briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, August 10, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, August 10, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

When History and Theology Collide: Turkish President Erdogan Reverts Hagia Sophia into Mosque

History, of course, by definition is behind us. But as Christians understand, it won’t stay there. It often comes right before our eyes, erupting in the present, even erupting into the headlines. Christians are particularly interested when it’s not only history that erupts in the headlines, but theology or the intersection of history and theology. That’s our first concern today on The Briefing, and the center of our concern is the city of Istanbul founded, in the sense of our concern, as the city of Constantinople back in the fourth century. In order to understand the headlines of today, and that is that the Ayasofya, the Hagia Sophia as it has been known, one of the most venerable buildings in the history of Christianity, is once again a mosque. That by declaration of President Erdogan of Turkey.

Behind all of this is a fascinating story. In order to understand it, we have to go back to the early fourth century, to the early 300s, and the decision made by Constantine, the emperor of Rome, that he must move the capital of his empire East, east from Rome, to a city that he would establish and name for himself, Constantinople. Constantinople thus became the capital of the Roman Empire and perhaps more famously of the Eastern Roman Empire until the 15th century, the year 1453. As you’re thinking about Constantinople becoming the capital city of the Roman Empire and all that that would mean, and as you consider the fact that Rome itself fell in the year 395 AD, but Constantinople did not fall in a very real sense until 1453, you’re looking at a city that lasted after the fall of Rome for over a millennium. But the headlines of our concern about the Hagia Sophia being turned into a mosque once again, in order to understand this, we have to go back to the high watermark we might say of the Eastern Roman Empire, and that would be under the emperor Justinian.

He reigned between 527 and 563 AD. Amongst his many accomplishments was the building of what became the largest interior space ever built to that point in the history of humanity and rarely exceeded since, including the largest architectural dome of its type, something that could not be repeated, arguably even today. The Hagia Sophia built by Justinian’s authority on the site of two previous Christian churches there in Constantinople between 527 and 565, it took shape and became the most famous building in Christendom at the time. It was a massive Byzantine cathedral. As a matter of fact, in many ways, the architectural style Byzantine, going back to Byzantium, another word for Constantinople, is really traceable to the development of this building, which was remarkably enough made possible because of the mathematical and architectural breakthroughs of Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles.

As referred to now by many in the West as the Hagia Sophia or in the East as the Ayasofya, the name means holy wisdom. It is the church of holy wisdom. Even though some people assume that that refers in some general sense to the Christian tradition, it actually refers specifically to Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Lord, the second person of the Trinity, who in the prologue to John’s gospel is referred to as the Logos, thus the Holy Wisdom. The headlines of our concern have to do with the fact that President Erdogan by his own declaration and by his manipulation of the legal process in Turkey has turned the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. What does “back into a mosque” mean? Again, the story is fascinating. You go back to the Eastern Roman Empire which did not fall until May the 29th of 1453, and it fell to the Ottoman Empire, but it wasn’t known as the Ottoman Empire yet.

It was just the Ottoman forces. They would eventually establish a multicentury dynasty of Islamic rule that was centered there in the city we have known as Constantinople, but more modernly as Istanbul because it was named, given an Islamic name in 1453 when Mehmed the Conqueror, the sultan who eventually was victorious over the Christian forces, took possession of the city and renamed it. He also took possession of the Hagia Sophia. Going back to the year 1453, one of the things that we moderns must note is that everyone then would have interpreted all events through a theological lens, but that’s the distinction between the medieval age on both sides. Both the Christian and the Islamic side in the 15th century and modern Westerners who are increasingly secularized and believe that whatever theology means it can’t have anything to do with geopolitics, or, for that matter, any kind of important history.

As you go back to 1453, it was a battle to the death, literally between the Christian forces of the Eastern Empire inside the city of Constantinople and its famous double Theodosian Walls and the Islamic forces then who laid siege, a six week deadly siege against Constantinople. It was the city under its Christian emperor, the very last of the Christian emperors that surrendered to the Muslims in 1453. Now there’s so much to consider here, but one is the basic distinction of worldview in so many ways including the understanding of history between those in the East of Europe and those in the West of Europe. Western Europe is a direct inheritor of the Roman Empire that was established in Rome. But again, that city fell. The Roman Empire in that sense fell in 395. In the East, the empire continued for a millennium and more thereafter. If you ask someone in the West, when did the Roman Empire fall, they’re likely to say 395. If you ask someone in the East, they’re likely to say the Roman Empire fell in 1453. That’s a wide divergence but it has everything to do with whether you associate the Roman Empire only with the city of Rome, or if, like Constantine, you consider the Roman Empire in the East to be the continuation of the Roman Empire in the West. Why did the city of Constantinople fall? Well, for one thing, just throughout the history of humanity, empires have always fallen and eventually that included the Eastern Roman Empire. It grew weak even as Islamic forces grew stronger and came back to conquer the city over and over again. They eventually succeeded in 1453. You can trace about three issues to that Islamic success. For one thing, the Islamic forces had finally figured out how to lay siege to the massive city of Constantinople, which had natural defenses which had attracted Constantine to the city as that location in the first place.

