Responding Further to Bruce McCormack’s Same-God Article and the Wheaton Controversy

I have great respect for Bruce McCormack, Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary; from him I have learned much over the years, in particular with reference to Karl Barth (who else?). He just weighed in on the Wheaton Controversy debate, the debate prompted by Wheaton College’s Political Science professor, Larycia Hawkins, and her claim mohammedheaventhat Muslims and Christians worship the same God. As you all know by now she is in the process of being terminated from Wheaton as a result of her assertion, and of course this is no source of little tempest for many people paying attention to its goings on.

Getting back to professor McCormack, and his response; Noah Toly, also a professor at Wheaton, just a couple of days ago posted McCormack’s response to this debacle at his blog, you can read that here. What I want to do in this post is respond further to McCormack’s thoughts, and provide greater reflection than I originally did here; I’ve had a whole day to process it out a bit further. McCormack, as I noted earlier, engages in an abductive exercise of comparing the strongest arguments for and against holding to the same God position (i.e. Hawkins, Volf, et al.), and not (i.e. McCormack, me, et al.). I will let you go ahead and read what McCormack wrote himself, and then check back in here, and finish this post; go ahead I’ll wait for you okay, back, good, let’s get started.

Summarizing the Arguments

As you read, McCormack makes a strong argument for the not-same-God position, and says that he feels most compelled by it. The logic of his argument fits well with what I originally wrote (anecdotally) in one of my posts on this: “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.” And as McCormack quotes Barth himself, “…it will not do to have God as a general concept within which the Christian God as he is basically known in the doctrine of the Trinity is only a special case” (The Göttingen Dogmatics, pp.97-8). And even more to the point, which I also originally posted on one of my posts on this issue, this also comes from McCormack, something he wrote in a comment in correspondence with me on my Facebook wall (I feel okay sharing his name now since he has gone public with his post at Toly’s):

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.

Okay, this is all compelling stuff to me, and I would be happy to leave it right here; but McCormack had to go and problematize it all by going further. Basically as you read in McCormack’s blog post he believes the onus is on him, Barth, Torrance, me, maybe you, and anyone else who comes along and claims that the threeness-in-oneness/oneness-in-threeness paradigm and grammar for understanding God is the only and absolute way for understanding God. McCormack makes a shift, turns the table on himself, Barth, Torrance, me, maybe you, and others by playing the orthodox card; he writes:

The place to start is with the recognition that considerable development had to occur before the Council of Constantinople (381) was able to provide the orthodox solution to the trinitarian debates which embroiled the churches and their theologians in the fourth century.  Development is obvious on the face of it; concepts like ousia,hypostases and homoousios (which were decisive for the”pro-Nicene theology which prevailed at Constantinople) are not to be found in the NT.  What we do find there, in many places, is a “high Christology” (John 1, Eph.1, Col.1, Heb.1, 1 Peter 1).  We find attestation of incarnation, the pre-existence of the Son, perhaps even (on my reading of Phil.2:9-11, at least) the affirmation that the man Jesus is “proper” to the identity of the God of Israel.  But none of these affirmations adds up to a doctrine of the Trinity.  What they provide are the building-blocks for constructing one. But alongside of them, one would also have to address the problem of subordination – a subordination not so easily consigned to the “economy” as many seem to think, given what Paul says in 1 Cor.15:28. All of this is to say: arriving at the understanding of the Christian God as “constituted” by three co-eternal and co-equal “persons” took quite some time.  Four centuries, in fact.  And one then has to ask: what understanding did Christian theologians have of God in the meantime?  Now that is a most interesting question. (see here)

As you read the rest of McCormack’s article you see where he takes this, right? He believes the same God thesis finds its space in the pre-Nicene-Constantinopolitan period; in that time in the first three centuries where Christians were monotheist, and understood God to be one (in a very Judaic way), but at the same time were confronted with the Apostolic deposit and teaching that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all seemed to be referred to as eternal God. McCormack seems to surmise from this period in doctrinal development (the first four centuries of the Christian church) that Christians during this time still were in limbo, so to speak, and it is this limbo-space where monotheisms of all types (Christian, Jewish, Islamic) can find some sort of common, shared ground. Beyond, the fourth century, into the post-Nicene church, McCormack also seems to believe that even though Christians worked out the necessary grammar for thinking God as three-in-one/one-in-three, and found a sufficient mechanism, perichoresis, for deploying this grammar, the oneness of God still took pride of place. So it seems that McCormack is suggestively arguing that there is some continuity between the type of monotheism that shaped Christian theology pre-Nicene with the type of monotheism that shaped Christian theology post-Nicene; and it is here, McCormack appears to think, that the orthodox position has always maintained a privileged place for emphasizing God’s singularity, unity, and simplicity, even if for Christians this was then curtailed by the Niceno-Constantinopolitano grammar and Christian expression. McCormack thinks that this reality allows someone like Hawkins, Volf, et al. to tie themselves into these early periods of theological development within the Christian church, both pre/post-Nicene. That to claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God can find precedence in this type of classical theist tradition where a genuinely generic conception of God’s singularity prevailed at one level or the other.

