A. THE BIBLICAL DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY.
1. The Scriptural Origin of the Doctrine
Many Muslims believe the doctrine of the Trinity to be the great weakness of the Christian faith and a self-evident falsehood, a concept contrary to true monotheism. Objections to it take many forms and we shall consider the more common ones in this section while briefly analysing the whole nature of the doctrine.
One of the favourite arguments found in Muslim writings on the Trinity is that the doctrine has no Biblical foundation. Although some writers charge Paul with being the founder of the doctrine, for example: "Paul was clever enough not to give any definite direction regarding Trinity but he opened the way that led towards it" (Rahim, Unitarianism in Christianity, p. 13), others say he knew nothing about it at all. One says that "Even St. Paul, who had imported many foreign ideas into Christianity, knew nothing of the Triune God" (Aziz-us-Samad, A Comparative Study of Christianity and Islam, p. 71). Because the New Testament scriptures constantly declare the oneness of God, quoting both Jesus ("the Lord is one" - Mark 12.29) and Paul ("God is one" - Romans 3.30, Galatians 3.20) to this effect, and because the word "Trinity" is not found anywhere in the Bible and was only first used by the great North African theologian Tertullian in the third century after Christ, it is automatically presumed that the doctrine has no Biblical basis.
Sometimes it is suggested that the only text upon which the doctrine can be based is 1 John 5.7 and, because this text is known to be a later addition, it is claimed that there is no other evidence for the doctrine in the Scriptures. We have already shown (on page 276) that 1 John 5.7 is only a description of a doctrine already formulated by the time it found its way into the Latin Vulgate and that there are numerous other texts which plainly teach the fact of the Triune God (Matthew 28.19, 2 Corinthians 13.14, etc.). This is not the place to give a lengthy proof of the doctrine from the Bible, save and except to say that it is unanimously received and accepted by all the major churches of the Christian faith. There is no distinction between the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant movements on this subject, a unanimity which begs the conclusion that the doctrine must be based on the one source common to all three, namely the Bible. It is significant that when Martin Luther broke from the Roman Catholic Church and denounced every practice and belief of that Church which could not be vindicated from the Bible, he at no time questioned the doctrine of the Trinity.
It is true that the New Testament writers made no attempt to explain or define the Trinity, yet this is the only doctrine of God that can be derived from its teaching about the divinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit respectively and the unity that exists between them.
The New Testament writers were more concerned to emphasize the effect of the relationship between the Triune God and his people and the salvation he has wrought for them rather than give a credal definition of his character. I have said before that every Muslim objection to Christianity should be seen as an opportunity for witness and this subject is no exception. When the question of God's triune nature is raised, the Christian has a golden opportunity to witness to just what this means to him in practice - how he has come to know the Father personally, how he has been redeemed through the work of his Son who died for our sins and rose for our justification (Romans 4.25), and how he has come to experience the love of God in his heart through the Holy Spirit which has been given to him (Romans 5.5). The earlier section in this book on the love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit gives a fuller presentation of how the doctrine of the Trinity can be used as a most effective ground for witness.
In other words, your first question should not be how you can present the dogma of the Holy Trinity: it should be either whether you yourself are just wanting to defend an old teaching of the Church, or whether you want to know how best to witness to a faith which genuinely conditions your own life. (Christensen, The Practical Approach to Muslims, p. 417).
The Allah of Islam, as shown in the companion volume to this book (pp. 252-255), appears to be glorified chiefly in his detachment from his creatures. His unitarian transcendence above his creation is essential to his honour and majesty. It is only in the Triune God of the Bible that we find the glory of God most fully revealed in his gracious work of salvation through which he sent his Son - "God with us" (Isaiah 7.14) - to save us from our sins, and thereafter sent his Spirit right into our hearts so that we might be able to call on him as our own Father (Galatians 4.6).
The Triune God of the Bible does not need to be detached from his creatures to maintain his transcendence. While the Father remained in heavenly glory, he nevertheless drew near to us in the person of his Son and his presence in human form on earth. His transcendence was maintained even in his immanence and direct presence among us. It remains so to this day through the Holy Spirit who lives within our hearts while the Father reigns from the throne of heaven with his Son at his right-hand side.
All Muslim objections to the Trinity founded on the suggestion that the doctrine has no Biblical basis should first be met with a proof to the contrary through suitable texts and thereafter be accompanied by a witness to the wonder of the Triune God - the Father transcendent above us, the Son with us, and the Holy Spirit in us - in comparison with the unknowable Allah of Islam.
