Lecture 21: Biblical/Theological Issues
Course: Introduction to Islam
Lecture: Biblical/Theological Issues
Islam does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity
This next issue in lecture #14 is another gigantic issue which we have to cover. This is a little bit more of an historical matter, but I think we can do it if we move quickly through it.
I. The “True” Injil
This is the whole idea of the true Injil, the true Gospel. Christians who debate with Muslims or talk with Muslims or have conversations with Muslims often find themselves floundering over the Islamic claim. On the one hand, they accept the Gospel. They say, “We accept the Injil.” The Qur’an, as you now know I’m sure, is full of statements which explicitly say that Muhammed came to confirm the Injil, confirm the Gospel. In that sense, there is no problem with the concept of believing the Gospel. On the other hand, they claim that the Gospel that you hold in your hand and you want to show them something in the New Testament, is corrupted and therefore it is “not the true Injil.”
A. The “Epistle” of Barnabas
If you ask Muslims, “Where is this true Injil? Is this kind of a hypothetical thing that our Bible is corrupted? How do we know that our Gospel is not a true Injil?” They will often point to the Gospel of Barnabas. We of course have all heard of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but maybe you have not heard of Barnabas.
Muslims claim that this is the Gospel that was suppressed and destroyed. Again, we have to clarify our own thinking. Many Christians, when you hear the
reference “Gospel of Barnabas” may confuse it with the “Epistle of Barnabas” which is of course something you studied presumably in your studies here, at
least they make reference to it. It is a well-known pseudepigraphal work attributed to the companion of Paul known as Barnabas. It is thought to represent
the teaching of Clement of Alexandria as well as Origen. It was probably written in the first century after the destruction of Jerusalem and it is largely a book concerned with how the Old Covenant of the Jews relates to the New Covenant and the Christian world. Barnabas is widely viewed, as you might expect, as a bridge figure between Jewish and Gentile communities.
B. The (First) Gospel of Barnabas
That epistle has nothing whatsoever to do with this discussion. We are referring to another document that we call “the Gospel of Barnabas” of which there are two roots. For this discussion, what I call the “First Gospel of Barnabas” is just some historical data which I would guarantee would never be discussed in a seminary because it is something that is a relatively minor issue in the history of Christian thought and writings. But it is a very important issue if you are working in the Muslim context. Therefore it goes in this particular class, a discussion of the Gospel of Barnabas.
First Emergence of the Title – Gelasian Decree
This actually goes back to a document known as the Gelasian Decree. This is from Gelasius the First who was an early pope, and was probably issued between the year 492 and 496. It is a late fifth-century document. The Gelasian Decree is a decree by the pope which forbids certain books to be read and accepted within the church with full embrace. In that list of books, one of the forbidden books is a mysteriously titled book, “The Gospel of Barnabas.” We don’t have the actual dating of that document. All we have is the Gelasian Decree itself, we have a copy of that, which goes back to the sixth century, beginning of the seventh of the Islamic era. Whether there is a connection there, we don’t know. Certainly, this is the first reference to the Gospel of Barnabas.
Gnostic Background to the Book
What do we know about the book? We only know that it is some kind of Gnostic book. It is forbidden because it is Gnostic. Let’s review a little bit. These are all things which you may have, or you will have touched on in other classes. You may recall that the Gnostics had certain problems with the deity of Christ as we understand it; and generally there is the belief that the incarnation as we understand it would defy the deity of Christ, the true deity of Christ. This is why you have doctrines like Nestorianism which emerged, which does not permit a true incarnation; or for that matter, Monophysitism. Either of those actually is a way of saying, “You really cannot have deity and humanity coexisting in one person because either you degraded deity because you say, ‘If it really was God, you obviously obliterate the humanity’” or in some way you say that humanity, because it is not really spiritual, would in some way infect the deity. So the Gnostics tended to find ways to separate, for example, the body from the spirit and find ways to keep these from being corrupted by the flesh, etc.
One of the most powerful doctrines of the scriptures is this paradox of the connection of spiritual and body, “pneuma sartz.” Paul says that we will be a
spiritual body. What in the world is that? How can there be a spiritual body? This kind of thing the Gnostics found very troubling, how to sort through these type issues.
