The Same God 9

Miroslav Volf, Professor at Yale, on the dedication page of his new book — Allah: A Christian Response, says this:

To my father, a Pentecostal minister who admired Muslims, and taught me as a boy that they worship the same God as we do.

Volf’s quest is to build a theological basis for peaceful co-existence and peaceful cooperation among Muslims and Christians, and his quest is to contend that the God of the Christians and the God of the Muslims is the “same” God. What he means by “same” is not “identical” but “sufficient similarity.”

In chp 9 Volf explores this question: “The Same God, the Same Religion?” and he seems to make some moves here that make me feel uncomfortable, but let’s get to what he says first.

First, he reiterates his argument: that the God of Islam and the God of Christianity are the “same” God (note how I nuanced this above). [I don't agree with this contention of his because I think monotheism is one thing but worship and belief in the "same" God is significantly different because then content is spelled out -- and the particularism of one's God is all that matters when it comes to defining "God." Hence, Incarnation, Trinity, and Cross are central for the Christian view of God while they are not for Islam's.]

Second, he explores whether one’s view of God marks off one’s community, so that community and God are tied together.  True, both Christianity and Islam believe in a God who transcends tribe and nation. “That’s why,” Volf says, “two communities can have a common God” (192).

Which raises a major question: If these have the same God, do they have the same religion?

He says Progressives want this to be true; Conservatives don’t want this to be true. Where is Volf? Is each faith a variant of the same thing? “It does not,” he says, and then says this: “It is possible to believe in the same God as another person and yet belong to another religion” (195).

He then touches on one of the more volatile issues in our day: Can a person be a Muslim and a Christian at the same time? Or, are these two confessions mutually exclusive? I say Yes, it appears to me that Volf says No. His case, besides the many Muslims who are secret converts, is Ann Redding, who I would look at differently than the secret converts. So looks at “Rules for Blending Religions”:

1. One has the “right” to combine two faiths (he speaks here at the level of basic human laws, not theology).
2. One can adopt various cultural forms — dress, food, language — associated with another faith.
3. One can absorb religious practices and spiritual insights from other religions. Thus, he says Christians could absorb Islam’s emphasis on “submission to God.”
4. One can acquire a new religious identity and discard an old one. Here he speaks of living one’s faith as more vital than the label one uses.

What matters is “people’s allegiance, practices and beliefs, all three taken together” (200). So, in the case of Redding, while she sees the issue in the same God, Volf says this: “Christian faith in its normative expression is about the right worship of God through Christ” (200). In blending, though, Volf says the Christian must ask these three questions:

1. Baptized in the name of the Trinity?
2. Confess Jesus Christ, in whom God dwelled in human flesh, is Lord?
3. Have you received the divine gift of new life given freely through Christ?

If you say Yes to these you are 100% Christian.

If you also fasted on Ramadan, prayed five times per day by saying Al Fatihah, and believe in Muhammad was a prophet, you could still be 100% Christian.

I believe the symbolic value of these practices cuts across the integrity of one’s confession of the above. What about you?

Volf sees hybrid religiosity as a good problem to have. “The most pressing problem among religions today is not the blurring of boundaries and mixing and matching; it’s the propensity to engage others with disrespect, hostility, and violence” (202). Next chp is on proselytism.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.amberpeace.com Amber-Lee

    Very interesting! I’ve never thought about hybrid religion as Volf has expressed. I believe I am inclined to agree with him – but with a clause added. That clause would be that someone who is Christian probably shouldn’t be doing Muslim practices. As a write that, however, I remember that my best friend is Jewish and I will be celebrating Passover this year with her. Did I just make myself a hypocrite? I think I might. I need to think more on that.
    I also agree with Volf that we worship the same God. Even in my most evangelical days, knocking door to door, I believe that all who worship one Creator and acknowledge no other worship the same God. I say this because I believe we worship the same God, but those who are not Christian worship him in a sort of ignorance of what Christianity holds (the Truth). I stand by this, because I look back on my Southern Baptist worship of God and believe that I was not worshiping God correctly. I may not even be doing it correctly now (99% sure I’m not), and so to give grace to myself I must also extend that grace to others who are also bumbling through this world.

  • Richard

    Reciting the Al Fatihah is deeply problematic for any professing Christian. The final two verses (translated) are: “Show us he straight way, The way of those upon whom you have bestowed your grace, those whose portion is not your wrath and who do not go astray”.

    According to Bukhari 12:749, it is Jews who are subject to God’s wrath and Christians who have gone astray. I cannot see how repeatedly confessing that Jews and Christians are specifically outside of God’s grace can be Biblical or Christian in any way.

