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The Real Theological Issue Between Christians and Muslims

It's not about a different God, it's about a different Jesus.
The Real Theological Issue Between Christians and Muslims

Last winter, the Internet was abuzz over the question “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” A cacophony of largely Christian voices exhausted themselves arguing these complex issues, to almost no one’s satisfaction. This isn’t the first time people have debated this question, and unfortunately, it may not be the last.

One reason opinions flew in every direction is this: That question is not only unhelpful but perhaps worse than unhelpful. The question appears incapable of generating a satisfactory answer, and when well-intentioned people try to answer it anyway, as they often do, the typical result is turmoil and confusion.

How could it be otherwise? Any question that can only be answered with a “Maybe, maybe not—it depends on what you mean” is doomed from the outset. It is so hopelessly ambiguous that every attempt to address it only raises further questions. What is the question really asking? What do we mean by “worship”? What do we mean by “the same”? How much “sameness” is required to answer yes? How much difference to answer no? What kind of “sameness” qualifies? What does Christianity mean by God? What does Islam mean by God? Which version of Christianity? Which version of Islam?

Understanding what Islam and Christianity do and do not hold in common is an important task, but asking whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God will not get us there.

The primary problem is that the dispute is focused on the wrong question.

Understanding what Islam and Christianity do and do not hold in common is an important task these days, but asking whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God will not get us there. If our goal is to compare these two religions we need to shift our focus to a much more illuminating question: How do Christianity and Islam differ? With the answer to this question in hand, ironically, we are in a better position to address the “sameness” question.

The Watershed

During the contentious debate, Trinitarianism was often offered up as the core difference between Islam and Christianity: Christianity embraces it, Islam does not. But this observation, while accurate, does not automatically locate the decisive issue. Neither the Old Testament faithful nor even the earliest Christians could have articulated orthodox Trinitarianism as we understand it, which as a doctrine wasn’t fully worked out by the church until the fourth century. So reducing the question to the presence or absence of historic Trinitarianism is not a helpful way of getting at the key difference between Islam and Christianity.

So, what is that key difference?

The decisive issue between Islam and Christianity is, quite simply, the gospel—the Bible’s account of what God has done, is doing, and will yet do through his Son to redeem his creation. It is this “good news” story of the Creator’s eternal, Son-centered plan of redemption that reveals to us who our Creator truly is. This gospel story is the watershed issue that exposes the dramatic difference between Islam and Christianity. It is not until this difference is grasped that the question of what Christianity and Islam may or may not hold in common can even be addressed.

“The Way”

Before the term Christian was applied to those who believed Jesus was the Son of God, early believers called themselves followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 16:17; 19:9, 23; 24:14). There’s a clear reason for this, Christianity is about “the Way” which the Creator—revealed now through his plan to be a loving heavenly Father—has graciously opened for his estranged, mutinous creatures to be reconciled to him.

According to the New Testament, God sent his eternal Son into the world to embody that “Way.” From the Father’s Son-centered redemptive purposes from “before the creation of the world” (Eph. 1:3–4; Matt. 25:34); to the Son’s creation of all that exists (Col. 1:16; John 1:3); to the primeval promise of the Son’s incarnation in the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15; through Israel’s unfolding story in the Old Testament, all of which, Jesus said, was ultimately about him (John 5:39; Luke 24:27, 44–47); to the plan’s full flowering in the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and exaltation of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament; to the plan’s outworking ever since in the Spirit-empowered building of Christ’s Kingdom (Acts 2:32-33); to the grand eschatological crescendo of the Son’s second coming; all the way to the Son’s final delivery of a fully redeemed and refashioned creation to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24–28)—through it all a triune God has been working his Son-centered, Spirit-empowered plan of redemption. This more or less fully elaborated story is what the Bible calls the gospel.

It is this gospel that informs the gaping divide between Christianity and Islam.

It is this gospel that informs the gaping divide between Christianity and Islam. Christianity recognizes, embraces, and proclaims this Son-centered plan and the triune God it reveals to all who will hear. Islam repudiates this Son-centered plan and the divine triunity it reveals and substitutes a dramatically different proposal in its place. If our goal is to compare Christianity and Islam, this is the difference we need to grasp.

The Line in the Sand

This crucial difference is why, as always in this discussion, the person of Jesus Christ constitutes the essential line in the sand. According to the gospel, God has not left the claim “We want you God, but we do not want your Son” available to us. Such a claim is an affront to God and an insult to the costly redemption he has provided through Jesus: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). To repudiate God’s gift of his Son is to repudiate God himself. This is the explicit verdict of no less than Jesus himself:

Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me (Luke 10:16).

The Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him (John 5:22–23).

It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me (John 6:45).

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).

Hence this was also the testimony of Jesus’ followers:

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5).

As you come to [Jesus], a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–6).

No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also (1 John 2:23).

Christians affirm each of these biblical claims about Jesus, while Islam rejects them. This is the decisive difference between these two faiths. All the other differences stem from this one.

Notice how asking the right question enables us to cut through the fog generated by starting with the wrong question. It also allows us to skirt an issue relatively few of us are qualified even to address, much less pontificate about; namely, what Islam or the Qur’an does or does not teach. The above analysis supplies the clarity we need by focusing on only three unchallenged points: (1) Christianity’s confession of God’s eternal, Son-centered, Spirit-empowered plan of redemption as revealed in the Bible; (2) Islam’s explicit rejection of that plan; and (3) Christ’s verdict about the implications of such a rejection. For many, these three points answer the underlying question they were asking in the first place.

