Tuesday, January 5, 2016


At the end of 2015, much debate arose from Wheaton College’s decision to place associate professor Larycia Hawkins on 'academic leave' for her now famous Facebook post that Muslims and Christians "worship the same God." 

On one side, Miroslav Volf, argued that there is no theological justification for Wheaton's action: “[Professor Hawkins] suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. . . . her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.” I disagree and believe that Wheaton has the academic right to uphold their values as an Evangelical institution, even as an extension of freedom of religion. Volf’s accusations are not helpful, though he has written extensively on this question and as much solid thinking to contribute to the discussion.

On the other side, Albert Mohler argued that "God takes His name with great seriousness, and so must we. Thankfully, we are not left in the dark, groping for adequate language. God has revealed His names to us, so that we can rightly know Him. We are not called to be clever or creative in referring to God, only faithful and accurate." But there is nothing clever or creative about respecting language and cultural differences. Mohler freely uses the cultural appropriate translation "God" instead of what the Bible says God's names are in the Old Testament - Elohim or Yahweh - or the many other names the Bible uses to refer to God and so argues semantics. 

I have read several arguments for and against the idea that Christians and Muslims worship the same God and there are many others. While Christians should politely debate the idea espoused by Professor Hawkins, it is one of those issues however in which we need to extend grace to our brothers and sisters with whom we may disagree. The issue is complex and not an essential of our Christian faith but it is an important question to explore. I don't know that we can arrive at a conclusion, as this extensive treatment of the question in this occasional paper by missiologists doesn't either.

The debate however misses the questions we should be asking and discussing at this point in history. I will return to that later. I don't want to convince you one way or another but I do want to think a little deeper about the question and then go beyond the God vs Allah debate. 

There are clear differences in how Muslims and Christians view God, even as both Volf and Mohler acknowledge. Muslims are pure monotheists whereas Christians, mostly, are Trinitarians. Muslims believe that Jesus is a prophet and even that he is the Messiah who will come again. Christians believe that Jesus is God, who came once to bring forgiveness and is returning again to bring judgment before setting up his eternal reign. While this difference is vitally important, does it means there is more than one God? 

Come let us reason together through six different lenses that may help us to gain a different and deeper perspective about the the question, "Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?": 

I. God as the starting point. 

A cosmological argument for God begins at the beginning of all things. For both Christians and Muslims, the starting point of all things is a God who creates, the uncaused first cause. In fact, both Christians and Muslims look to a six day creation period, at least allegorically, and to Adam as the first man. This should be so because Christianity and Islam, along with Judaism, are Abrahamic faiths looking to the accounts of Genesis. Genesis presupposes God as the creator, the starting point of the human experience. 

The argument has been made, like this one, that Muslims worship a false god not unlike the Canaanite worship of ‘Baal.’ This is a category error since ‘Baal’ is not a creator deity but a god of fertility. With respect to the names of God, it is often argued that Allah is a moon god of pre-Islamic origin. In fact, Christians and Jews used the word ‘Allah’ in the Pre-Islamic period (before the life of Mohamed (570-632 AD). It is historically common to adopt tribal names of local deity as a reference for God. In fact,  the word God itself derives from a proto-Germanic tribal deity ‘ǥuđán.’  But the translations of the word God is irrelevant to the agreement that Muslims and Christians have concerning the “first cause,” the starting point, for all things. 

A form of cosmological argument, known as the ‘kalām cosmological argument,’ is rooted in 'Ilm al-Kalam', or ‘Islamic scholastic theology.’ Christian apologist, William Lane Craig, expounded upon this idea in his work of the same name. Craig writes, "... transcending the entire universe there exists a cause which brought the universe into being ex nihilo ... our whole universe was caused to exist by something beyond it and greater than it. For it is no secret that one of the most important conceptions of what theists mean by 'God' is Creator of heaven and earth." [1] This important monotheistic construct is the common starting place for both Muslims and Christians. 

II. God alone possesses certain qualities. 

Muslims and Christians also do agree on many attributes of God including the concepts of omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence. Logically, there can only be one God who has these qualities. Anselm of Canterbury famously postulated that God is "that than which a greater cannot be thought." This ontological argument certainly applies to the constructs for God by our respective religions. Nothing can be thought higher than the omni-qualities of God. 