My Demur

  • As he should, Professor McCormack believes that tone in this debate is very important; my guess is that the Apostle Paul would agree (I Corinthians 13). This seems to be a big part of McCormack’s purpose in writing his blog post; to set a tone and create space where genuine, generous, and collegial debate can take place. I think this is commendable, but I am wondering if he gave up too much to gain this type of space and peace.
  • While I agree, of course, that the first four centuries (and all the rest following) represent a very fluid time of development, doctrinally, for the Christian church, and with particular reference to developing a doctrine of God, and a doctrine of Christ, I am not fully persuaded that this creates the type of space that McCormack suggests. The Christian conception, even and especially in the New Testament, with particular reference to the Apostle Paul’s writings of God, even with its belief that He is One (the Shema), always had the reality and confession (as we see in the very early Baptismal pronunciation found in Matthew 28, what we now call the ‘Great Commission’) that the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit were all God. In my mind whether or not the grammar was there to work this together with the idea that God was one, singular, a unity, and simple (these concepts themselves being products of the Christian appropriation of Hellenic thought) is moot. Christians, by definition, have always ‘worshiped’ the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as God; they weren’t waiting for the fourth century to hit before they did that. If this is so, just because Christians didn’t have the grammar we have today (because of the 4th century) to think God’s oneness together with His threeness and vice versa, doesn’t mean Christians had an unspecific understanding of a singular God. The Christian trajectory for understanding God, because of His Self-revelation, has always been in the triune direction (in other words Trinitarian grammar did not develop in a vacuum).
  • So whether pre-Nicene or post-Nicene the Christian conception of God has always been contingent upon His Self-revelation in Jesus Christ (which McCormack affirms in his not-same-God argument); it has always been a particular understanding of God’s oneness, unity, singularity; and thus has always been removed from abstract appropriations of said oneness by either Jews or Muslims (which is why early Jews considered early Christians as idolaters and Greco-Romans considered them as atheists because they also denied the Roman pantheon conception of God or polytheism).
  • If all of this is the case I don’t see how the onus is on McCormack, Barth, Torrance, me, maybe you, or anyone else who claims that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God. Not even the history of doctrine of God development itself, from within the Christian development, allows for such space. If anything Barth’s re-emphasis upon the Triune, non-generic concept of God was a grand correction that the church needed (Western in particular); Barth’s innovation and emphasis was not a hearkening back to his own 20th century Teutonic theological development; it was not a return to a 19th century development; but it was, again, a return to the early thinkers of the Christian church (both pre-Nicene and post-Nicene). Barth was correcting classical theism, particularly as it took Thomist shape among his own Reformed tradition, following the synthesis of Aristotle’s categories with Christian theology most prominently developed by Thomas Aquinas (so Thomism). This is why I think McCormack is giving up too much! Barth, the one that McCormack takes his theological cues from, might be considered a modern day Church Father.
  • If we are looking for an ecumenical statement that exalts Barth to that level, we of course will never get that (in fact we will never get that, that period of the church is history). But insofar that Barth is calling us back to material Christian theological categories in regard to a doctrine of God, early thought patterns, it locks him in with orthodox Christian thought that has always already been tensed by an incipient-Trinitarianism; into a pattern of thought that even pre-Nicaea never thought of God’s singularity in generic abstract terms.
  • One final point, Muslim theology started in the 7th century, in a post-Nicene world; a world where the Christian conception of God’s oneness never came without a conception of His threeness in relation to His oneness. But ultimately, not even that point is all that pertinent. Muslim theology always claimed a distinct revelational source (which I’ve already noted more than once in other posts); a source that claimed to have ‘personal’ agency behind it (i.e. Allah, the angel Gabriel, and mediated through the Prophet Mohammed). It seems like this is all over-looked as spurious superstition in this discussion, but it clearly is not, and is pertinent. Christians and Muslims have unique and disparate revelation traditions and streams they work from; their conceptions of God can be explained from there. Christians have always been Trinitarians (even if in incipient form); Muslims have always been Unitarians.