The second thing was that Mehmed the Conqueror had arranged for the most massive cannon ever then known in human history that was used to lay siege not only to the walls of Constantinople, but to drive fear within the hearts of the people. The third reason, and ultimately the most immediate reason, is that Constantinople’s famed walls were breached. Therein is a parable in itself because the parabolic history says that it was a soldier, a Christian soldier inside the walls that went outside the walls in order to relieve himself and did not adequately lock the door behind him. In any sense, it does appear that in real space-time history, those Christians who were trying to flee the city did indeed provide the opening for the Ottoman forces to rush in. When they did, what followed was several days of slaughter and then something else.

Mehmed the Conqueror saw it as his sublime Islamic responsibility to take the Hagia Sophia, then the most prominent church in the Eastern Empire, the great Eastern symbol of Christianity itself and transform it from being the Holy Wisdom, named for the second person of the Trinity, to being a mosque that was stripped, at least by Islamic intention, of all of its Christian iconography. Now there’s something else to understand here. This erupts right into the headlines. In the West, the Roman Catholic tradition has a great deal of sponsored art. It is very visual. In one sense, it’s very sensual. But that pales over against the worship of the Eastern church, predominantly known as the Eastern Orthodox Church.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, art and worship are fused together. This is formally known as iconography. The Eastern Orthodox would of course insist that there is no idolatry here.There’s no idolatrous use of the images, but they do understand that the images are more than images, and they are formerly involved in prayers. This is something so foreign to the Protestant worldview, of course. Indeed, all we have to think of is the reformer Martin Luther here who spoke of the house of God not as an “eye house”, but rather as a “mouth house,” that is, it is a place of preaching. But the iconography of the East is a very different reality. That is what was faced by Mehmed the Conqueror who after all being Islamic and taking Islamic law and theology seriously saw it as his responsibility to cleanse the Hagia Sophia of all of its iconography, all of its art. There was a great deal of it. Some of it has survived. Some of it has been restored. Some of it was actually whitewashed and placed behind plaster in order to protect it.

Here’s where theology and history all of a sudden collide again. If you’re talking about Constantinople and you’re talking about Istanbul, we are now talking about the nation of history, but that is a fairly recent development. That goes back indeed to the period shortly after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Another little historical footnote, the Ottomans sided with the wrong side. They sided with the Germans and its allied Imperial forces. When Germany, along with the Austrian-Hungarian empire fell, so eventually did the one known as “the sick man of Europe,” that is the Ottoman Empire. Here’s what we need to remember, that the modern nation of Turkey that emerged after the fall of the Ottoman Empire actually is on both sides of the continental divide. Like Russia, the nation straddles both Europe and Asia. In the case of Turkey, being both European and Asiatic, depending upon which part in the East or West you are standing.

As you’re looking at the Asiatic side, this goes back to the fact that this is the territory known as Asia minor where so many of the early churches we read about in the New Testament were established, so many of the churches to whom Paul wrote his canonical letters in the New Testament. After approximately a millennium of existence, the Hagia Sophia became an Islamic mosque, and it remained so for about 500 years, an Islamic mosque until the fall of the Ottoman Empire. What happened then is another one of those twists of 20th century history. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk eventually became the leader of modern Turkey. Atatürk whose followers were known by his middle name as Kemalists, they followed the agenda of trying to secularize Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. With the Ottoman Empire frankly remaining in so many ways medieval in its customs and its laws, Atatürk and his Kemalist followers were determined to create a modern secular Turkey, but it’s in a very unsecular part of the world.

As Atatürk took power, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum in the year 1935. In other words, it was desacralized so that it was no longer either a church or a mosque, and instead it was a museum. It was a museum when I visited it just a few years ago, but now it is once again a mosque. Here’s where history and theology and the present collide. President Erdogan is basically the strong man of Turkey. He has taken an increasingly Islamist bent. Now, Islam is the predominant religion in Turkey and has been ever since the 15th century, but Turkey was still an officially secular nation. It was overwhelmingly Muslim in a way that Islam can dominate in a culture even without overt political power. Here’s the thing to note. It doesn’t often remain without overt political power and that’s exactly what has been taking place throughout so much of the Islamic world. That’s exactly what is taking place in Turkey now.