There are many versions of Gnosticism and as you can imagine, they tended to have difficulty with the deity of Christ. Certainly, they would have problems with how that actually worked out with the incarnation because they believed the body was evil. If you believe the body is evil, then you have problems with the incarnation. The Christian view, by the way, is that the body is good, the body is not evil, it is part of God’s creation. As you can imagine, the Muslims found many Gnostic ideas quite attractive.
Only Known Fragment
Only one fragment of this book is extant. The whole gospel is not extant of the original gospel. The only direct knowledge we have about it is a small fragment; and the only fragment of this first Gospel of Barnabas amazingly is a denunciation of the Apostle Paul. That is important because again, we do have some external evidence about people who say they read this Gospel of Barnabas. We only have one little fragment. Here is the fragment, a little fragment, that is all we have. There were people though who said, “We read the whole thing.” They say there are four things that are found in this particular gospel, four things that are mentioned in passing.
They say first of all, that the Apostle Paul is denounced in this gospel. This is very important background because the Muslims are famous for driving a wedge between Jesus and Paul. That guy in that debate that we saw last year that said, “Where does Jesus say ‘I’m God, worship me’” would never say, “Show me in the New Testament where anybody says that Jesus is to be worshiped” or “Is Jesus God?” He won’t say that. They want to drive a wedge. They want to say, “Listen to the Gospels only.” They want to separate the whole Pauline thing. They want to drive a wedge between Paul and Jesus. It is a famous liberal trick, by the way. Protestant liberals love to do the same thing. Be ready for that in many ways.
Secondly, this is less of an important issue, but it does show you the problems here. They affirm a painless birth of Jesus. He is born through Mary without pain. It explicitly mentions that there is no reference to John the Baptist in the document. Finally, it has a deiasthetic passage. This is a term which you may not be familiar with. deiasthetic is kind of a catchall term for any view about the deity of Christ or the incarnation which tends to downplay his humanity or separate his humanity and his deity. So a deiasthetic passage would say that you don’t really have the God/Man dying on the cross. It is some kind of strange interpretation, that only the humanity of Jesus dies and the deity is whisked away in some kind of exalted way. The first and last ones are the ones that mainly interest us because this is exactly the problem the Muslims are going to have.
That really is all we know about the Gospel of Barnabas in this original term, though I think it is important background. The Gospel of Barnabas is basically a lost document, end of story. All we have is that one little fragment and we have some third-party attestation about what was in the document. There is no mention between the Gelasian Decree in the fifth century, all of the way to the beginning of the eighteenth century. That is a long time. From the fifth century to the eighteenth century there is simply no mention of a Gospel of Barnabas, no mention whatsoever.
That is important because the Muslims, when they produced the so-called Gospel of Barnabas, want to root it back to this first one; but in fact, it is quite worth noting that during the entire crusades, where we have intense interaction between Muslims and Christians in writing and in various kinds of particularly looking for things to say that show how the Muslims have disparaged Christ or the Gospel; it is amazing that in all of that literature and popes and other people writing, no mention is made of the Gospel of Barnabas.
Francis of Assisi, although he lived in the court of the Sultan of Egypt for some time, never heard, never mentions the Gospel of Barnabas, and he was right there in a Muslim court. Raymond Lull was another famous thirteenth century Muslim figure and Muslim apologist. He was called “the father of Islamic apologetics,” and he was the first Christian to really develop a Trinitarian apologetic to Islam. If you haven’t looked at the writings of Raymond Lull, you should look into those, very interesting work. He never mentions even a hint that he even heard of this document. So there is a huge gap here, a troubling gap, from the fifth century to the eighteenth century, that the Muslims want to kind of gloss over.
C. The (Second?) Gospel of Barnabas (Italian text)
In the eighteenth century, we have the rise of the English deists. The English deists in many ways are going to try to revive any ancient documents which may support deistic views. So the Gospel of Barnabas suddenly emerges in the discussion around some of the deistic writings. What happened was, between the year 1902 and 1905, actually there were two articles, one in 1902 and one in 1905, early twentieth century. Someone found an Italian manuscript which they claimed was the Gospel of Barnabas.
