Reflections on the “Same God” Thesis, by Bruce Lindley McCormack

It is an honor to host this guest post by Bruce Lindley McCormack, Princeton Seminary’s Charles Hodge Professor of Systematic Theology. McCormack earned his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. He also holds an M.Div. from Nazarene Theological Seminary and an honorary doctorate of theology from the Friedrich Schiller Universitat in Jena, Germany. A Presbyterian, McCormack is interested in the history of modern theology, from Schleiermacher and Hegel through Karl Barth. His courses cover Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre and the doctrine of atonement in Christian tradition. He was a member of the General Assembly committee commissioned to write a new catechism for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and has been a member of the panel on doctrine for the Church of Scotland. A member of the Karl Barth-Stiftung in Basel, Switerzland, he is North American editor of the Zeitschrift fuer Dialektische Theologie, published in Germany.

With great hopes for reconciliation at Wheaton College and beyond, McCormack provides a brief overview of the best case on either side of the recent controversies surrounding the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same god. Those with comments and questions for Dr. McCormack should feel free to contact him. He will be unable to respond to them tomorrow, but will reply as soon as possible.


It is a great pity that the
question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has come so
forcibly to the center of attention for so many (on social media especially)
through ongoing controversy at Wheaton College.
The nature of that controversy is well-known and does not need to be
rehearsed here.  I say it is a pity
because the issue is a theologically profound and complex one which admits of
no obvious answer.  It is a question
worthy of engagement by the finest theological minds in our world today
precisely because of its complexity.  But
it is also an issue with implications not only for inter-faith relations but
also for inter-confessional relations.
That is to say: how we answer the question, the charity or lack of charity with
which we do so could very well have an impact on ecumenical relations long
after the controversy at Wheaton has come to an end.  So the stakes couldn’t be higher.  My hope is that all of us would learn to
admit that more than one answer can reasonably be given and that is a huge
mistake to assume that anyone who gives a different answer than one’s own is
automatically guilty of either bigotry or a betrayal of the gospel.

Before
I turn to the issue, I should say that I have had great respect and
appreciation for Wheaton College for a great many years.  I have lectured there twice, preached in
their chapel, and benefitted greatly from the privilege of teaching an
extremely high number of their graduates here at Princeton Seminary during my
twenty-five years here.  My respect has
only been increased by the comments made in recent days by Wheaton faculty
(including Larycia Hawkins!) on social media.
Wheaton’s “hype” is not exaggerated in my view.  It is simply lovely to see so many
non-theologians who read enough theology to comment so ably on theological
questions.  I have been, as a result,
heartbroken to watch this happening; heartbroken most especially for Prof.
Hawkins but heartbroken too for faculty, students, alums – and, indeed,
administrators.  My goal here is to do
theology well.  And by “well” I mean not
only theology that is academically rigorous and responsible to Scripture and
the history of the construction of orthodox understandings of God but theology
that serves reconciliation and peace.  How
we do theology can be, at times, just as important than the content if only
because how we do it will decide whether it can be heard by others.

In
what follows, my goal is to present what I take to be the best case that can be
made on both sides of the “same God” question by one such  as I (whose training is in the history of
doctrine).  I will begin with the
negative answer and turn then to the positive answer.  As this is a blog contribution and not an
academic paper, I will not seek to defend every claim I make – though I would
be happy to do so if pressed.  I will
simply say that my views on the range of theological topics relevant to this
issue are the result of forty-three years of intensive engagement with
historical and systematic theology, the last fifteen of which have been devoted
specifically to the doctrine of God.

I. The Case for Rejecting the “Same God” Thesis

Those
who think that “Allah” and the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” could
not possibly be the same God defend their answer best on the following
grounds.  The doctrine of the Trinity is
not one doctrine among others but the
presupposition of all other Christian doctrines.  It is this because triunity is not something
added to “oneness” but is a description of what God is essentially.  Put another way: the trinitarian relations
are not laid on top of a divine essence which has been “established”
metaphysically (i.e. in abstraction from those relations as a “fourth” beneath
or behind the “persons”).  The relations
simply are what God is essentially.  For
that reason, as Karl Barth argued, it will not do to treat the “one God” before
treating the “triunity” of God because everything that needs to be said about
the “one God” needs to be conditioned by what is said about the Trinity.  In support of these claims, Barth cites
(among others) Johann Gerhard (the most significant orthodox Lutheran
theologian of the early seventeenth century) and Herman Bavinck (a well-known modern
Dutch theologian).  “J. Gerhard writes of
it: ‘whoever does not know the mystery of the Trinity does not know Him as He
has revealed Himself in His Word’…” (Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics, p.96.
And from Bavinck: “‘The whole of Christianity, the whole of special
revelation, stands and falls with the confession of God’s triunity.  It is the heart of Christian faith, the root
of all dogmas, the substance of the new covenant.’” (Ibid., p.97.).  On this basis, Barth concludes “…it will
not do to have God as a general concept within which the Christian God as he is
basically known in the doctrine of the Trinity is only a special case” (Ibid.,
pp.97-8).

