely, Yesua or some variant), as has been suggested, then he made a serious blunder. Further, why stop with that list? Presumably there are other ways to say Jesus. 

This business points out another reason for not having inaugural prayers. Christians live in two kingdoms simultaneously and we render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and we render unto God what is God’s. Nevertheless, a man cannot serve to masters. An inaugural prayer is necessarily civil religion and that is necessarily innocuous, bland, and usually sub-Christian in content. It may not be as exclusivist as a genuinely Christian prayer must be and no honest Christian may pray a prayer that is genuinely universalist. 

The truth is that Christianity holds that faith in Jesus is the only way to acceptance with God and to eternal life. Everyone who is not united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is doomed to eternal damnation. Jesus himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus wasn’t and isn’t a prophet of Islam. He wasn’t and isn’t simply a wise man. He wasn’t adopted by God because he was a good man. He wasn’t just a socio-religious critic. He was and is God the Son incarnate. He obeyed God perfectly as the representative and substitute for all the sinners whom the Father gave to him, he died for them, was raised for them, and intercedes for them at the right hand of the Father. He sent his Holy Spirit upon the Church, through whom he administers his spiritual kingdom on this earth until his return.

The great scandal of the prayer seems to have been that Warren dared utter the name of Jesus. It is controversial because most understand the exclusive claim implied in that name. There’s nothing wrong with being sectarian and exclusive in an ecclesiastical setting (even though the modernists gave up that ghost a long time ago) but one can see the problem with tying exclusivity to civil religion. No American should want the magistrate trying to sort out which religion is correct or favoring one religion over another. I certainly don’t and so I can see why people would complain on that front. It seems, however, that Warren tried to soften the blow by being clever but by so doing he may have been too clever by half. That’s one problem with civil religion. It’s never orthodox to suit the orthodox and it always muddled. Once more: the problem isn’t that he mentioned the name of Jesus, the problem is that he was there to pray in the first place.

Christians ought to pray for the president and all the civil authorities. We’re commanded to do so by Holy Scripture but we don’t do so as public officials but as private persons. By taking a place on the inaugural platform Warren may have signaled that “the evangelicals” are not yet done as a social-political force but is that the message that Christians really want to send? One hopes not.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Excellent post Dr. Clark. I heard the inaugural prayer live and was shaking my head when I heard Warren say the name Issa. Issa not the name of Jesus in Arabic. Yassua (al Massih) is! Issa is really a fictitious person mentioned in the Quran who is supposed to correspond to Jesus but isn’t the Jesus of the Bible.

    I was surprised that he hadn’t done his homework well enough to avert such a blunder.

    Your points about the two kingdoms is excellent as well. But, is the evangelical world willing to cede that ground? I don’t think it will cede it, until that rug is forcefully pulled from under it.


  2. I think this is just more evidence that Rick Warren is a great public orator, but a sloppy theologian. It reminds me of the time that he claimed to be Rupert Murdoch’s pastor and then the discernment websites got their knickers in a knot because Murdoch produces pornography and his pastor should put him under discipline. Warren was just sloppy in his speaking then too.

  3. Dr. Clark,

    Good post. Probably the Muslim audience are the ones who really got the message. Some people picked up on Warren’s use of Isa, however, for most it was probably hidden in plain site.

    Warren could have done worse or a lot better. I took a stab at what Paul might have said.


  4. Dr. Clark, while not defending Warren or his awful prayer, don’t prayers before parliament and even sermons have a long pedigree in Reformed history? I’m also thinking of the practice where English and Scottish pastors would accompany the troops in the field, praying for victory or the enemy.

  5. Adam,

    Yes, they do. I’m arguing explicitly and implicitly that, in most cases, it was wrong. Military chaplains are a very difficult case. I’ve discussed that problem before on the HB.


    To be clear, I don’t read Arabic (though my youngest daughter does and she read part of the Quran for me this AM) and I have confirmed with certainty that Isa is a distinctly Quranic or Muslim way to say Jesus but it seems problematic.

  6. I should add that when Arabic speaking Christians refer to Jesus, they never use Issa, but rather Yasua! (Yassooa).

  7. In addition to the “Issa” reference, Warren invoked the “bismallah” found at the beginning of most chapters in the Qur’an: “in the name of Allah (Bismallah), the compassionate, the merciful.” He didn’t directly reference Allah, but Muslims would know exactly where the language came from.

