Since the Wheaton College controversy, much has been written by philosophers and Bible scholars on the question, “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” My take…the philosophers are bringing the most clarity to the question. Bible scholars seem more eager to defend than discuss.
The Real Issue – Reference:
Philosopher Bill Vallicella argues that the answer to the question depends on one’s theory of reference.
Theory of reference refers to the “relation that obtains between certain sorts of representational tokens (e.g., names, mental states, pictures) and objects” (plato.stanford.edu).
For our purposes, “God” is the “representational token” and the Creator God of the Bible is the object. In other words, what is it about the word “God” that enables it as a “representational token” to successfully refer to the Creator God revealed in the Bible?
Taking into account theory of reference, the question can be put differently. Do Muslims successfully reference the one true God of the Bible in their worship?
There are at least two theories of reference, and both shed light on this question.
A successful reference is made because the speaker of the word has in mind a particular “descriptive content” (Bill Vallicella).
In other words, successful reference occurs when the “representational token” is understood in terms of its content. Just using the word “God” does not guarantee that the object (God) has been successfully referenced. The “descriptive content” also has to be correct.
A successful reference is made because the speaker has in mind the object of the “initial tagging” of the word/phrase (Bill Vallicella).
In other words, “God of Abraham”, e.g., is a fixed name – “representational token” – established in the OT by the Bible writers to refer to the transcendent Creator who covenanted with Abraham. A successful reference is made whenever this word/phrase is used because it is linked “in a causal chain stretching back to the dubbing of that object with that name” (plato.stanford.edu).
Under the causal theory, it doesn’t matter if the content varies wildly (Bill Vallicella). The word as used in its “initial tagging” is the thing. Descriptive content is irrelevant.
These two theories are why the answer to our specific question about successful reference of Muslim worship depends on one’s theory of reference (Bill Vallicella). If causal, the answer is, “yes”. If descriptive, the answer is, “no”.
What about the Trinity and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer?
Pointing out that the Christian God is triune – as theologians and evangelical leaders have been doing – doesn’t do the work they think it does. The reason has to do with the causal theory of reference.
Consider Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This is a movie about Abraham Lincoln: the 16th president of the U.S.; husband of Mary Todd Lincoln; vampire hunter.
Very few will have a problem accepting a causal theory of reference with the words, “Abraham Lincoln”. In fact, the reason the movie title works is because of the causal theory of reference. We easily accept that the 16th president of the U.S. is being referenced. However, the movie just happens to be wrong about Lincoln’s hobby – same Lincoln, just incorrect belief (vampire hunter).
The same can be said of a Muslim’s reference to God. Everybody knows they are referencing the God of the Bible – the God of Abraham (a number of the Koran’s Surah’s make that point). However, they just happen to be wrong about some aspects of God’s nature – same God, just incorrect beliefs (they reject most orthodox Christology).
The Bible’s Theory of Reference:
Back to our “yes” and “no” answer. There is one more thing to consider; one more thing that might break the log jam created by competing theories of reference.
Since the Bible is the originator, via revelation, of all its “representational tokens” for God, wouldn’t it make sense to see how it weighs in on the reference issue?
In other words, what is the Bible’s theory of reference with the word “God” – Descriptivist or Causal? Surely the Bible should have the right to weigh in on the reference question.
It’s obvious that the Bible contains Causal Reference:
- Exodus 3:15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
The above is just one example of an “original tagging” causal reference used by several Surah’s in the Koran to make a successful reference to the God of the Bible.
But, the Bible also contains Descriptive References to God. The Descriptive References are where problems of successful reference by Muslims begin to surface.
NT Descriptive References (descriptive content is the thing):
- 1 Corinthians 15:57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
- 2 Corinthians 5:18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.
- Colossians 2:12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him [Christ] from the dead.
- 1 Peter 1:21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him [Christ] from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is also the God who reconciled the believer through Christ and raised Christ from the dead. The NT writers go out of their way to establish and seal this connection. “Descriptive content” matters to the Bible’s reference to God.
Where does this leave us?
On a Causal theory, Muslims successfully reference the God of Abraham in their worship. But the Bible rejects a “Causal theory alone” approach to the word “God”. It is deeply steeped in a Descriptive theory of reference. So, using the Bible’s own comprehensive standards of reference (causal and descriptive), Muslims fail to successfully refer to the God of the Bible in their worship. Why? They reject the Christology contained in the NT’s Descriptive references of God. Descriptive content matters.