Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
If you do a google search on today’s question, you will find many, many pieces by Christians who argue that Christians and Muslims worship different gods. Almost always the reasoning goes like this: Christians believe that God is triune, and that Jesus was and is both God and man. Muslims reject the idea of the Trinity, and insist that, while Jesus was an outstanding human being, he was human only and not God.
The problem with this argument is that someone has to decide which characteristics of God we must agree about, in order to pray together. That’s why in an earlier post, I talked about Judaism and the Old Testament. Modern Jews certainly do not believe in the Trinity, and they do not believe that Jesus was God. In fact, it is very, hard to distinguish the Jewish idea of God from the Muslim idea of God.
Both the Jewish and Muslim ideas of God follow the Old Testament. Yes, if one already believes in the Trinity or in the idea that Jesus is God, one can find “hints” of these ideas. But these “hints” go against clear teachings of passages such as Deut 6:4 and Num 23:19.
Furthermore, if we insist that someone cannot pray to God without believing in the “right” things about God, then we are saying that many people who are Christians are also praying to a “different god.” The Sunday School in my church is very good, but many of the 8-year-olds do not believe in the Trinity (mostly because the concept is hard enough for adults, let alone children). Even many adult members of my church do not really understand the idea of three “persons” in one God. If we insist that one cannot be praying to the Christian God if one does not have an adequate understanding of the Trinity, then we must conclude that many of our members, including most of our kids, are praying to someone else.
And why stop at the Trinity and the divinity of Christ? Surely we need to insist on the right understanding of other attributes. Here’s one: many, many Christians seriously believe that God is male. (Maybe even some readers are under this impression…) The idea that God is a masculine being is, of course, anti-biblical and heretical. God is spirit and therefore has no gender (Num 23:19; John 4:24; Matt 22:23-30), which is why the Bible sometimes uses female imagery to describe God (Deut 32:18; Isa 42:14, 49:15; Matt 23:37; and others).1 So according to the above logic, Christians who believe that God is male are not really praying to the God of the Bible!
This kind of awkwardness is what happens when we Christians decide on our own who is “really” praying to God, and who is not. But Christians who are willing to look to the Bible should read Acts 17:22-31:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone– an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
There are two things we need to notice. First, Paul insists that he and the people in his non-Christian audience are in fact worshiping the same God! These people call their God “the unknown God, “ but Paul states that this God is the one who “made the world and everything in it.”
Second, the god of Paul’s speech looks almost exactly like the “God” of Judaism and Islam. This God created the universe and rules it and has fixed a future day for judgment. Paul does not mention the Trinity or the divinity of Christ (things which the Athenians did not believe to be true of the “unknown God”). It doesn’t even matter to Paul that the Athenians get God’s name right: as far as Paul is concerned, he and they are still worshiping the same God.
Are the doctrines of the Trinity and of Christ’s divinity important? I think they are, but as far as Paul is concerned, we do not necessarily have to believe in these things in order to worship God. And if we take this passage seriously, then I can also pray with people who believe that God is male (a White Caucasian male?), confident that God listens to those who, like me, do not understand everything about him.
In today’s world many Christians and Muslims are looking for ways to divide people. Yes, there are important differences between Christianity and Islam. But we have no right to create additional barriers. If the New Testament says plainly that everyone who worships the creator God is worshiping the God of the Bible, then we best be very, very careful before we disagree.
1 Here is a good starter article on the subject of God’s “gender”.