by Bruce Lindley McCormack, Princeton Seminary’s Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology, 1/11/16.
It is a great pity that the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has come so forcibly to the center of attention for so many (on social media especially) through ongoing controversy at Wheaton College. The nature of that controversy is well-known and does not need to be rehearsed here. I say it is a pity because the issue is a theologically profound and complex one which admits of no obvious answer. It is a question worthy of engagement by the finest theological minds in our world today precisely because of its complexity. But it is also an issue with implications not only for inter-faith relations but also for inter-confessional relations. That is to say: how we answer the question, the charity or lack of charity with which we do so could very well have an impact on ecumenical relations long after the controversy at Wheaton has come to an end. So the stakes couldn’t be higher. My hope is that all of us would learn to admit that more than one answer can reasonably be given and that is a huge mistake to assume that anyone who gives a different answer than one’s own is automatically guilty of either bigotry or a betrayal of the gospel.
Before I turn to the issue, I should say that I have had great respect and appreciation for Wheaton College for a great many years. I have lectured there twice, preached in their chapel, and benefitted greatly from the privilege of teaching an extremely high number of their graduates here at Princeton Seminary during my twenty-five years here. My respect has only been increased by the comments made in recent days by Wheaton faculty (including Larycia Hawkins!) on social media. Wheaton’s “hype” is not exaggerated in my view. It is simply lovely to see so many non-theologians who read enough theology to comment so ably on theological questions. I have been, as a result, heartbroken to watch this happening; heartbroken most especially for Prof. Hawkins but heartbroken too for faculty, students, alums – and, indeed, administrators. My goal here is to do theology well. And by “well” I mean not only theology that is academically rigorous and responsible to Scripture and the history of the construction of orthodox understandings of God but theology that serves reconciliation and peace. How we do theology can be, at times, just as important than the content if only because how we do it will decide whether it can be heard by others.
In what follows, my goal is to present what I take to be the best case that can be made on both sides of the “same God” question by one such as I (whose training is in the history of doctrine). I will begin with the negative answer and turn then to the positive answer. As this is a blog contribution and not an academic paper, I will not seek to defend every claim I make – though I would be happy to do so if pressed. I will simply say that my views on the range of theological topics relevant to this issue are the result of forty-three years of intensive engagement with historical and systematic theology, the last fifteen of which have been devoted specifically to the doctrine of God.
I. The Case for Rejecting the “Same God” Thesis
Those who think that “Allah” and the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” could not possibly be the same God defend their answer best on the following grounds. The doctrine of the Trinity is not one doctrine among others but the presupposition of all other Christian doctrines. It is this because triunity is not something added to “oneness” but is a description of what God is essentially. Put another way: the trinitarian relations are not laid on top of a divine essence which has been “established” metaphysically (i.e. in abstraction from those relations as a “fourth” beneath or behind the “persons”). The relations simply are what God is essentially. For that reason, as Karl Barth argued, it will not do to treat the “one God” before treating the “triunity” of God because everything that needs to be said about the “one God” needs to be conditioned by what is said about the Trinity. In support of these claims, Barth cites (among others) Johann Gerhard (the most significant orthodox Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century) and Herman Bavinck (a well-known modern Dutch theologian). “J. Gerhard writes of it: ‘whoever does not know the mystery of the Trinity does not know Him as He has revealed Himself in His Word’…” (Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, p.96. And from Bavinck: “‘The whole of Christianity, the whole of special revelation, stands and falls with the confession of God’s triunity. It is the heart of Christian faith, the root of all dogmas, the substance of the new covenant.’” (Ibid., p.97.). On this basis, Barth concludes “…it will not do to have God as a general concept within which the Christian God as he is basically known in the doctrine of the Trinity is only a special case” (Ibid., pp.97-8).