A few years ago my congregation welcomed a local mosque into our building for their Friday prayers while their own space was being renovated. You can check that here.
It was not an uncontroversial gesture with some church members leaving and many others protesting because, they argued, Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.
Today, the Christian social media universe is aflame over that same question as Wheaton College has attempted to fire one of their faculty for expressing solidarity with Muslims.
What interests me is not the campus politics or the question of academic freedom but the theological question, one which has grown more urgent as the issues of terrorism and refugees become more critical: Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?
Here is a thoughtful response from Dr. Bruce McCormack, my theology professor from Princeton. I learned much from him in several different classes and I hope you will too.
*Originally posted at Noah Toly’s Tumblr.
It is a great pity that the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has come so forcibly to the center of attention for so many (on social media especially) through ongoing controversy at Wheaton College. The nature of that controversy is well-known and does not need to be rehearsed here. I say it is a pity because the issue is a theologically profound and complex one which admits of no obvious answer. It is a question worthy of engagement by the finest theological minds in our world today precisely because of its complexity. But it is also an issue with implications not only for inter-faith relations but also for inter-confessional relations. That is to say: how we answer the question, the charity or lack of charity with which we do so could very well have an impact on ecumenical relations long after the controversy at Wheaton has come to an end. So the stakes couldn’t be higher. My hope is that all of us would learn to admit that more than one answer can reasonably be given and that is a huge mistake to assume that anyone who gives a different answer than one’s own is automatically guilty of either bigotry or a betrayal of the gospel.
Before I turn to the issue, I should say that I have had great respect and appreciation for Wheaton College for a great many years. I have lectured there twice, preached in their chapel, and benefitted greatly from the privilege of teaching an extremely high number of their graduates here at Princeton Seminary during my twenty-five years here. My respect has only been increased by the comments made in recent days by Wheaton faculty (including Larycia Hawkins!) on social media. Wheaton’s “hype” is not exaggerated in my view. It is simply lovely to see so many non-theologians who read enough theology to comment so ably on theological questions. I have been, as a result, heartbroken to watch this happening; heartbroken most especially for Prof. Hawkins but heartbroken too for faculty, students, alums – and, indeed, administrators. My goal here is to do theology well. And by “well” I mean not only theology that is academically rigorous and responsible to Scripture and the history of the construction of orthodox understandings of God but theology that serves reconciliation and peace. How we do theology can be, at times, just as important than the content if only because how we do it will decide whether it can be heard by others.
In what follows, my goal is to present what I take to be the best case that can be made on both sides of the “same God” question by one such as I (whose training is in the history of doctrine). I will begin with the negative answer and turn then to the positive answer. As this is a blog contribution and not an academic paper, I will not seek to defend every claim I make – though I would be happy to do so if pressed. I will simply say that my views on the range of theological topics relevant to this issue are the result of forty-three years of intensive engagement with historical and systematic theology, the last fifteen of which have been devoted specifically to the doctrine of God.
I. The Case for Rejecting the “Same God” Thesis
Those who think that “Allah” and the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” could not possibly be the same God defend their answer best on the following grounds. The doctrine of the Trinity is not one doctrine among others but the presupposition of all other Christian doctrines. It is this because triunity is not something added to “oneness” but is a description of what God is essentially. Put another way: the trinitarian relations are not laid on top of a divine essence which has been “established” metaphysically (i.e. in abstraction from those relations as a “fourth” beneath or behind the “persons”). The relations simply are what God is essentially. For that reason, as Karl Barth argued, it will not do to treat the “one God” before treating the “triunity” of God because everything that needs to be said about the “one God” needs to be conditioned by what is said about the Trinity. In support of these claims, Barth cites (among others) Johann Gerhard (the most significant orthodox Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century) and Herman Bavinck (a well-known modern Dutch theologian). “J. Gerhard writes of it: ‘whoever does not know the mystery of the Trinity does not know Him as He has revealed Himself in His Word’…” (Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, p.96. And from Bavinck: “‘The whole of Christianity, the whole of special revelation, stands and falls with the confession of God’s triunity. It is the heart of Christian faith, the root of all dogmas, the substance of the new covenant.’” (Ibid., p.97.). On this basis, Barth concludes “…it will not do to have God as a general concept within which the Christian God as he is basically known in the doctrine of the Trinity is only a special case” (Ibid., pp.97-8).
