The Doctrine of the Trinity
The Christian Doctrine of God
2.1 Biblical Origins of the Trinitarian Doctrine
Muslim: The Bible nowhere teaches that God is a Trinity. The word "trinity" does not appear in the book. Jews believed in one God while Greeks and Romans believed in many gods. The Church invented the three gods in one theory to placate them both.
The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the great divisive issues between Christians and Muslims. The latter believe it strikes at the very heart of Gods absolute oneness which is one of the fundamental themes of the Quran. Muslims believe that any attempt to attribute partners to Allah is shirk ("associating"), the greatest of all sins and the only one which cannot be forgiven:
Truly Allah will not forgive any associating with him but will forgive anything else to whomever he pleases. For whoever associates (shirk) with Allah verily commits a great sin. Surah 4:48
The Christian doctrine is viewed as precisely that – an association of Jesus with God together with the Holy Spirit. For Allah to beget a Son is presumed by Muslims to be the ultimate expression of unbelief. From childhood all Muslims are taught this particular Surah by heart, already quoted in this book, and regarded as one of the greatest in the Quran, indeed as equivalent to one-third of the whole book:
Say, He is Allah, the One, Allah the Eternal One. He does not beget, nor is he begotten, and like unto him there is not one. Surah 112:1-4
In witness with Muslims you will soon find that, on the one hand, Muslims will strenuously deny any possibility of God being Triune while, on the other, they will vociferously attack the doctrine which they presume to be the weakest point of Christian belief. After all, how can three persons exist in one God? When Christ died, did God die? Did all three persons expire on the cross? They must have if they were one, Muslims will argue. They will also, as the argument cited above does, claim in any event that the Trinity is not found in the Bible. Let us begin by examining clear proofs that the doctrine is firmly founded on the Bible.
The Deity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
With Muslims it is necessary to emphasize the nature of the Triune God as he is revealed in the Bible – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Let us consider each one in turn.
1. God the Father
This is the commonest name for God in the New Testament – the Father – although it is rarely found as a description for God in any other religion and never in Islam. Jesus always spoke of God in heaven as "my Father" (Matthew 18:11), "your Father" (Luke 12:32), "the Father" (John 14:12) and when praying simply addressed him as "Father" (John 11:41). The important point here is that God is spoken of in relational terms. He is not just the sovereign ruler of the universe, he has a definite relationship within his divine being beyond his own individual personality.
2. God the Son
It is with a second personality – the Son – that he enjoys his primary relationship. This second person became the man Jesus Christ. He always spoke of himself as the Son of the Father in absolute and exclusive terms. No one knows the Son but the Father and no one knows the Father but the Son (Matthew 11:27). Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him (John 4:23). He came from the Father into the world, he was to leave it and return to the Father (John 16:28). It is important, when discussing the Trinity with Muslims, to emphasize such texts to show the divine relationship between the Father and the Son which no other human being enjoys on such exclusive terms.
3. God the Holy Spirit
Throughout the New Testament a third personality constantly appears – the Holy Spirit – and he enjoys an obviously intimate relationship with both the Father and the Son at their divine level. He would be sent by the Son from the Father, he proceeds from the Father, and he bears witness to the Son (John 15:26). The Father would send him in the Sons name and he would bring to remembrance all that the Son had taught his disciples (John 14:26).
All these quotations are from Jesus Christ himself, the great Word of the Father who was in the beginning, was with God, and is God (John 1:1). He is constantly called the Son of God in the Bible, by no less than the Father himself who twice spoke from heaven and declared "This is my beloved Son" (Matthew 4:17, 17:5).
Biblical Trinitarian Statements
There are a number of statements in the Bible which speak of all three persons of the Trinity in one breath. We will consider three that can effectively be quoted in discussion with Muslims on this subject.
1. Matthew 28:19: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit
In this passage Jesus Christ himself commands his disciples to make further disciples throughout the world, "baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit". It is very significant that Jesus spoke of the name of all three, using the singular to denote an absolute unity between them. Likewise the word "name" in the Bible is often used to define something about a person, for example Mosheh (Moses) who was so-called because he was drawn out (mashah) of the water. In Matthew 28:19 Jesus used the word to express the common nature of the three persons, saying in effect "baptising them into the one essence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit".
