Christian: There is only one true, living God.
Muslim: I agree. There is only one true, living God. We Muslims, like Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians centuries before us, usually refer to God with the Arabic word Allah, but to facilitate our conversation I’ll use the English word God.
Christians and Muslims also agree about the origin of the universe:
Christian: God created the universe.
Muslim: I agree. God created the universe.
The fact that God is Creator means that God transcends the world, just as a novelist transcends her novel or a composer his music. And since only persons can create, God is personal, not an impersonal force or the personification of abstract values.
Christians and Muslims also agree that God acts in the world’s history. In addition, they agree about some of God’s acts. For example:
Christian: God called Abraham to be God’s servant.
Muslim: I agree. God called Abraham to be God’s servant.
At this point the Christian and the Muslim have identified the one they are talking about: the one, true, living God who is the transcendent, personal creator of the world and who called Abraham. They both worship this God.
However, Christians and Muslims do have important disagreements about God’s acts in the world. Each makes claims about God’s acts that the other does not accept. Here are two examples:
Christian: God became incarnate in Jesus.
Muslim: I do not agree. God did not become incarnate in Jesus.
Muslim: Muhammad is God’s greatest prophet.
Christian: I do not agree. Muhammad is not God’s greatest prophet.
We have now come to the critical point in our argument, and it is this: Even when the two speakers are disagreeing about God’s acts in the world, they are still talking about the same God. In fact, it is only because they are talking about the same God that they are in a position to disagree about what God has done in the world.
So why do some Christians and Muslims say that they are worshiping different gods?
I suppose that sometimes Christians say it as a reaction to the terrorism that some Muslim extremists carry out: “If they do that in the name of the god they worship, their god can’t be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This reaction is understandable, but the conclusion is unnecessary and mistaken.
It seems to me that, whatever their motives may be, some Christians and Muslims simply decide that their initial agreement that God is the transcendent, personal one who created the world and who called Abraham is not a sufficient identifier for God.
They then add to their identifier for God things that are exclusive to their respective faiths. So, for example, the Christian may add an incarnation identifier, and the Muslim may add the Muhammad-the-greatest-prophet identifier.
They are free to do this, of course; it is a choice they can make. But there is no logical necessity for them to do it.
Once they have agreed that they are talking about the one, true, living transcendent, personal God who created the world and who called Abraham, their disagreements about what God has done do not require them to think that their conversation partner is no longer talking about the same God.
We Christians should be able to understand this. After all, we disagree among ourselves about what God has done in the world.
For example, the majority of Christians believe that God has appointed bishops to be the leaders of the church, but millions of other Christians do not believe this. This disagreement is very serious. It has been a major factor in the division of the church into so many denominations.
But so far as I know, no one has ever suggested that, since Christians disagree about what God is doing in the world, they are talking about different gods.
So when Christians say they worship a different god from Muslims, they (1) have chosen to do something that (2) is logically unnecessary and that (3) they don’t do when they have disagreements with other Christians about what God has done in the world.
And there is something else. When Christians choose to adopt more exclusive identifiers for God, they can undermine their own faith.
God did not reveal the Incarnation to Israel in the Old Testament era. Therefore when Christians say that anyone who does not believe that God was incarnate in Jesus is worshiping another god, they are de facto saying that the Christian God is a different God from the God of Abraham, Moses, David and Isaiah.
Christians who believe the message of the Old Testament should never make such a claim.
I believe that what we have here is a question of truth. It simply is true that there is only one true, living, transcendent, personal God and that God created the world and called Abraham. And it simply is true that Christians and Muslims and Jews all worship that one God.
But there are other issues in addition to truth. I will mention two: understanding and peace.
We Christians are aware of our responsibility to give a witness to our Christian faith. One way we earn the right to be heard by Muslims is by listening to them. We patiently engage in a conversation with them, and when the time is right we give our witness in love.
Dialogue and evangelism are not mutually exclusive; they are mutually reinforcing.
My friend Gerald Wright has spent decades in conversations with Muslims, and he says that in very practical terms conversations with Muslims are more productive when both parties go into them affirming the truth that they are talking about the same God.
Then there is the issue of “peace on earth,” to quote the angels (Luke 2:14). I fully agree with Swiss theologian Hans Küng about this: “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.”
To this I would add two things. First, today the two religions that matter most for world peace are Christianity and Islam. The reason is that together they comprise more than half the people on earth (56 percent, according to statistics published in the January 2016 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research).
Second, recognizing that we both are talking about the same God makes it possible for Christians and Muslims to stop accusing each other of idolatry and to begin working toward understanding each other better and thereby working toward peaceful relationships with each other.
Two learned and influential scholars, Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, have famously written that what is happening throughout the world today is a clash of two civilizations: Christianity and Islam.
This may be true, but it is also misleading, and it is to the credit of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama that they have both refused to accept this as a complete account of things. Both leaders have insisted that it is not Islam per se but radical Islam that is perpetrating so much horrific violence in the world.
Nevertheless, religion is contributing to conflict in our world, coloring it and energizing it. Most of us will not be able to contribute directly to the resolution of the global conflict, but all of us can contribute indirectly by recognizing that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. When we do this we are taking a step toward peace on earth. We also are following the teaching of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9).
One of the most important modern Christian statements about Islam was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church at its Second Vatican Council in 1965. In a document titled “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” the Council summarized beautifully the view that seems true to me:
Upon the Moslems, too, the Church looks with esteem. They adore one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of heaven and earth and Speaker to men. They strive to submit wholeheartedly even to His inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham, with whom the Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself. … They prize the moral life, and give worship to God especially through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. NFJ
—Fisher Humphreys is professor of divinity, emeritus, of Samford University, and a member of Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, Ala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.