  • http://homekettle.wordpress.com David N.

    I agree with you – I think these faiths are mutually exclusive in practice. This doesn’t resolve the issue of universalism from an eternal standpoint, but in terms of worshipping God here on earth, I don’t think you can knowingly blend the two and actually come away with either in any true sense.

  • Holly

    At the beginning of these reviews, I thought we were talking about commonality for the purpose of “bridge building.” The thought of co-existence doesn’t bother me – I mean, we have to do that with everyone. Mutual respect and an ability to get along is vitally important. I can’t follow Volf where he is taking his premise at this point, however. Are there some “secret” followers of Jesus in Islam? I’m sure there are…but as far as endorsing and promoting a blending? No, not for me.

  • Jeremy

    Not so sure about this one. I’ll have to think about it. I’ve spoken to local men running ministries in China and India, and a lot of them say the same thing: American missionaries demand an utter separation from all things “pagan” at the very outset and this is proving devastating as it alienates the convert’s family. By finding ways the convert can participate, the reach they have is significantly farther.

    However, Richard, I’ll disagree on that one. There is a good bit of Christian tradition that is appropriation of pagan customs, holidays, etc. The last two lines of the Al Fatihah are ambiguous enough that you could mean whatever you want regardless of what the formulator of it may have wished. Actually, upon reading the whole thing, I think we could do with a whole lot more of that sort of thing:

    In the name of God, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.
    Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds:
    The Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful:
    Owner of the Day of Judgement.
    Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) was ask for help.
    Show us the straight path:
    The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not (the path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.

    There’s something powerful there, even if I think it’s normally pointed in the wrong direction.

    Scot – Is Volf encouraging syncretism/universalism or a centered set model of evangelism? I know Volf has stated plainly that he’s not a universalist and believes the only way to God is through Jesus, but I’m not sure how far out he’s setting his boundaries, if any at all.

  • http://realspirituality.org Mark

    I’m not sure how you can say “he particularism of one’s God is all that matters when it comes to defining “God.” Hence, Incarnation, Trinity, and Cross are central for the Christian view of God while they are not for Islam’s” and claim that Christians worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We would say Jews worship the same God, just incompletely. Why can’t that be said of others, given Volf’s notion of “sufficient similarity”?

  • smcknight

    Jeremy,

    No I don’t see syncretism or universalism. He’s arguing for a sufficient similarity to be called “same.” On that basis he thinks better dialogue and co-existence can occur.

    Mark,

    The God of Christians is the God of the Old Testament further revealed as Trinity. Once that revelation is clear, that God is Trinity, became incarnate in Christ, and remedies the problems through his life, death and resurrection/ascension, our image of God changes from the Old Testament God. The result is what we read the God of the Old Testament differently than do orthodox Jews.

    Here’s a big point: we don’t worship a God called monotheism. We don’t worship a “common referent.” We worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is how we define who God is. This gets to what I mean by particularism: the God we worship is known in the particular details and particular realities not in generalities, some of which overlap with the gods of others.

    Orthodox Jews think Christians are totally wrong in believing God became a human, in the cross fulfilling sacrifice and Temple, in believing in a Trinity and these beliefs were often called blasphemous.

    To say we worship the same God as Jews or Muslims, to me, denies the particular God we do worship.

  • Percival

    Scott,
    I’m not sure what you are trying to say here. Could you please explain this line?

    …the particularism of one’s God is all that matters when it comes to defining “God.”

    Scott, I agree with you about the symbolic value of Islamic practices. Each practice cannot be divorced from its accepted meaning. To think you can adopt the practice without giving assent to the attached religious meaning is problematic at best and deceitful at worst.

    Richard #2,
    By coincidence, I was just teaching the Sura(t) Al-Fatiha to some new missionaries today. What Bukhari says is not relevant here. Christian Arabs by and large do not object to the content of this Surah/prayer.

  • Percival

    Scott,
    OK, your #7 post answered my question in my #8 post.

  • Percival

    Scott,
    I think Paul’s words in Romans 1:18-32 would argue against your view of particularism and knowledge of God. Paul is not speaking about a theology of monotheism here. He is saying that it is possible to recognize God even apart from special revelation (i.e. the Trinity).

    1:20 For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse.1:21 Because,knowing God, they didn’t glorify him as God, neither gave thanks, but became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless heart was darkened.

    It is not so much about defining God as it is about recognizing and acknowledging God which, as Paul indicates, is sufficient for the human obligation of “glorifying Him as God”. So, worship does not come from our definition of God being completely accurate (if it did, we would ALL be in deep trouble) but rather acknowledging His place as Creator and Sustainer of life.