2. 2 Corinthians 13:14: The Triune blessing
Paul concludes this letter by commending the Corinthian Christians to the grace of the Son, the love of the Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Once again each person of the Trinity is cited in union with the other two and it is a benediction and communion of overall divine goodwill which is commended to them.
3. Ephesians 2:18.Access to the Eternal Father
Paul again mentions all three persons of the Trinity together in a statement of common purpose and divine union. In Jesus Christ the Son both Jewish and Gentile believers have access through the same Holy Spirit to the Father. Once again the unity between the three persons cannot be missed and the emphasis, yet again, on the divine realm in which they relate to each other. In Matthew 28:19 it is a common divine nature, in 2 Corinthians 13:14 a common divine blessing, and here a common divine accessibility that are presented to the reader.
There are numerous other proofs of the Trinity throughout the Bible. Even in the Old Testament the second person is often mentioned as the Son to the Father as we have seen in the last chapter while the Holy Spirit is often spoken of as Gods direct agent and his own spirit (Genesis 1:2, Psalm 51:11). It is essential, in witness with Muslims, to show that the Church did not invent the Trinity or adapt its belief about God to prevailing monotheistic or polytheistic beliefs, but obtained it directly from the teaching of its original scripture, the Bible.
It is also useful to point out that it was the coming of Jesus Christ into the world that opened up the revelation of God as a triune being. Before him the Old Testament generally spoke of God as Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel, but when Jesus began to teach he frequently spoke of God as the Father, himself as the Son and of the coming of the Holy Spirit in such terms as to leave no doubt that all three shared the realm of the divine glory, that they shared a common nature, essence and purpose, and that there was an absolute unity between them. The New Testament, in consequence, focuses consistently on each of the three persons in the divine Trinity as the sphere in which Christian believers can come to know God (the Father), be forgiven by him (through his Son Jesus Christ) and enjoy his divine presence (in the Holy Spirit). All references to Yahweh disappear in the light of the intimate unity which all believers enjoy with God now more fully revealed in his true nature and triune personality.
2.2 The Incomprehensible Nature of God
Muslim: The concept of God is very easy to understand in Islam but your Christian doctrine of the Trinity defies reason. Even if you were to write a thousand books you could never fully explain it. Yet our doctrine can easily be placed on a postage stamp: Huwallaahu ahad – He is Allah the One.
Muslims sincerely find it very hard to understand how God can be triune and, in explaining the doctrine, Christians are often likely to confuse themselves as much as the Muslims! It is not a simple concept as we should freely concede. Nonetheless its complexity is not an argument against its tenability, if anything it is the strongest point in its favour. After all, we are dealing with the nature of the eternal God of the Universe. He is greater than the heavens and the earth – would it be surprising to us, who are merely mortal, finite creatures, to find that his basic character is incomprehensible? As the Bible itself says:
Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven – what can you do? Deeper than Sheol – what can you know? Job 11:7-8
Muslims claim that Islams concept of God can very easily be comprehended and is therefore more acceptable than what Christians admit is an incomprehensible doctrine. One cannot help asking whether a concept of God that can easily be understood in the human mind was not perhaps conceived there in the first place. As Kenneth Cragg has said, a doctrine of God does not commend itself by its ability to be reduced to a statement on a postage stamp. We are not dealing with simplicity here. The Muslim writer Afif Tabbarah is more to the point when he says that the Almighty God is much dissimilar to his creatures and more sublime than simple minds can imagine.
Searching Out the Knowledge of God
The doctrine of the Trinity is not contrary to reason. Quite simply it is above the realms of finite human reasoning. It requires a different approach to come to terms with it. A rational, analytic study of its tenets will yield little of substance. The Apostle Paul once said:
Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? Acts 26:8
Paul, addressing King Agrippa and other members of his court, made no attempt to rationally explain how the dead can be raised back to life. All scientific studies of the world of nature will never be able to give a rational explanation of how this can be possible. The issue here is one of faith. All Muslims, on faith alone, will concede the resurrection of the dead to life. Why then, we may ask, is it thought incredible by any of them that the Almighty God who rules this universe is incomprehensible in his infinite and eternal nature?
