“Worshiping the Same God” … Thoughts on the Controversy

Battle of the FaithsThe news that Wheaton professor Dr. Larycia Hawkins may be fired over perceived conflicts between her public statements, and the college’s statement of faith, has been hailed and slammed across the internet.  At issue, nearly as I can determine, is that Dr. Hawkins refuses to recant her statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (full disclosure … I’ve said as much myself), and Wheaton authorities believe that such a statement is fundamentally at odds with their Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose.  In their own words, taken from Wheaton’s Frequently Asked Questions surrounding this controversy:

7. Is it true that Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation, and the life of prayer.

As an institution of distinctively evangelical Christian identity, the core of our faith, as expressed in our Statement of Faith, is our belief that “the Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, as a representative and substitutionary sacrifice, triumphing over all evil; and that all who believe in Him are justified by His shed blood and forgiven of all their sins.” We affirm that salvation is through Christ alone.

I find this answer interesting, not least because it doesn’t actually answer the question.  The fact that Islam and Christianity differ fundamentally in their teachings about God, or about how one ought to pray to God, does not necessarily mean that the God about which they teach isn’t the same one.  To the contrary, it seems to me that the differences might matter more if they are referring to the same God — by which I mean that describing the “right” God in the “wrong” way could be a more meaningful error than describing completely different deities (one of whom, we presume, is false).  Strictly speaking, the grammar of the Wheaton statement suggests as much … “there are fundamental differences between the two faiths” in their teachings about God; a point about which no Christian or Muslim I’ve ever met, would disagree.  This phrase is not at all equivalent to “they worship different Gods.”

It’s in the second paragraph, however, that things get interesting.  “The core” of Wheaton’s faith, they say, is Jesus death “as a representative and substitutionary sacrifice …”  If they mean that anyone who denies this “core” worships a different God than they … well … I’ve quite clearly repudiated that construction of Jesus death myself, as well as having taken issue with the idea that atonement is central to faith in Jesus or an appropriate reason for and means of evangelism.  (I won’t go into detail, but I find it telling that Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t manage to achieve “core” status … that, to me, is about as fundamental a misconstrual as it’s possible to have in the Christian faith).  Do these positions of mine mean that I worship a different God than an Evangelical member of Wheaton’s faculty?  If they do, not only I, but an awfully large group of people who trust in the lordship of Jesus Christ worship a different God than the one that meets Wheaton’s standards.

What, really, are people saying when they say Christians and Muslims worship the same God, or when they say the two faiths worship different Gods?  Frankly, I think both statements are really code for other things, and it’s these other things that must be unpacked and held to the light.  When one says “Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” it seems to me they’re usually saying one of three things:

  1. All religions, or at least all of the Abrahamic religions, are different paths to the same God who will “save” faithful adherents from all of them.
  2. Because Muslims and Christians worship the same God, even though we obviously have theological and practical differences, we ought to use those elements of overlap (like the commands to love God and love our neighbor) as a starting point for peace and mutual respect.
  3. The historical antecedent to the “God” character in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism is the same in all three religions, although each has nuanced that character in different ways.

These things are so completely different that it is impossible to really engage in a coherent discussion until we know which meaning is intended by the speaker.  Number 3 is an indisputable historical/literary fact, but it also has very little meaning with regard to anyone’s theology or praxis.  I cannot conceive how any statement of faith could take issue with it.  Number 1, on the other hand, verges on universalism and is pretty clearly outside the pale of any Evangelical doctrine I know.  Number 2, which is probably closest to the reason I care about this issue at all, is also murkier in the minds of many Evangelicals.  Though most Evangelicals agree that we ought to treat even non-believers with love, they seem extremely nervous about appealing to any element of a non-Christian religion as good or true … even if that appeal is made, as the Apostle Paul did in Acts 17:22-23, as an entre to a conversation about Jesus.

Similarly, when one makes the statement “Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God,” it also can have several meanings:

  1. When spoken by a conservative Christian: “Allah is a false god, and those who worship Allah are going to hell.”  The Muslim equivalent, if I’ve understood it correctly, would be: “Christians are idolaters and polytheists.”  I’m guessing that also means Christians are going to hell, though I’m not certain.
  2. Since the God of Christianity is a Trinity, and the God of Islam is only a Unity, they cannot possibly be the same being.
  3. Since Christians teach salvation through Jesus Christ alone, no-one who denies Jesus’ saving work can be saved.

