The recent controversy at Wheaton College in Illinois (USA) – still ongoing as of the writing of this article – concerning a professor named Larycia Hawkins, has caused national (and perhaps international) debate over the question of whether or not Christians and Muslims believe in the same God. (Wheaton is a Christian College). Larycia decided to wear a head covering (hijab) for a period of time to stand in solidarity with Muslims in the face of rising Islamophobia. That in itself was no problem; but she also said that she agreed with the Pope that Muslims and Christians worship the same God – and that apparently was a major “no-no” for many of the Wheaton faculty and staff. It is possible that Larycia may be fired for making that statement and refusing to back off due to the controversy.
For an atheist, of course, the whole situation is absurd; it just proves the foolishness of religion that two groups of people who each claim to believe in only one God, the sole Creator and Sustainer of all things, are arguing over whether they’re worshiping the same “one God”! Frankly, the absurdity of this ‘controversy’ would almost be enough to drive someone to atheism if he/she is not already there.😆
For the Muslim follower of the Qur’an (Koran), the answer to the question is an unarguable “yes”. “God and His prophet” have spoken and decided the issue, and no further ‘discussion’ is permissible for the Muslim believer. [Believers], argue only in the best way with the People of the Book, except with those of them who act unjustly. Say, “We believe in what was revealed to us and in what was revealed to you; our God and your God is one [and the same]; we are devoted to Him.” (Quran 29:46, Abdel Haleem version). This same idea is repeated in numerous and various ways throughout the Qur’an. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have the same “Lord” and “God”; and despite the differences in the various religious beliefs, those who faithfully follow the teachings of Moses and Jesus will have their ‘reward’ from God just as much as the faithful followers of the teachings of Muhammad will. Certainly the Qur’an repudiates the idea of “the Trinity” and exhorts Christians not to say “Three” with reference to God; but that is a question of a mistaken understanding of the nature of the one God, not an actual belief in a different “God”. Apparently from the Muslim standpoint, God is able to “handle” such mistaken beliefs without condemning the mistaken parties to “hell”.
The real controversy over this question of whether or not the two monotheistic faiths are worshiping the same “one God” is confined to Christianity, it seems; and there certainly is controversy among Christians concerning the issue. To present a Christian viewpoint that the “God” of Christians and Muslims is indeed one and the same, Dan Martin of Nailing it to the door blog (linked on the right side of this page under the heading “Religion: Belief in God”) has given me permission to repost his most recent article: “Worshiping the Same God”… Thoughts on the Controversy. I have great respect for Dan; his posts are always thoughtful and thought-provoking. I may not always agree with his conclusions (though I agree pretty thoroughly with this particular article), but I admire the fact that he thinks and is not afraid to speak his mind when he disagrees with ‘orthodoxy’. So here ‘for your reading pleasure’ is his article.
The 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:
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- Since the God of Christianity is a Trinity, and the God of Islam is only a Unity, they cannot possibly be the same being.
- 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.