What’s Going on at Wheaton? A Modest Proposal for the “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God” Debate

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As many readers will know by know, Wheaton College is embroiled in a public controversy over comments made by Larycia Hawkins, the first female African-American tenured professor at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.

What’s Going On?

If you need to catch up on the discussion, Joe Carter has a handy “explainer” where he answers the following questions:

  • What is the Wheaton “same God” controversy about?
  • Was Hawkins put on leave because she wore a hijab?
  • How did Hawkins respond to the questions?
  • What was Wheaton’s response to Hawkins’s letter?
  • Does this mean that Hawkins has been fired?
  • How has Hawkins responded to the Notice of Termination?

Mistakes to Avoid

I think there are several mistakes to avoid in trying to process and comment upon this situation.

1. Assuming that we have all the information.

We only have the information that Wheaton has chosen to make public and that Professor Hawkins has chosen to make public. Anyone involved in leading an organization or school likely knows that there is more going on behind the scenes than can be made public, and therefore it is difficult to take limited information and try to form a full and fair judgment.

2. Assuming that this is about one issue.

Many people assume this is merely about one thing, whereas it seems likely that it’s a constellation of complicated and competing factors. Mark Galli of Christianity Today did a nice job of identifying at least some of them:

  • The theological integrity of a Christian institution
  • Loving our Muslim neighbors
  • Academic freedom
  • Maintaining boundaries
  • Diversity on Christian campuses
  • Tenure
  • Confidentiality
  • The right to know

So What about the Statement on Muslims and Christians Worshipping the Same God?

I think this remains one of the best opening questions for the discussion:

There is a sense in which the answer to this question could be answered in the affirmative and a sense in which it should (in my view) be answered in the negative. (Professor Hawkins has said as much herself.) The problem is that it’s a terribly ambiguous statement, such that two people can affirm it and mean very different things by it.

Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith provides a list of philosophers and theologians who answer the question in the affirmative:

And a list of those who answer it in the negative:

As well as those who offer more of a complicated yes-and-no answer:

One defeater offered to the denial that Christians and Muslims worship the same God is that Jews do not hold to a Trinitarian view of God either, and therefore this position seems to entail a denial that Jews worship the one true God or that Christians worship the God of Abraham and Israel. Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has advanced this argument forcefully, arguing that Christians who fall prey to this line of reasoning are being heretical.

The best piece I know of in response to this line of argument is the new piece at TGC today by Lydia McGrew, a homeschooling mother and an analytical philosopher. She writes:

In one sense Christians and modern religious Jews worship the same God; in another sense they don’t.

Old Testament Jews, of course, didn’t reject the Trinity and the incarnation, since those doctrines hadn’t been revealed. If one emphatically rejects these truths about God, however, and explicitly worships God as non-triune and non-incarnate, then this makes a pretty good case that, in one sense, such a person does not worship the same God whom Christians worship.

In another sense, however, Christians can say to modern religious Jews:

The true God who called your forefathers out of the land of Egypt, who gave the law at Sinai, who chose you as his beloved, chosen people, really is the one who sent Yeshua the Messiah to die for our sins. We worship the God who really did found Judaism thousands of years ago, who really did give the Torah. And we are here to tell you more about him.

In this historical sense we can say the God we worship is the God of the Jews, though those who haven’t accepted Jesus don’t (of course) agree. But notice: Nothing like this is true of Islam. God didn’t really reveal himself to Mohammad. Mohammad was not a prophet of God. It isn’t enough that Muslims think the Being who revealed himself to Abraham also spoke to Mohammad. Truth matters, and since that isn’t true, there is no real historical connection—in the acts of God himself—between the Allah of Islam and the one true God. But there is a real historical connection in the acts of God between Judaism and Christianity.

I encourage you to read her whole piece, where she addresses a number of other objections as well.

A Modest Proposal for Both Sides: Can We Agree on This?

Much of this discussion has been in the language of philosophy rather than of exegetical theology.

Here is my proposal: Can we agree that the answer to whether or not Christians and Muslims “worship the same God” has a yes-and-no answer, depending on the meaning, but that Jesus taught that the following is true of all people, whether professing Jews, Christians, or Muslims?

1. If professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not honor God the Son, then they do not honor God the Father.

“Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” (John 5:23)

2. If professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not receive God the Son, then they do not have the love of God the Father within them.

“I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me.” (John 5:42-43)

3. If Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not know God the Son, then they do not know God the Father.

“You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (John 8:19; cf. John 7:28; 14:7)

4. If professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims deny God the Son, then they deny the God the Father.

“No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” (1 John 2:23)

5. If professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not come to God the Son, then they have not heard and learned from God the Father.

“Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” (John 6:45)

6. If professing Jews, Christians, and Muslims reject God the Son, then they reject God the Father.

“The one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16)

The virtue of this line of reasoning, it seems to me, is it forces us to reckon with the biblical text where Jesus addressed what we must believe and what we cannot reject.

So if you want to say “Muslims worship the same God as Christians” and you can affirm that “Muslims do not know and honor but rather deny and reject the one true God of Christianity”—then I think we are on the same page (though I also think the former statement will be very confusing to many people).

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