Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

December 28, 2015 at 5:15 am 4 comments


Larycia Hawkins

Dr. Larycia Hawkins

Last week on this blog, I discussed the danger of trading theological integrity for political expediency in the wake of Donald Trump’s proposed ban on all non-resident Muslims entering our country.  As I explained, Mr. Trump’s claim that his ban is “not about religion,” though politically palatable, cannot be factually truthful.  His ban, I argued, is necessarily about religion because it affects a whole group of thoroughgoingly religious people.

I also argued that it is important for us, as Christians, to have honest theological conversations with our Muslim friends.  We may disagree on a great number of things, but at least we agree that theology matters.  Categories like orthodoxy and heresy, truth and deity are important to us.  In a culture that is far too dismissing of theology, Muslims and Christians should be enthusiastically engaging in theology.

This is what I argued for last week.  And now this week, almost providentially, I have an opportunity to practice what I blog.

One of America’s premier evangelical institutions, Wheaton College, is embroiled in an imbroglio after one of its professors, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, claimed that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  Wheaton placed Dr. Hawkins on paid administrative leave, explaining in a press release:

As a Christian liberal arts institution, Wheaton College embodies a distinctive Protestant evangelical identity, represented in our Statement of Faith, which guides the leadership, faculty and students of Wheaton at the core of our institution’s identity. Upon entering into a contractual employment agreement, each of our faculty and staff members voluntarily commits to accept and model the Statement of Faith with integrity, compassion and theological clarity … Dr. Hawkins’ administrative leave resulted from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College’s doctrinal convictions.[1]

Dr. Hawkins’ assertion is well worth our time and attention because it is an example of precisely the kind of theological discussions I would argue Christians and Muslims ought to be having.  Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?  Is Dr. Hawkins correct?

As a Christian, I would answer the question of a shared deity among Christians and Muslims in two ways:  “No, but…”  The answer “no” is necessary for theological honesty.  The answer “but” is crucial to Christian hospitality.  Let me briefly explain both answers.

“No”

It is very difficult to assert, at least in any way that demands a nuanced theology of divinity, that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  In defending her assertion on social media, Dr. Hawkins cited theologian Miroslav Volf, who, in an interview for Christianity Today, explained:

I think that Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same …

God is one in both traditions. That’s very important. Two, God is merciful. Also, God is just. God’s oneness, God’s mercy, and God’s justice are significant commonalities. We have different understandings of each of these, but the overlaps are really impressive.[2]

Volf argues that Christians and Muslims worship the same God based on a list of divine attributes that happen to be the same between the two faiths.  His list of divine attributes, however, strikes me as ad hoc.  What about the Christian contention that God is one, yet also three persons?  Muslims do not believe this (cf. Surah 4:171).  What about God’s humanity?  At the heart and soul of a Christian’s faith is the God-man Jesus Christ.  Muslims flatly reject this (cf. Surah 10:68).  What about God’s greatest attribute – that He is love (cf. 1 John 4:8)?  Though one of the 99 names Muslims have for God is “the Loving One,” that God is love seems to be a bridge too far for Islamic theology.

Volf acknowledges such differences, but then moves quickly to downplay them:

There are significant differences that are the subject of strenuous debates. Some differences really are foundational to the faith, like the doctrine of the Trinity. At the same time, there’s this amazing overlap and similarity. We need to build on what is similar rather than simply bemoan what’s different.

Volf’s assertion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God in spite of significant differences in their respective conceptions of Him begs a question:  where would Volf draw his line?  When do differences in theology become profound enough for there to be a difference of divinities?

If somebody postulates the existence of more than one God, I would have to say we don’t worship the same God. If somebody says that God is basically one with the world, I would also have to say we don’t worship the same God.

Again, all of this seems very ad hoc to me.  For Volf, the attributes of God’s oneness and His distinction from creation are vital.  The attribute of God as three persons is not.  Why?  Simply because Volf says so?

Jesus is quite clear that, in order to be a true worshiper, a person must worship “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).  It is quite difficult to worship “in the Spirit” while denying the Spirit’s personhood, as do Muslims, and it is impossible to worship “in truth” while denying at least parts of what Scripture says is true about God.  It is important to note that the issue here is not whether a person has a complete understanding of God.  Jesus affirms that a person can worship the true God while not having a complete understanding of Him when He says of the Samaritans, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know” (John 4:22).  Worship does not require perfect knowledge.  True worship does, however, require faith.

