What is at stake in the debate concerning whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God? This is the first question I posed to Dr. Miroslav Volf and Dr. Nabeel Qureshi in a podcast discussion on the topic I published earlier this week.
Volf, who is the leading Protestant proponent of the same God view, said love and truth is at stake. To love our neighbors, he argued, means representing them truthfully and resisting the temptation to demonize.
Qureshi, a Muslim convert to Christianity and itinerant speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, agreed. Yet, he said it was his passion for this the same thing that compelled him to argue the opposite position — that Muslims and Christians actually worship different gods.
Obviously, much else is at stake in this debate, as well, which now has garnered national media attention.
For Wheaton College, its reputation as a highly respected, evangelical flagship school is at stake. Many, including Dr. Volf, have accused the college of anti-Muslim bigotry for placing Dr. Larycia Hawkins on administrative leave for espousing the same God view. Volf wrote a provocative piece for the Washington Post claiming that the suspension was "not about theology and orthodoxy," but "enmity toward Muslims."
I was glad, however, that in our discussion, Volf conceded, "I think I shouldn't have made the claim without justifying it much more than I'm able now, or that I was . . . able to do then."
To many, including the college, Christian orthodoxy is also at stake. After all, the statement of faith the college requires all faculty to sign states, "We believe in one sovereign God, eternally existing in three persons," which Muslims emphatically deny.
To Dr. Hawkins and her supporters, her reputation is at stake. In an open letter to the college, more than 800 alumni urged Wheaton College to reinstate Hawkins and acknowledge "grave institutional missteps that have irreparably damaged Hawkins' reputation within the academy and credibility among Evangelical Christians."
Yet, as important and valid as all these concerns are, I believe they miss what is primarily at stake in this debate — and that is, the glory of God.
This crystallized for me as I listened to Volf and Qureshi debate the issue in the podcast. From the outset, Volf correctly framed the debate as a fundamental choice between acknowledging Allah as Yahweh or as an idol. Qureshi resisted that these were the only two options, saying he believed this may be a false dichotomy and that something inside him wanted to find a third way.
Though I can appreciate Qureshi's desire, most likely motivated by his charitable spirit, I don't believe a third way exists. As Volf argued, there is no neutral ground on this issue. If God is one, and Allah is not identical to Yahweh, then Allah must be an idol or there's a second god next to God.
So, what if Allah is an idol? Then, saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is actually equating the sovereign and holy God of the universe with something profane. At the very least, this would be a violation of the third commandment to not "misuse the name of the Lord your God." But, is it not also blasphemy?
Volf strongly resisted this suggestion. In an email, which he gave me permission to share, he wrote: "I don't think that persons can be said to blaspheme against the one true God if they
1. embrace all core Christian convictions,
2. claim that the God Muslims worship is not an idol but a partially wrongly understood one true God, but
3. it turns out that they are mistaken in that second claim. Their understanding of the true God is correct and they have all intention to honor the one true God; without compromising their own faith, they have just made a mistaken theological judgment about the object of worship of another faith . . . ."
Certainly, blasphemy includes denying what is true about God, which it appears Volf and Hawkins, do not do. However, in an article entitled, "Do Muslims, Mormons, and Christians Worship the Same God?" Kevin Bywater of Summit Ministries writes, "Blashphemy is found in ascribing to God what is false," not just in denying of God what is true. It is essentially slandering God.
Scripture tells us that God is extremely passionate about this matter.
In Isaiah 48, God says, "For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another."
So, this question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is no trivial issue; it is actually a matter of highest importance. God's glory and His reputation is at stake. And, as Yahweh states in Exodus 20:7, ". . . the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses His name."
Is Allah actually Yahweh?
So, is Allah actually Yahweh? I understand Volf's argument and his reasoning. Though he acknowledges that Muslims deny the deity of Christ and the Trinity, he argues that there is enough overlap between the two religions' ideas about God to say that the "reference is the same," but the "conceptions are different." One might also argue that the Apostle Paul, when speaking before the Areopagus, did the same thing. There, he conceded, at least rhetorically, that the Athenians' "Unknown God" was actually Yahweh.
To be fair, effective missionaries have been using indigenous names for God for centuries. An example of this is recounted in the book, "Eternity in Their Hearts," by missionary and author Don Richardson. Richardson tells the story of Norweigian missionary, Lars Skrefsrud, who sought to share the gospel with the Santal people in India in the 1860s. When he did so, the Santal immediately identified Yahweh as "Thakur Jiu," which literally meant "genuine God" in their native tongue.
The Santal then told Skrefsrud that their ancestors had worshipped Thakur Jiu. However, when they were migrating east, their ancestors had encountered high mountains, which blocked their passage. Facing this crisis, the Santal lost faith in Thakur Jiu and looked instead to the spirits of the great mountain. If these spirits would grant them safe passage, the Santal vowed to serve them. The spirits did. And, from that moment on, the Santal lived in bondage to these spirits and practiced sorcery and even sun worship.
Wisely, Skrefsrud accepted Thakur Jiu as Yahweh's name among the Santal, and explained the gospel to them in that context. This proved wildly successful and the gospel spread like wildfire among the Santal. During Skrefsrud's time in India, he counted 15,000 baptisms. And in subsequent decades, other missionaries baptized an additional 85,000.
But, is Allah the same to Muslims as Thakur Jiu was to the Santal, or "The Unknown God" to the Athenians? Certainly, I think a valid case could be made that Allah, which is simply the Arabic word for God, could have been God's revelation of Himself to the Arabic people prior to Islam's emergence in the sixth century. However, as Qureshi astutely noted in the podcast, Allah as revealed in the Koran "is so different from Yawheh that I think it is a different god."
What is starkly different between Allah and Thakur Jiu, or "The Unknown God," is that Allah is not an incomplete notion of God developed without any knowledge of Christianity. Allah, as taught in the Koran, is a repudiation of God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is not Father. He is not Son. He is not unconditional love. He is not Jesus.
Scripture clearly teaches believers to test the Spirits. First John 1:22 states clearly, "Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist — denying the Father and the Son."
Given this Scripture and the clear teaching of Islam, how can Christians conclude that Allah is Yahweh? In addition, one has to wonder what the true identity of the spirit being was, who reportedly appeared to Muhammad and revealed Allah to him. According to tradition, it was the Angel Gabriel. Yet, Qureshi stated that in Hadith 111, Muhammad's visitor is first introduced as "Namus," and later identified as Gabriel. Given that we know that Satan "masquerades as an angel of light," could this Namus really be a demonic spirit?
I honestly do not harbor any enmity towards Muslims. In fact, after reading Qureshi's book, "Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus," and moderating a debate between Qureshi and a Muslim imam, I have developed a love for Muslims.
I also have a deep respect for Dr. Volf and have found him to be entirely gracious in all our interactions. So, it is difficult for me to state what I truly believe — that Allah is, in fact, an idol or false god. And, equating Yahweh with Allah is a grave error that not only sullies God's name, but also is potentially blasphemous.
Though certainly God wants us to love our neighbor, we must not forget that the first command is to love God, "whose name is jealous."