An Index to My Posts on the Muslim and Christian Same God Question and the Wheaton Controversy

I have posted quite a bit in these last few weeks on the Same God debate prompted by the Wheaton Controversy; i.e. the idea that Christians and Muslims worship the same God (which I have maintained and argued in bloggy form that they do not). I thought I would make an index of all of those posts for easy access. It will start from my recent post on the subject and descend successively from there.

  1. Katherine Sonderegger Illustrating Bruce McCormack’s Orthodoxy Principle for Muslim and Christian Worship of the Same God
  2. Responding Further to Bruce McCormack’s Same-God Article and the Wheaton Controversy
  3. Bruce McCormack on the Wheaton Controversy and the Same God Debate
  4. Miroslav Volf’s 10 Theses on Islam and Some Response
  5. Christians and Jews Worship Yahweh; Muslims Worship Allah.
  6. Barthians and Torranceans Cannot Believe that Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God: More Response to Miroslav Volf
  7. A Response to Miroslav Volf and Larycia Hawkins: Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?
  8. A Christian Reading of the Holy Qur’an and the Sin of Shirk

There you go; some are better than others.

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Katherine Sonderegger Illustrating Bruce McCormack’s Orthodoxy Principle for Muslim and Christian Worship of the Same God

I am just beginning to rework Katherine Sonderegger’s Systematic Theology, Vol.1, The Doctrine of God for a review I will be writing of it for the journal Cultural Encounters. Right away in the preface something stood out to me, especially in light of all of these posts (from various thinkers) on the issue of Muslims and Christians (and Jews) worshipping the same God. In my last post katherinesondereggerwhich I just finished a few hours ago we were taking a look at Bruce McCormack’s response to this whole question. We noticed that he gave the strongest arguments for and against belief that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. In his argument in the affirmative that Muslims and Christians do indeed worship the same God he argued from the principle reality of orthodoxy.

As an illustration of how McCormack’s argument works, the one from orthodoxy, the one that emphasizes the oneness of God (De Deo Uno) as the hook wherein it can be held, ostensibly, that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, Sonderegger writes:

Once more we must pause before a seemingly anodyne, wholly biblical phrase: the One God. Perhaps nothing so marks out the modern in systematic theology as the aversion to the scholastic treatise, De Deo Uno. It belongs not to the preface but rather the body of the dogmatic work to lay out the broad movement in present-day dogmatics that has pressed the treatise De Deo Trino to the fore; indeed, it crowds out and supplants the exposition of the One God. But even here we must say that the doctrine of the Trinity, however central to the Christian mystery, must not be allowed to replace or silence the Oneness of God. God is supremely, gloriously One; surpassingly, uniquely One. Nothing is more fundamental to the Reality of God that this utter Unicity. Such is God’s Nature; such His Person: One. Oneness governs the Divine Perfections: all in the doctrine of God must serve, set forth, and conform to the transcendent Unity of God. Now, to say all this aligns the Christian doctrine of God with the faiths of Abraham, Judaism, and Islam; indeed all of monotheisms—for monotheism is not a shame word! The Christian affirmation of divine Unicity opens it, like the merciful and welcoming Lord it serves, to the peoples and faiths of the good earth. But this cannot serve as ground for such a fundamental axiom in dogmatics. Rather, we must appeal to Holy Scripture.[1]

What Sonderegger writes comports well with what McCormack wrote here:

… The most natural understanding of the oneness of God for those coming directly out of second Temple Judaism was that of “singularity” and/or “uniqueness.”  This understanding was given further strength by the influence of Middle Platonism already on the LXX but most especially on the Greek apologists.  By the mid-second century at the latest, a concept of God was already firmly in place which owed a great deal to Middle Platonism.  The concept in question affirmed that God is one, simple, impassible, invisible, immaterial being.  In constructing this concept, there can be little question but that the definition of God’s “oneness” owed a great deal to its “neighoring” concepts, simplicity above all.  Unity and simplicity went hand in hand for the early Fathers.  And that was one of the reasons (though not the only one) that debates over the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century were so difficult and protracted.  All of the fourth century theologians whose doctrines of the Trinity would eventually be recognized as orthodox were committed to unity and simplicity (see G.L. Prestige,God in Patristic Thought). And so one of the most important tasks facing fourth century theology was how to think the three-ness of “persons” into or together with an already existing concept of “oneness.”[2]

