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Do we worship the same God?

OPINION | John Stackhouse and Mark Durie
Thursday 21 January 2015

Professor Larycia Hawkins of the conservative evangelical Wheaton College, Chicago, caused a stir late last year by donning a hijab for Lent and claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Here, two Christian theologians tackle the question of whether or not they do, indeed, worship the same God.

John Stackhouse

So the first thing I’d say is that I’m scratching my head over Wheaton’s decision. Had Professor Hawkins claimed that Islam and Christianity were religions whose differences were trivial, she would clearly be at odds with Wheaton’s statement of faith. Had she claimed that Islamic and Christian understandings of God were basically the same, she would clearly be at odds with Wheaton’s statement of faith. Had she claimed that since Muslims worship the same God as Christians, they have no need of the gospel, or the Bible, or the work of Jesus Christ, she would clearly be at odds with Wheaton’s statement of faith.

What she did say, however, was none of the above. Instead, she claimed that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

I frankly don’t know what she meant by that.

She cannot have meant that all those who claim to be Muslim and all those who claim to be Christian worship the same God, for the scriptures of both religions make it clear that there are those among the community of the faithful who do not in fact devote themselves to God: pretenders, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and purveyors of alternative religions. And surely Professor Hawkins knows that.

She cannot have meant that there is no important theological difference between Islamic and Christian views of God. Indeed, she very likely knows that there are significant differences among Islamic believers and also among Christian believers when it comes to theology (that is, the doctrine of God). And I’m not meaning heresy here so much as differences that would be recognized as areas of legitimate disagreement within whatever community sees itself to be orthodoxy. So the very significant differences within Islamic theology or within Christian theology would make it preposterous to claim that all Islamic theology agrees with all Christian theology.

What she could have meant, and what makes sense in the context of her long-time affiliation with Wheaton College, is that she believes that the same God is the object of much and normative Islamic piety as is the target of much and normative Christian piety. When pious Muslims pray, they are addressing the One True God, and that God is, simply, God.

As for the theological issue at stake, I suggest that the New Testament’s valorization of Old Testament saints indicate clearly that yes, one can worship the One True God and not (yet) acknowledge Jesus as Lord.

Now a few qualifiers.

First, not just any sort of worship of any sort of Supreme Being can count. One is in contact with the One True God only by the prevenient grace of God connecting one with God via the Holy Spirit. Preferring to worship just any god won’t do, as the Old Testament takes pains to make clear.

Second, one might have a troubled understanding of God and still truly connect with God. If we are willing to grant that lots of Christians have distorted understandings of God and yet are genuine believers, then I am willing to affirm that people in other monotheistic traditions have distorted understandings of God and yet might be genuine believers. I believe that to be true about Old Testament saints, as Hebrews 11 affirms. Why not believe it about other people who, in the gift of God, have realized that there is only One True God and want to worship God even through the murky theological concepts currently available to them in their culture and spiritual experience? Missionaries have long reported encountering such people, particularly among Muslims, who worship God albeit with the deficiencies typical of their culture and subsequently gladly embrace the gospel as better revelation about the God they are already loving. Much like Saul on the road to Damascus, these people undergo tremendous change—that’s why it’s called conversion, rather than merely a theological correction—but they do not drop one deity for another.

Third, and following on from these two points, some understandings of the Supreme Being are so wrong, so wicked, that they simply direct worship wildly off target. Such clearly would be the case of the worship of the Canaanite god Moloch, or any other wicked, bloodthirsty deity elsewhere in the world. Such an abominable view of God cannot possibly accommodate, let alone facilitate, worship of the One True God. In sum, if you like that kind of deity, you’re not going to like the One True God.

There has to be some identity between the two understandings of God such that the former is a cloudy and partial and adulterated but genuine understanding of God that the gospel at once extends, fulfills, and corrects. If instead the gospel simply has to supplant the former understanding, as in the case of horrible views of the divine, I find it impossible to conceive of worshipers of that horrible god connecting in any important way with the One True God. Instead, people raised in such religious traditions would have to develop deep misgivings about that god such that they do not worship it and instead long for the Great Alternative, however vague their notion of That might be. And that longing is the prevenient grace of the Holy Spirit drawing people away from error and toward The Truth.

“…if someone indefinitely and steadfastly refuses to worship Jesus, I cannot see how he or she can hope for salvation. I am simply affirming that there are many people who currently worship the true God while on their way to properly understanding and embracing Jesus as Lord.”

If we insist, as many are insisting in this furore, that God must be understood in terms of the Trinity, with a focus especially on Jesus, or else one really doesn’t know God, I respectfully want to ask such Bible believers what they make of Abraham (who is held up as a paradigm of faith in the New Testament) and the list of Old Testament saints (who are held up as paradigms of faith to Christians in Hebrews 11), precisely none of whom can be seriously understood as holding trinitarian views.

Finally, however, let me make clear that if someone indefinitely and steadfastly refuses to worship Jesus, I cannot see how he or she can hope for salvation. I am simply affirming that there are many people who currently worship the true God while on their way to properly understanding and embracing Jesus as Lord.

