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Issues Facing Missions Today: 44. Do Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Traditional Africans Worship the Same God?

Issues Facing Missions Today: 44. Do Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Traditional Africans Worship the Same God?

As Islam receives increasing attention in the news in the West, people have begun to explore what it is Muslims believe and whether it might be said that they and Christians worship the same God.  The same might be asked of other monotheistic religions, such as Judaism and traditional African religions.  All these religions believe in a Creator and deny that there are other gods.  Some fanfare around this question has popped up at Wheaton College, where Professor Larycia Hawkins was recently suspended for advocating that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  She donned a hijab during Advent this season to affirm her affinity with Muslims.  Some of the Wheaton students and alumni/ae (one might say ‘predictably’) tossed in their support of the professor and criticized the administration’s suspension of her.

While the Wheaton incident may have more to do with inadequate vetting of faculty and a lax admissions policy, (now) Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has, according to Christianity Today, weighed in on the matter.[1]  Volf, a Croatian of German extraction, is well-known for his timely Exclusion and Embrace in the aftermath of the Balkan fighting in the 1990s.[2]  His more recent Allah: A Christian Response (not surprisingly, a HarperOne publication) argues that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.[3] 

Is it so?  The following is not a direct response to Volf's book but some comments in response to the notion itself.  I am opting here for brevity rather than a book-length response.  I offer five points to consider.

First, note that I have mentioned African traditional religions alongside Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.  Usually, the discussion about worshiping the same God excludes African traditional religion—but why?  Pre-Christian (and pre-Islamic) Africa was not typically polytheistic.  African traditional religions most often confess belief in a single, Creator God, even if they believe he is distant and less relevant than the more active spirits of the departed ancestors.  Should we exclude African traditional religions from the discussion on account of their not being part of a Biblical faith?  If so, then we need to note that Jews do not accept the New Testament as part of their Scriptures, and Muslims insist that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures bear some witness to the truth but that they have been seriously corrupted.  Thus, there is actually no truly common witness between Muslims and Christians from Scripture—what Muslims do not like in Scripture, they declare to be corrupted texts.  No encouragement to read the Scripture is going to get anywhere, except by God’s grace, when readers get to pick and choose the parts they like.  On this ground, I would suggest that African traditional religions should be included in the broad discussion.  For that matter, we might include the monolatry of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhenaten, who devoted himself to the sun god, Aten.  That is, we might ask, ‘Do all monotheistic religions, or even religions devoted to a single deity (monolatry), entail worship of the same g/God?’

Phrasing the question in this way gets around some of the inevitable political correctness swashing around university campuses and society at large.  The matter is not, in such a case, to be handled in the context of heated discussion about religions getting along with one another when wars are breaking out.  Pressure to put down the lances and sabers might be worthwhile in the political arena, but it is hardly a legitimate starting point for theological enquiry.

Second, we need to ask, with the likes of Ludwig Wittgenstein and J. L. Austin in mind, whether words have meaning apart from a context.[4]  Both scholars' works insisted on the importance of context for the meaning of words.  Narrative theology, moreover, has provided a necessary corrective to liberal theology in claiming that theology cannot be abstracted from the narrative that gives meaning to notions.  Thus, to say ‘God’ is to say essentially nothing at all until one understands more of what one means, and that more is found precisely in the narrative one tells about God.  To the Israelites, God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—not merely a Creator God and not at all the same god as Akhenaten's Aten.  Similarly, the Creator God of African traditional religions has so little relevance to the actual form and practice of Animism, and one is at pains to try to explain why any connection between such a distant God and the God of Christian faith has any connection whatsoever.

Third, we need to ask what one religion is denying when it speaks of God.  The case of Judaism and Christianity is interesting here.  Judaism as an established religion in the 1st century AD was not a religion formed in denial of Christianity.  Christianity, rather, made the claim that the God of Judaism—the God of the Old Testament—was the same God revealed further by Jesus Christ.  There is, therefore, a significant relationship between the God of Judaism and the God of Christianity—although we must qualify this by noting that Judaism also refused, as a religion, to accept the claims of fulfillment that Christians made.  Islam, on the other hand, came along some six hundred years later in conscious denial of Judaism and Christianity.  When Muslims state their faith as ‘There is one God, and Muhammed is his prophet,’ they are denying the Trinitarian faith of historic Christianity and replacing Jesus with Muhammed.[5]  Thus, with qualification, it may be said that Jews and Christians worship the same God, but Islam has intentionally positioned itself over against Judaism and Christianity, including in its view of God.

