N.T. Wright on the "Same God" Issue

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In a previous post, I considered whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. My answer was sort of a yes and a no. Literally speaking, I think the answer is yes. It's just that Christians and Muslims believe very different things about the one God that exists. As a Christian, I think Mulims believe radically false things about God, and I think Christians believe generally true things about God. There would be no meaning to calling myself a Christian if I didn't think something like that. In that sense, what some people really mean when they say Christians and Muslims worship different gods is true. Their sentence is false, but what they were trying to convey is true. The different things the two believe about God are very different.

I had another instance of happening upon a gem of a discussion this morning, when I was following a reference in a footnote on an entirely different topic. After looking up a reference in N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God, I decided that it might be worth looking through his introduction, since I've had the book for a while but barely looked at it. In the introduction, he explains his use of 'god' rather than 'God' consistently throughout the book (which I won't bother to go into here), and in the process he gets into the very issue of my aforementioned post, focusing mostly on the differences between first-century Christianity and first-century post-Christian Judaism (though mentioning Islam in the process). I thought enough of the issues were parallel that it was worth summing up Wright's thoughts and looking at their significance for the discussion about Islam from my previous post.

Wright doesn't really get to this issue until page 471 of his roughly 500-page book, so much of what he says relies on the detailed work he did in the rest of the book about the belief system of ancient Israel, the cotnext of Christian development, and how Christians revised certain elements of the Judaism of their time in the light of Jesus, in many cases reinterpreting the Hebrew scriptures in directions unforeseen by most first-century Jews. His main question at the end of the study is about the relation between the Judaism and Christianity of the time of the New Testament and what the relation between the two is. Do they worship the same God? If one is correct, is the other idolatrous, and does that mean and answer of 'no' to the question of the previous question? Two views on this matter seem common:

1. There's no moral difference between Christianity and a Judaism that rejects Jesus (and the parallel would be between Christianity and Islam). After all, it's the same being being worshiped by both religions.
2. The difference between Christianity's claims about God and Islam's claims about God are so far apart that they must be talking about different beings.

The main problem with view 2 is that the sentence itself makes no sense. The sentence explaining the view talks about Christianity's claims about someone and then about Islam's claims about the same someone. Well, it can't really be that way if the religions follow different deities. It would make little sense to say that Christianity believes one thing about God and that Islam believes different things about someone else. We then still haven't shown any disagreement. (The disagreements will come out when you look at the differences, but it seems fine to me to describe the disagreement as a difference in what things are true about God. That's my main point. We do talk this way, so the assumption is that it's God that both groups are talking about, and it's just that both can't be true.) That's my main reason for rejecting the second view.

The first view is more obviously wrong. It requires not thinking the differences between Christianity and Judaism are worth much. Yet Christians claim to worship one being who is also somehow three persons. Jews see that as no longer monotheistic. Christians see Jesus as the full and final revelation of the creator of the universe. Jews see such a view as importing pagan elements into Judaic thinking. Christians in turn see Jews as having rejected God's most important revelation (and indeed his all-important saving act in the death and resurrection of Jesus) and therefore indeed rejecting the very God who called them apart as a nation. Christians were rejecting elements of the Torah, the most important documents of the Judaism of the time, though they were claiming the Torah to be fulfilled in Jesus.

Yet Wright goes on to say exactly what my detractors deny, and the evidence they cite is similar to what he says, so he must not think the evidence supports that conclusion:

The New Testament writers claim that, though there is only one god, all human beings of themselves cherish wrong ideas about this one god. In worshipping the gos thus wrongly conceived, they worship an idol. Pagans worship gods of wood and stone, distorting the creator by worshipping the creature. Jews, Paul argues in parallel with this, have made an idol of their own national identity and security, and so have failed to see what the covenant faithfulness of their god, the god of Abraham, had always entailed. Christians, as the addressees of the New Testament writings, are not exempt from idolatry, of using the words 'Jesus' and 'Christ' while in fact worshipping a different god. Our study of the history of Judaism and Christianity in the first century leads us inexorably to the conclusion that both cannot be right in their claims about the true god.

