If you have ever attended a Muslim-Christian interfaith presentation or had an interfaith conversation with an acquaintance, you may have wondered why your Christian colleague could be so adamant about Jesus being more than a human being—somehow “God”—even though no one can argue that Jesus made an unequivocally clear claim of this for himself.
WHAT’S COMING IN THIS SERIES
IN THIS SERIES, of which this article is the first, we depict for Al-Jumuah readers a Christian defense of a tripartite, or ‘Trinitarian,’ ‘monotheism’ and the process through which Christianity has arrived at such an overtly illogical state of belief—which modern Christians are pressed to justify (unless they adopt a Unitarian position)—in regard to understanding who Jesus (A.S) is in relationship to the One God.
Accurate knowledge is a prerequisite for engaging in fair and effective interfaith dialogue, whether public or private. Few Christians are aware of the philosophical underpinnings of their church’s belief system; even those who can quote their Bibles [in English translation] often do not understand the historical assumptions standing behind the interpretations they have been taught as basic bedrock belief.
If Muslims are going to be able to present the basic tenets of Islam in a way that makes sense to their Christian compatriots, our God-talk must be done from a Muslim awareness of what Christians accept as true, and, in attentiveness to how Christians feel about Jesus (A.S).
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ISLAMIC MONOTHEISM (TAWHID)
We Muslims are clear about how we understand “monotheism,” or, taw ḥîd:
Lâ ilâha illa’Llâh, wa ḥdahû, lâ sharîka lahu.
There exists no [would-be] deity [worthy of worship] other than Allah, alone, without partner or peer.
Following the Quran and the a ḥâdîth of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, Muslims deny the existence of any would-be deity, or ’supernatural’ force, other than ‘the One God,’ exalted and most high—in Arabic ‘Allah’—who alone is behind all that is.
This is a maximally strong assertion—some would say ‘strict’—in the face of the frequent impulse throughout the venture of historically chronicled religion, to materialize the Transcendent One, to make Him ‘immanent’ in the form of a ‘godlike’ person so as to reflect for a community—based on the group’s own rationale, i.e., without revealed authority—who they assume God to be.
When we Muslims talk about taw ḥîd, we mean that this ‘God-without-any-other-gods-besides-Him’ is unique among existent beings, singular in countability, and an undivided whole in terms of who He is and what He does.
In reality, God is closer to His created beings than any two of His creatures are close to each other. His eternal existence depends solely upon Himself, whereas the existence of His creatures depend, likewise, directly upon Him, their Creator. Though unseen by our physical senses in our material world of time and space, He ‘sees’ us and knows us more intimately than we know ourselves.
The Transcendent One maintains the continuance of our lives, for an allotted period of time, during which there are in force, at His discretion, certain physical laws which we cannot ‘break’ without immediate blowback. And, in a parallel fashion, He has ordained for us a moral law which we must strive to keep, within the latitude of a certain amount of free rein.
While not “immanent,” Allah, exalted and most high, does maintain a ubiquitous ‘Presence’ in our affairs: He ‘sees’ and He ‘hears’ all things. He ‘guides’ to the correct way. He ‘makes a way out’ for us from our difficulties.
Yet, He does not Himself, in His Essence, ‘exist’ within our world—not in any empirically observable sense, as would be required by modern Science in order to verify [or falsify] Him. Thus, it is not correct to complain that ‘God is dead’—as certain philosophers or theologians did in the 1960’s, when He was blamed for apparently not acting [in the World Wars, for example] to prevent some of us from mutual massive destruction. On the contrary, He has always existed ‘behind’ His creation, bringing His good out of our bad, while giving us a measured ‘free will’ to corrupt as well as to preserve the good.
By contrast to us Muslims in following our Prophet ﷺ, traditional Christians beginning from their early centuries, have followed not Jesus’ teaching (see quotations from Jesus below), but rather Church theologians—despite seeing themselves as ‘monotheists.’ Instead, the Church has opted for an immanent God-man as central to her worship (unlike its Jewish predecessors), thereby displacing and thus nullifying the uniquely divine status of the purely transcendent Creator.
