Do Muslims Worship the True God? A Bridge Too Far
By Justin Taylor
Rick Love is the former International Director for Frontiers, an “international non-profit organization, recruiting, sending and serving teams of ordinary people for long-term service to the communities of the Muslim world.” He is presently on sabbatical as a Post Doctoral Fellow in the Yale Reconciliation Program.
Rick and I have enjoyed good fellowship together during my time at Bethlehem Baptist Church. He is a tireless and insightful and articulate follower of Christ who longs to reach Muslims with the good news of Jesus as Lord and Savior. I deeply respect him. I mention this because the following post will criticize some of his recent comments, and I want it to be clear that my criticism is couched in admiration and appreciation. For those keeping track at home, there are have been some exchanges between John Piper and Rick Love. As far as I can tell, the back-and-forth is over. And so now I wade in (where angels fear to tread!).
- A Common Word Between Us and You, signed by 138 Muslim scholars, clerics and intellectuals (Oct. 13, 2007)
- Loving God and Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to “A Common Word Between Us“
- John Piper, A Common Word Between Us? (video)
- Rick Love, Why I Signed the Yale Response to “A Common Word“
- John Piper, How Shall We Love Our Muslim Neighbors
- Rick Love, Apostolic Practice in a Globalized World
At the heart of their disagreement was this paragraph from Love (italics indicates my emphasis):
“Christian and Muslim views of God are similar in that we both worship the one true God, creator of the heavens and the earth. We both believe this God will judge all peoples at the end of history. We both believe this God has sent His prophets into the world to guide His people. Christian and Muslim views of God differ primarily regarding the Fatherhood of God, the Trinity, and especially regarding the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I believe that Muslims worship the true God. But I also believe that their view of God falls short of His perfections and beauty as described in the Bible. Thus, I try to model my approach to Muslims after the apostle Paul who said to the Athenians: “What you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
This was clearly in mind when Piper wrote his article on loving our Muslim neighbors. His final point was: “Don’t mislead them or give them false hope by saying, ‘Muslims worship the true God.'”
In his final response, Love reiterates his view: “Muslims already worship God as the One Living God—Creator and Judge of the Universe. . . . I believe that Muslims worship the true God. . . . I believe that anyone who affirms monotheism—whether Muslim, Jew, Sikh or Tribal—are worshiping the true God. How can it be otherwise, since there is only one God?” At the same time, he pleads “not guilty” to misleading Muslims or giving them false hope. He sets his response in the context of his understanding of Pauline theology and methodology. His perspective in this post is helpful—but his statements about Muslims worshipping the true God are not helpful, because they are not true.
Love assumes that all monotheists (i.e., people who believe in only one God) de facto “are worshiping the true God.” This proposition is unsustainable from a biblical perspective. First, Apostle James observed that even the demons are monotheists (James 2:19–20)—that certainly doesn’t mean they worship the true God!
Second, consider what Jesus could say to his fellow Jews. Their leaders insisted to Jesus, “We have one Father—even God” (John 8:42). These are the Monotheists of Monotheism talking. If Love were consistent, he would say that by definition they are worshippers of the true God. But that’s not Jesus’ perspective. “Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me. . . You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. . . . Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God’ (8:43, 44, 47). Jesus is pretty clear here about these Jewish monotheists: (a) they do not have God as their Father and are not of God; (b) they do have the devil as their father—who has nothing to do with the truth. In light of this can we possibly imagine Jesus agreeing with a statement like “Jesus-denying Jews worship the one true God?” He is at pains to demonstrate precisely the opposite. If this is true for Jesus-denying Jews, how much more so for Jesus-denying Muslims.
Further, Love seems to see an obvious, necessary, logical connection between “X believes that there is only one God” and “X worships the one true God.” But just as an “is” does not imply an “ought,” so it is also the case that a “belief” does not entail a “fact.” The first is a claim of epistemology (what/how we know), the second is a claim of ontology (reality). Love is making an illegitimate jump here.
The problem is not in the word “worship” per se. “Worship,” in biblical terms, is a neutral term—it all depends on the object of the “worship” (e.g., Israel could worship Yahweh or worship a golden calf). The problem comes when we call the object of “worship” “the true God.” This then becomes an evaluative statement, inexorably bound up with the character of who that God is.
Let me offer an example: there is only one President of the United States. We could say that everyone who (rightly) believes this is a mono-executivist. Now virtually all of us believe that George W. Bush is the current President. But someone could insist that, “No, Al Gore is the true President of the U.S, and therefore I honor and treat him as such.” No one would say that from the mere fact that we’re all mono-executivists, it therefore follows that the statement “we all honor the same true President” applies to those who honor Bush and those who honor Gore.
In wrapping up, let me say again how much I appreciate Rick Love and his work. I affirm his apostolic bridge-building. But in the case of claiming that Muslims worship the true God, I suggest we have a case of a bridge too far.
