Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Another thing about Wheaton: do Christians and Jews worship the same God?

Larycia Hawkins is losing her job at Wheaton over her claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Bruce McCormack has written a terrific piece on the controversy. He sketches out what he takes to be the strongest argument for each view. To summarise:
Not the Same God
The strongest case that Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same God is, McCormack says, a Barthian trinitarian argument. God’s identity is essentially triune. This means God cannot be identified by any non-trinitarian monotheism. To believe simply in “one God” is not a precursor to belief in God. God’s oneness is triune and can be known in no other way.

The Same God
But he suggests that the strongest counter-argument is connected to the slow historical development of the doctrine of the trinity. Christianity began as a branch of Jewish monotheism. It took some time for Christianity to develop into a full-blown distinctive religion, and centuries longer for Christians to articulate a coherent and clearly defined doctrine of the trinity.
McCormack’s point is that the second view is the main classic Christian view. It is the first view, that Christians and Muslims don't worship the same God, that requires novel metaphysical arguments. So the burden of proof is not with Larycia Hawkins but with the college administrators who are taking steps to fire her on theological grounds.

Another implication of this debate is that arguments about Islam tend to have implications for how Christians think about Judaism. If one argues that Christians and Muslims don't worship the same God, it can quickly become tricky to justify how Jewish monotheism can be viewed as a true religion, or as a right response to divine revelation.

You can see this problem in the earliest Christian writings on Islam. From the 8th century on, Christian teachers tried to account for the new dominant religion and for the changed situation of Christians in an Arab world. The questions whether Islam is a true religion, and whether Muslims have a true knowledge of God, seem to have been answered in two main ways:

Not the Same God: John of Damascus (c. 675–749)
The Arabic-speaking monastic teacher John of Damascus advanced the strongest and most uncompromising argument that Christians and Muslims do not know the same God. In a catalogue of a hundred heresies, John includes an extended discussion of “the heresy of the Ishmaelites.” He says that the Arab people were pagan idolaters before a false prophet came to them and brought them a bad and superstitious form of monotheism: they exchanged one false religion for another. He accuses Muhammad of inventing his prophecies based on a synthesis of the Old and New Testaments and of Arian teaching. Thus John sees Muslims as followers of a derivative heresy. He ridicules their scriptures, maligns the morality of their prophet, and calls them “mutilators of God” and “forerunners of the Antichrist” (On Heresies 101).

What’s interesting though is that John has, if anything, an even more damning assessment of Judaism. He presents Judaism not merely as one heresy among others but as one of the “archetypes” of heresy from which the others derive. He doesn’t present the religion of Israel as a precursor to the gospel but as an error that the gospel has abolished. The three other archetypal heresies are “barbarism” (where people live according to the state of nature), “Scythianism” (the religious cult of primitive social orders), and “Hellenism” (the more sophisticated polytheism of the Greek world). This makes it clear that John is using the word “heresies” not only in the strict sense of deviations from Christian teaching. He lumps together as “heretical” all false religions and all distortions of Christianity. He seems to see Islam as a synthesis between a false monotheism (Judaism) and a false form of Christianity (Arianism).

At any rate, Judaism and Islam are closely connected in John’s denunciation. For him, monotheism as such has no claim to truth.

Later Christians in the Arab world sometimes reiterated this view. The Arabic-speaking theologian Theodore Abu Qurra (early 9th century) lumps Judaism and Islam together as false monotheisms. At the end of his treatise, after developing arguments that clearly condemn Judaism along with Islam, he anticipates the question whether Judaism is completely false. His answer is very telling. Yes, he says, Christians would regard Judaism as a false religion, except that Christ affirms Moses as a true prophet. Solely on the basis of Christ’s authority, therefore, Christians accept the truth of the Jewish religion.
“If not for the Gospel, we would not believe that Moses is from God. Indeed, on the basis of reason, we would reject him most earnestly” (The Orthodox Church in the Arab World: An Anthology of Sources, 88). 
Theodore’s strategy is to condemn all non-Christian monotheisms, but then to give Judaism a last-minute exemption by divine fiat, thus leaving Islam alone as the only false monotheism. The close connection between Judaism and Islam is clear: that is why, once he has condemned Islam, Theodore cannot think of any way to rescue Judaism except by arbitrary fiat.

The Same God: Paul of Antioch (12th century)
A very different view is put forward by the monastic writer Paul of Antioch in his Letter to a Muslim Friend. Writing in Arabic, Paul addresses the Muslim as his “dear friend and genuine brother.” He explores the question whether Christians ought to convert to Islam. His argument is that Muhammad was a prophet to the pagan people of the Arab world, not to Christians. The Jews and Christians had already received divine revelation, but God had never previously sent a messenger to the Arab people. They were completely in the dark before the time of Muhammad.
“We [Christians] are not bound to follow him [Muhammad], because messengers had already come to us before him, addressing us in our own languages. They warned us and they handed over to us the Torah and the Gospel in our own vernacular languages. It is clear from the Qur’an that he [Muhammad] was sent only to the pagan Arabs” (The Orthodox Church in the Arab World: An Anthology of Sources, 221). 
All the warnings and admonitions in the Qur’an should be understood to apply exclusively to the Arab people. Through the prophecies of Muhammad, the Arabs were delivered from pagan gods and were set on a path towards the true God. 

So while John of Damascus had condemned Islam and Judaism together, Paul of Antioch sets Christianity and Judaism together in order to protect both from Islam's claim to superiority. Later in the same letter, he presents Judaism and Christianity as the two types of true religion. Judaism is the archetypal religion of justice, based on God’s self-revelation as the God of justice, and Christianity is the archetypal religion of mercy based on God’s self-revelation as the merciful one.

Based on this schema, Paul can now advance a (relatively gentle) criticism of Islam. He observes that, after the Jewish and Christian revelation, there is nothing more to be known of God: what more could be added to the revelation of the one God as just and merciful? For that reason, “no further [religion] remains to be instituted consequent upon this perfection”, i.e., the perfection of the two true religions as a single harmonious revelation of the one God. Any subsequent religion could not possibly improve on this twofold revelation of justice and mercy. At best it could only be a derivative religion – “and the derivative is a kind of grace for which there is no need” (The Orthodox Church in the Arab World: An Anthology of Sources, 233).

Even here, Paul's point is not that Islam is false. As a “derivative” of the truth, Islam may be (and, in his view, has been) a means of revelation and a powerful force for good in the Arab world. But for Christians and Jews, conversion to Islam would be irrelevant since their own religions are already closer to the source.


So, back to the Wheaton Question: do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? However you answer will have implications for how you answer a more basic (and, theologically, more important) question, whether Jews and Christians worship the same God, i.e., whether the God of Jewish monotheism is the same as the one God revealed in Christ.

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