Originally Published in 2016
In the past few weeks, there has been a great deal of commotion within the evangelical community concerning Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins, who was suspended for declaring that Christians and Muslims worship the “same God.” You can catch up on the story here. Since then, a number of Christian professors and theologians have criticized the actions of Wheaton, claiming that the “same God” statement was not incorrect.
To begin, I want to make very clear that I am not a theologian or a professor. I am not attempting to make any authoritative claims other than what I see to be the authoritative claims in the Bible. Please read the Bible yourself to determine whether or not what I say is true. At the same time, however, I think that this gives me a great deal of leeway to discuss my views without having the highly touted credentials of others. In fact, I must confess that I have been slightly disappointed with academics and theologians on both sides of this debate for their somewhat cursory rationale and lack of Biblical support.
Clearly, there are a great number of similarities between Christianity, Islam, and the God that they claim to worship. Each of these religions believes in one God and traces their history to Abraham himself. Each insists that they worship the God of Abraham. The characteristics of each God are almost identical. However, does this mean that they worship the same God? I do not think so. While it is accurate and necessary to say that the God of Christians and Muslims has a similar history and Abrahamic roots, it does not logically follow to conclude that they are the same. Saying that they have similar roots and saying that they are the same are two very different things and have very different meanings. In no sense can those two assertions be reconciled. If you mean one, you cannot say the other.
Different Names, Same Being
In his defense of Hawkins, famed theologian Francis J. Beckwith writes,
Now on to the big question: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? To answer it well, we have to make some important philosophical distinctions. First, what does it mean for two terms to refer to the same thing? Take, for example, the names “Muhammed Ali” and “Cassius Clay.” Although they are different terms, they refer to the same thing, for each has identical properties. Whatever is true of Ali is true of Clay and vice versa. (By the way, you can do the same with “Robert Zimmerman” and “Bob Dylan,” or “Norma Jean Baker” and “Marilyn Monroe”).
Even in light of Albert Mohler’s topical article on this subject, I can see no philosophical objection here to Beckwith’s point. One being can certainly be called by two different names. This logic holds. And yet, other than Mohler, the main argument against Christians and Muslims worshiping the same God has nothing to do with His name. Instead, as Beckwith later mentions, Christians most often assert that because Muslims do not believe Jesus is God, they cannot believe in the Trinity. Therefore, they cannot believe in the same God.
Same Being, Different Understanding
In response to these objections, others have declared that while Christians may understand God differently than Muslims (Trinity, salvation, etc.), it does not follow that they are not in fact the same. Beckwith gives an analogy to show this:
Consider this example. Imagine that Fred believes that the evidence is convincing that Thomas Jefferson (TJ) sired several children with his slave Sally Hemings (SH), and thus Fred believes that TJ has the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.” On the other hand, suppose Bob does not find the evidence convincing and thus believes that TJ does not have the property of “being a father to several of SHs children.”
Would it follow from this that Fred and Bob do not believe that the Third President of the United States was the same man? Of course not. In the same way, Abraham and Moses did not believe that God is a Trinity, but St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Billy Graham do. Does that mean that Augustine, Aquinas, and Graham do not worship the same God as Abraham and Moses? Again, of course not. The fact that one may have incomplete knowledge or hold a false belief about another person – whether human or divine – does not mean that someone who has better or truer knowledge about that person is not thinking about the same person.
While I believe that Beckwith is a very intelligent theologian, his logic in this instance is surprisingly inadequate. Perhaps there is some hidden motivation here. While Beckwith’s story of Thomas Jefferson makes sense, it does not translate to the issue at stake. It does not include Jefferson making a claim about himself. Yet from a Christian perspective, this is indeed what God has done. God, through Christ, has told us about himself. Therefore, a more accurate analogy would be this:
Fred and Bob hear about the life and exploits of Thomas Jefferson. They affirm that he is the Third President of the United States and know that he has a home in Poplar Forrest. Upon hearing his name in public, each man places their hand over their heart to show their support and reverence for him. One day, they each meet Thomas Jefferson after having never seen him before. Jefferson tells them both many things about himself and asks for them to come to his house. Seeing a clear match between what Jefferson says and what he has heard, Fred places his hand over his heart and follows Jefferson to the house. Bob, however, decides that the man he hears and sees is not Thomas Jefferson. He shakes his head and walks away. What can we conclude? Both claimed to revere a man who was the Third President of the United States and lived in Poplar Forest. Only one of them knew the real Thomas Jefferson.
Certainly this analogy has many flaws of its own. After all, no analogy is perfect. The point is this: to say that Christians and Muslims have a different understanding of the same God, from a Christian perspective, greatly diminishes the revelation that God has given about himself. Who God is isn’t predicated on our understanding of him, but on how he has revealed himself to be understood by us. This is where Beckwith gets the second part of his analogy wrong. Abraham and Moses understood God the best that they could based on the revelation that God had given them about himself at the time. They may not have known that he was three in one – but they did not deny that he was three in one. After all, Jesus had not come yet. St. Augustine, Aquinas, and Billy Graham, however, had further revelation from God. God had revealed himself in Jesus.