There has been a couple-hundred-year period essentially in the eighteenth century, where the English deists had made reference to the Gospel of Barnabas, which they claimed supported some of their deistic views but no-one ever had a text. Someone finally finds an Italian manuscript which they claimed was the Gospel of Barnabas. They found it in the Imperial Library of Vienna. There was a priest and a scholar named Lonsdale Ragg. Great name, isn’t it? That is a name you can go to the bank with. This guy was the Arch Deacon of Gibraltar. If you are the Arch Deacon of Gibraltar, you don’t have much to do. They guy has to preside over a rock. The guy had to do something with his time. He was quite a scholar, so he focused his time on translation. He decides to translate this entire work. Thankfully for our sake, a scholar from Duke University, James Brown, a noted scholar, has done an in-depth analysis. There are several books that are finally coming out, which you can get from Barnes and Noble. Unfortunately, they are not in our library. They are books that have a nice analysis of this. If I was in your shoes and I was preparing to actually live among Muslims, I think it might be worthwhile to peruse some of these studies.
What we know about the Gospel of Barnabas
To summarize this for you: This manuscript had been in Vienna since 1738 as part of the library of Prince Eugene of Savoy. This is why the deists had had some contact with this manuscript. It claims to have been written by the first-century apostle of Jesus named Barnabas. But throughout the document – these are points you should be well aware of – there is clearly a reliance in these accounts on the works of canonical Gospels and even the Qur’an itself and other kinds of things. It is clearly not an early writing.
Secondly, it is marred by polemical notations throughout it. Take for example the very first paragraph of this Gospel of Barnabas. Sometimes, by the way, it is referred to in writings as “The Italian Gospel of Barnabas” to distinguish it from the earlier one that was condemned by the Pope in the Gelasian Decree because they don’t believe there is any connection between these two documents. It is a late document which tries to build on that early name.
Let me read to you the way the whole thing opens up because the whole thing opens up with a condemnation of the Apostle Paul. That is why they want to use this, to link it back to the ancient document. “Dearly beloved, the great and wonderful God hath during these past days visited us by his prophet Jesus Christ in great mercy of teaching miracles, by reason whereof many being deceived by Satan under the pretense of piety, are preaching most impious doctrines, calling Jesus the Son of God, reputing the circumcision ordained of God forever and permitting every unclean meat. Among whom also Paul had been deceived, whereof I speak, which I have seen and heard in the intercourse I have had with Jesus.” This is Barnabas saying that Paul is totally off his rocker. “I know Jesus personally and I have the story right.” …”In order that you may be saved and not be deceived of Satan and perish in the judgment of God.”
So the whole document begins with a denunciation of Paul, driving a wedge between Paul and Jesus; and yet you have Paul’s companion, Barnabas, who now is intimately associated with Jesus, who is going to give us the real story of what really happened. Of course, in that very opening you have the denial of the deity of Christ and all of these things that are occurring.
In this gospel, Thomas disappears and in the place of Thomas you have Barnabas as one of the twelve. Jesus appears in places like Damascus, these Muslim areas, Mt. Sinai. The document displays great ignorance about the basic facts of Judaism and the geography of Palestine. This is the thing that has caused most scholars to say that this is laughably a first-century document. It is simply impossible. For example, they refer in the document to the Year of Jubilee, which they clearly make reference to in the Gospel of Barnabas as every one hundred years. How long is the Year of Jubilee? It is a week of weeks. So, therefore, this one-hundred-year thing is bizarre because in the papal time period, in the Middle Ages the Pope did issue a Year of Jubilee on a hundredth year. So this is a strong indication that it is a document which was much closer to the Middle Ages because of the influence of Boniface the 7th in the year 1300, who called for a Jubilee celebration, to be repeated every one hundred years, Boniface the 7th . So that is much more likely the source of the jubilee knowledge than the Old Testament. This shows a shocking lack of knowledge of the Old Testament.
In the text Nazareth and Jerusalem are both located on the water. That is a remarkable fact. Jesus actually travels from Nazareth to Jerusalem by boat, a feat which would be quite difficult to do. These are the kinds of things which clearly reveal that whoever wrote the book did not have a clue as to the actual
geography of Palestine. In the book, Herod, Pilate and the high priest are all very good friends. They get together and decree that the Christians are going to call Jesus Son of God, it is kind of a conspiracy. It is not at all anything remotely like what is in the New Testament. In this document, it is Judas that is arrested and Judas who is crucified, not Jesus. So here you have an explicit example of developing this imposter theory, which of course is very important to the Muslims.
