Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011), 336 pp., $25.99.
“Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Does the answer to that question have significant implications for how Christians and Muslims engage each other in the world today?”
It was in answer to those two questions that Miroslav Volf wrote Allah: A Christian Response. It was not written to answer whether or not Muslims are saved; that is, his goal is to discuss a political theology, not soteriology. My review will focus on two areas: (1) stimulating practical points and (2) points of theological and biblical concern.
Volf writes as one who has seen the bitter hostilities between Muslims and Christians and wishes to see those hostilities cease. Accordingly, he makes several points that provide excellent stimulation for Christians who are considering how to think about and engage with adherents of Islam.
First, Volf helpfully summarizes key similarities and differences between normative Islam and normative Christianity. This is not to say that the conclusions he draws from them are necessarily correct, but he highlights six areas of formal similarity between the two faiths:
1. “There is only one God, the one and only divine being.”
2. “God created everything that is not God.”
3. “God is radically different from everything that is not God.”
4. “God is good.”
5. “God commands that we love God with our whole being.”
6. “God commands that we love our neighbors as ourselves.” (110)
Citing both Christian and Muslim sources, he makes a clear case for each of these elements within both religions. He goes on to cite four more areas of agreement:
1. God loves. (158)
2. God is just. (158)
3. God’s love encompasses God’s justice. (158)
4. Human beings should love their neighbors as themselves. (159)
In all 10 areas, Volf acknowledges differences. In particular, on the issue of love, he highlights some significant ones:
1. Christians affirm that God is love. (182)
2. “Most Christians say that God’s eternal love includes love of the other, the divine other within the triune godhead and, derivatively, a creaturely other.” (182)
3. Christians affirm that God loves “the ungodly,” and that this love cannot be earned (182).
4. Christians must love even their enemies. (183)
Volf’s patient engagement on these issues shows that while he openly desires to focus on the similarities for the sake of the common good, he still recognizes significant differences. Christians ought to listen to how he works through the similarities and differences on these points. I am not yet evaluating the conclusion that he draws from all of this—that Muslims and Christians refer to the same God when they speak of God. Rather, I simply note that his look at each of these areas is helpful, as he does truly attempt to lay out what Muslims and Christians believe on these crucial issues.
Second, Volf presents a careful model of engagement with both Muslim and Christian theology on one of the most contentious issues between the two communities. He puts a great deal of effort into clarifying exactly what the Qur’an affirms about God’s unity and what it denies about the Trinity. He lists five objections to the doctrine of the Trinity in the Qur’an:
1. God cannot beget a Son. (133)
2. God cannot have an associate. (134)
3. God is not one of three divine beings. (134)
4. God cannot be Christ, because then the sovereign Creator would be contained in a creature. (134)
5. “Christians worship persons they associate with God in denigration of the one true God” (134).
He explains how each of these denials refers to a misunderstanding of the Trinity, basing his views on classic orthodox formulations of the doctrine (136). Additionally, Volf explains several elements that indicate that Qur’anic teaching on the unity of God does not deny orthodox Trinitarianism. First, he argues that Christians do not divide God’s one essence in the doctrine of the Trinity (136-139), demonstrating this biblical and theologically. Secondly, he argues that the terms we use to describe God, including the numbers one and three, cannot fully express the reality about God (139-142). Volf clearly wants to accurately understand Islam, and he also wants Muslims to accurately understand what Christians believe about the Trinity. Such engagement, contrasted with the prejudice he later criticizes, models how Christians ought to approach Islamic views.
Third, Volf articulates clearly what many Christians (and Muslims) have sadly missed in the history of Christian-Muslim relations: We must apply the Golden Rule to mission. He applies it in several ways. First, we must witness only if we allow others to witness to us (211). Second, we should witness how we wish others would witness to us, that is, without coercion, bribery, seduction, or unfairly comparing the worst of one religion with the best of another (211-212). While the first rule has generally been violated more by Muslims than Christians, the second has been the domain of both parties. Volf strongly urges Christians that if they are to love their neighbors, they must do it in how they witness.
Fourth, Volf provides much food for thought in how we lose our prejudices and exercise our rights concerning issues of blasphemy. He suggests that when we apply love of neighbor to trying to understand those of another religion, we will actively try to compare our self-perception with how others might perceive us. This “double vision,” Volf says, “is a way of coming to know the other truthfully, an application of the command to love the neighbor to how we seek knowledge of the neighbor” (205). Much prejudice, misunderstanding, and conflict can be avoided by following this simple process.
