So the Internet has been buzzing these past few weeks–my corner of it at least–with discussion of Larycia Hawkins, the Wheaton College political science professor who has been “placed on administrative leave” for reasons Wheaton has not clearly explained but which have something to do with her claim that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.”
Practically everyone who blogs about Christian stuff has now weighed in on this in one way or the other. The negative position is primarily maintained by evangelical Protestants, although many Orthodox also take a dim view of the idea that Muslims worship the true God. Catholics are generally committed to the affirmative position, since Lumen Gentium (a document of the Second Vatican Council) says that Muslims “along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” This has always seemed to be a fairly self-evident truth to me, so it’s taken me some effort to understand just why so many evangelicals are upset by the idea, and indeed often consider it to be obvious heresy. Clearly the reason has something to do with the evangelical focus on personal salvation, as well as the Christocentric understanding of God that evangelicals share with other orthodox Christians. To many evangelicals, worshiping the true God implies that one is in a saving relationship with God, and to say that people can have such a relationship with God while rejecting the divinity and atoning death of Christ is to undercut the central truths of the Christian faith. In the stark terms of 1 John 2:23, “no one who denies the Son has the Father.” To many evangelicals, it seems obvious that this excludes any possibility of non-Christians worshiping the true God. Those of us who maintain such a possibility are often accused of functionally denying the Trinity, the Incarnation, and in general God’s revelation of himself in Christ.
I believe that, in fact, it’s the other way round. The Christian revelation only makes sense if we believe that the God revealed in Jesus was the same God known covenantally to Jews and in a more abstract and philosophical way to many pagans as well. And I believe that this is by far the best way to interpret the witness of Scripture. (I try to avoid language like “Scripture clearly teaches” because it is thrown around so often, and if intelligent and pious Christians fail to see what seems obvious to me, it’s probably not as obvious as I think.)
The easiest step in the argument to establish is that the God revealed in Jesus is the same God known in the Old Testament. To deny this, of course, would be the ancient heresy of Marcionism. No one wants to do this. But consider what this means. The Old Testament does not describe God as Trinitarian, even in the highly implicit way the NT does. Yes, there is language about God’s Word and Spirit, but little indication that they are persons distinct from God. Indeed, it’s not clear that all the OT authors were, in the later sense, monotheistic at all. They may not have thought of God as being utterly different in nature from the “gods” so much as being Israel’s God, peculiarly powerful and gracious, to whom Israel was bound in covenant. Granted, this isn’t clear, and by the time we get to something like Isaiah 40-55 it’s pretty clear that God is radically different in nature from the gods. But parts of the OT could easily be read as describing an anthropomorphic being with some kind of fiery body who literally sits on a throne in the sky, gets angry, etc. Even if we believe that the canonical authors and readers would have taken all this kind of language metaphorically, it’s clearly language that they shared with their pagan contemporaries. In other words, God clearly revealed Himself to the ancient Israelites in terms that made sense to them in their culture, and only gradually revealed to them the fuller truth that we believe we now know. Yet throughout this process, we believe it was the same God who was acting to save Israel and to bring Israel to know Him.
Of course, many will argue that Muslims are in a different situation, because Islam originated after the time of Christ and explicitly rejected the Christian concept of God. And certainly if someone were to reconstruct (as a few neopagans have done) a supposedly “original” worship of a god called “YHWH” who had a wife called Ashtoreth, etc., that wouldn’t be worship of the true God (and, of course, that kind of YHWH-worship was condemned in the Old Testament itself). But that isn’t what Muslims are doing. They are doing the exact opposite.
The trajectory of the Old Testament is toward distinguishing God more and more from the pagan gods, and exalting God’s transcendence and oneness. This process was necessary in order for the Incarnation to be intelligible. Without the revelation of the One God, the Incarnation would just look like another story about a god impregnating a woman (even if it didn’t involve literal intercourse). To say that Jesus is the Son of God is not the same thing as saying that Alexander the Great was the son of Zeus, because the true God is radically different from Zeus. It’s not just that Zeus was the “wrong god,” but that Zeus, understood as an anthropomorphic being who ruled over other gods essentially like him and was the son of older gods whom he dethroned, was not God at all.
