Barthians and Torranceans Cannot Believe that Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God: More Response to Miroslav Volf

It is no secret that I am a Barth[ian], even though Barth said that he didn’t want any “Barthians” (I paraphrase). The theological ground upon which I think receives its cultivation from the profundity and earth-shattering moves (in a Christian Dogmatic sense) that 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth bequeathed to the body of Christ. I have been able to layer Barth’s thinking, in muslimschristiansa constructive way, by engaging further with his best English speaking student, Scottish theologian, Thomas F. Torrance. These two, among other after Barth theologians have done the church a great service by providing for a Christ concentrated, Trinitarian focus in theological method and exegetical practice that is quite unique; unique in the sense that the Gospel Himself serves as the ground upon which all subsequent theological articulation receives its categories, emphases, and trajectory. What we get from Barth and Torrance is what some have called an intensive principial christocentrism.

So you will have to forgive me if when we are confronted with the question of whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God that I demur and say: absolutely not! If I believe along with Barth and Torrance that the ‘referent [God] is necessarily delimited to be who He is in His inner life by His own Self-revelation, Self-interpretation, Self-wording in Jesus 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 God?

Since I posted my last post I have actually had personal correspondence with Volf on Facebook in regard to his arguments and his claims that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. I asked him to read my blog post, he presumably did, and then said I need to read his book Allah. Apparently he believes I have misrepresented him, and he believes the only way that I could have the potential to accurately represent his views is to read his book. But that is wrong. I don’t need to read his book in order to engage with what he wrote in his Washington Post article in defense of professor Hawkins of Wheaton who took his argument, ran with it, and now has been suspended from Wheaton because of her view that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The reality, though, is that Volf does not agree with my argument about the priority of revelation over referent in regard to who people can know God to be.

I put this question on my wall on Facebook on December 24th:

How is it that Barth[ians]–which I consider myself as one–affirm Miroslav Volf‘s argument that Christians and Muslims worship the same God? Do you bracket Christian Dogmatic thought and in particular Barth’s construction of that when it comes to affirming the “same God” theory? I don’t get it!

And I received this response from one of the foremost Barth scholars in the world today (not an overstatement) who I am ‘friends’ with on Facebook (I would share his name but I didn’t receive permission from him to use his name, yet):

Whether anyone’s ‘one God’ is the ‘one-in-three God’ depends entirely on the source of one’s concept of one-ness. If the source is the things or persons of our experience (to which the logic of numeration applies univocally), then the concept of ‘one’ being applied to God is the concept of a creature. It is not God. Put another way, the concept of the ‘one God’ – whose identity has been established in abstraction from Trinity – has no reality. It doesn’t exist outside the minds of those who create it.

You have no idea how much his comment encouraged me! I thought I was starting to lose it a little; I am not sure how certain Barthians that I know have been able to affirm Volf’s argument about Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God. Maybe their affirmation of Volf has more to do with sociological rather than theological concerns, and push back against perceived White male privilege that “runs” establishments like Wheaton College.

Conclusion

There is a Person, and His name is Jesus Christ. There is a Person and His name is the Father. There is a person and His name is the Holy Spirit. There are three persons in the Divine Monarxia (God-head) who in their threeness and interpenetrating inner-relating shape the oneness of the one being of God. The one being (ousia) is not what it is without the three persons (hypostatses), and the three persons are not who they are without the one being. As Epiphanius has written:

God is one, the Father in the Son, the Son in the Father with the Holy Spirit . . . true enhypostatic Father, and true enhypostatic Son, and true enhypostatic Holy Spirit, three Persons, one Godhead, one being, one glory, one God. In thinking of God you conceive of the Trinity, but without confusing in your mind the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the Father, the Son is the Son, the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit, but there is no deviation in the Trinity from oneness and identity.[1]

