“Same God” for Muslims and Christians? False Starts

Recent events at Wheaton College have once again raised the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  This is a question which I have faced with some regularity, given that I have a small amount of theological training and that I study the mixed society (including Muslims and Christians) of the medieval Middle East.  With due regard to Biblical authority and the many learned people who have weighed in on the question, I find the issue to be rather more ambiguous than anyone likes to admit, and dependent upon certain non-obvious answers to tricky questions regarding the nature of worship and the relationship between sense and referent when speaking about spiritual beings, including God.  In other words, contrary to what everyone would like to be the case, the answer is not obvious either way.

Let me first make clear that I have no insight or insider information into the situation at Wheaton, beyond what I have seen posted on blogs and news outlets.  I have never met the professor involved, and have never set foot on Wheaton’s campus.  I have nothing against the school, and I count a few Wheaton alumni among my friends, but on the other hand I am generally in favor of professorial freedom.  I certainly don’t know enough about this particular situation to comment on how it ought to be resolved.  Instead, this post is about the question whether the God that Muslims worship is the same God as Christians worship, regardless of what is going on at Wheaton.

To understand the question, we should clarify a few things that this question is not.  It is not the same question as whether Christians love their Muslim neighbors, or “accept” them, or “stand in solidarity” with them (in any of the multitude of meanings which those latter phrases might hold).  Some of the people Jesus loved cannot be said to be worshiping God, or were certainly worshiping false gods, and yet he loved them.  It is possible to believe that Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians, and therefore to love them by praying for their salvation, and accepting them as neighbors and fellow human beings, and “standing in solidarity” with them by opposing irrational prejudice and Islamophobia.  On the other hand, it is possible to believe that Christians and Muslims worship the same God and yet to hate Muslims, to seek to exclude them from the country, and to desire for them to be humiliated as rivals.  This theological question is not equivalent to the question how any individual Christian treats their Muslim neighbors.  While the answer to the theological question may certainly inform the way Christians treat Muslim neighbors, it is not the only factor involved.

(As an aside, I consider it obvious from the Lord Jesus’s commands to love your neighbor [Matt 22:39], and more strongly even to love your enemies [Matt 5:44], that Christians ought to love Muslims as neighbors.  Indeed, Jesus illustrated the principle of loving one’s neighbor by challenging the divide between Jews and Samaritans [Luke 10:27-36], a rivalry which engendered a fair degree of enmity.  So any Christian who does not believe we should love Muslims will need to answer to Jesus for it, though that does not get us any closer to answering the theological question posed in this post.)

We must also be careful which authorities we cite in answer to this question, as it seems to me that, despite the technical logical independence of the theological issue from the question of liking Muslims, most Christians’ answer to this question can be derived immediately from whether they are trying to build bridges to Muslims or walls to keep them out.  The Wheaton professor cited Pope Francis, who is noted for reaching out to Muslims, but is widely regarded as somewhat unorthodox by conservative Catholics, to say nothing of American evangelicals, some of whom might be more inclined to reject a view because a pope said it.  The professor reportedly linked to an interview in the evangelical magazine Christianity Today with Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf, who wrote a book arguing that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (when they “embrace the normative traditions of their faith,” that is, since he rightly pointed out that many self-identified Muslims and many self-identified Christians do not worship).  Yet again, a theology professor at a secularized div school is hardly an authority shared by many evangelicals.  To be fair to the professor, I suspect that the intended audience of the original Facebook post consisted of like-minded Christians and the professor’s Muslim friends, rather than the hostile attention it has garnered.  On the other side, however, much of the public outcry against the notion of Muslims and Christians worshiping the same God, such as that by William J. Kelly, appeals to Republican political talking points more than Christian theological reasoning, and is being posted on politically conservative discussion outlets.  If we attempt to resolve this issue by appealing to human authorities, it will only devolve into partisan exclusion, of which we already have too much in this election year.

Nor is the question answered by saying that Muslims worship Allah and Christians worship God.  “Allah” is just the Arabic word for God, used equally by Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims (and sometimes Jews!).  That’s why the firestorm about the New York schoolgirl who recited the pledge of allegiance in Arabic, in which she correctly translated the line “one nation under God” using the term “Allah,” is ignorant and stupid.  There is no other way to say God in Arabic.  (Would her critics have preferred she say taht asnam, “under idols”?  Or taht ilah, “under some god”?)  While Malaysia has passed a law banning Christians there from using the term “Allah,” Arabic-speaking Christians in the Middle East use the term without reservation, and indeed they have been doing so since before Islam existed as a religion.

I do not think we can get an answer by appealing to some putative common ancestry as “Abrahamic religions.”  While it is true that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all claim Abraham, they have typically done so to the exclusion of the other two.  Abraham has not been a shared common ground, but instead a contested ground of legitimacy.  Since Abraham indisputably lived before Judah (and Moses), before Jesus, and before Muhammad, he could only be Jewish (or Christian, or Muslim) if Judaism (or Christianity, or Islam) is the timeless and true religion revealed by the eternal God.  While Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have developed in historical conversation with one another, there is no “common Abrahamic heritage” which all share.  As it turns out, what we know about Abraham’s mode of worshiping God as recorded in the book of Genesis clearly indicates that he did not practice any of the three “Abrahamic” religions: he did not keep kosher like Jews (Genesis 18:8), he sacrificed animals unlike Christians (Genesis 22:13), and if he performed five daily prayers or did anything in the direction of Mecca as Islam requires, it was not considered worth recording.

