This week on Twitter, a thousand theological experts emerged in a discussion over an evangelical school that, surprise, enforced a rule that their faculty adhere to evangelical doctrine. At the center of this debate was a statement by political science professor Larycia Hawkins on Facebook. In a well-meaning attempt to identify with the struggles of Muslims, who live as a misunderstood minority in America, Hawkins said: “We worship the same God.”
Wheaton College suspended Hawkins, not for her neighbor love for Muslims, but for her confusing theological statement. Some evangelicals, including many Wheaton alums, angrily denounced the school for intolerance. Wheaton grad Tobin Grant, a columnist for Religion News Service, called the move an “overreach” and defended Hawkins’s statements on the basis of her signing of the school’s statement. Religion columnist Jonathan Merritt pointed to this move and Wheaton’s refusal to endorse same-sex marriage as signs that the evangelical school was in danger of losing its identity as “The Harvard of evangelicalism.” In perhaps the most caustic criticism, respected theologian Miroslav Volf saw only anti-Muslim bigotry at Wheaton.
Many who oppose the suspension of Hawkins, find no problem with her claim that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, pointing to Volf’s own parsing of this phrase. While I highly respect Volf and don’t question his (or Hawkins’s motives), I agree with Scot McKnight:
I have said this before and will say it again: we can agree to some degree at a generic level, but we don’t worship God in the generic. We worship either the God of Abraham and Moses, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, or the God of Mohammed. The God in each of the faiths is understood differently enough to conclude that saying we worship the “same” God muddies the water.
E.g.,. we could say these things that show they three are sufficiently dissimilar:
There is only one God and he has taken on human form in one person, Jesus Christ.
The one God has revealed himself most completely in Jesus Christ, who was crucified and raised, so that cruciformity is central to Who God is.
3. The one God is revealed in Three Persons, Father, Son and Spirit.
Neither Judaism nor Islam embraces any of these, so there is good reason to say they are not the same.
If Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), if God has “in these days spoken to us by His Son” (Hebrews 1:12) and if “no one who denies the Son has the father,” then faithful Christians can’t conflate the Muslim conception of the divine with the Triune God of the Bible. Faithful Muslims not only reject the idea of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, they are abhorred by it. To conflate the two religions is disrespectful to both Islam and to Christianity, says Thabiti Anyabwile, a former Muslim and author of The Gospel for Muslims. So while Islam and Christianity share some mutual characteristics, such as monotheism, at the most basic level, it is incorrect to say we “worship the same God.” As Trevin Wax says, “God is not God apart from Jesus.”
I believe the motives of Volf and Hawkins are pure: to help Christians see the human dignity of their Muslim neighbors and for adherents of both religions to live together in peace. This should be the desire of every follower of Christ. However the best starting point for discussions with our Muslim neighbors is not conflating Christianity and Islam, but by discussing our differences. This is what Paul is doing at Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31). He uses the Athenians longing for transcendence as a starting point to then contrast their false deities with the Triune God of Scripture.
What’s more, it is the very uniqueness of Christianity that supplies the catalyst for Christians to work for tolerance, religious liberty, and justice for Muslims.
Followers of Jesus should love, serve, and protect the freedoms of their Muslim neighbors, not because they worship the same God, but because our distinctly Christian theology teaches us that every human being was created in the image of the Triune God (Genesis 1:26) and is worthy of respect and dignity (James 3:9). There is not a single human being who is not an image-bearer of God, therefore every life has intrinsic value and dignity.
Conflating Islam and Christianity makes it more difficult for Muslims to embrace a more wonderful God. Only the Christian story offers a God who entered our world as a baby and who, by his sacrificial death and resurrection, defeated sin’s curse. Only the Christian story offers hope in a world where men strike at the image of God with violence and bloodshed. Christ, who is both God and the perfect image of God, by his death and resurrection, restores a distorted image in His people and calls them to fruitful mission of both gospel proclamation and justice, to champion human dignity for the most vulnerable.
This is why Christians should not be ashamed of the distinction between Christianity and Islam. It is a feature, not a bug. We should love Muslims as neighbors and image-bearers of God. We should fight, earnestly, for their religious liberty. But we should do this, not in spite of the reality that we worship different deities, but because we do. And ultimately, our public and private witness should invite them to explore a wholly different Christian story that not only offers the best case for human flourishing, but access to God by faith in Jesus Christ.