Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
Two weeks ago, Wheaton College, a Christian college in suburban Chicago, placed Larycia Hawkins, associate professor of political science, on administrative leave for telling students that Christians and Muslims worship “the same God.” Wheaton’s statement does not specify why this is an issue, citing only “significant questions regarding the theological implications” of Hawkins’ position.
As Wheaton did not offer any more precise explanation as to why Hawkins’ views should be a problem, several Christian leaders have sought to defend Wheaton’s action. These include Al Mohler, the longtime president of my alma mater, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler’s argument, posted on his blog, is not new, and fairly represents the reasoning of many who argue that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same being.
Here is Mohler’s key paragraph.
“Christians worship the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and no other god. We know the Father through the Son, and it is solely through Christ’s atonement for sin that salvation has come. Salvation comes to those who confess with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in their hearts that God has raised him from the dead (Romans 10:9). The New Testament leaves no margin for misunderstanding. To deny the Son is to deny the Father.”
Mohler alludes to Christian theology which holds that Jesus Christ was God, a full member of the trinity, equal in power and authority to the others (Father, Holy Spirit). The Qur’an firmly denies this idea, as it portrays Jesus as a great man, but without divine nature. Muslims thus reject the trinity, and hold that God is one, not three. For Mohler and others, the New Testament’s insistence on Christ’s divinity means that the adherents of a religion which teaches otherwise cannot be worshiping the God of the New Testament. Therefore, Muslims and Christians worship different gods.
The problem with Mohler’s reasoning is that orthodox Christianity recognizes a “prehistory” to the New Testament, which we call the Old Testament. The idea that the Old Testament is scripture, is beyond question for Evangelicals (and most other Christians). And according to any plain reading of the Old Testament, God (in Hebrew, “Yahweh”) looks very much like Allah: He does not have “persons,” and there is a clear, impassible line between God and man. Strict Old Testament theology teaches that it is blasphemy to suggest that a man can be God.
How does the New Testament try to justify the idea that the man Jesus is God, when this concept is clearly contrary to Old Testament teaching? Christians have developed the principle of “progressive revelation,” which teaches that God has revealed truth to humankind in stages. Therefore, while God has always been triune, with Jesus Christ as a member of the Trinity, this truth was not revealed to human beings until Jesus himself came to live on earth. The Trinity does not appear in the Old Testament because God had not yet told us about that part of Himself.
This means that, even though the Old and New Testaments teach some very different things about God, for Christians, the God of the New Testament must be the same being as the God of the Old Testament.
Not surprisingly, Jewish people hold to the Old Testament idea of God – no Trinity, with no possibility of a God-man. Most Jewish people accept that Jesus was righteous, a good teacher and a good Jew, but they insist that he was not at all divine. Nevertheless, since the Jewish idea of God follows the teachings of the Old Testament, and since Christians acknowledge the Old Testament as God’s revelation, Christians are forced to recognize that Jews and Christians actually worship the same God (even though we strongly disagree about some of his characteristics).
When we Christians recognize that Jews worship the same God that we do, it becomes almost impossible to say that Muslims worship someone else. Descriptions of Allah and Yahweh are largely indistinguishable: the eternal creator God, all powerful, perfectly loving, perfectly just, trying to make a way for people to have a relationship with Him. And both the Old Testament and the Qur’an clearly teach that God is one, indivisible (no “persons”), and entirely separate from humanity. The God of Abraham and Moses looks pretty much the same as the God of Muhammad. It is the God of Christianity, the triune God which includes the God-man Jesus Christ, that looks very, very different from both.
Mohler seems to recognize this logical problem in his post, as he admits that Abraham and Moses did not know about Christ’s divinity, or the Trinity. So, to try to persuade us that the God to whom Jews pray is somehow different from the God to whom Muslims pray, he cites the theological “genetic link” between Judaism and Christianity. Christianity fulfills promises made to Abraham, while Islam does not. Mohler concludes from this that Muslims are not praying to the God of Christianity.
While I agree with Mohler’s points about the relationship between Judaism and Chrsitianity, Mohler’s conclusion does not logically follow from his reasoning. Islam has always taught that Allah is the God of the Old and New Testaments, just as Christianity affirms that the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old. Therefore, by definition, Muslims are praying to the God of the Bible. The question here is not, “which religion is correct?” but rather, “to whom are Muslims trying to talk when they pray?” It may be that God does not hear Muslims who pray improperly (although it seems to me that God is free to listen to whomever He wants). I believe also that Muslims (and Jews!) have an incorrect concept of God’s nature. But this says nothing about whom Muslims are trying to address.
When a Muslim prays, she believes that she is reaching out to the one and only God, creator of the universe, all powerful, yet perfectly loving and just. Her God loves her and wants to help her, just as He wants to help all people. This God is holy and remote, yet is willing, ever eager, to hear human prayer. Does this sound like the God of Christians? If it does, it is because He is one and the same.
As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, Wheaton has not quite explained their reasoning behind their action. I hope that they will give some clarity shortly, and, even more, take the opportunity to encourage Christians to consider how to live harmoniously with our Muslim neighbors.