One and the Same?

I’ve blogged about this before, but with Wheaton College’s recent dismissal of one of their professors for claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, it seems like a timely subject to revisit.

It seems as though this is a sensitive as well as timely subject, as evidenced by Wheaton’s reaction to what some Christians (even Bible-believing Evangelicals) would see as a legitimate intellectual position, and it’s not really one that the Bible itself weighs in on very clearly. In the period in which the Bible was being written, there were no other extant monotheistic faiths about which the Bible authors saw fit to comment. Even Akhenaten’s solar monotheism goes unremarked in Scripture, and Islam was several hundred years in the future at the time of Christ. At the time of writing even the last books of the New Testament, Christianity wasn’t even fully divorced from Judaism, the only other existing monotheisting faith..

So we’re dependent for an answer largely on our own reasoning and wisdom, and our interpretation of certain few Scriptural precedents.

There are simplistic arguments and poorly-reasoned responses on both sides. It would be incredibly oversimplifying the question (as well as denying the real differences between us) to say that since both Muslims and Christians believe in one God who created and rules the universe that therefore the Muslim and Christian views of this God are identical at all points, but equally, it would be oversimplifying the question (and denying the considerable body of basic truth that we do hold in common) to say that since the Muslim and Christian doctrines of God are not identical at all points that therefore the Islamic Allah and the Christian God are fundamentally separate beings.

What the debate boils down to is how significant are the differences, and how significant are the commonalities?

It should be evident to anyone that Muslims and Christians do have several crucial differences in how they conceive of the Divinity. Christians believe in a Godhead who is Triune. Muslims consider any attempt to compromise the singularity of the Divinity as the ultimate sin of shirk, or blasphemy about the Divine nature. Christians believe in a God who is Love. Muslims see this as an anthropomorphism at best and almost certainly a heretical notion. And so on.

But it should also be obvious that there is a lot of overlap in how we perceive the Divinity. The Muslim Allah and the Christian God are both shown in the relevant texts of the two religions as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. They are both known as Creator, Sustainer, Almighty, Ruler of the angels, Lord of the Universe. It’s not totally unreasonable to suggest that we might be looking at the same Being from different angles.

Ah, but that relativises revealed Christian truth and undercuts missions by suggesting that Muslims don’t need to be saved, we are told sometimes.

Personally, I find that to be avoiding the question. Jews who are not Messianic also consider the Christian concept of the Trinity to be blasphemous, yet no-one I know about is suggesting that the Jewish Adonai is not the same Being as the Christian God. Indeed, our very foundational theology rests on the fact that they are one and the same: “Christianity is Judaism fulfilled”, as we sometimes put it.

So what makes Islam different?

Saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is not the same as saying that Islam is wholly right. Some of their theology is wildly divergent from mainstream Christian doctrine, as I have said. The real question is over how significant those real theological differences are to the question of whether or not we worship the same God. After all, Calvinists and Arminians sometimes hold some wildly divergent theological doctrines, yet no-one seriously claims that Baptists and Methodists are following different gods. Or Protestants and Catholics, for that matter. I don’t hold with the Catholic elevation of the Bishop of Rome or their doctrines of purgatory and penance, and some of their veneration of the Virgin Mary and other saints is a little too close to outright worship for my personal comfort, but I don’t try to say that Catholics are worshipping a false god. That would be rather ridiculous, in my opinion.

In other words, just because we have some different beliefs and teachings about God, it does not necessarily mean that there is a black-and-white separation and “our God” is the true one and the fact that their teachings differ from that is prima facie evidence that “their god” is a false one. That seems rather simplistic. The truth is a little more complex.

For those who believe that Muslims and Christians are worshipping different beings, the crucial difference comes down to character. They point to the apparent capriciousness of the Muslim Allah, the recorded harsh, demanding aspect of his character and the total lack of any sense of the Christian idea that “God is Love”. They point to the absolute and uncompromising monotheism of Islam, with no room for the complex Christian idea of the Trinity. They point to the apparent distance of the Muslim Allah from his believers.

These are all valid points and critical differences. Muslim concepts of Allah and Christian concepts of God are really not the same.

But is that the same as saying that therefore they are two separate beings? I’m not sure.

If we were to encounter a new tribe of polytheistic pagans who had a notion of a “high god” who was a good Creator deity, but distant from humans and uninvolved, most of us would probably identify that “high god” with the God of Scripture, even if the local religion’s concept of that God was that He was limited in power, presence and knowledge. After all, isn’t that what Paul did with his Mars Hill speech to the Athenians, proclaiming the “unknown god”?

Paul was even prepared to repurpose pagan poetry (functionally almost equivalent to Judaeochristian prophecy for the ancient Greeks) addressed to the vengeful, capricious and lustful Zeus to convey Christian truth about the Divine Being.