The New Testament is far more concerned about our relationship with God than our understanding of his nature. What we know about God is not nearly as important as the need to actually know God. The pursuit of his holiness, the forgiveness of our sins and the assurance of eternal life are the concerns of the Christian scriptures. As Paul says, we have come to know God or, rather, to be known of God (Galatians 4:9). It is through the revelation of God in his eternal triune nature, especially as revealed to us in Jesus Christ who is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) in whom the whole fulness of God dwelt bodily (Colossians 2:9), that we have come to know God and to be known of him. Muslims need to be told that what is most important is that we should be right with God, approved of him, loved and forgiven, rather than that we should we able to understand or comprehend his nature. God wants to be loved and obeyed, not studied or analysed.
The Trinity: A Divine Revelation
It is important also to point out to Muslims that although the mainline Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches have differed on many subjects, they have never even remotely argued over the doctrine of the Trinity including its finer details. The reason is simply that the Church never created this doctrine, it discerned it from a study of the revelation of God in the holy scriptures. It is the only doctrine of God that can be formulated from an objective study of the books of the New Testament.
The Council of Nicaea in 325 AD finally defined the Trinitarian doctrine. The term Trinity was first proposed by Tertullian, the great early African Christian scholar. Muslims often fasten on this as a proof that the doctrine is an invention of the Church some centuries after Christ. Crudely put, some Muslims argue that God had always been a unitarian being until the third century when the Church turned him into a Trinity. I can suggest a very useful line of argument that I have found to be very effective in getting past this objection.
For centuries all mankind believed that the earth was flat and that the sun, planets and stars revolved around it. A few centuries ago Galileo, Copernicus and other astronomers began proclaiming that in fact the earth is round, is suspended in space, and is revolving around the sun. The theory was denounced (most prominently by the Church!) for the simple reason that throughout history it was common knowledge that the earth was flat and, in any event, common sense could tell anyone that this planet was not moving and that the sky was rotating around us. The idea that we are circling at more than one thousand miles an hour on our own axis daily, are revolving around the sun at tens of thousands of miles an hour, and are spinning through the universe at even phenomenally greater speeds, was to the minds of people of those days entirely irrational. It is only because we have scientific proof that we accept the theory today but it is still very hard to comprehend. Gods nature, however, cannot be scientifically proved. He may, however, turn out to be very opposite to what people naturally would expect just as the planetary system has done. Yet the Church discerned the Triune nature of God some fourteen centuries before the truth about our universe was discovered. Why? Simply because God revealed his true nature to us in the scriptures. The Church did not turn God into a Trinity – he was so from all eternity.
Some Muslims argue that the Trinity cannot be mathematically proved. After all, 1 + 1 + 1 = 3, they argue. There is no way they can be made to be one. Yet even mathematics uses an independent symbol, ∞, to define infinity, simply because it cannot be multiplied, divided, added to or subtracted from by ordinary numerals. So too the infinite God cannot be comprehended in finite terms and our mathematics are a quite inadequate standard for determining eternal realities!
Christianity makes no attempt to present a comprehensible God to the world. Its aim is to reveal a knowable God – the Father who loves his own children, the Son who died to redeem them, and the Holy Spirit who renews and sanctifies them. Mans goal is to get to heaven and to be with God – not to able to plot heaven on a map or produce a concept of God that can be easily comprehended, analysed or reduced to a statement on a postage stamp.
2.3 The Unity of God: The Basis of the Trinity
Muslim: The truth is that Christians in fact worship three gods and are guilty of shirk. The Bible emphasises the fact that God is one God. Your doctrine is inconsistent with your own scripture. You cannot put three personalities into one God.
It is intriguing to find Muslims arguing that the Bible emphatically teaches that God is one as if this undermined the Trinity doctrine. The Old Testament declares that "the Lord is God on heaven above and on earth beneath – there is no other" (Deuteronomy 4:39) while the New Testament likewise states "The Lord our God is one Lord" (Mark 12:29) and that "God is one" (Romans 3:30, Galatians 3:20). It is useful in conversation with Muslims on the Trinity, nevertheless, to quote these texts to establish the point from the outset that the unity of God is as much a fundamental teaching of the whole Bible as it is in the Quran. The issue is the complex nature of this unity in the Biblical doctrine of the Triune God.