  • Percival

    Scott,
    In addition I think it is a category mistake to confuse the god we imagine (a psychological construct) with the God who is. As believers in the One Living God, we cannot say that the god we worship is the one that is in our minds, as defined by me and my people. If worship is real, the object of that worship is the actual living God.

  • smcknight

    Percival,

    Thanks. Yes, there is a sense in which all humans grope for God, and Paul clearly says this in Romans 1 and in Acts 17. I don’t dispute that.

    What we are talking about though is slightly different, and you can correct me if I am wrong.

    We are talking about whether the specific God of Islam and the God of Christianity and the God of Judaism is the “same” God and Volf says “same” means “sufficiently similar.”

    My contention is that: All three are monotheistic religions. So they are the “same” in that sense. They are the “same” in other senses.

    But my other contention is that they are not the “same” God or “even sufficiently similar” at the most basic and substantive level in that Christians believe in a Trinity and neither Muslims nor Jews can stomach the thought. They see our God as a wrong-headed wandering by Christians. They don’t think we have the same God. Yes, monotheism but a seriously mistaken view of God. I can’t see how seriously mistaken and same can be together.

  • RobS

    My thoughts are everywhere… but for someone passing the “100% Christian” test above and then engaging in very Muslim faith practices and beliefs is a little overwhelming. To adapt some cultural things (for the Christian in Ethiopia) it would probably be common to have similar cultural commonalities for example.

    But for a Christian to believe Muhammad is a prophet… that’s quite a stretch. Muhammad’s message is so different than God’s message in the person of Jesus Christ that I can’t see how Muhammad brought a message that a Christian should believe he should adapt to follow.

    Likewise, I’ll skip the idea of following Joseph Smith or other “prophets” through the ages that had messages that contradict those from Jesus Christ.

  • Percival

    Scott,
    My difficulty with Volf is that he is using the language of “same god” or “sufficiently similar god” as if that is what is important. He seems to be confusing categories as well. All along, I have tried to point out that this is confusing. If we think the actual God is the one we define, we are mistaken.

    A formative book for me in my youth was Phillip’s “Your God is Too Small.” I remember wondering how God could be small before realizing that Phillips was not really talking about God. He was talking about our imagination. Is Volf talking about God or how we imagine him to be? He seems to want it both ways.

    RobS,
    The “trick” that is used to justify saying that Christians can say that Mohammad was a prophet is by acknowledging that that was his job description, like someone is a teacher or a priest. Pretty neat way to avoid the whole point of the Shehada confession, no?

    If we are talking about our conception of God as revealed to us and their conception of God as revealed in Islam, I would say they are radically different and not sufficiently similar (whatever that means).

  • Jeremy

    Thanks, Scot, that clarifies a bit. It sounded like he was going a direction I wasn’t quite comfortable with. Still undecided if I’m comfortable with it

    Percival, I have a question you can probably answer and slightly off topic. I was talking to a missionary friend of mine that said he had a theory. If we re-order the Qur’an chronologically, we get a narrative that is revealing. The earliest writings point toward the Christian God, but turn away significantly over time (possibly through bad encounters with Christians and Jews). If that’s true, it might be entirely possible to say that Mohammad WAS a prophet; One that allowed hatred and bitterness to pull him away from his calling. Note: he wasn’t saying this was fact, but as a possibility he was exploring as he learns more about the Qur’an and tries to figure out where useful contact points were.

  • Percival

    Jeremy,
    Yes, there is a definite shift of tone and content. Early on Mohammad was probably expecting the Jews of Medina to accept his prophethood. When it was rejected, the tone toward Jews and others who did not accept his prophethood became quite militant. Unfortunately, later verses trump earlier verses due to the doctrine of abrogation.

    Whether the early verses point to a Christian “god” is debatable, but there are numerous verses directed to the pagan Arabs that say thing like, If you are in doubt about these things ask the People of the Book because in the gospel is guidance and light. He saw his prophethood as a continuation of the same message of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus.

  • Percival

    sorry, a Christian “god” should read “a Christian god”

  • Jeremy

    Thanks, that’s really helpful. I think you’re closer to what he was saying than I was now that I read your explanation.

  • Bob Brooke

    The theologoical question of whether Christians & Muslims intend to serve the same God is not an easy one to answer. I don’t believe that “sufficient similarity” answers whether or not Mohammed was looking at the God of Abraham in the same way Jews and Christians look at Him. Mulims view the Quran as the actual words of God, the final edition of God’s word that corrects all writings about God that came before it. So, intentions aside, it really gets down to whether or not Jews and Christians believe the Quran is the word of God.

