Undoubtedly one of the hottest areas of debate in discussions between Christians and Muslims is the Christians dogma of the Trinity. Almost invariably, Muslims are convinced that Christians believe in three, separate deities, whilst Christians are adamant in affirming their absolute commitment to monotheism. Without question, the concept of the Triune deity – indeed, the whole doctrine of God – is difficult to understand, but this difficulty is unnecessarily accentuated if an uninformed or incorrect view of Christian dogma is held by Muslims. The purpose of this paper is to set the record straight, and also to compare and contrast aspects of the doctrine of God in both religions.
The Bible reveals a God who is personal. We encounter a Being Who thinks, wills, loves, etc. 1 Corinthians 2:11 is clear in presenting a Being Who has thoughts. He loves – 2 Corinthians 13:14. He has a will – 1 Thessalonians 5:18. The essential qualities of personality are mind, will and emotion, and the Bible presents a God possessed of all these faculties. God is personal. The impersonal deity of Hinduism – ‘Brahman’ – is not the deity presented to us in Scripture.
God is a Spirit; this is the clear testimony of Scripture, stated plainly in John 4:24 – God is a spirit. The Mormon doctrine of a deity possessing bodily, physical parts is wholly contrary to Scripture. The words of Jesus in Luke 24:39 are emphatic; a spirit does not have flesh and bones. If God did have a body, the comment of Colossians 2:9 about Jesus in would be redundant – the Scripture is marvelling at the mystery of the Incarnation – God taking a body; He thus did not previously possess one. 1 Timothy 3:15 speaks of the ‘household of God’ and ‘the church of the living God’, and v.16 then says ‘He appeared in a body’, to indicate that this is ‘the mystery of godliness’ – that God could take human nature and thus a body alongside His divine nature and essence. The deity of the Word already having been established in John. 1:1, John 1:14 says the ‘Word became flesh’ – therefore He was not flesh beforehand.
It is true that Scripture does speak sometimes of God having limbs, but both the context and the teaching of Scripture as a whole – the Analogy of Faith – clarify that this is purely figurative terminology e.g. Ezekiel 3:14, 22ff, 8:1-3, 37:1 etc. use ‘Hand of YHWH’ and ‘Spirit of YHWH’ interchangeably. The term is employed because the ‘hand’ is the ‘power’ of the body (e.g. ‘you’re in my hands’), and the Spirit is the ‘power’ of God.
Other attributes of God include aseity (self-existence) – John 1:1-3 indicates that He is the uncaused eternal, self-existent being, and that everything is dependent upon Him. The divine Name YHWH indicates this – ‘I Am Who I Am’: His ground of entity rests in His own being – John 5:26 – ‘the Father has life in Himself.’ Linked to this is the fact that He is eternal – Psalm 90:2, Ephesians 3:21, a point pregnant in the name YHWH itself. He is infinite, unlimited by space or time. He is omnipresent, filling all things, 1 Kings 8:27; Acts 7:48-49. Hence, God is both transcendent and immanent. Another attribute is omniscience, Psalm 139:1-12, which is linked to His perfect wisdom, Daniel 2:20-21.
It follows from all this that as God is perfect in every way, Matthew 5:48, He is immutable, Malachi 3:6, James 1:17. Thus he cannot, in the strict sense, ‘repent’ i.e. change His mind, 1 Samuel 15:29. It is true that Jonah 3:10 does speak of His doing so, but what happened there was that because of the wickedness of Nineveh, God was going to destroy the city, but when the situation changed, the attitude of God and thus His action – i.e. wrath and destruction, which were directed to an condition of sin, were no longer operable. In other words, God did not change, the situation did so. Likewise, in the Incarnation, God did not metamorphose into humanity, nor did he cease at any time to be God, He simply took another nature as well as His divine nature. The babe in a Palestinian manger 2000 years ago remained the Creator of the world.
It need hardly be said that God is omnipotent and sovereign, Genesis 18:14, Luke 1:37. He is holy, Isaiah 6:5, true – John 14:6, Hebrews 6:18, and Love – 1 John 4:8.
Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) says the following about the nature of God:
AL-RISALA (Maliki Manual)
On that which tongues shall utter and hearts believe of the obligatory religious affairs.
That includes having faith at heart and uttering with the tongue that Allah is the one God and that there is no other god apart from Him. There is none similar to Him, and He has no equal. He has no son, father or wife. Besides, He has no associates.
His earlier existence had no beginning and His future existence shall have no end. His true nature cannot be described by anyone, nor can thinkers imagine that nature.
To know Him one considers His signs, but one does not think about His essence. None learns anything about His knowledge, except that which He wills. His throne spreads over the heavens and the earth and the upholding of both the heavens and the earth does not burden Him. He is the Exalted and the Great.
He is the Knower, the Knowing, the Organiser, the Powerful, the Hearing, the Seeing, the Exalted and the Great. He settles upon His glorious throne with His essence. He is everywhere with His knowledge. He created man and knows what his soul is whispering. Allah is closer to a man than the man’s jugular vein. A single leaf does not fall down except that He knows of it. Neither would a grain in the dark recesses of the earth nor a wet or dry object exist without being in the Clear Book.
Allah has settled upon the throne and holds sovereignty. He has the most beautiful names and most exalted attributes. He continues with all His attributes and names. He is too Exalted for these attributes to have been created and for his names to have occurred at a given time.
He addressed Moses with His words which are the attribute of His essence, and not a creature from His creation. He appeared before the rock and it became flat because of His Majesty.
God’s seven principal attributes are Life, Knowledge, Power, Will, Hearing, Sight, Speech. He is self-existent – this is the import of S. 112. It follows from this that God is the creator, omnipotent, omniscient, transcendent, eternal. The immanence of God is not emphasised as in Christianity, but the Qur’an does hold that God is nearer to man than his own jugular vein, S. 50:15. In this respect we discern a parallel with the Christian idea of divine personality. Among the differences, we find that in Islam God is not omnipresent, and thus Christianity has a greater emphasis on divine immanence than does Islam. In Islam, Allah resides in the heavens, above His creation. He does not directly interact with it. His inspiration and sovereignty is effected by the mediation of angels. This idea conforms to the Muslim emphasis on divine transcendence.
From this we can understand that the effecting of divine sovereignty by angels corresponds to a large degree to the Christian concept of the function of the Holy Spirit, and it may not be coincidental that the Ruh al-Qudus (Holy Spirit) in Islam is the archangel Jibril (Gabriel). The Biblical idea of Covenant is thus impossible for Islam (at least prior to the end of the world) since its essence is that ‘I will be their God, they will be My People, and I will dwell in their midst‘ (e.g. Genesis 17:7-8; Exodus 6:7; 2 Corinthians 6:6). Nor is the Biblical concept of the Spirit of God indwelling an individual possible. In Islam, God is locally confined (by His own nature), and thus the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is infeasible, whereas the Christian emphasis on divine immanence and omnipresence allow for its potential.
It follows that the Biblical concept of Incarnation, being a logical consequence of the Covenant as well as one of its climactic acts, is out of question to Islam not just because of the incompatibility of deity and humanity, but because God simply does not descend to live with His creatures (apart from at the eschaton, when the spiritual condition of Mankind and the earth will be metamorphosed for the divine presence.): rather, the reverse is true – Man ascends to Paradise. The Muslim idea is that Allah condescends for a time to allow His power to descend to the earth to effect His will. As opposed to indwelling His creation, He visits it.
The name of God in Islam is Allah, which is the Essential Name of the Deity. It corresponds to the Biblical name Yahweh as opposed to Elohim, which indicates that Allah is the proper name of the Deity rather than the generic description. The Islamic scholar Mawdudi, after stating that the Arabic word ilah corresponds to ‘God’, states ‘The word Allah, on the other hand, is the essential personal name of God.’ Islam gives the name Allah the title of ism ad-dhat – ‘the Name of the Nature’. All Other titles, such as Rabb, ‘Lord’, are regarded as attributes. Apart from the Essential Name, ninety-nine Other names are to be discovered in the Qur’an and Hadith, and these are termed the ‘Names of the Attributes’, or ‘the most beautiful names’ in several ayat of the Qur’an. The Hadith corpus lists the ‘Most Beautiful Names’:
AbuHurayrah MISHKAT AL-MASABIH
Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said, ‘Allah Most High has ninety-nine names. He who retains them in his memory will enter Paradise.
He is Allah, other than whom there is no god, the Compassionate, the Merciful, the King, the Holy, the Source of Peace, the Preserver of Security, the Protector, the Mighty, the Overpowering, the Great in Majesty, the Creator, the Maker, the Fashioner, the Forgiver, the Dominant, the Bestower, the Provider, the Decider, the Knower, the Withholder, the Plentiful Giver, the Abaser, the Exalter, the Honourer, the Humiliator, the Hearer, the Seer, the Judge, the Just, the Gracious, the Informed, the Clement, the Incomparably Great, the Forgiving, the Rewarder, the Most High, the Most Great, the Preserver, the Sustainer, the Reckoner, the Majestic, the Generous, the Watcher, the Answerer, the Liberal, the Wise, the Loving, the Glorious, the Raiser, the Witness, the Real, the Trustee, the Strong, the Firm, the Patron, the Praiseworthy, the All-Knowing, the Originator, the Restorer to Life, the Giver of Life, the Giver of Death, the Living, the Eternal, the Self-sufficient, the Grand, the One, the Single, He to Whom men repair, the Powerful, the Prevailing, the Advancer, the Delayer, the First, the Last, the Outward, the Inward, the Governor, the Sublime, the Amply Beneficent, the Accepter of Repentance, the Avenger, the Pardoner, the Kindly, the Ruler of the Kingdom, the Lord of Majesty and Splendour, the Equitable, the Gatherer, the Independent, the Enricher, the Depriver, the Harmer, the Benefactor, the Light, the Guide, the First Cause, the Enduring, the Inheritor, the Director, the Patient.’