Irrespective of what else we may think or believe about God, these attributes are unique to a monotheistic worldview. It is therefore logical to conclude from this perspective that God is one. That does not mean we understand everything else about God the same way. Not even Christians do that.  But simply because we have different ideas of what something is does not change what that thing is, or in this case who. This will become clearer in a later example but this post offers but one example.

III. God is both Transcendent and Immanent 

Philosophically, we make claims about God based on 'his' attributes to help us to navigate life. Those claims are nothing new and predate the coming of Christ. The Apostle Paul speaking with a group of Athenians in Acts 17 quotes a Greek Poet with this truth, “’For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’” John Wesley reflected on Acts 17:28 this way:

“Not in ourselves, we live, and move, and have our being - This denotes his necessary, intimate, and most efficacious presence. No words can better express the continual and necessary dependence of all created beings, in their existence and all their operations, on the first and almighty cause, which the truest philosophy as well as divinity teaches. As certain also of your own poets have said - Aratus, whose words these are, was an Athenian, who lived almost three hundred years before this time. They are…one of the purest and finest pieces of natural religion in the whole world of Pagan antiquity.” [2]

The Apostle’s quote and Wesley’s note speaks of God’s immanence, his presence in the world. We believe in a God who is with us and active, not simply a transcendent deity operating apart from human experience as do deists. Accordingly, the transcendent God, who cannot be approached or seen in essence or being, becomes immanent predominantly in the God-man, Jesus the Christ (Colossians 2:9).  God is not simply an external law giver but desires to be known and made known. 

Muslims have a concept of God’s transcendence and immanence as well. The Quran says that "God is the First and the Last, the Outward (transcendent) and the Inward (immanent); God is the Knower of everything” (Sura 57:3 - edits mine). The Hadith speaks on God’s immanence as well: “I was a hidden treasure (transcendent), and I wished to be known, so I created a creation, then made Myself known to them (Immanence), and they recognized Me.”

IV. God is One

Christians Theologians, even as they agree on major points of doctrine (i.e. incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and atonement), often differ on many other points. The question could be asked if Calvinists and Armenians worship the same God? These two positions have polar distinctions in how they view God, based upon how God acts in relation to man, but would any one suggest that they represent different Gods? Different views of God certainly but not two different Gods. The majority of Christians, but not all, agree on the orthodoxy of the Trinity, that God is one in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet there is only one God in our Christian monotheism.

Likewise, Muslims believe in only one God, the Arabic word for God being Allah. As already stated, where we differ is with respect to the Trinity, as Muslims are pure monotheists, and who Jesus is, as Muslims deny Christ’s divinity. We also differ in how God is bringing salvation to the world, as we will look at. These are greatly important theological differences, of eternal significance, but do they mean that we are worshiping separate and distinct Gods? Or does it mean we have a different view of the one true God?

In the above referenced occasional paper, an article by Mark Naylor tells of a study he conducted for his PhD asking the question of Muslims who had come to faith in Christ," How has their perspective of God changed?" Mark found that it is "evident from this and other studies worldwide that many Muslims do come to Christ without changing their allegiance to an other God. Their perspective is altered as they come to understand God in Christ, but the identity of the divine Creator remains intact." Mark tells us this doesn't hold true in all cases based on how God is understood by the Muslim background believer but for many "God remains the same, it is their orientation toward him that changes." [3] 

Christians have common ground with Muslims logically, philosophically and even theologically in how we think about God, given the noted and important exceptions. Even with respect to Jesus there are points of agreement as the chart below shows. These commonalities can help us to build bridges of love and understanding with our Muslim friends.

V.  The nature of mankind 

The question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God misses a deeper issue which gives rise to our different understanding about God. The lens we look through to see God is informed by how we come to understand ourselves. The dichotomy between Muslims and Christians starts there, which then informs how we understand God. Both Muslims and Christians affirm a God of mercy and forgiveness. Both affirm a belief in God's salvation but that is where the similarity ends.