It is interesting, as a side-note, that Sonderegger is highly antagonistic towards the emphasis that Karl Barth has provided for 20th and 21st century theology with his incorrigible desire to elevate the Triunity of God (De Deo Trino) to the ‘fore’ when thinking God. It is interesting because, relative to McCormack’s own Barth[ian] views Sonderegger is at deep odds with McCormack. McCormack would say that Sonderegger advances the orthodox view the one that allows Christians like Hawkins, Volf, et al. to claim that Christians and Muslims do indeed worship the same God. And as we can see from the Sonderegger quote when Oneness is the dominant fundamentum when developing a doctrine of God, it seems those who take this approach, apparently the orthodox folk, find it compelling at a first-order leveling of things that all monotheisms, at a base level converge at a central point; i.e. simply that God is One. Apparently this is enough common ground for the orthodox to maintain that they worship the same God that the Muslims do.

[1] Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume 1, The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), xiv.

[2] Bruce L. McCormack, Reflections on the “Same God” Thesis (Wheaton, IL: Noah Toly’s Blog, 2016), accessed January 13th, 2016.

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?

Bruce McCormack on the Wheaton Controversy and the Same God Debate

Bruce McCormack, of Princeton Theological Seminary, has weighed in on the “Wheaton Controversy,” the same God debate fostered by Dr. Hawkins’ (of Wheaton College) claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. As you read McCormack’s post you will see him engage in a kind of abductive approach wherein he offers the strongest arguments possible (as he can muster) for trinity-iconbelief: 1) That Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God (which in McCormack’s opinion is the best way) juxtaposed with 2) That Christians and Muslims do worship the same God. In his article you will see him make a theological case for the not-same-God locus, and then temper that with a history of doctrine case that it is possible within the historic development of classical theism for people, like Dr. Hawkins and Dr. Volf et al. to maintain the belief that Christians and Muslims and Jews do worship the same-God. McCormack places the burden on his ‘not-same-God’ position placing into the realm of private theological opinion (theologoumenon) versus the catholic/universal position that would allow for debate in regard to the belief that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the ‘same-God’; i.e. the catholic position, or classical theistic position, being the position that started with an emphasis upon the monotheistic reality of God’s life, only later developing a Trinitarian grammar that we today understand as constituting orthodox Christian dogma in regard to a doctrine of God.

I am still pondering what McCormack wrote, but in the main I can agree, particularly with the idea that there is room for debate, even though ultimately (as I would contend) the idea that God is three-in-one/one-in-three is the actual reality of who God is as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Here’s the link: click here

Miroslav Volf’s 10 Theses on Islam and Some Response

I continue to be intrigued, obviously, by the idea that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Miroslav Volf, Yale theologian, wrote a book entitled: Allah: A Christian Response back in 2011, which I am now reading. It is Volf’s thoughts on Muslims that helped lead Professor Hawkins of Wheaton College to claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and as a volfconsequence and show of solidarity she has been wearing the traditional head-dress of Muslim women, the hajib, throughout this Advent season. As most of us know by now Wheaton suspended her indefinitely, upon further review, for her theological claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

As has become obvious by now I reject the idea that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, but Volf doesn’t; Volf believes, of course that Muslims and Christians do indeed worship the same God, and as such he believes in the wake of that reality Christians and Muslims should seek to magnify the common over-lapping values shared between their ‘common shared conception of God.’ Here are his ten theses which spell out what he will be arguing for throughout his book (I share in full):

