Monday, December 21, 2015

God is what God does

One objection to the claim that Muslims and Christians worship or believe in the same God is the statement that the Christianity Deity is the Trinity, and that Christians worship Jesus as God–contrary to Muslims. 

Without revisiting the issue of linguistic reference, I'd just point out that this understates the difference between Christian theism and Muslim theism. This approach defines the difference in terms of what God is or the attributes of God. God as Trinity. God as Incarnate.

And that's certainly valid as far as it goes. But there's more to it than that. In the Bible, there's a sense in which God is what God does. By that I mean, God's actions often mirror his nature or character. Actions correspond to attributes. 

To reject the Incarnation is to reject what God does as well as what God is. Why do Muslims repudiate the Incarnation? It's not like dying that George Washington cut down a cherry tree. Even if that's an apocryphal story, it's possible that he did that. For Muslims, it's not just a case that God didn't become incarnate, but that he couldn't become incarnate. Allah is not that kind of God. To Muslims, it wouldn't be fitting for God to become incarnate. That's an inherently improper thing for God to do. 

Likewise, Islam as a doctrine of revelation rather than inspiration. That's why Muslims are confused when Christians say the Gospels are the word of God. For Muslims, that's contradictory inasmuch as the Gospels were written by men. They dichotomize divine and human action. God can speak to people, but he can't speak through people. They don't have that framework. Human action picks up where divine action leaves off, or vice versa. If God did it, man didn't, and if man did it, God didn't. Allah does not and cannot interact with humans. 

By the same token, Islam is a religion of revelation and duties rather than a religion of redemption. A religion of prophets rather than redeemers. 

God sends prophets to inform humans of their social and spiritual duties. Allah remits sin apart from atonement. Islam is voluntaristic. 

Allah isn't the kind of God with whom you can be in a right or wrong relationship. In many ways, Allah is more like the ground of being. You can't have a right or wrong relationship with the ground of being. It's simply something you depend on. Something that makes other things possible.

In Christianity, by contrast, for sin to be forgiven, sin must be atoned. That's why Christianity, unlike Islam, has a theology of vicarious atonement and penal substitution. 

It involves a different kind of God. Justice is a divine attribute. Injustice must be satisfied. In addition, sin changes the relationship between God and man. Conversely, justification changes the relationship between God and man.  


  1. This is from Michael Reeves in his book Delighting in the Trinity:

    Traditionally, Allah is said to have ninety-nine names, titles which describe him as he is in himself in eternity. One of them is “The Loving.” But how could Allah be loving in eternity? Before he created there was nothing else in existence that he could love (and the title does not refer to self-centered love but love for others).

    The only option is that Allah eternally loves his creation. But that in itself raises an enormous problem: if Allah needs his creation to be who he is in himself (“loving”), then Allah is dependent on his own creation, and one of the cardinal beliefs of Islam is that Allah is dependent on nothing.

    Therein lies the problem: how can a solitary God be eternally and essentially loving when love involves loving another?

    1. This is from Muslim theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali: "God does indeed love them [people], but in reality He loves nothing other than Himself, in the sense that He is the totality [of being], and there is nothing in being apart from Him."

  2. It's very clear from non-theological examples that people can be talking about and disagreeing about one and the same being, even while disagreeing about its essential attributes. Another post tomorrow (Tues) which addresses that point, and some others.

    Part of what you're not getting, Steve, is how little this is conceding, that Muslims are referring to God in what they say. This need be no set up for some theory of religious pluralism. More on that also tomorrow.

    1. What you're not getting, Dale, is that my post wasn't about the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship/believe in the same God. I explained at the outset that I was bracketing that question. Rather, the point of the post was to illustrate the fact that the difference between Muslim and Christian theism isn't confined to divine attributes.