Fourth, we need to consider the gravity of a denial of who Jesus is and what He has done when discussing God’s identity in religion.  Jesus called for singular devotion to Himself and warned of the consequences of denying Him, as we read in Matthew’s Gospel:

Matthew 10:32-42  "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;  33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.  34 "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;  36 and one's foes will be members of one's own household.  37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;  38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  40 "Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous;  42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."

John, also, testifies to Jesus’ call for singular devotion to Himself:

John 5:37-40  And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form,  38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.  39 "You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  40 Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Again, Jesus says,

John 14:9  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.

Jesus sees rejection of Himself as a rejection of God the Father:

John 15:24  If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father.

Finally, Paul weeps over those Jews who reject Jesus.  Despite their participation in God’s redemptive narrative, they have come to a point of rejecting it’s fulfillment in Jesus Christ—for which they will be cut off and accursed:

Romans 9:1-5   am speaking the truth in Christ-- I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit--  2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.  4 They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;  5 to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Thus, denial of the revelation in Jesus Christ, of His redemptive work, of His relation to God the Father, turns out to be a denial of God—however we are to understand Him.  One cannot be said to affirm the same God while also rejecting Jesus as Messiah and Lord.  If this is so for Jews, who might boast in their relation to God as His chosen people, how much more is it so for others outside this relationship who also reject Jesus?

Fifth, even specific things said about God in more than one religion, such as that He is merciful, mean different things.  For Jews, God’s mercy and love were revealed in His acceptance of a sinful people to be His people, His treasured possession, to guide and go with them into the promised land, and to entrust to them His holy law (Ex. 33-34; especially Ex. 34.5-7).  For Christians, God’s mercy and love were revealed further in His provision of redemption in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for sinners.[6]  There is continuity in the identify of God between the Old Testament and the New Testament (and would that more Jews and Christians would see this).  But what narratives inform Islam of God’s mercy?  Or is this mercy more that of the warrior prince, who demonstrates his sovereignty and power by showing mercy or not showing mercy?[7]

The conclusion is inevitable.  Only by zooming to the outermost level of abstraction, where no meaning of any worth will be found, can one claim that the God of Islam is the same as the God of Christians.  Nor is anything worthy of God to be gained through such an abstraction, for it leaves no testimony to God’s true identity, no devotion to Jesus, no real opportunity to witness, and no essential need (as opposed to some argument for an added benefit) to know God through Jesus Christ.  Indeed, the revelation Jesus gives to God’s identity is not the revelation of a prophet; it is a revelation that is at the same time the effectual salvation God provides for sinners.  Thus, no one comes to the Father except through the Son, Jesus Christ.  As Jesus says in John’s Gospel,

John 14:6-7  Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

[1] Bob Smietana, ‘‘Same God’ Standoff: Wheaton College, Suspended Professor Hold Ground, Miroslav Volf Weighs In,’ Christianity Today (Dec. 17, 2015); accessed online (Dec. 18, 2015):[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon Press, 1996).
[3] Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (New York: HarperOne, 2012).
[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 4th ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009; orig. 1953; J. L. Austin, How to Do Things With Words, 2nd ed. (Oxford: University Press, 1975; orig. 1962).
[5] See the discussion in Part II’s section on ‘Allah’ in Patrick Sookhdeo, Understanding Islamic Theology (McLean, VA: Isaac Pub., 2013).
 [6] Cf. 1 John 4:10: 'In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.'
[7] Cf. Rollin Grams, ‘God, the Beneficent--the Merciful, and Jesus’s Cross: From Abstract to Concrete Theologising,’ in Jesus and the Cross: Reflections of Christians from Islamic Contexts, ed. D. Singh (Oxford: Regnum/Paternoster, 2008).