  1. Christians and Muslims worship one and the same God, the only God. They understand God’s character partly differently, but the object of their worship is the same. I reject the idea that Muslims worship a different God than do Jews and Christians.
  2. What the Qur’an denies about God as the Holy Trinity has been denied by every great teacher of the church in the past and ought to be denied by every orthodox Christian today. I reject the idea that Muslim monotheism is incompatible with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
  3. Both Muslims and Christians, in their normative traditions, describe God as loving and just, even if there are differences in how they understand God’s love and justice. I reject the idea that the God of the Qur’an stands as a fierce and violent deity in opposition to the God of Jesus Christ, who is sheer love.
  4. The God Muslims worship and the God Christians worship—the one and only God—commands that we love our neighbors, even though it is true that the meaning of love of neighbor differs partly in Christianity and Islam. I reject the idea that Islam is a religion of life-constricting laws, whereas Christianity is a religion of life-affirming love.
  5. Because they worship the same and similarly understood God, Christians and Muslims have a sufficiently robust moral framework to pursue the common good together. I reject the idea that Muslim and Christian “civilizations” are bound to clash.
  6. Christians should see Muslims, who give ultimate allegiance to God as the supreme good, as allies in resisting the tendency in contemporary culture to see mere pleasure, rather than justice and love, as the hallmark of the good life. I reject the association of freedom to do what one pleases with Christianity and blind submission to the iron law of God with Islam.
  7. What matters is not whether you are Christian or Muslim or anything else; instead, what matters is whether you love God with all your heart and whether you trust and obey Jesus Christ, the Word of God and Lamb of God. I reject making religious belonging and religious labels more significant than allegiance to the one true God.
  8. Love and justice for all, rooted in the character of God, requires that all persons have the right to choose, change, and practice their religion publicly. I reject all attempts to control the decisions human beings make about what most profoundly matters in their lives.
  9. All people have the right to witness about their faith; curtailing that right in any way is an assault on human dignity. At the same time, those who witness have an obligation to follow the Golden Rule. I reject both all suppression of freedom of expression and all uncharitable ways of exercising that freedom.
  10. To give allegiance to the one God who enjoins humans to be loving and just to all, as Muslims and Christians do, means to embrace pluralism as a political project—the right of all religious people to articulate their views in public and the impartiality of the state with respect to all religions (and other overarching interpretations of life). I reject the idea that monotheism, properly understood, fosters violence and totalitarian rule.[1]

My Response

  1. There indeed is only one true God. I take it as axiomatic that if someone claims that Muslims and Christians worship ‘one and the same God’ that the revelation through which they came to know this God is from the same God as well. But the revelation Muslims refer to with reference to God is not the same revelation that Christians refer to; therefore they do not worship the same God.
  2. Not real clear on what Volf is asserting here: “What the Qur’an denies about God as the Holy Trinity has been denied by every great teacher of the church in the past and ought to be denied by every orthodox Christian today.” The Qur’an outright denies that God is Holy Trinity in both His inner and outer life; not sure how it can be said that ‘every great teacher of the church’ and ‘every orthodox Christian today’ ought to deny what the Qur’an denies about God as the Holy Trinity.

Volf rejects the idea that ‘Muslim monotheism is incompatible with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity,’ but as I shared last time from one of the foremost systematic theologians of today:

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.

This represents a clear point of departure then from what Volf thinks about the ‘one God’ and what I believe a genuinely Christian understanding of ‘one God’ entails in its Trinitarian reality.

  1. How can a monad, a divine singularity, a god that is by definition capricious, removed, and deterministic in his relation to the world be described as loving and just in the same sense as the Christian sense? The Christian sense of God, based upon His Self-revelation, is that He is necessarily personal and relational because He is Triune. How can Volf assert that these two approaches to God in regard to justice and love be similar, without engaging in equivocation? He equivocates.
  2. Apparently Volf has never lived in Saudi Arabia as a woman under Sharia law.
  3. Volf takes a major leap of faith in this assertion, especially when the empirical reality attests otherwise. Ideas actually do clash, they have been clashing ever since Genesis 3. We have a clash of civilizations in the so called ‘culture wars’ why would that be any different then with reference to the relationship between Christianity and Islam. If he is asserting that Christians and Muslims should find common moral ground to engage society with then there might be some space for this, but only in a secularized state, and then only with secularized Muslims who believe they can join arms with Christians on certain moral issues. But most orthodox committed Muslims believe that to join arms with Christians would be to join arms with the infidels, the children of Satan.
  4. Again, his assertion works within a secularized state, but he should try to implement such vision in Saudi Arabia and see what happens. Does Volf believe the house of Saud does not represent orthodox Islam; does Volf believe that the only genuine forms of Islam are indeed those that have learned how to co-exist in secular states? It seems like that what is informing his premise here.
  5. Religious labels are symbols, just like words in general, they signify certain realities. The Apostles were first called Christians in Antioch according to Acts 11. To be a Christian simply means to be a follower of the Way, Jesus Christ. If a Muslim was a follower of Jesus Christ in the way Volf identifies in his thesis 7, then they would cease being Muslims and be considered Christians by any historic and/or reasonable matrix. But Volf is presuming upon his idea that Muslims and Worship the same God; this thesis in particular illustrates how that can send things off the rails.
  6. Okay, I agree with Volf on this one. Islamic thought doesn’t though.
  7. Again, I agree. But in Muslim states, they would disagree with Volf.
  8. This is certainly a major part, it appears, of Volf’s project; the idea of trying to chart a way for various religions to co-exist in a pluralistic society. He rejects the idea that monotheism properly understood promotes violence etc. I would agree, but at this point I don’t agree with Volf’s conception of what monotheism actually entails per my response to thesis 2.

