Saturday, January 16, 2016

Getting into hot water

I see that the oft-rehearsed question of whether Christians and Moslems worship the same God has surfaced again. Quite a few years ago I got into hot water by saying things about Islam that implied that a Moslem could be said, on a certain occasion, to worship the same God as us Christians.

But before we get to that, it seems that Paul had interesting things to say on this question when he was at Athens. What did he mean when he said that the one whom the Athenians worshipped in ignorance ‘I declare to you’. It seems that he meant, or implied, that two people could worship the same God, the one knowingly and the other unknowingly, with many misapprehensions. And what about Jesus at the well? 'You don’t know who you are worshipping. We know what we worship. For salvation is of the Jews.' Was he arguing, like Paul, that the woman worshipped the God of Abraham, though unknowingly, while at the same time misunderstanding who it was she worshipped? 

Do Christians and Jews worship the same God? Could they worship the same God?  The answer has to do with the complex matter of reference, and the conditions of its success. How much do two people have to know in common for their words and actions to be words that apply to the same person, or to the true God, and their actions are successfully directed to them? In the case of God, Suppose that the two both use the words ‘Creator of the heavens and the earth’ to refer to God. There is only one such Creator. Christians say that he is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Others attribute to him other and incompatible properties. Though mistaken about a serious and substantial matter in respect of a person, we may nevertheless succeed in hitting the target. What about referring to the same God?  How about a classical theist and an openness theologian? Or the God of Christian orthodoxy and that of American civil religion?

It is possible to approach this problem of worshipping the same God from another angle, from needs that men and women may have which  only God can meet; supremely the need for mercy and forgiveness. It was in  recommending such a course that I got into hot water.

Some years ago,  before many of you were born, I was at a conference in Canada on missions. I cannot now remember whether it was in the paper I gave, or in discussion later, that I ventured the view that if, in Auschwitz, say, a Jew sincerely prayed ‘Lord have mercy upon me’,  that prayer would be heard. And similarly if a Muslim prayed, Most merciful Allah, have mercy on me, then similarly. Why may we not believe that a cry  for mercy may find its way through the fog of error and misapprehension to the one and only merciful God? Do we have an interest in narrowing the wideness of God’s mercy? Are we entitled to take this line? 

When I returned home I received a letter from Iain Murray pointing out that one of those who objected vociferously to the sentiments I expressed in Canada was a solid supporter of the work of the Trust who had been in touch. However the effect of this letter was somewhat spoiled by the fact that W.G.T. Shedd, whose volumes of sermons the Trust had re-published and whose Calvinism Pure and Mixed: A Defence of the Westminster Standards the Trust  also re-published, in 1986, expressed similar views.

Here’s a typical passage of Shedd's:
And since regeneration in the instance of the adult immediately produces faith and repentance, a regenerate heathen is both a believer and a penitent. He feels sorrow for sin, and the need of mercy. This felt need of mercy and desire for it is potentially and virtually faith in the Redeemer. For although the Redeemer has not been presented to him historically and personally as the object of faith, yet the Divine Spirit by the new birth has wrought in him the sincere and longing disposition to believe  in him. With the penitent and believing man in the Gospel he says, ‘Who is he, Lord, that I might believe in him?’ (John 9.36). Such a man is ‘regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit’, and belongs to that class of ‘elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Spirit’. (Westminster Conf. X.3) (pages 128-9) 

Did Shedd have a different God from Warfield, who strenuously objected to this view? (See 'God's Providence Over All' in Vol I of Warfield's Selected Shorter Writings, for a sample.) Would that then make one of them an idolator? If so, then which one, I wonder?