Tirmidhi and Bayhaqi, in Kitab ad-Da’wah al-Kabir, transmitted it, Tirmidhi saying this a gharib tradition.
An obvious point of reference between Christianity and Islam is that in Christianity, it is revealed that God is Love, whilst one of the names of God in Islam is ‘the Loving’. God is described as ‘loving’ in the Qur’an, S. 3:76; S. 19:96, although the principal Muslim expression and stress is on the related concepts of compassion and mercy is found in the bismillah – Allah the Merciful, the Compassionate, which adorn all but one Qur’anic Surah. Ar-rahman describes His intrinsic merciful character, and ar-rahim, explains His merciful action. The British Muslim convert Gai Eaton states:
It is said that the former describes God as He is in His eternal nature and that everything is brought into existence through the overflowing of this innate “Mercy”, while the latter – al-Rahim – refers to the blessings He pours out upon His creatures.
Islam holds that the pristine, true worship of Allah in Arabia was distorted by Arab polytheism. A frequent polemical assertion of the Qur’an is that Allah has no ‘partners’ or ‘offspring’. This was particularly pointed since in practice the supposed progeny of Allah were the effective objects of worship rather than Allah Himself, and indeed, the Qur’an refers to the three favourite deities of the Meccans – Lat, Uzza and Manat as the binat’Allah – ‘the daughters of Allah’. It can be seen from this that the original reference of this assertion was not to any purported Christian view of Trinitarianism or divine sonship, but rather to the polytheistic Arab idea of Allah’s paternity of the Meccan pantheon. Yet Islam tends to associate the Biblical dogma of the eternal Sonship of Christ with pagan ideas of divine progeny. In commentating on Surah 66:12, Yusuf Ali, the great Qur’an translator, states the following:
The virgin birth should not therefore be supposed to imply that Allah was the father of Jesus in the sense in which Greek mythology makes Zeus the father of Apollo by Latona or of Minos by Europa. And yet that is the doctrine to which the Christian idea of ‘the only begotten Son of God’ leads.
Similarly, S. 19:88 purportedly attacks the Christian concept of divine sonship. Yusuf Ali states:
Here the Christian attitude is condemned, which raises Jesus to an equality with Allah: in some cases venerates Mary almost to idolatry: attributes a physical son to Allah: and invents the doctrine of the Trinity, opposed to all reason, which according to the Athanasian Creed, unless a man believes, he is doomed to hell for ever.
Yet what Islam is condemning in this text is a naturalistic idea of the eternal Sonship of Jesus, proposing a concept of God behaving like the gods of Greece and Rome, seducing humans and producing demi-gods. This is not how Biblical and historic Christian dogma has presented the idea of divine sonship in its understanding.
The Bible is adamant in contending for the unity and uniqueness of God. The Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4 expresses this succinctly ‘the Lord our God, the Lord is one’. It is probably best to understand this as stating ‘the Lord our God is Lord alone’ i.e. unique, thus reflecting the First Commandment which forbids the worship of rivals to YHWH (such as Baal). This is fundamental to Biblical faith. Mark 12:29 reiterates this, emphasising this before elaborating our duty of attitude to God. The Shema is the basic tenet of faith of Hebrew religion; its creed, in fact. This truth is re-emphasised in Galatians 3:20 ‘God is One’ and James 2:19 ‘…there is one God’. Christianity is monotheistic – believing in one God who is undivided.
Further texts of note include Deuteronomy 4:35 – ‘YHWH is God: beside Him there is no other’. Deuteronomy 32:39 ‘there is no god beside Me’. These Scriptures express the uniqueness of YHWH; He alone is God. The Bible wholly rejects polytheism, and the Decalogue jealousy reserves worship for YHWH. Throughout the Old Testament, a running battle is fought against attempts by Israel to syncretise their religion; e.g. to mix Baal-worship with the adoration of YHWH. 2 Sam. 22:32 rhetorically queries ‘who is God besides the Lord?’ Hezekiah likewise states ‘you alone are God’. Isaiah 43:10 emphatically declares that before YHWH there was no god, nor will one follow Him. Isaiah 44:6 states that He is the First and the Last – there is no God apart from Him.
It is true that the word ‘god’ is sometimes used of other beings, e.g. Satan – 2 Corinthians 4:4; Moses – Exodus 7:1; the Judges – Psalm 82:6; but such is purely metaphorical and is qualified by adjectival phrases e.g. ‘god of this age’, a god ‘to Pharaoh’, (possibly, ‘as God to Pharaoh’), whilst Psalm 82 is clear that Judges are metaphorically termed ‘gods’ because they exercise governing authority in His name.
Given that Islam viewed Hejazi polytheism as the distortion of the pristine faith, it can be understood that Muhammad saw his prophetic mission as seeking the restoration of the primal, undiluted and unique worship of Allah alone. That is, Muhammad was directing his polemic against polytheism, and thus the fulcrum of his message concerned the unity and uniqueness of God, termed in Islam as tawhid. The Shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith, demonstrates this emphasis in the words La ilaha illa llah – ‘there is no God but God’. The first clause of the Shahada is termed nafi – what is rejected, and the second clause as ithbat – what is established. This is based on the teaching of the Qur’an on this issue. Islam stresses that Allah is self-subsisting, and sufficient, without need for forebears, offspring or equals. The Islamic doctrine of shirk, ‘association’, which is the unforgivable sin in Islam, thus concerns the polytheistic practice of ‘associating’ other beings with God.
Islam holds that Christianity offends in this matter by virtue of its belief in the Trinity and the eternal Sonship of Christ. However, it should be stated in response that this accusation would only be true if Christians believed in Tritheism or in the deification of a human being, similar to the way the Romans raised figures to the position of divinity such as Romulus (who was deified as Quirinus) or Augustus. Islam accuses Christians with promoting a mere human being – Jesus, viewed simply as a prophet – to the status of deity. However, the Christian position is actually the opposite to some degree: Man did not become God, God took human nature alongside His divine nature without ceasing to be God. Deity and humanity are not confused in the One Person of Christ. Deity is not diluted, nor humanity elevated.
Moreover, what the Qur’an attacks is Tritheism, belief in three Gods. Such a dogma is completely absent from the Christian Scriptures and from orthodox Christian tradition such as that stated at the Councils of Nicæa (325 A.D.) and Chalcedon (451), which professed belief in the Triune nature of the Godhead, as opposed to any tritheistic ideas. For this reason Christians can sincerely plead ‘not guilty’ to the accusation of shirk, since they do not believe in a divided divine essence. They do not believe in three gods. They believe in three Persons sharing the same divine essence. On this basis, Christians are not ‘associating’ any being with God, since they are not shattering the single divine essence or proposing that there is a plurality of divine essences; rather they are affirming an inseparable distinction within the unique divine essence. Nor is the generation of the Son to be viewed in terms of a temporal distinction between the First and Second Persons of the Trinity. There was never a time when the Son did not exist, nor is His essence different from that of the Father (or the Spirit). The charge of ‘association’ demands a division of the divine essence, or a plurality of such essences, and neither proposition has ever been held by Christians.
Before discussing the evidence for the Trinity, it is well to define what we mean by such. Scripture does not reveal three gods (Tritheism), or three ‘modes’ or ‘manifestations’ of the One Person of God (Sabellianism). Rather, it teaches the existence of the One God eternally present in three Persons – Father, Son and Spirit. There is one divine essence – the quality of ‘being’, the ontological nature of deity, the quality of ‘Godhood’.
As human beings, we all share a common quality of Humanity. We possess a human nature. Similarly, the three divine Persons commonly possess the quality of deity with the difference that in their case it is a single nature, indivisible and not separate, whereas humans possess a common nature that is differently present in each individual. It is never fully and infinitely present in a single individual.
The divine Persons are distinct but not separate. They commonly possess the one nature, one mind, one will, one energy. Individual men possess only individual parts of human nature, whilst the Persons of the Trinity each possess it wholly and indivisibly, and equally. The Persons possess an essence which is numerically one. The term ‘Persons’ is inadequate, but nought else suffices. They are not separable. They exist in, through and unto each other. There are three different modes of existence or subsistence within the divine essence, distinguished by their properties and offices – Paternity, Filiation and Spiration.
