Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? This question has become urgent amongst internet Christians. Ten days ago Dr Larycia Hawkins, a professor of political science at Wheaton College, announced her religious solidarity with Muslims. “They, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” she states. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Wheaton College subsequently put her on administrative leave “in order to give more time to explore theological implications of her recent public statements concerning Christianity and Islam.” Twitter exploded.
I find the controversy perplexing. As a justification for her decision to wear the hijab, Hawkins’s Facebook statement is vulnerable to criticism. Her opening statement is just fine: “I don’t love my Muslim neighbor because s/he is American. I love my Muslim neighbor because s/he deserves love by virtue of her/his human dignity.” Putting aside the unpronounceable “s/he” (which drives me up the wall), this is a perfectly fine humanitarian statement, fully compatible with the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” I presume that Hawkins would also express her solidarity with all persecuted and oppressed human beings around the globe, regardless of their religious affiliation. But then she goes on to add two specifically theological reasons for her position: (1) Christians and Muslims are people of the book and (2) Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The first reason is misleading (which book? what kind of authority?) and the second predictably contentious. I would have expected Hawkins to have given her statement a bit more thought before going to print.
I also find Wheaton College’s lightning response premature and unconvincing. Why not give Hawkins an opportunity to clarify her remarks before making her a cause célèbre? Wheaton’s explanation rings hollow. Money is talking.
The respected theologian Miroslav Volf, who has written a book on Islam (Allah: A Christian Response), quickly accused Wheaton College of bigotry. “[Hawkins’s] suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy,” he declared in a column in the Washington Post. “It is about enmity toward Muslims.” Perhaps. Perhaps not. In any case, it’s hard to see how this accusation adds to the public debate. Yes, Americans (Christian and non-Christian alike) are now uneasy about Islam as a religion—and for understandable reasons. Donald Trump’s demagogic rhetoric discloses a fear that lies deep in the American psyche. 9/11 changed us. If Volf wishes to help Americans deal with Islam and terrorism, then he needs to constructively address these fears. He is of course quite right that the effective waging of war requires, often unjustly, the drawing of “sharp and hard boundaries”; but knowing that hardly assuages my anxiety, and it certainly does not encourage me to relax those boundaries.
Volf is more helpful on the question of God as the object of corporate adoration and service. I have not yet read his book Allah, but fortunately Volf enjoys virtual omnipresence on the web. In a 2011 interview, he shifts our attention to Judaism and restates the question: “Do Christians and Jews worship different gods?” “No,” he answers. “Jews and Christians worship the same God. They just understand God in a different way—Christians in a Trinitarian way, and Jews not.”
I agree. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray “Our Father who art in heaven,” he was not teaching them to pray to a different God than the God of Israel. He was revealing to them something new and fresh about that God. When after Pentecost the disciples of Jesus began to proclaim the gospel, they did not invite their Jewish hearers to convert to a different religion. They invited them, rather, to believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit, YHWH had fulfilled, and was fulfilling, his covenantal promises.
The evangelistic mission of the Church is premised on the identity of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Father of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul confesses, in clear allusion to the Shema: “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:6). Western Christians sometimes get uneasy with the identification of the One God with God the Father; but this unease only betrays their relative ignorance of Eastern formulations of the Holy Trinity. This early patristic understanding of the Trinity has been well stated by Fr John Behr:
The Father alone is the one true God. This keeps to the structure of the New Testament language about God, where with only a few exceptions, the word “God” (theos) with an article (and so being used, in Greek, as a proper noun) is only applied to the one whom Jesus calls Father, the God spoken of in the scriptures. This same fact is preserved in all ancient creeds, which begin: “I believe in one God, the Father …”
“For us there is one God, the Father… and one Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 8:6). The proclamation of the divinity of Jesus Christ is made not so much by describing Him as “God” (theos used, in Greek, without an article is as a predicate, and so can be used of creatures; cf. John 10:34-35), but by recognizing Him as “Lord” (Kyrios). Beside being a common title (“sir”), this word had come to be used, in speech, for the unpronounceable, divine, name of God Himself, YHWH. When Paul states that God bestowed upon the crucified and risen Christ the “name above every name” (Phil 2:9), this is an affirmation that this one is all that YHWH Himself is, without being YHWH. This is again affirmed in the creeds. “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God … true God of true God.”
Sadly, even a fine evangelical biblical scholar like Scot McKnight has been led to claim that Jews and Muslims worship a different Deity than the One worshipped by Christians. Both religions, after all, reject the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. He also cites long-standing Jewish belief to support his contention: “I have had a number of Jewish scholars tell me ‘we don’t worship the same God.'”
I do not see why Jewish conviction should count in this intra-Christian debate; but it is interesting nonetheless. The great Jewish rabbi and philosopher, Moses Maimonides, regarded Christianity as simply another form of paganism: “Therefore one must know that in every one of the Christian nation’s cities which has an altar, meaning their house of worship, it is a pagan house of idolatry without any doubt.” On the other hand, he defended Islam against the charge of idolatry: “These Ishmaelites are not idol worshippers in the least, and [paganism] has been long since cut off from their mouths and their hearts, and they worship the singular God properly and without any blemish.” For this reason Jews are traditionally permitted to enter mosques and to even pray within them, but are forbidden to enter Christian churches. Yet the Rambam also permits Jews to discuss the commandments of God with Christians but not with Muslims, because, as Rabbi David Novak explains, “Christians believe Hebrew Scripture in toto to be the revealed word of God, whereas Muslims believe that primary text to be the Quran; for them, Hebrew Scripture is a flawed revelation.”
Decisive for McKnight are the dissimilarities in belief between the monotheistic religions (also see Albert Mohler’s blog for a similar judgment). Christians believe that God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ—Jews and Muslims do not. Christians believe that God has fully revealed himself in Jesus Christ—Jews and Muslims do not. Christians believe that God has revealed himself in “Three Persons, Father, Son and Spirit”—Jews and Muslims do not. Clearly these are important differences, yet does it logically follow that Jews and Muslims worship and serve a different God than do Christians? I think not. Volf identifies the critical point:
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. What binds Muslims and Christians, and what is central to my argument, is that God is one, that God is distinct from the world, and that the one God has created everything that is not God. There is a radical divide between creature and creator. This is a fundamental monotheistic belief. Muslims, Christians, and Jews share that belief. Therefore, they believe in the same God. Polytheists and idolaters do not share that belief.
Volf is exactly right. To speak of the transcendent Creator is not to speak of one of the gods; it is not to speak of a being at all. When we invoke the divine oneness, we are not numbering divinity, as if we might possibly count two, three, or more Gods. As Denys Turner astutely observes: “God’s oneness is not the oneness of mathematics, as it would be were I to say of any creaturely oneness: ‘I’ll have one pie for lunch, not two’” (Thomas Aquinas, p. 120). Christians, Jews, and Muslims together intend the infinite divinity in their doxological, confessional, and theological language (cf. Francis Beckwith’s blog article). They may vigorously disagree about Jesus Christ and the divine attributes, but their disagreements presuppose the one God, maker of heaven and earth. How could it be otherwise?
As a Christian I believe that on key points Islam tragically, even blasphemously, misrepresents the character and nature of the holy Transcendence. I see no reason to contest St John Damascene’s judgment that Muhammad was a false prophet. I deplore Islamic persecution of Christians around the world. I continue to worry whether Islam can constructively accommodate modernity and affirm genuine respect for the dignity, freedom, and rights of the individual. And I fervently believe that Muslims desperately need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Yet I do not deny that in its prayer and theological reflection Islam intends the same God whom Christians know and confess as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.