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The Same God?

By December 19, 2015 3 Comments

I was going to write on why “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” means so much to me as a Christmas carol, but the latest blow-up at Wheaton College seems much more pressing. In case you haven’t heard, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, a tenured professor of political science at Wheaton, was put on “administrative leave” by college authorities this week for public statements that did not “faithfully represent the College’s evangelical Statement of Faith.” The chief offense alleged involves the last five words in a statement she posted on social media to explain her decision to wear a hijab for Advent. She did so “in religious solidarity with Muslims because they like me, a Christian, are people of the same book, and as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” Her action, and explanation, were necessary, Professor Hawkins further stated, because the increasing level of verbal and physical assaults on Muslims and their property across the United States demand that people of faith step up and bear witness.

Wheaton College insists that it is not Dr. Hawkins’s choice of apparel nor her expressed sympathies to Muslims that brought down her suspension but the implications of her statement that we, Christians and Muslims, “worship the same God.” The matter has provoked a huge flurry of postings, news articles, and opinion columns, some of which I’ve read, none of which I’ll cite here, lest this post become a farrago of links to other links in infinite regress. Some of my knowledge and the following reflections have also been prompted by exchanges on my home institution’s in-house faculty-staff discussion board, the comments on which are not intended for wider dissemination. Yet the issues raised are too important to leave alone. So here goes.

We can stipulate that Wheaton College has the legal and moral right to discipline its faculty for violating its Statement of Faith, to which all tenured faculty have signed on. The question is whether Dr. Hawkins’s statements constitute such a violation. The college pledges to adjudicate the matter by due process, but its initial step—academic-year suspension—seems to me rather summary given the complexity of the theological tangle at hand. In academic circles this sounds like “guilty until proven innocent.”

We can stipulate further—I dearly hope—that Professor Hawkins would be above reproach by any measure of Christian orthodoxy if she had stayed with her words about Muslims and Christians (and Jews, for that matter) being “people of the same book.” By the same standard she could irreproachably have said that people of all three faiths “worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Further, that Allah is simply the Arabic rendering of Elohim, another name for the God otherwise known as Yahweh whom Jesus too worshiped. Likewise, that Christians are to honor and defend Muslims for bearing, with all human beings, the image of God, and that Christians in the United States must respect and defend Muslims’ rights as citizens and residents of the United States. I’ll go further personally (but happily far from alone) and say that I find Dr. Hawkins’s original Advent gesture of solidarity to be altogether apt and courageous, an exemplary positive Christian witness at a time and place where such are in short supply, not least among the most vocal putative Christians among us. (Is anybody out there in Evango-land upset by the declarations of their political heroes Carson and Cruz about how blithely they, as president, would incinerate [Muslim] civilians in order to make Americans stand proud and safe and strong?)

Still, Professor Hawkins’s “same God” assertion deserves further consideration. To be fair that discussion will have to be historically informed and nuanced, as manifested in some of her own commentary but which does not bode well for public airing in our current climate of vitriol. For me the issue is particularly timely because (1) we are about to celebrate the feast of the incarnation colloquially known as Christmas, in which Christians attest that the second person of the Holy Trinity has come to be of our own flesh for our salvation, and because (2) reading some theology over the past few years has made me very affectionate toward what one of my faculty colleagues champions as “robust trinitarianism.” I won’t trouble you with the details, but it seems to me that such a stance clears up a number of problems which otherwise bedevil Christian, and particularly Calvinist, theology.

But doesn’t robust trinitarianism create problems of its own when we get into interfaith discussions, even—maybe especially—among the three Abrahamic monotheisms? As I understand it, Christians say—and must say—that with the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we know God in a new way, and in a complete and irreversible way. We can never again know God in any other way than by taking Christ fully into account. From now on we say that if we would see the face of God, we should look on the face of Jesus. Fine, and hallelujah. But if Muslims and Jews do not see Christ that way, do they see the same God as Christians do? Did the incarnation change God? My theologically amateur guess is no. But doesn’t Christ-ness show a distinctive about God-ness, and—robust trinitarianism, remember?—doesn’t this go all the way down into God’s full being and therefore beyond just our names for or worship stances toward God? If so, then do we finally worship the same God?