2. The Incomprehensible Nature of the Triune God.
"Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?" the Apostle Paul asked King Agrippa and all those gathered about him at his trial (Acts 26.8), and we might just as well ask the Muslims, "Why is it thought incredible by any of you that the God who rules this universe is incomprehensible in his infinite and eternal nature?" Another favourite argument against the Trinity found in Muslim writings is that it appears ultimately to be incomprehensible and is therefore "opposed to reason" (Mohammed Sadiq, quoted in "A Moslem on the Trinity", The Muslim World, Vol. 10, p. 410). The Christian defence that the doctrine is vested in a mystery appears to be a clear proof of its untenable nature.
Not so at all. The doctrine is not contrary to reason, it is simply above the realms of finite human reasoning. A Muslim writer wisely says:
If so, why should the incomprehensible nature and mystery of the Triune God be seen as an argument against its reality? Once it is conceded that God's character and nature are above human understanding, surely one should expect to find that the full revelation of his being and personality will baffle the power of the human intellect to comprehend him. Islam's argument that its concept of God's unity must be preferred over ours because it is simpler and more amenable to human understanding seems to us to be a very good reason to reject it' The issue is not whether a doctrine can be reduced to terms relative to human understanding before it can be accepted, it is simply whether it is true or not.
God is who he is, the extent to which he can be comprehended within the limits of the finite human mind has nothing to do with whatever doctrine we should accept.
Another Muslim argument against the Trinity, namely the it was only defined at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, can also be brought in here as it will suggest an illustration t make our response clear. The argument sometimes goes that Go was a unitarian God until the Christian Church turned him in to a Trinity in the fourth century after Christ. Before that date no one believed him to be triune.
Up till the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was universally believed that the world was flat. When Galileo and other astronomers proclaimed that it was round and that the earth was revolving around the sun and not the other way around, they were widely denounced. Yet today everyone believes the earth is round - photographs taken from the moon, voyages around the world both on the seas and in space and the like, must surely convince even the most sceptical that it is so. What happened? Was the world flat until Galileo and others made it round in the seventeenth century? No more did the Council of Nicaea turn a unitarian God into a Trinity. A Muslim writer charges:
Not at all. They were not the creation but the perception of the men who gathered at that famous conference. It took a considerable degree of enlightenment on the part of the astronomers of earlier centuries to discern that the earth was a globe revolving around the sun and rotating on its own axis. The appearances were all to the contrary. After all, good human common sense told the masses that the world was flat, immovable, and that the whole universe was revolving around it.
Things are not always what they appear to be to the limited perceptiveness of the human mind. So it is with the doctrine of the Trinity - the Church did not create it, it discerned that God was a Triune Being, a threefold personality within a single essence and being, and it obtained this discernment purely through a study of the revelation of God in the Scriptures.
God did not become a Trinity, he has been Triune from all eternity. It was only in the fourth century after Christ that the Church was finally able to define this eternal truth.
Before summarily concluding that a concept cannot be true simply because it cannot be readily understood, we should consider that the problem may lie with our lack of understanding, not with the concept. This especially applies to the character of the eternal God of the universe.
We stand untroubled on our testimony that the doctrine of the Trinity ultimately reveals to us an incomprehensible God - yet it at the same time paradoxically presents a knowable God.
The Allah of Islam, in his austere unity, can easily be comprehended within the finite limits of the human mind, yet he cannot be personally known. The Triune God of the Christian faith, mysterious and incomprehensible in his transcendent and eternal nature, is nonetheless immanent and can be known right within the human heart. And this is where the key issue lies - it is not for man to discern the nature of God in his. finite intellect, it is for him to become conformed to the divine image through the knowledge of God in his heart.
Once again the Christian has an opportunity for witness in answering such objections, both to the exalted character of the Triune God and how he has made himself known to us through the salvation he has wrought through his Son Jesus ~ Christ. As the apostle says, we have come to know God, "or rather to be known by God" (Galatians 4.9) through the full revelation of his Triune character in sending his Son to make us his children and thereafter his Spirit to give us a living experience of our filial relationship to him (Galatians 4.4- 6).