Most scholars who do not have a particular axe to grind on behalf of Christianity, nevertheless say the document could not have been written prior to the
thirteenth century and is probably as late as the sixteenth century in its writing. The document has references which have been proven to be references most certainly taken from the Qur’an, which would be of course impossible for a first-century document to quote the Qur’an, since the Qur’an is a seventh-century document. Secondly, there have been shown to be several references to Dante, another big problem historically.
This Italian Gospel of Barnabas would of course have no interest to us in this class, except for the fact that some Muslims got hold of the Gospel of Barnabas, the Italian Gospel of Barnabas. The Muslims translated it into Arabic. This is, of course, a problem. It is entitled, “The Injil Barnaba,” the Gospel of Barnabas. It is widely available in book stores and outlets around the Muslim world. Therefore, granted this is a display of ignorance perhaps, but these are facts on the ground. If you have situations where there are Muslims who believe that the Gospel of Barnabas is A) an ancient document and B) represents a less corrupted version of the Gospel than the one you are holding, then unfortunately we have to take this seriously; because even though history and textual study is not on their side even remotely, it nevertheless is something that if people believe it in wide enough numbers, we cannot just dismiss it and say, “That’s ridiculous.” So Christians need to be aware of this and be aware of the fact that some writings particularly will quote excerpts from this and say, “The true Gospel shows that Jesus was given the title of Son of God by Pilate to deceive, which is not actually part of the inspired text; that in fact the imposer theory is true.” This is why in some Islamic apologist work they will say that even their gospel teaches that Jesus did not die on the cross. Where does that come from? They are actually making reference to what they believe to be the true gospel. These kinds of statements should alert you to the fact that there is this document, however spurious, which people, whether from true ignorance or they downright simply refuse to accept evidence otherwise, is being purported to be an authentic original gospel.
D. The Textual Distribution of the New Testament by the 7th century
The last point on this subject is a point I made earlier and that is the textual distribution of the scriptures by the seventh century, which make the kind of changes in the Bible unsupported. There are two tracks which this corrupted Bible follows.
Track one essentially says that there is an Injil back there at the beginning, that first-century Injil, which is perhaps the Gospel of Barnabas, which has now
become corrupted. Here is the first century, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, etc. to what you have today, your New Testament. There is a major
problem between this first-century Injil and the twenty-first-century Injil. The problem with this is that when you actually go back and look at the Gospel of
Barnabas, as we said earlier, scholars are not going to accept that.
The second track is to say, “No, we don’t really dispute the origins of the New Testament Gospel. What we are saying is that after the seventh century, the anti-Muslim sentiment was so high that anti-Islamic elements were inserted into the New Testament after the seventh century.” This was actually a pretty important argument at one point because A) You didn’t have a Gospel of Barnabas until the twentieth century, any document like that. B) It was important because the documented history of the actual difficult texts were not that ancient. Because of that, Christians had a hard time saying, “We can actually show you a pre-seventh century document because we have copies from the Middle Ages.” But the growth of textual criticism today is such that now we are learning way in front of the seventh century, not behind it.
Therefore, the idea of trying to say that the Gospels were somehow corrupted or changed after Muhammed is absolutely historically impossible because of the distribution of text in the seventh century. We now have some of these texts - Coptic texts, Egyptian, other parts of Egypt, Abyssinian texts, Persian texts, Palestinian texts, Syriac texts - that are so widely distributed that it would be impossible to go back and to change those texts. Therefore, the attestation numerically of all of those texts against the Muslim views makes it virtually impossible to assert that these were somehow changed or corrupted after Muhammed.
I think both of the views of the Muslims regarding that our Bible was corrupted is very difficult to sustain. It is very, very difficult to seriously argue that the text that you have in your chairs is significantly different from the original autographs. Of course, there are some textual problems, we will admit that. Let’s give away every major textual problem. Let’s just say goodbye to the latter part of Mark 16. Let’s say goodbye to Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. Let’s give up anything that is a major textual problem. Let’s give up obviously the text in John about the Father, Son, The Spirit on the Trinity, that passage. Give all of that. It still does not change. It does not change the basic New Testament that you have. There are hundreds of textual variations that involve things like, Is it Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus, or just Jesus? That kind of stuff. It does not affect anything.