The Father is unbegotten, and He is the Source of the generation of the Son and thus ultimately of the Spiration of the Holy Spirit. Women bear, men beget. This is what is meant when we say that the First Person begets or generates the Second. The Son is begotten of the Father. Generation is the act whereby the Father is the Ground of a second personal subsistence like His own, and puts the Second Person in possession of the whole divine essence – all this as one indivisible act.
The difference with human fathers and sons is that with God, the generation is eternal – there was never a time when the Son was not in existence, and it is a necessary act – it was not an act of choice or will – it was unconditional. God would not be God if He were not a Trinity. The Father has only one begotten Son, unique – John 3:16. The same basic process is true of the Spirit, save that it is a joint act of the Father and the Son, equally eternal and necessary – only termed Spiration, for whereas the Son being in the image of the Father received the property of communicating the entire divine essence to another Person (in conjunction with the Father) but the Spirit receives no such property. The Spirit is the completion of the Godhead, and is the ‘bond of love’ between the other two Persons – Matthew 10:20 – ‘Spirit of the Father’, Galatians 4:6 ‘Spirit of the Son’.
There are major difficulties for Muslims with regard to their understanding of the Trinity. The Qur’an attacks belief in a Trinity comprising three gods, and declares that the Trinity consists of God, Mary and Jesus. The object of the Islamic polemic in this respect does not reflect the Biblical and historic Christian concept of the Trinity as being three hypostases sharing the same essence. What Islam attacks is Tritheism, something which Biblical Christians have never advocated. Devotion to Mary was certainly an increasing feature of the time in which Muhammad began his mission, and intercessory powers were attributed to her, in contradiction to the Holy Scriptures. In later ages this elevation became more extravagant, and the Protestant Reformation was a return to the Biblical position on this. However, the onus is on Muslims to prove that any Christian group ever explicitly declared her to be a deity.
The problem for Muslims is that Christians are not guilty of the accusation hurled against them with respect to Tritheism. Christian Trinitarian doctrines are not to be equated with pagan ideas of divine paternity. Tritheism would undermine the Biblical position on the unity and uniqueness of God, since, as we have seen, Christianity is aggressively monotheistic, and eschews any idea that the Godhead is divided. Three hypostases yes, three gods, no! The Biblical and historic Christian position found in the Creeds and Confessions of faith clarify that Christianity believes in one single divine essence shared by three hypostases, and definitely not three separate deities – i.e. three independent essences.
Whilst we should not discount the possibility of the existence of a heretical group of Christians holding these beliefs, we would have to make two points in this regard: firstly, the onus is on Muslims to prove the existence of such a group, and secondly, such views were not those held by orthodox, historic Christianity. It should be remembered that Muhammad actually met a Christian delegation from Najran, which contained a leading theologian in its ranks, and we know he had some other contacts with Christians, not least with the Negus of Abyssinia. It is most unlikely that any believed in the kind of physical sonship akin to that of pagan deities with which the Qur’an accuses Christianity.
This can be illustrated by examining what occurred at the time of the Najran visit. This visit is recorded in the Hadith. The aim of the deputation was to engage in theological debate and also to resolve some political issues, which are not pertinent to our theme. The Sirah of Ibn Ishaq states that the group was sixty strong, and included the political leader of Najran, Abdu’l-Masih, an administrator called al-Ayham, and a renowned bishop and theologian named Abu Haritha bin ‘Alqama. The delegation were said to be ‘…Christians according to the Byzantine rite…’, although this is unlikely. More probable is that they were Monophysites, as opposed to the Chalcedonian Orthodox of Byzantium, given their proximity to Abyssinia. According to the Sirah, they informed the Muslims that Jesus was God; the son of God; the third person of the Trinity ‘…which is the doctrine of Christianity.’ They supported their claims by pointing to his miracles. Purportedly, the ayat in Surah Al-i-Imran referring to Christian beliefs came into existence at this time, and Muhammad stated them to the Najran delegation.
The German Muslim scholar Ahmad von Denffer refers to the Sirah and states that the delegation argued ‘…that God was three in one.’ Hence, the Najranis did not argue for three separate deities. von Denffer also comments that Muhammad received Christian deputations form Yemen and Bahrain. It is possible that some of these were Nestorians, but whether the Christians involved were Monophysites, Nestorians or Chalcedonians, none of them would have believed in Tritheism – the tripartite division of the divine essence, as opposed to tripersonal distinction within the same divine essence. Nor would any of them have held to the deity of Mary, or that the Trinity was God, Mary and Jesus. It is hard to imagine that Muhammad could have been unaware as to the true Biblical or historic Christian position. Indeed, von Denffer states ‘…one wonders why even today some people raise the objection that Muhammad, as they put it, did not know the Christian scriptures well enough…’
To Muslims, it seems contradictory to speak of a ‘Trinity’ and yet hold to the doctrine of one God. Of course, we are not advocating Tritheism, but Triunity. Moreover, there is Old Testament evidence that God is not unipersonal. The general term for ‘God’ is Elohim, whereas YHWH (i.e. ‘the LORD’) is His personal name. There are three possible personal numbers in Hebrew: singular, dual, and plural, the last-mentioned indicating three or more, and Elohim is of this kind – plural. It would be natural then to translate it as ‘gods‘, save that it is followed by a singular verb, and there is interchange between singular and plural pronouns e.g. Genesis 1:26-27 – ‘God said, let Us make man in Our image after Our likeness..and God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him.’ (cf. Genesis 3:22; 11:6-7.)
Further evidence is found Isaiah 6:8 ‘I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?’. cf. Zechariah 2:8 with v 9 and v 11 – the Lord sends someone who is the Lord! Hence there is a distinction within God. Isaiah 48:12-16 presents God as speaking, concluding with the expression ‘The Lord God has sent Me, and His Spirit’ – One God in plurality. Malachi 3:1 speaks of ‘the Lord you are seeking… the messenger of the covenant you desire’ – but the one speaking is the Lord. Zechariah 13:7 has the Lord speaking of the ‘Shepherd of Israel’ and ‘the Man next Me’. The German theologian Hengstenberg, along with many commentators, renders this as ‘fellow’ or ‘neighbour’, which in the usage of the time implied ‘brother’ i.e. one of the same quality of nature – cf. Leviticus 19:11, 15, 17; 24:19; 25:15-17; 6:2. It is the equivalent of John 10:30 – ‘I and the Father are one’. These all indicate that the Old Testament sees a plurality in the Godhead, a distinction of persons within God.
The Theophanies – the manifestations of God in human form – presage the Incarnation, the distinction being that with the latter, we are dealing with a permanent theanthropic entity. The Angel of YHWH in the Old Testament is to be distinguished from angels in general. This is demonstrated by Genesis 1:18ff where three men (the number itself is significant) visit Abraham. Two of them are angels – 19:1, but the other is the Lord – v10, 13, 22. The Angel of YHWH appeared to Moses in Exodus 3:2. and in v6 introduces Himself as the God of the Patriarchs. Likewise, we should consider Genesis 16:7-13, 21:17-18, 22:11, 48:15-16, Judges 2:1-5, 6:11-22, cf. v14 and v16. Cf. also the Captain of the host of the Lord before Joshua, Josh 5:13-15 – who is the Lord, 6:2, and we should note that like the Theophany who appeared at Sinai to Moses, the Theophany here commands the human subject to remove his shoes in reverence.
Isaiah 63:7-10 presents the three together – ‘the LORD … and the angel of His Presence … but they … grieved His Holy Spirit’. Cf. Isaiah 48:12-16. The Aaronic Benediction in Numbers 6:24-27 perhaps points to the Trinity:
The Lord bless you and keep you:
The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you:
The Lord lift up His countenance and give you peace. (cf. 2 Cor. 13:14)
The threefold ascription of praise to God is significant – Isaiah 6:3 ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts’. (cf. Revelations 4:8)
The New Testament, being the fulfilment of the Old, is also the fuller revelation, since Biblical revelation is progressive up to the first coming of Christ. The Father is God: Matthew 6:8, 7:21, Galatians 1:1. The Son is God: John 1:1 – Greek scholars all reject the Jehovah’s Witnesses’s New World translation perversion. The Word was God. The syntax of John 1:1 is instructive in this regard, by virtue of placing the definite predicate before the verb but without the definite article (‘Colwell’s rule’):
‘En arxh ‘hn
‘o logos, kai logos ‘hn pros ton qeon, kai qeos ‘hn ‘o logos.
Not only does it affirm that Jesus (the Word) is God, it also demonstrates that the Godhead is not exhausted in Jesus, that is, that Jesus is not alone God, but rather there are more persons than the Son in the Godhead.
Romans 9:5 presents Jesus as ‘God over all’ – the context of sorrow over Israel’s fall precludes a doxology, and such does not usually appear in the middle of a passage. Doxologies usually refer to someone mentioned in the preceding sentence – Romans 1:25; 11:26; 2 Corinthians 11:31; Galatians 1:5; 2 Timothy 4:18. Whenever euloghtos (‘blessed’) is used in an independent doxology, it always stands at the beginning of a sentence, e.g. 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:1; 1 Peter 1:3. As it stands, ‘God over all’ balances ‘concerning the flesh’. Christ is God over all.
