by Gary Corwin
Recent events have raised the public profile of a question as old as Islam: “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” The news reports and articles generated by the latest focus on the controversial question have run the gamut of historic opinion, but have left many confused. Part of the reason, I believe, is that dependably correct responses require more precise versions of the question. Allow me to explain.
If one is thinking theologically as a Christian, the common sense answer to the question is ‘no.’ The God of Islam and the God of Christianity are not the same. As I outlined in an earlier article (“The God of Islam and the God of the Bible,” EMQ, April 2014), the special revelation of God (Jahweh) in the Bible paints a significantly different picture of God than the revelations that the angel Jibril (Gabriel) is reported to have given Muhammad. Jahweh is relational, ‘Emmanuel,’ incarnational, Trinity, sacrificial, light, redeemer, humble, love, and covenantal. The Allah of Islam is pure will, capricious, deceiver, aloof, arbitrary, fatalist, impersonal, and Tawid (absolute oneness).
It is also significant that the claim that the God of the Bible and the God of Islam are the same comes historically not from Christians, but from the Qur’an. Speaking of Christians and Jews, it tells Muslims to say, “Our God and your God is One, and unto Him we surrender” (sura 29.46). While this is true in the uncontroversial sense that there is one creator that both Muslims and Christians seek to worship, it ignores the very critical aspects of who the Bible says God is, and only serves to undermine Christian orthodoxy in favor of Islamic claims. Subsequent suras or chapters of the Qur’an (more authoritative according to the law of abrogation because they are later) even speak of Christians and Jews as infidels worthy of death.
Common sense would also argue that if the conceptions of God are the same, there should be little difference whether we are Christians or Muslims. But we can be quite certain that followers of neither faith would agree with that.
If one is speaking evangelistically or missiologically, however, a different take on the question comes to the fore. The central question becomes whether there is sufficient common ground in the conceptions of the one true God that Christians and Muslims hold to provide a starting point for conversations about faith: Is there enough similarity in how Christians and Muslims perceive of the one true God for them to discuss meaningfully where they still differ and why?
The most important element of common ground, which both religions also share with Judaism, is that God is one and there is no other. There are also many other characteristics of this one true God, which every one of these three religions agree on—creator, provider, judge, all-powerful, just, merciful, transcendent, and eternal. At the same time there are many characteristics over which they would not agree—most significant of these being the Trinitarian understanding that undergirds Christianity. But the main point is that there is a degree of sameness that can be the starting point for effective communication.
The common fallacy that diminishes clarity, however, is the all-too-human tendency to reductionism—simplifying a complex issue to a binary black-and-white choice that makes meaningful communication nearly impossible. It reminds one of the sage wisdom that says for every complex problem there is a very simple solution, and it’s almost always wrong!
Emotive sound bites replace helpful conversational give and take. Hard lines are quickly drawn and an us/them mentality of people at each other’s throats replaces friendly persuasion. This is where the problem really lies.
So how can this be overcome? While there is no panacea, several useful steps come to mind:
- It is crucial to be clear what you are talking about. If the subject at hand requires theological precision, say so up front. But even here, be honest enough to acknowledge how many differences exist even within the boundaries of your own faith. If the issue at hand is establishing a relationship with someone of the other faith, however, start by discussing common ground.
- Remember that your goal is not to win an argument, but to be faithful to truth while seeking to win a heart. Speak in terms of what you understand and believe, and why, rather than in terms of ultimate truth. Even at its best our understandings are always subject to a degree of error.
- Resist the temptation to score cheap shots by generalizing the question to obscure what people actually agree on. When reductionism is at play, it is often in what is not said (left hidden) that the real truth lies.
All of the above is simply to encourage speaking honestly and clearly about what you believe and why, speaking winsomely with those with whom you disagree by starting with common ground that is real (and not simply wished for), and not painting others with a broad brush of sameness where distinctive differences clearly exist.
. . . .
Gary Corwin is staff missiologist with the international office of SIM.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 3 pp. 228-229. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.