A Trinitarian Apologetic for Islam

FULL ESSAY TITLE: “It is a bit difficult to formulate am apologetic that will in any way be meaningful to the devout Muslim.  To be sure, the Christian is confident of his own stance.  We see unity within the Trinity.  But yet it is theological ground to be covered with awesome quietness and reverential faith” (Phil Parshall, The Fortress and the Fire: Jesus Christ and the Challenge of Islam, Gospel Literature Service, 1975, 14).

In the light of the challenge laid down by Parshall, develop and apologetic approach on Trinitarian theology in relation to Islam, among other matters, giving attention to the ideas of God as Father and Jesus as Son, and the charge of Tritheism which is often laid against Christianity.  (3000 words). 

Introduction

The Qur’an is very clear and unequivocal when it gives its opinion on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.  “So believe in Allah and his messengers, and say not ‘Three’ – Cease! (it is) better for you! – Allah is only One God” (Qur’an, sura 4:171).  And “They surely disbelieve who say: Lo!  Allah is the third of three” (Qur’an, sura 5:73).

In the light of these passages from Islam’s holy book, the task of developing a Trinitarian apologetic can be difficult.  The issue is a very emotive one for Muslims, and to deny what the Qur’an teaches is offensive to them.  However, if opportunity arises, Muslims need to be shown that much of what they believe about Christianity is simply not true; and it should be done “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15 NIV).  Sookhdeo (2004, 74), an Evangelical Christian, advises “No useful purpose is served by unnecessary criticism of him (Muhammad).  Nothing more readily provokes a fanatical outburst than an attack on his character”.

In developing an apologetic that is meaningful to Muslims, the following issues need to be discussed:

  1. False charges made by Islam against Christianity
  2. The biblical doctrine of the Trinity
  3. Practical aspects of Trinitarian belief

 False Charges Made by Islam against Christianity

Before progress can be made in any dealings with Muslims, it needs to be established what Christianity is not.  Muslims have a wrong understanding of what Christians believe on many issues; one only has to go to an Islamic bookshop to see a large array of apologetic books and tapes teaching against the many “errors” of Christianity.  It is quite bewildering to see Christianity indiscriminately represented in Muslim apologetic literature by Liberals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Worldwide Church of God, the Catholic Church, Arius, Ebionites, and many other sects which Evangelical Christianity regards as heretical, and the task of replying to all these is beyond the scope of this essay.  Therefore the essay will look at some of the major and most relevant issues.

The Reliability of the Bible

The Bible, as the record of the teaching of Jesus, the apostles and the prophets, is the foundation of Christian doctrine, and Islam attacks Christianity strenuously at this point.  Their claim is that the Qur’an supersedes all previous revelations from God.  Abd-Al-Masih (undated, 7), an evangelical Christian writer, says, “Muhammad explained that all differences between the Bible and the Kuran are proofs for the corruption of the original revelation…..whatever is not in accord with the book of the Muslims is regarded as corrupt and untrue”.  And Geisler and Saleeb say, “Their accusations fall into two basic categories: first, the text of scripture has been changed or forged; second, doctrinal mistakes have crept into Christian teaching….” (Geisler and Saleeb 2004, 213).

So it is useless to try and argue a point with a Muslim when he doesn’t even believe that the Christian has validity because his authority has been corrupted.  For the present purpose, it is sufficient to say in reply to these accusations, that both Old and New Testaments have overwhelming evidence for their genuineness.  For the Old Testament we have manuscripts discovered at Qumran “that date about a thousand years earlier (150BC) than the other Old Testament manuscripts previously in our possession (which dated to AD 980).  The significant thing is that when one compares the two sets of manuscripts, it is clear that they are       essentially the same, with very few changes” (Rhodes 1997, 24).

Evidence for the New Testament is even more significant.  “There are some 86,000 quotations from the early church fathers and several thousand Lectionaries…there are enough quotations from the early church fathers that even if we did not have a single copy of the Bible, scholars could still reconstruct all but 11 verses of the entire New Testament from material written within 150 to 200 years from the time of Christ” (Rhodes 1997, 22).

Needless to say, these are several centuries before Muhammad was born, and the bible we possess today is the same as that in both the New Testament and Muhammad’s time.

Furthermore the Qur’an itself testifies to the purity of the Bible.