The “Sameness” Issue

If their contrasting responses to the gospel represent the critical difference between Christianity and Islam, what about their points of similarity?

In dealing with this question, it is essential that we maintain a clear distinction between two contexts. The first is a theological context, such as the discussion above. The second is a missiological context. Here the focus shifts, from a theological assessment of the two faiths to the question of how best to understand and relate to Muslims. The “sameness” issue plays little role in the first but a potentially significant role in the second.

Theological Assessment

In a theological assessment of the two faiths, the three points above identify the determinative issue. Jesus taught that those who reject him, by that one and the same act reject the God who sent him. Thus it appears inescapable that in its repudiation of God’s Son-centered gospel, Islam as a religion places itself under Christ’s verdict. This verdict is a hard saying—Jesus specialized in hard sayings—but it is one we dare not shy away from. It’s a verdict every Christian should hope and pray every Muslim is given the opportunity to weigh.

Notice that Christ’s hard saying does not require that there be no “sameness” between Christian and Muslim ideas of God. According to Romans 1:19–20 God has made at least some minimalist knowledge of himself—his existence, his eternal power, his divine nature—available to everyone. Thus there is nothing inherently misguided about acknowledging that a Christian and a Muslim may hold in common at least some basic understanding of the Creator. This is, after all, the One both claim to be worshiping, and Paul attests that it is God himself who has made such a claim arguable.

Yet even this minimalist claim is more complicated than it may seem. How much sameness does it really entail? The answer can be maddeningly difficult to pin down. Consider, for example, these two analogies:

Scenario 1: Both Democrats and Republicans agree that America has only one office called the president of the United States. What’s more, they both agree that such and such a person is the duly elected holder of that office. Further, both agree on certain basic features about this duly elected person. Beyond these basics, however, they disagree sharply about what kind of person and president that office holder is.

Scenario 2: Both Democrats and Republicans agree that America has only one office called the president of the United States. But in this case they disagree about who the duly elected holder of that office truly is. The Democrats claim Person A is the duly elected office-holder, while the Republicans claim Person B is the duly elected office-holder (think Bush/Gore, but with no Supreme Court to decide the issue).

These two scenarios represent dramatically different degrees of “sameness.” The first involves the same office, same occupant, and at least some overlap in the occupant’s attributes; the second involves the same office but nothing more. Translated into theological terms this is the difference between (1) largely overlapping but in some ways different understandings of the one Creator, versus (2) two different claimants to the title of Creator, the one being the true God and the other an impostor—a false idol who is no God at all. Is the Christianity/Islam difference a version of the first or the second?

In the end, either answer will be debated, and neither is likely to be definitive. But more important for our purposes, whatever degree of sameness we discern counts for little in our theological assessment of the two faiths. According to Jesus, what those who repudiate the Son get wrong about God is vastly more determinative than anything they get right. Investing too much time arguing about the latter may be an indication we have yet to appreciate the former.

Missiological Assessment

When we shift to a missiological context, on the other hand, the sameness issues loom larger. If our goal is a better understanding of Islam in general or of our Muslim friends and neighbors in particular, areas of sameness become relevant. Following the classic lead of the apostle Paul on Mars Hill, not to mention the wisdom of those with a lifetime of experience in a Muslim context, building bridges is often helped by emphasizing points of contact. And there are more contact points between Islam and Christianity than many Christians seem to realize. For example, Nabeel Qureshi, author of the best-selling Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, says in his latest book, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, that as a boy being raised in a strict Muslim family he was taught that the God Muslims worship was:

… the God who created Adam and Eve, who rescued Noah from the flood, who promised Abraham a vast progeny, who helped Moses escape Egypt, who made the Virgin Mary great with child, who sent Jesus into the world, who helped the disciples overcome, and who is still sovereign today.

Such areas of seeming overlap can provide important starting points for conversations with Muslim friends and neighbors. When combined with genuine friendship, sincere listening and loving sensitivity, exploring these points of apparent commonality can lead to opportunities for further conversations about deeper issues.

The Fork in the Road

Yet it is critical to remember that this is a missiological, not a theological consideration. We must not confuse or conflate these two contexts. Points of theological similarity between Christianity and Islam can be useful in friendship or missionary settings, but citing these points as if we think they actually count for something with God apart from the gospel is a grave mistake.

Christians do their Muslim friends no favors by so emphasizing points of similarity that Christ’s ultimate verdict is never heard. The decisive question God asks of every human being is: What have you done with my Son? (John 1:10–12) If the answer is that we have refused him, nothing else we say can matter. As the rising sun overwhelms the nighttime stars, so the refusal of God’s gift of his Son renders every other claim irrelevant.

In the preface to The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis famously said, “I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish, but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right, but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” So it is with the reception of God’s Son. Until we get that fork-in-the-road decision right, all else becomes moot. “Whoever does not honor the Son, does not honor the Father who sent him” (John 5:23).

Duane Litfin is former president of Wheaton College, and author of numerous articles and books, most recently, Paul’s Theology of Preaching (IVP Academic).

December
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