Without God’s economic Self-revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ there can be no genuine particularist or objective knowledge of God. Who God is is wholly contingent without remainder upon His Self-exhaustion for us in His Self-exegesis in Jesus Christ (see Jn. 1.18). Muslims, from within the framework of their “revelation” (i.e. the Qur’an, Hadith, Mohammed, etc.) have no access to this conception of God. The only way we could argue, as Volf does, that Muslims do have access to the same God that Christians have access to through Christ would be to posit a dualist conception of God wherein “there is a God behind the back of Jesus.” But there is no God behind the back of Jesus; there is only one prosopon, one face of God, Jesus Christ. By this reality all by itself it is not possible to conceive of God as non-Trinity; God must be conceived of as Triune, necessarily so, since His own Self-professed Self-revelation, is the Second Person in His Godselfed life. The Son, Jesus Christ, through His broken body tore the veil asunder between humanity and God as He entered into humanity in the Christmas reality of Incarnation (Logos ensarkos); Divinity and humanity are now eternally joined of God’s own free election to not be God without us, but Immanuel, with us. In this reconciliation between humanity and Divinity is genuine revelation. There is no more holy ground than this, and Muslims, without the Holy Spirit, without the Son, cannot have any conception of the only true and living God.

Jesus stands at the door and knocks, those who have eyes to see and ears to hear will hear God speak; they will hear Him speak through the vocal cords of Jesus Christ provided breath by the Holy Spirit. They will not hear Him speak through Abraham (because before Abraham was Jesus was Jn. 8); they will not hear Him speak through Mohammed; they will not hear Him speak through the Qur’an or Hadith; they will hear Him speak through the melodious and powerful voice of the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Jesus Christ—thankfully many of them are!

 

[1] Epiphanius, Anc., 10, cited by T. F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, 234-3.

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20 comments

  1. One thing that has been very unhelpful in this discussion is that people who don’t think Christians and Muslims worship the same god but that Christians and Jews do are being accused of being anti-Muslim. Problem is that this sort of attitude prevents any sort of meaningful discussion from taking place since one side has already shut off all ears to arguments which may allow one to consistently hold that Christians and Jews worship the same god but Christians and Muslims don’t (as you seem to do). It essentially pre-determines the correct view without any sort of meaningful discussion, which is quite dangerous.

    That being said, as I have dug a little deeper into the issues, I do wonder if Wheaton’s decision has more to do with internal politics and donors then with Hawkins’ theological views. This isn’t the first time Hawkins has been in trouble with the Wheaton administration. Also, I’m hearing that Wheaton’s theology department teaches the same views which Hawkins holds to.

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  2. A referent which has an objective reality beyond the mental construct evoked by its descriptors, cannot be limited to those descriptors. Even in light of Barth’s claim that God is unknowable outside of his self-revelation, we must still admit the validity of a lesser yet valid descriptor like “the God of Abraham,” which is shared between Christians and Muslims. There is a term used in the Bible, “wandering star,” a star which seemingly did not follow the ecliptic. Today we know these objects to be planets. If a modern astronomer converse with an ancient astronomer and talk about the night sky they could in fact both talk about Mars, or Venus and its behavior in the sky – and though their knowledge about the heavenly body would differ drastically, there would be no doubt that they were talking about the same heavenly body. The situation is no different here.

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  3. I’ve already responded to what you write here in my last post. But if you would like to ignore what I wrote which you have thus far that’s up to you.

    Muslims ripped God of Abraham out of its context used it pretextually and then equivocally used his name within their own distinct and different narratival revelation given to them by an Angel (Gabriel). That’s a fallacious usage of “Abraham”, and thus your response really represents a non-starter.

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  4. I haven’t read Volf’s book Allah so I cannot pretend to know Volf’s position on the topic but I have to wonder how the Apostle Paul would deal with Muslims if he were to go to an Islamic state! I suspect Paul would respond much like he did at Athens, “I see you are very religious” and believe in god… but having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that they should repent! This is the consistent message of the Apostles in the book of Acts. Peter calls the Jews to repent (change their mind) about what they believe about Christ. The Jew’s perspective about Who God is needs to change…just as much as the Muslim’s view of God!

    I find it particularly interesting, that people can be “people of the book” and still come away with a wrong view of God! The Jews were people of the book and yet the reading of Scripture caused them to fashion a god in their own image so that when God came in the flesh, they couldn’t receive Him (John 1:11). Many sects of Christianity are people of the book and yet have a distorted understanding of God.

    The Apostle Paul says that we can still be people of the book and read the Scriptures with a veil over our eyes (2 Cor. 3:14-18) and that only as a person turns to Christ is the veil lifted.

    So the question that I would ask is this? Do the Jewish people worship the same God as Christians? Are Orthodox Jews, being people of the OT Scriptures, worshipping the True and Living God any more than the Muslim?