What's most interesting about this to me is that Wright switches back and forth between the use of 'God' as a name, according to which both groups are talking about the same being, and the more descriptive use, which strictly speaking should require an article, according to which any difference in views about a god means you would say it's no longer the same god that you're talking about. Here are two groups who each think the other has false views about the very being they themselves worship. But then each group also has a tendency to think that enough divergence on central doctrines (some of which I have listed above) will justify the charge of idolatry. How can this be so? Is Wright just inconsistent, not knowing whether he thinks each group is using 'God' as a name or a description and wanting to have it both ways?

I don't think so. He goes on to list other worldviews -- Stoics (with the whole world as divine), Epicureans (on this issue closer to what we now call deism), pagans (with their different divine forces all doing different things), Gnostics (who believed in a hidden god who reveals himself to a select few to be removed from the evil world of matter), and modern materialists and atheists. He then evaluates of the dispute between Christianity and Judaism in the light of this list:

The claim of first-century Judaism, and of subsequent Judaism, is that the creator of the world has revealed himself in Torah in ways which simply do not allow for the claims of Stoicism, Epicureanism, paganism, Gnosticism, and the rest -- or for those of Christianity. The claim of Christianity from its earliest days, and subsequently, is that the creator of the world, the god of Abraham, has revealed himself through Jesus, and through his own spirit, in ways which disallow the various pagan claims -- and also those of a Judaism which rejects Jesus. This conclusion.... represents the way things were seen in the first century, within the two communities that claimed to be the people of the one true god.

First off, pay careful attention to what he does and doesn't say. He says that the claims are mutually inconsistent and can't both be right. That's a denial of claim 1 above, and I think he's said enough to consider 1 refuted. He even gives enough reason for each side to be motivated to consider the other idolatrous, which presumably means that the other side is worshiping a false god (and not the right god but falsely). The dispute between Christianity and a Judaism that denies Jesus is not as great in terms of the number of propositions each will affirm and deny when compared with the difference between Christianity and paganism, say. However, the difference is on the same order morally speaking. If one is correct, then the other is false worship. Each side claims to worship the same god, but at least one of them is doing so in a way that violates what God has actually said (if at least one side is correct, anyway). But all along Wright keeps describing this as a disagreement about what's true about the God they refer to and worship, what things this being has revealed to his people, etc. That means it is the same being.

This is a different context, with Christianity and a Judaism that rejects Jesus, instead of Christianity and Islam. However, the point is basically the same. What's parallel in the case of Islam is that Christians and Muslims will each see each other as believing false things about the same being, the God Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus served. By establishing the reference of their terms in this historical way, they ensure that they're talking about the same being Christians and Jews are talking about when they talk about the being they themselves worship. Yet the particular beliefs Muslims have about God are different enough from Christian beliefs that a Christian has to say that Muslims are idolatrous in an important sense, the same sense they would say Jews who reject Jesus are idolatrous. In my first post I affirmed both of these things, and it's nice to see N.T. Wright's independent affirmation of both.

8 Comments

Jeremy,

I appreciate the nuance here, but I think I must respectfully disagree (though I'm still digesting the article).

If God is personal, and He is triune, then the god worshipped by Islam is not real. They are not merely believing wrong things about the true God; they've constructed their own god. The fact that they attribute omnipotence or some other attributes to this false god doesn't make him any less false.

Jesus said "no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." And, in a passage which is directly relevant to today's Islam, Jesus said (of the Jewish leaders of the time) "a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me."

It could be argued that "known" here means "known savingly." But how could one be even said to "worship" the true God when he rejects the Son, who is fully God? There is nothing of God that exists apart from the Son. What part of God could he possibly have correct when he has rejected God Himself through the Son? If there were a part of God that existed outside the Son--if they were joined in some way but not ONE, such a thing might be possible. But there is nothing of the Father's divinity that is not the Son's as well. God's attributes are not seperable from His being. What "being" have they affirmed as they have rejected the Son--the very "being" of God Himself?

If my wife leaves me and takes up with a man the same height and eye and hair color as me, she's still committing adultery even though the other guy has some of the same attributes I do.

If they think they're offering a service to God, then isn't it God that they think they're offering a service to? That means when they use the word 'God' they are in fact referring to God. So they are talking about the same God. This is the argument that I haven't seen anyone give any reason to question.