  • The original New Testament is a revelation of God (Qur’an 5:46, 67, 69, 71)
  • Jesus’ words should be believed by Muslims (4:171; 5:78)
  • Muhammad was told by Allah to resolve any doubts about the Qur’an by questioning the Jews and Christians (10:94).{Summarised from Geisler and Saleeb (2004, 217)}

Tritheism 

Of all the charges that Islam makes against Christianity, that of Tritheism reveals most of all how little they understand what Christianity teaches.  Abd-Al-Masih (undated, 5) says “Early in his childhood a Muslim is inoculated with the teaching that Christians worship three gods”.  Caner (2003, 36) describes Tritheism as “the nexus of the Christian-Islamic dialogue”.  And Shorrosh, a Palestinian Christian writer, in commenting on the Qur’an 5:116-117, says, “This particular passage is certainly a powerful one against the heretic Miriamites, who had made Mary a goddess, Jesus her son, and God Almighty her husband.  This definitely is blasphemy and certainly is not accepted by true Christians who believe in the Holy Bible” (Shorrosh 1988, 114).

Christianity has never taught Tritheism; it is most definitely a monotheistic religion (e.g. Deut.6:4; Isa.42:8; 1 Cor.8:6), and has declared heretical any who teach otherwise.

For example, Lactantius (260-330AD), one of the “Fathers” of the early Church, centuries before Muhammad was born, made a similar statement to the above-mentioned sura 5:116-117 from the Qur’an when he said, “He who hears the Son of God mentioned ought not to conceive in his mind so great impiety as to think that God begat Him by marriage and union with a woman, which none does but an animal possessed of a body, and subject to death” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1995, vol. 7, 106).

As Jadeed, an Evangelical Christian, says, “…the statement that Islam attacks Christianity on this doctrine is false.  Islam at the outset did not attack the true Trinity but an erroneous teaching which implied plurality       and polytheism and physical reproduction” (Jadeed, undated, 46).

Meaning of begotten; only-begotten; and first-born 

These terms understandably confront Muslims with the idea that Christ had a beginning and is therefore not God, so they need to be explained.  “It is evident from Matthew 1:20 that Christ was begotten in his humanity but not in his deity.  Christ was God from all eternity (Mic. 5:2), but at Bethlehem He took to Himself an additional nature, namely, a human nature…..It is with reference to the humanity of Christ that the term begotten is used; it could never be used with reference to His deity”  (Enns 1989, 202).

In the same passage, Enns also points out that bible verses such as Ps 2:7, Acts 13:32-33, and Rom 1:4 verify Jesus’ Sonship as a result of the resurrection; that the resurrection did not make him the Son of God; rather, begotten refers to the public declaration of the Sonship of Christ but not the origination of the Sonship.

Only-begotten does not mean origination but relationship.  The Greek monogenes is related to genos (kind, sort), not to gennao (to beget).  The idea of the Son being eternally begotten of the Father comes from the Platonic thinking of Origen.  In verses such as John 1:14, 18; 3:16; 1 John 4:9, most contemporary versions of the bible give the sense of only-begotten more accurately, (e.g. “God the One and Only” John 1:18 NIV) demonstrating that Jesus is unique, one of a kind.

Similarly, in Gen 22:2, God tells Abraham to take his “only son Isaac” and offer him as a sacrifice.  As Abraham had another son, Ishmael, “only son” must mean something else.  Heb 11:17 shows that Isaac was unique because he was the one through whom God’s promise to Abraham would be fulfilled.

First-born (Gk. Prototokos) refers to the position held in the family, that of inheritance and honour.  Col. 1:15 (NRSV) refers to Christ as the “first-born of all creation”, and Rev. 1:5 (NRSV) as the “firstborn of the dead”.      This cannot mean that Christ was the first-created being but rather that he is the     source, ruler or origin of all creation…. So for Christ to be the ‘firstborn of the dead’ signifies not merely that he was the first in time to be raised from the dead but also that he was first in importance, having supreme authority over the dead” (Johnson 1981, 421).

The Old Testament idea of the first-born son in the family was that he possessed the double portion of the inheritance (Deut. 21:17), privilege (Gen. 27:1-4, 35-37), and preferential treatment (Gen. 43:33). However, sometimes something unusual occurred to change this (e.g. Gen. 48:8-20), in which case the literal first-born did not receive the inheritance but the one who did receive it was elevated to the status of “first-born”.  “In Hebrews 1:6 the supremacy of Christ as the first- born is seen in that angels worship him.  Only God is worshipped” (Enns 1989, 203). 

Meaning of Father and Son

The Father is so called because of his relationship to the Son, not in respect of begetting or originating the Son, but in that of the Son’s incarnation and work of redemption.  Luke 1:32 (NRSV) shows that Jesus, in his humanity, would be called “Son of the Most High” because he was the member of the Trinity who would assume humanity for the purpose of redemption.

When Jesus referred to himself as Son of God, far from saying he originated from God, he is actually revealing that he is God and therefore has no beginning.  He is called “Son” because of his unique relationship with the Father, and because he became a human being to accomplish redemption.