    I think that Jesus is very clear in Matthew 11:27 that “No one knows the Father except the Son”. That would mean that there is not a single person in the entire world who knows God or has had a completely right understanding of God (theology) except the Son and to whom the Son reveals Himself!

    I could probably agree with Volf if what he is saying is that all of us begin with a fundamental view of God that was given to all men but that view has been distorted by our sin.

    God has been very patient with the human race, including the people whom He chose to reveal Himself…but the time of ignorance is over! God is calling all people to repent and change their minds about their view of God and embrace the One Who has revealed the Face of the Father, Jesus Christ. So God calls all people everywhere to change their minds about Who they think God is, that includes Jews, Muslims and many who claim to be Christians.

    I don’t know Pope Francis or Larycia Hawkins and I don’t personally know Miroslof Volf but have appreciated much of what he has written…but here I will have to disagree with Him!

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  5. Again, and again, Bobby, none of your interlocutors seems to understand two principles

    a) if affirming that Muslims are worshiping the same God, then does that mean we can discriminate against pagans, agnostics, Buddhists etc?

    b) Jews and Samaritans were using the same ‘source’ of Revelation. The Koran is not the texts of the Bible. The Koran rejects, as corrupted, those same texts, despite having similarities.

    St. Paul in his address to the Areopagus was not conceding something optimistic about their worshiping the “unknown God”, this was too their ignorance. That here all the wisdom of the Greeks stood, and yet they were still fumbling around in the dark, worshiping things they do not know. The Greeks did not leave saying “Thanks for the uplift Paul! I’m glad we are on the same page”, they laughed at him, except for the few inquirers and converts.

    To all:

    But none of this really matters. It’s less theological than it seems to be. It’s much more sociological and political. By and large, it seems, both sides are talking about an ‘American’ narrative. The new-Right wants to sneak Muslims into the Judeo-Christian fable-founding of the United States, and posit an “Abrahamic” beginning to the country’s foundations.

    Wheaton (aka. the wealthy donors) represents an antithesis, an oldguard protecting the “Judeo-Christian” moniker. But in principle, they are not any different. It has to do with American politics, not theological truth. As in many publicized cases, Jesus Christ has little do with public Christianity and all the Babel projects that are underway.

    Empires all over the world have all recognized the benefits of a singular, lowest-common denominator religion. It’s why an Emperor like Aurelian would try and convert the Romans into the Sun Cult. A singular principle, drawing on maximal sources, all leading into a singular person or governmental organ, is a great tactic for imperial development and social unity. But that’s not Christ, that’s the cynicism of a Bonaparte.

    cal

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  6. I’ve been wrestling back-and-forth with this question since the Hawkins/Wheaton story first broke. I think that you are right to assert that, generally speaking, Muslim belief inserts the word “god” (actually Allah) in a narrative so different from that of the Old and New Testament narratives that it has a fundamentally different meaning. But I wonder if much Jewish belief, with its body of Talmud through which the scriptural texts are interpreted and mediated, doesn’t do the same, and didn’t do the same in first century Palestine; for that matter, I wonder if some forms of Trinity and Incarnation-affirming Christianity (which shall remain unnamed) don’t do the same.

    In addition, I wonder: If I were to assert to my Muslim friends that I, a Jesus worshiper and believer in Jesus’ divinity, believe in and worship the same God as they do, what would they have to say to that? I have to believe that the more devout among them would either attribute it to my ignorance, or consider it an insult, since they would understand me to be accusing them of committing shirk, the worst sin according to Muslim belief.

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  7. Steve,

    I think the problem I have is the idea that an idea of God has been given at some point outside of Christ. I don’t think that has ever been the case. I do think Jews have a basis for claiming that their God is the true and living God because the OT (prefigural of Christ as it is) comes from the true and living God. Muslims and any other religion cannot make that claim.

    Yes, nobody but Christ has perfect knowledge of the Father and Godself. But Christians have a true hope and way to grow in the grace and knowledge of God’s objective life that indeed is ineffable. Jews are on the way, they tho as you note still read the OT under a veil.

