A Controversy In Wheaton
This week, Wheaton College placed Professor Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave for claiming on Facebook that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” The administration explained that professors must “engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the College’s evangelical Statement of Faith.” Hawkins also wore a hijab through the entire season of Advent to express her solidarity with innocent muslims being victimized by retaliations against Islamic terrorists.
Of course, expressing solidarity with innocent muslims is to be commended. There have been over 40 documented cases of anti-muslim threats, shootings, and vandalisms in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13th. These hate crimes should be condemned, and Christians, as always, must promote justice for all.
Miroslav Volf’s Allah
However, human solidarity is one thing, theological clarity is another. Hawkins’s assertion was partly based on Miroslav Volf’s arguments in Allah: A Christian Response. Not surprisingly, Volf came to Hawkins’s defense, insisting that “her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.”
Volf contends that saying that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God” is not the same thing as saying “that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about that one God” or “that Islam and Christianity are the same religion under a different name, or even that Islam is equally as true as Christianity.” In other words, describing an object differently is not the same thing as describing a different object. Worshiping the right God is not the same thing as worshiping the right God rightly. Since Christians concede that Jews worship the same God as they, even though Jews reject the Trinity and the incarnation of Christ, Volf maintains that Christians cannot, for selfsame reasons, deny that Muslims worship the same God.
“Allah = God” Is an Unhelpful Equivocation
As Volf’s attempt to clarify proves, for most people, the statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” implies a certain parity that is theologically compromising. In its bald formulation, the statement requires too many qualifications to be helpful, especially in the abbreviated context of social media. It is an equivocation that attempts to build solidarity at the expense of clarity.
Orthodoxy entails right worship. Aaron fashions a golden calf to represent YHWH, the God who rescued Israel from Egypt (Exod. 32: 1-6), yet this is still condemned as idolatry. There is no neat distinction between right belief and right worship.
Strictly speaking, even the Jews do not worship the same God that we do. Our God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Three in One and One in Three. Our God is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Jews reject these foundational doctrines.
God’s redemptive plan unfolded progressively throughout history, and this progressive nature of God’s revelation demands greater accountability from the later generations. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
“Whoever believes in [Christ] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18). “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Stating that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” obfuscates this reality and hinders mission.
How to Engage Muslims
How, then, should we engage Muslims, Jews, and other unbelievers? Scripture teaches that faithful witness simultaneously corroborates what is right and critiques what is wrong in other religions.
When John declares that Jesus is the “Word” λόγος (logos), he is contextualizing the gospel by co-opting the Greek philosophical notion of “animating reason.”However, he qualifies his use of the term by adding that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn. 1:14). In its philosophical usage, the logos could not have become flesh. So John’s use of the word is uniquely Christian.
Similarly, Paul’s sermons use the cultural framework of his audience, but also disabuse his audience of false ideas. Preaching to Jews in a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:16-41), Paul begins by affirming Israel’s salvation history from the election of the patriarchs, to the time of judges, and later, kings (vv. 16b-25). Then, he cites extensively from the Old Testament to prove that Jesus, whom the Jews had rejected, lived, died, and resurrected to fulfill the Davidic promise (vv. 26-37), and calls them to repentance (vv. 38-41).
When addressing a pagan audience, however, Paul takes a decidedly different course. In Lystra (Acts 14:15-17), recognizing that his audience are polytheists who believed that gods and humans intermingled to produce demigods, Paul begins by delineating the differences between divinity and humanity (v. 15a-c), then proclaims that there is only one true God “who does what is good” ἀγαθουργῶν (agathourgōn). This rare word occurs only twice in the entire New Testament (cf. 1 Tim. 6:18), and invites comparison to καλοκάγαθος (kalokagathos), the title given to Zeus, “the one who does what is good and faithful.” In using the term, Paul simultaneously contextualizes the idea of the one true God and confronts the idolatry of his hearers, insisting that God, not Zeus, is the one who providentially cares for them with “rain from heaven and crops in their seasons” (v. 17).
Still more striking is Paul’s speech in Athens. He quotes the Cretan poet Epimenides and the Cicilian poet Aratos, and incorporates various Stoic and Epicurean beliefs (Acts 17:22-31). However, Paul issues an unflinching challenge to their worldview when he asserts that the Creator God is the Lord of heaven and earth who will judge the world with justice through a man whom he has raised from the dead.
Volf proffers Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (15th century) as an example of “a towering intellect and an experienced church diplomat” who “affirmed unambiguously that Muslims and Christians worship the same God,” but this is patently false.
In his book, Cribratio Alkorani (A Scrutiny of the Koran), Nicholas of Cusa writes unambiguously that “the God of the Koran is not the Great God in whom, because He is the Creator of all things, every rational creature ought to believe” (Kindle Location 2027) and “that the Muhammadan sect … is in error and is to be repudiated” (KL 29). The stated goal of his writing is to prove “even from the Koran, that the Gospel is true” (KL 61), and the way he labors painstakingly to sift truth from the lies is consistent with Scriptural precedent.
Islam, like any other religion that sets itself up against the gospel of Jesus Christ, is a complex mixture of truth, half-truths, and lies. The simplistic statement that “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” does not do justice to this complexity.
What’s at Stake?
What exactly is at stake in this debate? Why is Volf, Hawkins, and others so eager to affirm that “Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” For Volf, the answer, ostensibly, is to preserve future peace, for “two supreme divine beings always means war.” In other words, how you answer the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” will determine whether we have “a justification for cultural and military wars” or “a foundation for a shared future marked by peace rather than violence.”
This is essentially what Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued in The Social Contract (trans. H J. Tozer, Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1998, 137-138):
Those who distinguish civil intolerance from theological intolerance are, in my opinion mistaken. The two kinds of intolerance are inseparable. It is impossible to live in peace with people whom we believe to be damned. To love them would be to hate God who punishes them. It is absolutely necessary to reclaim them or to punish them. Wherever theological intolerance is allowed, it cannot, but have some effect on civil life, and as soon as it has any effect on civil life, the sovereign is no longer sovereign even in secular affairs. From that time, the priests are the real masters. The kings are their officers.
But Jesus never forced belief on anyone, and he even rebukes his disciples for wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume those who had rejected their message (Luke 9:52-56).
Moreover, Volf himself challenges Rousseau and contradicts the claim of his article in his book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World:
[T]hough it is true that Christian religious exclusivists make a clear distinction between the saved and the damned, the consistent among them also—and without contradiction—reject the distinction between moral insiders and moral outsiders. The Golden Rule, a succinct summary of all Christian moral obligations, commands: ‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you’—do to all others, not just to a select few (Matthew 7:12). As the story of the Good Samaritan powerfully illustrates, the command to love one’s neighbors is universal (Luke 10:25-37); it applies to friend and foe, good and evil, saved and damned. To love the damned is not to hate God but to obey and emulate God, who makes the sun to shine on the good and the evil (Matthew 5:45) and who loves those who have made themselves God’s enemies (Romans 5:6-7).
It is this radical love for neighbor demonstrated and fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ that ensures human solidarity and future peace. No facile agreement or superficial identification will do.