Again, this is not a rhetorical question on my part or a judgment against Professor Hawkins. It’s the quandary I come to in asserting two goods. I’ve probably just committed half a dozen theological errors and ten more misunderstandings that were reproved already at Nicea or in the subsequent centuries of commentary thereupon. Still, at this time of year Christians celebrate the breathtaking grace that broke upon us when Jesus came among us, showing forth the face of God for good. How do we bear out that mercy without condemning our fellow children of Abraham as infidels or enemies or second-class people of faith whom we can pat nicely on the head?

It looks like my answer to the question in the title of this post is kind of ‘yes and no.’ In that case the charitable course of action is to amplify the yes. Certainly it is the prudential course on behalf of a winsome Christian witness. But I have another idea. If the status of Jesus is the real issue at hand, how ‘bout we show forth Christ ourselves in this season? Hey, we can even be evangelical and invoke WWJD! How about we walk with the Samaritan Professor Hawkins toward people who rightly dwell in fear, rather than passing them by like the teachers and lawyers of orthodoxy? How about loving our enemies, as Jesus instructed—that means even, and especially, that minuscule percentage of Muslims who perpetrate terrorism and violence? How about we show solidarity with the vast majority of Muslims who by any measure are closer to our faith commitments than those of our American neighbors who are operationally pagan, even if they just love Christmas and will oppose the “war” upon it all the way to the mall? How about, especially at this dark and politically so unpromising time of the year, we heed Jesus’—and the angels’ and the prophets’—repeated injunction to “fear not”? How about we go to that Board of Trustees room at Wheaton College, and to any number of similar places, and ask, with Dr. Hawkins in the dock, where would Jesus stand?

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well said, JB. Especially at the end.
    Some other thoughts: if we don’t say we worship the same God, then the Muslims are right, that our Trinitarianism has destroyed our belief in the One God. A robust Trinitarianism should not be allowed to cancel the Unity of God. This is true especially for Calvinists. Read Calvin, and see how much the Lord God is the One God. Even in his robust doctrine of the Incarnation, and in his robust doctrine of the Holy Spirit. (This may be seen in one of his most controversial ideas, the so-called Extra-Calvinisticum.) When you read the prayers and liturgies of the early Calvinists, they regarded the Muslims as heretics. Not that they had a different religion or a different God, but that they were heretical about the same God.
    Jews, Christians, and Muslims all tell sometimes convergent and frequently contradictory stories about the same God, and use sometimes equivalent and frequently exclusive names for this God. Of the 99 Glorious Names of God in Islam, it’s never “Father.” And that’s true, that the Lord Jesus is the only “way, truth, and life” to come to the One God as “Father”. (That’s what Our Lord is talking about in that passage in John, not who gets to go to heaven or not.) If the Wheaton College Board of Trustees finds against the Professor, it shows they are making theological choices which are a real decline from the Calvinistic part of their heritage.

    • Jim says:

      Thanks, Daniel. Exactly the kind of precision and historical knowledge that’s needed–and so unlikely to find in public discourse. Let’s hope the official proceedings follow your kind of lead, and not that of media mania.

  • Arlyn Bossenbrook says:

    Well said. I am no biblical scholar. Just an opinionated lawyer. But where in the New Testament does Jesus say that by his coming to earth he cancels out old testament worship? Didn’t Jesus himself worship as an Old Testament Jew? Jesus is a more fully revealed version of the Old Testament God. I happen to like the New Testament version. For me, it’s far more understandable than Old Testament worship. But, If some people want to hang out to the old ways of worshiping, who are we “Modern Christians” to say they are wrong? We should let God sort out what he finds to be acceptable worship, not the Board of Trustees of Wheaton College.

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