One of my alma maters, Wheaton College, has placed tenured professor Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave. This was done, not because she has chosen to wear a hijab during Advent, in solidarity with Muslims, but because the College has “significant questions regarding the theological implications” of her explanation of why she is doing this. Particularly of concern has been her statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
This is an issue of great interest to me, and I have been wanting to post some thoughts about it, but other demands have kept me from doing so. Yet I did not want to stay silent about this very important issue at a time when it is so much in evangelical news and discussion. Thankfully, my work has basically been done by my friend, fellow Canadian, and fellow Wheaton alum, John Stackhouse, in two blog posts with which I agree very substantially. Yesterday, he addressed the question: “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?,” and today he followed up on it with a post entitled “Allah and Yhwh…and Tash and Aslan.”
John writes well, and I commend those two posts to you, but I will enumerate here the major points on which John and I are in fundamental agreement, in order to get my own stance on the table. With him, I believe that there is a sense in which we can say that Muslims worship the same God we do, and there are senses in which we should not.
The statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God inevitably arouses considerable emotion among evangelicals, and this is appropriate, but the controversy could generate more heat than light. This is an extremely important matter, so people who make such a claim must state very clear what they mean by it. In the wake of Wheaton’s action, Dr. Hawkins stands by her earlier statement but she has not clarified her meaning, which is why the administration needs time to assess whether a substantive conflict exists between her position and that of the college, and it is why I must say with John: “I frankly don’t know what she meant by that.”
So, from here on, I’ll leave Dr. Hawkins out of this and I’ll draw extensively on John’s work to identify the ways in which we can and cannot legitimately say that Muslims worship the same God as we worship. Unless otherwise indicated, quotations will be from John’s blog posts. I have commended John for his helpful posts, and I’m happy to pass along here much of his wisdom, rather than starting from scratch, since our positions are so much alike.
We cannot legitimately say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,
1. as a claim that Islam and Christianity are religions whose differences are “trivial.”
Not just any sort of worship of any sort of Supreme Being can count. One is in contact with the One True God only by the prevenient grace of God connecting one with God via the Holy Spirit. Preferring to worship just any god won’t do, as the Old Testament takes pains to make clear.
. . .
Some understandings of the Supreme Being are so wrong, so wicked, that they simply direct worship wildly off target. Such clearly would be the case of the worship of the Canaanite god Moloch, or any other wicked, bloodthirsty deity elsewhere in the world. Such an abominable view of God cannot possibly accommodate, let alone facilitate, worship of the One True God. In sum, if you like that kind of deity, you’re not going to like the One True God.
2. as a claim that Islamic and Christian understandings of God are basically the same, or as a claim that “there is no important theological difference between Islamic and Christian views of God.” There are theological differences within both Islam and Christianity, even in their orthodox expressions, and these “make it preposterous to claim that all Islamic theology agrees with all Christian theology.”
3. as a claim that “since Muslims worship the same God as Christians, they have no need of the gospel, or the Bible, or the work of Jesus Christ.”
4. as a claim 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).”
We can legitimately say that,
1. “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.
- theological difference about God does not “necessarily mean that one is praying to, and otherwise giving worshipful service to, a different God.”
We should not make trinitarianism or a correct understanding of the identity of Jesus, the criterion for worship of the same God, as is commonly done by evangelicals who deny strongly that there is any sense in which Muslims worship the same God we do. Those criteria give us no way to account for
Abraham (who is held up as a paradigm of faith in the New Testament) and the list of Old Testament saints (who are held up as paradigms of faith to Christians in Hebrews 11), precisely none of whom can be seriously understood as holding trinitarian views and some proleptic vision of the identity and career of Jesus Christ.”
So let’s avoid claims that have the bizarre consequence that all Old Testament saints would be disqualified as praying to the wrong God. Let’s likewise avoid claiming that theological differences don’t matter.
- “one might have a troubled understanding of God and still truly connect with God.”
As a theology teacher, I have to believe this, or lots of my students are in big trouble! If we are willing to grant that lots of Christians have distorted understandings of God and yet are genuine believers, then I am willing to affirm that people in other monotheistic traditions have distorted understandings of God and yet might be genuine believers. I believe that to be true about Old Testament saints, as Hebrews 11 affirms. Why not believe it about other people who, in the gift of God, have realized that there is only One True God and want to worship God even through the murky theological concepts currently available to them in their culture and spiritual experience? Missionaries have long reported encountering such people, particularly among Muslims, who worship God albeit with the deficiencies typical of their culture and then gladly embrace the gospel as better revelation about the God they are already loving.
- “there has to be some identity between the two understandings of God such that the former is a cloudy and partial and adulterated but genuine understanding of God that the gospel at once extends, fulfills, and corrects.”
If instead the gospel simply has to supplant the former understanding, as in the case of horrible views of the divine, I find it impossible to conceive of worshipers of that horrible god connecting in any important way with the One True God. Instead, people raised in such religious traditions would have to develop deep misgivings about that god such that they do not worship it and instead long for the Great Alternative, however vague their notion of That might be. And that longing is the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit drawing people away from error and toward The Truth.
- there are versions of Islam in which we find “clear resemblances between the Islamic version of God and the God as revealed definitively in the Bible.”
We ought to guard against over-emphasizing the differences between ourselves and some others. Paul is the very model of the zealous missionary. Yet Paul did not see himself as changing Gods on the road to Damascus. He did not tell his Jewish audiences in the Mediterranean synagogues that they were praying to the wrong God. He didn’t even tell the badly confused Athenians that they were utterly off-target in their piety, but instead Paul declared the gospel truth to them about the God they did worship, but obscurely.
We likewise ought to be careful not to despise all other people’s theologies as simply wrong and condemn their piety as aimed at a completely different deity just because it doesn’t include even wonderful and crucial ideas such as the Trinity or the deity of Jesus. We must be careful especially when their theology looks so much like ours—and like that of our Old Testament forebears.
I am confident that the administration at Wheaton College will deal with this matter carefully, and I pray for them as they do so. Whatever they decide is likely to bring criticism of their action from some people, and so I pray also that God will preserve the good work which is going on at the school, and that good will come out of this for Wheaton and for evangelicalism more broadly.
I hear encouraging reports of what God is doing within the Islamic world, and I pray that out of the flurry of discussion that has now been generated within evangelical circles, perspectives will emerge which concord with God’s own truth, and that God’s gracious work among Muslims will be helped and not hindered.
A few further thoughts can be found in a later post: “Melchizedek, Abraham, Muslims, and worship of the One True God“