It may be that President Erdogan of Turkey basically is just trying to shore up his political base. But in any event, he did it by appealing to the Islamic history and the Islamic ambitions of the people of Turkey. And his move to return the Hagia Sophia to being a mosque and to remove its status as a museum has been overwhelmingly popular not only in Turkey, but throughout the Islamic world. In order to understand that, we have to understand two things that Christians must keep in mind. One is this, Islam is a territorial religion and always has been, and it always will be. It’s written right into the warp and woof of Islam as not only a religion, but as a comprehensive worldview. In Islam, there is no true separation of what we might call mosque and state. In Islam, the goal must be a basic union between the mosque and the state to the extent that the law of Islam as handed down from the Koran, Sharia law, must become eventually the law of the territory as well.

Islam also holds to an understanding that any territory that was once Islamic must be Islamic again. Of course, the traditional division of Islam of the entire globe is between the world of Islam under Sharia law rule and the world at war, where all faithful Muslims must be striving to bring the rest of the world and all its inhabitants under the rule of Islam as well. The second thing we have to keep in mind is that an increasingly secularized West is increasingly unable to understand millions and millions of people around the globe and the very internal logic of Islam. One of the symptoms of this is if you look at the major Western news coverage of the transformation of the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, the basic understanding in the West is this can’t really be about theology. If it is, it can’t really be important. Both of those judgments are grotesquely wrong.

It is about theology, and the statement that is being made is about the lasting power of Islam and the transience of Christianity. At present, at least some of the Christian heritage of the Hagia Sophia is being protected by international law for whatever that’s worth because the Hagia Sophia is a world heritage site. You can imagine that’s not going to amount to much if the Islamic population of Turkey decides that it doesn’t matter. At this point, as the Hagia Sophia has been turned back into a mosque, drapes were put over the historic Christian iconography. On the 24th of July, fulfilling a pledge that he had made, President Erdogan knelt for prayers in the Hagia Sophia, once again established as a mosque. Charlotte Allen, writing in a column for The Wall Street Journal, gets it exactly right when she says that this becomes the great symbolic move to indicate that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular vision of Turkey is no more.

President Erdogan’s Islamist understanding of Turkey is now very much in place. Then she writes, and this is what’s most important, that in Turkey, the nation “takes religion more seriously than the secular West does.” That’s exactly right. This is why so many of the secular leaders in the West, in the United States, in Europe, and in all points touched by the West, increasingly secularized are decreasingly able to understand what’s going on in a story like this. That also explains why so many in the Western media looking at this story saying, “Well, that’s just nothing but an anecdote, or perhaps an interesting historical turn.” Actually, as Christians look at it, we have to understand that in the eyes of Muslims, this once again is conquest. That’s why the act of President Erdogan is so popular throughout the Islamic world and why reversing it is extremely unlikely under present conditions for a very, very long time.

Then again, that reminds us that if you’re talking about a building like the Hagia Sophia, a very, very long time is indeed a very, very long time. This is a building that still stands today, even as it was built as the largest interior space ever built in the history of humanity by Justinian the Emperor of Rome. Once again, as we conclude on this issue, we face the basic divide not only between Christianity and Islam, not only between the secular and the profoundly unsecular world, but between even in the Christian tradition, the West and the East. Before leaving this, I just have to remind my fellow evangelicals that even as the Reformation took place in Western Christianity, and even as in the century following, mutual anathemas were exchanged back and forth between the Catholics and the Protestants, that is, the Roman Catholic church officially has condemned.

Many of the key and central Reformation doctrines, there was no Reformation in Eastern Christianity. There was no similar development, and thus there were no similar anathemas. The theology of the Eastern Orthodox church is radically different than that, of Reformation Christianity, of Protestantism, but it’s also fundamentally different than Roman Catholicism, which is again, fundamentally different than that of Reformation Protestantism. So far as Islam looks at a map, the most basic division of this concern is simply between the world of Islam and the world of Christianity. Only the modern secular mind denuded of any ability to deal with these issues thinks that it really doesn’t matter.