The strength of this argument has to do with Barth’s conviction that only God can reveal God and that, therefore, the One who would reveal Him must Himself be God if He is to reveal Him. Quite clearly, this argument also rules out of bounds a good bit of speculative or “natural” theology. And it leads us quite naturally to the recognition that theological language that is responsible to its “object”(i.e. conformed to the nature of God) ought to be grounded “Christologically” (i.e. in the Christ attested in Holy Scripture). And that means, among other things, that the concept of “oneness” which we employ in trinitarian discourse ought to be one that is purchased from close reflection on the nature of the unity of Jesus Christ with His Father.
But if triunity “goes all the way down”, then the triunity in God cannot be a concept arrived at by simply adding the number three to a prior commitment to the number one. God is not One and Three; God is One-in-Three and Three-in-One. Now the latter is, quite obviously, a very difficult thing to say. The concept of perichoresis (or “co-inherence”) was devised in an attempt not to fall silent where the unique “oneness” of the Christian God is concerned. But even perichoresis leaves some extremely important questions unanswered – to which I will return in a moment. Suffice it here to say that the logic of numbers, as applied to God, is employed responsibly only where it is recognized that numbers too never rise above the level of analogical predication. Used univocally of divine “persons’ and “human” persons, they are bound to mislead. Seen in this light, to speak of the “one” God is not merely to refer to the metaphysical concepts of singularity or uniqueness. The “unity” of Jesus Christ with His Father is a relation that includes (even if it is not exhaustively described by) the love each has for the other.
That, I believe, is the strongest case for rejecting the “same God” thesis. It is one that I find deeply compelling and have done so for years. So my convictions on this question are not shaped by current events. But! the problem with this case is that it is almost too good. For stated as I have stated it, this answer ignores a number of problems – not least of which is the history of the development of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. The truth of the matter, as we shall now see, is that the burden of proof where orthodoxy is concerned is much greater for people like me than it is for Larycia Hawkins. And that is because hers is the more traditional, the more obviously orthodox position. To explain why I turn to the best case for an affirmation of the “same God” thesis.
II. The Case for Affirming the “Same God” Thesis
The place to start is with the recognition that considerable development had to occur before the Council of Constantinople (381) was able to provide the orthodox solution to the trinitarian debates which embroiled the churches and their theologians in the fourth century. Development is obvious on the face of it; concepts like ousia,hypostases and homoousios (which were decisive for the”pro-Nicene theology which prevailed at Constantinople) are not to be found in the NT. What we do find there, in many places, is a “high Christology” (John 1, Eph.1, Col.1, Heb.1, 1 Peter 1). We find attestation of incarnation, the pre-existence of the Son, perhaps even (on my reading of Phil.2:9-11, at least) the affirmation that the man Jesus is “proper” to the identity of the God of Israel. But none of these affirmations adds up to a doctrine of the Trinity. What they provide are the building-blocks for constructing one. But alongside of them, one would also have to address the problem of subordination – a subordination not so easily consigned to the “economy” as many seem to think, given what Paul says in 1 Cor.15:28. All of this is to say: arriving at the understanding of the Christian God as “constituted” by three co-eternal and co-equal “persons” took quite some time. Four centuries, in fact. And one then has to ask: what understanding did Christian theologians have of God in the meantime? Now that is a most interesting question.
