April 2017 Feature
The question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has been asked by many for a long time.
A recent article in Christianity Today notes that this question is ‘a perennial one’, that it was one of the ‘top questions of 2014’, and that the evangelical community and the American population are split over it.
It has received increased attention in recent months following the comments made by Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins who stated on Facebook in December 2015, “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.”
Since then, various church leaders and theologians have weighed in on both sides of the debate, adding further to the confusion.
On the one side are those who argue that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, even though Muslims do not acknowledge the Trinity as Christians do. The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is used as a parallel.
As Miroslav Volf argues,
‘For centuries, a great many Orthodox Jews have strenuously objected to those same Christian convictions: Christians are idolaters because they worship a human being, Jesus Christ, and Christians are polytheists because they worship “Father, Son and the Spirit” rather than the one true God of Israel. What was the Christian response?… Instead of rejecting the God of the Jews, Christians affirmed that they worship the same God as the Jews, but noted that the two religious groups understand God in partly different ways.’
On the other side, Nabeel Qureshi has objected to Volf’s arguments by emphasizing the rejection of the Trinity in the Islamic Tawhid.
He writes, ‘The Trinity is an elaboration of Jewish theology, not a rejection’. By contrast, Tawhid is a categorical rejection of the Trinity, Jesus’ deity, and the Fatherhood of God, doctrines that are grounded in the pages of the New Testament and firmly established centuries before the advent of Islam. Most of the earliest Christians were Jews, incorporating their encounter with Jesus into their Jewish theology. Nothing of the sort is true of Muhammad, who was neither a Jew nor a Christian. Islam did not elaborate on the Trinity but rejected and replaced it. Additionally, Volf’s assumption that Jews did not worship something like the Trinity is unsubstantiated. Many Jews held their monotheism in tension with a belief in multiple divine persons. Though the term “Trinity” was coined in the second century, the underlying principles of this doctrine were hammered out on the anvil of pre-Christian Jewish belief. It was not until later, when Jews and Christians parted ways, that Jews insisted on a monadic God. The charge of Christian hypocrisy is anachronistic.’
While Qureshi makes valid criticisms of Volf’s views, there are some problems with his own article. He admits there is a very general sense in which Muslims and Christians worship the same God (‘There is one Creator whom Muslims and Christians both attempt to worship’), yet he goes on to insist that ‘Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.’
Qureshi also says that the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is a good question (‘Like all good questions, the answer is more complex than most want’). However, it seems that the root of so much chaos and disunity within the body of Christ concerning this question is that it is a bad question.
Very often, the reason why a question is difficult to answer is because there is something wrong with the question. In this case, the problem is that it is ambiguous. It can have the following different meanings:
(1) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that there is one Supreme Being who created the universe and who revealed to certain persons mentioned in the Old Testament such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, and they intend to give glory to this Being’?
(2) ‘Do Christians and Muslims recognize that the one Supreme Being who created the universe is a Trinity (three divine persons within the one being of God), and they intend to give glory to this Being?’
If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ because Muslims deny the doctrine of the Trinity.
This denial does not negate the fact that they (like Christians) recognize that the universe has a Creator and they seek to worship this Creator, unlike those who ‘worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator’ mentioned in Romans 1:25.
To give an analogy: Peter and John are trying to contact the architect of a certain building, but Peter thinks that the architect of the building is James, while John denies that the architect is James but thinks that the architect is Andrew.
Are Peter and John trying to contact the same person? This question is similarly ambiguous, but once we disambiguate it, the answer is simple:
(1) Do Peter and John recognize that the building has an architect, and they intend to contact this architect?
(2) Do Peter and John recognize that the architect is James, and they intend to contact James?’
If (1) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘yes’. If (2) is meant, then the answer is clearly ‘no’ ; John denies that the architect is James.
So the next time somebody asks you this question, the first thing to do is to ask what he/she means by ‘worship the same God’. Once the question is disambiguated the answer is simple and straightforward. Christians need not be confused or disunited over it.
Dr. Andrew Loke (PhD, Kings College) is Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. A former medical doctor, he is the author of ‘A Kryptic Model of the Incarnation’ (Ashgate, 2014) and ‘Debating the Christian Faith’ (Tien-Dao, 2014). He has published articles in leading academic journals such as Religious Studies. He is also the author of the ETHOS Institute Engagement Series booklet, ‘Science and the Christian Faith‘.