  • Dan Arnold

    Scot,

    They see our God as a wrong-headed wandering by Christians. They don’t think we have the same God. Yes, monotheism but a seriously mistaken view of God. I can’t see how seriously mistaken and same can be together.

    Leaving aside the issue of Muslim’s, are you saying that you do not think that Jews worship the same God as Christians? That their conception of God is so “seriously mistaken” that they cannot be the same God? Or are you saying Orthodox Jews believe that Christians worship a different God? Both? Neither?

  • Miroslav

    Let me chime in a bit. Am I encouraging syncretism? No. I consider myself an orthodox Christian, in line with such theologians as Gregory of Naziansus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, etc. But I am discouraging making Western forms of Christian inculturation normative. As to the relation between the God of normative Islam the God of normative Christianity, I think similarities in that which each tradition claims about God are such that it is impossible to say that they don’t refer to the same “object” when they speak about God. And similarities in God’s character are significant as well (as are differences, of course). Those who argue that Muslims and Christian refer to a different deity when they pray, must show how their arguments in favor of this position don’t apply also to the God of the Jews. And to say that Christians worship different God than do Jews is outright heretical, I think.

    Miroslav

  • scotmcknight

    But Miroslav, we don’t worship “objects” and we are not “monotheists” in worship. Christians worship a God who is Triune, and I can buy in completely with your idea that our Christian understanding of God’s oneness is consistent with the Muslim view of God as one. But still, our understanding of God as Triune and our understanding of God as Incarnate in Christ, and our view that God crucified defines our view of God are sufficiently dissimilar — using your language and logic — to say “not the same” God. Isn’t “outright heretical” what Judaism has often said about the Christian understanding of God as Triune?

  • Miroslav

    Scott,

    We don’t worship objects; we worship the One true God. Hence I generally put “objects” in quotation marks. But the question is whether the One we worship is the same one (though partly and in some areas significantly differently understood) or a completely different one, in which case one group would be idolaters.

    Are you really prepared to say that the Jews are idolaters, as Jews say of Christians that they are (such as Maimonides and others), because Christians believe in a different God than they on account of being Trinitarians? That flies against the whole witness of the New Testament, including the Gospel of John. If the Jews think that we don’t worship the same God as they, that does not mean that we think that the Jews don’t worship the same God as we. If grounds why you reject the thesis that Christians and Muslims have the same (though partly differently understood) One in view when they speak of God lead you conclude that Christians must claim that the Jews worship a different God than they, this, in my judgment, invalidates those grounds.

    As to living together without having some shared values, yes, that is possible, but it would be highly difficult if Christians and Muslims have equal right to insert themselves in public space. In the absence of such a right, though one, other, or both groups would end up suffering oppression. In a state that allows both to have equal voice on equal terms, Christians and Muslims have to have some common values if they are to live in peace. And this is where having partly overlapping understandings of the One God comes in. Mind you, we are not creating this common understandings so that we can live together in peace; we are recognizing them as existing. For we are not creating our God, but recognizing what is in fact the case.

    Or so I see things.

    Miroslav

  • Jeremy

    Thanks, Miroslav. For the record, I wasn’t accusing you of syncretism, but got the impression that Scot was saying something along those lines and wanted clarification. Such a position seemed confusing in light of some of your other work I’ve read, which I deeply appreciate!, so I questioned whether I understood him properly. Thankfully, the confusion was on my end!

    It seems to me that at least from a purely historical basis, we are, in fact, dealing with the same God. I think the differences are substantial enough to be seriously problematic, but as a starting point for dialogue, it seems a valid starting point. To say that Mohammad was incorrect or misguided in his teachings regarding that God seems quite a different proposition to saying that the God that Muslims worship does not exist at all. This doesn’t negate or lessen the fullness of revelation found in Jesus, but argues that subsequent “revelation” was in error.

    Obviously, this is a complicated topic that requires walking a line between sensitivity and boldness in our declaration of the gospel, but I think that’s something we could use a little more of when dealing with those that disagree with us.

    Scot – Can you unpack “Yes, monotheism but a seriously mistaken view of God. I can’t see how seriously mistaken and same can be together” a little? It does sound like you’re implying that the Jewish mistake of not recognizing Jesus means they worship another God entirely, but I don’t see that built into the NT, quite the opposite actually. Jesus and the authors seem to very clearly be pointing to YHWH as the God in question, and while the Jewish rejection of Jesus has far reaching implications, there doesn’t seem, in my admittedly limited understanding, to be any repudiation of the Jews as pagan idolaters.

