Saturday, February 13, 2016

A "Same God" Miscellany

I felt sort of lonely back in December when I voiced my agreement with former Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins's claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God (see this post). Since then many others have stepped forward to defend the same position. Here is a sampling:

(1) For starters, Peter Walhout, a chemistry professor at Wheaton College, observed:
"[M]many Christian missionaries to Muslims have the working assumption that the Allah of Islam is, to some degree, the Jewish and Christian God of Abraham. ... Obviously any Christian is going to affirm the Trinitarian nature of God and the divinity of Jesus, contra Islam, but that does not mean the missionaries are necessarily wrong in making the assertion that the Muslim Allah still refers in some limited sense to the Christian God .... It also clearly does not mean that these Christian missionaries think Islam is an equally valid path to God and salvation–why on earth would they be risking their lives as missionaries to Muslims if they thought that?" (italics added; read the rest of Peter's excellent post here)
(2) In his post, Walhout links to another blog essay by Edward Feser, who makes the philosophical case much better and more thoroughly than I did. An excerpt:
"Similarly, it is perfectly coherent to say that Muslims are “importantly” and “crucially” wrong precisely because they are referring to the very same thing Christians are when they use the word “God,” and that they go on to make erroneous claims about this referent. That the errors are “important” or “crucial” is not by itself sufficient to prevent successful reference. And since Muslims worship the referent in question, it follows that it also is not by itself sufficient to prevent them from worshipping the same God as Christians."
If you still have questions on this issue, take a look at Feser's (very long) post here.

(3) Robert J. Priest, Professor of Mission and Anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, comments:
"[F]or most evangelicals in America, our encounter with people who are Muslim is relatively recent, relatively superficial, and all-too-often inflected by American culture-war impulses. The one category of American evangelical that has long nurtured close relationships with people who are Muslim is missionaries and mission professors .... However, these individuals, who represent the heart of evangelical gospel concern, and who represent a unique mix of professional expertise and accumulated wisdom acquired over decades of study and ministry experience, do not appear to have been adequately consulted (if consulted at all).
"I've also been struck by the idea that many American evangelical missionaries and missiologists, and perhaps the Apostle Paul himself, would be in danger of dismissal if they taught at Wheaton College, since many of us arguably have been guilty of the very thing Wheaton College is sanctioning.
 "I fear that evangelicals who wish lovingly, creatively, and entrepreneurially to establish relationships of positive witness with Muslims and others will be overly inhibited and held back by fear of fellow Christians and how they might react. ... I fear that Muslims will learn the idea that faith in Jesus requires a repudiation of Allah as evil, and that this will pose an enormous barrier to consideration of the truth and goodness of the Gospel. Many missionaries with extensive first-hand experience guiding Muslims to faith in Jesus testify that this is a missiologically problematic message to send, counter-productive to gospel witness. ..." (Quotations from pp. 1, 2-3, 31 of this pdf; HT: CT)

As for Wheaton College where this all began, the conflict with Larycia Hawkins has ended with an apparent apology by the provost who placed her under investigation, an internal acknowledgement by a faculty committee that racial discrimination may have influenced the way her case was handled, and a "mutual place of resolution" that culminated in Hawkins's departure from the school.

The Wheaton College provost, I should note, appears to hold to a position on the controversy similar to my own:
"Ontologically all monotheists affirm that there can only be one divine being, and it seems logical to me that there must be some referential overlap or similarity in the divine being that each is referring to in each of the monotheistic religions." - Stanton Jones
So what was all the fuss about, then?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Faculty Job Openings at Briercrest College and Seminary

Briercrest College and Seminary is looking to fill faculty positions in Old Testament, Music/Worship Arts, TESOL/Modern Languages, and Psychology.

The Old Testament position was announced on January 29 and closes on March 1, so applicants will need to act quickly. Here is the job description:
Briercrest College and Seminary invites applications for a full-time faculty position (rank open, commensurate with qualifications) in Old Testament and Hebrew, beginning 15 August 2016 with primary appointment in Briercrest Seminary. The successful candidate’s teaching will support ministerial and academic degrees in the seminary along with occasional undergraduate teaching. Candidates should demonstrate a commitment to the Gospel, possess a PhD (or equivalent), and show potential for excellence in teaching, in service to the Church, and in research supporting ministerial education. Prior ministry and teaching experience will be highly regarded.
More information is available on the Briercrest website here.

And here are links to the other faculty position profiles--no less important, but probably of less interest to my readers:

Worship Arts
TESOL/Modern Languages

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Briercrest Colloquium: "Reading the Hopeless Text: Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Hopeful Reading"

A public service announcement for sojourners in Southern Saskatchewan:

Our first colloquium of 2016 takes place this Friday, January 29 in Room S113. Our presenter is Briercrest Assistant Professor of English, Dr. Matthew Zantingh.

