Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
I’ve written a couple of entries on the Larycia Hawkins / Wheaton college issue. Last week, Dr. Hawkins and Wheaton agreed to part ways, with terms stipulated in a “confidential agreement.” As someone who comes from the realm of academia, I find this development to be suspicious: tenured professors do not simply agree to leave when their public positions meet with the disapproval of their superiors. The confidentiality agreement points to a financial settlement, or something else that someone find embarrassing. And in this case, the central issue has serious implications for Christians. Wheaton’s Statement of Faith might be described as fairly routine in conservative Christian circles. Therefore, if Wheaton thinks that Dr. Hawkins’ position violates this statement, then it bears a responsibility to Christians to explain why.
Dr. Hawkins has published a number of documents related to the issues on a blog, http://drlaryciahawkins.org. These documents include her theological defense, written to answer a letter by Wheaton identifying ”areas of specific concern.” Wheaton’s first, most important charge declares that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God, based on Christian views of the Trintiy and the divinity of Christ. In her response, Hawkins makes about the same points that I raised earlier. Christianity unequivocally affirms that the God of the Old Testament is one and the same as the God of the New Testament, and God as portrayed in the Old Testament (worshiped by Abraham and Moses) looks exactly like God in Islam. Yes, Christians do believe that God is and always has been triune, and that Jesus is and has always been the son of the Father. But Abraham, Moses, and other Old Testament figures did not affirm these principles, yet certainly worshiped the God of the Old and New Testaments. If they could worship God while having an incomplete knowledge of Him, shouldn’t we concede the same privilege to modern Muslims, Jews, and Mormons?
I found a nice little table online which outlines the key issues, created by the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. The table shows that the “Gods” of Judaism and Islam are indistinguishable from each other, while Christianity is the outlier. In my observation, many Christians are uncomfortable with this sort of thing. While a number of Christians are comfortable declaring that Muslims worship some other God, it is very awkward to have to say that Jews also worship a different God. (This is why Wheaton never acknowledges Dr. Hawkins repeated assertion that the God of Islam is also the God of Judaism.) In the twenty-first century, it sounds anti-Semitic to try to prove that the Jewish people do not worship the God of the Old Testament! But that is the claim being made by those who declare that the God of Muslims and Jews is distinct from the God of Christianity.
The Hawkins matter prompted the Evangelical Missionary Society to publish an “Occasional Bulletin” entitled “What are the Missiological Implications of Affirming, or Denying, that Muslims and Christians Worship the same God?” This bulletin consists of about 15 short essays by Evangelical missions leaders. There is some fascinating reading here, both for and against the idea that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Unfortunately, none of those in the “different God” camp talk about Judaism and the Old Testament. Since the bulletin was prepared subsequent to Dr. Hawkins’ release of her theological defense (the bulletin refers to the blog), those arguing for “different Gods” really do not have good reasons for not engaging Dr. Hawkins’ arguments more directly.
The one article which does address Judaism, written by Kurt Anders Richardson, appears on pages 25 and 26. Christians need to read this one: you may be surprised to learn that, historically, most Jews follow Maimonides (perhaps the most important rabbi in the history of Judaism) in permitting Jews to pray with Muslims. The basic idea is that Judaism accepts Muhammad’s strict monotheism, which is deemed much more important than Muhammad’s claim of prophethood. If Jews themselves insist that they pray to the same God as do Muslims, then we Christians really have no room to say that we pray to the same God as Jews but not the same God as Muslims.
A second article which is particularly helpful appears on pages 22 through 24, written by Harold Netland. Netland discusses something that all of us Christians know from experience: Christians disagree about a lot of things, including some really important issues. It is not for nothing that we have thousands of denominations, with widely varying beliefs and practices. Even within the same local church, Christians often disagree about key theological issues, including issues about God’s nature and attributes. Does this mean that different Christians worship different Gods? Trinitarians often argue about what “God in three persons” actually means. And in what sense is Jesus God’s “son”? Should I say that a member of my church who does not have my understanding of theology is worshiping a “different” God, despite her intentions?
The issue of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God will not go away anytime soon. It is an issue driven more by current tensions between Muslims and the West than by rational argument. (When Mitt Romney ran for president, I can’t remember anyone claiming that his God was different from the Christian God, despite the clear Mormon denial of the Trinity.) I expect that many Christians will take the position that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods. But unless the “separate Gods” advocates consider the implications raised by the Old Testament and by Jewish teaching, their arguments just do not hold much weight.