  • http://seguewm.blogspot.com/ Bill

    I have been a worshiper of God for 35 years – yet my ‘definition’ of God has been constantly changing. Was the God I worshiped 35 years ago the same God of my worship today? Yes and no. Yes, in that God remains the same, accepting my worship despite my flawed picture of God. No, in that my construct of God is quite different. My ‘God’ construct limits my worship without ever changing the reality of God. God always responds to my desire to worship God despite my definition of God. There have been times when my approach to God was more Muslim-like and at other times more Christian-like. Hmm

  • nathan

    Could I just chime in and say that that 3-4 comment interaction between Scot and Miroslav was hands down one of the best interactions/theological exchanges I’ve seen on the web.

    It’s awesome to see rigorous discussion.

    Three words:
    Made. My. Day.

    :)

    It also made me have fond memories of the emergent village theological conversation at Yale a few years back with Dr. Volf in Marquand Chapel.

  • Ting

    I have very little knowledge about Islam and about history. So I stand to be corrected.

    I get the feeling that, from what I’ve read of Muhammed’s story, he intentionally patterned Islam so that it would have as much commonality with Judaism and Christianity but at the same time supplanting both and putting himself as the supreme arbiter of revelation.

    Even Islam’s eschatology is eerily similar to Christianity (although I am not sure how much of this eschaton comes from Mohammed himself).

    But at the same time, Islam’s God allowed Mohammed to raid caravans, to kill and destroy (not to say that Christians have not done the same but clearly from Jesus’ teaching such crimes are prohibited).

    And most disturbingly, is the branch of Islam that seems to worship a god very similar to the god of war of Vikings who will grant Valhalla to the warriors who die valiantly in the battle field.

    If I am correct in my assessment of Islam’s history, then I find we are treading on dangerous grounds. Jewish history is different from Islam’s history.

    I am all for peaceful co-existence with Muslims. But can Christians peacefully co-exist with Muslims under Shariah law, in a country like Pakistan with a nebulous but very strict laws on blasphemy? I believe that generally, Muslims live peacefully beside Christians in Christian countries (not including immigration issues), but sadly I don’t think we can say the same of countries which are predominantly Muslim.

    I know of secret Christian worshipers of Jesus who have remained Muslim in their practices but it is secret because they would be put to death by their own families if they are found out. So I think, theologically, it maybe defensible to say that Allah and El Elyon are similar (one can even say the same). But in praxis, I think that there is a great divide.

  • http://stewedrabbit.blogspot.com Edwin

    Scot, I have to challenge your assertion that Jews and Muslims don’t think we worship the true God. My experience both in person and in reading has been pretty much entirely the other way–that Muslims and Jews almost universally agree that we Christians do worship the true God. Last semester I took some students on a field trip to a local mosque–the leaders of the mosque were very polemical toward Christianity and the visiting preacher went out of his way to attack our belief in Jesus’ divinity once he realized there were Christian visitors. The Q and A session afterward was quite tense and contentious, with the Muslims aggressively criticizing Christian belief about Jesus. And yet–in the middle of all that, they went out of their way to emphasize that they did not question the fact that we believe in the true God, and they argued on that basis that they had a much more favorable view of Christianity than most Christians do of Islam. This is consistent with pretty much everything I’ve read from Islamic sources, though don’t doubt that some hardliners say otherwise.

    This would be even truer with regard to Judaism. Jews I have talked to and Jewish theologians I’ve read seem to take without questioning that Christians do worship the true God. Both Muslims and Jews understand us to add belief in Jesus to belief in God–they assume that our “God the Father” is the same as their God. Now this may in fact be a misunderstanding on their part, not actually taking our Trinitarianism seriously enough. But that’s how they tend to put it, in my experience. If you have reason to believe otherwise, I would love to know more about it.

    I further question your claim that “seriously mistaken” can’t be “same.” Why not?

    Of course we don’t worship “monotheism,” but we do worship the One God revealed both in nature (see Acts 17, Romans 1) and in salvation history. To deny this makes nonsense of our relationship with the Old Testament, it seems to me, as well as of the NT appeals to natural theology. The trend in Protestantism in the past 100 years has been to reject natural theology, in part because Protestants know natural theology in its Enlightenment rather than its Thomistic or (much better yet) patristic forms. But in fact most Christians for most of Christian history have acknowledged that all monotheists worship the true God. The only major debate about whether Muslims worship the true God occurred in medieval Byzantium, and it occurred because the Byzantines had a mistranslation of the Qur’an which made them think that Muslims believed God was a metal sphere (which would make them no longer monotheists by the classic definition).


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