  8. RSC,

    I personally believe that Baal is a more palatable “god” than Allah. I just can’t see syncretizing Yahweh with a god that calls for the death or slavery of our brothers, especially considering what our brothers and sisters go through at the hands of the Muslims.

    I guess Rick Warren doesn’t know about these persecution stories and their justification in the Qur’an and Hadith.

  9. Allah is the Arabic word for God used by Christians, Muslims and Jews and others to refer to God. I don’t believe it implies a particular God, just like the word God in English does not necessarily refer to the God of Christians. So when a Muslim speaks English and wants to refer to Allah, he calls him God. Same as a Jew or a Christian. When a Christian or Jew speaking Arabic refers to God, he calls him Allah!!

    I understand that’s not the objection to the Bismillah quote, but, thought I’d throw that in.

  10. I was disappointed, as were all my fellow Mexicans, that Mr. Warren didn’t appeal to the Virgen de Guadalupe–after all she is the mother of “Haysoos” and our intermediary. Tsk tsk tsk!

  11. Albert,

    Allah may be the generic word for God but the Allah described in the Quran is not the God of the bible. You’re not saying that it is, but it’s worth clarifying since it’s so widely assumed that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the same deity as Allah. The doctrine of God taught in Scripture is quite different from the doctrine of God taught in the Quran.

  12. On a related topic, here’s an article entitled “Does God care who wins the Super Bowl” which apart from the fact that the Christian Sabbath is not mentioned at all, actually makes some two kingdoms insights:

    An excerpt:
    “Does God care who wins? There are few things regarding religion that approach consensus, but it’s fair to say that most of us concur with columnist Mark Kriegel, who recently wrote, “I refuse to believe that God —anyone’s God — has a rooting interest in the outcome of something as secular and perverse as a (football) game.”

  13. TM,

    Thanks. Just to be clear, a 2K view of this sort of thing doesn’t mean (and you’re not implying) that God is not sovereign nor does it mean that all things do not occur according to his providence.

    I add this because some critics of 2K, who seem bent on misunderstanding or misrepresenting it would be all too happy to be able to say that advocates are effective advocating deism.

    The point is simply that it’s juvenile and even pagan to claim that God favors this or that team or even for a team to pray for a victory.

    As you say, then there is the problem of the Sabbath, about which God has revealed himself at some length!

  14. Dr. Clark,

    No, of course, the God of the bible is not the god of the Quran… No issue there. I was just commenting on the use of Allah as though that is the muslim word for God where, as you mentioned, it is simply the generic Arabic word for God.

  15. I think walt’s point is absolutely right: “the Compassionate, the Merciful” stuck out to me, too. (Of course it is true of God, and of course Arabic Christians use the word Allah to refer to God, but the reference was nonetheless striking.) I think that Warren could have got away with it better if he had had just one of the two references, but of course, “getting away with it” is appropriate for “political prayer” rather than public prayer.

  16. As a previous MK in an Arab country, I second the observation that “Yesua a Nazari” is the standard Christian pronunciation of the Christ’s given name and recognized home of origin.

    It may be good to note that in merf broadcasts to the muslim world, they will make it clear that they are talking about the one refered to as “Isa” in the koran, and the speakers may even refer to him under the designation familiar to those who only know the koran.

    The letters they receive back from those parts of the world show that the muslims are hearing the Christian understanding of this person, and are having correct information “poured upon” the name by which they had previously heard about this one. If they then get their hands on a Bible, then they will soon learn to speak of him under his “Christian name”.

    “Isa” is indeed the “muslim Jesus”, although it makes an ideal “point of contact” for witnessing. Warren is just ridiculous to speak as he did, however, IMO. All he did was conflate the identities.

  17. Does anyone else remember Rick Warren signing the evangelical response to the “common word between us and you” letter from the Muslims a couple of years ago?

    Warren’s dhimmitude is highly irritating, especially since he’s American evangelicalism’s self-proclaimed pope, and the rest of us have to differentiate ourselves from him.

Comments are closed.