In my last post on this subject [see links to all the posts here], I said I was covering the first of two posts that have seriously challenged the thesis I've been defending about the God of Christianity and the God of Islam. This post looks at the second post, Who's Allah? by Kevin Courter.
Kevin's argument is much more difficult for the position I've been taking than any of the other arguments I've been responding to. I actually think it's devastating to the position as I've sometimes stated it, but it shows that taking the biblical data seriously requires a position that's neither exactly what I've stated nor what the other side is saying. I do think my position is revisable to deal with the text he points to, and I don't think the other side is revisable to deal with the texts I've mustered or the arguments I've put forward.
Kevin presents two biblical arguments. The first is from II Corinthians 11:4:
For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough. [ESV]
This way of speaking shows that Paul thinks someone who teaches a different gospel is teaching a different Jesus. Kevin also points to the discussions in I Corinthians 8 and 10 about eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul speaks of such idols in two ways. At one point, he flat-out says that the idols are nothing, and there's nothing in principle wrong with eating meat sacrificed to non-existent beings (unless there are weak brothers or sisters around who would be led back into a life of idolatry if they saw mature believers doing that).On the other hand, Paul insists that there are demons standing behind them, and involvement in idolatry is involvement with demons. Kevin thinks that's a good reason to think false worship involves inadvertent demon-worship, and thus there must be some being Allah who is a demon rather than the word referring to God or not referring to any being. My argument assumed that the word 'Allah' either refers to God or does not refer to anything.
I'll come to the demon argument at the end. I think the more serious difficulty comes from the other issue, so I'll look at that first. I want to narrow my view down to its fundamental root. My original point in all this was twofold. One side of it is that you can speak of Muslims talking about God, and they do talk about God, the actual God that I believe in as a Christian. The other side of it is that they're getting it so wrong that it's wrong to speak of them as worshiping God if you mean a certain thing by that. I don't think any of what Kevin has said threatens either of those points, although I do think I need to modify how I put it to account for the two points he makes. There's a tension in scripture between (1) passages that speak of false worship as wrong worship of God and (2) passages that speak of false worship as not worship, false worship of God as not being about God, and false views of Jesus as not being about Jesus.
It seems perfectly ok to me to say that it's a different Jesus in Mormonism, so long as you mean what Paul meant by it. I don't think we can take that as an identity claim, though. If we did, then it would make no sense ever to say that Mormons say anything about Jesus. Mormons say things about Jesus all the time. They say that the Jesus the Bible speaks of was a created being (as was the God who created him) and that mere humans have the capability to achieve the same level. They don't believe these things of a non-existent being. They believe them of Jesus. An orthodox Christian just can't accept them as true things.
So what do we make of Paul's claim that a different gospel amounts to a different Jesus? I don't think he's speaking ontologically. He's simply speaking about how the people who teach a different gospel have got Jesus so wrong that their description of him is unrecognizable. I don't think the solution to the tension is to take Paul literally when he says it's a different Jesus (because there is no different Jesus that it could be about). It's not as if the heretics Paul is dealing with in II Corinthians are talking about a fictional entity like Santa Claus or Superman. They're talking about Jesus and saying things about him that amount to a fictional portrait of him. It's still a portrait of him.
So I have no trouble with Christians saying that Mormons follow a different Jesus, provided that they mean that Mormons follow a different teaching about Jesus. They follow a Jesus who did and is very different from the real Jesus, but it's not a fictional character that they're talking about. It's Jesus. Their portrait of him, the different Jesus, is not a fictional character but a different set of beliefs about him. They're still beliefs about him.
The trick is making sure we can account for both ways of talking. I've just presented one way to do so, and it doesn't involve a huge departure from the view I've been defending all along. It means being more tolerant of ways of speaking that say that the God of Islam is a different God, but it also means not letting that get to a point of an identity claim. The question is whether you can put both ways of talking together with a slightly-modified version of the opposite view? I suggest not. The original idea is that any reference to God (usually with the word 'Allah' in Arabic, but Muslims just speak of God when speaking English) can never refer to the actual God. The word simply refers to a fictional being, no more real than Zeus or Odin. How do you modify that view to allow for speaking the other way? I think you have to end up gutting the view to make it fit with both ways scripture speaks, whereas the view I've been defending only needs to loosen up the way it speaks. So I think the view I've been defending can better capture the scriptural data.
Now on the demon argument, I don't think that will work. If the reason Muslims don't refer to God when they use the word 'Allah' is that they deny essential properties of God when they do so, then it's even less true that they get the essential properties of any demons when they use 'Allah'. So they can't be referring to any demon when they use that word, by the very argument for seeing Allah as a different god. The Muslim picture of God is not a picture of a demon and in fact denies essential properties of demons by saying God is uncreated.
You could suppose that any connection with anything spiritual is connection with either God or a demon, and only Christian pursuits of God are connections with God, so any other spiritual pursuit involves connections with demons. That could be what Paul has in mind when he says that actual attendance at the religious feasts involving sacrifices to idols amounts to consorting with demons. But the word itself can't refer to a demon according to the very reason being given for why it can't refer to God.
Besides, Paul speaks two different ways when speaking of demons and idols. He does say that the gods they worship are non-existent. He also says that it's connected up with demons somehow. I don't think he identifies the gods with demons, or he couldn't say the first thing. At most he's saying that religious festivals with sacrifices to idols are demon-involved ceremonies. When he says it's ok to eat the meat outside those ceremonies, he insists that the idols are nothing, which means they're not demons. Isaiah argues the same thing at length. The idols themselves are just pieces of wood with metal coatings, and there's nothing more to the gods than that, even if you also think the religious ceremonies involve demons in some other way. It's not that the gods are demons, or Paul and Isaiah couldn't say that. So I don't think it will work to say that the being Muslims call God is a demon.
Postscript: After I wrote this post, but before I posted it, Dale Tuggy left a comment on one of the other posts linking to his response. He raises a different sort of concern about the possibility of a demon masquerading as God and giving the Qur'an to Muhammad. If Muhammad just imagined or made up the Qur'an, he doesn't know what to say. But what if he was actually interacting with a demon? It seems that he'd be saying all these things that seem to be about God, but he'd be saying them with a demon, right?
I don't actually think it's that simple. it would be like someone showing up disguised as me and taking my place for a year, with everyone thinking they're speaking of me but really speaking of the impostor. At times, though, they'll speak of me when they think they're speaking of the person in front of them. So wouldn't the scenario Dale proposes involve true statements about God, false statements about God, true statements about the impostor-demon, and false statements about the impostor-demon? It just makes the picture more complex. It doesn't mean there is no way in which Muslims ever speak of God.