Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?

Prof. Larycia Hawkins of Wheaton College, Illinois, made news when she said she would wear a headscarf (or hijab) through Advent in solidarity with Islamic neighbours, particularly those in her home state of Oklahoma. Now she has been suspended by Wheaton for asserting that Muslims and Christians worship the same God—a statement that, Wheaton administrators apparently believe—is at odds with the college’s statement of faith.

Since I know President Phil Ryken and Provost Stan Jones, and know them to be both good and intelligent men, I am confident that they have not rushed to judgment on this matter. At the same time, I have more than a nodding acquaintance with Christianity and Islam…and also with Wheaton and the American evangelicalism it serves.

So the first thing I’d say is that I’m scratching my head over Wheaton’s decision. Had Professor Hawkins claimed that Islam and Christianity were religions whose differences were trivial, she would clearly be at odds with Wheaton’s statement of faith. Had she claimed that Islamic and Christian understandings of God were basically the same, she would clearly be at odds with Wheaton’s statement of faith. Had she claimed that since Muslims worship the same God as Christians, they have no need of the gospel, or the Bible, or the work of Jesus Christ, she would clearly be at odds with Wheaton’s statement of faith.

What she did say, however, was none of the above. Instead, she claimed that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

I frankly don’t know what she meant by that.

She cannot have meant that all those who claim to be Muslim and all those who claim to be Christian worship the same God, for the scriptures of both religions make it clear that there are those among the community of the faithful who do not in fact devote themselves to God: pretenders, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and purveyors of alternative religions (e.g., Gnosticism, moralism, mystical universalism, and so on). And surely Professor Hawkins knows that.

She cannot have meant that there is no important theological difference between Islamic and Christian views of God. Indeed, she very likely knows that there are significant differences among Islamic believers and also among Christian believers when it comes to theology (that is, the doctrine of God). And I’m not meaning heresy here so much as differences that would be recognized as areas of legitimate disagreement within whatever community sees itself to be orthodoxy. So the very significant differences within Islamic theology or within Christian theology would make it preposterous to claim that all Islamic theology agrees with all Christian theology.

What she could have meant, and what makes sense in the context of her long-time affiliation with Wheaton College, is that she believes that the same God is the object of much and normative Islamic piety as is the target of much and normative Christian piety. (By clear implication, surely Jewish piety is meant as well.) When pious Muslims pray, they are addressing the One True God, and that God is, simply, God.

Thus Christian translators of the Bible in Malaysia, as in other predominantly Islamic countries, stoutly prefer to use “Allah” to demonstrate that the Bible is indeed speaking of that One True God: there is no contest, in their view, between two rival Gods.

Likewise, Christian missionaries (and missiologists) have reported for a very long time that converts from Islam to Christianity routinely testify that they did not change Gods, but came to understand the One True God better…and especially to understand Jesus aright as not merely a highly regarded prophet but as the divine-human Lord and Saviour. Much like Saul on the road to Damascus, many point out, these people undergo tremendous change—that’s why it’s called conversion, rather than merely a theological correction—but they do not drop one deity for another.

We evangelicals would do well, once more, to listen to our own missionaries more and to heed those I call our “watchdogmatists” perhaps less. We also need to know what we’re talking about in a highly charged situation such as this. That’s why I have taken the pains to rule out a number of issues that really cannot be at stake here and to focus on what seems to me the only conceptual point at stake: Whether theological difference about God necessarily means that one is praying to, and otherwise giving worshipful service to, a different God.

If we insist, as many are insisting in this furore, that God must be understood in terms of the Trinity, with a focus especially on Jesus, or else one really doesn’t know God, I respectfully want to ask such Bible believers what they make of Abraham (who is held up as a paradigm of faith in the New Testament) and the list of Old Testament saints (who are held up as paradigms of faith to Christians in Hebrews 11), precisely none of whom can be seriously understood as holding trinitarian views and some proleptic vision of the identity and career of Jesus Christ.

So let’s avoid claims that have the bizarre consequence that all Old Testament saints would be disqualified as praying to the wrong God. Let’s likewise avoid claiming that theological differences don’t matter.

And in this particular controversy, let’s insist that Christian solidarity with our Muslim neighbours is a good idea because they are our neighbours, regardless of what we think of their piety or their theology. As American (and Canadian) Muslims feel ostracized, or even endangered, by nativists claiming to be acting in the name of the Christian God, let us evangelicals truly act in the name of the Christian God and love these neighbours as we love ourselves.

UPDATE: Please feel welcome to read the following post as well.