By Stan Guthrie (originally posted January 2016)
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf answers the portentous question “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” with a resounding “Yes.” He claims that those who disagree with him—at least, those who have the responsibility of running a leading evangelical institution of higher education—are anti-Muslim bigots. Yet Volf’s answer isn’t as clear-cut as he or certain voices would have you believe. For one thing, it depends in large measure on what the meaning of “same” is.
The question has come to the fore in recent weeks because a Wheaton College professor of political science, Larycia Hawkins, started wearing a hijab and posted on Facebook, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
Wheaton has sent many missionaries overseas, including some to the Muslim world. But if the Trinity of Scripture really is “the same God” as the Allah of the Qur’an, then why shouldn’t Christian missionaries simply recite the Shahada and go home? And what do we say to all those Christians who lost their heads to ISIS fanatics for refusing to do so?
Responding to her comments, the Wheaton administration has placed the tenured professor on administrative leave while giving her “more time to explore theological implications of her recent public statements.” The accredited theologians at the Chicago Tribune quickly denounced the college, labeling Wheaton’s decision as “bigotry … disguised as theology.”
Volf piled on, claiming, “There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims.” One wonders whether the esteemed theologian felt the same way when he accepted Wheaton’s invitation in 2011 to propound his theories on campus.
Now Volf is no fool. Like many, he readily admits the vast and evident differences in Christian and Muslim conceptions of God. Nabeel Qureshi is a former Muslim turned Christian who used to believe that adherents of the world’s two great missionary faiths believe in the same God. He doesn’t any more, saying:
“[T]he Christian God, both in terms of what he is (Triune) and who he is (Father, Son, and Spirit) is not just different from the Muslim God; He is fundamentally incompatible. According to Islam, worshiping the Christian God is not just wrong; it sends you to Hell. They are not the same God.”
Elsewhere, I have constructed a brief list of some of the key theological differences between Christianity and Islam, using the Apostles’ Creed as a template. There are many people, of course, who can demonstrate the vast differences between the God of the Bible and the Allah of the Qur’an.
So how does Volf persist in his “same God” stance? According to one fair-minded summary, Volf and others in his camp “believe Christians and Muslims believe in the same God but understand that God differently. No one disputes the profound differences between Christian Trinitarian beliefs and the Allah of Islam.”
Just for example, Christianity asserts that God is three-in one—Father, Son, and Spirit—while Islam insists that God is absolutely One and not in any sense a Father. Pardon my bluntness, but this is not a case of “understanding God differently.” These are two fundamentally opposed truth claims. They can’t both be right. To insist that they are is intrinsically absurd.
Well, Volf concedes, “same” doesn’t mean “identical” in the context of Christian-Muslim dialogue. He says it means “sufficiently similar.” By “sufficiently similar” he means that Christians and Muslims all can agree on the following attributes for God: God is one; God is good; God is Creator; and God is Judge. Of course, uniquely Christian attributes for God are left by the wayside in the current dialogue with Islam. Comparisons are welcome; contrasts are not.
If you press them, advocates of the “same God” approach will admit this. The idea of sameness, rather than similarity, is put forward not out of a concern for theological precision but for pragmatic reasons—so that adherents of both faiths can live together peaceably based on shared ethics and values. In other words, even the advocates of the idea that Christians and Muslims worship the “same” God don’t really believe it.
And where, by the way, is it written that Christians must believe that Muslims worship the same God in order to love them? We don’t say this about Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Mormons, or animists. Why must we do so for these particular neighbors, the followers of Islam? Is it because we’re afraid of them?
Not surprisingly, another problem with Volf’s approach is that he chooses to “bracket out” the soteriological questions over who is saved and who is lost—though these are questions that few committed Christians (or Muslims, for that matter) would neglect. He apparently does so because saying, truthfully, that Muslims (and all people) who deny Christ will be denied by Him on Judgment Day (Matt. 10:33) would scuttle his whole theological project, making all those chummy dialogues just a bit chilly.
The apostle Paul certainly would not neglect so weighty a matter in exchange for mere earthly harmony, stating, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2, NIV). As it turns out, this is Wheaton College’s year verse.
God doesn’t have the luxury of neglecting soteriology, either. Just consider our recently finished celebration of Advent, which one could plausibly define as: “(1) God the Father (2) sending His only Son into the world (3) via the conception of the Holy Spirit (4) in order to die on the cross (5) and be resurrected (6) so that fallen people (7) might be forgiven all their sins (8) and receive assurance of eternal life.” Islam denies each of these eight points as heresy, even blasphemy.
“Same God,” indeed! If we “bracket out” questions of salvation, we might as well “bracket out” Christmas, along with the gospel itself.
Stan Guthrie, Editor at Large for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and for Christianity Today, blogs at www.stanguthrie.com. His latest book is God’s Story in 66 Verses: Understand the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book. His wife is an employee of Wheaton College, where he also used to work.
(Note: Many of the original links in this piece are missing; I expect they will be available once the Colson Center for Christian Worldview reposts this article.)