[1] Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (HarperCollins, 2011), 22 Scribd version.

Christians and Jews Worship Yahweh; Muslims Worship Allah.

Let me simplify my last two posts on whether or not Muslims and Christians and Jews worship the same God. I’ve received lots of push back on my last post in the Karl Barth Discussion Group on Facebook; push back that in my view either never fully engaged with what I actually wrote, or misunderstood it and put words in my mouth that I never said (or wrote). In summary here is what I believe:

Jews and Christians worship the same God; Muslims do not.

  1. Jews and Christians worship = Yahweh.
  2. Muslims worship = Allah.

The name of God itself should be substantial enough to illustrate why there is a disparity between the god that Muslims worship, and the God that Christians and Jews worship. Obviously this still requires much more development (which I’ve gotten into in my earlier posts in regard to the Trinity, Incarnation, etc.), but this simple reduction should hopefully make this a little more problematic for those who want to reduce the God of the Jews and Christians into the god of the Muslims.

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.

A Christian Reading of the Holy Qur’an and the Sin of Shirk

Isaiah’s vision of Jesus riding a donkey and Muhammad riding a camel, al-Biruni, al-Athar al-Baqiyya ‘an al-Qurun al-Khaliyya (Chronology of Ancient Nations), Tabriz, Iran, 1307-8. Edinburgh University Library.
Isaiah’s vision of Jesus riding a donkey and Muhammad riding a camel, al-Biruni, al-Athar al-Baqiyya ‘an al-Qurun al-Khaliyya (Chronology of Ancient Nations), Tabriz, Iran, 1307-8. Edinburgh University Library.

I have been involved in Muslim evangelism in the past; had the opportunity to help teach  classes on Islam at the college level; organized trips to local mosques as learning (and witnessing) opportunities for Christian college students; been mentored by a former missionary to Muslims in Pakistan; etc. As a result, I have spent some time reading the Holy Qur’an, and other writings from Muslim theologians etc. I never did, though, read all the way through the Qur’an, which I am currently remedying. I am early into the Qur’an at the moment, and I plan on, periodically, writing blog posts about things that stand out to me from my reading. This will be the first post in a series of posts to come on my readings in the Qur’an.

In Islam one of the primary sins is known as the sin of Shirk, or the attribution of partners with God, Allah. Here is how al-Islam.org defines Shirk:

The first of the Greater Sins is to associate anyone or anything with Allah (S.w.T.). That is to attribute partners to Allah (S.w.T.). Regarding Shirk we have received clear traditions from the Holy Prophet (S) as well as Hazrat ‘Ali (a.s.), Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq (a.s.), Imam al-Kadhim (a.s.), Imam Riďa (a.s.) and Imam Jawad (a.s.).[1]

Al-Islam.org goes further and describes how Shirk applies to Christians, and their doctrine of the Trinity:

The Christians believe in the trinity of the Godhead. The Father (God), The Son (Jesus) and the Holy Ghost (Jibrīl). They believe that each of them have a special quality and that together they constitute the Godhead. The Qur’an flays their assertion thus:

“Certainly they disbelieve who say, ‘Surely Allah is the third (person) of Three’; and there is no god but One God.” (Surah al-Mā’ida 5:73)

The Holy Qur’an clearly states that Allah (S.w.T.) is not one-third of a god. He is the One and only One God.