Furthermore, Abraham, Moses, and all others who had faith in God were saved and counted as righteous because they had faith in Jesus (although they did not know him by name). Hebrews 11:13 says that “All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it.” So, contrary to Beckwith’s analogy, Abraham, Moses, Billy Graham and others were all saved by Jesus and the promised redemptive work that came through him.
When Christians say that we believe Jesus is God incarnate, we are not saying that we have a fuller understanding of the God of Islam. It isn’t a matter of understanding vs. misunderstanding – it is a matter of accepting vs. rejecting. God has come and revealed to us who he is. While I have more to say on this later, here is the best example that I can give: In John 8:58 Jesus states, “Before Abraham was, I AM!” In doing so, Jesus showed that he not only believed in the God of Abraham (as Muslims claim to do), but declared that he is the God of Abraham. How can someone worship the God of Abraham and also reject the God of Abraham (Jesus)? How can someone worship God and also deny His Word?
Jews and Christians
At this point, some would suggest that this line of thinking can also be used against the Jews. If Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians, then neither do the Jews. Well-known protestant theologian Miroslav Volf points this out in his article defending Hawkins.
For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response? Christian theologians neither insisted that they worship a different God than Jews nor did they accuse Jews of idolatry. That’s a step that would have been easy to make, for if Jews don’t worship the same God as the Christians, then they worship the false God and, therefore, are idolaters. Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in in partly different ways.
Why is the Christian response to Muslim denial of the Trinity and the incarnation not the same as the response to similar Jewish denial? Why are many Christians today unable to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways?
Volf makes a great point here. While I wish that he had included some historical references, I am content to take him at his word. I simply would need more proof in order to form an opinion. However, it needs to be pointed out that a historical argument does not necessarily correlate to a true argument. Just because theologians in the past (he doesn’t mention how many or the context of the situation) did not insist that Jews worship a different God, does not mean that it is not true. In fact, there are many convincing scriptural references to at least suggest that Jews do not worship the same God as Christians. In John 8:19 Jesus says, “You do not know me or my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” It is interesting to note that Jesus is speaking directly to the Pharisees and religious leaders here. He’s speaking to the Jews. If these religious Jewish men do not know God, then they certainly do not worship him. In essence, this verse (and others like it) declares that if you do not know Jesus, you do not know God. If you do not know God, you cannot worship God. Therefore, if you do not know Jesus, you cannot worship God.
While I have already laid out several Biblical references that pertain to this issue, one that is often overlooked is in John 4:19-29:
“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”
In these verses, Jesus himself discusses worship to God. While there is much to learn from this section, the most important part is this: “[God’s] worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (emphasis mine). Jesus makes it very clear here. In order to worship God, our worship must be both heartfelt and true. There must be a connection between the head and the heart that lines up with reality. If this is not done, then we cannot worship God. This is the narrative of the Bible. The passage ends by showing how this is possible for us. It is through a true attitude of worship directed at the true God – Jesus, the Messiah, the I Am. Jesus came to restore our worship to the one true God.
The implications of this truth are numerous. It applies not only to Muslims, but to all those who do not follow Christ. Without Jesus, we all are false worshipers. We all are idolaters. We all worship a false god. That is why Jesus is so important. With him we are no longer lost. With him, the petty disputes about religious tradition and history are irrelevant. As Jesus said, the time has now come. The way to worship is here. The One to worship is here. He is it.
Worshiping God must come through the Son. He is God. He is the Intermediary. He is the Advocate. Without Him and His purpose, the best we can do is worship our mind’s conception of God. But this too is an idol formed in our own head. It is not God. God has made himself known to be worshiped. It was his plan all along.
Both Volf and Beckwith, although great theologians, have clearly missed the big picture here. After all, very smart men can still make mistakes. The motivation behind their arguments appears to be a moral/political one, rather than a theological one. The only scriptural reference in either of their articles was Volf’s statement that “God is love” (even here no reference is given).
Each of them see a danger in estranging Christianity from Islam. They fear more hatred toward Muslims and more bigoted ideology. I certainly sympathize with them. The vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and wonderful people. As fellow humans created in the image of God, we should all show respect and love to each other. However, we cannot compromise the truth in order to “maintain peace.”
In reality, asserting that Christians and Muslims worship two different Gods should not lead to conflict – it should lead to love – greater love. Before I was a Christian, I was an idolater too – we all were. Jesus saved us and he restored our worship. We must show this to others. We must demonstrate this sacrificial love to those who are lost.
Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? The answer to this question may seem petty, even irrelevant. I could not disagree more. Worship is at the center of who we are – it’s what we do – what we were created to do. All of us worship something. How we understand worship and what we worship reveals who we are as a person. What we believe about God determines everything about us. Our view of God dictates our view of the world. To view God wrongly is to view the world wrongly. For Christians, Christ is at the center. Christ was the purpose of God’s plan from the beginning, he was with God from the beginning, and he upholds everything now. We must view everything through Christ, for Christ, and by Christ. Without Him, we are nothing. Without Him, God is nothing.
What if an honest Muslim asked Jesus, “Do I worship God?” How would he respond? I suppose his answer would be the same as it is for everyone.
“Who do you say that I am?”