Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins speaks during a news conference  in Chicago. (AP/M. Spencer Green)

Wheaton College has begun the process to fire Larycia Hawkins for her controversial theological statement on Facebook that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, setting off a larger debate about who gets to call themselves an evangelical.

Sometimes those who defend Hawkins assert that Wheaton is Islamophobic or imply that Wheaton is racist or sexist. Some insist that Wheaton has too narrow a definition of “evangelicalism.” Debate over the first two assertions is not likely to persuade parties on either side and do not focus on the theological accusations at hand. The third, though, is worth unpacking, because it strikes at the core of the question over who is an evangelical.

To understand why Wheaton would focus on such a specific question about the relationship between Christians and Muslims and worship of God, one must first understand evangelical tradition.

[Opinion: Wheaton’s controversy ignores the school’s own history]

Some have claimed that “evangelicalism” is interpreted too narrowly, an argument that comes from a quantifiable-heavy understanding of religious tradition, whereby “evangelicalism” is understood as simply the actions of the people who identify as “evangelicals” throughout history.

In such a model, strands of a tradition that are repudiated lie dormant but can be revived at any time as genuine expressions of the tradition. With this argument, one can demonstrate that something is in keeping with evangelicalism by simply demonstrating that it has a historical precedent.

The argument relies on two facts: evangelicals have no synod or pope with authority to define the term institutionally, and the existing definitions are so vague as to be meaningless. Evangelicals agree on the first point, but many disagree on the second.

Understanding a religious tradition merely historically is only one way of approaching the definition of evangelicalism. It is, more importantly, not the way many evangelicals understand their own tradition.

Another way to understand the religious tradition of “evangelicalism” involves looking to the relationship of modern evangelical-identity gatekeepers (like Wheaton College).

Evangelicals often embrace the definition of historian David Bebbington, who proposed four now commonly accepted core beliefs of evangelicals: conversionism (the importance of having a “born-again” experience), activism (a focus on evangelism through missionary efforts and social reform), biblicism (respect for the Bible as the ultimate authority), and crucicentrism (an emphasis on Jesus’s death on the cross).

While the four beliefs outlined by Bebbington can still be too vague, many evangelicals embrace his definition because it sees evangelicalism as a living reformational movement instead of a mere extended collection of historical practices.

Treating the religious tradition of evangelicalism as a reformational movement means it can change its identity through the present actions of institutional gatekeepers, and parts of the tradition considered unacceptable can be discarded. Statements of faith and trustee systems such as the ones Wheaton employs have the responsibility to functionally define the faith, though they do not have the same role as a pope, who functionally and perfectly defines the faith in the Catholic tradition.

If the college’s board of trustees cannot find agreement between given theological position and the statement of faith, then that position can be judged “not evangelical” from an institutional point of view.

In a statement letter to Wheaton’s provost, Hawkins appealed to arguments from evangelical theologians like Timothy George, John Stackhouse and Miroslav Volf, but the college’s trustees are the real gatekeepers of what Wheaton decides is within and outside of evangelicalism because Wheaton is responsible to reform-out error from evangelicalism as best it can.

[Opinion: Wheaton professor’s suspension is about anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology]

So it doesn’t matter if an erroneous doctrine or practice has some historical or modern precedent in the evangelical community; a main purpose of these institutions is to purge error through self-reformation since it does not claim infallibility like the Catholic Church. In the case of Hawkins, it is fine to debate whether or not her actions have precedent or not, but it is a leap too far to say that precedent controls evangelical identity.

Of course, those with an infallible papal office at the head of all of their tradition have the convenience of perfect final judgment. But a fallible institution can still make truth claims about the suitability of its members for particular roles.

As I understand from the college’s statements, Wheaton’s argument comes down to this: The school’s statement of faith’s affirmation of the divinity of Christ crowds out all claims of common deity between Christianity and religions that reject that doctrine. Otherwise, transcendental monotheism would be the only belief necessary to refer to a common God, and Muslims, Mormons, Unitarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses and deists would all worship the same God.

But one must understand the nature of Christ and the Trinity in the Christian doctrine of God to understand why this has become such a debate. God’s tri-unity (his existence as Father, Son and Holy Spirit) means that neither his being three nor his being one takes precedence over the other and to deny one of the three would be referring to a different being entirely. The distinction is especially and explicitly true in reference to denying the divinity of Jesus, since he is “the image of the invisible God,” as written in Colossians 1:15.

Religions that are in deliberate opposition to these doctrines are necessarily talking about a different being entirely when they refer to their (antitrinitarian) strict monotheistic god.

Do Christians and Jews worship the same God? Many Christians insist that Jews were worshiping the same God before Jesus came to Earth. Before God had revealed his Trinity, the unity aspect of his Trinity was the only aspect they could know. Once he revealed his trinitarian nature, some accepted the revelation and learned more about God, but others added to the old concept of unity an antitrinitarian element that makes it contradictory with Trinity.

Reasonable people may disagree on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, but reasonable people can also understand that this is a serious argument. The issue is not a mere theological technicality, though the conversation can become technical.

Wheaton’s freedom to recommend Hawkins be fired is a crucial freedom, necessary for any confessional institution that seeks to uphold its statement of faith. The question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a theological tangle, but an important one that requires serious people to take a moment to understand the weight of both sides of the claim.

Sometimes doctrine is the real motive instead of a mere cover for other motives. Evangelicalism affirms the dignity of Muslims just as much as the dignity of atheists or Hindus, because that dignity is grounded not in what a person believes but what a person is — made in the image of the triune God, whether one worships that triune God or not.

Matthew Arildsen is an MDiv student at Princeton Theological Seminary and a graduate of Wheaton College. Follow him on Twitter @MAArildsen or at ecclesiam.org. Send comments to marildsen.feedback@gmail.com.