WHEATON, ALLAH, AND THE TRINITY: DO MUSLIMS REALLY WORSHIP THE SAME GOD AS C. S. LEWIS?

Islam-and-Christianity

There was an exquisitely beautiful house in the woods.   It had obviously been built hundreds of years ago, but its exact origin was controversial.  The identity of the builder was in dispute, and some said no one really knew, and a few even denied the house had a builder.   Two men were discussing the matter, and they happened to agree that a man named Mr Devine was indeed the builder, and they were both admirers of him and his work.   As they continued their conversation, one of them commented that Devine was from Edinburgh, but the other insisted that he had come from Heidelberg.   “No, I assure you, Mr Devine and his family moved here from Edinburgh in 1787, and they built the house that year.”   The other replied: “Family? What family?  Mr Devine was a lifelong bachelor, and he moved here from Heidelberg in 1792, and that is when the house was built.”  “Well,” the first man replied, “while Mr Devine indeed designed the house, his two sons played vital roles alongside him in crafting and constructing it.”

There is an ongoing controversy involving Wheaton College and its decision first to suspend, and then to proceed with plans to terminate Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor, for her statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  For many observers, her statement is obviously true, while for others it is just as obviously false and no Christian teacher should even think it, let alone declare it in public.  Both within the secular media, as well as the Christian community, still others see the debate as a matter of quibbling over words that betrays Wheaton’s true legacy, or that reflects excessive rigidity.

This controversy continues to generate confusion and misunderstanding largely because putting the question in terms of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God conflates a number of questions that need to be kept clearly distinct.  While some of these have a straightforward answer, others do not.  Here are four of the questions that must be distinguished to avoid perpetuating confusion:  1) Do Christians and Muslims believe essentially the same thing about God? 2) If they do not, are these differences of belief about God necessarily reflected in essentially different forms and expressions of worship?  3) Can persons who subscribe to other religions besides Christianity be in a saving relationship with God?  4) Can persons who knowingly and persistently reject Christ be saved?

The answer to the first question is clear, for obvious reasons.  There is only one God, and he cannot possibly have logically incompatible properties or attributes.  While Christians and Muslims share some beliefs about God, such as the belief that he created our world and revealed himself to Abraham, they also have several beliefs that are simply irreconcilable with each other.  Claims that are logically contradictory in this fashion cannot both be true of God.   The hard rock of logical impossibility shatters any claim that the essential beliefs of both Christians and Muslims can be true.  Consider these examples.

Either Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, or he did not.

Either Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, or he was not.

Either Jesus is the Son of God, or He is not.

Either Jesus is God’s final definitive revelation, or He is not.

Either God exists eternally in Three Persons, or He does not.

Christians affirm the first of each of these logically incompatible claims, and Muslims affirm the second.  But more importantly, each of these claims is absolutely essential to Christian belief and theology.   It is disrespectful to both Christians and Muslims to downplay or trivialize these differences. The hard reality that must be faced is that either Christians or Muslims are deeply mistaken in some of their essential beliefs about who God is and the way of salvation.

To put this in terms of our parable, while there is nominal agreement that the house had a builder, and that his name was Devine, that is hardly sufficient to support the claim that the men in our conversation agree in any substantive sense, even about who built the house.

This brings us to the second question, which also has a fairly straightforward answer.  These differing truth claims about God do in fact lead to profoundly different forms and expressions of worship.  Muslims engage in certain patterns of required prayer that are not required of Christians for instance.  And obviously, many aspects and components of Christian worship cannot be shared by Muslims without denying their own theology.

Differences in theology pervade our worship, and it is difficult to find common ground for shared worship.   Consider for instance theses lines from a classic hymn.  At first glance, it might be thought that Muslims could perhaps sing the first three lines of this classic hymn, even if they obviously could not sing the fourth:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty

Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.

Holy, Holy, Holy merciful and mighty

God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.

Does the fact that Muslims might sing the first three lines suggest any sort of agreement with Christians in worship?  It is doubtful since for Christians, the One referred to and worshiped in the first three lines is precisely the “blessed Trinity.”   The Trinity is always the referent when Christians sing about the “Lord God Almighty.”

