Christians, Jews and Muslims: Confusion about the question on the table

The discussion continues about how we answer the question: “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” I keep opening items that come my way which address this issue, and I’ve become convinced that serious confusion is being created because people often purport to be answering that question but they are, in fact, addressing a different question, while giving the impression that the answer they give to that question is the answer to the question put on the table by the Larycia Hawkins situation.

Although Islam is the particular issue that has been raised by the Wheaton controversy, we could legitimately  add the other monotheistic, Abrahamic religion (Judaism) to each of these questions. I think that we would often get the same answers from  people, although some would answer the first question differently about Jews then they would about Muslims.

In the discussion going on these days, we are seeing 3 distinct questions being spoken to:

(1) “Do Christians (Jews) and Muslims worship the same God?”

(2) “Do Christians (Jews) and Muslims have the same understanding of God (i.e. theology)?

(3) “Are Christianity (Judaism) and Islam essentially similar or compatible religions?”

I believe that the best answer to the first question, which is the one Hawkins put on the table at Wheaton, is “yes,” provided the sense intended is made very clear. I summed up in a previous post, what I take to be the sense in which Christians (Jews) and Muslims do worship the same God. We all agree that there is only one God, who created everything that exists. He is the God whom Abraham worshiped. We all worship this one true God, but we all believe that members of the other two religions seriously misunderstand this God for various reasons, primarily because we disagree about where God’s authoritative self-revelation to humankind is to be found.

Within the largely Calvinistic world of the Gospel Coalition, however, most of the leaders are voicing a simple “no” to the first question. This matters to me because that coalition inhabits the general area on the theological map which I also call “home.” But, when articles come from that quarter, and when I listen to their explanation for saying, often quite emphatically: “no,” I observe that they are actually addressing one or both of the other two questions. Unfortunately, they put their answers in a way which indicates that they intend to speak to the first question.

This confusion is problematic, because it has set up a discussion in which people who are intending to talk to one another are actually talking past them. I think it is also  dangerous because it could leave the undiscerning reader with the impression that this respected leader denies that there is any legitimate sense in which the God of Christians and the God of Muslims is the same God. Indeed, both Arab Christians and Muslims call him “Allah.” When one of the two alternative questions is answered “no,” but the respondents speak as though they are answering the question on the table (the first one), people like me, who answer the question about God with a nuanced “yes” are consequently viewed with suspicion.

I certainly grant that a simple “yes” to the first question, though right, in an important sense, would be misleading, given the current situation. But I also believe that a simple “no” is wrong. I, and many other of the evangelical theologians and leaders who are saying that Christians and Muslims do worship the same God, in a sense, agree that the answer is simply “no” to the alternative questions which are being spoken to.

My plea  to people who are reading the statements coming forward these days is that they observe very carefully the question that is actually being addressed. The answers we give to the last 2 questions do not determine our answer to the first one. Nor should we lump the three issues together as though one answer applies equally to all three questions.

 

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3 Responses to Christians, Jews and Muslims: Confusion about the question on the table

  1. Otto Tellick says:

    Having seen your post on Roger Olson’s blog at patheos.com (and having seen his reply, which I count as high praise indeed), I’m grateful for the chance to read your thoughts on this question, and I think your clarity is truly helpful.

    As Dr. Olson pointed out in the essay where I found your comment (“Do All Christians Worship the Same God?”), your question #2 here can and should be applied *within* each of the three major Abrahamic branches, as well as in comparing the three to one another. I have a hunch that even within a single congregation of any one religion, the individual members may well differ in notable respects if questioned closely about their personal understandings of God.

    At the very least (and I might add, in an ideal case), members of a congregation would express uncertainty, or a contingent opinion, when asked probing questions about their understanding of God. Many, I expect, would be able to cite or paraphrase the particular passages of their respective scriptures to affirm that they shouldn’t be expected to have a “thorough” understanding of God.

    Your closing phrase in the paragraph after the three questions (“we disagree about where God’s authoritative self-revelation to humankind is to be found”) is spot-on. The additional point to be made, I think, is that among those who believe in Christ as their divine savior, there tends to be yet more disagreement about “authotitative self-revelation”, with concomitantly different understandings.

    (Being an atheist myself, I have something in common with the practicing, faithful members of each of the three Abrahamic faiths, with respect to how they view the other two. Still, I think a good case can be made that, in an overall sense, features distinctive to Christian scripture (the New Testament) make it the one most conducive to a sustainable system of belief – it’s certainly not perfect, but I think it has a clear advantage in its consistent emphasis on empathy, forgiveness, inclusiveness, non-violence, and striving for collaboration rather than contention.)

    • Terrance Tiessen says:

      Thank you, Otto. Your comment indicates that you have thought very carefully about these matters. Given your self-professed atheism, I don’t know what draws you to the reading of Roger Olson’s blog or to following up on my comment. I’m hopeful that God is drawing you to himself. Only he can convince you of his existence, and then persuade you that the God whose existence you have come to affirm is the one who revealed himself in Jesus and who sent his Spirit to bring to completion the work that Jesus accomplished. Other former atheists come to mind, whom God drew to himself, and C. S. Lewis and Alister McGrath are the ones whom I think of most readily. So, I pray God’s blessing on you as you seek truth.

  2. Randy Starkey says:

    The only way I can see that #1 could be answered yes is if we restate it as “Do Christians and Muslims INTEND to worship the same God?” I would say yes to that. But do they ACTUALLY? I’d have to say no. Similar to your question 2, one’s understanding of God greatly affects what or who is being worshipped. Making the answer to #1 then “no” also.

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