Closing

This remains a contentious thing, and I believe McCormack’s call for charity is well heeded! We should continue to debate this, and not say too much, or too little or give too much away when discussing it.

It looks like I have concluded, at this point (I’m always processing), that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God, even with appeal to considering the development of Christian doctrine. It looks like I somewhat disagree with McCormack in regard to the idea that pre-Nicene/post-Nicene and even Tridentine developments in a Christian doctrine of God provide for the space to make the claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God (like in real life, not in abstract speculation). And it looks like I think that Karl Barth, and those working after him, were making a correction back to early Christian thinking in regard to a doctrine of God; a correction that desperately needed to be made especially with the impact of Aristotelian thought upon Christian theology proper (and if you’ve read Feser’s argument you will see how this applies).

Addendum: Also, see Ben Myer’s post which somewhat builds on McCormack’s: Another Thing About Wheaton: Do Christians and Jews Worship the Same God?

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22 comments

  1. Bobby, you win this one. Christianity forked from a tradition within Second Temple Judaism that acknowledged the plurality in God that orthodox Islam denies. Nicene-Constanopolitan language was fashioned, not to suggest that the philosophical god of Celsus was the God of the gospel, but to show that He wasn’t.

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  2. I still need to read Wesley Hill’s book, which I think will be informative on this as well; particularly in regard to Pauline theology.

    But yeah, the word echad (translated “one”) in the Great Shema Deut 6 has a concept of plurality built into it; i.e. not a foreign concept to Hebrew thought even prior to Second Temple Judaism.

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  3. […] various thinkers) on the issue of Muslims and Christians (and Jews) worshipping the same God. In my last post which I just finished a few hours ago we were taking a look at Bruce McCormack’s response to this […]

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  4. I agree that the Christian view of God has always included plurality & that some elements of 2nd Temple Judaism toyed w/ this view, too. But I would argue that many Jews & Muslims are referring to the one true God in an attenuated manner. It’s not necessary to speak of plurality in God in order to refer to the real God: in Acts 14:15-17 & 17:22-31, Paul speaks to pagans of monotheism in ways that leave his trinitarianism tacit. He speaks de Deo Uno. Those who accepted his message would subsequently have their monotheism filled out de Deo Trino. But the one God preached by Paul isn’t “generic”: Paul draws the details of this God from the Old Testament. The OT revelation of God provides a common referent for Christians, Jews, & (at a corrupted level) Samaritans & Muslims. Jesus granted that the Samaritans worshiped the one true God in ignorance (Jn. 4); likewise, Muslims worship the one true God (sole Creator & Judge, God of Abraham & David) but believe a number of damning falsehoods about him, too. Muhammad’s revelations (whatever their source) weren’t the *origin* of his knowledge of monotheism (he knew Jews & Christians already); they are *modifications* of Judeo-Christian monotheism (hence modifications/corruptions of a revelatory tradition that has the one true God as its referent). The OT includes prophets who prophesy lies about the real God (e.g., Jer. 29:15-32); Muhammad fits into this tradition.

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  5. I don’t agree, I’ll respond more later Jerome. I already have in multiple other earlier posts.

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  6. I do thank you for the response Jerome.

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  7. Bobby, so you don’t have to repeat yourself too much (I’ve read several of your earlier posted comments), let me clarify that I believe that *ontologically* all knowledge of God is conveyed from the Father thru the Son in the Spirit; *epistemologically* one may deny the Trinity & still have a modicum of true knowledge of God via his self-revelation, albeit damningly attenuated by one’s Trinity-denial. Thus one may still know, e.g., that there’s one transcendent Creator & Judge who’s revealed himself to Abraham, & this refers to the true God even though it doesn’t say what’s most essential & important about the true God, which is that he is triune.

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  8. Thanks, Jerome. I’m going to argue something a bit differently than what I’ve written before. I understand the ontological/epistemological distinction, but even so I’m still going to disagree. I just don’t have the time (I’m at work) to respond adequately at the moment.

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  9. Jerome,

    I’m not persuaded.

    1) It is circular and/or post hoc to argue that Mohammed and Hebrew prophets work in the same tradition. 1) You suppose that Mohammed functioned as a prophet within the framework that the false prophets of Israel functioned in, but he didn’t. The false prophets of Israel did their dastardly prophesying from within the covenantal and revelational framework initiated by the true and living God of the patriarchs; this is not the case for Mohammed. Other than your claim that there is a latent sense, attenuated sense of the one God available to creatures (like epistemologically) there is no necessary causal/ideational link between the Judaic/Hebraic concept of monotheism with the Islamic conception of monotheism. This is what I think is circular in your argument; you haven’t established that one concept of monotheism is corollary of the other vice versa; your point there remains a posit.

