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Any Christian pursuing deeper relationships with Muslims eventually has to struggle with this question: Allah and Yahweh—are they the same God? This question became the topic of heated discussion at the annual convention of a notable evangelical denomination this past summer.  Delegates to this gathering were put off by a paragraph in an appendix to a minority report from a study committee working on evangelism in Muslim contexts. (Yes, it was buried that deep!) Here is the offending paragraph:

Are Allah of Muslims and Yahweh the same God? Yes, when the veil is lifted from their eyes and Muslims see Him as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Fine-tuning to see Yahweh as He truly is takes place through Christ. Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.

Pastors, elders, and theologians weighing in subsequently on denominational discussion boards and affiliated blog sites have accused the author of the statement of peddling a rehash of the old line, classical Liberalism opposed by J. Gresham Machen or of enticing the denomination to the cliff of a “syncretism” in which “Islam remains but Christianity is not needed”. The firestorm has not abated.

The author of the minority report, Dr. Nabeel Jabbour, a Syrian Christian by birth, is a veteran of over 40 years of ministry to Muslims in the Middle East. In his minority report and in other writings,* Dr. Jabbour amply evinces a clear commitment to the gospel and to the exclusive supremacy of Christ as the climactic and final revelation of God. The issue Dr. Jabbour raises is, rather, how best to dialogue with people who are still unconvinced: what kind of persons should we be and where should we start?

Context Matters

These concerns are evident even in the immediate context of the offending paragraph (repeated below in bold font):

There is only one God, and He is Yahweh, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the tendency of all human beings to bring down, as it were, that almighty God and to place Him in our little boxes. Those little gods that we tend to create are not the Almighty God. The Jews at the time of Jeremiah did it, although they gave him the name Yahweh. . . . Yahweh, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, cannot be placed into a box.

Are Allah of the Arab Christians and Yahweh the same God? Yes, when we do not have a veil over our eyes and when we do not bring Him down to become our servant who is supposed to answer our prayers and do what we think He should do. . . .

Are Allah of Muslims and Yahweh the same God? Yes, when the veil is lifted from their eyes and Muslims see Him as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Fine-tuning to see Yahweh as He truly is takes place through Christ. Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.

There is only one Yahweh, yet all people in all religions project their image of what He is like and assume that they are worshipping that Yahweh when in reality they are worshipping their own creations.

The Allah or God in Islam has 99 attributes, and we would agree with most of them. But the huge missing names are “Father of the Lord Jesus Christ” and “our heavenly Father.” . . . (Emphasis added; repetitive sentences omitted)

Critics insist that it is precisely these missing names (and attending concepts), which are so central to the Christian concept of God, that demand a complete and explicit rejection of any identity between Yahweh and the Allah--as a precondition for any meaningful discussion or evangelism.

An Historical Analogue

But consider this definition for God taught to Christian children for several centuries in certain sectors of the Church: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” (Westminster Shorter Catechism [1674]). Most thoughtful Muslims could agree with this statement; there is nothing distinctively Christian in it. Could this definition serve as common ground in a Muslim-Christian discussion?

This could be pressed further: Why would Christian theologians intent on instructing future generations of the Church write such a definition? Why not follow the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed with explicitly Christian claims like, “God is the all-mighty, all-knowing Tri-Personal Creator who was active in the story of Israel, and who is ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and dwells among us in the person of the Holy Spirit . . . ”?

The authors of the Shorter Catechism were defining God in a context framed by a long discussion spanning over 1700 years and reaching back to Greek philosophers: the Supreme Being had to be defined first in these “essentialist” terms. The “Westminster Divines” wanted to speak into the long conversation about that particular Referent, not start a new conversation about another. Whatever its other merits and demerits, this definition is, in itself, pre-Christian if not “sub-Christian”; but that is part of the necessary price paid to intelligibly inject new meaning into an old and venerable conversation. And the willingness to join that conversation is itself an act of faith in the God who has already been at work in the great conversations of history.

Conceptual Help

It might help to borrow some distinctions from linguistic philosophy. Swiss thinker Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) described meaningful communication as the interplay between three factors:

  1. The “signifier” – the sound or marks on a page that one recognizes as a sign, in our case, the words “Allah,” “Yahweh” or “God.”
  2. The “signified” – the concept, idea, or mental content that a sign (“signifier”) expresses or evokes, in our case the different concepts and theologies that characterize the various Christian and Islamic systems.
  3. The “referent” – the actual thingor person, or set of things or persons, to which a sign (or “signifier”) refers, in our case the actual person God is in God’s self.

The critics of the offending paragraph above assume a virtual identity between their set of “signifieds” (concepts, ideas about God) and the “referent” (God). For them the obvious differences between what they mean by God and what the Muslim theologian means is so great that there cannot possibly be a common referent for a Christian and any Muslim. The Christian is thus duty-bound to start with a different “signifier” (a different name for God) or to start with a list of differences about the “signified.”  The proclamation of the absolute antithesis becomes the sine qua non of faithful evangelism.  For them the conceptual cup of shared language and concepts for evangelism is always less than half empty and the contents poisonous.