God: A Tri-Unity, not a Tritheism
How can three be one, the Muslim fairly asks? All human beings are distinct creatures and personalities. In no way can three of them become one being with one single nature. Our answer to this has to be to go to the Bible and see how it projects the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
1. 1 John 1:5: God is Light
The Bible focuses on this theme often. God is called the "Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change" (James 1:17). The Son of God, Jesus Christ, also declared "I am the light of the world. He who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life" (John 8:12) while the New Testament also says of him that he likewise will never change, being the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). Through the Holy Spirit, furthermore, God shines into our hearts to give "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6). There is clearly an absolute unity of essence and purpose between them.
2. John 3:33: God is True
Just as this text declares Truth to be an essential essence of God the Father, so the Son of God could declare "I am the Truth" (John 14:6). Likewise the Holy Spirit is called the "Spirit of Truth" (John 15:26). There is no falsehood in any of them. Once again one discovers that, while human beings may differ in personality and character, there are no such differences between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are the Truth.
3. 1 John 4:8: God is Love
The New Testament often speaks of the love of the Father (John 16:27) but goes on to say that the love of God was made manifest in the fact that he sent his Son to redeem us from our sins (Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:10). Likewise it states that Gods love has been "poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Romans 5:5). Again we have an absolute unity in essence and purpose between the three persons of the Trinity.
Much the same can be said of the life of God. As the Father is the source of all life, so the Son called himself "the Life" (John 11:25, 14:6) and is called the Author of Life (Acts 3:15). The Holy Spirit is likewise the one through whom God will give eternal life to our mortal bodies (Romans 8:11). In all these texts we can see a divine tri-unity, not three independent personalities. Our doctrine is only held within a definition of Gods unity. Without it the Trinitys fundamental nature falls away. You quite simply cannot establish the doctrine outside of Gods essential oneness. As Jesus said, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) and this total unity is shared with the Holy Spirit.
Early Muslim Reactions to the Trinity
It is very interesting to see how early Muslim writers responded to the doctrine of the Trinity. The most important and exhaustive work was a dissertation in the ninth century after Christ by Abu Isa al-Warraq which he titled Ar-Radd ala al-Tathlith ("The Refutation of the Trinity").
Abu Isa wrote purely in response to the Christian theorists of his day. They taught the tri-unity of God in a very technical manner and focused on the Son as the Word and the Spirit as the Life – a poor distinction as Jesus Christ so often spoke of himself as "the Life" as we have seen. Just as modern Christians often use illustrations to define the Trinity (such as the one egg with three parts, its shell, yolk and white), so the Christians of those days also used what in my mind was an inadequate (and often misleading) approach. They tried, from reason, to prove that three separate hypostases could be one being.
Abu Isa responded in kind. He followed the principle first stated by the Muslim scholar Al-Kindi, namely that God is a being who is neither multiple or divisible in any way, not by his essence nor by something other than it, and one whose substance likewise cannot be divided or multiplied in any way. While most Muslim writers usually attacked the Christian doctrine from a Quranic standpoint, namely that Allah could not have a Son, has no partners, and that Jesus was only a messenger, Abu Isa took the doctrine at face value. He made himself well acquainted with it.
He argued that if the hypostases are the substance, and the substance is one and undifferentiated while the hypostases are three, then the Christians have made what is differentiated not differentiated. Again, he argued, if the substance is identical to the hypostases, the one must be the other. There cannot be three of one and one of the other. If they are distinct, the substance is a fourth.
Abu Isa based his arguments on the popular rational theories of his day, one of which was that human reason is always the sole criterion of judgment and that prophets must speak within its dictates. You can see what happens when Christians try to prove the Trinity by analytical reasoning and on finite principles. Once again I must emphasise the point made in the introduction to this book – be Biblical and not doctrinal, rational or illustrative in your answers. Our response to the Muslim is that our doctrine is the product of divine revelation and cannot be judged by finite human reasoning. We respond to what God has revealed about himself because, as Carl Pfander said, human reason cannot grasp the eternal being. Its dim torch must give way to the bright sunrise of truth.
