On December 17 on this page I addressed the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. I gave the same answer given by Vatican II, and by the Catholic Church since the Council: yes. Muslims and Christians do worship the same God, even though Islam holds an imperfect understanding of the divine, since it denies Christ’s divinity and thus, by implication, God’s triune nature.
As the Church declared in Nostra Aetate (1965): “[Muslims] adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men. . . .Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet.”
This argument prompted several critical replies, almost exclusively from non-Catholic Christians, including distinguished thinkers such as Albert Mohler, Andrew Walker, Matthew Cochran, and Peter Leithart. (To say nothing of a raft of outrage from TCT readers.) Each, with differing emphases, correctly documents what Christians believe are the inadequacies of Muslim theology given how God has progressively revealed himself through history as taught in Scripture. I do not dispute this point; it is actually consistent with my argument. Let me explain.
The Church’s view rests on the distinction between “general” and “special” revelation. The former concerns those truths about God that can be known through unaided human reason; the latter, those truths about God known only through Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and/or the Holy Spirit speaking through the magisterium. (Many Protestants also accept this distinction, though they only include Scripture under the category of special revelation).
In order to better grasp this distinction, let’s consider an argument for the existence of a Creator God offered by the Persian Muslim philosopher, Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD): the “Kalam Cosmological Argument.” It figures prominently in the work of Evangelical philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig. He summarizes the argument in this way:
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.
After defending each of the argument’s premises, a philosophically informed Christian, like his Muslim colleague, will go on to show (through various arguments) that the universe’s first cause must necessarily be the uncaused, perfect, unchanging, self-subsistent, eternal Creator and sustainer of all that which receives its being from another. (Craig would put it a bit differently, and for that reason is not a classical theist, which raises the even more awkward question of whether all Christians worship the same God, a topic for another essay).
“There is no god but God.”
Suppose Abdullah, an Arab atheist, after being persuaded by this argument, comes to believe, as the Christian believes, that such a Creator exists. Do Abdullah and the Christian believe in the same God? It seems that they do. The Christian, of course, not only believes in this God, but worships Him as well. He also believes many more things about God that general revelation alone cannot provide. These include that God is a Trinity, that the Second Person of the Trinity was incarnate in Jesus, and so forth. According to the Christian faith these beliefs can only be derived from special revelation, the Bible.
Soon after his change of mind about God’s existence, Abdullah joins a local mosque where he is taught to believe that the Creator (whom he calls “Allah”) is worthy of worship, is not a Trinity, cannot beget or be begotten, and so forth. These beliefs are not entailments of the general revelation that led him to Allah, but rather, are deliverances of what Muslims believe is special revelation, the Qur’an.
Do Abdullah and the Christian still believe in (and now worship) the same God? Yes, but with a caveat: Although they worship the same God, they cannot both be right about the Trinity and the Incarnation. Assuming that Christianity and Islam are mutually exclusive options, either the Christian or Abdullah knows more about God than general revelation can deliver. But that is precisely why it is proper to say that they worship the same God, even though one of them is clearly mistaken about some of his beliefs about that God.
Consider this example: Lois Lane is in love with Kal-El (Superman’s birth-given name), and believes him to be non-human because he was born on Krypton. Now imagine that Lana Lang is in love with Clark Kent (Superman’s newspaper reporter alter ego), and believes him to be a human being because she thinks he was born of human parents, Martha and Jonathan Kent. Lois does not know that Kal-El is really Clark Kent, and Lana does not know that Clark Kent is really Kal-El.
Are Lois and Lana in love with the same man? Of course they are, even though one of them is clearly mistaken about some of her beliefs about Kal-El/Clark and his nature. The reason for this is that there is only one being that is essentially Kal-El.
In the same way, there is only one being that is essentially God: the uncaused, perfect, unchanging, self-subsistent, eternal Creator and sustainer of all that which receives its being from another. As St. Paul puts it in his sermon on Mars Hill, “The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands. . . .[I]n him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17: 24, 28)
If this is who you worship, you worship God. Nevertheless, you would do well to heed the concluding remarks St. Paul preached that day in Athens: “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17: 30-31)