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Friday, January 22, 2016

Do we worship the same God? Wheaton College, Larycia Hawkins and Miroslav Volf

The recent suspension of Larycia Hawkins by Wheaton College is a symptom of a fault line among evangelicals about Islam.  The question of whether the God of the Qur'an is the same as the God of the Bible is an important and complex one, but it is unhelpful to politicize inquiry into it by insisting that anyone who disagrees with one position or another is a bigot.

This article below is appearing in the February 2016 edition of Eternity, which is distributed to local churches across Australia. It is more an engagement with Volf than an exploration of the evolving, escalated situation at Wheaton, which seems to be not just about the 'same God' issue, but also about the use and impact of social media in the context of an academic dispute.  I would like to write more on this interesting topic of 'Do we worship the same God' and the situation at Wheaton but am very tied up with finishing a book project just at the moment.
Also readers may like to listen to a podcast debate between Miroslav Volf and Nabeel Qureshi:

 Wheaton announced that one of their tenured professors, Larycia Hawkins, was put on paid leave while they ‘explore theological implications of her recent public statements concerning Christianity and Islam’.  In particular Wheaton wanted to know whether Hawkins’ statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is compatible with the college’s Statement of Faith. Larycia Hawkins was asked to clarify her views. (Wheaton College Council has subsequently confirmed that the college has commenced a termination process for her position.)

The decision led to protests on the Wheaton campus.  Miroslav Volf, Professor of Theology at Yale,  published an article in the Washington Post criticizing Wheaton. Volf suggests that Wheaton is motivated by hatred towards Muslims, dressed up in dogma. He argued that:
Those who claim that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God base this upon Muslims’ denial of the Trinity and the incarnation.

However Jews deny the Trinity and the incarnation, and Christians down the ages have not claimed that Jews worship a different God.

Therefore those who do not accept the ‘same God’ thesis must be motivated by enmity, not reason.
There are problems with this reasoning. One is the premise. Wheaton had not itself stated that it objects to the ‘same God’ thesis on the basis of Muslims’ beliefs about the Trinity and the incarnation. However Volf appears to impute this thinking to all Christians who do not accept his ‘same God’ thesis.

Another is the leap from pointing out a supposed inconsistency in the reasoning of other Christians to making a severe value judgment about their motives.

In reality the best and strongest reason for rejecting the ‘same God’ thesis is not Muslims’ disbelief in the Trinity or the incarnation.  It is that the Qur’an projects a different understanding of God from the Bible.  As Denny Burk of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville put it ‘our books are very different’.

The theological differences involved are subtler and more fundamental than ticking or not ticking the Trinity box.

Eminent Orthodox Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod observed that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation was grounded upon the fundamentally Biblical – and thoroughly Jewish – concept of the indwelling of God’s Shekinah presence with his people.  Christian beliefs about the Trinity and the incarnation developed out of Jewish incarnational theologies.

Unlike the Old Testament, the Qur’an completely lacks a theology of the presence of God. Although the Arabic term sak─źnah – borrowed from Hebrew shekinah – appears six times in the Qur’an, it has been repurposed to mean ‘tranquility’, and the concept of the personal presence of God is not comprehended by Quranic theology.  It is not just that Islam rejects the incarnation of Jesus: in complete contrast to Judaism its scripture offers no basis for an incarnational theology.

Judaism differs from Islam in its organic relationship to Christianity in two key respects.

First, Christians and Jews share scripture. Judaism bases its understanding of God on what was the Bible of Jesus, the Tanakh or Old Testament. This is not the case with Islam.  Muslims do not base their theology on any part of the Bible.  Indeed mainstream Islam rejects the authority of the Bible, for reasons clearly stated in the Qur’an.

Second, Jesus was a practicing Jew, and so were his disciples, so it would be absurd to state that the God of the faith Jesus practiced is different from the Christian God.  This same observation does not apply to Islam. Muhammad was never a practicing Jew nor a practicing Christian, and, according to Muslim tradition, the large majority of his companions came to Islam out of paganism. This has deeply influenced the Qur’an and its understanding of God.

It is disappointing that Volf attributes fear-based enmity and loveless bigotry to Wheaton’s leaders.  He implies that Christians who disagree with his 'same God' thesis must want to fight Muslims. Such rhetoric incites hatred and contempt over a theological difference of opinion.

The question of whether the God of the Qur’an is the same as the God of the Bible is an important and complex one.  Christians do need to consider carefully to what extent the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an are the same or different.  This has far-reaching implications.   However it is not helpful to paint those who disagree with one position or another as haters.

It is a false step, in the name of love, to demand assent to the ‘same God’ thesis.  Christians are commanded to love others whether they worship the same God or not. Our common human condition should be enough to motivate solidarity with others. After all, Jesus never said to only ‘love those who believe in the same God’.

Mark Durie is an Anglican pastor, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and author of The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom.  His book Which God? discusses differences between the understanding of God in the Bible and the Qur'an.


  1. In Scripture it is written somewhere about a "salt spring not producing fresh water" or "salt water and fresh water not flowing from the same spring". Foolish arguments muddy the water. Wisdom from the true God is pure and peace loving as James the disciple wrote. The obvious is pretty glaring. Gary Bertnick

  2. Hi Mark

    This is an important question, and I'm delighted to see you address it, at least in part. I would welcome a more through treatment of the subject when your schedule allows.