Moreover, the heart of Christian worship flows out of gratitude for the love and grace of God as expressed in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Again, consider these lines from another classic hymn.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were an offering far too small;

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Christian worship, whether expressed in the sacrament of Holy Communion, or in classic hymnody, is premised on gratitude for an act of sacrificial love that Muslims reject by virtue of denying not only the incarnation, but even that Jesus died on the cross.  These distinctively Christian beliefs not only inspire Christian worship and devotion, but also define its content.

The third question, however, is more complicated.  While not all Christians agree, noted thinkers ranging from some of the Church Fathers, to John Wesley, to CS Lewis have contended that the answer is yes.  Consider, for instance, this passage from John Wesley in which he discusses various forms of faith, ranging from materialism and deism to fully formed Christian faith.    Speaking particularly of Muslims, he wrote:

I cannot but prefer this before the faith of the deists; because, though it embraces nearly the same objects, yet they are rather to be pitied than blamed for the narrowness of their faith.  And their not believing the whole truth is not owing to their want of sincerity, but merely to their want of light….It cannot be doubted that this plea will avail for millions of modern ‘heathens.’  Inasmuch as little is given to them, little will be required. (“On Faith”)

In another sermon, he wrote similarly about those who have not heard the gospel and their prospects for salvation.

…we are not required to determine anything touching their final state.  How it will please God, the Judge of all, to deal with them, we may leave to God himself.  But this we know, that he is not the God of the Christians only, but the God of the heathens also; that he is ‘rich in mercy to all who call upon him’[Rom 10:12], ‘according to the light they have’; and that ‘in every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of him.’ [Acts 10:35](“On Charity”)

This is the line of thinking that also appears in the famous scene near the end of C. S. Lewis’s book The Last Battle, where Emeth, the worshiper of Tash, is accepted by Aslan.  Unknowingly he was actually serving Aslan because his worship was motivated by a love for truth and righteousness.  The point is that Christ died for all persons, whether they know it or not, and the Holy Spirit is working to draw them to Christ, whether they know it or not, and they may be responding truly to the “light” they have and consequently be on the way to final salvation.

We come now to the fourth question, which is at the heart of each of these questions.  The answer to this question is straightforward for orthodox Christians, and the reason is clear.  If God is a Trinity, and Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, and salvation is a right relationship with God, then salvation requires accepting Christ and confessing Him as Lord.  Just as it is true that to persistently reject Christ is to reject the only God that exists,  so it is true that to know him is to know the one true God.  Jesus insists that because He and the Father are one that knowledge of God is inseparable from knowing Him, and that to know Him is to know His Father.  “If God were your Father, you would love me,” Jesus says (John 8:42).   This Trinitarian logic runs especially through the Gospel and Epistles of John.  Notice: this implies it is possible to know God before knowing Christ explicitly, but it also means that anyone who truly knows and loves the Father will also love Jesus when they are truly introduced to Him.  Emeth was serving Aslan before he was aware of it, but his final salvation involved an explicit encounter with Aslan and knowledge of who He was.

But this is where our knowledge stops because we are in no place to judge how clearly the “light” of Christ has come to adherents of other religions who know little or nothing of the gospel.  Even those we may think have heard of Christ quite clearly may not have done so because of various factors that may prevent them from fairly or accurately hearing the gospel.  Only God knows who has truly heard and seen, and how they have responded.

So where does this leave us?  With respect to the original controversial claim, there is no unequivocal sense in which it is true that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.  To avoid this equivocation, it is crucial not to confuse the first two questions with the latter two.

The first two questions pertain to objective public truth about what Christianity and Islam teach about God, and the inescapable fact that both the beliefs and the worship practices of these religions are mutually incompatible; therefore, both of them cannot be true.  The third question pertains not to straightforward facts about Islam and Christianity, but to individual Muslims (as well as adherents of other religions) and their relationship to God.  Here we are poorly positioned to judge.  We may hope and even have reason to believe that many of them are worshiping God faithfully according to the light they have, as Wesley would put it.  The fourth question pertains to a central, non-negotiable claim of Christianity.  While we can be clear about that claim and what it entails, only judgment day will definitively show who has knowingly and persistently rejected Christ.

In the meantime, let us muster as much clarity as we can while engaging these issues, even as we pray for charity on all sides, starting with ourselves.   However, we should not confuse grace and love for all persons with Christian fellowship, nor should we assume or state that those who do not profess Christ as Lord are our brothers and sisters in a common faith.  That fails to advance genuine respect and understanding just as it does when we presume to know the hearts of others or their eternal destiny.

