You may have heard recently about the place I teach (Wheaton College) and one of my colleagues (Larycia Hawkins). Another colleague just wrote a piece that aligns well with my own views on the matter, and for those interested in the nitty-gritty theological and philosophical arguments surrounding the questions “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” you could hardly do better than this piece by philosopher Ed Feser.
What I want to do here is not so much to write another opinion, but to report on an aspect of this issue that may have escaped your attention–the fact that many Christian missionaries to Muslims have the working assumption that the Allah of Islam is, to some degree, the Jewish and Christian God of Abraham. There is no denying this reality, which may come as a surprise to many people, liberal and conservative alike. Obviously any Christian is going to affirm the Trinitarian nature of God and the divinity of Jesus, contra Islam, but that does not mean the missionaries are necessarily wrong in making the assertion that the Muslim Allah still refers in some limited sense to the Christian God (if you dispute that, you have not digested the Feser article, yet). It also clearly does not mean that these Christian missionaries think Islam is an equally valid path to God and salvation–why on earth would they be risking their lives as missionaries to Muslims if they thought that?
Wheaton College’s 2009 Alumni of the Year, Greg and Sally Livingstone, founded Frontiers, one of the largest mission organizations exclusively dedicated to bringing the Christian gospel to Muslims. In the current context of the Dr. Hawkins case, it is a bit ironic, then, that the Frontiers website lists “5 Reasons Why We Love Muslims.” One of them is “We are spiritually related to Muslims.” It goes on to say: “Muslims look to ‘Ibrahim’ (Abraham) as “our forefather” (Romans 4:1). Since those who follow Jesus call Abraham “the father of all who believe” (Romans 4:11), we share our lineage. Like us, Muslims believe in one true God, the Creator of all peoples.”
During the award speech he gave at Wheaton, Greg Livingstone is asked (at 53:28) if we have anything in common with Muslims that makes it easier to minister to them. His response includes “At least with Muslims we have a few things in common: God!, the judgement day….you have some places to start that you don’t have with [many other groups]….A lot of them really want to please God (55:00)….” So, this man, who founded a Christian mission organization with bases in 25 different countries that are sending teams into 40 different Muslim countries, makes no qualms about the notion that Muslims are worshiping, to some degree, the same God as Christians. His organization does seek, however, to reveal to Muslims the Trinitarian nature of that God, which is at the heart of the Christian gospel.
Livingstone does seem to be a somewhat controversial figure in evangelical circles, particularly regarding the Common Word, which is an open letter to Christians written by Muslim religious leaders trying to identify common ground between the two religions. A group of Christian leaders responded with a letter (“A Common Word” Christian Response) that Livingstone signed. This response welcomes the interfaith dialogue and “…applaud[s] that “A Common Word Between Us and You” stresses so insistently the unique devotion to one God, indeed the love of God, as the primary duty of every believer. God alone rightly commands our ultimate allegiance.” While this response does not explicity state that the Allah of Islam and the Christian God refer to the same entity or that the love of God is the same in the two religions, the implication is pretty clear. So clear, in fact, that Wheaton’s former President Litfin, Provost Jones, and former Chaplain Kellough retracted their support after having initially signed the letter. The signatories still include, however, Wheaton College’s own Roy Oksnevad, current director of the Muslim Ministry Program in the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton. Oksnevad said “I still agree [with the statement]. I don’t have reservations” and was given permission from the college to keep his signature on the open letter. In another comment on this action he writes: “I say, lets dialogue. However, we should not be naive in coming to the table to talk. We should define the love of God and the love of neighbor in a biblical sense, not an Islamic sense.” Notice there is no mention that these are entirely different Gods that are being referred to, however.
SIM (Serving in Mission) is another major mission organization with a significant outreach to Muslims. A document on their website, “Engaging with Muslim People Groups” has similar language to Frontiers: “Muslims have a lot in common with Christians: they believe that there is only one God, who revealed his will to humankind throughout the ages; they believe that God created the world, that he sustains and directs it, and that we should live according to his will.”
Lastly, and perhaps most convincingly, the missionary magazine Mission Frontiers published a long essay by Dr. Rick Brown on “What God Do Muslims Worship?” which emphatically argues “The fact is, Arabic-speaking Jews, Christians, and Muslims all use the term Allah to refer to the one and only God, the creator of the universe, the sustainer of life, the bestower of blessings, the sender of prophets, the author of Scripture, and the judge of all nations.” Related to missions work and the notion that “Allah” is an ancient moon god, Brown writes:
If Christians tell a Muslim that when he mentions Allah he is talking about a moon god, and that he worships the moon rather than the creator of the universe, then he will view them as idiots or as slanderers. Worse yet, their testimony will have no credibility with him, because he knows his own intentions, namely that he is directing his reference and his worship to the Supreme Being, the creator of the universe…
This magazine claims to be “the most widely read and cited publication of its kind, entirely focused on serving Bible-believing followers of Jesus Christ throughout the world to bring the gospel to every people and nation as found in Revelation 5:9 and 7:9.” It is the publication of the large missions organization Frontier Ventures, founded in 1976 by Caltech grad Ralph D. Winter who was named by Time Magazine in 2005 as one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America. Brown concludes the article:
The “Allah” whom Muslims worship is the Creator, who alone is God; they do not worship a moon god or idol. Nevertheless, their concept of God is incomplete and distorted without the revelation of God that is presented in the Bible. In this respect they are like non-Messianic Jews, whose concept of God is uninformed by the New Testament revelation.
It sure seems to me that for many of those Christians who are actually living with and ministering to Muslims and sharing the Gospel of Christ with them, the last thing they are wanting to convey is that “Allah” does not refer to the same Jewish and Christian God of Abraham. I am no expert on this matter, and there are some missions organizations and many churches that would vehemently deny the “same God” claims cited above. At the very least, though, I think it is hard to look at Christian missionaries working among Muslims and tell them they are completely wrong on this issue. They, above all other Christians, understand the deep, irreconcilable differences that still exist between the two religions and their understandings and experiences of God.