Muslims believe they are born into "original forgiveness" so they do not require the saving work of Jesus Christ to atone for their sins. Man continues to be born with a good nature, free from sin, and an inclination toward truth, although he is weak and forgetful of God's law (one definition of sin however is being forgetful of God laws, sins of omission, which leads to their neglect). Muslims also are required to make personal atonement for their sins. They cannot however know if their deeds will be sufficient to achieve God's forgiveness and therefore lack assurance of their salvation. This presents an incoherence in the Muslim worldview which leads to the conclusion that: 

"a Muslim is very cautious about making any categorical statement about the ultimate fate of specific individuals, including himself. He never presumes himself to be a soul already saved but humbly leads his entire life in a state of mind that lies between hope and fear. To abandon either hope or fear is considered a sin by him."[4]

Christian believe mankind is born into "original sin" (although there are differing views of what this means) so we are in  need of the saving and sacrificial work of Jesus Christ to atone for our sins. Man's nature is corrupt (Jeremiah 17:9), not weak and forgetful but rebellious and unconcerned with God's law (Isaiah 53:6). Christians believe that apart from God's redemptive grace there is nothing we can do to save ourselves (Ephesians 2:8-9) but God in his infinite love made a way for us to be saved (John 3:16) through Christ. Salvation is a gift  (Romans 6:23) which comes with the assurance of salvation to all who would believe (1 John 5:13).

Epistemological understanding of the nature of mankind presents an irreconcilable worldview difference for Muslims and Christians. According to Francis Schaeffer, for a worldview to be livable it must be coherent ( logical and consistent) and cogent (clear and easy for the mind to accept and believe),  We can reason our way to conclude that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, though understood differently, but more importantly we must deal with the worldview differences.

Schaeffer believed in the necessity of reason for a coherent, cogent, and livable worldview, but he did not affirm the sufficiency of reason. We finite and fallible humans need God's revelation to make sense of ourselves, our world, and our God.[5] That is where we turn next. 

VI. The God who is there

Revelation is defined as the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world. There are two forms of revelation God uses - 1) General (i.e. nature) 2) Special (i.e. supernatural and scripture). Let's consider these to discover the God who is there: 

Some Christians argue that it is only through Biblical revelation that God can be known. Some, even as I recently discovered, and following the thinking of Karl Barth [6], will dismiss ‘natural theology,’ as has been discussed in the previous points. They conclude that Muslims cannot be worshiping the same God in an appeal to faith. However, such an approach is a rooted in fideism and rules out both biblical as well as observable evidences that must be considered. We should not be surprised that God has revealed himself  in all cultures of the world, though he is not yet properly understood without the revelation of who Jesus is for them.

God has, in fact, revealed himself in nature as the Apostle Paul understood (Romans 1:19-20) and to which is demanded a response irrespective of what is understood about Jesus Christ (Romans 2:12-16). The creation itself is a revelation of God as the Psalmist declares "The heavens tell of the glory of God. The skies display His marvelous craftsmanship" (Psalm 19:1) and “The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1). Muslims would agree based on Sura 20:6 which reads, “To Him (God) belongs what is in the heavens, on earth, between them and beneath the soil." 

One example of general revelation is the Huaorani ('Auca') people of Ecuador, to whom Elisabeth Elliot ministered after her husband Jim and team were martyred. Their story is told in “Beyond the Gates of Splendour.” Many of the Huaorani people came to know ‘God's carvings’ better and met Jesus, as they understood that their God or spirits communicated with them by carving on trees in their jungle trails. With a fuller revelation, one of the Huaorani, Mincaye, declared, "We acted badly, badly, until they brought us God's carvings [the Bible]. Then, seeing His carvings and following His good trail, now we live happily and in peace." [7]

Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has "has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end." Don Richardson, author of "Eternity in Their Heartsdemonstrates through compelling stories from many different cultures how the concept of a supreme God has existed for centuries, preparing people worldwide for the gospel. 

Looking at the above chart, the two most important difference between Muslims and Christians is the belief in the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians, we do not revere a dead prophet but worship the resurrected Lord__ the most amazing supernatural act of God in history! Moreover, Jesus promised to be with us always (Matthew 28:20).

Today, many Muslims are having “Isa Dreams” that are leading them to search for the truth of who Jesus is for them. Jesus is revealing himself to Muslims and many are coming to faith through these experiences, with no prior knowledge of Biblical revelation. We can either attempt to explain away these multiple accounts or we can accept that the God who is there is drawing Muslims to himself.