Atheists, by the way, actually have it right when they argue that God does not exist in the empirically perceptible world as accessible to Science; unfortunately though, atheists wrongly jump to conclude that God therefore does not exist at all—because current Scientific Method has not developed a mechanism able to measure certainty about a physically imperceptible, Unseen realm. As long as anything labeled “metaphysical” is anathema to modern Science, God will remain non-existent in their closed-system, limited-concept world.
For those of us who do acknowledge a whole ‘nother sphere of reality—including the unseen, behind-the-scenes Mastercontrol of our everyday experience—the physical wonders in His created world are signs to encourage our already innate longing to discover and submit to the ways of our Creator, trusting Him for Guidance. We have an inbuilt yearning to live in harmony with the ‘original equipment’ genetically installed within ourselves.
In that veiled world—concerning which we do know a few things, though only a little, through prophetic revelation—Allah, subhanahu wa taʿâla, exalted and most high, has no partner, peer or associate with whom He confers in His handling of affairs. When—to us in our world of time and space—He sometimes sends perceptable [non-human] angels or [human] prophets, they are His servants, submitting to His command.
Angels and prophets are NOT His confidants, or co-creators, or junior deities, or ‘begotten Sons’—not literally, and not even figuratively. That is, He is not ‘begotten,’ and He does not ‘beget’ [112:1-4]—not because there is, or could be, anything impossible for Almighty God, but because replication of Himself is outside the confines of the system in which He has chosen to install us.
Say [to them]: He is only one God–God the Eternal Absolute. He neither begets nor was He begotten, and there is nothing equal to Him. (Sûrat Al-Ikhlâ ṣ, 112:1-4)
He is the One, the exclusive One, the One Who cannot NOT exist, in keeping with the structure of the world in which we live. That is, He must exist by necessity! His existence is the only underived existence, the only real reality (Al-Ḥaqq). He exists independently of all else, and the contingent existence of the world—in which we have a stake and which includes our existence—owes its being to Him.
We do not create ourselves, or conceive ourselves, or give ourselves birth—and, even though we participate in all segments of our lives, only He has the only say in determining the point at which we depart this earthly plane, just as He had the only say in the matter of our coming into it.
While such a plain vanilla understanding of ‘One Deity’ may seem to us Muslims as logically self-evident and beyond dispute, not so in interfaith dialogue with Christians. It is essential for us to be educated regarding the in’s and out’s of Christian doctrine regarding ‘monotheism,’ and how it went through much Greek philosophical tweaking and fine-tuning so as to conform itself to the cultural environment of its early development days.
Inshâ’Allâh, we shall be examining and commenting on several books as a means for us as a Muslim community to get a handle on what will be labeled below, first ‘Christian monotheism,’ and later ‘Christological monotheism’—which to us Muslims (and to our Jewish colleagues) is a contradiction in terms. Yet, to the Christian establishment, this doctrine is received as a brilliantly crafted theological piece of work—well, at least historically it was seen this way centuries ago in the midst of a surrounding philosophically-sophisticated pagan culture.
As a basis for the first part of our exploration of Christian ‘monotheism,’ we look to the University of Durham (U.K.) professor, Dr. James D. G. Dunn in his book, Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? The New Testament Evidence (2010, Westminster John Know Press: Louisville, KY).
Also, we refer frequently to the Bible, which consists of two major divisions: first, what is referred to by Christians as the Old Testament (OT), meaning the Jewish Bible (or, Hebrew Bible), and secondly, the New Testament (NT), which was later added to the OT to comprise the Christian Bible.
Dunn’s in-depth work in the study of this crucial-for-Christians topic, as presented in this 150-page study of his, is an ideal window for us Muslims as an introduction to what Christians believe and feel about Jesus (A.S). The core question tackled in Dunn’s work is a successively developed refinement of the book’s title, namely: How is it that Jesus can be regarded as ‘divine’ and thus be worthy of ‘worship’ alongside God—if the first Christians were truly monotheists in the sense that Jews, Banî Isrâ’îl (including Jesus!), were monotheists?