2.4 Does the Doctrine have Pagan Origins?
Muslim: Your doctrine is founded on contemporary pagan religions which all had their own trinities of gods long before Christianity came into being. The Egyptians, Hindus, Romans and Greeks all had triads of deities in which they believed.
The Muslim tendency to overlook the essential unity of the Triune God and to regard the Christian faith as tritheistic leads to charges that the doctrine has parallels in ancient pagan religions where a plurality of deities were worshipped. All sorts of examples are proposed in Muslim writings on the subject.
Specific Examples of Supposed Parallels
All sorts of triads are mentioned in Muslim writings, such as the Greek gods Zeus, Demeter and Apollo, even though there was never any suggestion of an absolute unity between them or any semblance to the actual Biblical Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We will look at two of the commonest examples Muslim writers cite to prove their case.
1. The Egyptian Gods Osiris, Isis and Horus
In Muslim publications it is often argued that the Egyptians also had their own trinity of Osiris, Isis and Horus and that these were, as claimed by a Muslim writer, a "kind of trinity of gods" who were supposed to be the Egyptian equivalent of the Trinity. It is once again important, in discussion with Muslims, to emphasise the essential unity of God and the fundamental monotheism of the Christian faith. The very word Trinity embodies a divine unity and only a Muslim can know what he means when he speaks of a "trinity of gods". The very expression is self-contradictory.
The mythological family of gods known as Osiris, Isis and Horus constituted a family of father, mother and son – as far from the Christian doctrine of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as you can get. Furthermore they were only three of a multiplicity of Egyptian deities which also included Nun, Atum, Ra, Khefri, Shu, Tefnut, Anhur, Geb, Nut and Set.
There were also more than one Horus – Horus the elder, Horus of Edfu, Horus son of Isis, etc. The Egyptians were not trinitarians believing in one Supreme Being who is triune in personality and nature. They worshipped many gods of whom Osiris, Isis and Horus were but three and they did not believe that these three shared an absolute unity. As will be seen these pagan triads are closer to the Quranic misconception of the Christian doctrine than they are to the actual doctrine as it is founded on the Bible.
2. The Hindu Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva
The Hindus have a belief in a Trimurti – a triad of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Muslims often claim that the Christian Trinity is founded on this concept as well. An historical analysis of the Hindu theory will soon show, likewise, that there is not even a remote parallel between the two.
Brahma is an impersonal deity in Hinduism with no personality, representing everything that exists in a state of perfect nirvana (absorption in a universal state). Vishnu was married to a female deity and Siva is the great god of the Hindu Savites. They have no particular relationship with each other. Hinduism has numerous other deities such as Krishna, Rama, Sita, Ganesh, Hanuman, Kali and others. The Upanishads, Vedas and other ancient Hindu texts taught no such thing as a threefold relationship between Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. The Vedas acknowledged at least thirty-three different deities who were separate gods, often opposed to each other. Most of them were married to Hindu goddesses.
The Trimurti concept is only found in late Sanskrit and cannot be dated earlier than the 5th century after Christ – long after the Christian doctrine of the Trinity had been fully established. Muslims are, quite simply, doing all they can to father the Christian belief in a Triune God on all sorts of pagan deities even though there is no similarity between them.
The Uniqueness of the Biblical Trinity
Muslims who argue that our doctrine has pagan origins will have to produce far better proofs and actual chains of evidences to prove that it is dependent on pagan beliefs. The doctrine of the Trinity is an absolutely unique one which has no parallels in any other religion or philosophy. No one could have invented it and it would never have been discovered had it not been revealed to us in the pages of the New Testament. It originated in a dominantly monotheistic Jewish world and represents a deity entirely consistent with the God of Israel of the Old Testament.
When Muslims argue a pagan origin for the Trinity the Christian has a great opportunity to witness very effectively to the glory of God and his great work of salvation for us. The unique feature of our doctrine is its threefold personality of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The New Testament writers themselves made no effort to define the Christian doctrine of God or to codify or explain it. They simply proclaimed it! It was left to later generations of Christian scholars to interpret their teachings in a clearly defined doctrine.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul and the other New Testament authors were concerned primarily to project the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to Christian believers. The aim was to call forth a response of faith from the heart and to strengthen it. As pointed out already, God does not want to be defined, analysed or conceptualised as much as he wants to be believed, obeyed and implicitly trusted. He cannot be seen, materialised, computerised or reduced to anything that can be finitely determined. He can, however, be known and the issue between Christians and Muslims is not so much one of his identity but rather of what we most urgently need to secure, namely to be forgiven by him, to receive his Spirit, to personally know him, to become his children and to eventually inherit his kingdom.