The
strength of this argument has to do with Barth’s conviction that only God can
reveal God and that, therefore, the One who would reveal Him must Himself be God if He is to reveal Him.  Quite clearly, this argument also rules out
of bounds a good bit of speculative or “natural” theology.  And it leads us quite naturally to the recognition
that theological language that is responsible to its “object”(i.e. conformed to
the nature of God) ought to be grounded “Christologically” (i.e. in the Christ
attested in Holy Scripture).  And that
means, among other things, that the concept of “oneness” which we employ in
trinitarian discourse ought to be one that is purchased from close reflection
on the nature of the unity of Jesus Christ with His Father.

But
if triunity “goes all the way down”, then the triunity in God cannot be a
concept arrived at by simply adding the number three to a prior commitment to
the number one.  God is not One and Three; God is One-in-Three and
Three-in-One.  Now the latter is, quite
obviously, a very difficult thing to say.
The concept of perichoresis (or
“co-inherence”) was devised in an attempt not to fall silent where the unique “oneness” of the Christian God is
concerned.  But even perichoresis leaves some extremely important questions unanswered –
to which I will return in a moment.
Suffice it here to say that the logic of numbers, as applied to God, is
employed responsibly only where it is recognized that numbers too never rise
above the level of analogical predication.
Used univocally of divine “persons’ and “human” persons, they are bound
to mislead.  Seen in this light, to speak
of the “one” God is not merely to refer to the metaphysical concepts of
singularity or uniqueness.  The “unity”
of Jesus Christ with His Father is a relation that includes (even if it is not
exhaustively described by) the love each has for the other.

That, I believe, is the
strongest case for rejecting the “same God” thesis.  It is one that I find deeply compelling and
have done so for years.  So my
convictions on this question are not shaped by current events.  But! the problem with this case is that it is
almost too good.  For stated as I have
stated it, this answer ignores a number of problems – not least of which is the
history of the development of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.  The truth of the matter, as we shall now see,
is that the burden of proof where orthodoxy is concerned is much greater for
people like me than it is for Larycia Hawkins.
And that is because hers is the
more traditional, the more obviously orthodox position
.   To explain why I turn to the best case for
an affirmation of the “same God” thesis.

II. The Case for Affirming the “Same God” Thesis

The place to start is with the
recognition that considerable development had to occur before the Council of
Constantinople (381) was able to provide the orthodox solution to the
trinitarian debates which embroiled the churches and their theologians in the
fourth century.  Development is obvious
on the face of it; concepts like ousia,
hypostases and homoousios (which were decisive for the”pro-Nicene theology which
prevailed at Constantinople) are not to be found in the NT.  What we do find there, in many places, is a
“high Christology” (John 1, Eph.1, Col.1, Heb.1, 1 Peter 1).  We find attestation of incarnation, the pre-existence
of the Son, perhaps even (on my reading of Phil.2:9-11, at least) the
affirmation that the man Jesus is “proper” to the identity of the God of
Israel.  But none of these affirmations
adds up to a doctrine of the
Trinity.  What they provide are the
building-blocks for constructing one.
But alongside of them, one would also have to address the problem of subordination
– a subordination not so easily consigned to the “economy” as many seem to
think, given what Paul says in 1 Cor.15:28.
All of this is to say: arriving at the understanding of the Christian
God as “constituted” by three co-eternal and co-equal “persons” took quite some
time.  Four centuries, in fact.  And one then has to ask: what understanding did
Christian theologians have of God in the meantime?  Now that
is a most interesting question.