3. Unity - The Basis of the Trinitarian Doctrine.
It is always intriguing to find Muslims attacking the doctrine of the Trinity as an innovation of the Church in contrast with the oft-repeated teaching of the Scriptures that God is one. The assumption immediately is that the very existence of three distinct persons does away with any possibility of an absolute unity between them. One writer says:
This obvious oneness is automatically raised as an argument per se against the Trinity. We need to emphasize again and again that we do not believe in three gods but in a Triune God, a tri-unity, a threefold oneness. There are numerous scriptures which testify to the absolute unity of the Father and the Son (for example, "I and the Father are one" - John 10.30) and of these two persons with the Holy Spirit in a single entity (Matthew 28.19), and indeed throughout the Church the testimony has always been "I believe in one God". The distinction between Islam and Christianity lies purely in the extent of that oneness - a simple unity against a more complex one - but not in the oneness itself.
We are back at the question of finite and infinite. We live in a created universe where everything must be defined in finite terms, but its Creator is an infinite being, and it is therefore incumbent on all men not to judge his nature by finite standards. Muslim arguments against the Trinity are invariably based on a faulty premise - that because three people on earth cannot be absolutely one in essence and nature, therefore there cannot be a similar unity in heaven. The infinite God is judged by finite standards. Once it is admitted that he is infinite and cannot be defined in terms relative to the finite order, it must also be considered that his unity may have a different character to that which we would otherwise expect according to all that we see here below. No amount of human common sense or wisdom can define or limit the extent of God's eternal oneness, no finite illustration in all the universe can discount the possibility of a threefold unity in his infinite being.
This brings us to a typical line of reasoning found in Muslim writings, namely that the Trinity cannot be mathematically defined. Joommal argues: "By all rules of Mathematics, three times one equals to three (3 x 1 = 3). But in Christian arithmetic, three times one equals to one! (3 x 1 = 1 )" (The Riddle of Trinity, p. 6). It does not cross the writer's mind that even in mathematics three can be made to be equal to one (1 x 1 x 1 = 1), but we would not seek to endeavour to refute an argument according to its own irrelevant premises. Mathematics has always to do with finite numerals and objects only - it cannot define, multiply, add or subtract to or from infinity. It can only represent infinity by a symbol altogether foreign to its own numerals and one which cannot be divided, multiplied, etc. The mathematical argument is thus a completely inappropriate one. "The Trinity is debated like a metaphysical puzzle and not in its divine significance for our salvation" (Sweetman, Islam and Christian Theology, Part 1, Vol. 1, p. 77). We must lead Muslims away from technical arguments about the possibility of a threefold unity in the Divine Being to a consideration of what is involved in the revelation of that Triune God who has revealed himself to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit - God transcendent, immanent and present within the hearts of those who love him.
The issue comes back as always to the question of revelation. It is sometimes argued that if Christians can believe that there are three persons in the divine unity, why can there not be four or five? The answer must be that God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a threefold unity. The possibility of further personalities is irrelevant so likewise a demand for proof of his threefold unity on any ground other than that of precisely what God has revealed himself to be.
In conclusion let me come back to the question of God's eternal nature. If he is indeed infinite in contrast with the finiteness of all he has created, should we not expect to find the character of his unity to be different to and perhaps more complex than our finite minds would otherwise anticipate? It can well be said that if any religion's concept of God's unity can be readily comprehended within the human mind, it could well have been conceived there in the first place.
Islam's claim to a belief in God's oneness that is both easy to define and comprehend appears to be an argument against its sufficiency and raises the probability that its origin is in human perceptiveness rather than divine revelation.
Christians should not fear to declare their belief in a revealed tri-unity which, to the extent that it may not be easy to comprehend or understand in finite terms, can be explained as the product of divine revelation, one not contrary to human reason but at times beyond its scope and realm.
4. Does the Doctrine have Pagan Origins?
Another favourite argument against the doctrine of the Trinity is that it is based upon polytheistic pagan beliefs. Two Muslim writers charge that it is related to Egyptian mythology and other pagan origins:
We find that in the Egypt of old, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost were Osiris, Isis and Horus whom the Egyptians worshipped long, long before the advent of Christianity. (Joommal, The Riddle of Trinity, p. 5).
I cannot find in either source, or in any other Muslim writing making similar charges, any documentary proof of the argument, least of all any evidence that any of these pagan triads approached anything like a "trinitarian belief" - a threefold unity of persons in one Supreme Being. Another Muslim writer makes a similar claim that the Trinity is based upon Egyptian mythology:
What the author means or understands by the expression "a kind of trinity of gods", only he can know. A threefold plurality of gods is a tritheism; the word "trinity", embodying an essential unity, can only refer to one God. You either have three persons in one God (Trinity) or three gods (tritheism). You cannot have a "trinity of gods"! The very word "trinity" means "tri-unity" and anyone who speaks of a "trinity of gods" shows that he has no basic understanding of the trinitarian concept.