Part II

None Will Escape the Justice of God: Nazi Concentration Camp Guard Convicted at Age 93

Next, also understanding the meaning of history. I want to go back one day before the day that President Erdogan knelt to pray in the Hagia Sophia, turned back into a mosque. In this case, the headline story is coming from Germany, from the city of Berlin, another city rife with human history and historical import. In this case, the day before, that is, on the Thursday of that week, a 93-year-old former concentration camp guard was found guilty of assisting in the murder of 5,232 people during the Third Reich and the Holocaust of the Jewish people. The man in this case was Bruno Dey, and he was eventually found guilty within a court in Hamburg, Germany because at age 17, he began working at the Stutthof concentration camp near Gdańsk in what is now Poland. Again, in August of 1944, where historically he was traced to personal complicity in the deaths of over 5,000 people, most of them Jews there in that concentration camp in Poland. Of course at that time, Poland had been conquered by the Nazis, and they were using it as a place to continue their effort to exterminate the Jewish people from the face, not only of Europe, but of the planet.

This is the kind of criminal charge that did not exist in the decades immediately after the Second World War, where basically only the leadership was tried for such offenses. Eventually, the law was changed so that persons who were voluntarily involved at any level in the extermination program could be brought before a human court of justice. That’s exactly what happened in Hamburg, but here’s the issue. We’re talking about a man who became involved in the Holocaust with the SS at age 17 and was convicted of complicity in 5,232 cases of murder at age 93, just a matter of days ago. In that one camp alone by the way, Stutthof, it is estimated that 65,000 prisoners perished. As Ruth Bender of The Wall Street Journal reports concerning the verdict, “The court found that conditions at Stutthof were so inhumane that its purpose must have been to exterminate its inmates, even though it wasn’t an extermination camp per se.”

That’s another very interesting and important point. The Nazis exterminated even in camps that were not formally identified as extermination camps. To state the very least, there is no way that a man who is now 93-years-old is going to serve a meaningful prison sentence for complicity in over 5,000 cases of murder. Even if the Jewish people have pressed for this kind of prosecution and understand that this may be one of the very last, Christians understand that no one is going to escape the highest court of justice. It’s almost impossible for us to imagine that the length of time between when that 17-year-old entered into the Nazi process and when he was found guilty of complicity and murder at age 93. We as Christians do understand the necessity of executing justice. We understand the necessity of this kind of investigation and prosecution and trial even more than seven decades after the end of World War II.

This is where Christians understand that referring to all humanity, all human beings who have ever lived, including ourselves, none will escape the justice of God. None will escape God’s judgment. At that judgment, every single one will be found guilty, and there will be no plea other than the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord and that he has purchased our salvation and paid the price satisfying the justice of God in full. Human justice is never fully satisfied. God’s justice will be infinitely satisfied, either in Christ or in hell.

Part III

Profound Truth in a Headline: Even the Pro-Abortion Media, When Honest, Recognizes Human Life in the Womb

As today’s edition of The Briefing comes to a close, I want to look to a very long article in the Washington Post that we’re really only going to consider in a happy way because of its headline. The headline is this–and it’s a part of the paper’s coverage of the coronavirus. The headline, “A pregnant woman with COVID-19 was dying. With one decision, her doctors saved three lives.”

In this case, the pregnant mother was carrying twins. Her name, Ebony Brown-Olaseinde. The twins and the mother were gravely endangered by the virus to the point that it was not expected that she would live and thus, they were afraid they would lose the twins as well. Here’s the point. A last minute decision in medical treatment by her doctors to save the babies by cesarean section also ended up saving the mother’s life. A very heartwarming story in the midst of a heartbreaking pandemic.

Here’s the point. It’s actually a happy point, and it’s a very profoundly necessary point. The headline said, “With one decision, her doctors saved three lives.” Indeed, they did. But by the logic of the abortion industry, there weren’t three lives; there was only one life and two potential lives. No one actually believes that’s true in a story about saving a pregnant woman’s life and saving her twin infants in the midst of the coronavirus. No, basic human wisdom, human honesty means that we celebrate the fact that three lives, not merely one were saved. But this comes by the very media who tell us that the unborn child isn’t alive, only a potential life, until they celebrate this kind of good news in which all of a sudden the unborn life is a life. In this case, two lives, but it’s in this case, they’re right. In the other case, they’re wrong. The happy story here is the fact that three lives were saved, and that’s a profound truth even in the midst of a headline. We just need to remind them of this truth and this headline over and over and over again.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to We’re looking forward in just the next several days to welcoming students and faculty and others back to the campus here at Southern Seminary and Boyce College. For more information, just go to the website That’s

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.


R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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