8 responses

  1. I sure hope and Pray I don’t offend anyone here, as I say this below!!

    The FALSE PAGANISM OCCULT-IDEOLOGY of islam is NOT a religion PERIOD!!

    The FALSE PAGAN moon god allah-satan Baal is NOT a god PERIOD, it is just one of over 360 FALSE PAGANISM OCCULT-IDEOLOGY gods that came out of the middle east Arab nations!!

    The FALSE PAGAN moon god allah-satan Baal is NOT the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!!

    Our True GOD said: “Thou Shalt have NO other gods before ME.” ( Exodus 20:3 KJV )!!

    The FALSE prophet muhammad is NOT a prophet PERIOD, he was a PEDOPHILE / CHILD MOLESTER / RAPIST / RACIST / FASCIST / MURDERER of JEWS AND CHRISTIANS!!

    Our True GOD said: “Beware of FALSE prophets which come to you in SHEEP’S clothing, but inwardly they are Ravening WOLVES.” ( Matthew 7:15 KJV )!!

    Our True GOD said: “Thou Shalt NOT KILL.” ( Exodus 20:13 KJV )!!

    The UNHOLY koran ( qu’ran ) teaches NAZISM / COMMUNISM / FASCISM / MARXISM / RACISM / RAPISTS / PEDOPHILIA / TERRORISM / TOTALITARIANISM!!

    The UNHOLY koran ( qu’ran ) and their STRUGGLE ( Jihad, islam ) is the same as STRUGGLE ( Mein Kampf, Nazi Germany ) both these books are TWIN IDEOLOGIES OF HATE FOR JEWS AND CHRISTIANS!!

    Because of the HEBREW TEXTS ( SCROLLS ) we have Judaism and Christianity!! Only Judaism and Christianity is RIGHT as we have the same GOD the FATHER who art in HEAVEN ( Hashem-Yahweh-YHWH-EMMANUEL-JEHOVAH ) and HIS SON YESHUA-JESUS CHRIST, they’re ONE!!

    Jesus ( Yeshua ) Christ is KING of kings, HE is LORD of lords, HE is the ALPHA and OMEGA, the FIRST and the LAST, HE is the BEGINNING and the END!! Hallelujah and Maranatha!!

    Jesus ( Yeshua ) Christ is the WAY the TRUTH and the LIFE, No one comes unto the FATHER, but through ME!! ( YESHUA-JESUS CHRIST )!!

    Please Everyone “TRUST in the LORD with all Thine HEART and lean NOT unto thine own understanding, in all thy ways Acknowledge HIM and HE Shall Direct thy Paths.” ( Proverbs 3:5-6 KJV )!!

    Please Everyone “TRUST in the LORD YESHUA-JESUS CHRIST with all Thine HEART and SOUL NOW TODAY, HE LOVES Ye All Everyone Forever.”

    Please PRAY for our Judeo-Christian Nation United States of America and Israel-Yisrael Everyday!! “PRAY WITHOUT CEASING.” ( 1 Thessalonians 5:17 KJV )!!

    Our True GOD’S LOVE is from HEAVEN ABOVE FOREVERMORE through HIS SON YESHUA-JESUS CHRIST!!

    Love❤ Always and Shalom Everyone, YSIC \o/

    Kristi Ann

  2. I found the article impressive indeed, but was troubled by the second conclusion, about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I think this question should be broken in two pieces. There’s shared worship, or liturgy, or whatever we call the community actions on Sunday (or Friday). But there’s also private prayer, and I think that raises different questions.

    Specifically, I think that there are indeed doctrinal issues involved in community prayer, but I don’t think the same questions come up in private prayer. I can’t imagine how to apply a doctrinal test for private prayer, but there are indeed some clear behavioral tests. Not that we can judge from the outside. But when the prophets talked about true worship, they denounced ritual worship and sacrifice that did not reflect the “worshipper’s” heart. What the Lord wants is humility and compassion and service to the poor: that’s true worship.

    Christian prayer together may indeed include reciting a creed. But that’s not the heart of it, is it? The heart of worship is in – well, in the heart. Not the mind.

    When a person looks at a gorgeous sunset or a child’s ear, and says, “Whoa! Look at that miracle! I don’t know who did that, but whoever it was, good job! Thanks!” – is that a prayer of praise and worship and thanks?