Romans 14:10 refers to the Judgment Seat of God, and 2 Corinthians 5:10 ascribes it to Christ. John 1:18 speaks of Jesus as the unique (monogenes) God. Acts 20:28 speaks of the Church of God purchased with His blood – thus Jesus is God. Jesus, in John 5:22-23, states that all men may give Him equal honour as to the Father, and since the honour we give to God is worship, Jesus must be God. It is is clear from John 5:18-19 that the Jews recognized Jesus as claiming deity. John 8:58 presents Him as claiming the personal name of God, ‘I am’ (YHWH). Cf. also Colossians 1:15; 2:9; Philppians 2:6-11; 2 Thessalonians 1:12; Hebrews 1:8-10; 1 John 5:20. Titus 2:13 speaks of the ‘great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, as does 2 Peter 1:1. If God and Jesus were distinguished, there would normally need to be a definite article before ‘Saviour’, but it is absent, so the exts affirm Christ’s deity. Revelation 1:17, 18; 2:8; 22:12, 13, 16 all refer to Jesus as Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End – used of God in Isaiah 41:4; 44:6; 48:12.
The Spirit is God: Mark 3:29 – only God can be blasphemed. Acts 5:3-4 – Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit who is God. 2 Corinthians 3:7-16 refers to Exodus 34:29-35 when Moses communed with the Lord, whom the New Testament scripture equates with the Spirit. Hebrews 9:14 says that the Spirit is eternal, and only God possesses that attribute.
The three are one – Matthew 28:19 – baptism is in the name (singular) of the Trinity. It is implied in the benediction of 2 Corinthians 13:14 – it would be illegitimate to so construct the text unless the three were equal and one. It is essential to guard against tritheism – three gods – and Modalistic Monarchianism – the idea that God is uni-personal (rather than, as we have seen, tri-personal) and that the names Father, Son and Spirit are simply different manifestations of the same Person e.g. as a man may be at the same time a husband to his wife, a son to his mother, a father to his children – thus the Son is God in His redemptive capacity, the Spirit is God in His sanctifying office, the Father is God in His electing role. That there are distinct offices in the Trinity, we would accept, but they are performed by distinct Persons It can be seen that Modalistic Monarchianism (Sabellianism) is erroneous from the evidence of inter-Personal communication in the Trinity – the Father loving the Son, commissioning Him, speaking to Him etc. John 3:16; 15:26; Mark 1:11; Matthew 11:25; Romans 8:26; John 1:1, 4, 5; 16:14.
The Persons co-operate in the activity of redemption: the Father planned it, Ephesians 1:4, 9, the Son procured it, Ephesians 1:7, the Spirit applies it, 2 Thessalonians 2:13. This is essential, because God is revealed in His acts, as much as His propositions, e.g. the Decalogue. When God brought destructive miracles upon the Egyptians, they were revelations to both the Egyptians and the Israelites as to the person and character of God – e.g. Exodus 6:7, 7:5, 8:22, and the miracles of Jesus are called signs – John 20:30. The miracles of Jesus demonstrate His unity with the Father – John 14:9ff. There is a relationship between the functional and ontological aspects of deity – what God does reveals who He is. His works reveal a Being who is active, loving, holy, faithful and saving. In Acts 7 Stephen reviews the historical acts of God to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah. In this respect, Luke 10:21-22 provides us with an insight to the relationship between the Trinity and revelation. The disciples, commenting on the miraculous power of Jesus against demons, v17, are answered by Jesus, and then the text goes on to state ‘At that very time He rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit, and said “…no-one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom Son wills to reveal Him”‘
Two related concepts indicating the reality of the Trinity are resurrection-power and divine grace. The power of God gave resurrection to Jesus, Romans 4:23-25. It is said in Galatians 1:1 that God the Father raised Jesus from the dead. In John 2:19-22 and 10:17-18, it is indicated that Jesus would resurrect Himself. According to Romans 1:4; 8:11, the Spirit was the Agent of the Resurrection of Christ. Moreover, it is indicated in Romans 6:4-5 that the Father resurrected Jesus and will do likewise with us. The voice of the Son of God will effect resurrection, John 5:25. In John 6:40 and 11:25 Jesus stated that He is the Resurrection – He has the power of resurrection, a divine function. The power of the Spirit will renew the bodies of believers – that is, grant them resurrection bodies – Romans 8:19-25. Hence, resurrection is a triune event.
Linked to this is the concept of divine grace. Indeed, divine grace and power are virtually synonymous; in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 we are presented with a parallel structure –
‘h= xaris mou/ gar dunamis en asqeneia teleitai…kauxhsomai en tais asqeneiais mou, ‘ina ‘episkhnwsh ‘ep’ ’eme ‘h dunamis tou Xristou.
From this, we infer that at least one aspect of ‘grace’ is that it is a power. Grace is ascribed to God, Romans 5:15; it is used with respect to the Father, Romans 1:7, simultaneously in the same verse of Jesus, in itself and indication of divine identity; it is used of Jesus alone, Romans 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Revelations 22:21, and of the Spirit, Hebrews 10:29. Grace is a triune divine activity.
Moreover, all God’s actions are related to His promises, especially the Abrahamic Covenant. His actions with regard to the Exodus were in fidelity to His promise to Abraham, Exodus 2:24, and the expression of this is the divine indwelling – we see an indication of this in the Theophany on Sinai when YHWH introduces Himself as the God of the Patriarchs, 3:6, and the very purpose of the Exodus was that God would dwell among His People, 29:46. The coming of Christ was also in fulfilment of the Abrahamic Covenant, Luke 1:54-55, 72-73. Not only was He God, John 1:1, He was the Word who was God dwelt among us, v14. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would be in the disciples, John 14:17, and so would the Father and Jesus Himself, v23, in itself pointing to the Triune nature of God.
The presence of the Spirit – i.e. the indwelling of God – establishes a relationship of fellowship between God and Man which effects the moral transformation of the believer, 2 Corinthians 6:16 – it makes the recipients of the divine indwelling holy, the People of God. When God reveals Himself, He transforms the person – Saul the persecuting Pharisee became Paul the Apostle – Galatians 1:15. The Holy God sanctifies. God’s actions in redemption are climaxed in the divine indwelling, and these actions in this regard point to the unity of Father, Son and Spirit – the divine action reveals the nature and identity of God. The very fact that Father, Son and Spirit unitedly take part in the action of divine indwelling points to their common divine essence, as only an eternal, infinite being could indwell the multiplicity of human beings. The common actions of the Three Persons reveal they possess a common divine essence.
Not the entire Godhead, but rather the Second Person of the Trinity is incarnated. We see evidence of communication between Father and Son in John 12:27-28; upon the baptism of Jesus the Spirit descends from heaven to rest on Him, and the voice of the Father in heaven speaks with respect to His son – Matthew 3:16-17, which verses indicate that the Other two divine Persons remain in heaven, and are distinguished from the Son, so are not incarnated with Him.
However, all three persons collaborate in effecting the incarnation – Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:35; John 1:14, Acts 2:30; Romans 8:3; Galatians 4:4; Philippians 2:7. Berkhof makes the vital point that since the Son was active in this process, this points to His pre-existence. These points are amplified when looking at the pre-existent Mediator and His activity. By this we can understand why it was the Son rather than the Father or Spirit who is incarnated.
John 1:1 speaks not only of the Logos as being pre-existent, but identifies Him as the Agent of Creation. John 8:56 identifies Him as the Agent of Revelation to Abraham (and 1:18 indicates that this remains his work). Since it was the angel of YHWH who appeared to Abraham, and since this figure is represented as an agent of revelation and redemption in the Old Testament, e.g. Genesis 48:16, we may identify him with the pre-incarnate Son. The Son is the Agent of Revelation and Redemption, so it had to be the Son who was incarnated.
Other texts which indicate His pre-existence are John 6:38; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Galatians 4:4; Philippians 2:6-8. The essential element is that the Second Person of the Trinity, without diminution of His deity, divests Himself of heavenly glory to enter the realm of Mankind as a man, and subject to the limitations and obligations thereof – Galatians 4:4 stresses His birth into a Jewish family and thus His obligation to adhere to the Torah. The Giver of the Law became subject to it.
John 1:14 indicates that the Son became a true human being, and entered the human scene, but He is not thereby metamorphosed – rather, He is rendered theanthropic.
The Seed of Promise in Genesis 3:15 is specifically stated to be the seed of the woman. This should not be overstressed as evidence for the virgin birth, but it is an indication. The birth of Isaac, although not virginal, provides some clue to the unique supernatural character of Jesus’ birth. Obviously, the principal text is Isaiah 7:14, which predicts the birth of One who would be the fulfilment of the covenantal promise of divine presence – ‘I will dwell in the midst of you’ – Immanuel, ‘God with us’. The Hebrew word almah is often broadened to include any young woman, specifically of marriageable age, though it should be pointed out that the word is usually translated as ‘maiden’ in Proverbs 3:19. The LXX translated the word by parthenos, and this term seems restricted in meaning to ‘virgin’ – cf. Matthew 25:1, 7, 11; Acts 21:9. Thus Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:27 do fulfil Isaiah 7:14 in exactitude – Christ was born of a virgin.