As for knowing God, it could mean that, or it could mean just that they don't really understand what God is all about. Either way it doesn't threaten my thesis.

As for what part of God they might have correct, I don't think I ever said anything about that. What I've said is consistent with someone's getting everything wrong about God but still somehow referring to God and not some nonexistent being.

I never intended to say that Christians should accept it as in every important sense that Muslims or Jews rejecting Jesus worship the same God as Christians. It's the same God that they say they worship, but does it count as legitimately worshiping him? I think a Christian has to say no. They don't really worship him, at least not legitimately. There's a slipperiness here in what counts as worship. In the loose sense of worship, they're doing things that are religiously worship, but in the stricter sense of proper worship, they're not doing it. In both cases, it's the same God that they are or are not worshiping. the issue is in whether it's true worship, not in whether it's the true God.

On the wife analogy, if your wife has a whole bunch of beliefs about you, just about all of them false somehow (maybe due to brain damage or memory loss), but she still talks about her husband, she would indeed be referring to you. She might do something she thinks would honor you, but not knowing enough about you in fact dishonors you, but it is you that she's dishonoring with her action. She doesn't turn out to have the relationship with you that she thinks she has. She doesn't have a relationship with her husband at all. Still, when she uses the term 'my husband', she refers to you.

I guess the question is, though, what possible correct beliefs can a Muslim have about "god?" That he's the creator? If Jesus is the creator, as John tells us, then by rejecting Jesus, they've rejected God the creator. I think we can do the same thing all the way down the line of God's attributes.

I hear and understand your point about them not really worshipping the true God, and I agree. I'm not really arguing against the spirit of your post--I think I know what you mean. But if we believe the mutual interpenetration of the Trinity is true, I can't see how one can reject the son and still know anything really true about God.

I think you've found the breakdown in my wife analogy, and of course all analogies ultimately break down. But I think the reason the analogy breaks down at exactly the point you press it is because my being (or essence, or whatever you want to call it) can be separated from my "accidental" (in the Aristotelian sense) attributes. But God doesn't have any accidental attributes. His attributes are His being, and His being is His attributes. At least if I understand our doctrine of the simplicity of God (which it's more than possible I don't).

I'm just teasing it out though--kind of thinking aloud. I like your stuff here. Very thought-provoking.

Thanks. With the issue of Jesus and God as creator, John pretty much says the same thing of the Jewish leaders of the time. They had in fact rejected God and the Torah he'd given. Yet they still claimed to follow the God who had given that Torah.

I'm not sure how it's different with Muslims except as a matter of degree. They claim to worship the God who had revealed himself through the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures in general, and the New Testament. Then they say all sorts of things that contradict those scriptures. That doesn't mean that it's not God that they claim to worship. It just means it's not true worship as defined by those scriptures.

As for divine simplicity, first of all I don't know of any scriptures that support it, never mind teach it, so I wouldn't want to rest anything of any significance on it. I do want to clarify what it states, though. The main idea is that all God's essential properties are really just different manifestations of the same property -- God's being.

That can't imply that God has no accidents, though, unless God never created. After all, God created me, and God stands in relations to me (first off the relation of being my creator). An accident is a property that isn't essential. For temporal beings, the best way to represent that is by talking about how a property can be gained or lost. That won't work if God is atemporal, as I believe is true.

For this reason and others, philosophers typically define accidents in terms of necessity and possibility. I have a property essentially if and only if I couldn't have existed without it. I have a property accidentally if and only if I could gain or lose it or could have existed without ever having had it. God wouldn't stand in the relation of being my creator if I had never existed, and I don't exist necessarily, so God's relation to me as creator is not essential to God's existence. It's therefore an accident.

How contingent beings behave, including their attitudes and actions toward God, are thus relations to God. They're thus accidents in the sense I just explained. This doesn't violate God's simplicity and retains the point I made. If someone starts to talk about God and does so by saying false things about him, those are facts about God only insofar as they're relations between this person and God. If simplicity implies that there aren't any such things, then simplicity is plainly false. If it's a weaker claim such that these things aren't essential properties of God, I'm not sure how simplicity can dodge the difficulty my response to the analogy raises.