Dunn quotes the following sayings of Jesus to remind his Christian readers that Jesus—to us Prophet ʿIsa (A.S)—was a ‘Jew’ (that is, a member of Banî Isrâ’îl) and that as such he affirmed the exclusivity of God:
(Bible [i], Mark 10:17-18) As Jesus was starting on his way again, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to receive eternal life?” Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone…”
(Bible, Matthew 4:10) …Then Jesus answered, “Go away, Satan! The scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him!’” (Also: Luke 4:8)
To Dunn’s NT references above we might also add Jesus’ quotation from the Torah:
(Bible, Mark 12:28-29, 32) A teacher of the Law was there who heard the discussion. He saw that Jesus had given the Sadducees a good answer, so he came to him with a question: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replied, “The most important one is this: ‘Listen, Israel! The Lord our God is the only Lord.…The teacher of the Law said to Jesus, “Well done, Teacher! It is true, as you say, that only the Lord is God and that there is no other god but him.
Beyond the Christian-Muslim (as well as Christian-Jewish) interfaith stumbling block regarding ‘monotheism,’ to which Dunn refers (p.1), he himself admits that even Christians themselves commonly find the oneness of God (for us taw ḥîd) compromised if Jesus (A.S) is to be regarded as ‘divine’ and accordingly considered as ‘worthy of worship’ in the same way that God is worthy of worship–since the ‘divine-ness’ or ‘deity’ of Jesus is a Christian belief affirmed in the 4th century Nicene Creed and still confessed today by Christians. (p.1)
The Church Council of 325ce, which met in the eastern Asia Minor city of Nicaea [in present-day Turkey] used carefully crafted language to assert the concept that Jesus was by nature of the same essence as that of the transcendent God—even though many who were present at the Council opposed this view.
This issue continued to be a live political football for decades and a cause for continued violence among the adamant supporters of the two opposing views—to be addressed later in the series, beginning in Part 6.
So, for us wanting to see where Dunn is going to end up in his discussion, we find, right off the bat, his answer-in-a-nutshell to this paradox which he labels ‘Christological monotheism’ (p.4):
What I hope will become apparent is that the first Christians did not see worship of Jesus as an alternative to worship of God. Rather, it was a way of worshipping God. That is to say, worship of Jesus is only possible or acceptable within what is now understood to be a Trinitarian framework. Worship of Jesus that is not worship of God through Jesus, or, more completely, worship of God through Jesus and in the Spirit, is not Christian worship. (p.6) [italics and bold added]
Clearly for us Muslims, this kind of worship (“worship of God through Jesus”) is a blatant violation of basic monotheism (wa ḥdahû lâ sharîkah lahu = “alone, without partner or peer”). Dunn explains that the concept of ‘Trinity’ can make no sense to modern, analytically-minded Christians apart from the Greek philosophical categories in which this ‘credo’ was propounded in the early centuries:
The Trinity is a theological doctrine, meaning a man-made, scholastic explication by religious authorities, positing that there is one ‘Godhead’ consisting of one divine essence but operating in three manifestations or roles (‘persons’) in human experience: ‘Father’ (=God), ‘Son’ (=Jesus) and ‘Holy Spirit’ (=the personified experience of divine guidance and help.
There is an obvious need, says Dunn, for this overt contradiction to be explained to Christians, and that is what he sets out to do in this book, namely, to justify that a Trinitarian formulation of Deity does not mean ‘three gods,’ or, ‘three Gods’ (‘tri-theism’).
‘CHRIST’ AND ‘CHRISTIAN’
Note that ‘Christ’ is a title used in Christian writings referring to Jesus—to which we shall return later in this series—a title which has been loaded with ecclesiastical meaning, that is, meaning infused with the Traditions of Church authorities. The term ‘a Christian’ of course refers to a follower of Jesus understood in the light of the theological (doctrinal) term, ‘Christ.’