    Jesus granted what he did to the Samaritans because their revelational context was Torah; a context provided for by the true and living God who is both De Deo Uno/De Deo Trino. I agree, indeed, that who God is ontologically should not be confused with how he is received by creatures epistemologically, but then this underscores my point. I.e. The One that Paul, that Jesus, that Christians refer to is indeed the One and living true God, and attendant with that oneness as an always already reality is that this God is three-in-one, but this has never been the case for Muslims. The ontological referent for them has never been the One living and true God; it has always been an imposter god feigning as the God of the patriarchs. Thus when they refer to the One God, there is no threeness there either; there is a different entity there altogether, i.e. the Angel of Light. The true prophets of God, to Israel, warned them viva vox Dei that at points in their Hebrew salvation history they were worshipping demons. This is why I think discussing revelational source is so important. The Apostle Paul warned, like a true prophet of God, the Galatians, that if an angel came and preached a different Gospel (God or i.e. a different Jesus) that they were to be anathema. Why in these discussions is there a downplaying of the possibility of this happening? Is it because theologians doubt the personal agency of Satan and his minions? The Apostle Paul didn’t. What about Mohammed’s account, and those around him (Kadisha sp? et al) of how he received the Qur’an? Are we supposed to believe that that is embellishment? We could say the same of Joseph Smith for that matter.

    I fail to see how Hebraic monotheism and Islamic monotheism can be held up as parallel realities at an ontic level. Hebraic monotheism already had pluarality and multiplicity built into it; Islamic monotheism repudiates that at an ontic level. We might argue this using the privatio concept applied to God; i.e. your point about corruption etc. But at that point when the referent is a privated or negated concept of the one and living true God, how can it be maintained that the referent in any meaningful way (ontologically) is the true God of Abraham? A syncretistic god is an idol, not the true God.

    It is one thing though to argue that Jews and Samaritans worshipped the true God (even at points in corrupted ways), and another to say that Muslims worship the true God. The Muslim starting point is a purely negated conception of the Hebrew God, and that then serves as the “positive” basis for their understanding of God. The Jewish/Samaritan conception of God, even if corrupted at points, starts at a *positive* point and moves (epistemically) from there. In other words, there is a fundamental disjunction between the Islamic god, and the Judaic/Christian God with reference to the reality of the concepts of Oneness. It isn’t simply a move from De uno to De trino when a Muslim gets “saved;” it is a radical repentance from a false god who does not have the ontic resource to open up as De Deo Trino, to the true and living God who indeed has the resource to unfold as one-in-three and three-in-one for that is who He is, ontically.

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  10. Jerome, I need to come back later and nuance my point a bit further about the distinction between Hebrew prophets (of all types), and Mohammed as a prophet.

    I need a nap though :-).

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  11. An addition to your comment Bobby:

    Islamic theology, during the golden era of the Caliphate, had a vigorous debate about plurality in Allah. The issue was the nature of the Koran. Some held that since the Koran was itself not descriptive, but creative, that the Koran existed before the creation of the world, and therefore it was proposed that the Koran has some sort of eternality, existing always with Allah. This was eventually rooted out, intellectually and politically, and was condemned as a heresy, coinciding with the end of the Golden years where political instability, and economic stagnation led to a decay of intellectual vigor.

    But when we (Bobby, me, others) talk about a fundamental difference, we’re talking about Revelation. We do not accept the premise that Muhammad received revelation of God about Himself. And for a Muslim to be a Muslim, he/she must accept this as fundamentally true (i.e. Allah is One and Muhammad is his prophet). From his perspective, a Muslim could argue for or against whether Christians are idolators. From their tradition it could go either way (i.e. people of the book vs. confessors that God begets or is begotten). That’s ok, but let’s not water down the debate. Let us all reason according to our first principles.

    If it’s a notion of plurality, or trinity, then we’d be tacitly admitting that Neo Platonists worship the same God, considering their fixation with triads. It has nothing to do with that. Samaritans, and Rabbinic Judaism (as opposed to Christological Judaism, aka Christianity) worship the same God because they are working with the same revelation, though they do so in ignorance.