The attempt to relate the Christian Trinity to the Egyptian myths about Osiris, Isis and Horus must flounder on closer analysis. Firstly, the Egyptians worshipped many gods - Nun, Atum, Ra, Khefri, Shu, Tefnut, Anhur, Osiris, Geb, Nut, Isis, Set, Horus, etc., and there were many different Horuses, namely Horus the elder, Horus of Edfu, Horus son of Isis, etc. The mythological family of Osiris, Isis and Horus consisted in a father, mother, son relationship - as far from the Trinity as you can get. It is only wishful thinking that makes anyone attempt to force a comparison between the two. The Egyptians were not trinitarians believing as Christians do in one Supreme Being who is triune in nature and personality. They believed in a host of pagan gods of whom Osiris, Isis and Horus were only a selection, and they certainly did not believe that these three shared an absolute unity.
As we shall see, such family triads are more closely related to the Qur'anic misconception of the Trinity rather than the original Biblical doctrine. Joommal goes on to suggest that "Trinity is also to be found in the Hindu religion of India. The three persons of the Hindu Trinity are Brahma, Vishnu and Siva" (The Riddle of Trinity, p. 5) and in another place he alleges that the Hindus believe that their "saviour-god died for the sins of the believers" (The Bible: Word of God or Word of Man?, p. 104). We are constrained to ask - which of the Hindu deities died for the sins of the Hindus, which one of Brahma, Vishnu or Siva, the Hindu "trinity", laid down his life for the believers and rose again on the third day? The Hindu doctors of religion will surely raise their eyebrows at such strange suggestions, just as we do toowhen the unique Biblical concept of the Triune God is fathered on all sorts of pagan triads and myths.
An historical analysis of the Hindu Brahma-Vishnu-Siva triad shows that it cannot possibly be the basis of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The Upanishads, Vedas and other early Hindu scriptures taught no such thing as a threefold unity between Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. The Vedas recognised at least thirty-three different gods and the three mentioned were quite simply separate gods and in great measure opposed to one another. The relationship between them just cannot be made analogous to the doctrine of the Trinity:
The Trimurti doctrine, in any event, cannot be dated earlier than the fifth century after Christ and one cannot see, therefore, how the doctrine of the Trinity could have been dependent on it. Those who assert that our doctrine has pagan origins will have to give far better proofs and actual chains of evidences to prove such dependence than the kind of vague and faint similarities we invariably find in their writings. The doctrine of the Trinity is quite unique - one which no man could have invented and one which no one would ever have discovered if it had not been revealed to us in the pages of the Bible. None of the pagan triads referred to has anything like the monotheistic foundation that the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity has.
It is also significant that it is only opponents of the Biblical doctrine who use the term "trinity" to define pagan triads, for no objective scholar of the histories of such mythological deities has ever done so.
5. The Misconception of the Doctrine in the Qur'an.
At the heart of all Muslim misunderstandings of the Trinity is the Qur'anic misrepresentation of it as a triad of deities, being Jesus the Messiah, his mother Mary, and Allah - in that order. The word "Trinity" nowhere appears in the Qur'an either but it is clear that the book sets out to oppose Christian belief in a divine threesome, no matter what that belief ultimately may be. In three places we find this belief attacked. The first reads Wa laa taquuluu thalaathah - "And say not 'three"' (Surah 4.171), an exhortation to Christians not to exaggerate in their beliefs. The word thalauthah is a common Qur'anic word appearing some nineteen times in the book and it always means, quite simply, the number three. The only other place where the Qur'an speaks of Christian belief in a divine threesome is:
I have deliberately quoted Professor Arberry's translation here rather than Yusuf Ali's for the latter appears to have purposefully mistranslated the text. His rendering of the first part reads "They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a Trinity". It is in this conscious mistranslation that the author seeks to hide the Qur'anic misconception of the Trinity. The Arabic reads that the unbelievers say innallaaha thaalithu thalaathah which, correctly translated, can only mean what Arberry takes it to mean, namely that Allah is the third (thaalithu) of three (thalaathah), that is, that he is considered to be the third god in a tritheism. Hence the rebuke in the next sentence, "No god is there but the One God!" Who, then, are the other two gods? Two verses further down we find them named:
The argument just cannot be missed or mistaken. The Messiah was only an apostle, his mother was only a chaste woman, and they both had to eat food to sustain themselves - how then can they be considered as two gods alongside Allah? The Qur'an, therefore, quite obviously takes the Christian belief in a divine threesome to be a tritheistic belief, an adoration of three gods being Jesus, Mary and God, and in that order, God clearly being said to be only the third of the three. How far the Qur'an is from the true Christian belief in the one true God who is triune, the personalities in order being the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Muhammad certainly misunderstood the doctrine and regarded it as tritheistic. (Bell, The Origin of Islam in its Christian Environment, p. 7).
