Tuesday 12 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.


Daniel Francis said...

I would think that we do worship the same God, it's just that we disagree on whether Muhammad was a true prophet of the one God and whether his message is the true message of the one God. So, like with judaism,Christians believe in the same God as muslims but a different message about the agenda, work and means of said God.

Anthony Douglas said...

I've got too much to catch up on to read the article you recommend, but based on where you go with it, I feel it's probably worth saying this:

Surely the question of time is essential.

A faithful Jew in 100BC - clearly my brother.
A faithful Jew, executing Jesus in the next century...clearly not - or more to the point, clearly a nonsense. The response of a faithful Jew to Jesus is meant to be belief.

In short, I want to suggest, there is a world of difference between 'do Jews and Christians worship the same God?' and 'have Jews and Christians worshipped the same God?'

Anonymous said...

It seems to me, even when I first heard about this drama that it had more to do with the politics of white southern religion in the USA, and of the politics of religion in the USA altogether - you could even link it into the Trump campaign.
The excellent website Bilgrimage gives some perspectives on why/how it is about politics.

Andrew Reid said...

I would suggest we need to look at your question from the angle of progressive revelation. God revealed himself first to the Jewish people through his redemption of them from Egypt and the Mosaic covenant. God then revealed himself finally and fully through the Lord Jesus Christ and the new covenant in his blood. So, yes the God of Judaism is the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, but Jewish people today are called by Him to believe in the Messiah that God has sent. In terms of Islam, we cannot accept further revelation beyond the Lord Jesus Christ. The Quran may claim to fulfil both Judaism and Christianity, but it contradicts the OT and NT revelation of God's character, written word, plan of salvation and nature in its pages. Islam is not part of God's progressive revelation to humanity, while Judaism was. But today all people need to come to the God the Father through his son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thomas Renz said...

I agree with Anthony Douglas. Timing is surely critical. Referring to Judaism as a monolithic entity from Moses to modernity and beyond is not helpful and demonstrates the limitations of a non-narrative philosophical or theological approach to the question of referent, see http://hadleyrectory.blogspot.com/2016/01/referring-to-god.html for an attempt to bring to the fore the issue of premises in how one approaches the question.

Moreover, as soon as we talk about "worship" rather than intended reference, the issue of timing seems to become entirely unavoidable. See John 4:23-24.

Jackie said...

Anonymous, I'm a bit puzzled as to why you'd think a college in Illinois, founded by abolitionists, would be exclusively or even primarily associated with "southern" religion?

Unknown said...


A very helpful article. Thanks very much for writing it.


Si Hollett said...

To often in these modern times, we read back modern Jewish thought onto the Pharisees (and worse the OT believers - often done in the name of not reading back Christianity onto the OT).

We think Pharisee's (and disciples and crowd and all the rest of 1st Century Judaism)'s incredulity about Christian claims was "Jesus is GOD?" but the incredulity was "JESUS is God?" - the stumbling block was not 'what', but 'who'!

For instance, Josephus happily used the same language that contemporary Christians were using of Christ for the High Priest (when the High Priest was acting ex officio - the divinity was tied to the job, not the man).

I think the error not to realise that modern Jewish Theology-proper that is fundamentally unitarian is a 2nd century reaction to Christianity clouds this debate. If Arians, Muslims, JWs and Unitarians all worship a different 'god', then yes the Jews do too - but that is not to say that King David et al did: far from it!

brian said...

Uh, Wheaton is located in Illinois -- not exactly part of the South -- and its early history is linked to abolitionists. But by all means, let's conflate Trump, American Evangelicals, and maybe Nazis while we're at it.

brian said...

I guess I should clarify that I am responding to Anonymous and not really to Ben's article. There were not any intervening responses when I wrote the initial message.

George Hunsinger said...

Whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is not something I think we can know, nor is it something we need to know. Larycia Hawkins is absolutely right, however, that Christians need to stand in solidarity today with harrassed and persecuted Muslims. One way to work against anti-Muslim bigotry in the U.S. is thhrough the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (nrcat.org).

d-b said...

It seems John of Damascus comes closest to the truth. With all due respect to my Jewish and Islamic friends, I would say the former's understanding of God has been superseded by Trinitarian revelation, and the latter's view of God basically amounts to heresy.

George Hunsinger said...

Strictly speaking, the concept of "heresy" applies only within the system of a particular religion. A Christian who denied the Trinity would be guilty of heresy, but not a Jew or a Muslim. Christians would do well to concentrate on the many points of convergence in Christianity with Judaism and Islam. They would also do well to repent of their historic and disgraceful treatment of Jews and Muslims. When persecuted themselves, they are enjoined to pray for their enemies and bless them. In general, Christians need to look at the log in their own eye, while entering into solidarity with the vulnerable and the oppressed

Arthur Mervyn said...

From A Canticle for Leibowitz, the ancient Jewish hermit, Benjamin Eleazar, banters with his old friend, the abbot, Dom Paulo: "But you've always used words so wordily in crafty defense of your Trinity, although He never needed such defense before you got Him from me as a Unity. Eh?"

Anonymous said...

You and McCormick might want to rethink what you call "main classic Christian view." I offered a response to McCormick, and I address the question of Judaism here: https://zgreport.wordpress.com/2015/12/17/wheaton-college-and-hawkins/

Unknown said...

As ever, George Hunsinger brings both theological awareness and moral grace to a field of play littered with own-goals. The “same-God?” issue is extremely complicated – historically, philosophically, and theologically – and yet people who haven’t even read Islam for Dummies and know little if anything of Muslim-Christian dialogue, historical and contemporary, rush in where malāʾikah fear to tread.

What really interests me, and what I am trying to figure out, in the “same-God?” debate are the moral implications of taking a particular point of view – especially with respect to Islamophobia. Normatively, I don’t think that whether or not Christians and Muslims worship the “same God” should have any bearing whatsoever on the behaviour of Christians toward Muslims. (Indeed, what anyone believes about God should have no bearing whatsoever on the behaviour of Christians toward them.) Descriptively, however, I am concerned that the “they worship another God” conviction has a way, even if only through the law of unintended consequences, of generating a public momentum that expedites the “othering” of Muslims and facilitates their victimisation, not least through being exploited by xenophobes and rabble-rousers.

I’m not quite saying, after George Lindbeck, that truth is finally performatively determined. But one might, in our incendiary social location, do well to remember the famous image Lindbeck deploys to argue his case – that of the “they worship another God” Christian crusader who, as he cleaves the head of a Muslim infidel, shouts “Christus est Dominus!” Which word and deed, if they don’t falsify his credal orthodoxy, certainly bring it into disrepute – not to mention do dirt on his Dominus.

Albocicade said...

I shall say that, in fact, Theodore Abu Qurrah says two different things about judaism : on the one hand, he recognizes that Moses is a true prophet (according to the fact that he realized miracles, thing Muhammad did not), BUT he also asserts that Moses had to announce an incomplete religion, because the people was not ready yet to hear the true religion of God. So, according to TAQ, surely jews and christians worship the same God, though Jews do it imperfectly. (That is why he writes that, according only to reason, he would not recognize that judaism is from God, but according to the Gospel, he sees that jew prophets announced the Christ). So, after believing in Moses' message, people have to believe in Christ, but do not have to believe in Muhammad.
Sureley, before the rise of islam, arabic christians prayed God as Allah. But this Allah was "Father, Son and Holy Spirit ; One God", and they woul not recognize the True God in the "arian" idea of God that islam promoted. That is why St John of Damascus writes about islam as the "heresy of the ishmaelites".

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