As a messianic Jew, I have been following very carefully the controversy surrounding Dr. Larycia Hawkins, the political science professor who was suspended from Wheaton College after saying Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”
In this piece I am not taking sides on the issue whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Many have already made declarations that Muslims and Christians do, or do not, worship the same God.
For example, I recently noticed that Franklin Graham, President and CEO of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, weighed in on the controversy: “Islam denies that God has a Son. They deny that Jesus is God. They do not believe in a Triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” Graham continued. “I can tell you – Islam and Christianity clearly do not worship the same God.” That is certainly a clear and unambiguous statement of his position.
Other Christians, however, make the same claim with similar arguments set forth by Franklin Graham. What concerns me about such statements is that if one says Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God because Muslims reject Jesus as God, as well as the doctrine and reality of the Trinity, then we must also say Jews and Christians do not worship the same God.
Wouldn’t we be claiming that the God believed in by the Jews for centuries, as described in the Old Testament, is not the true God? When God chastised the Jews for drifting into idolatry, doesn’t it suggest that at one point Jews did worship the true God, but at another point in time, they didn’t? That is, they moved from true belief into idolatry. Some Christians claim Jews do not worship the true God, or the same God as the Christians. However, few evangelical Christians actually go that far. To my knowledge, Franklin Graham has not said that. As a messianic Jew and a professor of philosophy, I have always believed in the true God, but it was only when embracing Jesus as Messiah, was I blessed with the fullness of God. Perhaps I am wrong and need to reconsider this more seriously.
However, as a philosopher I also know that I have to be aware of my assumptions, and the assumptions of other Christians and Jews.
Question 1: Is it logically possible for someone to believe in the true God without acknowledging all the true attributes of God? Stated somewhat differently, are there essential attributes of God, such that if one does not believe in them, one doesn’t believe in the true God?
Question 2: Could it be that someone assigns false attributes to God, and yet the individual believes in the true God?
Question 3: Could someone be confused about the true and essential attributes of God, and yet still believe in the true God, despite cognitive confusion?
Question 4: Is there a difference between actively rejecting an essential attribute of God and simply not believing in the true God? How might this difference impact whether the person believes in Him?
Question 5: Is accepting and believing the attributes pointed out by Franklin Graham both necessary and sufficient for an individual to believe in the true God?
Hypothetical situation: Let us assume that love is an essential attribute of God. What if an individual believes that God is love but also believes that God is loving, but not always loving? Is that individual simply confused about the nature of what it means to be a loving God, or does this individual both reject an essential attribute of God and ascribe a false attribute to God? Does that person thereby fail to believe in the true God?
Hypothetical situation: If someone is confused about the meaning of any essential attribute of God and based on that misunderstanding rejects an essential attribute, has that individual rejected the true God, or simply rejected the misunderstood attribute? For the sake of truth, wouldn’t it be important to determine whether the person rejects God, or simply what was previously misunderstood about Him?
Question 6: How many true attributes of God must one accept to believe in the true God? How many false attributes of God can someone accept without failing to believe in the true God? For example, what if someone accepts all the true attributes of God but also believes in some false attribute? Would that individual believe in the true God, or not? My hypothesis is that this latter question applies to many individuals sitting in the pews of churches who identify themselves as evangelical Christians. Why is this question even important? Could it be that we may be mistaken that someone truly accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior because we have not done a total inventory of all their beliefs in reference to the true God?
Descartes, the famous philosopher, compared beliefs to apples within a keg. Our task according to Descartes is to inspect every apple/belief to make sure there are no rotten apples/beliefs that would spoil the other apples/beliefs in the keg. Must a Christian go through a similar process to determine whether all attributes ascribed to God are true attributes, and when taken together, are exhaustive of the attributes of God? We philosophers call the sum of interconnecting beliefs held by an individual, one’s doxastic system. If there is one bad belief in an individual’s doxastic system regarding God, does that person fail to believe in the true God?
These are difficult questions with huge implications. For this reason, I am very cautious about declaring whether someone believes in the true God. I prefer to pray that the individual comes to believe in the fullness of God. In Acts 17, Paul at the Areopagus declares Athenians who are confused about the true attributes of God to be very religious. He beautifully states that the true God is very close to them and that they live, move, and have their being in Him.
I like Paul’s approach, which is loving, philosophically adequate and practical in terms of correcting confused individuals who believe in the shadow of God but need to know His fullness.
What we desperately need in the evangelical world today is another Paul.