"If the church fails to apply the central truth of Christianity to social problems correctly, someone else will do so incorrectly.” Carl F.H. Henry

Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? A Response to Francis Beckwith

My friend and Baylor philosopher Francis Beckwith has an article at the Catholic Thing arguing that Wheaton College was mistaken in putting a professor, Dr. Larcyia Hawkins, on administrative leave for publicly posting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

He defends her by offering the following summary claim in his post: “The fact that one may have incomplete knowledge or hold a false belief about another person – whether human or divine – does not mean that someone who has better or truer knowledge about that person is not thinking about the same person.”

I remain unpersuaded by Beckwith’s claim; primarily because the issue, in my view, is theological and confessional, and less philosophical as he believes.

My main line of rebuttal is the following: We don’t know all that there is to know about God, but, through His wisdom and revelation, we know as much about God as God wants us to know. While our knowledge of God is incomplete in this sense, neither Muslims nor Christians believe that their revealed beliefs about God are possibly false, which is what Beckwith’s argument tacitly assumes as a possibility. Furthermore, the properties or attributes of Christianity and Islam’s understanding of God are not identical. The view of God that each religion teaches is revelatory and contradictory (Trinity and not-Trinity).

What of Abraham and Moses, who Beckwith labels as non-Trinitarians and offers as an example of how incomplete knowledge of God grants the proposition that each respective religion is pursuing the same God? This may appear problematic for the issue at hand, since Christians believe that Abraham and Moses are redeemed by God. First, Beckwith’s account casts a “History of Redemption” reading of Scripture to the dustbin, which, it should be noted, is how Scripture interprets itself. As Christians, we read the Scriptures how the Apostles read Scripture—dynamically, not statically. If we were to grant that Abraham and Moses were not Trinitarians in the immediate text as Beckwith writes, it wasn’t, however, because God was not Trinitarian at that point, but because He had not yet disclosed Himself as Trinitarian within the horizon of salvation history. Secondly, while I am not an Old Testament scholar, there’s a breadth of studies that examine the Trinitarian shape of the Old Testament. I believe it better to understood as a mystery, or to leave open the possibility that Abraham and Moses somehow understood the Triune nature of God (John 8:56; Hebrews 11:10). I am not comfortable with a prima facie denial that Abraham and Moses were confidently non-Trinitarian. Third, Beckwith’s claim appears, to me, as a post hoc fallacy. Christians confess a sense of finality in God’s self-revelation. This does not mean that God has disclosed all of his attributes; but it means that the self-revelation we have reveals a God, as a matter of fact, that is different than Islam’s view of God. Beckwith can make the claim he does only if both traditions plead ignorance or error to the nature of who God has revealed Himself to be, which neither do.

Now, if worshipping the same God means that both Christians and Muslims worship an ultimate Being, I’ll offer more sympathy with Beckwith’s position as a true proposition. If, however, adoration and revelation unique to each religious tradition results in worship and theology of vastly different (and contradictory) understandings of this ultimate Being due to media that affirms these different understandings, it serves neither tradition to insist that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God” since Christians and Muslims know God in categorically distinct ways. In my understanding of Christianity and Islam, YHWH and Allah do not share “identical properties.”

Christians confess, without hesitation, that God is exclusively, and fully known as the Trinitarian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We know this through Scripture. While my respect for Dr. Beckwith couldn’t be any higher (and whose work I’ve immeasurably benefitted from), I don’t agree that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, nor do I believe it is helpful to each respective tradition’s theology to say that they do.