The author of the contested quotation, on the other hand, is acutely aware of how all our concepts and systems of concepts about God fall short of God’s true glory and that there is individual variation; not all Muslims are in precisely the same place. The cup of shared concepts is frequently half full and represents a God-engineered starting place for the mysterious process of making disciples.

Pauline Precedent

Paul is the first Jewish preacher on record who, upon observing  rank pagan idolatry, did not heap scorn on it (like the Old Testament prophets rightfully did—Isa 44:18-20, Jer 2:27, Hos 4:12) but rather used it as a starting point: “the God you already worship in ignorance is the one I want to tell you about. . . . he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him -- though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and exist. As some of you own poets have said, 'We are his offspring'” (Acts 17:23-28). Paul did not lead with, “Let me tell you about a different God” but rather with “This is what the God you and your poets have been groping after is really like.” Paul was alert to a rather small set of shared “signifieds” and assumed that he could talk about the same “referent”—he could start where his audience was.

Of course there are risks, dangers of syncretism. This, however, is the point: there are dangers on both sides. Dealing faithfully with the gospel is always a matter of walking a ridge route; one can fall off the path both to the left and the right. The gospel demands a creative faithfulness by which we avoid sliding down either the slope of syncretism (compromising the faith) or the slope defensiveness and fear (bridling the faith). In that spirit we can join with the author of the minority report and issue the Muslim this sincere invitation: come know the Creator God more fully; discover that the one you and your poets have served as “Allah” is the God who through His Son Jesus and by His Spirit wants to be embraced as “Abba.”

  • NOTE:  Dr. Jabbour’s The Crescent through the Eyes of the Cross: Insights from an Arab Christian (Colorado Springs, CO: NAV Press, 2008) is a must read for any Christian serious about befriending Muslims and reaching them with the gospel.

Stephen Taylor is Associate Professor of New Testament. He is a missionary kid fascinated with the question of the relationship between culture and understanding the Bible. Steve is married to Terri who is also intimately involved in global issues; and together they have five fantastic kids. See also http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/stephen-taylor.

Comments 

 
0 #7 Kemal 2014-02-04 11:46
Quoting Don Johnson:
My very limited understanding is that one difference is that the God of the Tanakh/Bible is a covenant keeping God, but Allah of the Koran is so powerful that Allah does not need to keep covenants.

If "covenant" means "promise" then Not True. No religions can claim God does not keep His promise. Could they Gandalf?
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0 #6 Stephen Taylor 2013-10-09 11:32
"Seek more then to know. .."

This is a wonderful admonition! By following the link at the bottom of the blog piece, you should feel free to instruct me further on my lack of understanding concernin Islam. Peace!
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0 #5 Stephen Taylor 2013-10-09 11:28
"I'd like to introduce you to the work of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy."

Thanks, John. You all are doing valuable work. I will explore your website further.
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+1 #4 Stephen Taylor 2013-10-09 11:25
Don, thanks for you observation and, yes, in traditional Sunni Islam, God is always utterly and necessarily free. He is never bound by mercy or sentiment nor can he enter into binding agreements. This is one of several very important difference between the Islamic doctine of God and a Biblical understanding. The Jewish part of our Bible (the Old Testament) makes it clear that Yahweh binds himself to his people by his own promises. Why Yahweh should thus bind himself and the costs Yahweh is willing to shoulder for the sake of such commitment are never fully explained. Christians find the beginings of an explanation in the great affirmation that "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." In Christian theology, this unconditional commitment is ultimately rooted in the affirmation that in a deeply relational way, love is an inextricable part of the eternal being of God ("God is love"). So Muslims and Christians DO have disagreements about God that are crucial. The question is: how do we respond to those differences? Where do we start.
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0 #3 Yahweh Ben Yahwdah 2013-10-08 19:46
Peace I am not sure u get Islam .they know and love Jesus. This life is about looking for God. U can believe on him even not knowing the name. That the idea for the word Christ . Now it no on If same . Many reason why let talk . Seek more then to know. .. Understand is greatest
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0 #2 John W. Morehead 2013-10-08 13:12
Thank you very much for this exploration. In our post-9/11 time when tensions between Islam and Christianity are high, and dialogue between our traditions is being sought by some, such clarity and depth of thought are desperately needed. I'd like to introduce you to the work of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. We prepare Evangelicals for more positive and effective interreligious relationships and conversations. I think you might enjoy what we're doing. See www.religious-diplomacy.org/evangelichapter.
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0 #1 Don Johnson 2013-10-08 12:04
My very limited understanding is that one difference is that the God of the Tanakh/Bible is a covenant keeping God, but Allah of the Koran is so powerful that Allah does not need to keep covenants.
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