The Same God? A Plea for Precision

Triggered by recent events at an evangelical Christian college, there has been an explosion of discussion about whether Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.” In my experience, most people think the answer to the question, “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” is very obvious. What’s fascinating, however, is that some of those people think the answer is obviously yes, while others think the answer is obviously no!

One immediate pitfall is the ambiguity in the word ‘same’. If someone says “John and Julie have the same phone,” that’s a different kind of statement than “John and Julie have the same father.” There are two phones, but only one father! Now consider this statement: “John and Julie read the same book.” How many books were there?

So the basic problem is this: the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” is ambiguous as it stands, and thus susceptible to different answers depending on exactly how one interprets the question. In reality, when people raise the question they often end up conflating a host of related but distinct questions, such as the following:

  • Do Christians and Muslims refer to the same Deity when they speak about ‘God’? In other words, do both groups refer to the one true God, the Creator of the universe? (A closely related question: Do the Bible and the Quran refer to the same Deity? Does the Quran make false assertions about the real God or does it make assertions about a fictional deity, analogous to ancient Greek claims about Zeus?)
  • Do Christians and Muslims believe in the same Deity, despite their (very significant) disagreements about the nature and character of God?
  • Is the worship of Christians and Muslims directed towards the same Deity? If it is, does it follow that Christian worship and Muslim worship are equally acceptable to God?
  • Do Christians and Muslims conceive of God in the same way when they worship? (A closely related question: Do the Bible and the Quran depict God in the same way?)
  • If Christians and Muslims don’t conceive of God in the same way, do they conceive of God in a sufficiently similar way? (That in turn invites the question: sufficient for what?)
  • Can both Christians and Muslims be said to know God? If so, exactly what kind of knowledge are we talking about here? Purely intellectual knowledge? Personal relational knowledge? Saving knowledge?
  • If Christians and Muslims do share some common knowledge of God, does it follow that both groups respond appropriately to that knowledge?

This list of questions isn’t meant to be exhaustive, only illustrative. And equivalent questions can be asked of Christians and Jews, Christians and Hindus, Christians and Mormons, and so forth.

Once we distinguish all these questions, we can see that things are somewhat more complicated than they first appear. Some of the questions above have straightforward answers. For example, the New Testament is crystal clear that a saving knowledge of God comes only through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (Matthew 11:27; John 14:6; John 17:3; 1 John 2:23). At the same time, the Bible also teaches that all humans have a natural knowledge of God through general revelation which renders them without excuse for not honoring and giving thanks to God (Romans 1:18ff).

Another question with a very clear answer is whether Christians and Muslims conceive of God in the same way when they worship. Clearly not: Muslims conceive of God as an absolute undifferentiated unity (the doctrine of tawhid) whereas Christians conceive of God as a Trinity. Likewise, no one who has read both the Bible and the Quran could be under any illusion about whether they give the same basic depiction of God.

However, some of the other questions in the list above aren’t nearly so straightforward to answer. We have to delve into philosophical issues like theories of reference (i.e., how our words and concepts “pick out” particular objects, and under what conditions they “pick out” one and the same object) and theological issues like the noetic effects of sin (i.e., how the fall has affected our knowledge of God).

It’s unfortunate that some people leap to conclusions about these more complicated questions, and they do so on the basic of simplistic arguments which, if sound, would have some unwelcome consequences. For example, I’ve seen some people argue that if two people disagree about the essential attributes or intrinsic properties of X, then those two people can’t be referring to the same X. But in that case it would follow that Calvinists and Arminians don’t worship the same God. Likewise, we’d have to conclude that Reformed theologians who have disagreed about the doctrine of divine simplicity, or the doctrine of eternal generation, weren’t really worshiping the same God! If our reasoning leads logically to such conclusions, something has gone awry with our reasoning.

Another dubious argument: “Muslim beliefs about God can’t refer to the real God because they reject the doctrine of the Trinity.” Problem: if Muslims can’t have any true beliefs about the real God, that seems to conflict with what Romans 1 teaches about the natural knowledge of God.

Here’s an example of a bad argument on the other side: “Christianity and Islam are both Abrahamic religions, therefore Christians and Muslims must both worship the God of Abraham.” That’s an attractive argument to some, but it’s a fallacious one. What’s worse is when people continue their leaps of logic and end up embracing religious inclusivism or pluralism!

A further problem with failing to properly distinguish the questions is that people will tend to think that an affirmative answer to one question entails an affirmative answer to the others. But that’s clearly not the case. For instance, if someone says that the Quran refers to the God of the Bible, that’s not equivalent to saying that the Quran correctly depicts the God of the Bible. If someone says that Christians and Muslims direct their worship towards the same God, that’s not equivalent to saying that Christian worship and Muslim worship are equally acceptable to God. (Consider the case of the Samaritans in John 4.)

In any case, my purpose here is not to supply answers to the more complex and demanding questions, but only to emphasize the importance of being clear and precise about which questions we’re answering and how those answers are related. I’ve seen people hang a great deal of theological weight on issues that are either poorly defined or don’t have all the implications they think they do.