    Yes, Creation reveals the true God, but it’s that revelation that we suppress in unrighteousness. I’m not arguing for a post-liberal narrative approach (however helpful it can be at times). But, as Bobby said, we need to take seriously that we live in a war, where the devil and his cohorts wander around seeking to devour. Truly, mankind is very much prone to worship demons, even if they come disguised in an angel of light.

    cal

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  12. Let me add one more thing in re to the source of revelation for Mohammed:

    Mohammed was illiterate, could not read or write. Muslim apologists will use that fact to note that Mohammed’s function as a prophet was indeed of a supernatural sort (I’ve heard them in person with me argue this point).

    What this should indicate to us is that something supernatural did clearly happen, but of a sordid kind. How could we plausibly explain that an illiterate who received ecstatic visions from Gabriel/Allah concoct what we see in the Qur’an and Hadith? Again, I think this is an important point. It doesn’t sit well with intellectualist theological argumentation, but it is the facts on the ground, historically that we have to deal with.

    I am aware that Mohammed’s uncle was an Ebionite Christian, which is interesting when we see the way Muslims view Jesus. But again, I don’t see a link between an Islamic monotheism and Judaic/Christian one; not other than an equivocal one at best.

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  13. Bobby, thanks for your thoughtful (& napped!) replies. Re: “The false prophets of Israel did their dastardly prophesying from within the covenantal and revelational framework initiated by the true and living God of the patriarchs; this is not the case for Mohammed.” 2 points: 1) Scripture recognizes that prophets from outside that framework can speak for the true God (e.g., Balaam). 2) Thru Ishmael, M. stands in the framework of God’s early revelations to Abraham, including the covenant of circumcision; further, M.’s teachings bear the marks of his Jewish & Christian contacts, such as when the Qur’an retells biblical stories (in garbled form). Thus he adopts significant elements of the Judeo-Christian revelational framework. If Muslims worship a false god b/c they “unitarianize” the plurality-friendly biblical revelation, then Jews since the “parting of ways” are in much the same boat, since the rabbis “unitarianized” Judaism. Re: M.’s revelations, there are multiple possibilities: 1) It may have been demonic, as per his 1st impression (according to the Hadith). This doesn’t rule out that the revelation referred to the real God (cf. Mk. 1:24; Acts 16:16-17; Jas. 2:19). 2) M.’s original revelation(s) may have been from God, while later “revelations” were due to demons, delusions, or depravity (cf. Balaam; also Richard Kronk, Non-literary personal revelation: the role of dreams and visions in Muslim conversion [DTS, 1993]. 3) M. may have been delusional from the start. 4) M. may have been a charlatan from the start. (One should also bear in mind that Muslim apologists who argue from M.’s illiteracy to a supernatural origin for the Qur’an may either be exaggerating M.’s illiteracy or ignoring the redactional process between M.’s original revelations & the literary elegance of the present Qur’an–a process mostly covered up by Caliph Uthman’s burning of all variant copies of the Qur’an.) The Jews & Muslims of whose conversion/evangelization stories I’m aware don’t repent of worshiping a false god/idol; they repent of the falsehoods they’ve believed about the one true God (such as that he is a monad and not fundamentally love). The referent is the same but their understanding of him is purified and enlarged thru embracing the fullness of his self-revelation in Christ.

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  14. […] Responding Further to Bruce McCormack’s Same-God Article and the Wheaton Controversy […]

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  15. Some off the cuff responses:

    As to your 2 points:
    1) But we only know Balaam was a false prophet is through the revelation of Scripture (i.e. the tale that unfolded). But more importantly, speaking does not imply knowing. St. Paul quotes a pagan poet to make a point about truth, not whether that poet knew the True God.
    2) You assume Ishmael had a covenantal relationship. The Bible only promises a blessing on him, despite Abraham and Sarah’s faithlessness. This is not a promise to the Arabs. We cannot presume upon the Koran’s reconstructed narrative.
    2a) Yes, it’s possible that Muhammad repeated garbled accounts of Old Testament stories in the Koran. But does not therefore prove that he is submitted to the save revelation. Were the Gnostics worshiping the same god when they considered the Old Testament god a demiurge who is the source of woe? They too used the same sources, but resourced them differently on different terms.

    As to Muhammad’s revelations:
    Any of those are possible, but I’m (we?) are trying to take Muslims at their own word on their own stories. I’m not trying to ram them through some preconceived philosophy of religions that somehow stands above and beyond them. Some of those may be possibilities, but I don’t want to psychoanalyze Muhammad. The point is that whatever he said, and wherever the Koran came from, is that it differs, fundamentally, from the Biblical revelation.