I think when you actually study textual criticism and you look at works by Bruce Metzger and others, there is no scholar who seriously believes that we are
vulnerable at this point in the area of the authenticity and the authority of our scriptures. Once again, I think that would really flow into your theology classes when you study theology. All of those lectures on the authority of scripture, textual criticism, all of that I think would be great sport for this whole argument. That is a Biblical issue that we need to address.
II. Son of God
A. Doctrine of “Shirk” – Deny the Takbir
The other issue is the doctrine of the Son of God. What does it mean for us to say that Jesus is the Son of God? This the Muslims find extremely offensive and they have developed what they call the doctrine of “Shirk.” Shirk is for Muslims what we would call “the unforgivable sin.” This is the sin, if committed, there is no return from that. It denies the unity of Allah, known as Takbir. I think your translation uses the term, “Allah has no partners.” That is the main way it is translated in English, “Allah has no partners.” That is essentially the doctrine of Shirk. From our point of view, what this is really talking about is not maybe the way we use the word “partner.” It is talking about, God does not have a son, there is no eternal generation from the Father, say for instance in the Trinity.
B. Physical Cohabitation and Biblical Anthropomorphisms
There are actually a number of passages in the Qur’an which are clearly what they call “Shirk passages.” There are other passages which may not actually use the expression “Shirk” or “Allah has no partners,” but are in fact in that category. For example, Surah 1:12, which they say is a third of the Qur’an: “Allah is one, the eternal God. He begot none, nor was he begotten.” This goes back to the point that was made, what does he mean by the word “begotten?” The fact that Allah is said to have begotten none nor was he begotten tends to focus on the incarnation as an impossibility. Then we realize the word “begotten” has larger implications in our usage. In their usage, it is a condemnation of God giving birth or God being born. It is absolutely ludicrous to the Muslim. To show you this is clearly their idea, Surah 19:37: “It is not for Allah to take to himself any offspring. Allah forbid that he himself should beget a son.” Again, this has the idea of physical cohabitation, that somehow God entered into sexual intercourse with who is often viewed as Mary and the result was Jesus. That is a blasphemous thought to Muslims, it is blasphemous to us.
Just to give you again the thrust of this, later on in that same Surah 19 ayah 88 and following: “Those who say the lord of mercy has begotten a son preach a monstrous falsehood at which the very heavens might crack, the earth break asunder and the mountains crumble to dust, that they should ascribe a son to the merciful when it does not become him to beget one.” That is a great thing to memorize about this: “A monstrous falsehood at which the very heavens might crack, the earth break asunder and the mountains crumble to dust.” So whenever Muslims give you that doctrine, you just come out with, “Oh, that’s the doctrine that will make the mountains crumble to dust. I completely agree with that, even as your Qur’an says. I quite agree with your Qur’an at that point.” That is a monstrous falsehood to say that God had sex and had a son the way that they think that we are talking about. Again, Surah 25 ayah 2: “The lord of the heavens and the earth who has begotten no children and has no partner in his kingdom.” This is the kind of thing that comes up over and over again.
There are ten passages which they claim to be the ten Shirka passages, which they say condemn associates and partners with Allah. Some we have already alluded to, some are relatively new. I will just quickly give those to you: 5:73, 7:192, 9:31, 16:51, 17:22, 17:111, 19:35, 23:91, 25:2 and 9:30. I will give you these quotes, Surah 23:91: “Never has Allah begotten a son, nor is there any God besides him.” Surah 25:2: “The Lord of the heavens and the earth, who has begotten no children and has no partner in his kingdom, etc.” This kind of thing comes out over and over.
The last I mention separately because it is an interesting passage where scholars have kind of scratched their heads over this, Christian scholars and Jewish scholars both because this is the statement – perhaps you remember reading it by now: “The Jews say Ezra is the son of Allah, while the Christians say the Messiah is the son of Allah. Such are they say infidels of old.” This is asserting that here the Jews are claiming that Ezra is the son of God. The Christians are claiming that Jesus is the Son of God. So here is Muhammed accusing both Jews and Christians of essentially eroding away their doctrine of pure monotheism. This is Muhammed at a very anti-Jewish and anti-Christian polemic, saying the Jews and Christians have been influenced by polytheistic corruptions.
