Wheaton, Hawkins, and “A God by Any Other Name”: One Biblical Theologian’s Perspectives

With a bit of trepidation, and perhaps some will say, a lack of wisdom, I have decided to wade into the deep waters of the whole Wheaton-Hawkins controversy. What prompts me to wade in is, first of all, questions that have come my way as to what I think about all this, and second, my belief that the issues involved are primarily ones that have to do with biblical theology.

First, I need to make three preliminary statements. (1) I am not omniscient, and I simply do not know all the facts of the situation, one that continues to develop. (2) As much as possible, I am going to make my remarks from a biblical-theological orientation, though there will be some comments that are not solely biblical-theological in nature. And (3) this is only one biblical theologian’s response to the issue, and another biblical theologian could legitimately make different points and come to different conclusions with a different data set. All that having been said, here are a number of perspectives on the confrontation, in a loosely logical order. I will assume the reader knows the basic facts of the story.

(1) Aside from the issue of wearing the hijab, which I will get to in another point, there is certainly no problem with Professor Hawkins’s desire to express solidarity with her Muslim neighbors. With some political figures in the United States calling for a ban, not only on immigration for Muslims, but on their even entering the country with valid passports and visas, and with the suspicion and violence which have been endured and suffered by members of the American Muslim community, such a desire to express solidarity is nothing other than commendable.

(2) It is also important to note that the wearing of the hijab by Hawkins is not a problem for Wheaton College either. It is very unfortunate that some of the cartoons and memes on social media have so badly misunderstood this. Additionally, there is no reason whatsoever—and I repeat—whatsoever, for anyone to accuse Wheaton of being anti-Muslim. I was very much disappointed in the remarks of one theologian (whom I will not name; but he was one of those to whom Hawkins appealed as a resource for her “same god” remarks), who came out and said that Wheaton’s reactions to Hawkins’s actions were not at all theological but entirely anti-Muslim. These comments, from a theologian for whom I do have a great deal of respect, were simply irresponsible and uncharitable.

(3) There is no problem, per se, with a Christian woman deciding to wear a hijab. I can envision any number of occasions where a professing Christian woman might want to don the hijab: as Professor Hawkins did to express solidarity with a people-group whom she believed were experiencing some degree of oppression or ostracization; visiting a Mosque or entering a Muslim home, out of respect for Islamic customs and so as not to give offense; going to lunch, shopping, or attending an event with a Muslim friend; etc.

(4) The first problem, in my opinion, with Professor Hawkins’s actions is that she decided to express this solidarity during—Advent. I don’t know whether she has actually explained this choice or not, but to me, it does seem, at the very least, curious to pick Advent during which to do this. Advent is an anticipation of that great act of redemption in which God sent his Son into this world to take on human flesh, and, in that human flesh, to go to the cross to suffer crucifixion and death as an atonement for sin. Why choose Advent to express, in her words, “religious solidarity” with Muslims, when Islam, the religion of those Muslims, denies everything that Advent anticipates and that Christmas embodies? There is no room in Islam for a doctrine of incarnation; there is no room in Islam for Christ even to have died, much less die an atoning death. As I said before, there is no problem with the donning of the hijab. But why do it specifically during Advent as an expression of religious solidarity, when there is no Muslim solidarity to be had with the truths to which Christians give expression at Advent and Christmas? This choice makes little, if any, sense, at least theologically.

(5) Another problem with Professor Hawkins’s expression of “religious solidarity” with Muslims is her remark that Muslims, like Christians, are a “people of the book.” Interestingly, I haven’t seen this much discussed in the articles which I have come across. But if there is any question about whether Muslims and Christians worship the “same God,” there is no question whatsoever with regard to whether they are a people of the “same book.” Now, to be sure, there are a number of things that Muslims like about the Christian book, at least the Old Testament part of it, and there are even some things Muslims like about the New Testament part of the Christian book as well. But Muslims are not a people of the Christian book; it is not for them word of God. And the Koran is not word of God for Christians. There is no religious solidarity, per se, to be had here. Rather, it is simply an interesting, generic, comparative observation regarding two different religions which have two different books. The comparison is no more striking than if Professor Hawkins had said, “we are both people of faith,” or “we both worship,” or “we both have places of worship,” or “we both have ethical guidelines,” or “we have both religious leaders.” So this piece of so-called “religious solidarity” is, at the very least, questionable.