In John 5:18, when Jesus called God his Father, the Jews recognized that this was a claim to deity.  When he was tried before the Sanhedrin, his claim to be Son of God and Son of Man (a reference to Dan. 7:13, 14) was again recognized as a claim to deity.  This was Jesus’ understanding of himself, and he demonstrated repeatedly, by signs and wonders, that his claim was legitimate.

Thus, the Father and the Son are equal in all things (Jn. 14:9); there is no inequality implied in these titles.

Other Misconceptions

In an amazing display of what, generously, can only be described as massive ignorance, Mababaya, an Islamic apologist, sets the “Pauline Church”, represented by Catholic Rome and Constantine, against the Unitarian “Apostolic Church” “which conformed to the original teachings of Jesus and all other prophets” represented by the Ebionites, Irenaeus, Tertullian,  and “their real champion…Arius”.  Speaking of the Athanasian Creed, he says “The nature of this creed has for centuries been so controversial and mysterious that even its own author, Athanasius of Alexandria…failed to comprehend and explain it” (Mababaya 1420 AH/1999 CE, 16-22).  This kind of apologetic, which totally misrepresents the truth, is common in Islamic apologetic literature.

Yet the evidence against such apologetic is so overwhelming that one is baffled as to how or why they would make such claims.  For example, Irenaeus’ own writings (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1995, vol. 1, 418-419) show he is clearly Trinitarian when he has the Holy Spirit, as God, showing that the Father and Son are equally God.  Likewise, Tertullian (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1995, vol. 3, 598) clearly defines the three Persons of Father; the Son, His Word, who proceeds from the Father, and who is both Man and God; and the Paraclete; declaring that they are one God.

Erickson (2005, 865), in discussing the divinity of the Holy Spirit, points out that as early as the late second century {Keith (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1995, vol. 9, 227) dates Clement’s letter as AD 97}, “Clement of Rome coordinated the three members of the Trinity in an oath” which says, “For, as God liveth, and as the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost live…” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1995, vol. 9, 246). 

Jesus himself says that he founded a Trinitarian Church (Mat. 16:18; 28:19); while Paul, along with Jesus, taught that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism (Mat. 5:18; Eph. 2: 11-13; Col. 2:16-17) and his message was approved by the apostles who had been with Christ (Gal. 1:11-2:10).

The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity 

Having stated some of what Christianity does not teach, it now remains to state what it does teach concerning the triune God in terms which a Muslim can understand.  Abd-Al-Masih, in paraphrasing what a Muslim should think when hearing from the minarets the phrase “Allah is greater”, says in part (emphases supplied):

Allah is the unique, unexplorable and  inexplicable one – the remote, vast and unknown God.  Everything we may know about him is incomplete, if not wrong.  Allah cannot be comprehended.  He comprehends us” (Abd-Al-Masih 1987, 23).

This begs the question; if Muslims can believe that Allah is comprehensible why can they not believe he is Triune?

Christians believe that God has revealed himself in both the Person of Jesus Christ and in the bible.  That one God should exist in three distinct persons is not easy, or rather, is impossible, for the finite mind to comprehend (Job 11:7).  We can only come to such a belief through revelation.  It is a doctrine to believe, whether one understands it or not.

Diversity in unity

The New Testament writers make it clear that there is only one God, e.g. Romans. 3:30; 1 Cor. 8:6; Gal. 3:20; 1 Tim. 2:5; and Jas. 2:19 are just a few references.  Caner (2003, 36) describes him as “one simple and indivisible unity of divine Being, unchanging and without parts.  But second, this simple and indivisible transcendent being exists eternally through a complex nature.  A diversity exists within the unity”.

The diversity within this unity consists of three divine Persons; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  One attempt to describe the relationship between these three Persons is found in a technical term known as Perichoresis.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit share in the life of, and live in each of, the others, without commingling or coalescing.  Erickson defines it as “the teaching that the life of each of the persons flows through each of the others, so each sustains each of the others and each has direct access to the consciousness of the others……Furthermore, the perfect love and unity within the Godhead model for us the oneness and affection that should characterize our relationships within the body of Christ” (Erickson 2005, 366, 367).

Each Person is called God 

  • That the Father is God can be seen from verses such as 1 Pet. 1:2; 1 Cor. 8:6.
  • That the Son is God can be seen from verses such as John 1:1, 14; Rom. 9:5.
  • That the Holy Spirit is God can be seen from verses such as Acts 5:3, 4; 1 Cor. 3:16 cf. 6:19.

Furthermore, Jesus Christ, as stated in John 1:14; 1 Tim 3:16 etc., became a human being.  The details of his conception and virgin birth are set out in Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-21.  That the Father sent him is evident from Gal. 4:4.  That he died as a human being is evident from Matt. 27:50; John 19:30.  He was also buried, as can be seen from Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53.  That he rose from the grave and ascended into heaven is seen from verses such as John 20: 11-18; Acts 1:9; 1 Cor. 15:3-8.

