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Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God? Part 3

By Rev. Aaron Messner - Window on the World - February 21, 2016

We now turn our attention once again to an element in our evening service that we are calling, “Window on the World.” The purpose of this “window” is to briefly consider an event or issue that is occupying interest in our culture at large, and to try and provide some succinct reflection on the matter in a way that will strengthen and aid our ability to think about our world from a Biblical perspective.

This week we continue to look at the question, “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” This question has been raised to a new level of public consciousness as a result of former Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins’ public declaration that Muslims and Christians are both “people of the book” and “both worship the same God.”

Over the past couple of weeks we have looked at this question from a linguistic perspective and a Biblical and theological perspective. Tonight, I want to offer some brief comments about Paul’s missionary strategy in Athens as we find it in Acts 17. This text is the biblical cornerstone for many who argue that Christians and Muslims indeed worship the same God, they cite the apostle Paul in Acts 17 as their main Biblical support. Now in Acts 17 (beginning with verse 16), Paul arrives in Athens and his spirit is provoked within him because he saw that the city was full of idols. After reasoning in the synagogue and in the marketplace, Paul was invited to speak in the Areopagus, and to give an account of his “new teaching.” Paul points out to those in attendance that among their many objects of worship, he found an altar with the inscription, “To the unknown god.” Paul then argues, “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” He then proceeds to give teaching on the God of the Bible, that He is the creator and sustainer of all life. Paul even quotes a couple of Greek poets as part of his argument. One poet, speaking of this god said, “in him we live and move and have our being” and another said, “we are indeed his offspring.” Paul then proceeds to argue that God has overlooked times of ignorance (the fact that they did not actually know this god), but now He commands all people everywhere to repent and has fixed a day in which the resurrected Jesus Christ will judge the world.

Many argue that the mere fact that Paul seeks to make a connection to this altar to the unknown God and then approvingly quotes two Greek poets creates an airtight case that Paul is seeking to establish that the idolatrous Greeks and Christians were worshipping the same God. The object of their worship, the argument goes, was the God of the Bible; it was simply incomplete and needed to be filled out with more information. This understanding of Paul’s missionary strategy is then taken by many as the norm for how to approach other cultures and their understanding of deity. The missionary strategy that often flows from this is to try to establish a common ground of belief and worship and then simply try to build upon that common ground by giving increasing clarity of Christian teaching.

But we must ask, is this right? Is this what Paul is actually doing? Is Paul establishing a new norm of missionary strategy going forward or is he trying to take advantage of a fairly unique situation. It seems to me that Paul here is taking advantage of a fairly unique situation, a relatively small crack in the door, and that crack is two-fold: first there is the Greek admission that this god, in whom we live and move and have our being and of whom we are all offspring, is an unknown god to the Greeks. Paul does not take this tack with Zeus, or any of the other established deities of the Greek pantheon, who rather than serving as a point of common ground for worship, actually provoked his spirit. Rather he focuses in on this one opportunity because of the Greeks’ own admission that this god is unknown to them.

Here these Greeks have a self-defined empty category, the unknown god and Paul then tries to take advantage of this category by filling it with the truth about the God of the Bible, who is the only true God. He does not affirm that Christians and these Greeks are worshipping the same God in truth, as much as he affirms that they acknowledge the existence of, and offer worship to a god even though they admit that they do not know him.

A second “crack in the door” that allows Paul to take this tack is that this is a pre-Christian altar. This was erected during the “times of ignorance.” Paul then declares that this ignorance is no longer acceptable and that God is now requiring them to repent and believe in the living and resurrected Jesus, who will come again to judge the world.

Even the missiological approach that Paul takes here, which is probably the greatest example of a Biblical preacher seeking “common ground” with his pagan audience, hardly seems to support the modern idea of ecumenicalism, that various faith traditions are essentially worshipping the same God and that they should seek first to recognize grounds for common worship before articulating their distinctiveness. No, the only thing that allows him to even take this tack is the Greek admission that their god is unknown, and even then, Paul immediately adds that their worship is incorrect, that they are in ignorance and that they need to repent and believe in the resurrected Jesus Christ.

This entire episode seems to have little in common with Christian missions to Muslims. First, Islam is not a pre-Christian religion. It was not established in the times of ignorance, but rather it emerged 600 years after the birth of Christianity. Islam took into account the historical existence and the theological claims of Christianity and then explicitly rejected them, calling the worship of Jesus as God, and the doctrine of the Trinity, blasphemy of the highest order. The substance of Paul’s appeal to the altar of the unknown god was that it was built in the times of ignorance; Islam did not emerge in such a state of ignorance, but rather it emerged in state of open rejection of and rebellion against Christian doctrine.

Secondly, Islam does not acknowledge itself to be a religion of ignorance, like this Greek altar. Islam claims to be the clear revelation of the one true God, a revelation that explicitly rejects the God of the Bible. Given these realities it would seem to be a mistake to appeal to Paul in Athens as the Biblical proof that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Christians can faithfully explore all kinds of points of connections with Muslims. We can seek to love them well, and celebrate aspects of our shared humanity, including our pursuit of truth about God. However, in the end we cannot escape the fundamental divide between the two faiths, and we cannot escape the need to preach how Muslims like all of us must repent and believe in the Resurrected Jesus Christ, who is our Lord and our God.

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