    And just because there are conversion stories doesn’t mean that is in fact what happened. It also doesn’t make Muslim theology singular and unified. Maybe there are Muslims who have appealed to Isa for hope, even beyond Allah, maybe there are Muslims who posit that there is an unknown God beyond Allah that they are ignorant of but desperately hope for. Sindar Sadhu Singh, in his own conversion, prayed that whoever the true God was would answer him. He expected Krishna or Shiva, but instead Christ appeared in a vision.

    But none of this requires us to tear up the Islamic story and fit it into some general theism, where Christianity happens to be the most accurate representation of it.

    cal

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  16. Jerome,

    I like Cal’s responses to you.

    I will just add a little more. With Balaam, his prophetic work is sanctioned and identified by Holy Scripture, which itself is given to God’s covenantal people within His unilaterally initiated covenant relation with them. Not only that, Balaam, within the narrative actually spoke with the true and living God, because the true and living God first spoke with him.

    In re to Ishmael: Cal is right, particularly given the fact that we have NT commentary (actually on both Balaam [Peter] and Abraham [Rom, Gal, etc.]), it wasn’t many seeds (see Gal 3), but one seed that the covenantal line and mediatorial framework finds its substance in. Ishmael’s seed was not it. Yes, Ishmael’s seed like the rest of the goyim can spiritually participate in the covenantal line now, but that is only to the point, Christ remains the key for genuine knowledge of God etc.

    There is no doubt that the Qur’an has a literary dependence upon the Torah, of course its relationship (referentially) is equivocal. And yes, I do realize some of the complexities for appealing to Mohammed’s illiteracy, but that does not negate the fact that part of the Islamic story is that Mohammed receive revelations which he recited (i.e. Qur’an) for his people. But all of that notwithstanding, Allah is not Yahweh in living color. The conception of Allah does fit better with a philosophical monad rather than a personal God of chesed who is also echad (One in complexity and plurality).

    But I don’t want to collapse ontology into epistemology either, and that is really my concern. When we think God we don’t have access to His inner-life unless He reveals that to us. Allah is not a revealing God (by definition he is aloof, capricious, impersonal, and deterministic), but Yahweh on the other hand is. And of course He has given us a holy ground for peering into the Holy of holies of His inner-life, but only through Christ. I guess if you want to posit an attenuated and tacit knowledge of this God within nature itself, that you must. But without that how can you claim that at an ontological level anyone has access to think God without Him thinking Himself for us first? If an order of being precedes and conditions an order of knowing vis-a-vis God, don’t you see an inseparable and mutually implicating (albeit asymmetrical) relation between these two; such that God’s inner-life antecedently precedes his outer/economic life in such a way that there is a necessary corollary between the two; and outwith this we cannot even meaningfully speak of an ontological being of God whether that be De Deo Uno or De Deo Trino? Again, I realize you have to appeal to a natural theology of some sort to make your argument work; but of course I reject that on principled grounds. It is at this point that I think Bruce McCormack gave away too much (and I think to create charitable space for further debate etc.) when he placed his doctrine of God in theologoumena.

    Anyway, I’ll stop, or I’m going to end up writing another post.

