Do Muslims Worship the True God? A Bridge Too Far

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!).

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: R#8220;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.

Update: For a good overview of Paul’s evangelistic strategy in Acts 17, see this article by D. A. Carson.

posted by JT at Thursday, February 28, 2008