In the next section we will look at the best ways of canvassing the Trinity with Muslims and will see why it is better to use this subject as an opportunity for witness rather than one to be argued or proved.
2.5 The Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Muslim: The Quran teaches that mans highest honour is to be a servant of Allah who is our Lord and Master. What is required is that we should obey his laws and believe in the Last Day when we hope he will forgive us our sins.
To a Muslim Gods favour cannot be guaranteed, his forgiveness cannot be assured in this life, and it is not possible to know him or to enter into a personal relationship with him. The Quran says:
There is no one in the heavens and the earth who can come to the Compassionate except as a servant. Surah 19:93
The word used for servant is abd and earlier in the same surah Jesus is recorded as declaring "I am a servant of Allah" (Surah 19:30) where the same Arabic word is used. According to Islam this is the highest status of any man before Allah – no more than a servant to his divine Master and Judge. Hence Muslims believe that they need to live purely as servants of God, working to earn his favour and hoping for his good pleasure on their lives when the great Day of Resurrection comes. Here the Christian has a glorious field to proclaim the Trinity in such a way as to set forth a much greater hope and more glorious God.
The Father: God For Us
According to the Hadith records of Islam Allah has ninety-nine "beautiful names" (al-asma ul husna) which are his attributes. Whoever recites them can expect to enter into Paradise (Sahih Muslim, Vol. 4, p. 1410). The first thirteen occur in order in Surah 59:22-24 and begin as follows: Ar-Rahman (The Compassionate), Ar-Rahim (The Merciful), Al-Malik (The Sovereign), Al-Quddus (The Holy), etc. According to Sufi Muslims Allah has a hundredth name which has been revealed only to the great Sufi masters of history.
I have often suggested to Muslims that, if a name is missing from the hundred names of Allah, it is not the hundredth but rather the first, the commonest title for God in the New Testament – the Father. It is most significant to find that God is nowhere called Father in the Quran or any other work of early Islamic literature. The point is, logically, that if the greatest role men can have towards God is solely to be his servants as the Quran teaches, then he can only be their Master (Al-Malik). The Quran quite simply does not allow for the possibility that we can become children – in fact it states the opposite quite emphatically (Surah 6:100).
When Jesus began to preach, however, he consistently taught that God is the Father of all true believers. This title, given to the first person of the Trinity, tells us that God is for us. If he has become our Father, then we are no longer just slaves and servants of God but his children. It is very useful to compare the roles of a servant and a child with Muslims in conversation. A servant has to earn his keep every day. His master does not necessarily have any affection for him, he only expects him to do his duty. The servant can be dismissed if he does not perform his task properly. He likewise will live outside his masters home in his own quarters. A child, however, knows he is loved by his father and that he will never be dismissed from his fathers home. He does not have to earn his place, he has it by right. He lives in his fathers home in his own room. He experiences a freedom a servant never has because he knows his father is for him. So it is with true Christians who know Gods love personally.
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. 1 John 3:1
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Fathers good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Luke 12:32
It is only by knowing God as Father that the fulness of his love can truly be known and that believers, as his children, can be assured of his goodwill towards them and their place in the coming kingdom.
God the Son: God With Us
Jesus Christ constantly not only called himself the Son of God but also assured his disciples that, through faith in him, they too could become children of God. It is in the willingness of Jesus to lay down his life for us that we see the love of God actually revealed to us. Here, too, is God with us. By taking human form the Son, the Second person of the Trinity, also brought God and man together in a new and unique way. I have often asked Muslims what the greatest act of Allahs love towards them has ever been and have received a variety of answers. Has he, however, ever given of himself to reveal his love for them in the same way that Abraham did when he was prepared to sacrifice his own son as the supreme test of his love for God? Islam has no positive answer to this question. Only in the revelation of the Triune God can you find such a perfect display of love. It is summed up in these words:
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation of our sins. 1 John 4:10
God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
In Jesus we can be assured of the forgiveness of our sins and are able to behold just how great Gods love is for us. Muslims do not know such love. When the Quran speaks of the love of God and calls him the Al-Wadud – the Loving One (Surah 85:14), it means (according to Muslim scholars) only that he expresses approval over those who follow him. It does not mean that he has any personal feelings towards them or that he is prepared to make any sacrifice to show his love towards mankind.