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  8. I think a big part of the problem in even having this discussion is that so many people who understand themselves to be Christian think that Jesus is not central to the definition and apprehension of God. To them, Jesus is an add-on, not central to the identity God, and they think it’s perfectly feasible that one may have an adequate understanding of and belief in God without believing in and worshiping Jesus.

    But it just ain’t so: Jesus, understood as God and human, is a non-negotiable requirement of Christian faith, and to God’s identity. Take him out, and you end up with warmed-over, generic theism, or diluted Hindu-like pantheism; which means, you end up with not much at all. Thank you, but no thank. If that were the reality, then Muslims would have the better way.

    But it’s not the reality, and Muslims don’t have the better way.

    Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!

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  9. HI again Bobby! So to understand you further… you don’t think that an “idea of God” was given to the nations before Abraham and then distorted by their own sinful perception?

    It seems to me that this is what Paul is saying in Romans 1:19-23.

    I would agree that the Jew’s were the people to whom God chose to reveal Himself but in my mind that doesn’t negate the fact that all humanity have a knowledge of God but that their understanding of the True God is distorted by their own fallenness. Israel had many experiences with the True God, Who gave them a Name to call Him. But even before He revealed Himself to Israel as Yahweh, the nations knew of Him as Elohim.

    So to ask the question again, do you think that those who are called Muslims today, who are the descendants of Abraham had any real knowledge of God at any time?

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  10. Steve, you are presupposing something in circularly, I think, that is not warranted from Scripture.

    1) I’ve argued elsewhere against your reading of Romans 1.

    2) You’re presupposing something about Elohim that is not present from the text (this is the circular part). How do you know that Elohim was in reference to the true God? How do you know it wasn’t in reference to the Sun or the other pagan deities of that time? The text does support that; that Elohim prior to God’s Self-revelation as Yahweh was indeed in reference lexically to pagan deities. Within the covenantal framework provided by Yahweh/Christ Elohim under the pressure of that Revelation was taken out of its original context and used within the new context with reference to the true God at points. A similar thing happened at the ecumenical councils when Christians reified the grammar of Greek philosophy to communicate orthodox things about who God is (Triune etc).

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  11. Thanks Bobby, I guess you are answering my question with out specifically answering it and you don’t believe that the people outside of Israel have received the knowledge of God? Am I correct? I would be interested in reading what you have written regarding your understanding of Romans 1. Is it on your current blog sight?

    Thanks,

    Steve

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  12. Thanks, I will look forward to reading it.

    I do believe that Israel was the means of God’s revelation of Himself to the nations…but that revelation was revealing both God’s Grace and their own blindness. Romans 5:20, The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. Even though Israel had been given the privileged position to be the means of revelation they also revealed how misshapen their own view of God was, for when God came not their midst, they killed Him.

    So that said, I would emphatically say yes… that Israel is the means by which God mediated the knowledge of Himself to the nations, but those who were from the natural seed of Israel were unable to adequately do the job. It is not until Jesus came, who is the true Israel of God that the true Revelation of God was accomplished through the nation of Israel.

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  13. Thanks Bobby, I found and read one of your post on Romans 1 and want you to know that I am in agreement with you and the inadequacy of “natural theology” to reveal the true God. In fact I tried to communicate that in my comments above…but I must not be very clear.

    That was even the point that I was trying to make when I asked if you thought Jewish people worshipped the same God as Christians?

    I don’t believe Jewish people worship the same God as I do…and while certainly the True God, chose to enter into covenant relationship with them, they still did not know God as you and I know Him in Jesus Christ. So as with Muslims, even Israel needs a “supernatural” revelation! So again, I am in no way saying that “natural theology” is enough. It is only as we see the “seed of promise” from the nation of Israel that we have a true revelation of God.

    The Jew needs God to the True Israel of God, to reveal Himself to them just as badly as the Muslim!!

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  14. I agree. But I am simply making the point about who God is, not His reception. Yahweh is not Allah, that’s my basic premise. Jews have a connection to God that Muslims don’t. Not in a saving sense, but in the sense that God is the God of Israel. Of course the reality of that is fully realized in Christ.

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  15. Thanks for the forum to have this dialogue:)

    Yes, I totally agree with you and disagree with Volf and Hawkins…I believe that the God of Israel (Yahweh) is different than the God of Muslims (Allah) and neither the Jew or the Muslim worship the same God as I worship Who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit!!!

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