Rectifying “Monotheism” In Interfaith Exchange – Part 23

Rectifying Monotheism In Interfaith Exchange - Part 23

The Christian’s Gospel according to John is prefaced with a Greek philosophy-oriented ‘Prologue’ (John. 1:1-18), which we have referenced repeatedly in this series. According to this passage, a supposed, one-time embodiment of God in human history—what is said to have become God’s “Incarnation” into human flesh, i.e., Jesus (John. 1:14)—was God’s pre-creation companion, His other self, His right-hand man, so to speak. This supposed “divine” expression—or “manifestation,” or even materialization of God—was “with God” and was “the same as God” and “at the Father’s side”–according to Church doctrine.

All such speculation about someone/something “like” God, or identified with God in substance or essence, is totally out-of-bounds in Islam:

Say: He is God. One. God, the Everlasting Refuge. He does not beget. Nor is He begotten. And comparable to Him, there is none. [Surat Al-Ikhlas, 112:1-4]

Yet this violation, in John 1:1-18, of God’s ‘oneness’ (Arabic term, shirk—the association of ‘partners’ with God) must be understood for what it is, if the Muslim is to understand and be understood in discourse with our interfaith partners.  While few Christians will be up-to-speed on their theological history, the ‘orthodox’ belief system worked out over the centuries by Church authorities informs every individual’s understanding of Jesus and the Pauline doctrine of salvation.

How would the resourceful 4th century Cappadocian theologians (see Part 22) handle this mystery-paradox?

Page references are to Richard E. Rubenstein’s best-selling book, When Jesus Became God, The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome, 1999. Harcourt/Harvest: New York.

Solution to ‘Three Divine Beings’ vs. Jesus’ Monotheism

The previously developed doctrine of the Trinity had opened further questions; the vigorous Arian controversy had left this illogicality of a ‘tri-une’ (three in one) God unanswered.  Rubenstein thus characterizes the ‘solution’ achieved by the three 4th century Cappadocian “Fathers” of the Byzantine Church tradition, Basil and the two Gregory’s (Rubenstein, pp. 205-209):

Oddly, what triggered this burst of creative thinking–in a classical Greek context and using Greek terminology–was the appearance of a new issue that threatened to make divisions within the Christian community even more contentious and complex: the nature of the Holy Spirit. As Basil pointed out, the growing debate about the Holy Spirit (which most Christians conceived of as some sort of spiritual ‘person’ or ‘Him’) recapitulated the controversy about the nature of ‘the Son.’  The radical Arians were certain that, just as the Son was inferior to the Father, the Spirit was inferior to the Son.

…  the corrective was to distinguish clearly between ousia and hypostasis, essence and being.  The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are three separate beings, each with his own individual characteristics—they are three hypostases.  But they are one and the same in essence—they are homoousios.  …

The conservative Arians were placated to some extent by Gregory of Nazianzus ’ statement that the Father was “greater” than the Son in the sense that the Son derived his “equality” and “being” from Him. …

…to many skeptics, the new theology’s most troubling feature was that, in redefining the relationship of the Father to the Son, it altered the Christian understanding of God. …

What the Cappadocian theology did was to make it clear that if Christ was fully divine, God could not be primarily a Father, but must equally be a Son and a Spirit. …

Clearly, there was some tension between this idea of a God “distributed” over three equal Persons and the notion, mentioned earlier, that God as the Father is in some sense “greater” than God as the Son and Holy Spirit.  The tension, according to some commentators, was never resolved. …

This vagueness may have helped bring the conservative Arians into the fold, since they could still affirm that God’s Fatherhood was more powerful or causative than His Sonship.  Even today, many Christians who consider themselves orthodox conceive of God “primarily” as a Father.  But the real thrust of the Cappadocian doctrine was to differentiate the Christian “Godhead,” which now incorporated Jesus and the Holy Spirit, from the monolithic God worshiped by Jews, radical Arians, and, later on, by Muslims, Unitarians, Baha’is, and others.