In my experience there are numerous Muslims who warm freely to the Christian revelation of Gods love in Christ. Human beings are capable of expressing the greatest acts of sacrificial love towards those they cherish and many Muslims long to know God in the same way and actually be assured of his eternal favour and personal love towards them. In Jesus Christ alone they can find it, the very one who fulfilled his own saying that no greater love can a man have for his friends than to lay down his life for them (John 15:13). It is our most powerful point of witness.
God the Holy Spirit: God In Us
It is in the third person of the Trinity that Gods love can not only be known, seen but also actually personally experienced. Jesus spoke often of the need to receive him – the Holy Spirit. It is not just some special force or divine power, he is the very Spirit of God and, when he indwells anyone, in a unique way (true only of believers) God himself actually lives in that person. Here we see the third great effect of the revelation of the Triune God – God in us. No wonder the New Testament writers made no effort to define the Trinity or explain it. To know God, to be assured that he is for us, with us and in us, is all that we need to know to fully relate to him. The Spirit gives believers power to live according to Gods holy laws but, more than this, he gives a living experience of Gods presence in us. God sent forth his Son so that we might become his children but, because we are children, he also sends his Spirit into our hearts so that we may actually be able to cry out "Abba! Father!" (Galatians 4:4-6).
When we cry, "Abba! Father!", it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God. Romans 8:15-16
Hope does not disappoint us because Gods love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. Romans 5:5
I have found an illustration very helpful at this point. A couple may decide to adopt an orphan and will go through a legal process to officially confirm the adoption. The child will still not know he has parents and a home but when his new father and mother take him to their own home, show him his room and tell him that the house is his also, thereafter embracing him affectionately, he will know he is no longer an orphan and will personally experience their love for him. This what happens when the Holy Spirit enters our hearts.
There is no better way to explain the Trinity to a Muslim than to show him this threefold revelation of Gods love for us – a revelation that stops at nothing less than perfection itself. It is only in the Triune God that such love could ever be, or has ever been, shown in all its fulness. In the introduction to this book I said that Christians must be Biblical in their witness and nowhere does this apply more importantly than to the subject of the Trinity. Do not let Muslims weigh you down with arguments against the logical reasonableness of the doctrine, nor try to make your point through defective three-in-one illustrations. Use the opportunity to show them that the Triune personality of God was only finally revealed when Jesus Christ came to earth and spoke freely of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was only when the time had fully come for Gods love to be completely expressed in Christ that the true nature of Gods whole being was imparted to us and this is why the New Testament writers focused on this theme and no other when dealing with the Trinity. We will do well to do likewise in our witness to Muslims.
2.6 The Quran and the Christian Doctrine
Muslim: The Quran denies the Trinity expressly. God is only one God – not three as you believe. It is a great blasphemy to say that Allah has any partners. Everything in the heavens and the earth gives glory to him alone.
The great cause of Muslim misconceptions about the Trinity is the complete misrepresentation of it in the Quran. The word "Trinity" also nowhere occurs in this book but it is clear that the Quran is out to oppose the Christian belief in a threefold divine existence, no matter what form it may take. Nonetheless it does not even begin to address the basic Christian belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit but reacts to a perversion of it possibly derived from sectarian beliefs in and around the Arabian peninsula.
The Quranic Threesome: Jesus, Mary and Allah
The Quran quite emphatically rejects the Christian belief as a triad of deities and names them as Jesus, his mother Mary, and Allah – in that order! In three passages this concept is assailed as polytheistic and blasphemous. The first reads as follows:
And do not say: Three. Desist – it is better for you! Truly Allah is only One. Glorified be he above taking a son to himself. Surah 4:171
The word used here for "three" is thalathah, a common Quranic word appearing nineteen times in the book. It always means "three" and cannot be translated or rendered "Trinity". The command not to speak of Allah as a threesome is contained in a passage exhorting Christians generally not to exaggerate in their religion. By contrasting the oneness of God with the threefold Christian deity it is clear that the Quran is unaware of the essential unity of the Christian doctrine of God.
