22 Jan, 2016 Do we worship the same God? Wheaton College, Larycia Hawkins and Miroslav Volf
The suspension of Larycia Hawkins in 2015 by Wheaton College is a symptom of a fault line among evangelicals about Islam. The question of whether the God of the Qur’an is the same as the God of the Bible is an important and complex one, but it is unhelpful to politicize inquiry into it by insisting that anyone who disagrees with one position or another is a bigot.
This article below appeared in the February 2016 edition of Eternity. It is more an engagement with Volf than an exploration of the evolving, escalated situation at Wheaton, which seems to be not just about the ‘same God’ issue, but also about the use and impact of social media in the context of an academic dispute.
- This article by Nabeel Qureshi is excellent: http://rzim.org/global-blog/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god
- Also readers may like to listen to a podcast debate between Miroslav Volf and Nabeel Qureshi: http://rzim.org/global-blog/do-christians-and-muslims-worship-the-same-god-debate-with-nabeel-qureshi-and-dr-miroslav-volf
Wheaton announced that one of their tenured professors, Larycia Hawkins, was put on paid leave while they ‘explore theological implications of her recent public statements concerning Christianity and Islam’. In particular Wheaton wanted to know whether Hawkins’ statement that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is compatible with the college’s Statement of Faith. Larycia Hawkins was asked to clarify her views. (Wheaton College Council has subsequently confirmed that the college has commenced a termination process for her position.)
The decision led to protests on the Wheaton campus. Miroslav Volf, Professor of Theology at Yale, published an article in the Washington Post criticizing Wheaton. Volf suggests that Wheaton is motivated by hatred towards Muslims, dressed up in dogma. He argued that:
- Those who claim that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God base this upon Muslims’ denial of the Trinity and the incarnation.
- However Jews deny the Trinity and the incarnation, and Christians down the ages have not claimed that Jews worship a different God.
- Therefore those who do not accept the ‘same God’ thesis must be motivated by enmity, not reason.
There are problems with this reasoning. One is the premise. Wheaton had not itself stated that it objects to the ‘same God’ thesis on the basis of Muslims’ beliefs about the Trinity and the incarnation. However Volf appears to impute this thinking to all Christians who do not accept his ‘same God’ thesis.
Another is the leap from pointing out a supposed inconsistency in the reasoning of other Christians to making a severe value judgment about their motives.
In reality the best and strongest reason for rejecting the ‘same God’ thesis is not Muslims’ disbelief in the Trinity or the incarnation. It is that the Qur’an projects a different understanding of God from the Bible. As Denny Burk of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville put it ‘our books are very different’.
The theological differences involved are subtler and more fundamental than ticking or not ticking the Trinity box.
Eminent Orthodox Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod observed that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation was grounded upon the fundamentally Biblical – and thoroughly Jewish – concept of the indwelling of God’s Shekinah presence with his people. Christian beliefs about the Trinity and the incarnation developed out of Jewish incarnational theologies.
Unlike the Old Testament, the Qur’an completely lacks a theology of the presence of God. Although the Arabic term sakīnah – borrowed from Hebrew shekinah – appears six times in the Qur’an, it has been repurposed to mean ‘tranquility’, and the concept of the personal presence of God is not comprehended by Quranic theology. It is not just that Islam rejects the incarnation of Jesus: in complete contrast to Judaism its scripture offers no basis for an incarnational theology.
Judaism differs from Islam in its organic relationship to Christianity in two key respects.
First, Christians and Jews share scripture. Judaism bases its understanding of God on what was the Bible of Jesus, the Tanakh or Old Testament. This is not the case with Islam. Muslims do not base their theology on any part of the Bible. Indeed mainstream Islam rejects the authority of the Bible, for reasons clearly stated in the Qur’an.
Second, Jesus was a practicing Jew, and so were his disciples, so it would be absurd to state that the God of the faith Jesus practiced is different from the Christian God. This same observation does not apply to Islam. Muhammad was never a practicing Jew nor a practicing Christian, and, according to Muslim tradition, the large majority of his companions came to Islam out of paganism. This has deeply influenced the Qur’an and its understanding of God.
It is disappointing that Volf attributes fear-based enmity and loveless bigotry to Wheaton’s leaders. He implies that Christians who disagree with his ‘same God’ thesis must want to fight Muslims. Such rhetoric incites hatred and contempt over a theological difference of opinion.
The question of whether the God of the Qur’an is the same as the God of the Bible is an important and complex one. Christians do need to consider carefully to what extent the God of the Bible and the God of the Qur’an are the same or different. This has far-reaching implications. However it is not helpful to paint those who disagree with one position or another as haters.
It is a false step, in the name of love, to demand assent to the ‘same God’ thesis. Christians are commanded to love others whether they worship the same God or not. Our common human condition should be enough to motivate solidarity with others. After all, Jesus never said to only ‘love those who believe in the same God’.
Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology. His book Which God? discusses differences between the understanding of God in the Bible and the Qur’an.