What do we mean by “the same God”?

With the recent flap at Wheaton over Larycia Hawkins, we have yet another round of argument over whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  This frustrates me, because there’s an obvious question that no one ever thinks to address in these disputes:

What the heck is that supposed to mean?

From a Christian point of view, there is only one God, for starters—a point on which Muslims would agree.  Both faiths understand themselves to be worshiping the singular Creator of everything that is, who is the rightful Lord of all creation.  There aren’t any other gods (let alone “Gods”) lying around whom we could be worshiping.  It isn’t as if Muslims were worshiping Ahura Mazda, Nyame, Odin, Zeus, Vishnu, Marduk, Xhuuya, Ba’al, or Set.  It seems to me the question we ought to be asking is, “Who is worshiping God in spirit and in truth?”

I’m not quite as alone in this as I thought, however.  In response to Dr. Hawkins’ assertion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, John Stackhouse responded,

I frankly don’t know what she meant by that.

Being Dr. Stackhouse, he followed that up with a relentless analysis of the question.

She cannot have meant that all those who claim to be Muslim and all those who claim to be Christian worship the same God, for the scriptures of both religions make it clear that there are those among the community of the faithful who do not in fact devote themselves to God: pretenders, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and purveyors of alternative religions (e.g., Gnosticism, moralism, mystical universalism, and so on). And surely Professor Hawkins knows that.

She cannot have meant that there is no important theological difference between Islamic and Christian views of God. Indeed, she very likely knows that there are significant differences among Islamic believers and also among Christian believers when it comes to theology (that is, the doctrine of God). And I’m not meaning heresy here so much as differences that would be recognized as areas of legitimate disagreement within whatever community sees itself to be orthodoxy. So the very significant differences within Islamic theology or within Christian theology would make it preposterous to claim that all Islamic theology agrees with all Christian theology.

At the same time, anyone who’s familiar with the way the church is growing in various parts of the Muslim world knows that Islam isn’t completely other from the Christian faith.

What [Dr. Hawkins] could have meant, and what makes sense in the context of her long-time affiliation with Wheaton College, is that she believes that the same God is the object of much and normative Islamic piety as is the target of much and normative Christian piety. (By clear implication, surely Jewish piety is meant as well.) When pious Muslims pray, they are addressing the One True God, and that God is, simply, God.

Thus Christian translators of the Bible in Malaysia, as in other predominantly Islamic countries, stoutly prefer to use “Allah” to demonstrate that the Bible is indeed speaking of that One True God: there is no contest, in their view, between two rival Gods.

Likewise, Christian missionaries (and missiologists) have reported for a very long time that converts from Islam to Christianity routinely testify that they did not change Gods, but came to understand the One True God better…and especially to understand Jesus aright as not merely a highly regarded prophet but as the divine-human Lord and Saviour. Much like Saul on the road to Damascus, many point out, these people undergo tremendous change—that’s why it’s called conversion, rather than merely a theological correction—but they do not drop one deity for another.

This is not to minimize the gravity of the theological differences between Islam and Christianity.  That would be a mistake, as Mateen Elass makes clear.  In his post on the controversy at Wheaton, he agrees that “Ms. Hawkins initial Christian instincts are to be applauded,” but goes on to say,

Since the Qur’an emphatically denies most of the doctrines upon which the Christian faith is built (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the atoning death and subsequent resurrection of Jesus Christ, salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, the indwelling Holy Spirit, fallen human nature, to name a few), Christians who believe the Bible rightly put the Qur’an in the category of false revelation. If Christians are people of the Book, Muslims cannot be. If Muslims are people of the Book (the Qur’an), then Bible-believing Christians cannot be. . . .  Can it be said in a meaningful way that revelations which differ on the essential nature of God, on the possibility of God entering this world in human form, on the question of fallen human nature and God’s solution to the human predicament, on the person and work of Jesus Christ, and on the vision of God’s goal for redeemed humanity, nevertheless point to the same God? Ms. Hawkins apparently thinks so. Wheaton College apparently does not. I must say in defense of Wheaton, if you look at their 12 paragraph Statement of Faith (which is standard evangelical theology, and which Ms. Hawkins signed), Islamic orthodoxy would reject 11 of those twelve paragraphs, accepting (perhaps) only the final statement on the fate of the saved and the damned. The facile statement that “we worship the same God” fails to wrestle with the facts that Christians and Muslims define God in irreconcilable ways and that our definitions of God inevitably lead us to worship in vastly different ways as well.

Dr. Elass elaborates on some of those differences in a post on the Muslim view of John 3:16.

In its rejection of this message, Islam declares instead:

  • God has no offspring, so Jesus cannot be His Son. One of the most famous Suras in the Qur’an declares of Allah, “He begets not, nor was He begotten” (112:3). As a corollary of this, the concept of the fatherhood of God in any sense is forbidden.

  • To believe in Jesus as God’s Son (and hence Savior of the world) is to inherit everlasting fire rather than everlasting life, for it is to commit the unforgivable sin of “shirk,” associating something from the created order with the inimitable Creator.

  • God has given prophets to the world for guidance and warning. Human beings must do their best to follow His threats and admonitions, for there is no Savior or Mediator between God and man to atone for our sins. In the end, our fate rests in Allah’s inscrutable will.

  • The “world” is not hopelessly lost apart from God’s sacrificial grace seen in the gift of His Son; rather it is misguided and forgetful and just needs to be reminded of God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s proper response of submission.

  • God does not love the whole world, but only those who do what pleases Him.

While the New Testament declares, “God is love,” and tells the story of how God in his love sent his Son into the world to seek and save the lost,

In Islam, on the other hand, Allah’s heart does not brim over with love for human beings. Instead, he seems strangely detached from the fate of individuals. “Salvation” is completely in his hands, yet he saves whom he wills and damns whom he wills. Six times the Qur’an declares, “Whomsoever Allah will, he leads astray, and whomsoever he will, he guides him rightly” (6:39; 13:27; 14:4; 16:93; 35:8; 74:31). This cold-hearted double predestinarianism is underlined twelve more times in the Qur’an with a statement that nothing can avail against God’s damnation: “Whom Allah leads astray, for him you will not find a way” (4:88, 143; 7:178, 186; 13:33; 17:97; 18:17; 39:23, 26; 40:33; 42:44, 46. I include all these references so that you may check them out for yourself!). All of this callous indifference to the eternal destinies of human beings is summed by Allah himself in 32:13 – “If we had willed, we would have given every soul its guidance; but now my word will come true: I will fill hell with jinn and men all together.” . . .

Such is one of the gaping differences between Allah and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Which vision of God would you rather have your life informed by? That’s not a hard choice. Unfortunately, some 1.5 billion Muslims know nothing of this gracious, unconditional love of God, laboring instead under the crushing burden of trying to please a god whose love they can never quite merit, whose heart remains impassive toward them.

This is a grave difference of eternal significance.  Only one of these two visions can be true, for they are mutually exclusive, and it is infinitely important which one it is.  Yet phrasing the question before us as “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” obscures the issue, creating much heat and absolutely no light, because it lifts the whole discussion out of the realm of theology and turns it into a matter of identity politics.  Once you ask the question that way, those who aren’t theologically-minded will not hear you as discussing comparative beliefs about God.  What they will hear instead is the question, “Do Muslims qualify as ‘us’ or as ‘them’?”  At that point, the issue in the public arena is no longer what Muslims believe, how that differentiates them from Christians, and how that might cause them to act differently; instead, the issue is inclusion vs. bigotry.  Intelligent discussion on matters of actual substance is out the window, replaced by the 241,685,793rd round this decade of stale stereotyped denunciation, demonization, and opportunistic political grandstanding.  We need to throw this pernicious, misleading question out the window and start discussing what Muslims and Christians believe about God.

Even as I say that, however, I expect that there will be those who will disagree—and will insist on reading everything I write as an answer to the very question I believe is illegitimate.  I may be called a bigot and Trump supporter (umm, no) who wants to exclude Muslims (as if I had any actual ability to exclude anybody from anywhere or anything anyway) by some at the same time as others denounce me as “soft on Islam” and unwilling to call a spade a spade.  To anyone of the former inclination, I can only say that the differences in belief between Christianity and Islam are real and profound, to pretend otherwise is to patronize and insult Muslims rather than to support them, and none of that has anything to do with my willingness to have Muslim kids in our church preschool or work with their parents in the PTO.  I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Stackhouse when he says,

Christian solidarity with our Muslim neighbours is a good idea because they are our neighbours, regardless of what we think of their piety or their theology.

To the “Muslims worship a different God” crowd, on the other hand, I would say that we must focus on what Dr. Stackhouse correctly calls “the only conceptual point at stake”:

Whether theological difference about God necessarily means that one is praying to, and otherwise giving worshipful service to, a different God.

As he points out, we must tread very carefully in answering this.  If we insist that anyone who doesn’t believe specifically that Jesus is God, or that God is the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not merely not Christian but in fact worshiping an entirely different God than Christians, we aren’t just saying that Muslims worship a different God—we’re saying the same thing about the Jews.  At that point, we have set ourselves against the whole of the Scriptures, because Abraham had never heard of Jesus, and Moses didn’t believe in the Trinity.  David wrote psalms which anticipated the coming of Jesus, but it took Jesus actually coming to point that out.  Despite this, Abraham and many other figures in the Old Testament are held up in the New Testament as exemplars of faith for the followers of Christ.  What’s more, for all his denunciations of the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus never accused them of being pagans who worshiped a different God—he called them out for worshiping the true God falsely, which is not the same thing at all.  Similarly, Paul has no doubt that even the most misguided of the Jewish leaders are zealous for God; their problem is that their zeal for God is “not according to knowledge.”  Again, he grieves because they were worshiping the true God falsely.

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?  We’re trying to, but we have radically different ideas of who God is, and thus of what it means to worship him; and if we’re honest, none of us does it very well, even on our best days.  Let’s leave it at that and start asking smarter questions.  And as we go,

let us evangelicals truly act in the name of the Christian God and love these neighbours as we love ourselves.


Photo © 2010 Adam Jones.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

Posted in Religion and theology.

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