“How to convince them how perverse they are. They worship their rabbis and their monks and their Messiah, Son of Mary, as God besides Allah, although they were ordered to worship and serve one God only. There is no God but him.” He quotes the Old Testament, the Decalogue. “Exalted be he above those who may deify besides him.” That is a very powerful passage because what he is saying essentially is, the Jews and the Christians have corrupted original ten commandments monotheism.
The problem is that there is no reference in the entirety of Judaism or any sect of Judaism that I am aware of where Ezra is worshiped by Jewish people or by anybody else. I’ve never known anybody to worship Ezra or any other rabbi. The whole idea, there is no historic evidence for this. Where did Muhammed get this idea? Were there Jews in Arabia who had some exalted perspective of Ezra, who gave deference to Ezra in a way that we find incompatible with Judaism? We do not know. But this is a reference in the Qur’an that we would again likewise condemn. Did the Jews worship Ezra? Then of course, it is to be condemned. Again, they are denying the deity of Christ and therefore once you deny that, then obviously Christ is not worthy of worship or given divine titles, etc. This is why, because the Gospel gives him these divine titles, they conclude therefore it must be corrupt. They have a conclusion which is going back and shaping all the evidence. The conclusion is, Jesus cannot be more than a prophet. Therefore, anything that asserts Jesus is otherwise must be declared to be corrupt or in some way an interpolation based on various monstrous falsehoods.
This brings us to our next point about the Son of God; not only the Shirk, but what this does in fact mean from their point of view, when they hear “Son of God.” If a Muslim says to you, “Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?” As I’ve said before, don’t answer “yes” right away. Always answer, “What do you mean by ‘Son of God’?” Because you don’t want to say “yes” to something that you in fact don’t believe. So if someone says to you, “Do you believe that Jesus is the result of cohabitation between the Father and Mary?” Then you are going to say, “Of course not.” If that is what they think when they say, “Jesus the son of God,” then obviously you have to be careful to hedge yourself against this kind of misunderstanding.
Basically, my position is, the Muslim view of the Trinity should be repudiated by Christians. We agree on that point. Our point is that they misunderstand the Biblical language as anthropomorphisms of the Bible. Surah 43:82, you have this wonderful passage. Surah 43 ayah 82, what a remarkable statement by Muhammed, who is addressing the Christians here: “Say, if the lord of mercy had a son, I would be the first to worship him.” That is a very important text to be aware of because what you can say to Muslims is, “Did you know that Muhammed said that if God had a son, he would be the first to worship him?” Muslims would say, “No, no, he never said that.” “Let me show you, may I read the Qur’an with you? Not my Qur’an, I want to see your Qur’an.” Anybody have a problem with this text in their Qur’an? This is an official huge version from Mecca. This is a Meccan version, a Penguin paperback classic. Maybe it has been corrupted in some way. It says, “If the most gracious had a son, I would be the first to worship.” There is no fundamental disagreement with what is said here.
That is very important because Muslims will say, “If it can be demonstrated that God actually had a son, Muhammed said that he would be the very first to
worship him. Therefore, every Muslim should worship him.” So the key is establishing properly what is meant by God having a son.
The Bible does use anthropomorphisms and sometimes Muslims will find this troubling. For God to say, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands,” that is an anthropomorphic statement. It is ascribing, it is attributing to God human characteristics. “They sacrificed and the sacrifice came up into the nostrils of Yahweh.” Yahweh does not have nostrils, Yahweh does not have palms on his hands. But the Old Testament speaks in this language because this is the way Biblically speaking, deity is related to humanity. You have moral anthropomorphisms where the Lord is grieved, etc. All of this is to hedge the scriptures from falling into kind of a Hindu impersonalness, where God is spoken of in philosophical terms. In some way that does not relate.
There is no Biblical scholar anywhere who is arguing that God is a great man up there, like a human at large. That is not something that is necessary in these anthropomorphic texts. By the way, there are anthropomorphisms in certain Muslim writings. The Qur’an itself has, as I already noted, a debate about this. When this Muslim was debating a Christian and was denouncing all anthropomorphic language, this person said, “Wait a minute. How in the world do you describe speech? What is speech?” “Well, you define it as vocal chords that rub against each other and disturb the sound waves, etc.” You cannot even talk about someone speaking without talking anthropomorphically because speaking involves the dislocation of sound waves. For Allah to speak, Allah to say things, is in itself a form, a mild form, a form of anthropomorphic language. You are still essentially having in mind envisioning a person who is saying something, who is “speaking.” There is no end to it. Depending on how far you go, you end up like a Hindu Brahman, you can’t say anything about it.
