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.
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).