The belief in Trinity is not exclusive to the Christians. Hindus and Buddhists also ascribe to it.[2]

Clearly, Muslims have serious definitional problems with Christians, particularly because they believe that we engage in the sin of Shirk. Interestingly the al-Islam.org description of Christians and the Trinity misses the mark, quite severely. Their characterization of Trinitarianism holding to the idea that each person within the Trinity constitutes one-third of a god is an outright caricature and misunderstanding of the Christian conception of the Trinity (e.g. Christians believe that each person in the Monarxia or God-head is eternally and co-equally God). Further, al-Islam.org also illustrates their misunderstanding of the Trinity when they assert that “Hindus and Buddhists also ascribe to it.” Really? I think what al-Islam.org is doing, uncritically so, is simply lumping all “polytheists” into one group; but of course this would be petito principii or circular, wouldn’t it? Since they are basing their characterization of the Trinity as polytheist on a misunderstanding of what Christians actually believe about the Trinity, based upon their doctrine of Shirk.

This leads into my current reading of the Qur’an; I am in Surah 2. Al Baqarah §16. Let me share that section with you:

130. Who would forsake the religion of Abraham, except he who fools himself? We chose him in this world, and in the Hereafter he will be among the righteous.

131. When his Lord said to him, “Submit!” He said, “I have submitted to the Lord of the Worlds.”

132. And Abraham exhorted his sons, and Jacob, “O my sons, God has chosen this religion for you, so do not die unless you have submitted.”

133. Or were you witnesses when death approached Jacob, and he said to his sons, “What will you worship after Me?” They said, “We will worship your God, and the God of your fathers, Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac; One God; and to Him we submit.”

134. That was a community that has passed; for them is what they have earned, and for you is what you have earned; and you will not be questioned about what they used to do.

135. And they say, “Be Jews or Christians, and you will be guided.” Say, “Rather, the religion of Abraham, the Monotheist; he was not an idolater.” 

136. Say, “We believe in God; and in what was revealed to us; and in what was revealed to Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob, and the Patriarchs; and in what was given to Moses and Jesus; and in what was given to the prophets-from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and to Him we surrender.”

137. If they believe in the same as you have believed in, then they have been guided. But if they turn away, then they are in schism. God will protect you against them; for He is the Hearer, the Knower.

138. God’s coloring. And who gives better coloring than God? “And we are devoted to Him.”

139. Say, “Do you argue with us about God, when He is our Lord and your Lord, and We have our works, and you have your works, and we are sincere to Him?”

140. Or do you say that Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Patriarchs were Jews or Christians? Say, “Do you know better, or God?” And who does greater wrong than he who conceals a testimony he has from God? God is not unaware of what you do.

141. That was a community that has passed. To them is what they have earned, and to you is what you have earned. And you will not be questioned about what they used to do.[3]

I have emboldened the verses that illustrate how Shirk informs the composition of the Qur’an itself. Christians and Jews are idolaters (according to the Qur’an), because the former attribute a partner to God in Jesus Christ. It is also interesting to see how, because of Shirk, Jesus must become just another one of the Prophets of Allah, rather than, of course the Theanthropos, God-man whom historical orthodox Christians confess Him to be because of the Apostolic witness deposited in the New Testament.

Conclusion

With all of the coverage of Islam in the media, and in increasing ways, I have been re-motivated to read through the Qur’an, and engage with it as critically as I can. As a Christian theologian I will not, of course, engage with the Qur’an in an unbiased way; I will attempt to give a fair reading to the Qur’an, and attempt to characterize what it teaches and what Islam teaches in general, in fair and critical ways. But as a Christian, I will compare and contrast Islamic teaching with Christian doctrine, and will also correct Islamic readings and characterizations of Christian dogma when that is needed; as it was needed in this post.

Furthermore, what I hope to do through these series of posts is identify that in the end, from my vantage point as an orthodox Christian, the real danger of Islam is what it teaches about God. This is where the material discussions and debates need to happen. Islam believes something about God, just as Christians do; as a consequence we will act in accord with who we believe God to be.

What I also want to make clear through this series of posts is that Allah and Yahweh (or the Triune Christian God) are not the same God whatsoever (as some Christians and liberal Muslim scholars argue i.e. Chrislam). Christian dogma on a doctrine of God, at its very core, while monotheistic, is Trinitarian; Islamic dogma on a doctrine of God, at its very core is Unitarian. We don’t share a common core when we conceive of God, because our respective sources of revelation are disparate one from the other.

 

 

[1] al-Islam.org

[2] al-Islam.org

[3] Holy Qur’an.