Was Paul saying that all of the Greek ideas and stories about Zeus were right? No, of course not. And honesty compels me to admit that he wasn’t saying that the pagan Zeus and the Christian YHWH were the same being, either. But historians tell us that at this period the more philosophical among the Greeks were beginning to dimly grasp that humans needed a Deity who was higher than the pagan stories. Though framed in the language of Zeus, there was a groping towards the notion of a High God. Zeus at his most exalted begins to approach Yahweh at His lowest ebb.

Can we build on that? Paul thought so.

Can we do the same with Islamic ideas about the Divine Being? Why would we be unable to? They are far closer to the whole truth.

A lot of the argument seems like a deliberate misunderstanding of one another’s position. To those who claim that Muslims and Christians are worshipping the same God, saying that we aren’t is perceived as a simplistic and unhelpful denial of the very real overlap in conceptions of the Muslim Allah and the Christian God. As one who holds this position, I often want to point out that it is unhelpful, when trying to lead a Muslim to faith in the Messiah, to start out from an attitude of “everything you believe is wrong”. Because it isn’t so. He (or she) already knows the Divine Being as good, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, just as we know the Divine Being as good, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. He already knows that there is a spiritual world. He acknowledges angels and demons, the Messiahship of Jesus and the reality of the Last Judgement. It seems foolishly ignorant to dismiss all of that.

However, it cuts both ways. For many of those who say that Muslims and Christians are not worshipping the same God, this is merely a way of acknowledging that the Muslim doctrine of Allah does not entirely square with the Christian doctrine of God. They are (most of them) not saying that Muslims do not believe any Biblical truths about the Deity, just that the differences are significant enough that it is perilous at best to equate the Muslim Allah and the Christian God. They really aren’t the same.

As for me, I’m more comfortable with giving Muslims the credit of at least worshipping the same Being that we are, even if, like the pagan polytheists in my hypothetical example, they get some of it wrong. To me, what the differences largely come down to is a difference in focus on various aspects of the nature of God. We look on the differences as largely differences in character, and they are (given that we are prepared to believe that Jewish people worship the same God despite their rejecting the notion of the Trinity), but to my mind that obscures a very interesting difference in how we approach the nature of God.

Both Muslims and Christians hold that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Or in simpler words, all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere at all times. We both hold that He is both good and eternal. But we have different areas of focus, and they affect the way we perceive His character.

Muslims acknowledge all of those attributes, but the really important one to Muslims is His omnipotence. God is first and foremost great, supreme in power and without rival. To Muslims, even His justice and goodness are second to His omnipotence; whereas Christians believe in an objective standard of right and wrong to which even God is subject, to a Muslim the idea that God could be subject to anything, even the idea of right and wrong, is nonsense. Whatever Allah does is right, not because Allah constrains Himself to never do wrong, but because whatever He does becomes right. It’s right because God is doing it.

By the same token, referring to God as “Father”, “Lover”, “Bridegroom” or many other of our Christian titles is to do the all-powerful, supremely exalted Godhead the blasphemous disservice of equating Him with our human expressions of those titles. We’re bringing God down to our level, as far as they are concerned. God isn’t like a fallible human father in all ways, much less the equality that “lover” can sometimes communicate.

By contrast, for many Western Christians the really important attribute of God is His omnipresence. Yes, God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but the important thing is that He’s close to us. “Emmanuel” is a truth that much of Christian doctrine rests upon, but even beyond its meaning that “The Word became flesh”, we focus on God’s nearness and readiness to act on our behalf. Look at our worship songs. “What a Friend We Have In Jesus”. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”. “Your Love Reaches Me”. And so on. We acknowledge God’s transcendence and power, but it’s subordinated to, and in service of, His with-us-ness.

If Muslims err in bending all of God’s other attributes around His omnipotence, it seems like a lot of we Christians err just as much in bending all of God’s other attributes around His intimate Presence. Emmanuel does not mean that Jesus is my Boyfriend, after all, though we often seem to sing and make music as if it does.

But the question of whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a nuanced and subtle one, as much a matter of interpretation as various “difficult” passages of Scripture. I personally believe that it is reasonable to suggest that we are, but I take the point that we do indeed really believe some very different things about Who we are worshipping.

In other words, the debate is still open. And in light of that, I’m afraid Wheaton College’s dismissal of one of its professors over this question is not going to do anything to further the debate. At best it seems counterproductive; at worst, a little like intellectual dishonesty. This is apparently, in Wheaton’s eyes, not open for discussion. If you even dare to suggest the possibility, it is as much grounds for dismissal as claiming that the Resurrection did not physically happen.

I’m a little saddened that not even a respected academic institution like Wheaton seems able to have an adult discussion about the issue.

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