In December, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, associate professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, become the center of controversy when she publically posted a statement on her Facebook page saying:
I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God. ...As part of my Advent Worship, I will wear the hijab to work at Wheaton College, to play in Chi-town, in the airport and on the airplane to my home state that initiated one of the first anti-Sharia laws (read: unconstitutional and Islamophobic), and at church.
She also invited others to join her campaign. A few days later, Dr. Hawkins cited “the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic tradition,” “Pontifical writings” and several theologians in a statement defending her argument that both Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
Wheaton subsequently placed Dr. Hawkins on administrative leave, to give them “more time to explore theological implications of her recent public statements concerning Christianity and Islam.” (They have since begun the process to initiate termination-for-cause proceedings.)
I don’t know the details, but I do believe Wheaton, as a historically evangelical Christian university, is right in taking this matter very seriously. I trust that their leadership is attempting to deal with the matter in a spirit of Christlike grace and truth.
I have tried to explain to other believers why I think it’s very unhelpful and inaccurate to say “Christians and Muslims and Jews worship the same God.” Sometimes the response is, “Well, what I mean when I agree with that is….” Okay, but the problem is, most people who hear and say this are NOT thinking anything that is consistent with revealed Scripture or a Christian worldview. So even if we imagine we can say it, making certain mental qualifications that permit us to do so, what’s the point when the great majority of people listening to us understand our statement in a way that is contrary to the truths of God’s Word?
While it feels closer to accurate to say “Christians and Jews worship the same God,” surely this also is not at all helpful when mainstream Jewish beliefs (the religion, not the race) deny the trinity, the deity of Christ, the incarnation, Jesus’ Messiahship, His redemptive work on the cross and His centrality in the fulfillment of God’s plan revealed in not only the New Testament but also the Old Testament.
Of course, Christianity is very Jewish in that three-quarters of the Bible centers around God’s work with Israel. And Jesus himself was Jewish, raised in a Jewish family, which means that Christianity and Judaism have much in common with each other that they do not share with Muslims. (Muslims affirm the Old Testament and recognize Jesus as a great prophet—which does not mean they believe and follow all that Jesus actually said. Indeed, they deny that Jesus was actually crucified, while religious Jews deny that Christ’s death had redemptive properties that can save people.)
There are Messianic Jews and congregations that embrace the Gospel of Jesus, and countless ethnic Jews all over the world who love Jesus. But these people are racial Jews who as followers of Jesus the Messiah are included under “Christians” not “Jews” in the statement in question. Why? Because the statement “Christians and Jews worship the same God” is not about race, but religion; theological beliefs, not bloodlines. Similarly “Muslims” speaks of religion, and is not at all synonymous with “Arabs,” any more than “Christian” is synonymous with the western nations, including the U.S., who were traditionally called “Christian nations.”
In fact, there are many Arab Christians in the world who are faithful followers of Jesus. A Muslim can become a Christian or a Jew, but then he is no longer a Muslim. Likewise, one who was raised in a Christian home can become a Jew or a Muslim, and someone Jewish by race can become Christian or Muslim by religion. It’s vital not to confuse the racial and religious meanings of the terms. Otherwise confusion is inevitable.
There are certain beliefs that Christians have in common with Jews but not Muslims, and others that Jews and Muslims have in common that are utterly contrary to Christian beliefs—for instance that Christ is not God and there is no trinity. When one believes that God is not triune, and that Christ is not God, and that Jesus was not sent into the world by the Father to redeem lost humans, then the God he or she worships is definitely not the God Christians believe in.
I have had many conversations with sincere Christians who speak about Jews being saved by one covenant and Christians by another, and claim that the church and Israel are absolutely and completely different, but are both God’s chosen people and therefore go to Heaven when they die. But this ignores the fact that some Israelites under the Old Covenant clearly rejected the true God and were not part of God’s eternal family. It also ignores the reality that the New Testament Church was nearly exclusively Jewish from its beginning, and Gentile Christians only later outnumbered Jewish Christians later, after the gospel was taken to the Gentile cultures.
When Jews come to faith in Christ they remain ethnic Jews but are no longer religious Jews, though they are free to bring their Jewishness, including Sabbath rests and feasts and traditions, into their walk with Jesus. In their conversion, they become part of the church, the body of Christ, in union with Gentiles: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Yes, a slave is still a slave, men and women are still men and women, Jews remain ethnic Jews and Gentiles are Gentiles, but they are united once and for all in their common belief in Christ—which makes them distinctively different from those of any status, gender or ethnicity that do not know Jesus.
