Stephen Prothero wades into Wheaton wars: 'Are Allah and Jesus the same God?'

The drama at Wheaton College rolls on. I have held off talking about it, in part because -- after decades in Christian higher education -- I know that it will be hard for reporters to get behind the scenes and find out what is actually going on.

Why? Because money and donors are involved? Of course. Name a controversy in higher education -- left or right, secular or religious -- that doesn't involve donors.

Because believers don't like bad public relations? Yes, that's true. But privacy laws are also important at private schools. What can Wheaton leaders say about this case without legally violating the privacy of the professor at the heart of all this?

Are there First Amendment issues linked to freedom of religion and freedom of association? Yes, and what about that 9-0 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 backing the right of doctrinally defined educational institutions to hire and fire their own leaders, based on doctrinal criteria?

Because politics are involved? Yes. But it's crucial for reporters to realize that the political battles here are built on issues of doctrine. Lots of Christians -- including evangelicals -- do not agree on how to answer this question: Is the God of the Hebrews, the God Jesus intimately called "Father," the same as Allah, the radically transcendent God of Islam? What do Muslims say?

There is another factor in this timeline. The New Testament reports that Jesus said, "I am the Father are one." Jews, of course, reject the Christian Trinity, but in doing so they are arguing with Jesus and the founders of the early church -- all Jews. Islam, of course, comes after the earthly ministry of Jesus and explicitly (check out the inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock) rejects that God has a Son.

One other factor that journalists must grasp: There is no one definition of "evangelical" and there is no one prevailing authority that gets to call the doctrinal shots. Remember what the Rev. Billy Graham -- the most famous Wheaton graduate, ever -- told me long ago, when I asked him how he defined "evangelical"?

"Actually, that's a question I'd like to ask somebody, too," he said, during a 1987 interview in his mountainside home office in Montreat, N.C. This oft-abused term has "become blurred. ... You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals."
Wait a minute, I said. If Billy Graham doesn't know what "evangelical" means, then who does? Graham agreed that this is a problem for journalists and historians. One man's "evangelical" is another's "fundamentalist."

So is the Wheaton fight political? Yes, but it's a political battle INSIDE Evangelicalism over important and complex doctrinal issues and, yes, who gets to dot the doctrinal i's and cross the doctrinal t's at places like Wheaton College. So far, most journalists are only listening to one side of the debate, the voices supporting political scientist Larycia Hawkins.

So with that in mind, let me point readers to a must-read Wall Street Journal op-ed by scholar Stephen Prothero, under the headline, "Are Allah and Jesus the Same God?" Note that he focuses on the key issue -- Jesus. As in, "Who do men say that I am?" Here are the key lines at the end of his short piece:

Should Ms. Hawkins keep her spot on the faculty? It isn’t clear that she committed a plain violation of Wheaton’s statement of faith. And the theological issues are confusing. ...

Islam and Christianity both affirm that there is one God, creator and judge, who speaks through prophets, whose words are written down in scripture. Still, they are not two paths up the same mountain. Christians do not believe in the divine inspiration of the Quran. Muslims do not believe that Jesus is an incarnation of God.

Ms. Hawkins may have hoped to respond creatively to hateful rhetoric against Muslims, which is admirable. She enjoys the liberty to believe what she pleases about God under the First Amendment. But Wheaton shares the same liberty to defend its Christian identity in a nation in which the “Star Wars” saga is more widely known than is the passion of Jesus.

No doubt Christians should strive to understand the Islamic faith fully, and vice versa. But pretend pluralism, feigning that all or most religious traditions hinge on the same truth, is no solution for the squabble at Wheaton or anywhere else.

Stay tuned. But you already knew that...

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