Let me tell you about Chris Evans. Chris is a famous Hollywood actor—a large, muscular fellow who has made quite a name for himself playing a leading role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You’ve probably seen him in the two Avengers movies, but he’s played in many other films. For example, he starred in “Cabin In the Woods,” “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and the recently released “In the Heart of the Sea.” Nevertheless, big fans of comic book movies are probably most excited about him reprising his role as Odin’s son in “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”
Now, anybody who follows contemporary cinema will tell you that, while I started off okay, it quickly became apparent that I had the wrong guy. Despite my initial claim, I was not telling you about Chris Evans at all; I was telling you about Chris Hemsworth. Chris Evans is indeed a famous Hollywood actor with a superhero physique and roles both in and out of the Marvel films, but he plays Captain America rather than Hemsworth’s Thor. While you might remember him from such films as “Snowpiercer” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” he was not in the others I listed.
In other words, while I had some of the Chris Evans facts right and some wrong, the ultimate problem is that I was talking about a different person altogether.
If we change subjects from figurative idols to literal ones, we find ourselves in an analogous situation.
Wheaton College was recently bold enough to place a tenured professor on administrative leave for claiming that Christians and Muslims worship the same god, in contradiction to Wheaton’s statement of faith. In response, ecumenically-minded Christians have claimed she was entirely correct—Christians and Muslims do worship the same God albeit in different ways—and conclude that she was unjustly disciplined.
Wrong Guy, Not Just Wrong Facts
Those who make this claim typically try to reduce the vast differences between these two religions’ views of God to a matter of differing details about the same God. For example, Baylor’s Francis Beckwith recently wrote,
Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? To answer it well, we have to make some important philosophical distinctions. First, what does it mean for two terms to refer to the same thing? Take, for example, the names “Muhammed Ali” and “Cassius Clay.” Although they are different terms, they refer to the same thing, for each has identical properties. Whatever is true of Ali is true of Clay and vice versa.
He goes on to affirm that they are indeed the same because, as monotheistic concepts of God, both share identical properties—including the property of being completely unique in this godhood. The differences Beckwith dismisses as instances of “incomplete knowledge” and “false beliefs” about the same object.
He illustrates this with a comparison to Thomas Jefferson. Some believe he illicitly fathered children by his slaves; others do not. But clearly both groups refer to the same Thomas Jefferson. So by analogy, one religion might have a higher percentage of true facts within their theology, but who’s to say what percentage of truth or falsehood compels us to draw the line between one god and another?
Just as with our analogy of the two Chris’s, however, the question of two gods is not just a matter of having the wrong facts; it’s more precisely a matter of having the wrong guy. To say that Christians and Muslims worship a supreme being who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and created the world, is merely to say that we both worship gods—that we worship the same kind of thing.
However, when it comes to gods, we are not talking about “identical things,” as Beckwith suggests, but about persons. Properties alone might determine a “what,” but they do not answer the question of “who” our god is. Nowhere is this truer than in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Beckwith treats it as just another property about which we disagree. However, the very idea of one God in three Persons is inherently personal. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are who God is, not just what he’s like.
Determining personal identity rather than mere properties means personal knowledge—how we get to know someone. As I’ve written before, upon becoming a father I learned about the incomparable difference between having a child and having my son. Bonds of flesh and blood, affection, responsibility, and love are poorly understood in the abstract; they are rooted in who we are and how we relate to one another.
In the same way, understanding who a god is cannot be done through abstract properties alone. It depends on understanding the bonds between that god and those who know him. Accordingly, stopping our analysis at philosophical theism is an incredibly shallow way of looking at it. We have to actually look at the religions.
How Believers Know Their Gods
Muslims know their god through Muhammad. As some Virginian high school students were recently made to write, the essential Islamic creed is that there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. Muhammad is the one who heard voices, had visions, took magical journeys, transcribed the Qu’ran, and so forth. Who Muhammad’s Allah is depends entirely on who Muhammad was talking to—whether the creator, a demon, himself, or some other option.
To be sure, Muhammad’s Allah certainly claimed to have done some of what Yahweh did in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily make them the same god any more than plagiarizing makes a word-thief identical with the original author. Muslims know their god inasmuch as they trust Muhammad’s revelation of him, and relate to him inasmuch as they submit their own will to his. That is whom they relate to, and that is who their god is.
Christians, in contrast, know their God in Jesus Christ. Though eternally begotten of the Father, he became one of us. He became a man who ate, slept, breathed, taught, suffered, died, rose, and ascended. He also claimed to be Yahweh. For the Christian, who God is depends entirely on whether Jesus was telling the truth about himself—that he himself is God in person. We know Him through this Incarnation and relate to him through his word and the sacraments of the church he instituted.
As a result, our death is his death so that his resurrection is our resurrection. Accordingly, to confess, as Muslims do, that Jesus was merely a man and that God has no Son is not to merely to get some facts about God wrong. Such a denial rejects a person right along with certain facts about him. Those who reject the Son of God in favor of Muhammad’s Allah don’t just have the wrong facts; they have the wrong guy.
‘Just a Few Facts’ Divide Orthodoxy and Heresy
None of this is to say that facts and doctrines about God are made unimportant by personal relationship. After all, a man could hardly have much of a relationship with his wife if he didn’t know anything about her. Furthermore, this entire discussion is possible only because the people involved possess various facts—true and false—about God.
If you had no knowledge of popular films and actors, you would have had no idea that I had started off this piece by talking about Chris Hemsworth rather than Chris Evans until I told you. Likewise, for people asking themselves whether they know God or how they can know God, knowing about him is essential to finding any kind of right answer to the question of who. American evangelicalism generally puts far too much weight on having a vague and undefined personal relationship with Jesus as compared to actually learning anything that he taught us.
Nevertheless, religion is and always has been deeper than intellectual assent. You cannot separate the doctrines from the way of life and from the believer’s relationship with God. When the more relevant factors are taken into account, it becomes clear that a few similar facts and properties do not make Allah and Yahweh the same. Islam is hugely divergent from Christianity in almost every important respect.
This is why Christianity has historically drawn the line between orthodoxy and heresy so firmly when it comes to the Trinity. Regardless of religion, everyone knows certain things about God by nature—that he’s omnipotent, omniscient, and so forth. But actually knowing God involves knowing three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If you believe someone else is God or reject one of these three, you have the wrong guy.
It doesn’t matter if you happen to know that God created the universe or visited Abraham. A handful of facts won’t save you from the One you reject. At the same time, however, having the right facts is our best defense against having the wrong guy. Christ told his followers to make disciples by baptizing people and teaching them everything that he taught. Outside of this church he instituted, in which we are given Christ and taught about Him, having the right guy is a fluke at best.
So Wheaton College is quite correct to pause and assess its faculty member. Her statements that Christians and Muslims worship the same god are at odds with both Christian and Muslim orthodoxy. It’s a shallow and unsophisticated statement that wears the happy face of friendship reconciliation, but it is not part of either Christianity or Islam. Any college, including Wheaton, which has any desire to maintain or cultivate a Christian character would do well to carry out such discipline.