A Response to Miroslav Volf and Larycia Hawkins: Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

Miroslav Volf just wrote an article for The Washington Post entitled: Wheaton professor’s suspension is about anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology. It is in response to all of the hub-bub that has been happening in regard to Wheaton College’s tenured political science professor’s Larycia Hawkins decision to donn the traditional head dress for Muslim women, the Hajib, in order to show
muslimwomansolidarity with Muslim’s who are currently experiencing back-lash because of the recent terrorist attacks in North America and elsewhere in the world; she went further though, she claims that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She said on social media:

“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book,” she posted Dec. 10 on Facebook. “And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”[1]

This is where Volf comes immediately into the picture, as he explains in his Washington Post article:

Appealing in part to arguments in my book “Allah: A Christian Response,” Hawkins asserted that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She did not insist that Christians and Muslims believe the same things about that one God….[2]

Yes, Volf wrote a book entitled Allah: A Christian Response a few years ago; he also gave a presentation at Wheaton College[3] in the past which summarized the main arguments of his book. Hawkins, as Volf notes, was merely taking some of Volf’s thinking and concretely applying it to real life in a context that she thought would make sense. So it makes sense that Volf would come to her defense in the aftermath of what has now unfolded; i.e. the suspension of Dr. Hawkins from her role as professor at Wheaton College (not because of her choice to wear the Hajib, but because of her choice to assert, as Volf does [and he does so with development] that Christians and Muslims worship the same God).

The title of Volf’s article is provocative, but it is inaccurate. It is about theology for Wheaton, as I read them. They believe that Dr. Hawkin’s view about Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God is un-true; and so her suspension comes as a result of this incongruence. But this post of mine isn’t intended to get into whether or not Wheaton’s choice to suspend her was the right one, it is simply, instead going to be a quick response to Volf’s claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God; I will argue that we do not!

Volf writes this in his Post article (at length):

What is theologically wrong with asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, according to Hawkins’s opponents — and mine? Muslims deny the Trinity and incarnation, and, therefore, the Christian God and Muslim God cannot be the same. But the conclusion doesn’t square. And Christians, though historically not friendly to either Judaism or the Jews, have rightly resisted that line of thinking when it comes to the God of Israel.

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? Christian theologians neither insisted that they worship a different God than Jews nor did they accuse Jews of idolatry. That’s a step that would have been easy to make, for if Jews don’t worship the same God as the Christians, then they worship the false God and, therefore, are idolaters. 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 in partly different ways.

Why is the Christian response to Muslim denial of the Trinity and the incarnation not the same as the response to similar Jewish denial? Why are many Christians today unable to say that Christians and Muslims worship the same God but understand God in partly different ways?[4]

It is these questions (the ones detailed in his last paragraph) that I want to respond to.

Volf argues, in much more depth in his book that the question isn’t or shouldn’t be over referent but over description. In other words, he believes the referent for the Christians and Muslims, in regard to God, is the same; but then he also believes that the way that gets fleshed out is where the distinction comes in (i.e. Trinitarian versus Unitarian etc.). And then as we just saw from the quote he believes that Christians are inconsistent when they tacitly affirm that Jews worship the same God as Christians just based upon a less than full understanding of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob because they reject, of course, Jesus Christ as God’s eternal Son.

I want to contend that Volf is wrong because he frames the scenario in an unsound way. He confuses what the question is: should we be concerned with referent when talking about God, in a first order way, or revelation? My contention is that it is the latter that we should be focusing on; revelation. As I noted on my Facebook wall: The referent is necessarily delimited by the revelational source; there is no generic sense of “God.” This is, as I see it, what’s at stake; i.e. the so called scandal of particularity.