For those who want to wade into the deeper waters, I recommend the following article, which represents one of the best treatments I’ve come across:

Jeroen de Ridder and René van Woudenberg, “Referring To, Believing In, and Worshipping the Same God: A Reformed View,” Faith and Philosophy 31, no. 1 (2014): 46–67.

Happily, the article is available online here. It carefully defines the questions, it’s philosophically rigorous, and it tries to navigate the issues from a theologically Reformed perspective (drawing specifically from the Dutch Calvinist tradition).

Here’s the abstract:

We present a Reformed view on the relation between Christianity and non-Christian religions. We then explore what this view entails for the question whether Christians and non-Christian religious believers refer to, believe in, and worship the same God. We first analyze the concepts of worship, belief-in, and reference, as well as their interrelations. We then argue that adherents of the Abrahamic religions plausibly refer to the same God, whereas adherents of non-Abrahamic religions do not refer to this God. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to say that adherents of all Abrahamic religions believe in and worship the same God.

And here’s the conclusion:

We have presented a Reformed view on the relation between Christianity and other religions, which finds its inspiration in the Dutch Kuyperian tradition. Next, we analyzed what it is to worship, believe in, and refer to God and looked at how these concepts are interrelated. We argued that worship of X requires belief in X, which at least involves having the beliefs (a) that X exists, (b) is a certain kind of thing, and (c) that X can be trustedor relied upon in those ways that are relevant to things of X’s kind. If beliefs (a), (b), or (c) are false, belief in X and hence worship of X is improper. Belief in X also involves (attempted) reference to X, which fails if X doesn’t exist. False beliefs about X, however, do not necessarily invalidate reference, at least if we construe reference along the lines of a causal theory of reference. Fundamentally mistaken beliefs, i.e., false beliefs about the very kind of thing that X is, do undermine reference.

We went on to argue that the Reformed view meshes well with a modified causal theory of reference. On this combination of views, there is a case to be made that adherents of the Abrahamic faiths refer to the same God, although this does depend on the assumption that disbelief in God’s Trinitarian nature is not a reference-undermining fundamental mistake. Adherents of many non-Abrahamic religions do not refer to the same God, since they have fundamentally mistaken beliefs about the kind of being God is. The Reformed view further implies that, in a strict sense, Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not believe in and worship the same God. Nonetheless, we may be forgiven for sometimes speaking loosely and saying that they do believe in and worship the same God, because, arguably, they do corefer to God and their conceptions of what kind of being God is overlap to a considerable and important extent.

I encourage you to read the whole article. It will be hard going at points for those who don’t have a philosophical background, but I think the main outline of the argument will be clear enough.

Again, to be clear, my purpose here is not to stake out a particular position on the more disputable issues (still less to defend “the Reformed” position, as if there were only one) but rather to encourage some more careful thinking about the important questions they raise.

8 thoughts on “The Same God? A Plea for Precision”

  1. Thank you Dr. Anderson for this in general and especially for the link to the article on this topic.

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  3. This is good, James A. There are lots of different questions that can be distinguished and not all of them have the same answer. A quick question about the article. I haven’t read it (yet) but I assume you have and can give a quick response. The question concerns this part of the quote, “Fundamentally mistaken beliefs, i.e., false beliefs about the very kind of thing that X is, do undermine reference.” Do the authors give details about what “fundamentally mistaken beliefs about the kind of thing X is”, specifically about what counts as a *fundamentally* mistaken belief? Maybe the modifier is not really supposed to be doing work here. Here’s the sort of case I am thinking of: a group of us see something whiz by quickly. James A: It’s a bird. James G: It’s a plane. James Bond: It’s Superman! They all fix their referent on the same object (I think!), but have different beliefs about what kind of thing it was that whizzed by. Is this an instance of a fundamentally mistaken belief about the kind?

    1. Good question, James G. Here’s what the authors say earlier in the paper:

      These reflections do raise an important question, namely when mistaken beliefs are to count as so fundamentally mistaken that they invalidate reference. Above, we suggested that beliefs that get the very ontological category of a thing wrong should count as such, but when it comes to God, it is not immediately clear which beliefs are guilty of such a mistake. A thorough discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of the present paper, but we suggest that at least the distinctions between personal and non-personal beings, between concrete and abstract entities, between universals and particulars, between substances, properties, stuffs, events, processes, and modifications, and between creator and created are of fundamental ontological importance. This is to say that views that place God on the wrong side of these divides fail to refer to God.

      They then go on to briefly consider whether false beliefs about God’s trinitarian nature count as such.

      As for your Superman example, I’m inclined to agree: all three people are referring to the same thing, even though two are fundamentally mistaken about what kind of thing it is. However, I hesitate to extend this to the case of God, since in the Superman example reference is established by ostension, and that’s not the case (or at least not normally the case!) when it comes to referring to God.

  4. What about Acts 17:28, where Paul quotes Greek poets as though they were referring to the true God when they were probably referring to Zeus?

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