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  17. Cal & Bobby,
    Re: Balaam, you both stress that it’s only because the Bible says so that we know that he was referencing the real God when he spoke. But if we press that logic, then we’d have to doubt whether anyone after the canon’s closing is referencing the real God, since the Bible doesn’t specifically say so. I believe that the Bible gives us case studies and paradigms which we can apply (with God’s help) to more or less analogous situations. Thus just as the real God co-opted the utterances of the Mesopotamian sorcerer Balaam, it’s possible that God did the same with Muhammad (at least initially). Alternatively, M. was so influenced by the prior revelations of the real God found in Judaism & Christianity, & mediated to him thru his contacts w/ Jews & Christians, that he was able to refer to the real God (in a distorted manner) by virtue of these prior revelations. We must beware the genetic fallacy. The crucial test for the truth-value of anyone’s God-talk is not what their background is but how well their statements cohere with established revelation. My claim is that enough of M.’s statements do so that he is in fact referring in deeply flawed ways to the real God. Unlike the Gnostics, who deconstructed Scripture & rejected the Creator & Torah-Giver as an inferior deity rather than the Most High God, M. accepted the biblical testimony that there is one transcendent God, Creator, Torah-Giver, and Judge, the God of Abraham, to whom idolatry & injustice are anathema. It seems clear to me that M. submitted to the Judeo-Christian revelation to a far greater extent than the Gnostics (or than polytheistic Mormons with their radically immanent, finite Elohim & demigod son Jesus); hence his references to Allah are distorted depictions of the true God, not undistorted depictions of a false god.
    Re: Ishmael, Scripture is explicit that Ishmael participated in the covenant of circumcision given by God to Abraham (Gen. 17:10, 23-26), even though the covenant line proceeded thru Isaac, not Ishmael (Gen. 17:18-21). Ishmael grew up in a household influenced by the revelation of the real God, & even after he left that household, Scripture testifies that God was at work in his life (Gen. 21:17-20). It’s plausible, then, to assert that a tradition of monotheism that had the real God as its referent was preserved among at least some of Ishmael’s descendants. (As a later parallel, God’s covenant wasn’t established thru Laban, but Laban was within the “outskirts” of the covenantal-revelational framework genealogically, & he worshiped the same one true God as Jacob: see Gen. 31:53.)
    Please note, Bobby, that my argument does *not* require natural theology to work: 1) M. is influenced by the special revelation given to Jews & Christians, as mediated to him thru his contacts with them; 2) he also may be heir to Ishmaelite traditions which are grounded in God’s special revelation to Abraham, as well as to Hagar (Gen. 21:17-19); & 3) he may also possibly have received special revelation from God at the beginning of his prophetic career, only to corrupt it later on. Cal, this is *not* “general theism”: if any or all of the 3 points above are right, then we’re dealing w/ a theism rooted in special revelation, not abstract speculation. M. was a (false) prophet, not a philosopher. (Aristotelian philosophy influenced later Islam, not M.) Bobby, in light of my 3 points above, let me be clear how Christ fits into this picture: he is involved in *all* special revelation. By denying Christ, M. sawed off the very branch on which he sat.
    Cal, the point of the conversion stories is this: nearly all the Muslim converts that I’m aware of come to believe that Isa is the Savior & the way to a right relationship with Allah. They do not come to think that, as Muslims, they were worshiping a demon & need to switch their allegiance to a totally new deity; they understand themselves to be moving from worshiping the real God in ignorance & distortion to worshiping him in spirit & truth. This is different than the scenarios you’re proposing, in which they appeal to an unknown god beyond Allah or to Isa in contradiction to Allah. Now, perhaps they’re all wrong & you’re right in assessing what “really” happened in their conversions, but if that’s the case, then aren’t you doing to Muslim converts what you suggested that I did to Muhammad—“trying to ram them through some preconceived philosophy of religions that somehow stands above and beyond them”? I’d rather stick with the testimony of real Muslim converts & those who’re evangelizing them & not risk blaspheming God by identifying him with a demon.
    I’m afraid that this is going to have to be my last post on the subject; my semester begins on Monday and I’ll not have time to devote to further discussion. I’ll leave the last word with you, Bobby. I’ve achieved my goals, which were to test my thoughts on the “same God” controversy in a theologically stimulating, civil conversation. Thanks for allowing me the opportunity!

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  18. Jerome, what does any of this speculation accomplish? You have to stand upon many theories that have little to no supporting evidence. You end up trashing Gnostics and Mormons along the way. Why jump through so many hoops to prove that Muslims have a charlatan, false prophet, and/or demon possessed Leader? None of which can be substantiated?

    The difference between us on the convert issue is not me trying to ram them into a philosophy of religion. Rather, it’s the same reason I am critical of evangelical “I always believed in God, but then I found Jesus” conversion testimony. If Christ says no one knows the Father except through Him (which raises interesting hermeneutical questions about the Old Testament and many figures within it), then how did these evangelicals circumvent the whole process? There’s an epistemic break between reality and perceived reality. They say they knew God, but they in fact knew an idol they built within their own minds. That was me.

    The reality is that we do not take seriously the possibility of demon worship in this world. Islam takes people away from Christ. Can God use it? Yes. Is it a scheme of Satan? Probably. So, no, I don’t believe God “failed” in trying to show Himself to Muhammad.

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  19. And a final point on Balaam, as it is helpful elsewhere:

    I am not trying to banish Balaam’s prophetic ability to the world of the text. Yes, such examples open us up to the possibilities of God’s work in this world. Paradigm is too strong a word, but it is an example to be mindful of when we assess prophecies and statements in the world today. But there is never a moment where Balaam is said to have been worshiping God through the altar of Baal. God turned the prophet against himself. We might be able to say Muhammad spoke better than he knew at points, but it doesn’t mean Muhammad or Islam worships the true God.