Matthew's paper is entitled "Reading the Hopeless Text: Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and Hopeful Reading."

Please join us on Friday, in room S113 @ 12:30 PM if you can make it out.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Of Sledding Hills and Separated Shoulders

We got away to Cypress Hills Inter-Provincial Park for a few days early last week...
The park was as amazing as it always is this time of year...
The torn ACL and separated shoulder I got from following my daughter headlong down a sledding hill--not so much.

Fortunately, the injury didn't keep us from enjoying cross-country skiing...

and snowshoeing...
So far, about the most comfortable position for my shoulder is sitting at my desk, which is good because I expect to spend a lot of time here over the next few months.

This semester I will be teaching Greek Exegesis I, Hermeneutics, and Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity. (I keep copies of my syllabi online here, if you are interested.) None of the courses are brand new and three classes in a semester is a lot easier than four, but it will be busy enough. Classes resume tomorrow.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Greek (and Hebrew) Job and Ezekiel in a Year

Two years ago I read through Isaiah in Greek (and Hebrew), thanks to the Greek Isaiah in a Year Facebook group. In 2015 I followed a schedule produced by the Greek Psalms Facebook group, and spent the year making my way through the Psalms in Greek (and Hebrew). When I got to the end, I wanted to start over again at the beginning. (I probably should: The 1662 Book of Common Prayer states that the Psalms should be read through each month.)

The schedule and minimal peer pressure work for me: There is still a lot of the Old Testament that I have yet to read in Hebrew (or Greek), and I am ashamed to say that, judging from past experience, I would not have succeeded in reading through these rich texts on my own.

I aim to participate in the group's latest iteration again this year, even though Job and Ezekiel--why this combination?--would not have been my first choice. If you care to join me in the foreign language of your preference, there is still time to add Job and Ezekiel to your New Year's Revolutions (as my daughter put it). The reading schedule begins on January 4. More information may be found at the Greek Job and Ezekiel group here.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Taxonomies of Deity: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same Allah?

The news that Wheaton College placed tenured professor Larycia Hawkins on "paid administrative leave" for stating that Christians and Muslims worship the same God surprised me. I was even more surprised as I watched a ground swell of support for Wheaton's apparent theological position among evangelical commentators as diverse as Scot McKnight and John Piper. Writing for Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer claims that the view that Christians and Muslims worship the same God is "just not what most evangelicals believe."

In this post, I will try to explain why for the last 20 years or so I have taken it for granted that--at a level of abstraction required by discussion of religions as a whole--it is correct to say that Christians and Muslims do worship the same God.

To be clear, I am not claiming that Christianity and Islam are equivalent or that differences between these two religions are inconsequential. Nor am I suggesting that Christians and Muslims hold identical conceptions of God. My basic problem is with the way the differences are phrased: Stating that Christians and Muslims "do not worship the same God" implies that Christians and Muslims worship different gods. I am concerned about this issue not only because I am convinced that it is misguided on a theoretical level to state that Christians and Muslims worship different gods, but also because such a view is positively harmful when it comes to sharing the gospel with Muslims.

(1) Terminology: On Facebook, I wrote: "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same Allah? Of course they do. If this conversation were being conducted in Arabic, there would be no debate." The point of this provocative over-simplification--aside from registering my astonishment--was to observe that the two different names (Allah, God) may lead English-speakers to assume that the names refer to two different deities. I suspect this is what has happened on a popular level in North America. Ignorance and post-9/11 political realities, more than anything else, are why many evangelicals assume that Christians and Muslims worship different gods. But Allah, in Arabic, is the generic name for God. It was used by Christians before Islam began, it appears as the name for God in standard Arabic translations of the Bible, and it is still used by Arabic-speaking Christians today. If, as I will argue, it is correct to say that, despite their fundamental differences in theology, Christians and Muslims worship the same God, it is also true that they worship the same Allah.

(2) Similarities: Muslims and Christians agree that there is one God, and both Christians and Muslims describe the one God in many of the same ways: God, according to the Qur'an, is the creator, "the Mighty one, the All-knowing" (6.96); God is "the Lord of the Universe, the Compassionate, the Merciful" (1.2-3); God alone is "the Forgiving One" (15.49), etc. Muslim theology presents Islam as the correct continuation of God's revelation to Abraham, Jesus and the biblical prophets. As a result, when Muslims and Christians talk about God, they share a common starting point in a way that a Christian and a Hindu devotee of Krishna do not.

(3) Differences: To be sure, there are also significant differences. Built into Islam is a rejection of the deity of Jesus. From a Muslim perspective, Christians have fallen away from the true religion into tri-theism. For their part, Christians insist that any conception of God's oneness that denies God's self-revelation in Jesus is fundamentally distorted. These different conceptions of God must not be minimized. I would happily sign off on Wheaton's College's "Statement Regarding Christian Engagement with Muslim Neighbors":
While Islam and Christianity are both monotheistic, we believe there are fundamental differences between the two faiths, including what they teach about God’s revelation to humanity, the nature of God, the path to salvation, and the life of prayer.

