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Back in 2015, a controversy erupted at Wheaton College in Illinois, a very good evangelical school.
It raised the question whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
Responding to the controversy, David French said “No”.
Now, David French is a Harvard-trained attorney and longtime contributor to National Review who has just become a senior editor for a new conservative website called The Dispatch. I have great respect for him. Probably because I typically agree with him. (From The Devil’s Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce: “Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.”) He and his wife, also an author, even headed up “Evangelicals for Mitt” during both the 2008 and 2012 primary and general election seasons.
On this question, though, he was wrong.
Francis Beckwith, a former evangelical Protestant philosopher turned Catholic philosopher who has a lengthy history of sharp criticisms of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said “Yes”:
Professor Beckwith was right on this question. As is Pope Francis. As are many other theologians and scholars.
I’ll dispose of the most obviously false argument immediately, one that, to his credit, Mr. French doesn’t make: Some in the West mistakenly believe that Allah is the name of a foreign deity like Zeus or Apollo or Ahriman, peculiar to Muslims and definitely not referring to the God worshiped by Christians. I’ve written on this here and here.
I have to admit to being puzzled by David French’s citation of the Protestant theologian R. C. Sproul: “To Muslims, god ‘is a single person, transcendent. The God Christians worship, on the other hand, is the maker of heaven and earth. He is one being and transcendent.’”
But the Qur’an, too, portrays God as “the maker of heaven and earth.” I haven’t counted, but I’m guessing that he’s described that way at least a hundred times in the text. He did it in six days. He planted a garden and put Adam and Eve in it. And so forth. And, according to Islamic theology, God is every bit as “transcendent” as Christians have ever made him out to be, if not far more so.
However, the difference that French and his sources take to be the crucial point is that, in Islam, God is “one,” whereas in mainstream Christianity he’s “triune” — somehow simultaneously one single God in the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Well, of course, that is a difference, and no small one.
And deciding when two views of x, or two ways of doing y, have diverged widely enough to have created two distinct x‘s or two separate y‘s is always a judgment call. When, exactly, did the Latin of the Iberian Peninsula cease to be Latin? When did that subsequent language become Spanish and Portuguese? Precisely when, in evolutionary biology, does a new species emerge? Is Swiss German a different language from standard German, or is it just a dialect of (and within) German? On what date did Dutch cease to be a German dialect and become its own language? If John has a beard, does it cease to be a beard if Jane plucks out a hair? How about ten hairs? How about a hundred? A thousand? Exactly when can it first be said that John no longer has a beard?
I contend, though — and I’m in excellent company — that the similarities between the Muslim and Christian conceptions of God are still far and away sufficient to view them as referring to the same being. And I might ask Mr. French whether he believes that Jews and Christians worship different Gods. Because Jews no more believe in a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit than Muslims do. (As a matter of fact, Muslims have a far, far more positive view of Jesus than Judaism has historically had.) “Hear, O Israel,” says the famous Hebrew shema. “The Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). I would be surprised to hear Mr. French say that Jews worship an altogether different God than Christians do, but perhaps that is his view.