Why the Incarnation requires us to believe that Muslims worship the true God

Why the Incarnation requires us to believe that Muslims worship the true God January 1, 2016

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!

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9 responses to “Why the Incarnation requires us to believe that Muslims worship the true God”

  1. The Imitation of Christ says, "Do not open your heart to every man, but discuss your affairs with one who is wise and who fears God" (1.8).
    If people, especially those who claim to believe in God, would heed this bit of advice (which sounds commonsensical enough), what would the discussion on the topic "God" look like? Probably very different than it has so far throughout history.

    Seen from the perspective of this advice, it seems quite possible that some people who engage in discussion on the topic "God" do not do so in the spirit of wisdom and fear of God, but for some other reason, such as a political one, both in terms of personal and social politics.

    Such people are making the discussion on the topic "God" yet another means for their political aims. And, most importantly, they shape their arguments in this discussion on the topic "God" accordingly. Which is how at least some arguments in the God-discussion (which is actually a debate) are theologically spurious.

    Can there be theology without politics?

  2. It depends on what you mean by "politics." If you mean what Aristotle meant–the art of living together in community–then I think not and I surely hope not.

  3. I mean "politics" in its broadest sense, yes, like Aristotle's.

    If I am understanding you correctly, you mean that you do not think that theology without politics is possible, and you hope that it wouldn't be; in other words, that theology and politics necessarily go or should go hand in hand.

    I am not convinced by this view. If theology is to be deemed as a relevant effort on the topic "God", as relevant for the truth about God, then it should be beyond various political concerns.

    One can often enough hear from members of various religions things to the effect of, "Truth is truth, it doesn't matter whether you believe or not, doesn't matter whether you like it or not. This is the truth about God, take it or leave it."

    But for all practical intents and purposes, theology and politics indeed seem inseparable. For beter or worse.

    For example, the parent telling her child things on the topic "God" possibly does so for at least two sets of reasons: one is to teach the child on the topic "God," and the other is to get the child to obey her, whatever her personal wishes may be (from "Jesus wants you to eat your vegetables" to "Jesus wants you to go to the child beauty pageant").

    Another example: One can notice there is a lot of strawmaning going on in interreligious debates. Why would that be, if not for political reasons?

    Then take NLT's 2 Cor. 10:5: "We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ."
    It's clear that NLT's rendition has clear political implications for how Christians are supposed to treat other people, and there's no shortage of brutal examples of that.

    While on the one hand, it seems only prudent to intertwine theology with politics, on the other hand, doing so can be an instruction and justification for abuse in the name of God.

    For example, when teaching a child on the topic "God," it is prudent to explain theological concepts to the child in a way that the child can understand, as opposed to talking to the child the way a scholar would discuss said topic with fellow scholars.

    On the other hand, some slave owners justified owning slaves with theology. Then there's that bright doctor who invented drapetomania.
    And then all the contemporary examples of people using theology to justify racial hatred, hatred of homosexuals, contempt for the poor etc. etc.

    How to proceed with theology without the not rarely damaging effects of politics?

  4. We can look at the matter this way too:

    If a people (in this case, Muslims) were to agree that all theists of various religions all worship the same God, just in different ways, what political (and social and economical) implications would this have for all involved?

    For one, it would lead them to a more nuanced view of the matter, and nuanced views are generally difficult to maintain, as opposed to black-and-white extremist views.

    Secondly, seeing oneself as the only one who is right about God gives one far more self-confidence, than seeing oneself as the one whose view of God is the most right one while others are just less or more wrong. To say nothing of the difficulty of seeing all religions as equal in some crucial way.

    Thirdly, there would be less, or even no justification for racial, national, religious, social, or economical segregation, and discrimination. Then what would people do?

    Seeing all people as children of the same God and as worshipping the same God seems to lead to a drastically different approach to how people go about daily life including how countries interact with one another.

    It also seems to lead to a drastically different way of conceptualizing one's sense of self and one's sense of self-worth.

    These things seem to be extremely difficult to change.

    Consider that for not just a few people, it is already hard to believe that poor people and rich people might be worshipping the same God (even when both those rich and those poor are nominally members of the same church). If already this is a challenge, then what a challenge it is to even just consider that people from different races, nationalities, and religions might be worshipping the same God.

    So I conclude that for reasons of politics (intrapersonal, interpersonal, national, international) people tend to adhere to a particular set of theological propositions, even if ideally, theology should be the one area where such shouldn't be the case.

