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What does it mean to “worship the same God”? 

Thoughts by Don Fairbairn, Cooley Center Director

January 2016

*** For a brief video discussion featuring Dr. Fairbairn, click here.
The controversy surrounding the statement by Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God” has been intense, and it shows no sign of abating. But what does it mean—or what might it mean—to worship the same God? 

The answer to this question is not as clear as one might think, since it is possible, or even likely, that no two worshipers have exactly the same concept of God in mind as they worship. Everyone’s concept of God is inaccurate or at least incomplete, to some degree. 

But at the same time, one can speak of collective concepts of God within groups of worshipers. The Bible and the Christian tradition have a very well-defined concept of the true God, and this concept is the standard by which an individual’s or a group’s concept of God needs to be evaluated. The biblical and Christian understanding of God is many-splendored, but I suggest that three major aspects of that understanding can serve as criteria that guide us in the midst of controversies such as the one at Wheaton. 
First, the true God is the creator of heaven and earth, of everything that exists.
As a result, there is no other being comparable to him in greatness, majesty, or power. 
The opening verse of the Bible makes this sharp distinction between God and everything he has made. Indeed, the creation account in Genesis clearly sets the true God apart from the “gods” of the nations around Israel. In the creation myths of those nations, this world emerged as a byproduct of a pre-cosmic clash between powerful gods. In sharp contrast, Genesis 1 and the whole Bible affirm that the true God made everything that exists apart from himself. 
In the early Christian era, the church affirmed the same thing in opposition to another belief system—Gnosticism—which affirmed many gods and saw this universe as a cosmic accident. The Bible and the Christian faith have always affirmed that there is one God who intentionally made the world and everything in it. The world, and we its inhabitants, thus were created on purpose, with a purpose—to love, obey, and glorify God. The first line of the church’s major creed, ratified in the late fourth century, is “We believe in one God, the Father, the almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen.”
Any concept of God that sees him as one among many, or even as the highest among many, is flawed to the point of being a different god. This criterion separates any true monotheism (such as Judaism or Islam as well as Christianity) from all other concepts of god or the divine. 
Second, the true God possesses an incomparably great character. 
The Bible affirms the character of God in a variety of ways. The names and titles he gives himself in the Old Testament give us insight into his character. His actions—the Exodus, the giving of the law, the sending of the prophets, etc.—testify to his character. It is not just that he is powerful. Equally important, he is just, good, and loving. In light of the Bible’s depiction of God’s character, the Psalmist sings, “There is none like you among the gods, o Lord” (Ps. 86:8).  
Any concept of a monotheistic God that fundamentally deviates from the Bible’s depiction of the Lord’s character may be said to be a different god. But here there is more ambiguity than in the previous criterion. What does it mean to “fundamentally deviate”? No person’s or group’s concept of the one God’s character perfectly matches the biblical witness. All such human concepts are incomplete or distorted to some degree. How far off does a group’s—or a religion’s—concept of the one God have to be before we say that it is not a partial understanding of the true God, but rather a different god altogether. This is not an easy question to answer, and this brings us to a third criterion.
Third, the true God is relational.
The basic pattern of religious life, in the mind of most human beings, is that god (or the gods, or the ultimate) is not particularly concerned about us. We have to get his/her/its/their attention if we are to receive any divine consideration. 
In sharp contrast, the biblical depiction of the true God begins with his creating the world as a dwelling place for human beings with whom he establishes a relationship. It proceeds after the fall with God’s establishing a covenant relationship with his people, and later with God’s entering the world personally through the incarnation. It ends with the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb dwelling among God’s people in the new heavens and new earth. From first to last, the true God takes the initiative to establish relationship with human beings.
God’s establishment of relationship with people is based on something even more fundamental, his relationship with his Son and his Spirit. God is like a father to us because he has always been a Father to his Son. In Jesus’ longest recorded prayer in John 17, he links the relationship believers have with God to his own relationship with the Father before the world was created. 
As the early church reflected on the biblical witness about God as relational, they affirmed their faith in the true God by dividing the creed into sections: “We believe in one God, the Father …. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God …. And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life....”
Ultimately, therefore, the Bible and Christian witness affirm the true God as the eternal Father of his eternal Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and as the possessor of an eternal Spirit who is also called “Lord” and is worshiped with the Father and the Son. These three are united as one God, not as three separate gods. 
Surely this criterion starkly distinguishes the Christian God from other monotheistic conceptions of god, right? Yes, but it is at least possible that one could view another monotheistic concept of God as a genuine—albeit partial—understanding of God the Father, even if that concept has not yet grasped God the Son or the Holy Spirit. Many Christians, for example, say that the Jewish concept of God is the same God as the Christian one. On what basis can one say this? On the basis of the assumption that Jews have grasped the Father with sufficient accuracy, even though they have not yet grasped the Son or the Spirit. 
At least some Christians say the same thing about the Islamic concept of God. According to some, Allah, in Islamic understanding, is a partial and distorted concept of God the Father, not a different god altogether. If one allows this possibility, then the question of whether Allah really is a partial but genuine understanding of God the Father probably depends on the second criterion—one’s assessment of whether the Islamic concept of Allah’s character matches up with the Bible’s depiction of the Lord’s character. But is that kind of assessment really a fruitful way to proceed? God is not just a set of attributes or characteristics. He is the eternal Father of his Son Jesus Christ. He becomes the father of believers who are adopted as Christ’s brothers and sisters. The way to know the true God is through his Son. 
Perhaps, then, the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God is not the best question to ask. Whatever one thinks of Islam as a collective entity, there are millions of Muslims who are genuinely seeking God as best they know how. They will find him—and in the process truly understand him—when and if they begin to seek him through his Son. Jesus is well respected in Islam, but the real Jesus is clearly much more than the stunted portrait of him that comes through the Qur’an. Jesus is much more than Muslims realize, and seeking to know the true Jesus is the key to knowing the real God. “No one comes to the Father but through me,” Jesus says. 
So, along with the proper debate over the difference between the official views of God in Islam and Christianity, should we not also be asking our Muslim neighbors, “Do we know the same Jesus?”