It is more exact to speak of virginal conception, rather than birth, for the latter, together with gestation, was normal, save in respect that Jesus was preserved from defilement. The conception of Jesus was miraculous in that no man was involved in this act – it occurred through the power of the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowing’ Mary, Luke 1:35. In passing, it must be stated that the Muslim and Judaistic conception of what this means is not the right interpretation of this act – it does not imply marital intimacy between God and Mary and the production of a demi-god: it is simply that the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit miraculously caused the implantation of life in the womb of Mary. (See also Matthew 1:18, 20; Galatians 4:4.)
The baptism of Jesus is often problematic for Muslims. To explain, we must consider the whole nature of the plan of salvation. The Old Testament prophets predicted a Restoration of Israel after the Babylonian Exile which would have the character of a Second Exodus, Isaiah 11:11ff, and will reflect the divine requirement of faith in that only a purified Remnant will return – Is 10:22; Ezekiel 11:18-21; 20:34-38. The latter text, together with Isaiah 40:3-5 stresses the importance of the desert in this process – as the avenue by which the Restoration will be accomplished and the Judgement essential to this act effected. (In this respect it is a pattern of the Final Judgement which effects the entry of the Righteous into their inheritance, the Kingdom.)
Isaiah 52:7 builds on 40:3 by stating that God will return with the exiles as their King. Other texts, e.g. Ezekiel 37:24 indicate that the Reign of God will be mediated through the Davidic King – the Messiah, whose reign will be over a righteous people who adhere to the New Covenant, cf. 36:25-27; Jeremiah 31:33-34. Jeremiah 31:2, 7 underline this, as 23:6 and 33:15-16, which identify the King with the People – specifically Jerusalem. Although a Remnant did return from Babylon, the Reign of God through Messiah was as yet unrealised.
Mark 1:2-5 (and parallels in Matthew 3:1-11; Luke 3:2-16) reveal the fulfilment of these texts, specifically represented by Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 – the preparation for the arrival of God in Canaan. This occurs through the ministry of John Baptist in the desert, v 4, where a purging takes place – only those confessing their sins will share in the End of the Exile. The rest will suffer the Judgement – vs. 7, 10, 12 of Matthew 3. John is preparing a refined people for the One who will effect the Return from Exile under the Reign of God, which will see the Baptism of the Spirit, Matthew 3:11. The Bestowal of the Spirit is the evidence that Jesus is the Davidic King, Acts 2:30, 33, 36. So with the manifestation of Jesus, the Exile has ended and the Reign of God has arrived – Mark 1:15/Isaiah 52:7.
This sets the scene for understanding the Baptism of Jesus.
- Jesus had no need to repent – note how John was reluctant to baptise Him, and Jesus had to tell him to ‘permit’ it – Matthew 3:15.
- In saying this, John recognized that the One whom he was to baptise in water was the One who would baptise in the Spirit, v 14. That is, Jesus was the Messiah.
- The fact that Jesus does not contradict John’s assertion is evidence of His own belief in His sinlessness.
- Jesus gives as His reason for submission to baptism as being right to ‘fulfil all righteousness’. ‘Fulfil’ in Matthew is used mainly of Jesus’ relation to the predictions and patterns of the Old Testament’ e.g. 5:17. Thus Jesus was accomplishing fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, which ties in with John’s own ministry. ‘Righteousness’ in Matthew is linked to the idea of the Kingdom, e.g. 5:10, 20; 6:33; 21:31-32. It has the sense of ‘obedience to the will of God’ and thus of ‘submission to the Reign of God’ – cf. Romans 14:17.Jesus, by being baptised, is thus identifying with the people who are preparing for the reception of the Reign of God and probably there is a reflection here of Isaiah 53:11, where the Servant represents the people. We should also note the ‘Moses’ typology theme in Matthew, and the fact that Israel was ‘baptised’ into Moses, so the Spirit will ‘baptise’ the people into Christ – i.e. identifying them. The idea is that the fulfilment of the Old Testament Hope, with which the people are identifying, is realized in Jesus.
- Unlike Pentecost, the Spirit is not represented by fire, which would imply cleansing, but by a dove, indicating purity and the creation of something new – cf. Genesis 1:2.
John 1:33 seems to imply that the One on Whom the Spirit abides is the bestower of the Spirit, and v 34 indicates that this evidences that Jesus is the Son of God. Cf. also Ezekiel 1:1; 2:2.
- The heavenly voice calls Jesus ‘beloved Son’, reflecting Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1 (and possibly Genesis 22:2 LXX) – He is the Davidic King, Servant and true Israel – cf. Mark 1:11 with 12:1-11. He is the embodiment of the Old Testament Messianic Hope, of the Kingdom of God and of the New Covenant. All these things help us to understand the significance of the Temptation.
- As Jesus begins his ministry after this, we can see that the bestowal of the Spirit was the divine ‘call’ or ‘ordination’ – the King and the Servant were to characterised by the anointing with the Spirit. John 1:33 and 3:34 seem to underline this.
We should also note the Trinitarian aspect to the Baptism – the voice of the Father, descent of the spirit upon the Son, and the revelatory miracle as to the identity of Jesus.
One of the problems for Muslims is that not only do the Qur’anic depictions of Christian belief about the Trinity not reflect historic and Biblical presentations about divine Triunity, the Qur’an itself considers that the Tawrah, Zabur and Injil were true divine revelations. Of course, many Muslims today hold that the Christian scriptures were later distorted, but this causes a problem for them with regard to the Qur’anic allegation of tritheism against Christians, especially with respect to the idea that Christians ascribe deity to Mary. If the true Injil reflected Islamic dogma, but then the Christians descended into the polytheism of which the Qur’an accuses it, then this declension must have occurred fairly quickly after the Ascension of Christ, because thereafter the Christians improved their position, by removing from the New Testament all Tritheistic references, especially any presentation of Mary as a goddess.
The oldest extant texts of the New Testament include a papyrus fragment of John’s Gospel 18:31-33, 37-38, from Egypt, located in the John Rylands Library of Manchester University, dating from c. 135 AD. It is clear from canonical history that the books comprising the New Testament were around by the end of the First Century, e.g. as demonstrated by the letter to the Corinth Church from Clement of around. 96 A.D., who refers to Matthew,. Romans, 1 Corinthians, Ephesians, Hebrews., James, and 1 Peter. Since nowhere in the New Testament do we find the Qur’anic idea of the Trinity, Muslims are left with several possibilities:
- That the Christians first distorted the Injil to present a concept of the Trinity in conformity to the Qur’anic criticism, and then excised this and improved the position to reflect the contemporary Scriptuary presentation – and that this dual tampering took place within 50-60 years, however unlikely that may be. Of course, , the onus of proof for the historicity of this process rests on the Muslims. It should be pointed out that there is no manuscript evidence to support such a thesis, nor is there are contemporary reference in the early Church fathers either to such a process nor to belief in the Qur’anic idea of the Trinity. At any rate, by the time of Muhammad, there was no purported ‘gospel’ presenting the Islamic idea of the three gods including Mary.
- That the Qur’an is attacking the views of an unrepresentative heretical group, the onus of proof for the existence of which rests on the Muslims. It has been claimed on the basis of the works of Epiphanius that an heretical group called the Collyridians worshipped Mary, but the historicity of the group is questioned, and at any rate, both in terms of mainstream Christian dogma, historical theology and Biblical data, there is no support for tritheism.The Qur’an may be referring to such a group colloquially as Christians, just as many non-Muslims refer to the heretical Nation of Islam and the Ahmadiyya sect as Muslims. In that case, Biblical Christians have no case to answer, anymore than orthodox Muslims can be held responsible for the NOI’s beliefs about the evil Black scientist Yacub creating an evil race of white people, or that God was incarnated in the person of Fard in the USA in the 1930s.
- The hardest option for Muslims is that the Qur’an may simply be wrong.
- The Qur’an may be stating that in its eyes, this is how it regards Christian Trinitarianism. Christians may object, but if someone states that whatever people say are their beliefs, he will continue to believe that his impression is what will guide him, then no clarification or discussion is possible. However much Christians state that they do not believe in three separate gods or in the deity of Mary, this is how the Qur’an sees Christian Trinitarianism. Any further debate is useless. Given that Surah Al-i-Imran came into existence at the time of the Najran deputation, it would seem to be quite likely that this option is the most likely, unless Muslims can produce evidence for (ii). All Christians can say is, if someone is convinced that another person believes in Martians however strongly the latter denies it, then we have moved from the rational to the irrational.
This view is also problematic for Muslims in another way. The Qur’an never invites Christians to judge the Injil by Islam, but rather the reverse – S. 5:74 – ‘Let the people of the Gospel judge by what is written therein’. Since the Injil, whether the supposed Islamic Injil the Muslim Messenger ‘Isa is held to have propagated, nor the Christian Scriptures recognized as canonical by the world-wide Church does propose such a Trinity, according to the Qur’an, Christians have the right to critically consider Islam’s Holy Book, and to find it wanting if indeed it is presenting this as the authentic Christian view.