Rick Love’s Response
Thank you for the gracious spirit and positive tone of your critique. Would that more theological differences were handled in such a “truth in love” type of dialogue! I wish that we could continue this discussion with open Bibles over some espresso, but for now I think we will have to settle for email and the internet. Your criticisms have sharpened my thinking and forced me to make explicit some fuzziness in my explanations. Thank you!
- Your critiques vividly illustrate that not all monotheists are created equal. My previous response focused on the objective beliefs of monotheists and failed to acknowledge the subjective (or heart) dimensions of monotheistic worship. I was wrong in not pointing this out and stand corrected. In fact, there is a spectrum of “receptivity” among monotheists. There are people who are monotheists by confession but whose hearts are far from God, as you made clear in your reference to John 8. However, there are also monotheists who are receptive to God as the stories of Nicodemus (John 3), the Samaritan Woman (John 4), and Cornelius (Acts 10) make clear.
- In the framework articulated in my previous two responses to Piper, I have made it clear that while monotheists worship the true God, they lack the revelation of Jesus Christ and are not saved. Therefore, the Jesus-denying monotheists of John 8 clearly fit into my framework (I just failed to make this explicit as I note in point #1 above). Moreover, I can’t find anything in the text where Jesus says that the Pharisees worship the wrong God. (Did I miss something?) It seems to me he is saying their hearts are not right before God and thus their worship is not acceptable. (We will come back to the issue of the heart shortly.)
- Parenthetically: unlike Jesus, we are not always able to accurately discern those who are Jesus-denying. Many people may appear like they are denying Jesus when in fact they really don’t understand who Jesus is and what He has done for us. Just as we cannot assume that all Jews were Jesus-denying people, in the same way, we cannot assume that all Muslims are Jesus-denying people. We CAN assume that they need to see and hear about the beauty of Jesus – His person and His work.
- You seem to wonder how I could possibly say that monotheists worship the true God. I feel strongly about this because I think the Bible speaks strongly about this. First of all, a polemic against idols and an affirmation of monotheism is at the heart of the Ten Commandments “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth” (Ex 20:2-4). Secondly, the Shema (“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! Deut 6:4), describes the fundamental truth of Israel’s monotheistic faith. It was confessed daily during prayer in contrast to the idolatry and polytheistic beliefs of Israel’s neighbors. Thirdly, both Jesus and Paul clearly affirmed monotheism (Mark 12:29ff and Rom 3:30; 1 Tim 2:5). Therefore, it seems to me that polytheism vs monotheism is the big divide in Scripture re: worship of the true God (The 160+ references to idolatry in the Bible further strengthens this viewpoint). In the NT Paul says that when Gentiles offer sacrifices to idols they are really offering sacrifices to demons and not to God (1 Cor 10:19-20). In other words, polytheism and idolatry are clearly demonic in light of Scripture, whereas monotheism is always portrayed positively.
- Ahh, you say. But what about James 2:19? “You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” I would argue that the intent of James 2:19 is not to critique monotheism, but rather to critique “faith without works.” In other words, it is not the objective belief content of monotheism that James critiques, but the lack of obedience-producing faith in their hearts. In fact, James’ argument only makes sense if we see his affirmation about monotheism as an orthodox confession. In keeping with the original intent of the text, I think we could apply James’ teaching to modern Christians as follows. If James were writing this to Evangelical churches in America he might say: “You believe that God is three in One – the Holy Trinity. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.” Demons know that God is one. I assume that they also know that God is three in one!!
- The two key texts you used to critique my theology, John 8 and James 2:19, lead us to another very important point: worship is a thing of the heart – something that I did not carefully explain. I think we would both agree that right theology is not enough – whether a person is a receptive monotheist or a non-obedient Trinitarian. I think the story of Cain and Abel gives us insight into these issues. Both worshipped the one true God. But Abel’s worship was acceptable and Cain’s was not (Gen 4). So the issue is not just about worship of the true God, but more precisely about worship that is acceptable to God, i.e., “true” worship of the “true” God.
- Here’s how I would like to rework your illustration, recognizing the limitations of the metaphor. I would say that monotheism could be compared to an understanding that the U.S. has one President and that the U.S. is a great country to live in. There are those who acknowledge that the US has one President but they hate him and do not want to live in the U.S. (=unreceptive or hard-hearted monotheists). There are other people who actually respect and even love the President of the U.S. and long to live in the U.S. but neither know the President nor are they U.S. citizens (=receptive monotheists). Finally, there are those who respect and love the President of the U.S. and in fact have personally come to know him. They have also become full citizens of the U.S. (=repentant monotheists who come to follow Jesus).
- Justin, I think it is extremely important to note that there would be little or no difference between you and me in practice. Both of us would approach the monotheist with the goal of sharing the unfathomable riches of Christ. Both of us would ultimately seek to win him or her to follow the one who said, “I am the way, the truth and the life!”
Your friend and fellow pilgrim … in bringing about the obedience of faith among all nations, for the sake of the name,