So, a sufficient condition for worshipping the true God is to worship some God and to claim that that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Thus, regardless of the other properties you ascribe to that God, the particular historical properties you ascribe is enough to guarantee you're worshipping the same God. Your problem can come in when you worship that God in a way He doesn't command, or when you misinterpret His character in some other way.

I didn't see Wright's citations as establishing this (though I'm not sure agreement with Wright is all that great a distinction!!). Of course they both *claim* to be the people of the one true God, and, as you say, they cannot both be correct. Yet I don't see this as establishing either of the two positions in dispute.

I guess I'm skeptical of the essential, initial claim (as I expressed it at top above). I'm inclined to think there comes a point where you change the essential properties of God so much that, regardless of your historical claims, you aren't worshipping the same God.

I'm more than skeptical of the claim you start with. I think it's false. It's not true worship if it's not directed toward God in the way God revealed proper worship to be. That doesn't mean it's not in some way about God. The language might still refer to God but consist of false claims about God.

Your last sentence seems to indicate that you think what a term refers to depends on factors that are a matter of degree. I think this will have interesting consequences related to vagueness, but one problem in this case is that most vague terms have multiple candidates for reference. God doesn't. You either refer to him, or you don't refer and thus have an empty term. I'm fairly convinced for independent philosophy of language considerations that some things are reference magnets. They draw reference, even if the concepts people are using to think about those things are way off (e.g. water as an indivisible element, heat as a substance).

It's usually a causal account of reference that explains how we refer at all given these problems, and that same causal account would lean toward having a Muslim's use of 'Allah' refer to the same God that Christians worship, standing in a long line of various traditions that all look back to the God Abraham followed.

As for Wright, I didn't think he established this. What I saw in him was a tension between wanting to say two different things that can't both be true, and what I've been saying about Christianity and Islam all along provides a nice solution to resolving the tension in the way Wright approaches this issue.

I should say that I do think Wright's work on historical aspects of Jesus studies is very valuable for Christian apologetics and for historical reconstruction of the first century situation Jesus arose out of, though I do have serious worries about some of his more revisionist claims that verge toward the E.P. Sanders side of things, which I think is wildly speculative on top of a selective basis that ignores roughly half the data. The most serious consequences affect his work on Paul more than his work on Jesus, so we'll see what happens when his fourth book in his major series is published.

I've heard such great things about volume 3 on the resurrection that I got it without looking at it, and I still haven't, but I'm expecting it to be very good. It's something like the sort of thing Josh McDowell tried to do but at a real scholarly level by a figure respected on all sides.

Perhaps 'a sort of yes, and a no' might be breaking ground for a Quantum theology?). To argue that they believe in the same God is also to argue that moral essence is not integral to arithmetical(amoral)singleness and that the same attributes could be held in common by more than a single God- which is of course, is an antecedent polytheism. If essence and singleness are absolutely integral and one not subordinate to the other then differences in moral character of the respective 'One God(s)' must surely mean that they cannot be the same God - although this may be claimed - and allowed to be claimed - for reasons of an illusory social unity. Since God and the Word(s)of God/Allah are inseparable, the repudiations the Qur'an and the Jesus as their Word(s) is also a repudiation of the respective God(s). Apart from anything else there is the stark social and political imperative that the sacramental taking of life ordained by one of the two, is not in obfuscating and amoral theological principle aided by the followers of the other.

No, you've missed the point completely. I'm not saying that moral essence is not important for who God is. I'm saying it's not essential that someone know all the crucial aspects of God's essence in order to refer to him with language. That point is so far beyond obvious that I'm not sure why so many people deny it so easily. Lots of people refer to me all the time, even though they happen to believe I have no soul (because they don't believe in souls). Lots of other people refer to me all the time, thinking that part of my essence is indeed my soul. That's my own view. But either way, by your argument only one group can actually refer to me, because the other side has got my essence terribly wrong. But they obviously do refer to me, so your view of reference is simply wrong. Therefore there's also nothing to stop those who get God's essence wrong from still referring to him while holding false beliefs about him.

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