Before there was a “pro-Nicene”
theology, before the Church could be united in the belief that there exist in
God three “persons” whose unity is guaranteed by the principle of “inseparable
operations” (see Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and
Its Legacy
), the most obvious thing for Christians to believe – and what
the NT writers themselves believed – was quite simply that the God and Father
of our Lord Jesus Christ is the One God of Israel.  The truth is that Phil.2:9-11 (especially
when read as I read it) works exceptionally within the NT canon.  The most natural understanding of the oneness
of God for those coming directly out of second Temple Judaism was that of
“singularity” and/or “uniqueness.”  This
understanding was given further strength by the influence of Middle Platonism
already on the LXX but most especially on the Greek apologists.  By the mid-second century at the latest, a
concept of God was already firmly in place which owed a great deal to Middle
Platonism.  The concept in question affirmed
that God is one, simple, impassible, invisible, immaterial being.  In constructing this concept, there can be
little question but that the definition of God’s “oneness” owed a great deal to
its “neighoring” concepts, simplicity above all.  Unity and simplicity went hand in hand for
the early Fathers.  And that was one of
the reasons (though not the only one) that debates over the doctrine of the
Trinity in the fourth century were so difficult and protracted.  All of the fourth century theologians whose
doctrines of the Trinity would eventually be recognized as orthodox were
committed to unity and simplicity (see G.L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought).
And so one of the most important tasks facing fourth century theology
was how to think the three-ness of “persons” into or together with an already existing concept of “oneness.”

The
truth is that the conceptual differentiation
between ousia and hypostases worked out by the
Cappadocians placed the “persons” in a rather more pale light than the intensive
light which shown on the common or shared “essence.”  Why do I say that?  Because the great unresolved question of the
orthodox settlement was: what are the
three?  What is it that differentiates or
distinguishes the “persons” such that Christian trinitarianism does not lapse
back into absolute monotheism?  The only
answer available to orthodox Christians at the time was that the three persons
are “distinct” by virtue of their differing “modes of origination.”  But that is not an answer to the what-question.
It tells how the three are
what they are, how they “come to be” (eternally, of course); it does not tell
us what they are.  Many of the orthodox,
including Basil and Augustine, were quite candid in admitting this.  What the “persons” are, what makes them to
differ, is ineffable (i.e. it cannot be brought to speech).  Given that this is so, it is understandable
that the only “properties” thought to be “personal” (i.e. proper to a single “person”
only rather than shared by all three) were modes of origination – and that all
other “properties” (which did give an
answer to the question of what God
is, even if not what the “persons” are) are shared.  It also becomes immediately comprehensible
why the “principle of insuperable operations” was such a big deal (i.e. if one
member of the Godhead does something, they all do it, by virtue of shared
essence).

The strongest case for affirming
the “same God” thesis lies in the history of the development of the orthodox
doctrine of the Trinity, in which “oneness” was both historically prior to and,
to an extent, logically privileged over “threeness.”.  The move historically was from oneness to
triunity – and when triunity was finally worked out, it was worked out in a way
that “fit” the prior commitment to a metaphysical notion of “oneness” – which,
we now have to say, can be and is upheld by a great many Jews and Muslims as
well as Christians.  And that leads me to
a final, ecumenical point.

Roman
Catholic theology has always had and will continue to have a big stake in the
metaphysics of the Fathers.   That is why
the affirmation that Christians and Muslims worship the same God could find
approval at Vatican II – because it was an affirmation built upon the
metaphysics of the ancient Church which found its way into the great syntheses
of Augustine and Thomas.  But to mention
the Roman Catholics in this context is to remind ourselves that the issue we
are discussing is not limited to Christians and Muslims.  It touches upon issues with profound
ecumenical significance.  To be sure, I
have my questions about the orthodox settlement (having to do largely with the
metaphysics of the ancient church).  I do
believe that it could be improved upon.
But any improvements would, at this stage, still be the opinions of a
private theologian.  They would not have
ecclesial standing.  There is no such thing, at the end of the day, as the Protestant
doctrine of the Trinity.  The Trinity is
the shared teaching of the churches scattered across the globe who adhere to
the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Church
.
For that reason, I could no more deny to Larycia Hawkins the orthodoxy
of her understanding of the Trinity than I could deny it to those who affirm
the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. For it is she who stands closest in this
controversy to classical orthodoxy, not people like me.

Final Thought

No one involved in debates over
the issue raised by the Wheaton controversy should deny that the issue is
theological.  At the same time, no one
should act as though there is only one clear solution to it available to
orthodox Christians who adhere to Scripture and the Creed.  Orthodoxy itself left unanswered questions
lying on the table for future generations to debate.  And debate
is precisely what we should do with them.
My hope, my prayer, is that these debates can take place in a spirit of
charity and in a spirit that seeks reconciliation (not only at Wheaton but
outside Wheaton as well).

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