I think interpreting is good. There is no reason why the doctrine of the Son of God and the anthropomorphic language using scriptures in any way troubles us in that sense at all. You will notice that the physical anthropomorphisms do not imply at all, even though we have anthropomorphic language used in scriptures, any kind of cohabitation or any of that. Even this language that they use is in itself not used even anthropomorphically. I do not think it is a serious problem.
This brings us to the Trinity. I did not want to develop this in great detail unless we have particular problems with the Muslim views of it.
A. The Doctrine of the Trinity and the Doctrines of Transcendence and Immanence
Essentially you can see, the doctrine of the Trinity is in reference to two major themes in the Biblical account, the transcendence of God and the immanence of God. The Muslims don’t really know how to reconcile these two, so they opt for transcendence. If you have the doctrine that says that God is exalted and transcendent and there is this great gulf between Alllah and humanity, that is essentially where the Muslims posit their view of God. Then you have Islamic revelation. If you have a strict view of transcendence, then you have deism. The deists are happy with the Islamic view of transcendence to some degree. But even the Muslims will not accept deism straight out because even they have to have some border crossings. Allah has to speak and communicate to humanity, in the Qur’an especially Allah communicates; therefore, you have these border crossings. So in a sense, even Muslims are not prepared to go all the way to deism and a strict view of transcendence.
The Immanence idea, on the other hand, is the closeness of God, his nearness to us. I love that text in Isaiah, which I think reveals the power of the Biblical imagery to reconcile these, where Yahweh says, “I dwell in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit.” That is a very powerful message from the Old Testament, that Yahweh is being presented here in two very different ways. On one hand, he is the exalted one, the transcendent One, he is holy.” Isiah says, “I looked up, Behold, his glory filled the temple. Woe is me! Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,” all of that from Isaiah 6. Yet he has this immanence where God comes down, he dwells with his people, he suffered with his people, the suffering servant. Ezekiel’s imagery of the wheel, in the middle of the wheel, the Glory of God comes down and dwells there. Yahweh is prepared to go into exile with his people. That is pretty dramatic theology. And of course, preparing for the ultimate exile of God with his people at the cross where Christ actually bears our sin. That is the ultimate example of immanence.
The Muslims are going to camp, as it were, on the deistic side of this whole ledger. You have Islam, you have Gnosticism, you have Deism.
On the immanence side, you have religions like pantheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, which in one way or another are focusing on immanence, especially in Hinduism where the distinction between God and man is blurred. You have God within us, God is not distinguished from humanity as a whole. This whole thing has just completely collapsed. One of the greatest utterances of Hinduism is when the young Brahman male boy is given the great transmission. At the end of his life when his father dies, he brings his son along and he whispers to his son this thing called “the great transmission” where the son says, “I am Brahman, I am God, I am the world.” That would not be something you would say to your son before you passed away, or your daughter, in a Christian context.
The thing about the Gospel is, the Gospel completely, unlike Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam, does not have to camp out on either of these. That is the beauty of the doctrine of the Trinity.
B. Three truths of the doctrine of the Trinity
The Trinity is the doctrine which beautifully reconciles transcendence with immanence. In fact, that is the only way to reconcile it. Because in the Trinity you have the transcendence of God which is never compromised because The Father is the creator, he is the sustainer. The Father is the holy, transcendent one. Yet in the Person of Christ the human race is invaded in the Person of Christ through the incarnation. In Christ, especially Christ on the cross, you have the ultimate immanence. If you had a modalism, of course it would be a destructive thing. Then the modalism would say, “God is either transcendent or he is immanent. He switches to these different modes.” But in the true doctrine of Trinity, God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent through the Person of Christ. That is a balance of the doctrine of God that Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Deists, Gnostics, Pantheists cannot respond to, in my view. I think that is the beauty and the power of the doctrine of Trinity.
The doctrine of Trinity is probably the most important doctrine for Christians to be really comfortable with, that and the issue of the soteriology in terms of really being familiar with it in discussions with Muslims because this is where the whole thing breaks down.