(6) This brings us, then to Professor Hawkins’s contention that Christians should be in “religious solidarity” with Muslims because they both worship the “same God.” There are a number of points to be made with regard to this claim. First, it is important to note that this is quite a complicated issue. Hawkins herself has acknowledged this in subsequent statements after this initial one, referencing books by, for example, Timothy George, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? However, perhaps the problem with this initial statement is that it seemed to be quite assertive in its tone, without any flexibility for the nuancing that she has introduced in her later statements. Perhaps a bit of nuancing from the outset would have been helpful in averting some of the controversy, something along the lines of: “While different Christian scholars have different views on this, it can be said that, at least in some respects, Muslims and Christians, in their worship, seem to refer to the same God.” Just that bit of acknowledgement might have served to soften the apparent inflexibility of her original statement. Furthermore, it wasn’t necessarily all that helpful for Hawkins to reference Pope Francis on this matter, who holds no authoritative status for Protestants, especially Evangelicals, and who, of course, is not known for making controversial statements (!).

(7) The responses to Professor Hawkins’s assertion about the “same God” have, of course, been numerous. I have already mentioned the response of one theologian who seems to have regarded this sameness to be a rather settled question, and accused Wheaton of being Islamophobic, with no possible theological objections to anything Professor Hawkins has said. Again, this was both irresponsible and uncharitable. However, without necessarily being as strident, other responses have, nevertheless, been just as convinced that there really is no question, and that indeed Christians and Muslims do worship the same God. I’ll look at a couple of these responses in subsequent paragraphs, but first, here is a brief list of differences between Allah and the Christian God to which detractors of the “same God” formulation call attention:

Allah, the God of Islam, is very much different in his characteristics and attributes than the Christian God.

Allah, the God of Islam, cannot possibly be the same as the God of Christianity, because the Christian God is a Trinitarian God, and Islam absolutely denies the possibility of the Trinity.

There is no place in Islam for Jesus to be regarded as having any place in the Godhead. God has no son, and therefore Jesus is not the Son of God. There is no incarnation, and there is no death of Christ on the cross; therefore, there is no atonement.

(8) The first objection to these considerations is that while there are indeed differences between the ways in which Islam and Christianity understand the “makeup” of God; nevertheless, if we were to apply those same distinctions to the way God is understood in the Old Testament or in Judaism, versus Christianity, we would have to conclude that Abraham did not worship the same God as Christians either. Therefore—game, set, match. Unless we are going to call Abraham, when he could not have possibly believed in a Trinitarian God, a worshipper of a different god, then we should admit that Muslims are not worshipping a different god either. However, there are several biblical-theological considerations to take into account, which, at the very least, ought to suggest that the contest has not yet reached that game, set, match conclusion.

(9) The first thing to keep in mind here is that this objection does not sufficiently take into consideration the progress of revelation, as well as how the revelation of God in Jesus Christ has put into place a radical distinction between what we might refer to as BC versus AD faith. Christianity sees itself as the continuation of the people of God, a people whose origin is narrated and detailed within the pages of the Old Testament. There is no suggestion that the Old Testament saints were wrong in what they believed; but they did not have the fullness of revelation that came with the incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, as well as with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Christian church. God revealed something about himself in Jesus Christ that he had not revealed to the Old Testament saints, without in any way denying what he had revealed about himself in his prior dealings with Old Testament Israel. But now, with the coming of Christ, a faith that is only informed by the prior revelation in the Old Testament is no longer sufficient. While there is continuity between the Testaments, there is also a radical discontinuity. So, yes, the Old Testament saints did worship the same God as that of the newly formed Christian church. But now that Christ has come, that faith and worship is no longer sufficient. How much more so, then, is that the case with Islam, a religion which, while claiming to maintain some connection with the prior people of God, yet did not come into existence until six centuries after Christianity. So, on this count, I believe the appeal to Abraham fails.

(10) A second problem with the Abraham appeal is that the evidence with Abraham, as well with other Old Testament figures, is, we must confess, somewhat ambiguous with regard to what the Old Testament saints may have known or anticipated. Without, on the one hand, being able to precisely describe any orientation toward, or anticipation of, the future these saints may have had, we must admit there are some intriguing statements made by Jesus and the Apostles in this regard. So, for example, what did Jesus mean when he said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56)? Or what did the author of the Gospel of John mean when, after quoting some words from the prophet Isaiah, declared, “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him” (John 12:41)? And did David have at least some inkling of the future glory of the Messiah when he wrote Psalm 16, as suggested by Peter’s first recorded sermon on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:30-31):

But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.