Does Islam — or any other faith besides Christianity — cherish the crucifixion of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, as the only ground of our acceptance with God? The answer is no. Only Christians “follow the Lamb” who was “slain” as the one and only Redeemer who sits on the “throne” of God (Rev. 14:4; 5:6; 7:17) …The closer you get to what makes Christianity ghastly, the closer you get to what makes it glorious.
John Piper 

The revelation that Christians look to most and that of course points to Jesus is the Bible. The Bible speaks of only one God who can be known in both creation, a general revelation to all mankind, and through Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us of God's salvation plan through Christ. But what does the Bible tell us about how others may understand God? Fortunately, the Bible does provide examples of how we might think about the main question before us

In the Gospel of John, chapter 4, we find the encounter of Jesus with the Samaritan women at Jacob's well. The Samaritans believed in the God of Abraham (as do Muslims), looked to the first five books of the Old Testament (as do Muslims) but had a significantly different religion from the Jews, and as such were despised. Jesus comments to this women, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22). Knowing God differently does not change who God is but it does require, following Jesus example, that we declare what God desires: 

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23)

Muslims do not know God as Father so they cannot worship the Father in Spirit and truth (note: the Greek for "truth" here expresses the idea of the true notions of God which are open to human reason without his supernatural intervention). Jesus came to reveal the Father (John 17:25-26). Jesus does not say to this Samaritan women she is worshiping another God but that she does not know the God who saves.

In Acts, chapter 17, Paul is speaking with a group of “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers” who are querying him about the “new teaching” he is presenting. Paul responds, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘to an unknown god.’ So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship.” (Acts 17:22-23).

Ignorance of who God is does not change who God is but it does require us who do know to declare with Paul: 

“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)

Nowhere in the Bible is it suggested that non-Christians do not have at least some understanding of God. Quite the opposite is true. Certainly the Jews had a revelation of God that gives us the Old Testament, but so did the Samaritans. A pagan named Abraham had an experience with God, as did his sons Isaac and Ishmael. Muslims look to Abraham as a progenitor of their religion, as do Christians and Jews. There are examples of  pagans who sought God, like Cornelius, without the benefit of the Gospel. But: 

“... it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” (2 Timothy 1:10), that God calls all people to repent and follow Jesus as Lord and Savior.

While mankind has rebelled against God and may follow the “ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air,” (Ephesians 2:2) while many have not repented and been “saved,” there is Good News for the earnest seeker of God. We who believe that God was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), was crucified, resurrected and ascended into heaven have the commission, the mandate, the duty, to make it known that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). 

However, and here is the bigger problem, few Muslims worldwide personally know a Christian to tell them! [8] Muslim people groups remain the least reached with the Gospel so...

“How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?  (Romans 10:14)

The debate over whether Muslim and Christians believe in the same God is the wrong discussion! It gains nothing toward the reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19) of a people in need of Jesus and does little to motivate the sending of Gospel workers to them. Arguing over the name of God, or whether Muslims believe in the same God, only leads to more arguments.

What we need instead is to ask, “how do we best bring Muslims the Good News?”[9]  But let us be ready to do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).


The Zwemer Center, a foremost Christian ministry on Muslim Studies, weighed in with an article by their president Dr. Jerry Rankin to address this question, “Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?” Dr. Rankin concludes:
"There is not two separate divine beings worshiped respectively by Christians and Muslims, but there are very distinct theological concepts of this all-powerful, creator God of the universe. There is only one God, regardless what He is called, and He can be known only through Jesus Christ." 

We must allow these "very distinct theological concepts" to motivate us to share the Gospel with Muslims. One of the finest articles I have read on this subject is from Roland Clarke at Answering Islam. Read it here. Roland does a thorough job of examining this question from an important perspective. He points to the primary difference between the Muslim understanding of Allah and the Christian understanding of God - God is mighty to save!

That is why, regardless of how we answer the question, we must introduce our Muslims friends to the God who is mighty to save...through Christ!  Pray, go or send workers to reach Muslims with the Good News, both here in the U.S. and in the Muslim World! That is the way of  Living Sent Today...

[1] The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009) Craig, William Lane; Moreland, J. P.; p 149
[9] One recent book on this that explores the "Honor/Shame" worldview held by Muslims, and many non-Westerns is "The Global Gospel - Achieving Missional Impact in our Multi-Cultural World"

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