As with the affirmative statements above, these negative statements are quite different from each other, and must be engaged differently.  Number 1 seems to me largely a war cry, a delineation of the saved and the damned that, while popular in conservative Christianity, I find ultimately unhelpful.  It’s great for building walls and picking fights, but lousy for introducing people to Jesus.  As I have previously written, I find the idea that hell is a primary motivator for faith, or the penalty for anyone who doesn’t have it, to be unbiblical.

Number 2 is problematic in a different manner.  As many have pointed out in discussion of the Dr. Hawkins incident, if belief in the Trinity (particularly the version of Trinity as “eternally existing in three persons” as declared in Wheaton’s Statement of Faith) is a non-negotiable condition of belief in the “same God,” then neither Jews from Abraham to the present, nor many non-Nicene Christians (such as I) worship the same God as Wheaton’s Evangelicals do.  I don’t know how Wheatonites would evaluate my faith — I know for a fact I couldn’t sign their statement and teach there — but I rather suspect most would claim Jews worship the same God they do, even while denying Jesus as divine or as Messiah.  This criterion cannot be applied inconsistently and retain any validity.  Either Jews and Christians worship different Gods, or Muslims, Jews, and Christians worship the same one.  Anything else is illogical nonsense.

Number 3, which I know has been said repeatedly in debates such as these, is in fact a completely orthogonal statement.  Whether one worships the true God or not is not the same thing as whether one has (in Evangelical terms) “accepted” Jesus’ salvation or not.  And this is where the debate really gets complicated.  Adopting the Evangelical position for the moment, let us consider a hypothetical man who has cried out to God all his life, but only late in life learns the truth of Jesus and turns to him for “salvation.”  During that time before he learned of Jesus, was the man calling on a different God?  Did this man direct his prayers to a different divine target once he knew of Jesus?  Or did he just learn new truth that enriched and deepened his perspective of the God he always sought?  And now, if our same hypothetical man — despite his earnest search — never learned the name of Jesus, does this mean that his otherwise-identical search was directed to a different, false god?  I doubt it.

In the final analysis, I would suggest that the “same God” arguments come down to a question of whether we prefer to build walls or bridges between communities of unlike faith.  Neither side of the debate seems to contend either on the one hand that Islam and Christianity are identical/equivalent, or on the other that Christians and Muslims must inevitably be at war, although extremists on both sides do make those respective claims.  I do think that the “not the same God” argument seems mostly to be about maintaining a wall around the faith; that is, a clear delineation of who is in and outside the boundary.  And in the “same God” camp I mostly see people who are trying to identify common ground between admittedly-distinct camps, and use that common ground as a basis for relationship.  Anyone who has known me or my writing for any length of time, will know that I tend toward the latter position.  Ultimately, whether or not Muslims and Christians do worship the same God or not, is a lot less important than what we choose to do about it.

3 thoughts on ““Worshiping the Same God” … Thoughts on the Controversy”

  1. Stephen G. Parker

    Thank you, Dan. Here is the link to my blog post: https://mystic444.wordpress.com/2016/01/12/do-christians-and-muslims-believe-in-the-same-god/

    Interestingly, concerning your 3 ‘coded meanings’ for the affirmation that Muslims and Christians worship the same God: they are not so completely different as to be mutually exclusive. According to my reading of the Qur’an and Muslim writings, Islam affirms all three things. Faithful followers of all the “Abrahamic” faiths will be ‘saved’ (find their “reward” with God). Consequently, the believers of those varied faiths should use the things they have in common to achieve friendship and respect for each other. And the ‘historical antecedent’ for the “God character” is the same for all 3 faiths, although they each have their own nuanced understanding of “God”.

    On the other hand, there is no equivalent in the teachings of Islam for the conservative Christian assertion that Allah is a false God and those who worship Him will go to hell. True enough, “extremist terrorists” such as the “Islamic State” group, take that position and commit atrocities against Christians; but they are a far cry from the teachings of “God and His prophet” in the Qur’an and hadith. What Muhammad is reported to have said concerning a certain man applies very well to such modern terrorists: “From this man will come people who recite the Quran but they will not understand Islam. They will apostate due to their random killing of people. If I were to live, I would fight them.”

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