LOGIC IN THEOLOGY?
So now, if Christians are truly ‘monotheists,’ as they indisputably and unwaveringly have always claimed, then how can Jesus be the same God as the God to whom the [admittedly human] Jesus prayed?
1. If Jesus is ‘God’ but not the same ‘God’ as the one to whom he prayed, then aren’t there more “God’s” than the one God?
2. If both Jesus and the Creator are ‘God,’ but not the same ‘God’—or at least not ‘God’ in the same sense, and if there is only One God, then aren’t there two separate levels of being the One ‘God,’ or the same ‘God’?
3. Is ‘One,’ then—when applied to God—not really ‘one’ [meaning singular, undivided, unique]? (Perhaps “One” when applied to God means a process of melding together, or ‘uni-fying’ what had previously been three?)
This is a conundrum which commonly arises in interfaith discussion as a logical fallacy and which is usually answered, in good Church Council fashion, through using an analogy of one kind or another, an analogy which depends upon the fluidity of word meanings for its persuasiveness.
For example, does ‘God’ have the same meaning when applied to Jesus as when applied to the Creator? Well, the Christian might logically respond by saying: Jesus is not really ‘God’ (i.e., a noun meaning equivalence to the Creator, that is, ‘the Father’ in Christian terminology) but rather Jesus is ‘divine’ (i.e., a descriptive adjective, meaning that ‘what God was, so Jesus was, too.’ The difficulty does not recede, however:
1. Is Jesus ‘God’ or ‘divine’ in his ESSENCE, being of the same essence as God’s essence? (Does ‘divine essence’ mean the same thing when applied to Jesus as when applied to the Creator, God?)
2. Or, did Jesus live as a human being displaying ‘godly’ CHARACTERISTICS in a perfect way, out of total commitment to God-conscious obedience based on divine revelation?
If the latter, then why not call him a ‘prophet’?! This is what Muslims mean by the term ‘prophet.’ [In fact, some in the early centuries did call Jesus a ‘prophet,’ but they were outvoted and shunned by history. More about such Christians in later installments.]
Unfortunately, ‘prophet’ is not what the Church authorities had in mind in their deliberations during the 4th through 8th centuries—and especially not after the 7th century when Islam had begun to gain converts from among formerly Christian populations.
‘ SON OF GOD ‘ ?
In defining the nature of Jesus, the Church settled on something more akin to the Greek pagan concept of ‘son of an immortal god ‘ [from a human mother], meaning: A person whose spirit or ‘genius’ was supernaturally endowed. This category included figures like Alexander the Great, as well as emperors of Egypt, Rome, China and Japan, who had been honored with a title claiming a ‘sonship’ relationship to the Ultimate Power.
Jesus came to be defined as the ‘only begotten Son’ of God, meaning born of God’s essence, and accordingly worthy of worship. Notice the exclusivity signaled by ‘only’—in effect denying that other mortals had ever belonged to, or attained to, such a state.
Mainline Christians today believe that the One God consists of three ‘persons’: Father, Son and Holy Spirit—a doctrine of the Church which is nowhere found as such in the Christian Scriptures. How can this be? How is it that this Trinitarian doctrine is not a belief in three ‘God’s (—or, more logically ‘god’s)?
FURTHER QUESTIONS TO EXPLORE
Further, what did Jesus—as recorded in the Gospel books of the New Testament—mean when he called God his ‘Father’ and when he referred to himself as ‘son’ in relation to his Father? What is the meaning of ‘holy spirit’ for Christians? These questions, their implications, and corollaries, were all part of Christian history from the early centuries. In a real sense, they remain enigmas for the majority of adherents today. What is behind such issues and why did they arise?[To be continued in PART 2]
[i] Bible references are translations from the American Bible Society’s Good New Bible/ Today’s English Version. 1979. Nelson: New York.