Muslims cling passionately to the revelation of the oneness of God to which God brought the Jews slowly, over a period of centuries. And this affirmation of God’s transcendence isn’t something that conflicts with the Incarnation (though Muslims mistakenly think it does). It’s the precondition for the Christian claim that this one transcendent God has become incarnate. If we Christians claim that Muslims worship a false god because they affirm God’s oneness and transcendence, we are not upholding our faith in Christ as the full and final revelation of God. We are tearing down the basis for that faith. The word “God” in the sentence “Jesus is the Son of God” means, substantially, what Muslims say it means, or Christian faith is in vain.
To be sure, Muslims think that Christians fatally compromise God’s oneness and transcendence by saying that Jesus is the Son of God. It is not at all clear to me that Muslims understand what we mean by this. We have enough trouble understanding it. When I read or hear Muslim criticisms of the Christian position, most of them seem to presuppose that Christians hold something like the view of God that Mormons actually hold: that is to say, that there is one God called “God the Father” (whom they recognize as the same God they worship as “Allah”) and that the Son and the Spirit are distinct beings whom we “associate” with God. And Muslims rightly reject that. I’m not suggesting, of course, that Muslims and Christians really believe the same things about God. I’m suggesting that the orthodox Christian paradigm is so weird and alien to Muslims that they have trouble even knowing just what they reject when they reject it. But it’s so weird because we claim that we are worshiping the one, transcendent God whom they worship as well.
The essential paradox of the Christian faith is that the one, transcendent God, who is (to use an Islamic phrase) “exalted and glorified” far beyond all creatures, became incarnate in the human being Jesus of Nazareth. The scandal and wonder and glory of the Incarnation all depend precisely on our ascribing to God exactly those qualities that Muslims think make the Incarnation impossible.
This isn’t, as some have claimed, simply a “pedantic” linguistic argument. It has real consequences for how we proclaim the Gospel. It’s striking that Nabeel Qureshi, a convert from Islam to Christianity who wrote a recent article for Ravi Zacharias Ministries arguing that Muslims and Christians don’t worship the same God, admits that he converted to Christianity under the impression that Christianity does proclaim the same God worshiped in Islam. (I’m not claiming, of course, that this proves anything by itself. There are very likely other converts who did become Christians in the belief that they were thereby turning from a false god to the true God. But Qureshi’s story certainly refutes the assumption held by many conservative evangelicals that the “same God” belief is incompatible with evangelism.)
If we proclaim the Gospel in the belief that Muslims do not worship the true God, we will say (if we are honest) something like: “you falsely believe that you worship the compassionate Creator of the world. You should switch to believing in our God, because our God really is the compassionate Creator.”
But if we proclaim the Gospel in the belief that Muslims do worship the true God, we will say instead, “You rightly believe that God is compassionate, but God is far more compassionate than you realize. You rightly proclaim that God is the almighty Creator, but God has done a yet greater work than creation itself–He has become part of His own creation. You rightly proclaim that God is exalted and glorified–God is so exalted and so glorified that our standards of glory are trivial to Him. God’s glory is found in humility, God’s power in weakness. You believe all the right things about God. But you do not yet believe them deeply enough.”
I’m not making any claims (Qureshi’s account aside) about which of these methods will convert more Muslims. I don’t think that’s the right question to ask about evangelism anyway. I’m arguing that this second approach is a far deeper and more powerful proclamation of the Gospel. Qureshi claims that Christians fall into the “error” of thinking Muslims worship the true God because we accept uncritically Islamic claims. But he’s wrong. We say that Muslims worship the true God because of the inner logic of our own faith. The same God known to the Jews, the same God spoken of even by pagan philosophers, as Paul testifies in Acts 17,, is the God who is revealed fully in the person of Jesus. That is the Gospel. That is the message of Christmas.
A very merry Christmas season and a happy New Year to all!