Clearly, in contradistinction to all of the Church’s subsequent theologizing, Jesus is unambiguously represented in the Gospel record of the New Testament as quoting the ‘Shema’ as given to Moses to convey to Bani Isra’il:

Listen Israel, the Lord our God is the only God, the Lord alone; the Lord our God is one. (Deuteronomy 6:4; Gospel of Mark 12:29)

Moses’ message had included these words:

The Lord said, “…Worship no god but me. …I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals…. (Deuteronomy 5:5-9)

The monotheism of Jesus neither suggests, nor allows, a three-in-one ‘God-Head’ such as constructed by later ‘Church Fathers.’

‘Manifestation’ of God?

Now a brief aside regarding the “monotheism” of the followers of the Bahâ’i Faith since they are mentioned by Rubenstein in the quote above and since we often find them in our interfaith gatherings:

Bahâ’î’s, as they call themselves, follow the nineteenth century Persian, Mírzá Husain-CAlí Núrí (self-proclaimed ‘Bahâ’ullah’—translated as “Glory of God”), thinking of him as what they term  a ‘manifestation of God.’ This concept of ‘manifestation of God’—as extended to include their modern-day, God-in-the-flesh-guide (Mírzá Husain-CAlí Núrí), I take as an attempt at refinement of the continuing Arian Christian viewpoint, as applied originally to a concept of a ‘divine’ Jesus—plus some threads of Gnostic Manichean universalism, emerging from the historical roots of both movements in Persia (Iran).

In spite of the Bahâ’î leadership’s stated allegiance to the concept that no one and nothing can adequately express the essence of God, this concept of “manifestation of God” is by no means to be regarded as if it has successfully avoided shirk.  Let Bahâ’î adherents consider this:  What could be the distinction between (a) Paul’s Christ as the “visible likeness of the invisible God” (Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, 1:15) and (b) what Bahâ’i’s term a “manifestation of God”?  Such metaphors, as with Philo’s Logos, are notoriously open to ambiguity and misunderstanding on the part of their adherents!

According to Bahâ’i academics, the term “manifestation of God” was used by Mírzá Husayn-CAlí Núrí to indicate his claim to be an intermediary between humanity and God, with both human and divine functions in advancing mankind’s morals and civilization; he is said to have had the qualities of a common man—with human limitations, as well as a presence that revealed God’s attributes. At the same time, he is said to have overtly disclaimed any revelation of God’s essence, affirming that God’s essence could never be manifest in our world.

But here is the telling litmus test:  Since Bahâ’is are encouraged to “call upon” Bahâ’ullah as an intermediary with God—in the same way that Christians ‘call upon’ Christ Jesus as an intermediary (Part 1-Part 7 of this series), aren’t both equally in violation of true monotheism as taught by Jesus himself in the New Testament (NT) Gospel narratives!

And this Bahâ’i concept of “manifestation of God,” isn’t it a violation of monotheism even in terms of its definition as carefully crafted in the Bahâ’i writings?  The man who called himself ‘Bahâ’ullah,’ according to Bahâ’i history—at  its various stages—claimed to be the return of the Shi’ite Imam Husain, later also the return of Jesus/ CIsa, as well as, later,  a newly revealed ‘messenger of God’—though never  did he call himself a “prophet”!

As a former associate of Shi’ite clerics, Mirza Husayn-CAlí Núrí judiciously delayed overt proclamation of such assertions until his exit from Muslim lands.  Members of the Bahâ’i Faith emphasize a universalist approach to religion and mutual tolerance of all peoples; so they are naturally attracted to participating in university interfaith gatherings.

Thus, it is good for us to be aware of their background teachings, most especially as it impinges upon monotheism—in fact at the very heart of “Laa ilaha illa Allaah.”  When anyone associates his spiritual guide with God and intimates that s/he is ‘one with’ God’s essential being— regardless of the religious label claimed by the associator (and self-proclaimed Muslims are not to be excluded)—that person thereby puts his action into the category of shirk. Such ‘associationism’ degrades both God and the supposed ‘prophet,’ ‘reformer,’ ‘guru,’ ‘manifestation of God’ or ‘Son of God.’  May Allah be merciful to us all and lead us away from such wrong concepts! For such warped ideas of Allah are seemingly as rife in the modern world as in ages past.

