The question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is still being much talked about. My earlier post, drawing on the work of John Stackhouse, had made an analogy between the Jews and Muslims as people who worship one God but do not understand him to be tripersonal. That analogy has been troubling to some people, who make reference to the special relationship which Judaism has to God because of the Abrahamic covenant. I don’t think anyone who makes this analogy is unaware of the uniqueness of Israel’s special position but, rather than defend that analogy (which I think has legitimacy when properly stated), I think it may be more helpful to consider the situation of Melchizedek in Genesis 14.
Melchizedek is a Canaanite dignitary identified as the King of Salem (Jerusalem), and he kindly met Abram with food (14:13) when he returned from his successful deliverance of Lot from the coalition of kings that had attacked Sodom. Moses identifies Melchizedek as “priest of [El Elyon] God Most High.” In his priestly role, he blessed Abram “by God Most High,” maker of heaven and earth,” and he blessed God Most High to whom he attributed Abram’s military victory. Abram gives Melchizedek a tithe of the plunder, but he refuses to take any of the plunder for himself because he had “sworn to the Lord [Yahweh], God Most High, maker of heaven and earth that he would take nothing belonging to the king of Sodom, lest his wealth be attributed to that king rather than to Yahweh (14:22-23). Clearly, Abram identified Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, with “El Elyon, maker of heaven” whom Melchizedek worshiped, though he stood outside of the covenant God had made with Abraham and his descendants, and though served as a priest in his own Canaanite context. But he was a monotheist and believed in the one God as maker of heaven and earth. We know nothing else about Melchizedek, but he serves as a clear example of someone outside of the Abrahamic covenant whose worship of God was deemed acceptable.
In the context of our discussion of the referent of Muslim worship, I think it is important to remind ourselves that when Muhammad called upon the residents of Mecca to destroy their idols and worship the one true God, he had no intention of introducing a God different from the God of Abraham whom Jews and Christians worshiped. But he did want to correct what he believed were the misunderstandings of that God within Judaism and Christianity. Sadly, he thought Christians worshiped three gods, which is an impression common among Muslims today.
I recall one scholar observing that in 8th century Spain, when Jews, Christians, and Muslims had good relationships with one another, their theologians spent a great deal of time talking about God. They assumed that they all spoke about the same God but they argued about which of them understood him most correctly.
In a Christianity Today article in 2002, Timothy George addressed the question: “Is the God of Muhammad the Father of Jesus?” and he answers Yes and No.
Yes, in the sense that the Father of Jesus is the only God there is. He is the Creator and Sovereign Lord of Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, of every person who has ever lived. He is the one before whom all shall one day bow (Phil. 2:5-11). Christians and Muslims can together affirm many important truths about this great God—his oneness, eternity, power, majesty. As the Qur’an puts it, he is “the Living, the Everlasting, the All-High, the All-Glorious” (2:256).
But he also believes that there is another sense in which we must answer “No,” because
Muslim theology rejects the divinity of Christ and the personhood of the Holy Spirit—both essential components of the Christian understanding of God. No devout Muslim can call the God of Muhammad “Father,” for this, to their mind, would compromise divine transcendence. But no faithful Christian can refuse to confess, with joy and confidence, “I believe in God the Father. … Almighty!” Apart from the Incarnation and the Trinity, it is possible to know that God is, but not who God is.
I concur. There are very significant differences in our understandings of the one true God who is living, everlasting, All-High, and All-Glorious. Arab Christians and Arab Muslims both call God Allah, and they both believe that there is only one God, the one who is maker of heaven and earth, but their descriptions of Allah differ. I once had an Arminian theologian ask me if I thought Arminians and Calvinists worship the same God. I told him I believe they do, but he sometimes wondered, because he found the Calvinist God so abhorrent. It would be helpful if we knew more about the theology of the Canaanite priest, Melchizedek. Abraham acknowledged that he and Melchizedek both worshiped the same God. From Abraham’s ready acceptance of Melchizedek’s blessing, and from his giving of a tithe of the plunder to Melchizedek, I assume that their theological differences were not as large as ours are with Muslims. But that there were theological differences is something that we can be fairly confident about. On the other hand, neither Melchizedek nor Abraham had the blessing we have of knowing God as three-personed, one of whom became human to deliver us from sin and death. Yet Abraham worshiped the same God we do, and apparently Melchizedek did too, despite significant theological differences between us all. The same could not be said if it were Molech or Krishna we were talking about.
Whose worship does the One True God accept?
Hebrews 11:6 gives us a bottom line. It is impossible to please God without faith, and “whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Normatively, that is certainly true of Muslims. The faith God requires of people is appropriate to the revelation God has given them, but God has made himself known to everyone, at least in the minimal way that such revelation entails. What God requires of people to whom he only makes himself known in creation and conscience, is that they “honor him as God” and “give thanks to him” (Rom 1:21). Apart from the gracious intervention of the Holy Spirit, however, sinful human beings will suppress God’s truth (Rom 1:18). But we have wonderful accounts of people whom God had brought to that minimal faith, before they ever heard the good news concerning Jesus. On the day of God’s righteous judgment, Paul tells us, God “will repay according to each one’s deeds; to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Rom 2:6-8).
One thing is very clear from Scripture, no one is saved by their religious membership, and no one is saved by the accuracy of their theology. We are not in a position to judge with certainty the relationship in which another person stands to God, because this is determined by the state of their heart which is hidden from us. Through Isaiah, the Lord spoke of people in Israel who “draw near with their mouths and honor [him] with their lips, while their hearts are far from him,” and “their worship of [him] is a human commandment learned by rote” (Isa 29:13). Jesus complained that the same was occurring among the Jews of his own day (Mt 15:7-9). We know that there are Christians whose worship does not please God, and perhaps many of whom will be dismissed from his presence in the day of judgment. “Not everyone who says to [Jesus], ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” even though they may have prophesied, and cast out demons and done deeds of power in his name (Mt 7:23). Of the relationship to God of people whom God has blessed with much less detailed revelation than he has given us, we can be even less sure. But we have biblical reason to believe that he is graciously at work beyond the boundaries of the new covenant community, and he alone knows the heart of everyone and will judge accordingly. Our task is to be good ambassadors of the gospel wherever God places us.