Muslims and Christians are both faith traditions that start and finish with their respective revelational sources. For Muslims this primarily entails the Qur’an and Hadith; for Christians it is Jesus Christ (as God’s Self-interpretion) and Holy Scripture (both Old and New Testaments). The referent that Volf is concerned with is defined by these respective revelations; there is no prior concept of God for these faith traditions before we encounter Him or it within our respective revelational sources. If this is so we cannot conclude as Volf does that Christians and Mulisms have a “sufficiently similar” understanding of God, which for him cashes out in the claim that we worship the same God. Who God is is determined by how God has revealed himself to us; and with that revelation what He says about Himself in both word and deed.

In regard to the Jewish analogy. Volf, as we have seen, argues that Christians who don’t have problems with believing that Christians and Jews worship the same God are being inconsistent if they also want to claim that Muslims are not; since both Jews and Muslims are Unitarian (versus Trinitarian) in their understanding of God. But again, this comes back to an issue of revelational source. The Jewish people, historically, are God’s covenantal people through whom He freely elected to mediate His Son, the Messiah of the world through. Jews and Christians share in their particularity in regard to the God, Yahweh, that they are hearing from; Muslims do not share in that particularity, they have their own defined by the Qur’an and Mohammed himself. Whether or not the Jews, historic or contemporary, want to acknowledge that Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Old Testament is moot in regard to the question of whether or not Christians and Jews worship the same God. As the Apostle Paul noted in regard to the Jews:

14 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [5]

His argument isn’t premised on the idea that they are worshipping a different God outwith the revelational framework that Christians worship through (i.e. the giving of the Old Testament as prefigural revelation of the incarnate God, Jesus Christ), but instead that when they read the Old Testament they do so under a veil that only the Holy Spirit can remove. Muslims don’t enter into their understanding of God from within this revelational framework, as such their ‘referent’ when they think of God is fundamentally distinct from the God that Jews and Christians worship at an ontological, referential level.

Conclusion

I believe that Larycia Hawkins and Miroslav Volf have the right heart; they desire to reach out to Muslims in the name of Christ. I just think that they are doing that based upon the wrong approach. I worked with Muslims in evangelistic and dialogical capacity in the past. The key wasn’t to mitigate the fundamental distinctions between Muslims and Christians, but instead it was to magnify those, in love. Orthodox Muslims would never agree that they worship the same God as Christians (despite what the Pope naively asserted); this for them would be to engage in one of the most heinous sins a Muslim could commit, the sin of Shirk. When the differences are magnified Christ has the opportunity to rise and shine the light on the darkness that Muslims live within; darkness that keeps them in bondage to a revelation provided for by an angel (i.e. Gabriel for Muslims) rather than Godself revealed in Jesus Christ.

I found from my experiences with Muslims that the best approach to reaching out is to establish relationships with them (like with anyone). Be a learner, a student, ask them lots of questions about their faith; most Mulsims will enjoy explaining things to you. But wearing a Hajib and claiming that we worship the same God won’t get you very far with the true blue Muslim; although it might make you feel provocative within your own sub-culture.

 

[1] Chicago Tribune.

[2] Washington Post.

[3] YouTube.

[4] Washington Post.

[5]II Corinthians 3, English Standard Version.

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20 comments

  1. I wonder if part of it has to do with one’s view of natural theology. If one affirms natural theology then it may make sense to frame the question of whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the same god in terms of referrent. If one rejects natural theology, it becomes much more difficult to make such a statement considering that God never made a covenant with Muslims. I’m still pondering on this question though since it’s one that has never occurred to me until the recent events (and to be honest I do find the arguments in favor of Volf and Hawkin’s position to be compelling).

    I also honestly wonder why couldn’t they just assert the principal of neighbor love and the fact that God loves Muslims too if they want to speak out against anti-Muslim bigotry.

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  2. Yes neighbor love is the way to go.

    I’m not sure I understand how anyone can conclude that Muslims in anyway worship the same God when he is a false god; just as false as the god of the Mormons.

    I don’t think it is an issue of natural theology but a matter of Trinity and source versus Unitarian and source.

    In what way do you think the argument favors Volf’s way?

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  3. What do you mean by trinity and source vs unitarian and source?

    I was referring to general arguments that Christians and Muslims worship the same god. I think it has to do with the fact that the Israelites would of had a unitarian view of God and the fact that Muslims trace their faith back to Abraham via Ishmael. And don’t Muslims still accept the Hebrew scriptures? I still need to consider your points though.

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  4. Ivan,

    Islam accepts the Hebrew scriptures in the same way Mormons do, vestiges of a thorough-going corruption. They are historic shells of the true revelation, one that was brought to Muhammad/Joseph Smith (respectively).

    Everyone else,

    On the one hand, it’s ok to say Muslims worship the same God. That is if we admit, like Paul, a certain kind of ignorance and God’s good pleasure. But this would apply to Pagans and even Atheist. It’s acknowledging, inadvertently, a Creator that is beyond themselves. A Brahma, a God beyond gods, a Multiverse etc. etc.

    But this is an apologetic and evangelizing statement, not a conciliatory or feel good one. Bobby is 100% right. If theology, knowledge of God, is revelational and not propositional, then Muslims have no real standing. At least, not any different than Pagans or Atheists(!).

    But none of this matters, because it ultimately refers to some lowest-common denominator. Jesus claimed to be the One who was promised. Those who rejected Him, who rejected His continuity with Abraham (who saw His day!!), He called children of the Devil. Harsh but not cruel or malicious, Jesus is bringing something to ponder:

    If we reject God’s working, even God’s presence in Flesh, how can we claim to be in relation with God?

    But none of this really matters for the discussion at hand.

    What people seem to be unable to fathom is the ability to love one another that is more than agreement or commonality. I don’t think that Dr. Hawkins is saying that since Pagans don’t share a “book” then they somehow do not deserve our compassion? But it sure sounds like an implication of what her sound-byte means.

    Wheaten is really no better, and the whole thing is an insane overreaction with no patience. It sounds like power-brokers, the donors and funders, were the ones making the noise. What a witness to the world!

    cal

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  5. Cal,

    Roger Olson at his blog was also suspecting that there was more going on behind the scenes than Wheaton was letting us know, and that was coming from his many years of being in the Christian academy. And yes, I wonder why neighbor love and God’s universal love isn’t enough for some. Perhaps they want to have a closer sense of solidarity with Muslims. But there are other ways to proclaim such solidarity such as the imago dei or Christ’s vicarious humanity.

    Bobby,

    If revelation is primarily personal and not propositional, then there probably is no ground for saying Christians and Muslims are worshiping the same God since God never had a covenant relationship with Muslims as you pointed out and they view the Quran, not the OT, as normative. At the same time, I do hear some accounts about Muslim converts to Christianity claiming that they weren’t so much changing gods as it was that they have come to a true understanding of who God is. Would you say those Muslim-background believers were simply mistaken and they did change gods after their conversion to Christianity?

    On an unrelated note, I wonder if God’s blessing of Ishmael could be the basis of a hope that a mass number of Muslims in the future will come to Christ just like how many use God’s historic covenant with the Jews as the basis for such a hope for Jews.

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  6. Not to answer for Bobby, but here are my thoughts to your question Ivan:

    For Muslims who converted, I’m not sure what to say. In some way, we could say that God was leading them to the fullness of revelation, only found in His Son. The Spirit is at work all over, reversing the idolatries and insanities of men to lead them towards understanding.

    But this applies to all peoples everywhere, not just Muslims. St. Justin Martyr recounts his coming to know Christ by being led through, and out, of Greek philosophies. He can admire what was good and consider those things as copies or vestiges of the Truth that they distorted and used (Muhammad plagiarizing from Christians and Jews; Plato “stealing” from Moses”).

    We can appreciate Muslims and Mormons as being on the right track, investigating the right stories, while confessing they do not see God’s work truly and thus do not know Him. We do not need to grant any special status beyond that.