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  20. Cal,
    I’ll keep my word & say no more on the subject of whether Christians & Muslims worship the same God. However, the tone of your 2nd-to-last post leads me to believe that you were personally offended by my descriptions of Gnostics & Mormons. If so, I apologize. I mentioned them because you had brought up Gnostics & Bobby had brought up Joseph Smith in prior posts, so I was trying to show how they fit into the picture that I was painting. Perhaps there was a less offensive way that I could have communicated my assessment of their respective theologies. In particular, I might have dropped the term “demigod” if I were to have revised my post. I do think that my portrait of (official) Mormon theology was pretty accurate, though: see Terryl L. Givens, Wrestling the Angel: Vol. 1, The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford University Press, 2015). Thanks for your input in this conversation.
    Yours in Christ’s love,
    Jerome

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  21. Jerome,

    I will respond to you hopefully tomorrow, and close this thread out. Thank you for taking the time to interact.

    Cal,

    Likewise, thank you for your input and for interacting with both me and Jerome!

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  22. Jerome wrote:

    … Thus just as the real God co-opted the utterances of the Mesopotamian sorcerer Balaam, it’s possible that God did the same with Muhammad (at least initially).

    All things are possible, but are all things probable? No. Why would you even presume this, Jerome? (I know you aren’t going to respond, but I’m just putting my question out there) Mohammed’s “fruit” is rotten, and anti-Christ. If God co-opted Mohammed’s revelations initially can you point to where those have been deposited, and how you discern what is from the true God and what isn’t (this might result in having to create a schema something like the higher critics have developed, or even the Jesus Seminar to figure out what is true God stuff and what isn’t … I can’t go along with you here, Jerome).

    Jerome wrote:

    … Alternatively, M. was so influenced by the prior revelations of the real God found in Judaism & Christianity, & mediated to him thru his contacts w/ Jews & Christians, that he was able to refer to the real God (in a distorted manner) by virtue of these prior revelations. We must beware the genetic fallacy….

    We must also beware of arguing from silence; which you are. How do you know how much he was influenced by Jews and Christians prior to receiving his revelations from Allah? We know historically that he went to meet with his Ebionite uncle at one point, but this was after his revelations not prior to.

    Jerome wrote:

    … The crucial test for the truth-value of anyone’s God-talk is not what their background is but how well their statements cohere with established revelation. My claim is that enough of M.’s statements do so that he is in fact referring in deeply flawed ways to the real God….

    So even though his conception of God is monadic, removed, capricious, deterministic, fatalistic, etc. you believe there is enough correlation there between the true and living God and his version that it can be said that the referent is the same? Maybe an equivocal correlation but not univocal or even analogical. How distorted in your view does his version of God have to be before he is no longer referring to the true and living God? So you’re claiming that his Arabic conception of godness has no bearing on the god he was referring to? You’re saying that he couldn’t have simply decided to pick one god out of the pantheon of gods he could’ve chosen from among those worshipped among his people and elevated the god that he chose to the true and living God? Not buying it Jerome.

    Jerome wrote:

    … It’s plausible, then, to assert that a tradition of monotheism that had the real God as its referent was preserved among at least some of Ishmael’s descendants….

    It’s plausible (most anything is)? But is it probable? No. Look at who Ishmael’s descendants were in Mohammed’s time, polytheists.

    Jerome wrote:

    Please note, Bobby, that my argument does *not* require natural theology to work: 1) M. is influenced by the special revelation given to Jews & Christians, as mediated to him thru his contacts with them; 2) he also may be heir to Ishmaelite traditions which are grounded in God’s special revelation to Abraham, as well as to Hagar (Gen. 21:17-19); & 3) he may also possibly have received special revelation from God at the beginning of his prophetic career, only to corrupt it later on….

    This is essentially a summary of everything you just claimed and argued above. I think I’ve adequately responded to that, and so this does not follow w/o further argumentation and more concrete evidence.

    Jerome wrote:

    … Bobby, in light of my 3 points above, let me be clear how Christ fits into this picture: he is involved in *all* special revelation. By denying Christ, M. sawed off the very branch on which he sat….

    Mohammed never received special revelation, though, this is a circular argument. M. never sat on said branch, you haven’t proven that he has.

    To argue from what Muslims think they are doing when they convert from Islam to Christianity, in re to their doctrine of God is too anecdotal to constitute an actual argument.

    Thanks for the engagement, Jerome, but we do not agree at all! I was mentored by a guy who speaks Arabic, was a former missionary to Muslims in Pakistan, and continues to do Muslim evangelism; none of your arguments would fly with him, and they aren’t flying with me 🙂 ! pax

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