We ought to be careful not to despise all other people’s theologies as simply wrong and condemn their piety as aimed at a completely different deity just because it doesn’t include even wonderful and crucial ideas such as the Trinity or the deity of Jesus. We must be careful especially when their theology looks so much like ours—and like that of our Old Testament forebears.

And in this particular controversy, let’s insist that Christian solidarity with our Muslim neighbours is a good idea because they are our neighbours, regardless of what we think of their piety or their theology. As American (and Canadian) Muslims feel ostracized, or even endangered, by nativists claiming to be acting in the name of the Christian God, let us evangelicals truly act in the name of the Christian God and love these neighbours as we love ourselves.

John Stackhouse is an award-winning scholar and public commentator, and Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall Unviersity in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. This article is an edited version of these two posts.


Mark Durie

The recent suspension of Larycia Hawkins by Wheaton College is a symptom of a fault line among evangelicals about Islam.  The question of whether the God of the Qur’an is the same as the God of the Bible is an important and complex one, but it is unhelpful to politicise inquiry into it by insisting that anyone who disagrees with one position or another is a bigot.

The decision led to protests on the Wheaton campus. Miroslav Volf, Professor of Theology at Yale,  published an article in the Washington Post criticising Wheaton. Volf’s suggests that Wheaton is motivated by hatred towards Muslims, dressed up in dogma. He argues that:

Those who claim that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God base this upon Muslims’ denial of the Trinity and the incarnation.

However Jews deny the Trinity and the incarnation, and Christians down the ages have not claimed that Jews worship a different God.

Therefore those who do not accept the ‘same God’ thesis must be motivated by enmity, not reason.

There are problems with this reasoning. One is the premise. Wheaton has not itself stated that it objects to the ‘same God’ thesis on the basis of Muslims’ beliefs about the Trinity and the incarnation. However Volf appears to impute this thinking to all Christians who do not accept his ‘same God’ thesis.

Another is the leap from pointing out a supposed inconsistency in the reasoning of other Christians to making a severe value judgment about their motives.

“…the best and strongest reason for rejecting the ‘same God’ thesis is not Muslims’ disbelief in the Trinity or the incarnation. It is that the Qur’an projects a different understanding of God from the Bible.”

In fact the best and strongest reason for rejecting the ‘same God’ thesis is not Muslims’ disbelief in the Trinity or the incarnation.  It is that the Qur’an projects a different understanding of God from the Bible.  As Denny Burk of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville put it ‘our books are very different’.

The theological differences involved are subtler and more fundamental than ticking or not ticking the Trinity box.

Eminent Orthodox Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod observed that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation was grounded upon the fundamentally Biblical – and thoroughly Jewish – concept of the indwelling of God’s Shekinah presence with his people. Christian beliefs about the Trinity and the incarnation developed out of Jewish incarnational theologies.

Unlike the Old Testament, the Qur’an completely lacks a theology of the presence of God. Although the Arabic term sakīnah – borrowed from Hebrew shekinah – appears six times in the Qur’an, it has been repurposed to mean ‘tranquility’, and the concept of the personal presence of God is not comprehended by Quranic theology. It is not just that Islam rejects the incarnation of Jesus: in complete contrast to Judaism its scripture offers no basis for an incarnational theology.

Judaism differs from Islam in its organic relationship to Christianity in two key respects.

First, Christians and Jews share scripture. Judaism bases its understanding of God on what was the Bible of Jesus, the ‘Old Testament’. This is not the case with Islam.  Muslims do not base their theology on any part of the Bible.  Indeed mainstream Islam rejects the authority of the Bible, for reasons clearly stated in the Qur’an.

Second, Jesus was a practicing Jew, and so were his disciples, so it would be absurd to state that the God of the faith Jesus practiced is different from the Christian God.  This same observation does not apply to Islam. Muhammad was never a practicing Jew nor a practicing Christian, and, according to Muslim tradition, the large majority of his companions came to Islam out of paganism. This has deeply influenced the Qur’an and its understanding of God.

It is disappointing that Volf attributes fear-based enmity and loveless bigotry to Wheaton’s leaders. He implies that Christians who disagree with his ‘same God’ thesis must want to fight Muslims. Such rhetoric incites hatred and contempt over a theological difference of opinion.

The question of whether the God of the Qur’an is the same as the God of the Bible is an important and complex one. Christians do need to consider carefully to what extent the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an are the same or different.  This has far-reaching implications.   However it is not helpful to paint those who disagree with one position or another as haters.

It is a false step, in the name of love, to demand assent to the ‘same God’ thesis. Christians are commanded to love others whether they worship the same God or not. Our common human condition should be enough to motivate solidarity with others. After all, Jesus never said to only ‘love those who believe in the same God’.

Mark Durie is a theologian, Anglican pastor, writer and research fellow and Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at Melbourne School of Theology, Australia.

Image: Omar Chatriwala | Flickr, CC License

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