Before there was a “pro-Nicene” theology, before the Church could be united in the belief that there exist in God three “persons” whose unity is guaranteed by the principle of “inseparable operations” (see Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy), the most obvious thing for Christians to believe – and what the NT writers themselves believed – was quite simply that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the One God of Israel. The truth is that Phil.2:9-11 (especially when read as I read it) works exceptionally within the NT canon. The most natural understanding of the oneness of God for those coming directly out of second Temple Judaism was that of “singularity” and/or “uniqueness.” This understanding was given further strength by the influence of Middle Platonism already on the LXX but most especially on the Greek apologists. By the mid-second century at the latest, a concept of God was already firmly in place which owed a great deal to Middle Platonism. The concept in question affirmed that God is one, simple, impassible, invisible, immaterial being. In constructing this concept, there can be little question but that the definition of God’s “oneness” owed a great deal to its “neighoring” concepts, simplicity above all. Unity and simplicity went hand in hand for the early Fathers. And that was one of the reasons (though not the only one) that debates over the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century were so difficult and protracted. All of the fourth century theologians whose doctrines of the Trinity would eventually be recognized as orthodox were committed to unity and simplicity (see G.L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought). And so one of the most important tasks facing fourth century theology was how to think the three-ness of “persons” into or together with an already existing concept of “oneness.”
The truth is that the conceptual differentiation between ousia and hypostases worked out by the Cappadocians placed the “persons” in a rather more pale light than the intensive light which shown on the common or shared “essence.” Why do I say that? Because the great unresolved question of the orthodox settlement was: what are the three? What is it that differentiates or distinguishes the “persons” such that Christian trinitarianism does not lapse back into absolute monotheism? The only answer available to orthodox Christians at the time was that the three persons are “distinct” by virtue of their differing “modes of origination.” But that is not an answer to the what-question. It tells how the three are what they are, how they “come to be” (eternally, of course); it does not tell us what they are. Many of the orthodox, including Basil and Augustine, were quite candid in admitting this. What the “persons” are, what makes them to differ, is ineffable (i.e. it cannot be brought to speech). Given that this is so, it is understandable that the only “properties” thought to be “personal” (i.e. proper to a single “person” only rather than shared by all three) were modes of origination – and that all other “properties” (which did give an answer to the question of what God is, even if not what the “persons” are) are shared. It also becomes immediately comprehensible why the “principle of insuperable operations” was such a big deal (i.e. if one member of the Godhead does something, they all do it, by virtue of shared essence).
The strongest case for affirming the “same God” thesis lies in the history of the development of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, in which “oneness” was both historically prior to and, to an extent, logically privileged over “threeness.”. The move historically was from oneness to triunity – and when triunity was finally worked out, it was worked out in a way that “fit” the prior commitment to a metaphysical notion of “oneness” – which, we now have to say, can be and is upheld by a great many Jews and Muslims as well as Christians. And that leads me to a final, ecumenical point.
Roman Catholic theology has always had and will continue to have a big stake in the metaphysics of the Fathers. That is why the affirmation that Christians and Muslims worship the same God could find approval at Vatican II – because it was an affirmation built upon the metaphysics of the ancient Church which found its way into the great syntheses of Augustine and Thomas. But to mention the Roman Catholics in this context is to remind ourselves that the issue we are discussing is not limited to Christians and Muslims. It touches upon issues with profound ecumenical significance. To be sure, I have my questions about the orthodox settlement (having to do largely with the metaphysics of the ancient church). I do believe that it could be improved upon. But any improvements would, at this stage, still be the opinions of a private theologian. They would not have ecclesial standing. There is no such thing, at the end of the day, as the Protestant doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity is the shared teaching of the churches scattered across the globe who adhere to the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Church. For that reason, I could no more deny to Larycia Hawkins the orthodoxy of her understanding of the Trinity than I could deny it to those who affirm the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. For it is she who stands closest in this controversy to classical orthodoxy, not people like me.
No one involved in debates over the issue raised by the Wheaton controversy should deny that the issue is theological. At the same time, no one should act as though there is only one clear solution to it available to orthodox Christians who adhere to Scripture and the Creed. Orthodoxy itself left unanswered questions lying on the table for future generations to debate. And debate is precisely what we should do with them. My hope, my prayer, is that these debates can take place in a spirit of charity and in a spirit that seeks reconciliation (not only at Wheaton but outside Wheaton as well).