    God blessed Ishmael, but He didn’t make a covenant with him. The promise to Ishmael is the same promise to all tribes of the Earth, that they will be gathered up into Israel’s Promised One. Just because the Koran fabricates (harsh, I know) a different account of Ishmael, where he is the true promise-child is irrelevant. Arabs have a covenant according to Christ Jesus, not Ishmael.

    cal

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  7. Did Wheaton dismiss her with this argument?

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  8. I do not see why we, as Christians, have to be pushed into accepting the falsehood that we worship the same God, in order to love our Muslim neighbors anymore than anyone else. We can love them without compromising our beliefs. We are in a spiritual battle dear ones and this is just another skirmish in the unseen that is being played out in the public. We MUST know the Truth well, hold fast to it, and while respecting other’s beliefs, not compromise what Jesus the Christ and his apostles taught. Confront error with gentleness and respect always but do so we must. We MUST remember why Jesus came and who He is, at all times. Do you not find it curious that it is not Muslims who are being asked to conform what they believe but Christians who hold on to the Truth of their beliefs? While it may seem a loving act and one of solidarity with Muslims that would be harmless to say that we worship the same god, on the surface (totally wrong on so many levels – as expressed by Cal and others), it would be one more step away from the Truth of the Gospel and who the full revelation of God in Jesus is. Remember that the prince of darkness is the father of all lies and deception. Any variance from Truth comes from him, no matter how he dresses it up. His end game is to take souls and remove the witness and testimony of believers.

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  9. Russell Board · ·

    While I would certainly never say that Christians and Muslims worship the same god, neither would I want to say that we worship different gods. There is no such god as that worshipped by Muslims; therefore, they do not worship a (nonexistent) “different god.” This should help us to see that much of the contention surrounding the issue is due to the infelicitous way in which it is framed.
    What Muslims and Christians say about god is very different, and contradictory at points. We can and should focus on these differences. But it only confuses the issue to frame it in terms of worshiping the same or different gods.
    As Christians, we worship the God who has revealed Himself in the Bible and, supremely, in Jesus Christ. We can leave it to others to say whether or not they worship this God.

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  10. Russell,

    This argument is absurd; I’ve seen it elsewhere. So because there is no other God but the true then by default anyone who claims to be worshipping God is worshipping the true God? Are you serious?? So you don’t think idolatry is possible; where people ascribe godness to things or ideas which are grounded in and from self-projection.

    Your/this argument has a very low view of God’s Self revelation in Christ and is based in natural theology; which I reject.

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  11. Ivan,

    I wouldn’t base theological endeavor in the experiences of Muslim converts etc, that doesn’t get us anywhere really.

    Gods blessing of Abraham is the basis of inclusion of Muslims, Gentiles and everyone else.

    Muslim appeal to Abraham is post hoc and a coopting.

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  12. Ray Downen · ·

    There is only one God. What Muslims are taught to worship is NOT GOD, but a figment of their imagination, not at all the true God. Mohammed was an evil man, quite a good general, who had terrible sexual habits, and who taught his followers to HATE unbelievers.

    I figure there are many GOOD Muslims, not because their religion taught goodness and love but simply because THEY FIGURED OUT that love was better than hate. But we have to believe, since He said so, that Jesus is the ONLY Way to eternal LIFE.

    Jesus calls for us to tell others about Him and offer them love and LIFE. Surely we should do so without complaint. But we should recognize that those who are not IN CHRIST are not right with God. We should not allow anyone to believe that it’s all right to NOT be a Christian. For Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the LIFE. Mohammed’s way leads to death.

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  13. @Gary,

    No, they did not suspend her with the argument in my post in particular.

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  14. @Ray,

    Yes, Mohammed’s way is not the way … for sure!

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  15. Arlysse,

    Well stated!!

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  16. Cal,

    Good words!

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  17. […] Christ’, then how could I ever also believe along with Yale theologian Miroslav Volf (see my last post) that Christians and Muslims–according to him–worship the same […]

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  18. Bobby,

    I think there are a few things you are missing in your argument.