Re-Defining God: the ‘God-Head’

We return to Rubenstein and his analysis of the Cappadocian contribution to resolving the Church’s 4th century theological quandary:

But the real thrust of the Cappadocian doctrine was to differentiate the Christian ‘God-head,’ which now incorporated Jesus and the Holy Spirit, from the monolithic God…   Restating the relationship between Father and Son, in other words, redefined both parties, not just the Son.  As a result, Christians who accepted this triune God, distributed over three Persons, no longer shared Jehovah with their Jewish forbears or the Supreme Being with their pagan neighbors, nor could Jews or pagans claim to believe in the same God as that worshiped by the Christians.

Doctrinally, this is the point at which Christianity breaks decisively with its parent faith and with other forms of monotheism that, insofar as they use family metaphors, consider God [to be] a Father and the persons created in His image [to be] Sons and Daughters.

 For Nicene Christians, incorporating Jesus into the Godhead was a way to preserve and extend the worship of Christ without sacrificing monotheism.  For others, defining Jesus as ‘God incarnate’ sacrificed monotheism by definition.  It was not just a question of Jesus being recognized as God, but of God becoming Jesus.  (pp. 209-210)

Note again how the Quran addresses the logical bottom line of the Church’s ill-fated decision to follow Paul:

Indeed, the truth deny they who say, “Behold, God is the Christ, son of Mary.”  [Sûrat Al-Mâa’idah, 5:17]

In spite of his religious tolerance, the Roman Emperor Valens had been pro-Arian, and when the anti-Arians—the ‘Athanasians’—continued with their militant determination to root out the heretical Arians, the sovereign put his foot down on their intrigues and ensured that Arian proponents were installed in key bishoprics.  Then, when the Roman army under Valens crossed southward over the Danube River and was decisively defeated in August, 378 at Hadrianopolis (Thrace), his Nicene opponents celebrated God’s judgment on the Arians.  (pp. 211-218)

Becoming ‘God’ – A Model for All!

But most depressing in the wake of this development of Cappadocian doctrine was the conclusion that a Trinitarian (divine) Christ was needed as a guarantee of physical and spiritual security—not an Arian Jesus, who could do no more, they believed, than to inspire moral progress toward development of their own innate potential for ‘divinity’ (p. 219).

Truly the teaching of Jesus had become a mere platform for Pauline interpretation and transformation to a mystery-cult format for the Church to pick up and re-think in philosophical terms–to serve as a glue for a continuing hegemony of the Roman Empire!

As blasphemous as the anti-Arian, Trinitarian, position was, the Arian opposing stance, too, was sorely lacking in its understanding of tawHîd, or, straightforward ‘monotheism’:  According to the Arians, just as Jesus had become ‘God’ by his perfection of life, so too, they believed, those who believed in Jesus could achieve their own ‘divinity’ by imitating his righteous life! (pp. 219, 229-230)

God vs. Godly

By contrast, our Islamic concept of taqwa, ‘God-consciousness’ or ‘God-fearingness’ makes no such pretentions to our ever becoming ‘divine’ or ever being other than a divinely-created servant of Allah, dependent upon Him and committed to worshipping Him alone. Our greatest ambition, as His creatures, is rather to follow the example of our Prophet in this life and to rest eternally near to Allah, in His presence, in the Hereafter.  Our challenge to Christians is for them to take seriously the meaning of clear-cut uniqueness and sole singularity of the One God. God alone is deity; the unique and only deity is the wholly and utterly indivisible God.

To be continued, insha’Allah, in Part 24

Written By

Growing up Christian, Dr. Linda Thayer came to realize in her teens, that Jesus as 'divinity' and Jesus as the second 'person' of a 'Godhead' (the doctrine of the 'Trinity') were philosophical constructs, evolved later and not part of the New Testament Gospel books' portrait of the Son of Mary. In her 30's, when working as Bible translations consultant and linguistic advisor in West Africa, she had already added all things Islamic to her reading list, along with Biblical Studies. She has three university degrees in linguistic science (BA, MA, PhD), with a minor in anthropology. She believes that her fellow Muslims need to be current with the thinking and findings of modern Biblical Studies in order to meet Christians halfway in understanding the prophetic mission and personal nature of Jesus. To this end, she writes of the historical phenomenon of the Jesus movement from an interfaith perspective that dovetails with the Quran and ahâdîth.

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