The truth set out in the above scriptures is the bedrock of Christianity.  Yet to Islam, which claims to be the final expression of God’s revelation to humanity, these same truths are anathema.

  • That Christ should be begotten of the Father, Sura 112:3 says “He begetteth not, nor was begotten”
  • That Christ died and rose is denied by passages such as Sura 4:157-159, part of which reads “We (Jews) slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger – they slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them…..But Allah took him up unto Himself”

The bible’s response to this is that to deny such is the spirit of antichrist (1 John 2:22-23; 4:2-3).

Practical Aspects of Trinitarian Belief

If Christ is not God, Humanity has no saviour.  It is only God manifest in the flesh that is able to pay the full penalty for sin that is required by the justice of God.  He represents humanity as the second Adam.  The first Adam represented humanity in the Garden; when he fell, humanity fell with him (Rom. 5:12).  But Christ, as the second Adam, overcame Satan, sin and death; he condemned sin in the flesh, and brought life to all (Rom. 8:1-4; 1 Cor. 15:21-22).

If the Holy Spirit is not God, again, Humanity has no saviour. Christ offered himself through the Spirit to God (Heb. 9:14); the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Christ and he dwells in us as his temple (Rom.8:9-11; 1 Cor. 6:19); it is by the Spirit that we are born again and have become new creations (John 1:12-13; 3:3-8; 2 Cor. 5:17).

If Muhammad is the fulfillment of Deut 18:15 (Deedat 2004, 24), then Christ is not that Prophet.  If Muhammad is the Comforter (Yusuf Ali 2005, 582, note 5438), then the Holy Spirit is not the Comforter.  Therefore Islam leaves Humanity lost in sin, enemies of God, and destined for hell.

Conclusion 

Jadeed (undated, 23) says that one of the characteristics of Islam was that it could not be described philosophically; there wasn’t even a desire to comprehend him because “no person can understand Allah”.  One name of Allah can negate another, just as one statement in the Qur’an can negate another.  “We are his slaves who have only the privilege of worshipping him in fear”.

It is for reasons such as this that Christians need to be able to explain what the bible teaches about the Trinity, because until Muslims have a correct understanding about God, they cannot be saved (John 20:31).  It is impossible to have a correct view of God without Christ (Jn. 14:6, 9).  He is not merely a prophet, as Islam teaches, he is God himself, revealed in flesh, and he has come to deliver human beings from the wrath of God.  Muslims can never know if they will enter heaven until they stand before God; Christians however, are assured of their relationship with God and of heaven because they have been chosen by the Father, saved by the death of Christ and born of the Holy Spirit.

So we develop a Trinitarian apologetic for Muslims, not so that we can defeat them in debate or dispute but so that they can have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and be saved.

“As someone said of this doctrine (the Trinity): Try to explain it, and you’ll lose your mind; But try to deny it, and you’ll lose your soul” (Erickson 2005, 367).

References

Abd-al-Masih, undated, Who is Allah in Islam?, Light of Life, Villach, Austria

Abd-al-Masih, undated, Why is itn Difficult for a Muslim to Become a Christian? Light of Life, Villach, Austria

Caner, E.F. and Caner E.M. 2003, More Than a Prophet, Kregel, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Clement of Rome, 1995, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, ANF, vol. 9, Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts

Deedat, A. 2004, The Choice: Islam and Christianity, vol. 1, Adam Publishers, Delhi, India

Enns, P. 1989, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Moody, Chicago, Illinois

Erickson, M. 2005, Christian Theology, Baker, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Geisler, M. and Saleeb, A. 2004, Answering Islam, Baker, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Keith, J. 1995, Introductory note to 1st Clement, ANF, vol. 9, Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts

Irenaeus, 1995, Irenaeus Against Heresies, ANF, vol. 1, Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts, 418-419

Jadeed, I. Undated, How Can We Share The Gospel With Our Muslim Brother?, Light of Life, Villach, Austria

Johnson, A. 1981, Revelation, EBC, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Lactantius, 1995, The Divine Institutes, ANF, vol. 7, Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts

Mababaya, M. 1420 AH/1999 CE, Oneness of God, International Islamic Publishing House, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Pickthall, M. (trans.) 1999, The Glorious Qur’an, (Bi-lingual Edition), Enes Matbaasi, Istanbul

Rhodes, R. 1997, The Complete Book of Bible Answers, Harvest House, Eugene, Oregon

Shorrosh, A. 1988, Islam Revealed, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, Tennessee

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