C. Islamic confusion about the Trinity
The doctrine of Trinity affirms, on one hand, the Takbir. It affirms the unity of God because we believe that there is a complete unity of three personal distinctions within the one essence. Muslims have to be told this, that Christians do not believe in three gods, we are not polytheistic. We do not believe in any sacrifice of the doctrine of the unity of God. This goes back to this whole issue of the idea of the Jews when they said, “Yahweh is one.” This is not a reference to ontology. It is not in any way a statement of the ontological oneness of God that cannot have personal distinction to say that Yahweh is one in Hebrew. It is simply not there. It is a statement of his unrivaled providence, his unrivaled sovereignty.
In that sense, Jesus Himself quotes the great passage, the Shema. Jesus Himself says, “The Lord God, the Lord is One.” Jesus had no problem with that. There is no issue with that at all. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus quotes the Shema. What we are arguing for is distinctions within the one essence. Of course, as you know, that is the doctrine of the Trinity. They are co-equal, co-eternal, consubstantial. We do not sacrifice the unity for the distinction; which is why the Trinity of course comes from tri-unity. A lot of Muslims do not know that either. They have no idea where the word comes from. You explain to them that it means tri-unity. It means we completely affirm the unity of God, just as much as you do. Allah, God. We believe there is only one God. But we believe there are three distinctions within the one Godhead, which is a mystery. Claim it. It is a great mystery, but it is a mystery that we have to be fair about. This is not tri-theism. There is a big difference between trinity and tri-theism. Tri-theism is of course a form of heresy. As you know, the Persians and Muslims in Muhammed’s day when he was greatly exposed to a lot of the Persian beliefs, the Zoroastrians did believe in two major deities. Therefore, he was familiar with this. It is not surprising at all that Muhammed interpreted the Trinity when he was exposed to Nestorians, Monophysites, he was exposed to the Zoroastrians, that we actually believe in three gods. So you have to clarify this point with Muslims.
I think the rest of this we have pretty much covered. The Trinity is not cohabitation. A lot of Muslims in arguing believe that the Gospel is about what is called patripassionism, the suffering of the Father. This has been declared a heresy in the church. When Jesus on the cross is suffering, it is not a discussion of the Father suffering. In fact, Tertullian once said against this doctrine, “They have driven out prophecy, brought in heresy. They have put to flight the Comforter and crucified the Father.” This is that people have modalistic views of the Trinity.
This is clearly, what the Muslims condemn, we condemn, like in some other cases. We also condemn the idea of God suffering and dying on the cross. This whole discussion we head earlier about God suffering in his nature, so that the nature of God died, etc. is simply not there. Christ is a theanthropic person, not theanthropic in essence.
These other heresies like modalism and Arianism are all distortions of the Christian message which we would condemn and our church ecumenically has condemned that.
Modalism argues that God became the Father, became the Son, became the Holy Spirit and there is not a simultaneous Father/Son/Holy Spirit. The Father became the Son, died on the cross. That would obviously be a serious problem if the entire Godhead was on the cross, rather than the theanthropic God/Man.
The second view of Arianism is the belief that Jesus was a man who became God and therefore Jesus was exalted to the position of Godhead. That also we find offensive, that in any way Jesus attained a God status of some kind. Both of these deny the eternal nature of the Trinity, the three distinctions within the one Godhead. We believe that the Son eternally generates from the Father.
Let me make one last comment that applies to liberalism as well as to Islam. When we talk about Jesus as the Son of God, that is an eternal statement about the essence of God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, which is why I am very opposed to a feminist agenda which has crept into some churches, which has tried to replace the Father/Son/Holy Spirit with a new formulation, Creator/Redeemer/Sanctifying Spirit). This to me is a huge mistake because creator is something that God does, it is not what God is. Before the world was created, God is still the Father, but at one point he created. The Son became a redeemer. These are functional descriptions of God. They are not essential descriptions of God. If God had never created, he is no less God. But God is eternally always the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore, these Trinitarian designations are extremely important in the Christian formulation; and Muslims, like liberal Christians, misunderstand the proper importance of these terms and I think they are trying to emphasize less masculine expressions. I think that in the long run, this will be detrimental to the church. With the greatest respect to many other issues which are important which are brought to the church, in the sense of women’s issues, I think this particular area is a huge mistake, to try to erode the formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.