Contrary to what opponents assert, the claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God does not imply that Muslims are “saved” or that Islam and Christianity are equivalent religions or equally true.  It may be possible to worship the true God in a false way which does not lead to salvation, which might be the implication of Paul’s address to the Areopagus in Athens: “Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).  (Alternately, perhaps Paul was being polite and giving the Athenian idolaters the benefit of the doubt.)  Jesus said something similar to the Samaritan woman (John 4:22).  More negatively, this also seems to be what God accused Israel of doing through the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).  Evidently one can worship what one has a defective understanding or love for.  On the other hand, the claim that God loves Muslims and calls them to himself out of the world for their salvation (as expressed, for example, by Billy Graham [scroll to bottom]) does not mean that Muslims worship the true God, or that they may remain Muslims after being effectually called by God.

Finally, I do not find useful the analogy with Judaism, favored by Miroslav Volf in his 2011 Christianity Today interview and in his recent Washington Post op-ed in favor of the Wheaton professor and against the college.  To quote the more recent version, which is somewhat more explicit:

What is theologically wrong with asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, according to Hawkins’s opponents — and mine? Muslims deny the Trinity and incarnation, and, therefore, the Christian God and Muslim God cannot be the same. But the conclusion doesn’t square. And Christians, though historically not friendly to either Judaism or the Jews, have rightly resisted that line of thinking when it comes to the God of Israel.

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 [sic] partly different ways.

While Volf is correct that Christians have almost universally (with the exception of heretics like Marcion) insisted that they worship the God of Israel, he is incorrect to suggest that this means they think that they worship the same God as their contemporary Jews.  Contrary to Volf’s characterization of Christians in general, Tertullian (c. 200) did indeed accuse Jewish people of idolatry, and asserted that “our people, quitting the idols which formerly it used slavishly to serve, has been converted to the same God from whom Israel, as we have above related, had departed.”  Augustine likewise regarded the Jews as separated from God, and he quotes Paul’s letter to the Romans to indicate that Jews would one day come to worship the true God, implying that they are not doing so at present.  It is true that few Christian authors accused Jews of idolatry, but that is because before the Reformation idolatry was typically interpreted in the more literal sense of worshiping an idol, a statue of some pagan god, which Jews manifestly avoided.  Nevertheless, the notion that Jews who reject Jesus do not worship the true God may be what lies under the cryptic references in Revelation 2:9 and 3:9 to the “Synagogue of Satan” consisting of “those who say they are Jews but are not.”  The most common Christian line seems to have been that Christians worship the God of Israel, whom Jews had ceased to worship by rejecting Jesus, although there seems to be some diversity among Christian authors on the subject of whether contemporary Jews were in fact worshiping the God of Abraham or not.

But the reason Christians have insisted that they worship the God of Israel is because they have accepted the Old Testament as truly inspired scripture.  Christians have not felt the need to say that they worship the God of Muhammad, any more than Jews have suggested that they worship the G-d of Christians.  This lack of interest in Islam has historically been reciprocated: Mark Cohen documented that Muslims, though participants in the younger religion, have not insisted with the same strength on identifying their religion in regard to Judaism or Christianity as the latter did with its predecessor, perhaps in part because the partisans of the Qur’an rejected both the Old and New Testaments as corrupted to a greater degree than most Christian commentators (a few unusual Christians, such as Origen in certain moods, claimed that the entire Old Testament was corrupted).

So if all of these are false starts to answer the question whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, how can one answer the question?  One must specify what it means to worship, and give some account of how one determines the object of worship.  The former is complicated by the fact that the English word “worship” has become Christian jargon with no usage outside of Christianese, so that it is difficult to get a sense of what might be meant.  This has not always been the case; the term has enjoyed a wide range of shifting meanings over its long history.  But that makes it no easier to use in adjudicating this dispute.  The second question ought to be easier: people worship what they say they worship.  But what if the ways that they indicate what they worship are contradictory?  Using the distinction between the sense of a word and its referent, how can one determine the referent of what they worship if the sense is incoherent?  The answers to these questions are complicated and potentially controversial, as different people will have different intuitions, and yet the answer to the question whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God depends on them.  In a future post I will explore some of the possible answers to these questions, but I think this entry has grown long enough to indicate that whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is not obvious.

What Wheaton college and the Wheaton professor ought to do on the basis of this lack of obviousness I leave to their discernment, and I pray for the love-filled and Christ-honoring resolution of their disagreement during this Christmas time.

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3 comments

  1. A very interesting analysis. I was under the impression that Muslims believed Christians worshiped the same God as they do, but do so incorrectly, but it seems that it may be a little more complicated than that.

    As a side note, I wouldn’t say that “worship” has no usage outside Christianese. The usage “He worships the ground she walks on.” is arguably non-Christian, although I think it is widely understood to derive from the Christian usage.

    1. Good catch! I had forgotten that particular idiom, which I think has wide enough currency to escape being jargon, although it is perhaps a dead metaphor. Trying to define what “worship” itself means in that phrase is rather difficult! But it is an exception to my general statement. =-)

    2. To respond to the other part of your comment, Muslims have long held a range of opinions about whether Christians worship Allah or not. Most (but not all) Muslims have regarded Christianity as kufr (“unbelief”) because they reject Muhammad and the Qur’an, and many (I think most, but not all) Muslim religious thinkers have considered kufr to be tantamount to idolatry. It is again complicated by the fact that the Christians whom Muslims met in the Middle East all had icons, although the same chain of reasoning was applied to Jews who abstained from statues and icons. Some Muslim thinkers, however, maintained a distinction between kufr and idolatry, and many Muslim, Christian, and Jewish thinkers had lengthy learned debates upon the attributes of the Creator God, each claiming to worship him. Some Muslims considered it impolite to call Christians “unbelievers” and I just read yesterday that at one point doing was was criminalized in the medieval Middle East. Modern Muslims, of course, maintain the full range of opinions on the subject, with most Muslims in the West ascribing to the view that Christians worship the same God (albeit very wrongly).

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