  5. I'm still having trouble with how you're using the word "politics." You seem to be using it pejoratively. But if politics is the art of living in community, then of course Christianity and any other religion will have political implications, and that's not a bad thing. It often works out in bad ways, because people are sinful. But as you say, saying that we all worship the same God has political implications. That is to say, it has implications for how we live together. One effective point that the people on the "negative" side of this make is that we have to learn to live in peace with people who _don't_ worship God (atheists or polytheists). So why is it important in the case of Muslims? I think there are a bunch of reasons why it is, but one is that Muslims _claim_ to worship the one true God. If you think that they are really worshiping a false god, then that intensifies the existing Christian tendency to see them as people subject to demonic deception. It definitely makes it easier for people to express anti-Islamic bigotry.

    But, of course, the question to ask is not what is useful but what is true.

  6. Sophia, sorry for not responding sooner. Let me see if I understand what you are saying:

    You're suggesting that perhaps theistic religion is about bringing about what is good for human beings as a whole, or perhaps just whatever serves God's will and brings him glory, by whatever means necessary, and that this would explain the atrocities that religious believers have committed in the name of God.

    This suggestion is contrary to historic Christian orthodoxy. For all the evils Christians have committed, one thing that orthodox Christians have said pretty consistently is that "the ends do not justify the means." Some things are intrinsically wrong. Killing innocent people, for instance. It is never right to kill innocent people, even if that would bring in an endless reign of peace and prosperity. (And yes, that does raise some questions about certain things recorded in the OT, such as Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac, or the slaughter of the Canaanites recorded in Joshua.) If you look at the way Christians have justified actions that we would now regard as evil, they did so pretty consistently on the grounds that the people they were killing deserved it, not on the grounds that it's OK to violate moral norms for a good purpose. Of course, a good deal of the time Christians have acted in violation of the Church's teachings. Or religious partisanship has been invoked to justify ruthless behavior that served a worldly purpose as well. Human behavior is very complicated.

    If God exists, then God is good. Otherwise the word "God" would become meaningless. And this goodness must be absolute. That is actually the best way I know of to explain why God doesn't intervene to prevent evil more often–that, perhaps in ways we can't understand, for God to do so would violate his good nature in some way. In other words, I'd turn your suggestion around. I'd say that the evils and chaos of the world point not to a God who is ruthlessly pragmatic, but to a God who is so totally defined by a nature of absolute goodness, understood in a wholly non-pragmatic way, that He won't violate our freedom or in other ways act contrary to His nature even when doing so would produce "the greater good." As Christians we believe God will defeat evil in the end. But we believe He will do so in a way that agrees with His nature, not in a way that conforms to our ideas of power and effectiveness. God's way of defeating evil is best shown in the Cross of Jesus.

    I agree that ultimately truth is useful, and only truth is truly useful, in the sense that the only "use" that matters is our union with truth and goodness. But what appears useful to us–even what appears to be the most efficient way to accomplish a good purpose–is often contrary to truth and intrinsic goodness.

    I may be totally wide of the mark and not understanding where you are coming from. But thanks for the comments anyway!

  7. Thank you for your reply.
    I will rephrase my concern in this way:

    In human societies (not just in formally edcuational settings), there are usually two curricula: the stated curriculum and the hidden curriculum. (
    For all practical intents and purposes, it is the hidden curriculum that matters the most.

    What if the same is the case in religion?

    What if all those officially stated religious doctrines and other statements (ie. the explicit, stated curriculum) are actually secondary to religion and religious attainment?

    What if what really matters is the things that are never explicitly stated, but which one must accurately read between the lines and comply with (ie. the hidden curriculum), or fail as a member of said social group and not attain what the group (or its leadership) promises?

    In religious terms, this would mean that failure to properly read and comply with the hidden curriculum leads to e.g. eternal damnation in Christianity, or to never attaining Nirvana in Buddhism.

    This approach effectively institutes as justifies (sometimes even a polar) dichotomy between words and deeds — that it is alright to say one thing and do the opposite.

    Of course, people typically frown upon the mere mention of this, what to speak of admitting to approve of it.
    Yet empirical observation suggests that this dichotomy of curricula and the importance of the hidden curriculum is precisely how things are. We can observe that people often say one thing and do the opposite, and they claim they are justified to do so.

    The above concern is based on viewing religion from a sociological or culturological perspective, thus viewing religion merely as a social or cultural phenomenon; so in this sense, one could argue that such a view is as self-fulfilling as it is self-defeating since it doesn't give religion the credit that it could be something more than the usual worldly phenomena.

    However, if we start from the proposition that in order to know the truth about God, one must trust some particular human and believe what he says, this proposition also places us in the midst of interpersonal power plays and the hidden curriculum, effectively making them what really matters in religion.

    * * *
    You say: "If you look at the way Christians have justified actions that we would now regard as evil, they did so pretty consistently on the grounds that the people they were killing deserved it, not on the grounds that it's OK to violate moral norms for a good purpose."
    Of course they say that! Nobody with half a brain would say anything truly bad about themselves.

