In the realm of theology and missions, there has been a great controversy that has sprouted out of Wheaton College in the past couple of months. It all started when their Professor of Political Science, Larycia Hawkins, stated in a Facebook post that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”
Since then, Professor Hawkins has been disciplined by being placed on paid administrative leave while the administration reviews the matter.
Now there is a raging debate on how to best answer the question. It is actually a very deep and nuanced issue that has serious implications for biblical theologians and those who want to reach Muslims with the good news about Jesus.
For example, Miriam Adeney, a world Christian studies professor at Seattle Pacific University, says“What other God is there? In all the universe, there is only one God.” Paul Martindale, professor of Islamic studies and cross-cultural ministry at my seminary, Gordon-Conwell, agreed: “There is only one, true, creator God. The Bible is clear there is no other God.”
However, the experts are of one mind that there are fundamental differences in the way that Christians and Muslims understand God.
Mark Hausfeld, president of Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and professor of urban and Islamic studies, puts the question into this perspective: “The word God is not misleading in itself, but the context of the Qur‘an defines a different God in nature and character (than the God of the Bible.”
This is something most all Christians can agree with, but the literature goes even deeper by recognizing the vast spectrum of people in each religion. David Greenlee, an international research and strategy associate with Operation Mobilization, puts it like this: “Still, I wonder, can we even answer the question, ‘Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?’ Which Muslims? Which Christians? ‘Worship’ in the sense of ritual and tradition, or in the sense of lives as living sacrifices? ‘Same’ in terms of the ontological fact of one Almighty God, Creator of all things, or ‘same’ in sufficient congruence in the details of belief?”
The implications of mission to Muslims are great. After all, this is the great commission of Jesus, to take the good news to all. Conversion studies have shown that the greater the degree of similarity between Islam and Christianity that is perceived by the Muslim, the more likely it is that he or she will seriously consider Christianity as a viable alternative to Islam.
A pertinent verse is Acts 17:23 (ESV) – For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
I find it interesting that the Apostle Paul, in this verse, referred to the “unknown god” that the Athenians worshiped and said that what they worship as unknown he will explain. In other words, he assumed there is only one God, and moved on to the next order of business, namely to explore what this one God is really like.
This prompts Kurt Anders Richardson, a professor of Abrahamic studies at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics, to reframe the question. Instead of asking, “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” we should ask, “Do we know the same God?” And in that case, the answer is clearly no.
It is always best to seek common ground with others. Fortunately, there is a lot of common ground with Muslims. God is creator of the universe, who flooded the earth in the time of Noah, revealed himself to Abraham, and handed 10 commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. The differences are real, but the object to reach Muslims with the good news. It is possible to be both theological and missional at the same time!
I close with this: Mark Naylor, a faculty member at Northwest Baptist Seminary and longtime missionary among a Muslim people group, studied how Muslim converts viewed God. He wrote:
Both the control group of Muslims and the group of those who had become followers of Jesus reflected on the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) to express how the character and nature of God was revealed. During the exercise, neither group questioned the identity of God or sought to distinguish a Christian God from a Muslim God. For all participants, God is one and to question the identity of the Father of Jesus as Allah was outside the realm of possibility or even discussion. What had changed for the believers was their orientation to and perspective of God. The Muslim control group was consistent in their view of God as Master and themselves as servants. While not rejecting this relationship, those who had become followers of Christ now embraced a new relationship with God as Father and themselves as loved children.
Perhaps this case at Wheaton can sharpen both the Church’s understanding of the God they worship as Heavenly Father, and at the same time help us rededicate ourselves to the task of meeting others on their ground and sharing the love of Jesus.
Love in Jesus,
P.S. For those who want to go deeper in this study, I refer you to the 32 page article in theOccasional Bulletin of the Evangelical Missiological Society. Also there is a study on how Arab Evangelical Christians view this debate. Happy reading!