Wheaton College has suspended an associate professor of political science for endorsing the view of Pope Francis that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God”. The ensuing debate has been partly theological: to what extent are Christian and Muslim definitions of God compatible? And partly social-political: how do we maintain peaceful and constructive relations between Christians and Muslims in our increasingly pluralistic cultures? I don’t want to play down the complexity of the controversy, but I suggest that a narrative-historical approach may at least shed a different light on the issue.
In his analysis of classical paganism in Romans 1:18-32 Paul declares that the wrath of God is revealed against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress a fundamental truth, which is that the true nature of God has been apparent “since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made”. The true nature of God is defined in terms of his “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (hē… aidios autou dunamis kai theiotēs).
The language is notably Hellenistic—in the Septuagint the words aidios and theiotēs occur only in 4 Maccabees and Wisdom of Solomon. Paul is saying that the Greeks should have understood from the natural order that God is the invisible, transcendent and eternal creator of all things. He cannot, therefore, be worshipped in the form of “images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things”.
Jews worshipped this one, true, living creator God exclusively, but so it seems did godly and righteous Gentiles such as Cornelius and the god-fearers of Pisidian Antioch (Acts 10:2; 13:26). Presumably, then, Paul would have allowed that not all Gentiles were liable to the wrath that was revealed from heaven against the culture generally. Indeed, he seems to have thought that on the coming day of God’s wrath—against the Jew first, then against the Greek—some righteous Gentiles, who instinctively did what the Law required, would put many Jews to shame (Rom. 2:14-16, 27).
It seems to me that there are good grounds here for saying that people outside the covenant community may know and honour the one, true, living creator God—the same God whom Jews and Christians worship. Obviously, the words “know”, “honour” and “worship” need to be defined, but if we can keep this at a fairly general level, I think that Paul allows us to say that the possibility of “knowledge” of the creator is a fundamental given of human existence.
Muslims believe that there is only one God, who is the sole creator and sustainer of the universe, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, and who certainly cannot be worshipped in the form of “images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things”. So why not just do without the epistemological contortions and accept that they worship the same God—the God who created all things?
But that is not the whole story. The central argument of the New Testament—the gospel that was proclaimed both to first-century Israel and to the pagan nations—was that this God had raised his Son from the dead, had seated him at his right hand in heaven, and had given him authority to judge and rule. To the extreme annoyance of the Jews in Pisidia Antioch, many Gentile god-fearers were persuaded by Paul of the “good news” that Jesus had been begotten as God’s Son, had inherited the kingdom, by virtue of his resurrection from the dead (Acts 13:32-33).
Although Trinitarian belief makes much more of the incarnation than of the ascension, ultimately, it seems to me, the distinctive Christian conception of God as one-in-three has its origins in the conviction of the early disciples that Jesus was alive and in control of things at the right hand of the Father. The doctrine of the Trinity, as I noted here, was largely a rationalisation of the apocalyptic argument.
But what was being claimed exactly? Perhaps two main things. First, the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus meant that God was about to act in history to transform the status of his people and establish his own rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world. So Paul tells the men of Athens that the God of Israel is no longer willing to overlook the times of pagan ignorance, now commands Gentiles to repent of their idolatrous practices, and has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world (oikoumenē) 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 17:31). Islam emerged beyond this eschatological horizon, but it is not without significance that it began as a reformation of Arab idolatry and polytheism.
This narrative-historical approach suggests to me that we cannot discuss the uniqueness of the Christian account of God in purely theological terms. How we narrate the clash between Islam and Christianity is a critical part of the discussion—and perhaps we must just wait and see who in the long run will be justified. It may prove to be the case that there will be many godly and righteous Muslims who will put the church to shame if and when God judges our own decadent culture.
Secondly, the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus means that the people whom God chose in Abraham to be a new creation, to serve him as priests and prophets in the world, is governed by, and answerable to, the risen Lord. Again, this highlights the limitations of opposing Islamic monotheism on traditional Trinitarian terms. The challenge that the New Testament presents to us is less to assert adherence to a Trinitarian account of the godhead than to confess unswerving allegiance to the risen Christ as Lord over his people.