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.