And what does Peter mean exactly when he refers to how the Old Testament prophets and writers

. . . who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. (1 Peter 1:10-12)

There are, of course, huge hermeneutical issues with regard to how we are to understand these New Testament passages and others like them. But, at the very least, we must admit that passages such as these should make us wary of our pronouncements as to what the limitations of the knowledge of the Old Testament saints really were. Again, there is a world of difference here between Christianity as a continuation of the faith of Old Testament saints, versus a religion that came along six centuries later and denies significant integral aspects of both Old and New Testament revelation.

(11) Finally, with regard to the appeal to Abraham, we should also note that Jesus’ language with his opponents was hardly of the “why can’t we just get along?” variety. When assured by his opponents that they were not only the children of Abraham, but also the children of God—“The only Father we have is God himself” (John 8:41)—Jesus’ reply to them was:

“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.” (John 8:42-47)

I don’t want to over-interpret Jesus’ statement here in his conversation with the Jewish leaders of his day; but I think it is safe to assume that if you had been there that day, and if you had asked Jesus, “Do you and the Jewish leaders with whom you have been dialoguing worship the same God?” the answer would have been a resounding, “No!” So, whatever the answer might be with regard to Islam today, it must be admitted that there is a certain legitimacy to the asking of the question. So the appeal to Abraham is by no means a game, set, match declaration.

(12) I would also note that, in a less adversarial encounter, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, he again raises the dichotomy between the worship of two religions that were, indeed, quite close to each other. He says to her, “ You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). Again, I don’t want to make too much out of this passage other than to note that the question as to whether the same God is being worshipped, even in two religions that were quite close in their orientation, requires a far more nuanced answer that many are willing to give.

(13) Another objection to the declaration that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God makes its appeal to the narrative of Paul’s speech on Mars Hill in Acts 17:16-33. The argument derived from this passage is that Paul took his cue from the fact that altars had been erected in Athens to an “unknown God.” Paul took advantage of this, and when he then remarks to the Athenians, “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23), he was either, in actuality, or for the sake of argument, acting on the assumption that this unknown God and the Christian God were the same God. Again, however, I would argue that the appeal is not taking everything into account, and that the equation of the two “gods” is one that is too easily made. Other questions need to be asked. For example, we read that Paul was quite distressed and upset by all the idols that filled the city. What if there had been no idol or idols erected to an “unknown God.” Would Paul, for the sake of argument been willing to admit that Christian worship of God and Athenian worship of Zeus were actually worship of the “same God”? Would he have done this for any of the other deities in the Greek pantheon? And did he pick out the “unknown God” idol simply because it afforded him the opportunity to fill in the content with his own knowledge of the God who is known? Perhaps Paul’s strategy here was far more rhetorical than a simple equation of the unknown God and the Christian God allows for. The issues are complicated, but that is just my point; a too-easy appeal to this passage or other passages like it is just that—too easy.

(14) Another aspect of this discussion to which it is important to call attention is Professor Hawkins’s reference to her “Muslim brothers and sisters.” Now, on the one hand, to refer to other human beings as our brothers and sisters, simply with regard to the fact that we are all members of the human race, is not, as I see it, problematic. Paul himself, in the Acts 17 passage that we looked at in the last point, declares that “we are his offspring.” On this basis alone there is certainly justification for referring to the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. The problem, however, with Professor Hawkins’s statement is that it was set in a context where she had declared that her solidarity with her Muslim neighbors was a “religious solidarity.” And, of course, Evangelical Christians, while rightly acknowledging a universal brotherhood and sisterhood on one level, also rightly deny the existence of that universal brotherhood and sisterhood on another level. When it comes to a “religious” brotherhood and sisterhood, Christians declare that this only comes about by faith in Christ Jesus—“To all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13). So, coupled with a too-easy declaration that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, this reference by Professor Hawkins to her Muslim “brothers and sisters” could not have escaped being seen by the Wheaton administration and constituency as problematic.

