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.

Advertisements