Christianity and Islam share certain doctrines. But they also differ with respect to some others. For example, both faiths state that God is one, yet they differ about what that means. I became intimately familiar with the overlap of these doctrines and their differences when I wrote my master’s thesis on God’s oneness both in the Qur’an and in the New Testament. Some of their differences go way back to discussions in ancient Greek philosophy from which both of these religions inherited as their conceptual frame to articulate what the sacred scriptures taught.
In this post, I will share what I think are the three most important differences between the Christian and Islamic teachings on God. These are philosophical-theological differences, based on the scripture but not necessarily explicit in the scripture. By the phrase “philosophical-theological,” I mean concepts that are abstract and have less to do with the scripture than with the philosophical underpinnings of Islam and Christianity. Of course, theologians formulated these concepts based on the scripture and the philosophical reasoning traditions they received from the Greeks. But I won’t focus on how these concepts were derived from (or rather overlaid onto) the scripture. So here we go.
Quality vs. Quantity in Deity
One of the main differences I learned by studying Christianity and Islam is that Christian theology emphasizes the issue of quality (what kind?) in deity while Islam underlines the issue of quantity (how many?) in deity. Of course, in God there is no quantity and quality properties or they cannot be fully differentiated, but for us mortals that’s the language theologians use. So, in Islam, you find that the most central teaching is the oneness of God (There is no god but God). Therefore, the most important question implied in the most important statement of Islam is the question of “How many gods are there in the universe?” Islam answers this whole question with a firm “One and only God.” The rest of Islam is built on this affirmation.
With Christianity, the situation is a bit different because the so-called central Christian teaching about God is really a story later distilled into the Nicene Creed — from which philosophical implications on God were derived — rather than a one-sentence propositional statement. This makes it difficult to locate one, central teaching of Christianity that is agreed on by all. But as I see it in Christianity, the central teaching is birth, death, and the resurrection of Jesus the Man-God for human sins whose life announces the coming of his Kingdom. Unlike Islam, Christianity came into an environment where the oneness of God was not contested, so it takes that teaching for granted and moves on. The story it tells focuses on who Jesus Christ is in relation to God and what the implications of that relationship are for God, Jesus, and humanity. Since it focuses on how God incarnated in Jesus Christ and shared in human suffering, the most important statement that it indirectly makes about God is that God is love. The question implied in that teaching is “What kind of God is there in the universe?” The Christian answer based on the life and teachings of Jesus is a firm “loving and forgiving God.” The rest of the Christian faith is an edifice to this divine insight embodied and enacted in Christ.
Now here I have to make a few disclaimers. I’m not denying the fact that Islam teaches about a benevolent and merciful God, the qualities necessary for a God of love. Sufism itself is a living testament to how the love of God in Islam was articulated. Also, I’m not denying that Christianity teaches about one and only God, qualities ascribed to a universal and sole Creator. However, in Islam the love of God is not as central as it is in Christianity, and in Christianity the oneness of God is not as central as it is in Islam.
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