Arising from this concern to see through another’s eyes, we can come to see that having the right to speak in a certain way of another religion does not mean that such a way is a responsible exercise of the right (250). He applies this to the Danish cartoons of Muhammad that sparked riots and uproar among Muslims globally, arguing that while many Muslims responded inappropriately, Christians must consider both the safety of others (250) and civility (251) in how they approach things that they have the right to say. His reminder to express ideas with respect—even on questions of significant difference—is timely in a volatile atmosphere such as we have today.
Points of Concern
Notwithstanding those positive aspects of the book, there are some areas that are at a minimum, a cause for concern, and at a maximum, a cause for serious disagreement.
First, Volf’s entire argument for the God of Muslims and the God of Christians being the same depends on his understanding of “sufficient similarity.” He argues repeatedly that identical sameness is not needed, since even Christians—Calvinists and Arminians, for example—disagree about some aspects of the nature of God (90), though he admits that Muslim and Christian descriptions of God should not be “radically different” (90-91). Accordingly, as noted above, he patiently examines several major areas of agreement and notes a few areas of difference.
What is concerning in this approach though is that crucial word, sufficient. On what basis can sufficient similarity be determined? As Christians, we ought to go to Scripture in order to receive guidance on how to approach establish criteria for the sufficiency of our similarities. Instead of doing this, Volf quickly (pages 97-102) notes four areas of similarity (which are helpful, as noted above), and then claims to have presented a “tight and persuasive” argument that Christians and Muslims refer to the same God (102).
But in order to determine whether there is sufficient similarity, it seems that it would be helpful to develop a set of criteria that would, if not show clearly, at least indicate where one crosses from an inadequate understanding of God to a different God altogether. In other words, what constitutes a “radical difference”? Volf later admits, “If we have misidentified God—say by subscribing to a seriously erroneous description of God—we are talking about the wrong God (which for all monotheists means that we are not talking about God at all)” (113). So, again, I ask, how does one determine a “seriously erroneous description”?
One might rightly object that since we do not have any list for determining sufficient similarity, Volf has done the only thing that can be done: comparing major descriptions about God to see if they are similar or not. And certainly, Volf makes a clear case for (1) that on the issues he mentions, Christians and Muslims hold similar beliefs, and (2) that the issues he mentions are necessary similarities for claiming that both refer to the same God. Necessary does not equal sufficient, and the following considerations should at least make us pause to consider whether or Volf has proven the former but not the latter.
While he acknowledges the essential Christian teaching of Jesus as the self-revelation of God (147), he does not interact at length with any biblical texts that discuss Jesus’ necessity. One of the only texts that he does mention is John 14:7-9, which says:
“If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?
These verses follow on the heels of John 14:6, which famously proclaims that Jesus is the only way to the Father. About them Volf says,
Certainly, John’s Gospel affirms that Jesus is the self-revelation of God. If you know Jesus as the incarnate Word, you know God, and you know God truly (though not exhaustively!). And yet, according to that same Gospel, if you reject Jesus, you can still be worshiping the God whom Jesus truthfully revealed. (92)
The connection between Volf’s last statement and the text in question is not apparent. Particularly given the connection to verse six, it seems more natural to take the text as saying that from then on, because they knew who Jesus was, they would know the Father—not that after they rejected Jesus, they would still know the Father. These verses, on the surface at least, seem to suggest the opposite of what Volf proposes.
More importantly, there is one other thing to note about his use of Scripture. Volf refers to precious few other Scripture passages to determine sufficient similarity. While this does not mean that he is mistaken, as there may very well be no passages that illustrate the error of his view, I find it curious that a book written to convince Christians does not include more biblical interaction. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder about passages such as 1 John 4:2-3 and 5:20:
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
I am quite sure that Volf would have a response to these, but nevertheless, given the clarity with which Scripture teaches on the nature of the true God (and the incarnation), and 1 John’s descriptions of those who deny these things (“liar” in chapter 2 and “antichrist” in chapter four), it seems reasonable to expect that Volf should have dealt with the Scriptures in a more coherent fashion on this topic.
Second, even if we grant that Muslims and Christians have the same God as their referent, further questions remain about actual worship of that divine Being. Can we legitimately claim that they both worship, love, and give their allegiance to that same God? Can we say that right actions (love of neighbor, for example) can please God if they exist without right beliefs?