    First, you seem to base your argument upon your rejection of natural theology. That’s certainly convenient to dismiss the logical basis for a monotheistic understanding but it’s irrational. Logically, there is but one creator, first cause, deity whom we happen to call “God.” Muslims and Christians both go to this common genesis point as the cosmological starting place our faiths.

    Second, you seem to confuse the idea of an “idol” with the epistemological reality of the Creator deity. “Idolatry” however is worship of the created by the created (Acts 17:29) but, again, both Muslims and Christians worship the creator who is beyond description, except as revealed in part. By rejecting natural theology you reject the very basis of monotheism from which the Abrahamic faiths begin.

    The Apostle Paul though didn’t seem to have any difficulty with natural theology (Romans 1:19-20). Natural theology doesn’t exclude revelation but the former is clarified through the later. But error in the later does not change the former. Revelation doesn’t start with Jesus and the New Testament but is completed by him and the Christology of the New Covenant revealed to Paul, Peter, James and John.

    Third, you claim that “Muslims don’t enter into their understanding of God from within this revelational framework, (Old Testament). However the Quran would prove this claim wrong. Muslims not only look to the Creator, they look to a 6 day creation account (Sura 11:7) and they look to Abraham who is given great respect in the Quran. Muslims also revere the books of Moses. That does not suggest they understand everything the same way as a Christian or Jew might about this revelation but that is the challenge of time and culture.

    There is an interesting account in John 4 that can inform our thinking on this matter of revelation. There Jesus intentionally encounters a Samaritan women at the well of Jacob and makes this profound statement: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” The Samaritans were an offshoot of another branch of the Abrahamic family through Jacob. They knew enough to know that the Messiah was coming but they worshiped in ignorance of the true God. Jesus didn’t say “You Samaritans worship another God” but that their understanding was incorrect. That’s a huge difference.

    Without the revelation of the Light of Jesus, the human heart is in darkness and cannot fully comprehend the the revealed nature of God in Christ. That doesn’t change who God is but rather reflects our lack of understanding. But that’s why there is Good News because God wants all people, regardless of their present understanding, to know him through Christ.

    In conclusion, I think both Volf and you are both in error. Volf for his broad generalization about bigotry and you for your poor argumentation in this post. There is but one God understood differently, incompletely, in error by most, even Christians. We don’t need to cause offense over these differences but use the opportunity to bridge the differences, gently and respectfully.

    Shalom!

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  19. Eh, you can come on here and make your triumphalist claims, but you argue petitio principii.

    You claim that Paul accepts natural theology in Romans 1, but that has been contested and I have contested it in a post not too long ago.

    You claim that Aristotelian classical theism is the basis for the monotheist faith. I agree it is the basis for a view of God as a monad that comports well with classical theistic forms of Christian theology and the god of Islam, but not well with a triune relational God who’s reality is based in revelation not philosophical machination as you are committed to.

    The Qur’an uses the language of the Bible in equivocal and pretextual ways; if you want to assert what you wrote on Islam, go ahead, but it is based upon a superficial ad hoc understanding of Islamic theory of revelation.

    And yes, Muslims worship a god manufactured by created entities who are not god; or do you reject Muslim accounts of how they received their revelation too. You’re confused, and again very triumphalist.

    Please don’t come on hear with guns blazing when you are obviously uninformed about Islam and Christian theology. If you want to speak in hasty generalities and then use those to characterize the detailed views of Muslims and the analogy of faith tradition within Christian theology then spend the time understanding both before you start sounding your trumpet about things you obviously don’t understand.

    Oh, I’ve also written a new post on this. You should check it out, it will help inform your understanding of things further and hopefully temper your loud type of responses in the future.

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  20. Thank you for being bold in your post. There is only one true God, YHWH, Yahweh is His name, the great I AM. May unfettered hearts and ears hear what you are saying.
    From the heart, Vickie
    Ponder365.com
    Encouraging families through scripture

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