After Jesus ascended and the Holy Spirit descended, some Jews came to Jesus, some did not. Those who did were saved, those who didn’t were not. Yet I have been told by some Christian “missionaries” to Israel, “We are here to help the people and serve and love the nation, not to evangelize.” Well, I’m all for helping and serving and loving, but if people don’t know Jesus as their Savior, it is ultimately terribly unloving not to share the Gospel with them because it’s imagined they are saved under the Old Covenant. The ethnically Jewish leaders of the early church, including all the apostles, recognized that for any Jew or Gentile to know God and be saved from their sins, they must turn to Jesus, and be saved by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:9-10).
People don’t just need a strong national or racial identity—they need a new identity in Christ that transcends nation and race. This is not just true of Irish living in Ireland or Massachusetts, Swedes living in Sweden or Minnesota, Arabs living in Iraq or California, but also those ethnically Jewish, whether or not they were raised as religious Jews, and whether they live in New York, Australia, or Israel.
So, it is obviously true that “Christianity, Judaism and Islam share certain beliefs, including monotheism, that there is one God.” But that is very different than saying the God we believe in is the same.
Every statement that blurs the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the center of all redemptive history, should be avoided by all followers of Jesus. That’s why I am convinced that we should thoughtfully reject statements such as “Christians, Jews and Muslims all worship the same God.” It is sometimes a well-intentioned statement, but it blurs the utter uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, the God-Man, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the world’s sole Redeemer and Hope, who said to religious Jews and to all people of all religions and backgrounds, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, not one comes to the Father but by Me” (John 14:6).
Should we love and respect Jews and Muslims, and seek to live in harmony with them? Absolutely! But no one is helped by confusing the differences between these faiths. I don’t think many serious religious Jews are trying to downplay the differences between Judaism and Christianity and Islam, nor are serious Muslims trying to do so. It’s mainly modern professing Christians, more a product of our everything-is-equal-including-worldviews culture than historic biblical Christianity, who are minimizing the differences between the Objects of our faith. Despite our commonalities, we offer significantly different answers to the question, “Who is God, what is He like, what has He done for the world and what does He call us to do in response to Him?”
Kevin DeYoung, one of my favorite bloggers, says it well:
We have quite a few Wheaton alumni in our church, and we seem to send one or two high school graduates off to Wheaton every year. Recently, I got an email from one of our students at Wheaton. The email had a number of good questions (he’s a very bright young man), all having to do with the current controversy over whether Muslims and Christians (and Jews) worship the same God. I thought it might be worthwhile, with his permission, to post my brief letter on my blog.
Dear Mike [not his real name],
I was going to write you an even longer reply, but then I saw this article on The Gospel Coalition website. It does a great job explaining why we should not say Muslims and Christians worship the same God. It also gets into the question you asked about whether Jews and Christians worship the same God. In a redemptive historical sense, there is a way in which this is true (certainly more than is true with Islam). But on this side of the incarnation, we still have the same Trinitarian and Christological problems.
One of the reasons this controversy is so difficult is because the phrase “worship the same God” can mean different things and can be heard in vastly different ways.
Consider a few examples:
Do Muslims and Christians understand God in the same way? No. The differences are massive. Either God exists in three persons and Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh or these notions are blasphemous errors.
Do both Muslims and Christians worship God in ways that are pleasing to the one true God? No. As evangelical Christians, we must say that worship that is pleasing to God is worship centered on Christ. The central affirmation of our faith—Jesus Christ is Lord—is categorically rejected by Muslims. Their worship is an affront to God’s revelation in Christ. I imagine most Muslims would say our worship is an affront to Allah.
Do Muslims and Christians both find salvation in their worship of God? No. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ (John 14:6). While inclusivists argue that we can be saved through Jesus Christ apart from explicit faith in him, almost all evangelicals throughout history have insisted that conscious faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Even if inclusivists are right (and they’re not), there is quite a difference between ignorance of Christ and a conscious rejection of Jesus as the Son of God. Moreover, I think many Muslims would find it insulting to their faith for Christians to say, “You’ll be saved because you believe in Christ without knowing it.”
Does the worship of Muslims and Christians reach the same God even though their theology about God is vastly different? Perhaps the object of worship ends up being the same, despite the fact that the worshiping subjects are thinking of very different Beings. This is the sophisticated argument some are trying to make. But I don’t think this argument works either. Since there is only one God, it is true that the one God—the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ–sees Muslims worshiping and, perhaps, we can even say that the prayers and alms of some Muslims “have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4) or that in one sense they are seeking after God and trying to feel their way toward him (Act 17:27). And yet, if this is what we mean to say, the language of “worshiping the same God” is bound to be confusing, for God does not “hear” the prayers of the Muslims (in the covenantal sense) and does not receive their “worship” as worship.
In other words, from a Christian understanding, the Muslim faith is not just a little off or incomplete, it is idolatrous, demonic, and false. It is hard to see how the language of “worshiping the same God”—despite whatever philosophical distinctions we may put in place—can stand alongside this theological evaluation.