Now, Professor Hawkins, in a letter in which she spelled out her continuing affirmation of Wheaton’s doctrinal statement, has specified that she referred to Muslims as her brothers and sisters with reference to the imago dei, the “image of god,” by which I take it she means that she is referring to the level I mentioned above, that we are all brothers and sisters simply by virtue of the fact that we are all humans. But there are two problems with this. The first is that, normally, when one is referring to this level, one would usually be talking about ethnic and racial categories rather than religious ones. So it is somewhat curious to include Muslims in this imago dei argument. In other words, she could have referred to adherents of any religion as brothers and sisters and been on track: Hindus, Buddhists, etc. On the “image of God” level, Muslims are no more Professor Hawkins’s brothers and sisters than are Hindus, or Buddhists, or any of the adherents of the world’s tribal religions, or even Satanists for that matter. On the “image of God” level everyone in the entire world is a brother or sister, regardless of what religion they profess. But then this just highlights the problem: she initially referred to Muslims as her brothers and sisters as a matter of “religious solidarity.” So Professor Hawkins has either made an unfortunate conflation of categories, or she has actually been disingenuous as to what her real reasons are. This, then, is the problem that Wheaton has to deal with.

(15) And this brings me to what Wheaton College’s responsibility is in this whole matter. I have been very much disappointed in some posts that I have read, which have argued that Wheaton, with its suspension of, and now apparently a move toward termination of, Professor Hawkins, has missed an opportunity to be more Christlike before a watching world, and has actually given Christianity a black eye. To be sure, administrations and administrators can make missteps, and they can fail. But, in my opinion, it is simply way too early to reach the conclusion that this is indeed what has actually happened. First, I reference the point above which I made regarding the possibility of disingenuousness on Professor Hawkins’s part as to her exact rationale for why she made her “same God” and “Muslim brother and sisters” comments. Second, in the letter which Professor Hawkins wrote to assure the administration of her continuing affirmation of the doctrinal statement, she also responds to what were apparently some questions regarding her views on the Eucharist and who can participate in the Lord’s Supper. Additionally, she makes reference to the virgin birth and, curiously, the immaculate conception. These sections are somewhat enigmatic, but they raise questions as to whether her recent comments about the “same God” are the only ones that are actually at issue. Additionally, the administration has referred to how Professor Hawkins is the one who has broken off talks between the two parties, and there also some statements that she has made which seem intended to portray her in the role of a martyr who won’t be “scared off” by the administration. But, “scared off” from what? From wearing the hijab? That does not seem to be the issue. From an “image of God” solidarity with Muslims? That doesn’t seem to be an issue either. From regarding herself as being in religious solidarity with her Muslim “brothers and sisters”? That is an issue, and for her to talk about the administration attempting to “scare” her off is an unfortunate characterization. I just don’t know enough to be able to comment on what appear to be some behind-the-scene moves; but there are indeed some curiosities here.

But this is what I do know. Seminaries, Christian colleges and universities, and other Christian educational institutions do indeed have the responsibility to make sure that those who teach for, and represent those entities, do so with honesty, integrity, and in compliance with the institution’s doctrinal statement. After all, one of the main tasks of a Christian educational institutions is to continue a two-thousand-year-old process and teaching and contending for “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 3; see also 2 Tim 2:2). When I applied to teach at the seminary where I have now taught for the past twenty-two years, I very conscientiously examined both the school’s doctrinal statement and my own mind and heart to see whether I could affirm the statement in all integrity. There actually were a couple of points on which I had a slight quibble, and I spelled these out in a letter for the search committee to make sure that both I myself and the search committee were satisfied that my compliance with that statement was genuine. If, today, I were to depart from the statement and deny one of its central tenets, or interpret it in such a way that my teaching actually departed from the intention of the statement, I would hope that the institution would call me to account. That is a responsibility the institution bears before its constituency, before the church, and before God. It is the individual professor’s responsibility as well. To be sure, an administration can be over-zealous and pedantic in its execution of this task; but in the case at hand, I think more facts need to come out before making condemnatory statements toward the administration.

(16) There are other things that are at play in this discussion of which I am aware, but don’t think I have either enough data or expertise to comment intelligently; but I list them here just for the sake of completeness: (1) There are questions regarding the people and organizations whom Professor Hawkins consulted for advice on her intended actions and rationales for them. (2) There are issues that have been raised as to whether her actions actually help and advance the cause of Muslim women, or whether they actually contribute toward their continued oppression. (3) There are questions as to whether Muslims themselves would give assent to the statement that we worship the same God. (4) There are issues with regard to the situation of Arab Christians and missionaries in Islamic countries, who have to deal with these issues in very different and often volatile contexts. (5) There have also surfaced concerns about whether school administrators were initially unconcerned about her statement, regarding them as basically “innocuous,” and only pursued the matter on account of constituency pressure. (6) There are also questions as to whether Professor Hawkins is overplaying the martyr role.

