Christians, Jews and Muslims: Confusion about the question on the table

The discussion continues about how we answer the question: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” I keep opening items that come my way which address this issue, and I’ve become convinced that serious confusion is being created because people often purport to be answering that question but they are, in fact, addressing a different question, while giving the impression that the answer they give to that question is the answer to the question put on the table by the Larycia Hawkins situation.

Although Islam is the particular issue that has been raised by the Wheaton controversy, we could legitimately  add the other monotheistic, Abrahamic religion (Judaism) to each of these questions. I think that we would often get the same answers from  people, although some would answer the first question differently about Jews then they would about Muslims.

In the discussion going on these days, we are seeing 3 distinct questions being spoken to:

(1) “Do Christians (Jews) and Muslims worship the same God?”

(2) “Do Christians (Jews) and Muslims have the same understanding of God (i.e. theology)?

(3) “Are Christianity (Judaism) and Islam essentially similar or compatible religions?”

I believe that the best answer to the first question, which is the one Hawkins put on the table at Wheaton, is “yes,” provided the sense intended is made very clear. I summed up in a previous post, what I take to be the sense in which Christians (Jews) and Muslims do worship the same God. We all agree that there is only one God, who created everything that exists. He is the God whom Abraham worshiped. We all worship this one true God, but we all believe that members of the other two religions seriously misunderstand this God for various reasons, primarily because we disagree about where God’s authoritative self-revelation to humankind is to be found.

Within the largely Calvinistic world of the Gospel Coalition, however, most of the leaders are voicing a simple “no” to the first question. This matters to me because that coalition inhabits the general area on the theological map which I also call “home.” But, when articles come from that quarter, and when I listen to their explanation for saying, often quite emphatically: “no,” I observe that they are actually addressing one or both of the other two questions. Unfortunately, they put their answers in a way which indicates that they intend to speak to the first question.

This confusion is problematic, because it has set up a discussion in which people who are intending to talk to one another are actually talking past them. I think it is also  dangerous because it could leave the undiscerning reader with the impression that this respected leader denies that there is any legitimate sense in which the God of Christians and the God of Muslims is the same God. Indeed, both Arab Christians and Muslims call him “Allah.” When one of the two alternative questions is answered “no,” but the respondents speak as though they are answering the question on the table (the first one), people like me, who answer the question about God with a nuanced “yes” are consequently viewed with suspicion.

I certainly grant that a simple “yes” to the first question, though right, in an important sense, would be misleading, given the current situation. But I also believe that a simple “no” is wrong. I, and many other of the evangelical theologians and leaders who are saying that Christians and Muslims do worship the same God, in a sense, agree that the answer is simply “no” to the alternative questions which are being spoken to.

My plea  to people who are reading the statements coming forward these days is that they observe very carefully the question that is actually being addressed. The answers we give to the last 2 questions do not determine our answer to the first one. Nor should we lump the three issues together as though one answer applies equally to all three questions.

 

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