(4) Different Conceptions vs. Different Gods: Nevertheless, the fact that Christians and Muslims have different ideas about the nature of God does not mean that they worship different gods. In this context, "different conceptions" is a meaningful statement; "different gods" is not:
  • Since both Christians and Muslims affirm that there is one God and that this God exists, we are talking about a concept with a real referent, not some abstract quality. Francis Beckwith explains
Because, according to the classical theist, there can only in principle be one God, Christians, Jews, and Muslims who embrace classical theism must be worshipping the same God. It simply cannot be otherwise.
    • If Muslims who deny the deity of Jesus do not worship the same God as Christians, it follows that Jews do not worship the same God as Christians either. This is at the heart of the issue theologically: Denying that Christians and Jews worship the same God leads either to a Marcionite distinction between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New or to a strong supersessionism that requires us to imagine Jews, en masse, becoming idolaters at the incarnation. (I exaggerate for effect.) Suffice it to say that you don't find the apostle Paul accusing his fellow Jews of idolatry. Instead, he says "they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge" (Rom 10:2). Different conceptions of the one God do not mean that the object of worship is different, and a fuller revelation of God's identity does not render earlier revelation obsolete--just incomplete.
    • Is it not the case that Christians too operate with false conceptions of God? What is to stop Calvinists from declaring that they worship a different God than Arminians, or Protestants than Catholics? Where do we draw the line--and why are we drawing it?
    Instead of denying or minimizing the broad overlap in Christian and Muslim views about God, it is far better, in my view, to follow the example of Jesus in John 4, and Paul in Acts 17, and say "What you worship as unknown (or, in this case, partially known) I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:23; cf. John 4:22).

    If you are interested in further reading on the subject, I recommend the following short articles written by Christians with years of experience working with Muslims:

    Saturday, November 14, 2015

    Westerholm and Wright on Martin Luther and Pauline Exegesis

    In a recent blog post, Scot McKnight quotes approvingly N.T. Wright's judgement on "Lutheran" N.T. scholars:
    "[A]nyone trying to be a Pauline exegete while still in thrall to Luther should consider a career as a taxidermist. Heroes are to be engaged with, not stuffed and mounted and allowed to dominate the room." - N.T. Wright, Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 126.

    Wright's comment is meant as a rejoinder to Stephen Westerholm's statement about the enduring value of engaging Luther:
    "Students who want to understand Paul but feel they have nothing to learn from a Martin Luther should consider a career in metallurgy. Exegesis is learned from the masters." - Stephen Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 173.

    Leaving to one side Wright's unfair and muddled dismissal of Westerholm's own exegesis of Paul, I note here that both statements are correct: In the first place, heroes are of course "to be engaged with." What enlightened scholar would want to be "in thrall" to anyone? But Westerholm is not alone in thinking that something may still be learned from Luther's reading of Paul. Consider C.K. Barrett, one of the 20th century's finest exegetes:
    "In the summer of 1953, in the University Library at Göttingen, I read through Luther's Scholia on Romans...with a sustained enthusiasm and even excitement which I never thought 400 large pages of medieval Latin could evoke. Less sound in detail than Calvin, Luther wrestles at perhaps even greater depth with sin and righteousness, grace and predestination, and rarely fails to reach the heart of the matter, and to take his reader with him. To have sat at the feet of these three interpreters of Paul [Luther, Calvin and Barth] is one of the greatest of privileges." - C.K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1971), vi.
    Those who actually read Westerholm will know that his is no uncritical dismissal of the "new perspective", and no uncritical adoption of the old "Lutheran" view either. Here is the context of the passage I quoted above:
    "There is more of Paul in Luther than many twentieth-century scholars are inclined to allow. But the insights of the 'new perspective' must not be lost to view. Paul's convictions need to be identified; they must also be recognized as Christian theology. When Paul's conclusion that the path of the law is dependent on human works is used to posit a rabbinic doctrine of salvation by works, and when his claim that God's grace in Christ excludes human boasting is used to portray rabbinic Jews as self-righteous boasters, the results (in Johnsonian terms) are 'pernicious as well as false.' When, moreover, the doctrine of merit perceived by Luther in the Catholicism of his day is read into the Judaism of the first Christian centuries, the results are worthless for historical study. Students who want to know how a rabbinic Jew perceived humanity's place in God's world will read Paul with caution and Luther not at all. On the other hand, students who want to understand Paul but feel they have nothing to learn from a Martin Luther should consider a career in metallurgy. Exegesis is learned from the masters." - Westerholm, Israel's Law, 173.