There are also considerations which demand the necessity of the Trinity. 1 John 4:8, 16 – God is love. Love cannot exist in isolation. Love demands an object. Since love demands an object, God must have an object for His love: and since love is one of His attributes or perfections, as He is a perfect Being, and as He is an eternal Being, the object of His love must be likewise perfect and eternal. However, only God is both those things! Thus, the object of His love must be divine – and, since He is unique, be within Himself The object of His love is His Son. The bond of their love is His Spirit. Between the three Persons there is eternal love.
This fact is also important to emphasise with respect to divine immutability and self-sufficiency.
Given that in Islam, God is held to be eternal and to be loving, and given that Love is a transitive action, one that needs an object, the Muslim view of divine unipersonality involves a contradiction which actually endangers the very deity of God! To explain, this, we need to examine what Islam believes about divine attributes. The ‘most beautiful names’ describe the attributes of God in Islam. Islam is adamant that these names and attributes are eternal. At the same time, it vigorously affirms the self-sufficiency of God; indeed, Eaton translates Samad in S.112:2 as ‘utterly Self-sufficient’. Likewise, the Hadith, as we have seen, states that this is one of the ‘most beautiful names’. As Eaton states, ‘This conception of the deity is strictly monotheistic and unitarian. God alone has absolute being, totally independent and totally self-sufficient.’ With this proposition, Christians would whole-heartedly agree. God is infinite and perfect, Psalm 145:3; Matthew 5:48. Hence, He is wholly independent and has no need of anything outside Himself – not even relationships. His incommunicable attributes, such as aseity, demonstrate this.
Moreover, it should be stated that His actions flow from His attributes, without being identical with them. John 3:16 is the classic demonstration of this. The Holiness of God demanded righteous justice upon sinners, i.e. damnation. The Love of God led to the incarnation and reconciliation, based on the Cross, in order to meet the demands of divine justice and holiness, and thus allowed for forgiveness. Forgiveness, however, is not an essential attribute of God, but is a consequence of divine love and holiness. After all, in eternity, before the creation of Man and Angels, there was no-one to be forgiven, nor will there be the potential for the operation of forgiveness after the Last Day.
We have seen that Islamic fiqh regards the names and attributes of God as eternal and uncreated – they are part of His essence (and this is why Sunni Muslims hold that the Qur’an is eternal and uncreated):
Allah has settled upon the throne and holds sovereignty. He has the most beautiful names and most exalted attributes. He continues with all His attributes and names. He is too Exalted for these attributes to have been created and for his names to have occurred at a given time.
He addressed Moses with His words which are the attribute of His essence, and not a creature from His creation.
It is at this point that Islamic monotheism finds itself in difficulty. A cursory examination of the ninety-nine names of God demonstrates that some of them are transitive – they require a direct object. Consider two of them in the light of what we have examined about forgiveness in Christianity – ‘The Forgiver’ and ‘The Forgiving’. If these are essential, eternal attributes of God, they demonstrate that the God of Islam is not self-sufficient, since these are active qualities requiring an object. Since Allah is held to be unipersonal, this means that this object must be external to His Essence, and at any rate, God is scarcely in need of His own forgiveness! Therefore, a consequence of Islamic theology is that God does need His creatures to be God, because His own essence demands it. This is also implied in another of His Essential Names in Islam – the Creator. If ‘Creatorhood’ belongs to His essence, He had to create – He would be diminished without His creation. However, any genuine definition of God requires that He be self-sufficient and independent, which the God of Islam patently is not. It can be seen that most attributes of God in Islam are anthropocentric, whereas for example, the Christian concept of divine love is theocentric.
The same criticism goes for the love of God in Islam. He is called ‘The Loving’ but whom did He love before the Creation? Creation would be a necessary act because God needed someone to love by virtue of His essence. Furthermore, It is clear that the God of Islam only loves Muslims – S. 19:96. Since everyone except Muslims – Jews, Christians and pagans included – are held to be guilty of shirk, which is the unpardonable sin in Islam, this places Muslims in a difficult position with respect to the divine essence before the calling of Muhammad. If there were no Muslims around, God had no-one to love, and so His essence was in contradiction.
Linked to this concept are two other attributes/names – Merciful and Compassionate, which, as we have seen, adorn all but one Surahs of the Qur’an. They are transitive verbs. Yet before the Creation, to whom was God Merciful and Compassionate? In Christianity, however, the love of God as an essential attribute causes no problems, because the triune nature of God demonstrates a mutual, eternal love that is not dependent on the Creation. The essence of God Himself is satisfactory for the operation of this essential quality. Hence, the Christian concept of divine Triunity safeguards the concept of God from any human limitations or requirements, and thus from pagan accretions. Islam does not meet the test of a true definition of God in this respect.
Zwemer also points out that the Qur’an’s comment on the Light of God being ‘lit from a blessed olive tree’, S. 24:35, also makes God’s attributes dependent upon something external to the divine essence. We should also consider two other names – ‘Forgiver’ and ‘Forgiving’. Since these names are attributes, God needed to forgive, and thus needed someone to forgive, so His essence was dependent on something external. Moreover, the divine essence in this respect required people to sin, so that God could forgive. Hence, according to Islam, the divine essence could not exist apart from the reality of sin. The Holy God needed sin to exist!
The same criticism can be made against many other names/attributes of God in Islam. One cannot escape this problem by saying that they only operate after the creation, because then such attributes are created and the divine essence is mutable. Secondly, the critique cannot be obviated through claiming that divine prescience is concerned, because that still makes the divine essence dependent on creation. Thirdly, one must return to the fact that the divine attributes in Islam depend on creation, and if God is dependent on anything outside Himself, He is not God, just a Superman figure.
A further point that needs to be considered is that of divine immutability, which Islamic fiqh affirms of the divine attributes. In the Christian concept of the Incarnation, no change is effected in the essence of God, because human nature is not introduced into the divine essence. However, the Islamic concept of God would seem to imply that a change in the nature of God occurs, since at some point the focus of His attributes is no longer operative. To whom does He ‘give death’ after the end of the world? What will He ‘create’ after this date? Moreover, it surely follows that before the Creation, He was lacking, since as essentially Creator He necessarily, rather than volitionally created. Prior to the creation He was diminished by the absence of His creation. Thus, God changed – according to the logic of Islam, He is mutable.
Christianity and Islam both affirm the incomprehensibility of God. Job 11:7 rhetorically queries ‘Can you by searching find out God?’ 1 Corinthians 2:11 is adamant that only the Spirit of God knows the thoughts of God. After all, if God is God, then He is infinite, as we have seen, and the human mind being finite, cannot fully comprehend the essence or will of God. Thus, God must reveal Himself. Islam, with its emphasis on divine transcendence, agrees with the proposition that apart from revelation, God is incomprehensible. The Christian writer Zwemer mentions a popular song among Muslims which states ‘Whatsoever your mind can conceive, that Allah is not you may well believe.’ Islamic fiqh states, as we have seen, ‘His true nature cannot be described by anyone, nor can thinkers imagine that nature…None learns anything about His knowledge, except that which He wills.’ Gai Eaton, before quoting S. 6:103, states that ‘In the Islamic view, it is impossible for the human mind to form an adequate conception of God as He is in His eternal and absolute being. The creature cannot comprehend the Creator.’ This view is echoed by Suzanne Haneef, who states:
And thus it is clear and certain – as Islam emphatically proclaims – that He is infinitely beyond anything which the mind or senses of man can grasp or comprehend or imagine or explain…
Asra Rasheed agrees with this:
But to have complete knowledge of God is beyond man’s ability. Man is finite and Allah is infinite…The creature cannot comprehend the Creator;
“They (mankind) cannot encompass Him (Allah) with their knowledge”.
Islam preaches that mankind should only refer to Allah as He has referred to Himself. There is no scope what-so-ever for inventing new ideas about Him or thinking of Him in a manner that suits us.
Yusuf Ali comments on S. 112:
The nature of Allah is here indicated to us in a few words, such as we can understand.
The qualities of Allah are described in numerous places elsewhere, e.g., in lix. 22-24, lxii. 1, and ii. 255. Here we are specially taught to avoid the pitfalls into which men and nations have fallen at various times in trying to understand Allah. The first thing we have to note is that His nature is so sublime, so far beyond our limited conceptions, that the best way in which we can realise Him is to feel that He is a Personality, ‘He’, and not a mere abstract conception of philosophy. He is near us; He cares for us; we owe our existence to Him. Secondly, He is the One and Only God, the Only One to Whom worship is due; all Other things or beings that we can think of are His creatures and in no way comparable to Him. Thirdly, He is Eternal, without beginning or end, Absolute, not limited by time or place or circumstance, the Reality. Fourthly, we must not think of Him as having a son or a father, for that would be to import animal qualities into our conception of Him. Fifthly, He is not like any other person or thing that we know or can imagine: His qualities and nature are unique.