    Far too many Christians have swallowed the 'same God' thesis, and we hear all the time about the three 'Abrahamic' faiths implying we were all branches from the same tree.

    It doesn't need to be a book for fellow theologians, preferably just a few pages that your average informed Christian can engage with online, and/or could download in PDF format.

    Your reminder that we are called to love regardless of which God our neighbour worships provides an important context for the discussion.

    Keep up the good work.

    Every blessing

  3. Having read the koran it seems to me that God and Allah share very liitle. How can a God (Allah) who continually talks about the wickedness of unbelievers and their punishment in hell, be a Judeo Christian God. And then to promise a heaven comprised of licentiousness? Its ridiculous.Allah seems to be much more a God of the underworld or hell. The word 'God', in a semantic sense, seems to me the only thing they have in common. When Christians plead that muslims worship the same God, I can only surmise they are very ignorant indeed.

  4. Having lived among Muslims for many years with whom both love and respect was shown on both sides, I have to say that I stand with you Mark on this matter.
    The phrase "we all worship the same God" was trotted by both Christians & Muslims regularly. My own experience was that it was often used when the speaker wanted to stifle discussion or where perhaps they did not want to offend me as a Christian minister. However all the Muslims knew which God I represented and it was not theirs.
    It disappoints me when people claim difference as bigotry. It stands alongside other phrases (e.g.homophobic, Alpha male) that seek to pigeon-hole people and to ostracize. It reeks of political correctness again.
    Trying to find some sort of "quasi-middle ground" I believe to be ultimately unhelpful.

  5. The use of "sakinah" in the Koran is curious to say the leasr in that this form of "peace" or "tranquility" is given by Allah to the Muslims, it has the effect of increasing their religious fervour 48:4, making them more willing to fight, 9:40, and kill to get victories and the all-important war-booty 48:18-19, 48:26-28.
    This is 4 out of 6 occurrences.
    The exceptions to this are the Jews' sakinah which is kept in a wooden box - presumably a reference to the arc of the covenant and what I would call a sense of "well-being" (16:80) often translated as "comfort" from being free of basic wants.

  6. Koran 5:64 makes it clear that Allah is not the Jewish idea of a God who covenants with man - who thus limits himself and is not all will - and with whom one might even argue. Since Abraham, in the Bible, is quintessentially the man who covenants, Islam is only "Abrahamic" in the sense of claiming the Jews and Christians have corrupted the real scriptures in which Islam claims for itself all prophets.

    So, from a Biblical perspective, Islam is a negative reaction to, or a parody of, the earlier religion which nonetheless clearly informs it (e.g. Muslims pray five times a day because they are imitating a Yom Kippur service). From an Islamic perspective, Islam is the original uncorrupted religion, uncreated and coeval with Allah.

    So the problem is the Jewish claim to be first to discover the oneness of God and to claim that the one God who is also everyone else's God nonetheless has a special covenant with the Jews to be a light unto the nations.

    The Christian response to Jewish firstness is to see Jesus as taking upon himself all the attributes of firstness, and thus to act as universal redeemer, but the Islamic response is to deny firstness - Islam, from the beginning, is uncreated.

    The modern victimary or "politically correct" form of thinking also has a big problem with firtsness which it places in opposition to equality, refusing to recognize that any kind of equality can only really exist as a deferred sharing in the creative models created by certain people's human firstness. Thus PC thought is drawn thoughtlessly to the claim that not simply are we all equally children of God, but all religious models of God are essentially equivalent claims. But this is to deny the actual history of revelation and to recognize, as Mark does, that an all-willing Allah looks rather more like a pagan god than the God of the Hebrews.

  7. Could you explain the account found in Genesis for me please. I have been taught the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah and his maidservant Haggar all of my life.

    I always beleived Ismahmael(spelling) was the firstborn and the father of the Muslim faith, further that Sarah's son the second born David was the father of the Jewish line and thus the Christian faith.

    It has been my beleif that the Jews and the Muslims are actually half brothers. Could you help clear this up for me?
    Gordon Faulkner

  8. Hi Gordon. The Bible doesn't say that Ishmael was the father of Muslims. There is no reason to think this. Jews and Muslims are not related to each other.

  9. Ishmael was the father of the Arab peoples. Both the Arabs and the Jews are related because Ishmael's half brother, Isaac, (who became Israel) was the father of the Jews. They are both Semi tic peoples. Islam did not arrive on the scene until about 650 A.D.Some are claiming even later as there is some speculation that someone other than Mohammed may have written the Koran.

  10. Thanks Mark! When i encountered Jesus and experienced a relationship with God and the Holy Spirit the Allah i knew and the Allah in Christ are two different persons!

  11. In a way the answer to this problem is pretty simple. In so far as Islam represents natural religion, it is a seeking after the true God. Thus Nabeel Qureshi writes about praying to Allah as a child with his family in a way that seems to be praying to the one true God. "A wind in the house of Islam" recounts many muslims believing in Jesus and continuing to call God Allah. HOWEVER, in so far as Islam has reference to the severely demonized man Mohammed and his writings and the religion built on that basis - then the god of Islam "allah" has nothing to do with God!

    A big difficulty with islam is the huge confusion there is between the wholesome element of natural religion and the violent paranoid nature of Mohammedanism.


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