Why Protestants Argue Over Whether Muslims Worship the Same God

Last month, a Wheaton College professor, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, was placed on administrative leave for writing on her Facebook page and quoting Pope Francis that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. This week, the evangelical school began proceedings to fire Professor Hawkins, a tenured member of the political science faculty, for that offense. To many outside observers, myself included, this looks like a very un-academic, overreaching, capricious attack on a scholar who dared to state what is a fairly mainstream Christian theological position. This is especially strange given that Wheaton's statement of faith makes no mention of Islam or its relationship to Christianity, so how Professor Hawkins may have contradicted that statement of faith is not entirely clear.

What is clear is that Professor Hawkins has stumbled upon another of those theological landmines in the evangelical world: a belief that is rarely mentioned, widely held, little considered, and provokes a fight as soon as it surfaces. (The existence and eternity of hell is another of these hidden mines that the popular evangelical pastor Rob Bell stepped on a few years ago.) While many have justly given voice to the frustration and absurdity of Professor Hawkins predicament, I'd like to take a different angle, exploring the reasons behind the underlying fury of this intra-Protestant debate.

Catholics aren't nearly as hung up on the issue of Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God, largely because, in the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council affirmed as much, declaring that Muslims "adore the one God" and complimenting them for their devout submission to God. But we Protestants don't have definitive councils or unifying papal figures, so on this question, as with so many others, we have noisy, rowdy, semi-public debates that usually generate more heat than light.

On the against side of the debate are many evangelicals, with Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission serving, as per usual, as one of the more articulate and clear debaters. Moore and his ilk accurately argue that orthodox Christians are Trinitarian (worshipping one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and they worship Jesus Christ as God, which are both things that Muslims and the Qur'an deny.

On the for side are those Protestants like Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, in his very thoughtful book Allah: A Christian Response, (a book that Wheaton College asked Professor Volf to present in a 2011 lecture) who argue that Christians and Muslims are both monotheists, and that there can only be one ultimate deity, however much the different worshippers of that God may disagree about the details. Moreover, Volf argues that the God believed in and worshipped by Muslims and Christians shares many characteristics such as love and justice. He accurately notes that most Christians, evangelicals included, would balk at the suggestion that religious Jews worship a different God than Christians, even though religious Jews largely deny the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity just like Muslims do.

Both of these arguments are theologically grounded, rooted in consistent logic and a clear reading of the Bible -- so why is Professor Hawkins' job on the line for picking the latter position? Christians believe that God is one and that God is three, so it's six one way and half a dozen another on whether you emphasize the unity of God (and include Muslims in that vision) or you emphasize the tri-nity of God (and exclude Muslims from that vision). That's why I would argue that the objection against Professor Hawkins' sentiment is less theological and more attitudinal.

Many evangelicals and other theologically conservative Protestants, in emphasizing the Trinitarian nature of God over and against Muslims, are making a statement less about God and more about Muslims. They are trying to dissociate themselves from Muslims and Islam. It's a gut-level assertion, not a carefully considered position, as the striking contrast with their attitude toward Judaism makes clear. Islam, under this scheme, is cast as the red-headed stepchild in the monotheistic family of Abraham and banished for indistinct reasons. This is also an old hat, anti-Muslim polemic, dating back to the early fights between Christians and Muslims in their first medieval contacts.

Liberal and Mainline Protestants on the other hand are generally quick to affirm that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, though I would hazard that this is just as much a gut-reaction as that of their debate opponents. For many Mainline Protestants, steeped in decades of affirming ecumenical and interfaith sentiment, it is instinctual to reach for the more inclusive theological option.

Unfortunately for Professor Hawkins, she teaches in the former sort of environment, an evangelical powerhouse college whose territorial hackles get raised when one of their own voices what would be a commonplace comment in a Mainline Protestant or Catholic conversation. I suspect that even though she may have many supporters at Wheaton and among evangelicals, the institutional impulse will be to excise her (tenure notwithstanding) as a statement of Wheaton's tribal and "distinctively evangelical Christian identity."

As someone who grew up in the evangelical world and is very familiar with the sorts of attitudinal orthodoxy on display at Wheaton, I would pose these questions to my many friends and acquaintances who might likewise instinctively argue that Muslims and Christians worship different Gods:
  • What exactly is at stake in this question for you?
  • What do Christians lose by saying that monotheists are all pointing in the same direction, though they may disagree vehemently about the character, nature, and personalit(ies)y of the one God?
  • Is there really something unbiblical or heretical about saying to Muslims, fellow monotheists, what Paul was willing to say to Athenian pagans: namely, we worship the same God, but we understand that God with a particularity of character that you don't see (Acts 17)?
  • At the very least, can you acknowledge that the opposite position, the position I share with Professor Hawkins, is also a Christian position, rooted deeply in Christian theology and the Bible?

It would be good for Protestants to have this debate, public and heated as it may be, because the underlying tensions aren't going away any time soon.