A firestorm ensued at Wheaton College this past December when a professor, citing Pope Francis, declared via Facebook that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.[i] Her evangelical employer suspended her, which in turn somehow turned into a national story. What probably should have been left as an in house debate among Evangelical Christians has turned into quite a controversy, eliciting commentary spanning a multitude of religious beliefs and ideologies. Most of what I’ve read has been unenthusiastic toward Wheaton, to say the least. Despite the unfortunate tone and rancor, it’s not necessarily a negative situation that this issue is now public. What I’m seeing and hearing leads me to this: in these often heated discussions comes clarity. Clarity of doctrine and beliefs. Clarity of hearts. Painful though some of the talk is to hear,[ii] it gives us as evangelicals an idea of where the culture stands on this issue and, more importantly, where fellow Christian leaders and organizations stand.
Before moving on, let me state that I’ll be discussing several major belief systems: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism. The reason I include the latter two is because the exact same question arises in regard to these religions from time to time, particularly Mormonism.
On to the question: Do Christians worship the same God as Muslims, Jews, and Mormons? Personally, I don’t like the way the question is framed. It leads to varying interpretations of what is meant by “worship” and “same God.” Upon reading and listening to the various discussions on this topic, it’s clear more questions need to be raised to clarify the debate. Here are but a few:
- Is the God of the Quran and the Bible the same? In other words, is God described differently in the Bible, Quran, or various LDS texts?
- Do Christians and Muslims have in mind the same God?
- If Christians, Muslim, Jews, and Mormons have in mind the same God, is it appropriate to state that they worship this God based on the totality of their beliefs?
- What is meant by worship? Is it merely a devotion to a set of beliefs? Is there a true worship that goes beyond asceticism, what Jesus called worshiping “in Spirit and in truth”?
How the above questions are answered directly affects the central question. With that in mind I’ll describe three main approaches to this question. Next, some key Scriptures will be cited along with some comments. After examining what the Bible has to say on the matter, we’ll return to the approaches and ascertain which approach best fits each faith – in relation to the central question.
Approach One: the same God is in view & the same God is worshiped.
From all appearances, this view is the most popular, and pairs well with Inclusivism. The reasoning is that all four belief systems accept the biblical view of God, for the most part. So Islam, for instance, is considered one of the Abrahamic religions because it accepts Abraham, as well as Moses, as true patriarchs. Since the God of Abraham is the God of the Bible, then Muslims must have in mind the same God. Whether they call this deity “God” or “Allah” is immaterial. These are just language based terms for the same being. Furthermore, their worship of God is evident in their strict devotion to the sacred texts. While there are certainly differences in theology and practice, who are we to say that Muslims, Jews, or Mormons are not truly worshiping God? Nobody has perfect beliefs, so charity should reign.[iii]
Approach Two: the same God is in view, but the same God is not worshiped.
This view actually has some evangelical support. There is a realization that the major Abrahamic religions based their identity in the Patriarchs. This alone indicates that the same God is in view. However, that doesn’t mean that true worship is occurring. Though one can have right beliefs about who God is, it does not follow that one is showing true devotion regardless of additional theological ideas and practices. As Paul noted in Romans, one can have a “zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” The meaning is clear: one can have in mind the right God, but not be a true worshiper of that God.
Approach Three: different gods are in view; therefore, worship is of different deities
This view acknowledges that the major religions trace their origins back to Abraham. Therefore, a great deal of similarity is to be expected. However, there is also a great deal of difference. With the introduction of new sacred texts (i.e, the Quran) has come a redefinition of God. And when God is redefined, God is no longer God. A new deity has been imagined. The evidence of this is seen in the type of devotion given, as well as how God is spoken of. In other words, there is enough variation to warrant the belief that Christians, Muslims, and Mormons have in mind a different God. Therefore, when each group worships, it is directed toward the God of their sacred texts, the God they have in mind.
With these three approaches now defined, it’s necessary to look at a few Scriptures that have a bearing on this subject (with some comments following):
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23-24)
There’s not only a differing view of God in play, but also a differing understanding of worship. We must realize that when others talk about “worship” they have in mind something else, typically any type of devotion or acceptance of a religion, either in whole or in part. Since the definition is greatly broadened, it behooves us to use this opportunity to clarify what Jesus said about true worship. In biblical Christianity, it’s not merely about following right practices. True worship is a matter of the heart, not a rote memorization of some text, or a daily prayer ritual. Biblical worship is based on a correct understanding of God’s nature and revelation (truth), in addition to a deep and abiding love of God and his ways (spirit). Without these two in unison, true worship cannot be accomplished.