Hence, Islam agrees with Christianity that God can only be fully known through His self-revelation, since the finite reason of Man cannot comprehend the infinitude of deity. Naturally, Man would always imagine God in terms with which He could cope and with which he was familiar, such as human unipersonality. The idea of a triune Being has no point of reference in creation. Muslims frequently accuse the Christian concept of the Trinity of being inconceivable to reason. Yet, if God is transcendent and accessible only through self-revelation, it follows that the Christian dogma is indeed credible. The Muslim position indicates that if we could comprehend God, He would not be God, and that all human attempts to comprehend Him apart from revelation are inadequate and doomed to failure. This is indeed the Christian position. Berkhof, the great systematic theologian, states the following:
To Calvin, God in the depths of His being is past finding out. “His essence”, he says, “is incomprehensible; so that His divinity escapes all human senses.” The Reformers do not deny that man can learn something of the nature of God from His creation, but maintain that he can acquire true knowledge of Him only from special revelation, under the illuminating influence of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, the problem between Islam and Christianity starts when we turn to the question of the identity of divine self-revelation. Islam claims it is the Qur’an; Christianity holds that it is found in the Bible and supremely in Jesus Christ as the Word of God. The point is, Muslims can scarcely object to the idea of the Trinity because it does not conform to their ideas of human reason, since we should not expect finite human reason to be capable of the exercise of comprehending the essence of God.
There is another problem for Muslims in this regard. As we have seen, Islamic fiqh states ‘To know Him one considers His signs, but one does not think about His essence.’ Hence, if Muslims object to the Trinity on the basis that what they see as their revelation denies it (though in reality what it denies is not the Christian Trinity, but tritheism), that is legitimate, but if they object because their considerations of the divine essence will not accept it, they are actually going against their own faith, because they should not be considering the divine essence in the first place!
The Christian view of the Trinity is also demonstrated by the fact of divine revelation. Human beings are finite, let alone liable to sin. The finite mind cannot fathom the mysteries of God. Although various historical philosophical arguments such as the Cosmological argument may point to the existence of a divine being, they do not definitely establish either the character of such a being – for example, they do not help us with the problem of evil – nor do they definitely reveal a unique deity, as opposed to a polytheistic pantheon. Hence, God must reveal Himself to provide an adequate and genuine knowledge of Himself and His will. Ultimately, all instruments that provide divine revelation are inadequate because all such instruments are finite, whether they be angels, or miracles, although of course what they reveal is infallible. The only totally adequate revealer of God is God Himself, who can express the infinite. Yet the infinite must be expressed in terms of the finite because it is revealed to the finite. Hence, the Incarnation is a necessary action because of revelation alone – God, taking human nature alongside His divine nature, expresses the infinite in terms of the finite.
In this respect Jesus reveals what God is like in His holiness, His love, His power, and His revelatory action. For this reason Jesus is the supreme revelation of God – He reveals the Father, John 1:18; whoever has seen Him has seen the Father. He who is God is also the Word of God. He is the climax of revelation, Hebrews 1:1-2. To encounter Him is to encounter God Himself, and thus experience the infallible revelation. This is what Paul experienced on the Damascus Road, as we have seen, and it was sufficient to transform Him. However, the bodily revelation of Jesus is itself not the completion of the divine revelation, because He is not eternally bodily present on the earth, and because the transformation He works is not complete apart from the divine indwelling, which is effected by the Holy Spirit. Since all three persons share the same essence of deity, whenever the Spirit indwells a person, the latter has experienced the inward revelation of the Triune God.
The Father reveals the Son by sending Him, the Son reveals the Father by His presence and work, (Matthew 11:27), the Spirit reveals the Son and thus the Father by applying this work with His presence. In this way Paul came to know the true revelation of God as a result of the Damascus experience. Only God uniquely and fully knows God, and thus only he may reveal Himself fully. On this basis, revelation points to the Triune nature of God. We know what God is like when we experience the Father, by the Holy Spirit, revealing the Son in our lives. This revelation is in conformity to the way God made men – as beings capable of intelligent relationship, especially love. Man is made in God’s image, and is social – made for relationship and fellowship. The expression of divine love and desire for fellowship is effected through divine revelation. The theanthropic Person of Jesus is the climactic expression of revelation in that in a unique way, God comes to Man. The perfect Man who is also God can express in human terms the mind of the Creator.
Islam, by contrast, cannot wholly address this issue. Sunni Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the uncreated, eternal Word of God, which is almost a part of God – His Speech in fact. Shia Muslims reject the idea that the Qur’an is uncreated because of the danger of ditheism – by definition, what is uncreated and eternal is God. The purported revelation of Qur’an, according to Sunnis, is virtually equivalent to the Incarnation in Christianity, only that in the case of Islam, the Word became a Book, rather than flesh. However, as any Muslim will affirm, the Qur’an only truly exists when untranslated; that is, it is only really the Qur’an when it is in Arabic. The language of the Qur’an is an essential part of the revelation – S. 12:2; 13:37; 16:103; 41:44; 42:7; 43:30. Thus, despite its claim to be ‘mercy for mankind’, the Qur’an is contextually limited by time and space, especially in terms of accessibility. There is not the same revelatory action of interaction between God and Man, especially since the Qur’an is effectively limited to those who know Arabic. Jesus, however, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, is universally accessible, whatever the language or ethnic group, and this is demonstrated by His easy movement from Aramaic to Greek when He deals with Gentiles like the Centurion, and through the Spirit He still speaks to people of any language. The Word became Man, not specifically Meccan/Quraish (or any other language).
Although Islam denies the ontological Trinity of Christianity, it does not escape a functional Trinity which verges on tritheism. Apart from God Himself, it is essential for Muslims to believe in the angels. Their function is so vital that belief in angels is a fundamental tenet of Muslim faith, equated with belief in Allah and the Qur’an. Although their function is similar to Christian concepts in certain ways, in many aspects they actually resemble the function of the Holy Spirit in Christianity, especially with respect to Gabriel. They act as mediators for the transcendent God. This is necessitated by the Islamic concepts of the nature of God and revelation. The Muslim dogma of God does not present Him as omnipresent in the Christian sense, stressing rather His transcendence and majesty. The Incarnation is rejected not just because God assumes Human nature, but because God interacts with man on the terrestrial scene – the idea of the Word dwelling among us is rejected by Muslims. Islam thus must accommodate the divine immanence in another fashion.
In Islam, angels are the agents of divine immanence. It can be understood that in Islam, many functions that Christianity ascribes to the Son or the Holy Spirit are expressed by angels. Angels act as divine agents in Creation, Revelation and the Last Judgment. To illustrate how parallel their functions are to that of the Spirit in Christianity, we should note that Islam believes that when a person becomes a Muslim, he is coterminously supported by Allah, Jibril and the angels. It should be remembered that pre-Islamic Arabs regarded the angels as gods, the offspring of Allah, S. 17:40ff. Islam believes that the angels are those ‘nearest’ to Allah, S. 4:172, perhaps an echo of the pre-Islamic era.
It is well known that the Islamic equivalent to Jesus is not Muhammad, but the Qur’an. The Qur’an is believed by Sunni Muslims to be the eternal, uncreated word of God, inscribed on the Preserved Tablets in heaven and thus free from human influence. Christianity has the Incarnation, but Islam has what we may call the ‘Inliteration’ – the commencement of revelation in Laylat al-Qadr, ‘the Night of Power’, during the month of Ramadan when the portion of the Tablet descended to the ‘House of Protection’ in the lowest of the seven heavens, revealed by Gabriel, S. 97. The Qur’an is the means of salvation, revealing how to live in obedience to the divine will, S. 2:136. Since Islam does not believe in original sin, there is no basis for the atoning death of Christianity, rather, all that is required is obedience to divine revelation. Thus, it can be said that just as Jesus is the Saviour in Christianity, the Qur’an performs that function in Islam.
Effectively, therefore, Islam has a functional Trinity of God, the Qur’an and angels (especially Jibril) which corresponds to the Christian functional Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the Christian system this functional Trinity reflects the ontological Trinity, who share the single divine essence. Islam, however, actually verges on a tritheistic emphasis, since Islam, unlike Christianity, holds that the angels were created from the Light of God Himself. Although Muslims would undoubtedly deny it, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they owe their origins to the essence of God Himself, especially since one of the names of Allah, and thus His attribute, is ‘the Light’.
Further, we have seen that one of the attributes of Allah is Speech, and that for Sunni Muslims, the Qur’an represents the eternal, uncreated Speech of God. Since Speech is an attribute of God, and as Islam views the attributes of God as part of His essence, if the Qur’an is distinguished from the essence of God, it can be said that Islam divides the essence of God! This is all the more emphasised when we consider what we have examined about the origin of the angels. If the Qur’an is not so distinguished, then ironically, we encounter something similar to what Christians believe about the relationship of Father and Son, so that we are presented almost with a di-personal being. These beliefs undermine Islam’s claim to undiluted monotheism.
Given that the Qur’an engages in sustained, aggressive condemnation of polytheism and assertion of divine unity, some Muslims often comment that they feel that there is a lack of multiple emphases in the Bible about the Trinity. Of course, this is often special pleading, being usually a polemical jibe against the Bible and Trinitarianism. As we have seen, there is abundant evidence for the doctrine. However, unlike the Qur’an, we never find the Bible saying ‘They do err who deny the triune nature of God’, because of several factors.
