Tackling a difficult question.
In an answer that upset evangelicals and other members of his Christian base, President Bush said on November 20, 2003 that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
Speaking in London at a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush was asked his thoughts on how the war on terrorism and his promotion of freedom intersects with his Christian faith.
"I do say that freedom is the Almighty's gift to every person," Bush answered. "I also condition it by saying freedom is not America's gift to the world. It's much greater than that, of course. And I believe we worship the same God."
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Commission, said that while he respects Bush he believes the president is wrong.
"Like may other Americans I applaud the president as a man of deep religious faith who attempts to bring that faith conviction to bear on public policy issues. However, we should always remember that he is Commander-in-Chief, not the theologian-in-chief. And when he says that he believes that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, he is simply mistaken," Land told Baptist Press.
Scripture "is clear" on the issue, Land added.
"There is one God and His name is Jehovah and His only begotten Son is Jesus Christ of the seed of Abraham and Isaac, who mother was the Jewess virgin, Mary. Jesus our Savior has made it clear that we must know His Father through faith in Him alone."
In another forum, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, cited some of the sharp differences between Christianity and Islam: Christianity's insistence on the full deity of Christ versus Islam's denial that could ever have a son.
"The issue...is the doctrine of the Trinity, in particular the doctrine of Christ," Mohler said. "We must face the fundamental question of how one knows the one true and living God. The Scripture is abundantly clear that God is known through Jesus Christ the Son."
Islam, in contrast, insists that "Allah is one, and he has no son," Mohler said. The only ground of our Christian identity...the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord."
Because God reveals moral standards through human conscience, Christians and Muslim will agree on some moral issues, Mohler noted, but Muslims reject God's authoritative revelation, the Bible.
One wonders how Land and Mohler could have overlooked the foundation principle of Christian teaching of mission to other religions beginning with St. Paul in the Areopagus:
"Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you very religious. For as I passed along and observed your objects of worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god.' What therefore your worship as unknown this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for "'In him we live and move and have our being'; and even some of your poets have said, "For we are indeed his offspring.'"
Later Justin Martyr used the the concept of Logos spermatikos, the seminal Logos, to account for truth to be found in other religions. The pagans received truth through the Logos whose seeds have been spread throughout the world.
Witness to Muslims begins with the disclosure of the sacred and saving mystery that lies within the Islamic tradition. It makes no sense to say that Christians and Muslims worship different deities. This leads to a kind of polytheism in which both Christians and Muslim vie to determine whose deity is the real One. Christians should meet Muslims at their own level of experience and knowledge and begin the conversation at that point. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is the same God hidden at work throughout the world in all the religions. God has not left himself without a witness anywhere in the world, and the Jesus they have heard about is the same Jesus in whose name we have received grace and truth. The dispute between Christians and Muslims is not over whether they worship the same God, but over how the one God is rightly understood and worshipped.
Islam's sacred book, the Qu'ran, contains explicit teaching about Jesus. Muslims are opposed to Jesus. The Qu'ran speaks of Jesus in a favorable light. For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet and messenger of Allah, even the suffering servant of God. The Qu'ran declares Jesus the Word and Truth of God, in a special lineage of messengers along with Moses, David, and the prophet Muhammad, Here we have a point of contact for conversation and witness with Muslims about the relation between God and the messenger of God.
For Christians, the union between God and Jesus is the root of the doctrine of the Trinity. For Muslims, such a personal union drives Christians into what looks like tritheism, the belief in three Gods. The Qu'ran says: "They are unbelievers who say that God is threefold. No god there is but one God" (Sura 5, 78). For Christians, too, Jesus is a prophet; but he is more than a prophet because he assumed God's authority, forgave sins, and fulfilled the law and the prophets. On the other hand, the Qu'ran even speaks of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and there is also a reference to Jesus' ascension into heaven. In some sense, Muslims affirm that Jesus is alive, that he was taken up body, soul, and spirit into the life and glory of God in heaven.
Because we are Christians interacting with people of other religions through evangelization, mission, dialogue, and service, the Holy Spirit will open our lips both to new ways of naming Jesus in light of the particular religious and cultural context to which we address the message of Christ. A myriad of contextualized forms contain one gospel, as the history of preaching and Christology shows. Many earthen vessels contain one heavenly treasure, but this treasure is inseparable from the personal identity and meaning of the Jesus of Nazareth recorded in the Scriptures. All the words and titles that New Testament Christianity used to preach Jesus as Savior had been used before in Jewish, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman religions. The gospel entered into a religiously pluralistic culture. Christianity did not event a new language; it adopted fragments of the old languages and coverted and baptized them in the process of preaching the eternal gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus is called the "Lamb of God," Jesus' own suffering and death on the cross invested that symbol with new meaning. The same is true about such words as Father, Son, Holy Spirit, King, Lord, Messiah. All of these took on radically new meanings when their roots were planted in the soil of the gospel.
Religious pluralism is not new. Christianity was born in the maelstrom of a variety of Jewish, Greek, Roman, and Oriental religious and philosophical currents. From the beginning, the tiny Christian movement had to struggle to establish its own identity and viability in the ancient world. Christianity was attacked by the Jews as a heresy, persecuted by the Romans as a seditious movement, ridiculed as a contemptible myth by the Hellenistic philosophers, and threatened by the popular cults and mystery religions. Within three centuries, the status of Christianity changed from being an illegal and ridiculous sect to being the official religion of the Roman Empire. Then religious pluralism became drastically diminished during the age of Christendom. New today is the increasing awareness that Christianity is just one among many religions in the global community. Religions are no longer confined to particular boundaries. The flow and speed of interreligious traffic have increased tremendously, and a wealth of knowledge about other religions has been accumulated over the past two centuries. Christianity is now confronted by a counter-missionary thrust on the part of Islam.
In the face of religious relativism, Christians will look around for some way to secure the exclusive claim of the gospel to universal validity. We live in the interim between the particularity of the historical means of salvation and the universality of the vision which the gospel proclaims. Just as Israel made its particular witness in the midst of other religious traditions and assimilated elements of them along the way, so also Christianity has been involved for two thousand years in a process of formation in exchange with other religions. This process will continue, through evangelical outreach and interreligious dialogue. There is no reason to choose between the two forms. Through it all , however, Christian faith is called to do the one thing needful to witness to the eschatological revelation which Christ brings to the world, in whom the end of all history has appeared as the meaning and future of all the religions. In this way the idea of religious pluralism is taken up into the eschatological unity of all reality in the coming of God in the person of Jesus.
George Strickland is co-editor and contributor to the Directions to Orthodoxy website.
Read this article on the Directions to Orthodoxy website. Reprinted with permission of the author.