Muslims, Christians, and the Gods

Muslims, Christians, and the Gods December 23, 2015

The controversy over Wheaton College’s Larycia Hawkins, put on administrative leave because she claims that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, took a higher profile with a Washington Post piece by Yale’s Miroslav Volf.

Volf argues that there is no theological justification for Wheaton’s action: “Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. . . . her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.” 

Wheaton is, he says, motivated by a desire to maintain sharp lines between friends and enemies. They can’t admit that they have anything in common with Muslims, lest they dilute the “alien” character of the Islamic other. Volf urges Wheaton to embrace Muslims, as if love for Muslims were incompatible with the conviction that they are not worshiping the living God. 

For his own part, Volf claims that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways.” Volf implies that his is the only position that can claim the mantle of orthodoxy. Any alternative is cover for animus against Muslims.

This debate exposes a fault line, not only between Muslims and Christians but between different modes of Christianity. All Christians confess the incarnation and Trinity, but not all confess them in the same way. 

I don’t pretend to resolve these complicated questions in a few paragraphs. (One of the complications is Paul’s statement to the pagan Greeks of Mars Hill: “What you worship in ignorance, I proclaim to you” [Acts 17:23]. Paul ended with the gospel of resurrection and judgment, and the philosophers decided they didn’t care for Paul’s God.) But I do want to rebut Volf’s claim that Wheaton has no theological justification for their position. 

Muslims and Christians indeed share certain beliefs, and it is, of course, possible to believe different things about the same person. “I believe in the Miroslav Volf who teaches at Yale,” says one. “Oh no, I admire the Miroslav Volf who wrote Exclusion and Embrace,” says another. “Idiots,” says a third. “They’re the same man.”

Yet the common beliefs of Muslims and Christians don’t go very deep. At every point, the two diverge. Both say, God is one; but Christians will say that the one God’s oneness is a triunity. Both say, God created the world; but Christians will say that God created through His eternal Word and Spirit. 

Volf says that Trinity and incarnation are “fundamental Christian convictions,” but, however fundamental, they don’t identify the living God in distinction from other beings who claim to be God.  Volf’s position virtually excludes the possibility of idolatry. The same logic can hold everywhere: “Baal is an idol, and so is Molech,” says an ancient Israelite prophet. “No, no. Baal worshipers worship Yahweh; we just understand Him differently.” Can Volf say of anyone what Paul says of the pagans of his day: “The things the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons, and not to God” (1 Corinthians 10:20)?

For Volf, one can understand God as not-Trinity and not-incarnate and yet be talking about the same God that Christians are talking about. Volf is not saying that denials of the Trinity are true; he’s not agnostic about his Christian convictions. But he does say that Muslim denials of Christian beliefs have the same referent as Christian affirmations. We’re talking about the same being, only differently: About the living God, Muslims say, He has no Son; about the same living God, Christians say, Oh, yes He does. 

It’s, of course, possible to have false beliefs about a person and still believe in and encounter and even worship that person. This is the sort of analogy presented by Francis Beckwith: “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.” He concludes, “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.”

Correct, but this isn’t the sort of difference that exists between Muslim and Christian theologies. Christians say that God has an eternal Son; the Qur’an denies it, vehemently. Christians confess that God sent His Son to become incarnate and live a full human life; Muslims deny it. Christians confess that the God-man died on a Roman cross for the sins of the world; Muslims deny it.

The precise analogy is this: Bob believes in a Thomas Jefferson who was not from Virginia, had no hand in writing the Declaration of Independence, never heard if Monticello, was not the Third President; Fred believes in a Thomas Jefferson who was did all these things. As the false beliefs and misrepresentations pile up, we have to wonder if Bob hasn’t confused Thomas Jefferson with a pretender. 

Beckwith makes an explicit appeal to classical theism as a core set of convictions shared by Muslims and Christians. But he implicitly treats God as a member of a class of beings, since his argument assumes there is a difference between God’s being God and God’s being this particular God. That is, the argument assumes a difference between God’s essence and His existence. That is a denial, not an affirmation, of classical theism.

The justification for Wheaton’s position is finally an evangelical one: The gospel events are the events by which Christians identify the God we worship, the God who is the God of the gospel. In the New Testament, “God” just means “Father, Son, and Spirit” or “the Father of Jesus who raised Him from the dead.” Those who disbelieve the gospel are talking about some other being than this. As Paul puts it in a Christological revision of the Shema, “For us, there is one God, and one Lord Jesus Christ.”

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