(17) Having read Professor Hawkins’s letter where she spells out her continuing affirmation of the school’s doctrinal statement, it seems to me that by-and-large, she really is in substantial agreement with the statement, and I truly hope that the administration and the professor can settle their differences, and she can continue teaching at the school. But it also seems to me that she needs to at least admit that she made rather unguarded, un-nuanced statements, and that she bears a measure of responsibility for the confrontation and the confusion.

(18) Finally, there have been a lot of blog posts and articles written on this matter, and I am under no delusion of grandeur that my analysis of this whole issue is spot on. But I do think I have gotten at least a few things right. And as to the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, I find myself in substantial agreement with the conclusion that Scot McKnight came to in his initial post on this topic:

I have said this before and will say it again: we can agree to some degree at a generic level, but we don’t worship God in the generic. We worship either the God of Abraham and Moses, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, or the God of Mohammed. The God in each of the faiths is understood differently enough to conclude that saying we worship the “same” God muddies the water.

A rose by any other name is still a rose. But I am not so sure that what works in the field of botany works in the field of theology. Is Allah simply a different name for Yahweh? Does the Muslim God equal the Christian God when the Muslim God makes no allowance for a Son who proceeds from the Father, or for a Holy Spirit who proceeds from them both? Is it true that a God by any other name is still the same God? Indeed, is it not the case that even having the same name for God does not ensure that different groups are really talking about and worshipping the same God.

So, do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Perhaps this is true generically. But as McKnight reminds us, we don’t worship God in the generic.

Jerry Shepherd
January 14, 2016

4 thoughts on “Wheaton, Hawkins, and “A God by Any Other Name”: One Biblical Theologian’s Perspectives

  1. Good post. Thank you.
    With respect to point #5, Muslims will say that Christians and Jews are “People of the Book” because they (Muslims) recognize the OT and NT as being the books that the Koran is built upon. I am not sure if it is the same way that Christians view the NT’s relationship to the OT, but that is why it can be said that all three religions are People of the Book.
    This understanding – and the understanding of what Islam has subsequently done to both OT and NT [basically saying they are now flawed documents] – I think helps us to decide whether or not we worship the same God. I agree with you – the God who has revealed himself through Jesus Christ is not the same god found in the Koran.
    It is useful, though, in mission work to know this because as I speak to Muslims I remind them the Koran is [allegedly] based upon the OT and NT, so I tell them I am going to talk to them about those books, and they accept that.
    Lots more could be said on this, but you have done a good job.

    • Thanks for this information, Jeff. But this also needs some clarifying for me. The “people of the book” phrase, I believe, occurs in the Koran to characterize the relationship between Jews and Christian and their sacred Scriptures. But it is not a phrase Muslims would use to characterize themselves and their relationship to those same Scriptures. So, when Professor Hawkins refers to how Muslims and Christians are a people of the book, would she not have to be referring to how Muslims are a people of their own distinctive book?

  2. Given where you teach, have you talked with Allan Effa about these issues? It would be interesting to hear a missiologist reflect on a missiological issue?

    Re “people of the book”, Muslims do hold that the Injeel and Taurat are also “the book”, and that these versions (although corrupted by Christians and Jews) are still the word of God and to be read. As you say, the issues are complex and require careful nuance.

  3. In Systematic Theology I wrote a paper on the issue of inclusivism and the suggestion that we may have a post mortem encounter with Christ and will have another chance to choose Jesus. Some of the issues relate here as they touch the issues regarding the faiths of the O.T. saints and the seemingly muddy times of the New Testament. Cornelius is of particular interest. Prior to being evangelized by Peter, was Cornelius saved? Or, was the God that Cornelius knew, the same God that Peter knew? My answer to that is yes, because when he heard about Christ he accepted him as the Son of God. Which is very much what Jesus says about Abraham. If Abraham could have seen this day he would have been overjoyed. I would have been the fulfillment of his faith and hope. The test for knowing if we worship the same God is this, offer them Christ, if he they see in him the fulfillment of their faith, the answer is yes. If they deny Christ the answer is no.
    In some ways, for all the nuanced answers and discussions, someone ought to ask, what part about the Christ in Christian don’t you understand?

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