A way forward after Wheaton's "same God" debate

Rolf Bouma

Rolf Bouma
February 15, 2016

Now that Wheaton College and Larycia Hawkins have amicably parted ways, where does that leave the "same God" question?

February 16, 2016

Dr. Bouma, you probably didn't have space above for this, but I would really love to hear a little elaboration on what you mean by this statement:

"On some matters about God I am closer to my Catholic Jesuit or Orthodox Jewish or Sunni Muslim colleague than I am to some fundamentalist or pietistic Christian colleagues."

I think I get what you're after. At first blush I actually resonate with the statement a lot, having felt some strong spiritual kinship toward Catholics and (to a somewhat lesser extent) some Jews in my own life. I've been trying to think of any meaningful way in which my own Reformed theology would be closer to that of Sunni Islam than it is to even the "wackiest" of Christian denominations I've encountered, though, and I'm coming up dry.

I'd love to hear your further thoughts; I think they'd help me a lot in my conversations with other Christians on this topic.

Doug Vande Griend
February 16, 2016

Were I to criticize Hawkins, it would be for being very, very ambiguous about a highly nuanced subject.

Just what does it mean, after all, to "stand in solidarity" with someone else? Ask a dozen people and you'll get a dozen answers, all of which will also be ambiguous.

And what does "people of the book" mean? Again, a dozen queries will render a dozen different answers. That's the problem with talking in metaphors -- and saying short sentences about subjects requiring a book's length of explanation.

Speaking of books, I happen to be in the middle of Miroslav Volf's right now, entitled "Allah." Volf's tweet is quoted in this article, roughly as being in support of Hawkins, but a short tweet, just like the declaration of "standing in solidarity," doesn't even begin to explain what the speaker/writer/actor needs to explain to any listener/reader/observer about this incredibly nuanced and complicated subject.

Volf's book does ultimately conclude that Muslims, at least those of a certain definition, do worship the same God as do Christians, again of a certain definition, and then only with 1000 ifs, ands, and buts. Again, it takes Volf a book to explain himself.

So even if I might ultimately say that Hawkins perhaps didn't violate Wheaton's code of conduct by asserting heresy, it would only be with the caveat that she communicated in a way that would cause others to reasonably believe she was asserting heresy.

And thus, I would ultimately also support Wheaton's decision to dismiss her. Given her position/expertise, Hawkins had to know she was picking a fight, that she decided to use, and was using, the name and reputation of Wheaton to score a political point in a world where this general subject matter was highly politicized.

Sometimes we can be "technically correct" but quite wrong. That's Hawkins here, giving her the benefit of the doubt on being right. I respect Volf's writing his book about a complicated question, not so much Hawkin's metaphorical tossing of a hand grenade. Nor, BTW, do I think Volf did himself a favor by entering the fray via Twitter, a medium guaranteed to stoke for heat without providing even a ray of light.

Rolf Bouma
February 16, 2016

In Reply to JKana (comment #27889)
The kinship felt across denominational or religious divides can be very strong, and seems to be related to how one understands God's character and way of intersecting with the world. I've served on a state university religious board and I found myself most resonant with the Jesuit Catholic priest -- more so than my evangelical or mainline Protestant colleagues. We thought of God in the same terms, saw our faith's connection to university life in the same light, and joked about how 400 years ago our forebears would have been anathemizing each other, but really we're very much alike.

With Muslims, it's not as close, but there still is a kinship. It would be a moderate Sunni or Shia Muslim, not an apocalyptic or fundamentalist. My Calvinism resonates with Muslim emphasis upon the divine will, on the blessed and gracious attributes of God, and the call to holy and obedient living, as well as the pervasive presence of God in the universe and in human life.

Michael Thompson
February 16, 2016

If by people of the book the meaning is the absolute final say on faith and practice, and, if the books say different things about the God who is to be worshiped, (the different things being the essential attributes of God), then, in fact they are different Gods.
Doctrine does indeed matter. What one believes will always reflect how one acts.
The Christian Book says that Jesus is the unique Son of God, born of a virgin, crucified, dead in the flesh, risen, resurrected in the flesh,and ascended in the flesh. If any other "religion", sect, cult or denomination rejects this (Biblical) fact of Jesus, ie: that Jesus is God, then indeed, their god is NOT Jesus, and therefore not the (Orthodox) Christian God. Therefore they cannot be worshiping the same God.
What is the doctrinal statement of Wheaton? Must the professors adhere to it? If not then what is the distinctive and purpose for Wheaton.
As a Christian in the "verbal plenary inspiration" of the Scripture camp, doctrine is determined by the book. We can certainly argue about a lot of things, but I would like to know the assumed doctrinal position of the school to which I go.

Jerry Brown
February 16, 2016

The answer is connected to revelation. How universal, how consistent and how open to study is God revealed. The attributes and actions of God are revealed in a variety of ways (creation and prophetic documents for example). This means many people at different times can learn about God. A revelation to a single person at one time in history draws such a small picture that the determination of "same" is severely lacking. In fact, that single revelation, while appearing to connect with historical events that share some identity markers, the attributes are remarkably different when put along side multiple and similar revelations. We should be able to say that this revelation is very different and then follows an assumption of perhaps "not the same".

February 16, 2016

"But closeness is a complex question; it is a matter of kinship, not absolute identity."

Agreed. But when a tenured professor at perhaps THE leading evangelical college in the country says "same God," has it not become an issue of "absolute identity," instead of "closeness"?

The. Same. God. That is hard to square with an evangelical position. In common parlance, perhaps one might make a case. But not in the academy, where langue is nothing if not precise.

The school had no choice but to respond. How could they not? Apparently the response was not seasoned with grace; we'll never know. All we can do is look from the outside and take sides, presuming we know more than we do.

But we've all seen theological drift over the years. I, for one, am glad this issue was brought to the fore, as painful as it might be. The scandal of Christian particularism has never been stomached by the world. It never will be. May God increase the tribe of those who lovingly engage a lost world without crossing theological lines.

Thank you for your thoughtful post.

February 17, 2016

In Reply to Doug Vande Griend (comment #27893)
I think Hawkins bears significant responsibility for the onset of the controversy. Her comments were ambiguous. That Muslims have 'a book' seems irrelevant. So do Hindus and Buddhists. Embodied solidarity is predominantly a feminist term that distinguished standing with someone in their experience rather than agreeing with them in every particular.

Wheaton, however, bears a lot of responsibility for where things went from there, and as their apologies in early February show, they violated good procedure in prematurely raising questions about employment status with a tenured faculty member. Wheaton did not terminate Dr. Hawkins. They threatened to and suspended her pending the process. They withdrew their termination process and admitted that it was wrong. Wheaton ended up losing a valued faculty member who on all accounts did stellar work in the classroom and as a mentor for students of varied backgrounds, which in the regrettably homogeneous cultural world of Christian colleges, is the last place you want to violate proper due process. So I don't agree with the propriety of Wheaton's attempts to terminate her employment

Paul Wallace
June 15, 2016

I see statements here about what Christians believe about the God they whorship being Father, Son and Holy Ghost this is what I believe a triune God Head. Most Christians don't believe they an Muslims believe in the same God. Muslims don't believe that Christians believe in the same God as they do. Jews don't believe that Jesus is God.

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