    I have been using a Muslim prayer, or an adapted English version thereof. It’s the 99 Names of God, beginning with “The Compassionate One, the Merciful One.” I find it moving, powerful, challenging. And when I see pictures of old Muslim men with a string of beads, I think that they are doing the same thing I do.

    Does a worshipper need to understand the God to whom we speak? I hope not! Because if understanding is prerequisite, we are all in deep trouble, aren’t we? Does understanding help? Sure! We are supposed to love God with our whole heart and soul and MIND and strength. But don’t we all flounder helplessly toward the Lord? Aren’t we all stuck until he enters us – as much as we let him in – and takes over?

    When the Catholic leaders have met with Muslim leaders for prayer together in recent years, they have not tried to find things they can say simultaneously. They take turns. But I think they are talking to the same person, with love.

  3. We require both clarity and charity. A good way of putting it. But Paul’s words in Galatians 1 come to mind- there is not another Gospel even if an angel claims to bring one, and the man who claims to bring another gospel is accursed. But we are to live peaceably with all men, in as far as it is possible. May God have mercy on us all.

  4. An imperfect but helpful analogy is to ask, were Ptolemy and Copernicus studying and describing the same solar system? In important respects, we say ‘Yes’, because there is only one relevant solar system, and the objects they both ‘saw’ were in the most rudimentary sense identical—both could chart their perceptions on a parchment identically. But how they understood the three dimensional models the chart implied was thoroughly different, and were incompatible. Any astronaut planning a trip to Mars would say it made a difference which model they adopted. It is not unreasonable to suppose that a spiritual traveler might also consider the theological model just as critical to the success of the trip.

  5. Pingback: AC Podcast 058 - How Then Shall We Live? (Heart), Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God? - Apologetics Canada

  6. Thanks for this very interesting and helpful post.

    I disagree, however, with your basic conclusion: “With respect to the original controversial claim, there is no unequivocal sense in which it is true that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.”

    Your 4 questions are good, and distinguishing between them is critical. I have been frustrated by the number of times I have read arguments that the answer to the question (Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?) is addressing a different question. What needs to be added to your 4 questions, I think, is this one: “do Christians and Muslims intend to worship the same God, even though they believe that the other group misunderstands that God profoundly?”

    That is the question which I think can be answered “Yes.” The Quran specifically stated this to be so.

    The question I most often here addressed is: “do Muslims and Christians have the same theology?” The answer to question, as you have pointed out, is obviously “No.” But to explain at length why such is the case does nothing to illuminate what I take to be the basic meaning of the original question. Most often, the naysayers unpack the centrality of the Trinity in the Christian understanding of God. But that raises the bar for “same God”ness much too high, because it eliminates all old covenant believers. It would lead to the ludicrous conclusion that Jesus was intending to teach his disciples how to worship a different God, since they were obviously not Trinitarian when they called him, though 11 of them were faithful believers in the God of Abraham.

    Jews and Muslims need to be evangelized (even if some of them are already saved, though not Christian, for precisely the reason you have described), but this is because God wants them to know him truly, according to his final self-revelation in Jesus, the eternal Son.

    So, I thank you for pursuing the important work of distinguishing between the related questions, but I think that there is an unequivocal (though quite limited) sense in which it is true that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

    • Christianity is about accepting or rejecting Christ, do you believe he is who is said he is, the only way to God. The Qur’an repeatedly and insistently denies that Jesus is God, that God has a son, and claims that Jesus was simply another prophet.

      I think if people actually read thee Qur’an, they wouldn’t be so quick to try to claim we worship the same God. Not only in the denial about Jesus, but in the description of God and his character. The instructions given by Yahweh and those given by Allah are diametrically opposite.

      Finally, it is a misconception that the Jews of Jesus’ time thought of God as a singular one. Alan Segal’s work, “The Two Powers in Heaven” shows that there was a school of thought which read the multitude of verses where there is a conversation between the Godhead and where two Lord’s are referenced and understood there to be two powers, or two Yahwehs, in heaven. The beliefs in the Second Temple period were more along the lines of binitarian monotheism than being unitarian, which is why the early Christians used Psalm 110:1 as a proof text for Christ’s divinity, “My Lord said to my Lord.”

      Segal was a Jew who considered that view heretical, so he had no axe to grind.

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