But the Scriptures are also very clear that if a person perverts what can be known about God from biblical revelation, he has moved from worship to idolatry.  This is why the apostle Paul, when he was in Athens, was “greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16), but was also willing to engage the Athenians in a theological conversation around the altar the they had built “TO AN UKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:23).  The Athenians’ altar stemmed from ignorance.  Their idols were built on false and dangerous ideas about divinity.  The altar propelled Paul to further conversation.  The idols incited his unapologetic condemnation.

Considering that Islam does not claim to be ignorant of God, but rather claims that God is widely different from whom Christians claim He is, it is difficult to see how either a Christian or a Muslim can honestly say that both faiths worship the same God.  Just because two divinities share a short list of attributes does not mean they are the same God any more than a mother and a daughter who share some genes are the same person.  This is why I must answer “No” to the question, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” If this is all I was to say, however, I would not be saying enough.

“But”

I firmly believe that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.  This is not to say that I think Muslims have no knowledge of what I as a Christian would confess to be the true God or that the God of Muhammad does not reflect in certain ways the God of the Bible.  In Romans 1, Paul reminds us that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20).  It is no surprise, then, from a Christian standpoint, that the God of Muhammad would have attributes that are influenced and informed by the God of the Bible, for the God of the Bible is not only particularly revealed in Scripture, but generally, though not salvifically, knowable through creation.

Ultimately, even if someone believes that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God, this still does not settle the question of what is true about God, how one is to approach God, and how one receives eternal life with God.  The Quran, for instance, speaks of Jesus, but rejects His death for sinners (cf. Surah 4:157-158).  The Bible makes Jesus’ death for sinners the very locus of His identity (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:2).  Thus, when Muslims and Christians talk about Jesus, the question should not be, “Do the Bible and the Quran talk about the same Jesus?”  Even if they do, this is finally of little consequence.  A better question would be, “Does the Bible or the Quran authoritatively reveal the true Jesus?”  After all, who Jesus is matters just as much as that He exists.

What is true of Jesus specifically is true of God generally.  We need to be asking, “Does the Bible or the Quran authoritatively reveal the true God?”  Who has the true and supreme revelation about God from God?  As a Christian, my answer must be that the Bible has the true and supreme revelation about God from God.  My guess is a Muslim would beg to differ.  But this is why a willingness to have hospitable theological discussions is so important.  And this is why, if a Muslim friend would like to offer his or her thoughtful and respective perspective on the God of Muhammad and the God of the Bible, I would love to hear it.  Understanding may not always lead to agreement, but it does generally lead to charity.  And that’s a virtue both our religions share.

_________________________

[1]Wheaton College Statement Regarding Dr. Larycia Hawkins,” Wheaton College (12.16.2015).

[2] Mark Galli, “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?Christianity Today (4.15.2011).

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. jon trautman  |  December 28, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    Zack…great read to an often asked question…The fact that Jesus is part of the Triune(son) of God and Christians can be given (vs. earned) salvation through acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior are the key differentiators, in my opinion. But, as you eloquently say in this writing, there are common areas goodness that both faiths can begin to engage in respectful dialogue.

    Reply
  • 2. Don Novian  |  December 28, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    Pastor Zach, Thanks for this follow up to the on going debate. We Christians need to continue to praying for understanding these questions, it we are to ever live in peace. We also, need to pray that through our actions we can convert more Muslims to Christianity. And that both faiths can begin to dialogue rather try and destroy each other.

    Reply
  • 3. tomfrommer  |  December 29, 2015 at 5:02 pm

    Zachary,
    If I read your summary correctly and apply the reasoning to the Jews, then Jews do not worship the same God either.
    Tom Frommer

    Reply
    • 4. Pastor Zach  |  December 29, 2015 at 5:32 pm

      Hi Tom,

      This is a good question! Part of the scandal of the cross is that Christ explicitly claims that no one can know God except through Him. This is why Jesus tells the religious leaders: “You do not know me or my Father…If you knew Me, you would know My Father also” (John 8:19). Jesus unambiguously claims that the Jews who reject Him do not know His Father, aka, God. Jesus also claims that if one really worships the God of Abraham and Moses, they will worship Him: “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me” (John 8:46). Jesus’ contention, then, is that the true God is revealed in the Scriptures and that true Jews worship Him and believe in the One He has sent.

      Reply

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