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:1b-3)
In these verses Paul is speaking of the unbelieving Jews of his day. They rejected Jesus as their Messiah. What is significant for the present discussion is that he assumes that they have in mind the same God, despite them rejecting Christ and, by extension, all of the theology that comes with him. The Jews have the right God in mind, but their knowledge is now deficient and cannot save them. As further discussed below, this passage lends support to applying Approach Two to Judaism.
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. (John 8:42-44a)
These verses are sometimes cited as proof that Jews who reject Jesus are not worshiping the same God.[iv] This would put them in Approach One, the same boat as Islam and Mormonism. But recall that there are two main points we are considering: (1) what God is in mind, & (2) if the same God, is he truly being worshiped? In reading the passage above along with its wider context, Jesus isn’t dealing with question one. Rather, it’s all about worship. The Jews in conversation had the right God in mind, but their hearts were far from him. Their hearts had become so calloused in fact, that not only were they not worshiping God, they had even turned into servants of Satan himself. The devil had become their “father,” even while they diligently worked to keep every jot and tittle of the Law. Taking these verses in accord with what Paul writes in Romans 9-11, it becomes clear that unbelieving, religious Jews know who God is, but they are not worshiping him since they have rejected Jesus.
With the above thoughts in mind, let’s revisit the three approaches and apply the truths of Scripture to the present topic and central question. Restated again: Is the God of Christianity the same as the God of Islam, Judaism, and Mormonism?
Approach One: Same God, Same Worship
The only religious groups that would fall into this category would be the various Protestant denominations. These are the Christian groups who hold to the Bible as the true and only word of God, and seek to live by it. Much of liberal Protestantism would be excluded since they reject large sums of biblical revelation about God, and in some cases radically redefine both his being and his character. Arguably some sects of Roman Catholicism could squeak in – or, at least many individuals within the Catholic church – since some have a higher view of the Bible than of tradition.
Approach Two: Same God, Different Worship
Much of Judaism falls into this category. While religious Jews utilize tradition and some other texts, their ultimate guide to theology is the Torah. Therefore, as explained above, they have in view the right God. However, in their rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, they are not worshiping him according to knowledge. A large segment of Roman Catholicism falls into this category. Rome has placed tradition at such a high level that it has become equal to the Scriptures themselves. As a result, the pontiff of Rome is given undue adulation (the “vicar of Christ”), Mary, the mother of Jesus is exalted far beyond what is acceptable, the saints are prayed to, and the gospel itself is muddied. This being said, I’m not stating that all Catholics are unsaved. Rather, Rome’s man-made traditions have so obfuscated the gospel that it’s hard to know the truth to be saved.[v] And that is tragic.
Approach Three: Different God, Different Worship
This category involves both Islam and Mormonism. When comparing the God of the Bible with the God of Islam, it’s evident that Allah is a different God. Since a new text has been introduced with new ideas about God, we must conclude that a different deity is in view.[vi] In the case of Mormonism the differences are even starker. God has been completely redefined into something, or someone else.[vii] In both cases, Muslims and Mormons do indeed practice devotion and worship, but the object of that worship is not the God of the Bible.[viii]
Christianity is both inclusive and exclusive, albeit in different senses. It’s inclusive in that anyone, anywhere, regardless of ethnicity, upbringing, or past actions, has access to salvation through Jesus Christ. It’s exclusive in that salvation only comes through Jesus, meaning that neither one’s ethnicity nor good actions plays any part in obtaining eternal life. It’s this exclusive aspect of biblical Christianity that so offends. And, oh does it ever ruffle feathers. But it always has. And it always will. Jesus himself said as much, and his Apostles encountered this opposition in force. Despite this, we are to proclaim the truth: there is one God, and one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ. He is God’s prophet, priest, and king. He is the God-man, who came to die a sinner’s death to save sinners. We must trust in his provision – there is no other provision available. To reject the Son is to reject eternal life. We must worship this same Lord in spirit and in truth, and we must testify of his truth to others, in the hope that they might do the same.
[i] Smietana, Bob, “Wheaton College Suspends Hijab-Wearing Professor After ‘Same God’ Comment.” From: http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2015/december/wheaton-college-hijab-professor-same-god-larycia-hawkins.html. Posted 12 Dec 2015. Accessed 11 Jan 2016. The professor at the center is Dr. Larycia Hawkins, who wrote: “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.” Regarding what the Pope said, it should be noted that he was merely affirming what has become standard church doctrine: “The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their desserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” Emphasis mine. From Nostra Aetate 3, in the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Second Vatican Council, 28 Oct 1965. Found here: https://www.ewtn.com/library/COUNCILS/v2non.htm. Accessed 11 Jan 2016.
