Luther, Muslims and One God

As I write this, President Trump is in Saudi Arabia. The White House has promised that he will be delivering a speech to Muslim leaders that will promote peace. (Frankly, delivering such a speech seems beyond the skill set of this president, but time will tell.) In any case, Muslim-Christian relationships are on my mind as I find myself reflecting on two different articles in the forthcoming issue of Dialog.

One of the great joys of my job as editor is that I get to read a wide variety of articles, on a wide variety of topics, which I ordinarily might not pick up in the course of my own scholarship. In this crop of articles, I was very interested to find two different scholars making the same argument, using the same quote from Luther’s writings.  These two theologians make the claim that Luther believes that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, citing a sentence from The Large Catechism: “All who are outside this Christian people, whether heathens, Turks, Jews, or false Christians and hypocrites—even though they believe in and worship only the one, true God—nevertheless do not know what his attitude is toward them.” (This comes from a summary statement he makes about The Apostles’ Creed).

This is an interesting argument, and others have made it as well. However, I would like to add to the conversation by complicating it a bit, and offer a different perspective. In particular, I suggest two ideas. First, I argue that, even in the most generous interpretation of Luther’s theology, to say that Luther believed that Christians and Muslims worship the “same” God does not mean the same thing as what a 21st Century Christian might mean when she makes the same claim. Second, I argue that, in fact, Luther did not think Muslims worshipped the Christian God, for the simple reason that they did not believe in Christ. And, for Luther, if you don’t have Christ, you don’t have God, period.

To the first point: Luther, of course, believed in one God, and one God only. Beside the one true God, there was only Satan, demonic forces, and idolatry. So, it follows that if he were to acknowledge that “God” were being worshipped by anyone, even a non-Christian, that God could be none other than the true God, revealed first and foremost in Jesus Christ and in Scripture. Therefore, more properly, when Luther says that Muslims and Jews worship “the same” God, what he really means is that they are worshipping “his” God, the Christian God.

This may seem like a purely semantic difference, but in fact, it is quite significant. A simple analogy will suffice to make the point. Think of the difference between a night spent in your own house and a night spent in the house of a friend. While you might be very comfortable in both, in only one do you set the rules; in only one can you rearrange the furniture; in only one are you “home.” In your friend’s house, you have to follow your friend’s rules: you eat when your friend eats, you go to bed when your friend goes to bed. In other words, you accommodate yourself to her schedule, and you accept her norms and habits as your own while you are there.

In an analogous way, Luther’s statement is meant to indicate that insofar as a Muslim worships rightly at all (and Luther was dubious about that possibility), she worships the Christian God. Any “sameness” between the two could come only from Muslim agreement with Christian claims/doctrines/practices; there could be no concession on the Christian side. Seen this way, then, a more accurate way to interpret Luther’s statement is to say, “Insofar as a Muslim agrees with what Christians teach and believe about God, they are not in error; wherever they deviate, they are wrong and their worship is false and their god is an idol.” Is this really a strong enough foundation for saying that Christians and Muslims worship the same God? In today’s context, I think it is not.

By contrast, today, if a Christian wants to make that claim of “sameness,” she must be prepared to open herself up to possible transformation in her own understanding of God and God’s relationship to God’s people. She must be willing to see things in Islam that are not present in Christianity, and think honestly about what she might learn from Muslims in her own worship. Finally, she might look self-critically at her own prayer and/or worship practices, and wonder how they might be helpfully informed by Muslim practice. In short, if a 21st century Christian wants to argue that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, all the right teaching and practice cannot be only on one side: both need to bring something to the table, and each needs to offer the other some insight and wisdom about God. This idea of “sameness” was clearly far outside Luther’s comprehension.

The second point I want to make focuses on Luther’s steadfast and zealous Christocentrism. There is no question that, for Luther, Christ was the key to his theology: Luther agreed wholeheartedly with Paul who chose to know nothing but Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). Therefore, it seems to me hard to argue from one sentence in Luther’s writings that he could somehow concede that Muslims also worshipped the Christian God when he was so vehement about their refusal to acknowledge Jesus’ divinity. As I have written elsewhere, Luther compares Muhammad’s teachings to the Egyptians, who worshipped cats, cattle and snakes; and he repeatedly calls both the Jews and Muslims blasphemers. For Luther, there is no knowledge of God without Christ, and if you get Christ wrong, you get everything else wrong, too.

There are many aspects of Luther’s theology that I appreciate and find helpful in doing contemporary interreligious dialogue; and there are places where his thought can be mined for insights that are both relevant and constructive in our pluralistic 21st century context. However, in my mind, this is not one of them. To claim that Luther says Muslims and Christians worship “the same” God does not help us as we seek to develop more constructive, positive relations with other religious traditions, specifically Muslims. Instead, it encourages an imperialistic attitude that demands conformity, rather than encouraging mutual dialogue and transformation.


2 thoughts on “Luther, Muslims and One God

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s