Wednesday, February 8, 2017
By C.S. Caleb Kim, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Inter-religious Studies, Africa International University. Dr. Kim is Adviser to SfK Ministries on Islam Strategy.
This essay was originally published in the special edition of Occasional Bulletin by EMS (Evangelical Missiological Society) in 2016. It is republished with the author's permission.
Ever since the rise of Islam in the seventh century, Christians have been challenged by the question: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Muslim polemicists also use this same question when they dispute with Christians. In fact, as a monotheistic religion borrowing a lot from Judeo-Christian traditions, Islam has many similarities with Christianity in its theological discourses regarding God and Jesus. The Qur’an declares, “Our God [in Islam] and your God [in Judaism and Christianity] is one” (Sura 29:46). Ontologically speaking, both Christianity and Islam seem to refer to the same God since neither of them allows of the idea of the existence of more than one God. In the ontological sense, the question of “whose (or which) god is the true God” is not valid because it presupposes more than one god in existence so as to choose one; both the religions admit that this is not the case. Then, the real problem is epistemological rather than ontological.
When we take a very close look at the presentation of God and Jesus in Islam, we can discover that the Islamic view of God is significantly different from the Christian understanding. Despite many resemblances between the two traditions, the overall description of God and Jesus in the Qur’an conflicts seriously with the Biblical (both OT and NT) presentation of the same. In Islam, God cannot be a father of anyone, and Jesus was a mere human being (though perceived to be the most excellent prophet of all) and did not die on the cross, hence no resurrection. (This also relates to the Islamic denial of the need of redemption based on its view of human nature.) Reading the Qur’an very carefully from a Muslim viewpoint, one cannot help getting an impression that the Islamic monotheism (called tawhid) must have been designed to refute specifically the Christian Trinity. This has been creating a serious obstacle to the Christian witness of the gospel among Muslims.
Evangelistic efforts to correct the Muslim’s misunderstanding of God and Jesus do not seem to have been so successful as often expected. Innumerable apologists and polemicists in history tended to focus mostly on theological differences in the attempt to present the gospel to Muslims, but challenges were exacerbated. Ironically, Christian apologetic or polemicist approaches aroused many Muslim counterparts against the Christian doctrine of Trinity. To make the situation worse, political relationships between Christendom and the Muslim world in history made the doctrine-based evangelism perceived as part of the Christian imperialistic invasion of the Muslim world. So many Christian missionaries, especially in the past many decades, felt led to leaning more on similarities between Christianity and Islam than disparities. Those deeply sympathetic with Muslims for an evangelistic purpose or for a relational reason began to underscore a number of common elements between Islamic and Christian understandings of God. In this line, many gospel communicators made incessant efforts to “contextualize” the gospel for Muslims. Along with these contextualization efforts also arose controversial issues. For instance, the so-called C5 contextualization (or “Insider Movements”) approach has emerged recently, and quite a number of missionaries have turned to it from conventional methods. As many are aware, it has become a new controversy heatedly debated among missiologists today. In the C5 approach, the issue goes even beyond doctrinal differences; a more inflamed debate has arisen as to how one should interpret the whole entity of “Islam” itself. Is Islam just a religion of tawhid that denies all that Christianity holds or a culture that is capable of being freed from its religious tenets embedded in it? It seems to me that the recent controversy around the statement made by a tenured professor at Wheaton College is similar to the controversy around some radical forms of C5 approach these days. I don’t intend to discuss this hot issue here, but at least I am suggesting that issues relating to the Christian approach to the Muslim world need to be examined from a broader missional perspective.
How can we prevent any polarization of the seemingly antithetical responses to this hard question but reconcile them instead? Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? As pointed out above, epistemologically the answer is clearly “No.” Then, whom do Muslims worship? I hear some radical Christians say extremely that, since the Quranic Allah is incompatible with the Biblical God, they worship Satan as pagans in the OT worshipped idols like Baal. But, as I pointed out, an ontological problem may come up to complicate the issue. The actual problem is quite epistemological; it is more with the problem of human ignorance that has resulted from sin (cf. Eph. 4:18). Then, we may need to learn an attitude and strategy from Paul. He preached the gospel to his Athenian audience, who ignorantly worshipped an unknown God, without having to tell them that they worshipped a wrong god (Acts 17:22-23). Can we also share the gospel in a way that helps Muslims to come to a better understanding of who the true God is in Jesus without necessarily focusing on their wrong understanding of God? I am positive that a good chance of this correction will come eventually when the time is ripe through the establishment of a trustful relationship.
In fact, while Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders seek to educate their people (that is, internal jihad) in terms of the Islamic law (shariah), ordinary Muslims do not always measure up to its requirements. Having researched Muslim cultural phenomena in East Africa for years, I have encountered many Muslims whose idea of God seems similar to a monotheistic concept of God in African Traditional Religions rather than the strict concept of tawhid. This may suggest some missiological practicalities (perhaps, particularly in sub-Saharan contexts). Our primary concern should be directed more toward helping Muslims to open their hearts to listen to the gospel via our personal engagement with them in life context. This requires us to patiently begin our engagement at where they are rather than what Islam stipulates. In light of my own personal experiences, it usually takes much time for even an open-minded Muslim person to give their ears to what we’d love to communicate. In some contexts, I have seen it quite effective in communicating when I share my Christian faith in the Triune God, which is certainly opposite to what Muslims believe, with candidness and sincerity of my own conviction yet politely in a way that respects their religiosity and does not disgrace their cultural values.
 And this logic may be applicable even to other monotheistic ideas in other cultures or religions besides the three monotheistic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). This can also be explained in terms of “general revelation” or “common grace” (cf. Romans 1:19-20).