In another passage the Quran actually identifies the three different deities which Christians supposedly worship. Interestingly all three passages which deal with this subject come from the very last portions of the Quran to come to Muhammad and it seems that it was only late in his life that he first heard of a Christian divine threesome without ever having the opportunity to discover precisely what the Trinity represents. The second verse on this subject reads:
They speak blasphemy who say that Allah is the third of three. There is indeed no god except the one God. Surah 5:73
The words used in the first sentence to express the "third of three" are thalithu thalathah. Once again there is no specific reference to the Trinity or any awareness that the Christian God is a Triune being. The distinction, yet again, is purely between one and three with no allowance for a threefold unity. A few verses later the Quran identifies the other two deities in the triad Christians are supposed to worship:
The Messiah son of Mary was only a messenger; messengers before him had passed away. And his mother was upright. They both had to eat food. Surah 5:75
The argument is quite clear. Jesus and his mother Mary were only human beings. Though he was a messenger of Allah others just like him had preceded him. And his mother was no more than a righteous servant of Allah. After all, they both had to eat food to sustain themselves. So how could they be deities along with Allah? The Quran has clearly mistaken the Christian doctrine and represented it as a triad of Jesus, Mary and Allah. It is most significant to find Allah described only as the third of these three. In the Christian doctrine of the Triune God the Father at least has first place!
There were various sects such as the Nestorians, Monophysites and others in the vicinity of Arabia who had confusing beliefs about God, Jesus and Mary but none of them represented the Trinity as consisting of these three. You can see why Muslims think our beliefs are based on the Egyptian Father-Mother-Son family of Osiris, Isis and Horus. What is most probable is that Muhammad was totally unaware of the actual Triune God of the Christian faith and simplistically confused it with pagan beliefs in a Father-Mother-Son triad. If God was indeed the author of the Quran it is hard to see how he could make such a mistake and not even remotely represent the Christian doctrine, held to by all the major Christian churches of the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in one eternal Supreme Being.
The third passage which canvasses the supposed Christian belief in three separate deities is this one:
And when Allah will say: O Jesus, son of Mary! Did you say to mankind "Take me and my mother as two gods besides Allah"? He will say, Glory to you! I would not have said what I had no right to say. If I had said it, you would have known it. You know what is in my mind though I do not know what is in yours. You are the Knower of the Unseen. Surah 5:116
Once again the other two deities are said to be Jesus and Mary. The veneration of Mary has been a major article of Roman Catholic belief and the Ethiopian Church, in particular, has historically revered her as the mother of God. It seems, however, that their excesses and confusion have only resulted in the Quran compounding the confusion! No Christian Church, no matter how much it reveres or glorifies Mary as, for example, the Queen of Heaven, has ever confused the Trinity or made it out to be what the Quran represents it to be.
When Muslims challenge the doctrine of the Trinity and will not allow that it is an expression of divine unity in a different form to the unitarian concept of the Quran it is important to raise these texts as evidence, firstly, that the Quran misrepresents the doctrine completely and, secondly, that it is the source of the erroneous Muslim conviction that we believe in three separate gods.
It is also important to know that the true Christian doctrine was known in Arabia prior to Muhammads time. Edward Glasser, an explorer in Yemen, discovered an inscription there in 1888 in a narrative about the revolt against the Ethiopian rule in the country in pre-Islamic times. The inscription dates to 542 AD – twenty eight years before Muhammads birth – and it reads in Arabic (without vowels which were not written in the Arabic of the time): Rhmn w mshh w rh qds – "(In the power of) the Compassionate, and the Messiah, and the Holy Spirit". Thus the true nature of the Christian Trinity was known in the Arabian Peninsula many years before the Quran ever came to be written and the books total misrepresentation of the doctrine can only be ascribed to Muhammads personal ignorance of Christian theology.
Facing the Muslim Challenge [Table of Contents]
Materials by John Gilchrist
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