[ii] One could choose from over a dozen articles from The Huffington Post. The anti-Christian sentiments at that site are legendary, so it’s no wonder a story like this led to such outrage. Here’s one: Gilberson, Karl, “The Strange Theology of Wheaton College.” From: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/karl-giberson-phd/the-strange-theology-of-w_b_8939466.html. Posted 08 Jan 2016. Accessed 11 Jan 2016. As others have done, Gilberson, a professor at Stonehill College, accuses Wheaton of anti-Muslim bigotry and asserts that their position is illogical. For a refreshingly fair non-evangelical opinion piece on the situation, and why Wheaton did what they did: Laats, Adam. “Elite Wheaton College Still a School of a Different Sort.” From: http://chicago.suntimes.com/opinion/7/71/1234531/elite-wheaton-college-still-school-different-sort. Posted 08 Jan 2016. Accessed 11 Jan 2016.
[iii] As an example a professor at Louisville Seminary, Amy Plantinga Pauw states: “No one is in a position of saying, ‘Well, we know exactly how God works in the world, and my particular group has a monopoly on that,’” as quoted here: Gjelten, Tom, “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?” From: http://www.npr.org/2015/12/20/460480698/do-christians-and-muslims-worship-the-same-god. Updated 21 Dec 2015. Accessed 11 Jan 2016.
[iv] Mohler, R. Albert. “Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?” From: http://www.albertmohler.com/2015/12/18/do-christians-and-muslims-worship-the-same-god/. Posted 18 Dec 2015. Accessed 11 Jan 2016.
[v] The parallels between the traditions of Rome and the traditions of the Pharisees and scribes are hard to miss. Both add to the written word multiple new rules; both place tradition on an equal footing with the scriptures; both have enjoyed much “pomp and circumstance”; both have placed undue burdens upon their followers; both have been guilty of the deaths of God’s servants. The list could be longer. Listen to Jesus’ biting words: “You have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 10:52b ESV – for a more in depth context: Luke 10:37-53, Matt. 23:1-35). For an example from Judaism describing the “Two Torahs” (written and oral): https://www.templeinstitute.org/oral_tradition.htm. Accessed 13 Jan 2016. For an example from Catholiscism: http://www.catholic.com/tracts/scripture-and-tradition. Accessed 13 Jan 2016. The similarities between the two approaches to the Bible and tradition are striking. It bears stating that Jesus himself never criticized the Torah. He did, however, repeatedly criticize tradition. In fact, he never said anything good about it. The problem, it seems, is that tradition inevitably undermines the truth of God’s word.
[vi] While there are many similarities with the Judeo-Christian understand of God, the differences should not be underestimated. As an example, Allah in Islam could never be called “Father” as in Christianity. See: Hosein, Imran Nazar. “Islam Rejects the False Doctrine of the Fatherhood of God.” From: http://www.imranhosein.org/articles/understanding-islam/87-islam-rejects-the-false-doctrine-of-the-fatherhood-of-god.html. Accessed 11 Jan 2016. Hosein misunderstands, for the large part, what is meant by biblical reference to God as “father.” He isn’t a father in the literal, technical sense of intercourse/pregnancy/birth, as Hosein (and the Quran) asserts. Rather, he is father in a more metaphorical, though real way as our Creator who loving treats us as sons. But even this Hosein seems to reject: “Neither is Allah Most High father, nor can He be even compared with father, since He is incomparable. Indeed elementary common sense reveals that He cannot be father since, although He created both the male and the female, He is neither male nor female.” It seems inescapable that Allah is capricious and distant. Therefore, there can be no dynamic relationship between Allah and man, even though Allah is said to answer prayers and offer mercy. Yet this isn’t the same as the relational God of the Bible.
I should also note that Islam is not a monolithic movement. There are varieties of thought regarding these issues. However, the traditional concept of Allah in Islam is as noted here. Additionally, most conservative Muslims (if that’s the term to use) like Hosein would almost certainly agree that Allah is not the same as the God of the Jews and Christians.
[vii] I’ve spoken with several Mormon missionaries (“elders”) about this very subject. They tend to be cagey when it comes to Joseph Smith’s “revelations” that God is an exalted man who was once was much like us. But pressed on the subject, they capitulate – though the subject is quickly turned elsewhere. The confusing part is that Mormons use virtually identical theological terminology. But as I pointed out to them, if I describe my wife to someone, yet my physical description of her is different than what she looks like, and my description of her personality is different, then I’m not talking about my wife. I’m talking about someone else. It matters not one bit that I call her by her correct name.
[viii] For another interesting take on the controversy, and a defense of the fact different Gods are in view: Cochran, Matthew. “Wheaton is Right: the Christian and Muslim Gods are Different.” From: http://thefederalist.com/2015/12/21/wheaton-is-right-the-christian-and-muslim-gods-are-different/. Posted 21 Dec 2015. Accessed 11 Jan 2016.