Firstly, the Bible is revealed in a historical context. Its denials and rectifications occur when the situation demands it. Thus, in the Old Testament, the frequent attacks on idolatry and polytheism, and thus an affirmation of monotheism, arise because of the pagan practices of the Canaanites and neighbouring peoples were snares to the Israelites, and thus the warnings and polemic against them reflect the historical context. There was no need to emphasise the tripersonal nature of the divine essence in such contexts, because the necessity to assert the uniqueness of the divine essence – i.e. monotheism. In the New Testament, there was no need for Trinitarianism to be asserted, because the Jews were at this time free from idolatry/polytheism for the most part; nor was the triune nature of God a complete innovation, as we have seen.
When pagan ideas need to be addressed, as in the Gentile cities, we do find polemic against their beliefs – e.g. 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, and at the same time, an affirmation of the deity of both Father and Son. Elsewhere, as in 1 John, the polemic is against heresy that denies the full import of the Incarnation – docetic ideas arguing against the true humanity of Christ. Had there been anyone arguing for the Muslim idea of God or engaging in the Islamic polemic against the Triune nature of God, no doubt there would have been comments against such. In this respect, it should be remembered that Christians do not have the same view of the Bible as uncreated and eternal as do Sunni Muslims – that is the position of Christ in Biblical faith.
We need to remember that this is true of Islam as well. Islam arose in a polytheistic environment, one which believed in God having physical offspring. Since a major part of the message of Muhammad’s message involved an assertion of divine uniqueness, and a refusal to accept pagan ideas of divine offspring, we should not be surprised to find the emphasis on aggressive monotheism. Further, as we have previously noted, Islam views the ministry of Muhammad as one of purging the Hejazi cultus from the polytheistic corruption of the purported pristine Abrahamic faith of Ishmael – from the idols that the Arabs, as well as the people of Noah’s time, worshipped.
Hence we would expect to find an overwhelming emphasis on monotheism over against polytheism, simply because that was Muhammad’s major emphasis and principal problem in the context of Mecca. In this respect Muhmmad’s activity resembles that of Elijah, who demanded the purging of the Israelite cultus from Baalist syncretistic accretions, and exclusive worship of YHWH. Interestingly, we do not find a large number of references to denials of the Trinity in the Qur’an, and none at all in the early Meccan stage, because Muhammad was not yet in confrontation with the Christians; as we have seen, the texts in Al-i-Imran reflect the visit of the Najranis (and the same goes for texts attacking purported Jewish distinctives).
Secondly, the major emphasis of the Bible is soteriological and eschatological. Sin involves not just disobedience, but a fallen nature, and the message of the Scriptures is the promise and then fulfilment of such with respect to the advent of the Messiah, e.g. Mark 1:15. As previously stated, monotheism was scarcely an issue in first century Palestine, save possibly among some Gentiles in Palestine, like the Romans. Moreover, it should be remembered that the Islamic emphasis on salvation through believing in monotheism is regarded as insufficient by the Bible, since even demons give intellectual assent to that truth, James 2:19, as did Adam and Eve, yet they still fell. Salvation is essentially through trust in Jesus, and this is the emphasis of the Bible.
Thirdly, as we have seen, the Qur’an never invites Christians to judge the Injil by Islam, but rather the reverse – S. 5:74 – ‘Let the people of the Gospel judge by what is written therein’. If Muslims object to the Bible not having the same emphasis on asserting the essential nature of God – albeit primarily in negatives – as does the Qur’an, we can respond that the Muslim holy book never asks us to regard the Qur’an as the basis for critically examining the Bible, but rather vice versa. At any rate, since Christians do not accept the inspiration of the Qur’an, this criticism leaves them unmoved. Moreover, since the supreme revelation is the Person of Christ Himself, His very being affirmed the Trinity.
We should state that there is abundant evidence in the Bible for the affirmation of divine unity and uniqueness – there is only one God. There is equally overwhelming evidence for the deity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is corresponding evidence for tri-personal inter-communication and fellowship, indicating a personal distinction. However, texts like Matthew 28:19 and the basic concept of One God demonstrate that Christians are not affirming a divided essence. These facts taken together indicate that God is a triune Being.
To Muslims who argue that 1+1+1=3, we point out that Christians are upholding three Persons (for want of a better human term to express a divine reality). However, we are not speaking of three Gods; we are affirming that God, an incomprehensible being, is tri-personal. At any rate, it is not that Christians are claiming that God is composite; on the contrary, they affirm the undivided unity of the divine essence. For this reason, the criticism of Suzanne Haneef where she represents the Christian dogma as one presenting ‘three parts’, and critiques that ‘God is not like a pie or an apple which can be divided into three thirds which form one whole’, is groundless. Christians do not believe that God is in three parts, and the analogy of the apple is invalid because God is not like an apple, pie or any created substance; He is unique, and without comparison, and problems start when we try to compare Him to anything created.
Haneef actually virtually admits this when she states of the Christian dogma ‘To Muslims this makes absolutely no sense, and even if it is explained as being a “Mystery” too high for any human mind to grasp, belief in the Trinity is regarded by Islam…as a form of polytheism.’ She must resort to denying the doctrine because of Qur’anic dogma, because she earlier affirms of the essence of God that He ‘…is far above anything we can conceive of…’ Ultimately, Islam rejects the Trinity not out of any supposed rational arguments, but because what it believes is divine revelation rejects that which it (wrongly) imagines the Trinity to mean. Equally, Christians uphold the doctrine because they believe in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ set forth in the Holy Scriptures.
Some Muslims claim that there is a Christological and Trinitarian development in the New Testament; specifically, that the later the text, the more the picture of Jesus conforms to the Nicene and Chalcedonian affirmations. Of course, Christians would claim that the Creeds reflect the Biblical data. The assertion about Trinitarian development is based upon a house of sand. Paul is frequently accused by Muslims of being the main culprit in the supposed corruption of pristine Christianity, yet the srcriptures revealed through him are widely held to be the earliest in the New Testament, although oral tradition would have preserved and transmitted the gospel material. The Gospel of John is usually considered the Scripture with the most explicit affirmation of Christ’s deity, yet it has been argued with some force in recent years that it may even have been written before the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70; a modernistic scholar such as John Robinson wrote a book entitled The Priority of John, indicating that its material is not a creation of the later Church, but goes back to Jesus Himself.
We need also to examine the dating of the gospels. There are different theories about their dates, but the gap between them whatever the theory is not large, and certainly not the decades or even centuries some Muslims propose. It is usually, but not universally held that Mark was the first gospel, yet a major emphasis of the gospel is the affirmation that Jesus is the Son of God. Indeed, Mark records the Roman officer stating this at the Crucifixion, Mark 15:39. Luke-Acts, on the other hand, has as a major theme the idea of the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel through the person and ministry of Christ and the Church, the reception of the Gentiles into the restored Israel, and of the opposition this received from the Jewish leadership, often bringing Christians to court on trumped-up charges, as they did Jesus, and so the gospel emphasises the centurion’s exclamation of the innocence of Jesus, Luke 23:47. Yet Luke is usually held to be later than Mark, but it is not concerned to emphasise the Christological confession. It should be said that all the different books of the New Testament have distinct but complementary aims, approaching various aspects of the life and ministry of Christ and the Church.
The aim of the Gospel of John is explicitly Christological and evangelistic, John 20:31 revealing jesus to be God, the divine Son and the Messiah. The Gospel of Matthew wishes to emphasise a Christological-Ecclesiological relationship – as with Jesus, so with the Church, e.g. with respect to persecution, 10:18, 24-25; commission to miraculous activity, cf. 10:5ff with 11:4ff; the one who receives the Church receives Jesus and thus receives God, 10:40; the authority of Jesus is with the Church, 16:18-19; 18:18, and this is the authority of God, 11:27, 28:19. Jesus is the Son of David, 1:1, the Messianic King, 16:16, and Isaiah 22:22 speaks of the ‘key of David’. Jesus gives the ‘keys of the kingdom to the Church, 16:19. Jesus is the Son of Abraham, 1:1, and the Church is the true Israel, 16:18 (qahal is translated by ekklesia), 21:43. Jesus is the unique Son of God, 3:7, 28:19, and because of their relation to Him, the Church are sons of God, 5:9, 45.
Hence, it cannot be argued that there is an escalation of the position of Jesus the later the text; there is no real difference in the Scriptural revelations of Jesus, as is demonstrated by their mutual affirmations. One common prominent feature of the gospels, found also in the Apocalypse, is the title Son of Man. The origin of this term is in Daniel 7:13ff, where a heavenly, supernatural being ‘comes’ to God to receive power and authority over humanity. Jesus clearly employs (c) e.g. Mark 14:61-62; Matthew 26:63-64; Luke 22:67-70; cf. Matthew 24:30; John 1:51, Revelations 1:13. It is more a reference to His deity, than to His humanity, as John 3:13 and 6:62, which ascribe pre-existence to the Son of Man, demonstrate. Equally, the use of the absolute term ‘the Son’ (as opposed to ‘Son of God’) is a case in point, found in Matthew;11:27; 28:19; Mark 13:32; Luke 9:35; 10:22; John 1:35-36; 5:19-26; 6:40; 8:35-36. There are of course many other points of contact which demonstrate both the deity of Christ and divine Triunity, but this is sufficient to demonstrate both Scriptural unanimity and the absence of the alleged escalation of the position of Jesus.