    "As Christians we believe God will defeat evil in the end. But we believe He will do so in a way that agrees with His nature, not in a way that conforms to our ideas of power and effectiveness."
    It's not clear where or how to draw the line between God's ideas of power and effectiveness, and human ideas of power and effectiveness.
    Since all we know on the topic of God, we have heard from people, how can we know where that line is?

  8. I may write a new blog post about this, since you're raising a very important and complex question. But here's a brief answer:

    I take you to be referring not to a deliberate "secret agenda" on the part of church leaders, but to something that may go against what theologians, bishops, etc., explicitly believe themselves to be doing. If you're making the former argument–that the great theologians and leaders of the historic Church weren't sincere in their claims but were really primarily concerned with power–then I just don't think a fair-minded reading of their writings leads to that conclusion. But I take you to be saying something else–that whatever they may intend, the "hidden curriculum" of the institutional Church overwhelms its stated goals.

    I think the key issue is how you determine "what really matters." You seem to conclude that as soon as issues of power and control are present, they become the thing "that really matters." But why assume this? It seems to me that the question of "what really matters" is where, most fundamentally, faith lies.

    Here's another consideration: if you think that the "hidden curriculum" of power sets the agenda for religious institutions, then you are claiming some ability to see the "hidden curriculum" and decide what really matters. But isn't it likely that there's a "hidden curriculum" determining your own determinations about truth and goodness? In other words, this way of looking at human actions is self-defeating if you carry it through logically. (See Alasdair McIntyre's discussion of Nietzche and the "genealogical" option in _Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry_.)

    True, no one deliberately admits to be doing something that is, overall, bad, but many people have claimed that good and evil are relative and that things that would normally be evil become good if done for a good purpose. That was my point. The orthodox Christian tradition is not utilitarian or consequentialist or relativistic. You seemed, in your original post, to be suggesting that Christianity explicitly allows for the doing of evil that good may come.

    On your last point–some things in the Christian tradition clearly go against what most of us would think of as norms of power and effectiveness. Of course this could just be a brilliant, paradoxical human idea, invented by a persecuted apocalyptic sect without access to conventional power. Again, multiple explanations are possible and faith consists in choosing one, not against the evidence as a whole but in agreement with some apparent evidence and against other apparent evidence.

  9. Thank you for your reply.
    My questions are genuine, not rhetorical.

    I don't know if the "secret agenda" is deliberate or not. That's what I've been wondering about.

    If we start from the premise that religious people are indeed God's representatives, then whatever they say and do is beyond reproach, failure, or sin. That is, they can do no wrong.
    You can see what a Cromwellian turn this can take!

    So what are we, who don't know yet what the truth about God is, to do?
    Whom do we trust? Do we take for gold the word of anyone who claims to be God's representative?

    For most people throughout history, this choice has been made through the fact that they were born into a religion, were told specific answers to those questions by people whom they could trust long before they had any ability for critical thought. That is, they have internalized those answers already as small children, so early that later in life they have no recollection of it. This is why those answers can have that characteristic sense of being self-evident and urgent in their minds.

    But people who were not born and raised into a religion lack this. How are they to make up for it, if at all?

    You say:
    "I think the key issue is how you determine "what really matters." You seem to conclude that as soon as issues of power and control are present, they become the thing "that really matters." But why assume this? It seems to me that the question of "what really matters" is where, most fundamentally, faith lies."

    Again, I don't know. But I do know that if I approach any religious establishment (or any human establishment for that matter), what I am faced with first and foremost, as an outsider, are issues of power inside the group. If I stick around, the members quickly "show me my place." They let me know, directly or (mostly) indirectly, where I may sit (if at all), whom I may talk to (if at all), what I may ask at official Q&A sessions, etc. etc.
    So for me, as an outsider or newcomer, this is what really matters, because this is what I have to deal with.

    Outsiders, newcomers, and group members who are on the lowest ranks of the hierarchy tend to have the clearest view of the formal and informal hierarchy, the clearest view of the power relationships between the members of the group; they can most clearly tell who has whom under their thumb, who is in the old boys' club etc. Those higher up in the hierarchy tend not to see these things, or pretend not to see them.

    In secular groups, such dynamics are a given. They occur in religious groups too, but I don't know what role they play there — hence my inquiry.

    "You seemed, in your original post, to be suggesting that Christianity explicitly allows for the doing of evil that good may come."
    No, it's that I don't understand Christians (or any religious people) at all.

    Thank you for suggesting Alasdair McIntyre. His work seems interesting (esp. _Whose Justice? Which Rationality?_). His books aren't available at libraries here, but I'll see what I can do with a little help from the internet.

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