Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God, as Pope Francis and suspended Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins affirm? Or are Allah and the Christian deity two different things, as the Wheaton administration believes?
The debate is a throwback to the days when evangelical Protestants and Catholics were deeply at odds on a range of theological questions. It seems surprising only because Roe v. Wade began a process of political rapprochement between American evangelicals and Catholics that makes them appear closer than they really are.
But the debate is also a major issue for Jewish-Christian relations. If Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same God, then neither do Christians and Jews.
The fascinating philosophical-theological question at stake here is worth understanding if not answering. It depends on what we mean by the word “same.” Pope Francis obviously believes that the teachings of Christianity are true, and he presumably doesn’t believe the Koran is the word of God – otherwise he’d be a Muslim.
What Francis probably believes when he says that Christians and Muslims worship the same God is that the conceptions of God in both faiths have enough in common to refer to the same being. That makes plenty of sense, because Christians and Muslims (and Jews, too) tend to believe in a single creator who is all-powerful and all-knowing.
After all, Francis hasn’t said that Hindus, say, worship the same God – probably because Hinduism, which could be characterized as a monotheistic commitment to a common truth, can also plausibly be described as pantheistic (God is in everything) or polytheistic (many gods).
What the administration of Wheaton College believes is that the distinctive features of the Christian God – in particular, the mystery of the Trinity and the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ – are so different from the Islamic conception of God as to make the two no longer the same.
This, too, is a perfectly logical view, if logic is the right word to discuss such matters of faith.
Islam affirms God’s radical unity. Tawhid, the Arabic word for that affirmation, is at the core of Islamic theology. The Koran treats Jesus as a servant of God, but not God’s son, and certainly not as an element of the Godhead.
So if you think that the triune nature and incarnation are essential elements of the Christian God, you could easily conclude that Allah and the Christian deity are not the same. If you can feel the pull of that argument, then you should be able to understand what the Wheaton College administration is thinking.
Your answer to this question should also probably determine whether you think Christians and Jews worship the same God. Judaism doesn’t accept the divinity of Christ or the Trinity any more than Islam does, and doesn’t even consider Jesus a prophet like Islam.
If you think the triune God is essential to the Christian conception, then the Jewish God might be same as the Muslim God, but can’t be the same God as the one worshiped by Christians. This, in fact, was the view of some medieval Jewish authorities, especially those who lived in the Muslim world, who considered Islam monotheistic but thought Christianity was potentially idolatrous because of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Presumably it would be a problem for evangelical-Jewish relations if evangelical leaders openly stated that Jews don’t worship the same God they do. The political ties between evangelicals and American Zionists are pretty strong, so this theological disagreement might have practical consequences.
So why don’t evangelicals walk around saying they don’t worship the same God as the Jews, the same way they’re insisting on saying it about Muslims? Here’s the kicker: Evangelicals do believe they’re worshiping the God of the Old Testament – they just think Jews have failed to understand his essence as revealed in the New Testament.
In evangelical theology, God revealed himself to the Hebrews without expressly making his triune nature known. The incarnation changed all that, and created the possibility of Christian salvation. The Jews failed to get the message.
All along, they were worshiping the triune God. They just never knew it, and still don’t.
Hence, to an evangelical Christian, it would make no sense to say that Jews worship a different God – even though to the Jews, that God isn’t theologically very different from the God of the Muslims.
To bring this full circle, note that Pope Francis might well believe the same thing. The difference is that he believes Muslims, too, are worshiping the God of the Hebrews.
Given that the Prophet Muhammad himself believed that the God of the Jews and of the Christians was the same God he was serving, that view seems pretty convincing. The pope’s view would have the benefit of being consistent as among Jews and Muslims.
If all this makes you want to run to atheism, fair enough. Otherwise, I hope you had a merry Christmas!
Noah Feldman, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard.