by Ernest Hahn
Some time ago the Canadian media noted and commented on statements of the Rt. Rev. Bill Phipps, Moderator of the United Church of Canada, in which he expressed doubts about the divinity of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead. The number of media statements and reader (listener) responses clearly indicate a general interest - perhaps at times a disgust - in the concerns which the Moderator has raised.
Not surprisingly, a Muslim, Mahmood Kara, wrote in response:
All praise belongs to Allah. Congratulations to the Moderator of the United Church, Bill Phipps, for rejecting the divinity of Jesus. The prophet Mohammed has taught and Muslims have espoused the same beliefs and values since the seventh century... (The Globe and Mail, November 22, 1997)
Also recently, some Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan, plainly demonstrated their rejection of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation during a meeting between Muslims and Christians at Dearborn's Islamic Institute of Knowledge which Muslims had organized and in which they had invited L.C.M.S. Pastor Kenton Gottschalk to debate with them on the topic "Is Jesus God?"
Why do Muslims reject the Biblical and traditional Christian confession of the divinity of Jesus? Many Muslims might point especially to Quranic passages which deny that Jesus is a second god, or that He and Mary are second and third deities alongside God - as if such passages virtually indicate that Christians have been and even today are tritheists! In Islamic language God has no partner or partners. "How can He (God) have a child when there is for Him no consort... (Qur'an 6:102)? God is one!
In the light of this common Muslim understanding - or misunderstanding - of the Incarnation and the Trinity (tri-unity), we have enclosed, along with this letter, a tract "God Is One" for you to share with your Muslims friends and to assure them that Christians believe in one God only, not three gods!
How, then, to relate Jesus to God or God to Jesus? Biblically, we will remember that Jesus is also human; or, more specifically, that the eternal Word or Son of God became Jesus, a human being, through Mary and therefore was called the Son of Mary. As verse two of the hymn"Savior of the Nations, Come" reads:
Not of human seed or worth,
But from God's own mystic breath,
Fruit in Mary's womb begun
When God breathed the Word, His Son.
Serious confession of Jesus must link Jesus' humanity with His deity - the eternal Word become human and then called Jesus - and understand Him as"mighty God and man in one" ("Savior of the Nations, Come"). Sadly, this conjunction seems to be absent in the Moderator's statements about the person of Jesus in orthodox Christian confession, at least in the media statements I saw. In short, the question "Is Jesus God?", if meant to suggest that Jesus is either God or human, i.e. He cannot be both, is downright misleading, given that traditional Christian doctrine (Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) has affirmed consistently that Jesus Christ is both God and man.
Then how can we relate Jesus to God in a more intelligible manner to Muslims? Since masses of Muslims have been taught that the term "Son of God" as a designation of Jesus is blasphemy, it may be very helpful to remember:
Muslims themselves, with the help of the Our'an, offer us further assistance in explaining Jesus' relation to God. This help was forthcoming when the Muslim community, during the first few centuries after Muhammad's death, developed greater theological maturity and began to move beyond their simple confession against polytheism that God is one, to concerns about who this one God is in Himself and in relation to His creation. In their protracted discussion on the relation of God's several attributes to the essence or being of God they focused on one particular attribute, i.e., God's Word, and the relation of God's Word to God Himself and to the Qur'an.
True, Muslims agreed, the Qur'an is a book. But, they reasoned, the Our'an speaks about itself as a revelation from God and the Word of God; therefore it must be a special book, even more than a book.... But if more than a book like other books, then what? At this point Muslims began to differ among themselves. Some Muslims, known as the orthodox, affirmed that all God's attributes, including His Word, were eternal and uncreated; thus it naturally followed that since the Qur'an was the Word of God and the Word of God was eternal and uncreated, therefore the Our'an was eternal and uncreated!
However, other Muslims, called Mutazalites, objected. Against the orthodox Muslims - as against Christians - they contended that only God is eternal and that a plurality of eternals residing within the eternal being or essence of God would destroy the pure unity of God. In fact, they called themselves "The People of (God's) Unity and Justice" in order to distinguish themselves from other Muslims. They therefore concluded that the Qur'an is finite and created.
Eventually the orthodox Muslims prevailed, though the conflicts generated from discussions on the nature of God's unity really have never been resolved. According to a widely accepted orthodox Islamic definition, the Word of God, eternal and uncreated (like all God's attributes), is not He nor is it other than He. Likewise the Qur'an as the Word of God. During a recent Muslim-Christian meeting in Waterloo, Ontario, it came as no surprise to hear a Muslim clearly affirm that whoever denies that the Our'an is uncreated, blasphemes. He was only echoing a centuries old vital Muslim belief. (How would the Moderator of the United Church respond to that?)
Thus - certainly unknown to most Christians and probably even to many Muslims today - orthodox Islam holds that the Qur'an has two natures, i.e., it is uncreated and it is created. In fact, both orthodox Muslims and orthodox Christians confess that God is eternal and God's Word is eternal. They differ, however, in the way that God's Word appeared in this world. According to Islam, the eternal Word of the eternal God became a book, the Qur'an. According to Christianity, the eternal Word of the eternal God became a human being, Jesus. If God could will that His infinite Word become a book, the Christian might ask, then could God will that His infinite Word become a person, Jesus the Messiah? If God's Word embooked is neither irrational nor a distortion of God's unity, then what about God's Word becoming flesh, incarnated?
Why this complicated dissertation, you ask. We do appreciate your question! Yet how, otherwise, to make vital Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity and the Sonship of Jesus, more intelligible and meaningful for Muslims? What to do when, clearly, our task with Muslims involves addressing not only their lack of understanding but their misunderstanding of these doctrines? What to do when, clearly, multitudes of Muslims - well-intentioned Muslims also - glibly dismiss these doctrines as nonsense: In no way does 1+1+1=1.
John 3:16 - for Christians the essence of the Gospel - is for Muslims the essence of blasphemy. Why? Not because they have understood the Biblical meaning of Jesus' Sonship, but because they have been instructed that God has no son because He has no wife. How many Muslims know that the "trinity" and "the sonship of Jesus" they reject, Christians also reject; that the Trinity and Sonship of Jesus the Bible affirms, the Qur'an does not reject specifically? And how many Christians know this? Praise God that once more this Christmas we can sing:
Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come, Offspring of a virgin's womb,
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see! Hail incarnate deity!
Pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!
("Hark! the Herald Angels Sing")
For those interested in more information on the above topic, please write us for the following brief statements which can be shared with Muslims:
1. Is Jesus the Son of God?
2. Is Jesus God? (An introductory response to a frequent question)
3. Introducing the Muslim to the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity
Other articles by Dr. Ernest Hahn
Answering Islam Home Page