Volf answers these questions in the affirmative; indeed, he bases his vision for joint Muslim-Christian effort for the common good on an affirmative response to these questions. In his own words, “From a Christian standpoint, might it be that some Muslims (and some Christians!) who have a deficient view of God’s nature and God’s commandments nonetheless worship the one true God by means of their godly lives? I think so” (119-120). To clarify, Volf is not arguing that Muslims therefore have salvific standing before God, but rather that they do “everyday acts that honor God” (120). Citing the often-noble example of Saladin during the crusades, he concludes, “To the extent that people love their neighbors, they worship the one true God, even if their understanding of God is inadequate and their worship is seriously lacking in other regards” (122). Indeed, he goes on to suggest that
fear of the one and common God—the God who loves and commands love of neighbor—would make a difference. Fear of that God will nudge Muslims and Christians to emulate God and therefore to pursue the common good, for, by definition, the common God to whom they are accountable is the God of both as well as the one Lord of their common world. (247)
In other words, Volf suggests (without stating it in quite this way):
- that Muslims can love, honor, and fear God apart from Christ;
- that this love, fear, and honor can form a common basis on which they can work with Christians for the common good.
Biblically and theologically, those statements are concerning, despite their obvious practical pull. The following considerations illustrate my concerns:
First, this is not simply a question of inadequate propositions, but broken relationship. Scripture teaches that sin has broken the relationship between God and man such that man can do nothing to please God. Isaiah 64:6 shows that even the best deeds done by man outside of a state of salvation are as filthy rags before God. This renders suspect Volf’s insistence that one can honor God or please God with inadequate beliefs. Further, given that this book is written to persuade Christians, one wonders how at this point Volf can think that the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18-19) is not a central means of loving neighbor for Christians. That is, if we take Scripture’s words about the broken relationship between God and man seriously, it seems patently unloving to encourage Muslims who deny Jesus’ true identity to see their deeds as pleasing to God apart from Christ.
Second, while Muslims and Christians may very well agree that God commands that people love him, Christians cannot be faithful to the Scriptures and to Christ if they accept that Muslims, apart from Christ, do indeed love God. John 5:37-42 shows that those who reject Jesus as Savior do not love God:
And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, this form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you.
His words are clear: if one does not accept Jesus for who he actually is, he does not have the love of God in him. Put differently, no amount of right action—of which many first century Jews had plenty—can offset wrong belief about Jesus when it comes to love for God. The painful conclusion is that Muslims do not love God, and that to appeal to them on the basis of their love for God to work for the common good is to deceive them about their true status before God.
Third, Volf’s claim that one can be a practicing Muslim and 100 percent Christian lightly dances around a crucial issue separating the two communities: the person of Muhammad. As the front cover and publisher’s blurb note, Volf believes, “A person can be both a practicing Muslim and 100 percent Christian without denying core convictions of belief and practice.” Volf cites two examples of this, an Episcopal priest who claimed to also have become a Muslim (195) and a Muslim-background believer who claimed his new faith in Jesus was compatible with valid interpretations of Islam (196).
This is not the place to fully enter into the debate over C-5 contextualization and other related issues. Nevertheless, in all of Volf’s discussion over this “hybrid religiosity” (200), he only once mentions in passing the question of the person of Muhammad (with relevance to this particular issue). He argues that if people are baptized, confess that Jesus is Lord, and receive the divine gift of new life through Christ, “and believe that Muhammad was a prophet (not ‘the Seal of the Prophets,’ but a prophet in the way in which we might designate Martin Luther King Jr. ‘a prophet’),” then they “would still be 100 percent Christian” (199).
The problem is that the shahada, the Islamic confession, does not mean that Muhammad was simply a prophetic voice like Martin Luther King, and the rest of the Qur’an does not allow for such an interpretation. Christians can certainly approach Muhammad respectfully. But ultimately, the question of his prophethood is far more central than Volf makes it seem to be. Any proposed union between two faiths that so lightly jumps over such an integral question makes the conclusion, at least in my mind, ring hollow.
Fourth, Volf’s claim that having a common God is necessary to avoiding conflict seems unproven. Given that this is a book for Christians, the simple command to love God and neighbor ought to be enough for Christians to approach Muslims with love. Certainly, Christians will fail, but Christians do not need for Muslims to look to or worship the same God for Christians to treat them as they would wish to be treated. If indeed unconditional love is a hallmark of Christian teaching, then whether one is Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Baha’i, or atheist, Christians ought to follow Volf’s helpful material on how to view life from the perspective of others, participate in dialogue, and love their neighbors as themselves.