The third passage of the Qur'an and the only other one which touches on Christian belief in this connection reads:
Once again we find the same thing - Jesus and Mary as gods alongside Allah. The verses following make it quite plain that it is the Christians, the followers of Jesus, who are charged with holding such a belief in three gods. Today Muslim writers resort to all sorts of expedients to get around the plain declaration of the Qur'an that Christians believe in a tritheism of Jesus, Mary and Allah. Yusuf Ali's mistranslation of Surah 5.76 is a good example where he takes the simple words thaalithu thalaathah to mean "one of three in a Trinity" instead of what they can only mean, namely "the third of three". The great Muslim commentators of earlier centuries, however, were in no doubt as to what was being opposed in the Qur'an in the verses we have quoted. They were quite convinced that Surah 5.78 and Surah 5.119 represented Jesus, Mary and Allah as the Christian threesome.
God, Mary and Jesus - these are quite obviously the persons Muhammad understood as forming the threesome of which he had obviously vaguely heard and could not fully understand. It is most significant that all three verses occur in some of the very last surahs of the Qur'an to be "revealed", indicating that it was only late in his mission that he first heard of Christian belief in a divine threesome. Another great and famous commentator, Zamakhshari, says on the word thalaathah in Surah 4.171:
The learned Muslim scholar was in no doubt that the Qur'an was attacking a tritheism of Jesus, Mary and Allah - a concept indeed far closer to the pagan triads of old than the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity. The obvious question arises - where did Muhammad get the idea that Mary was believed to be one of the three persons the Christians held to be divine? The answer is most probably that the excessive veneration given to her by the erring sects of his day in and around Arabia led him to believe that she was also held to be divine and associated with Jesus and God.
There are many writers who question whether it was one of the sects of the eastern Christian world that gave rise to this error in the Qur'an and it is suggested that it was the general contemporary belief of the Roman Catholic and Byzantine Orthodox Churches that Mary was theotokos ("mother of God") together with the universal homage paid to her at the time that caused Muhammad to take her as one of the three divine personalities. One such writer says:
Either way it was obviously the popular veneration of Mary in contradiction of the teaching of the Scriptures that she was only, as the Qur'an well puts it, "a woman of truth" (Surah 5.78), that led Muhammad to misconceive the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
When all is said and done, however, we are left with a patent error in the Qur'an. Whatever Muslim apologists may say in their attempts to circumvent this error, it does not appear to us that an objective study of the three verses quoted can lead to any other conclusion than that Muhammad had a limited and defective knowledge of the doctrine of the Trinity and mistook it as a tritheism of Jesus, Mary and Allah.
Nothing but the most profound ignorance of the Bible and of the true nature of Christianity can account for the fact that Muhammad evidently believed the Virgin to be one, of the Persons in the Holy Trinity. (Tisdall, The Religion of the Crescent, p. 169).
From this misconception come all the Muslim arguments against the Trinity. I have yet to find a Muslim writing on the subject that allows the possibility that the doctrine is consistent with monotheism. Such an allowance would be perfectly consistent with the doctrine as it is set forth in the Bible, but would be inconsistent with the Qur'an's insistence that the Christian belief is tritheistic rather than trinitarian, hence the allowance dare not be made.
There is ample evidence to show that the true doctrine was known in Arabia and that Muhammad could have ascertained its real nature. The Christian King of Yemen, Abraha, who lived and reigned shortly before the time of Muhammad, wrote an inscription at Marib describing certain events relating to his conquests in the region. The inscription began with a tribute to the Trinity.
The actual tribute, recorded in basic Arabic consonants only, reads Rhmnn w mshh w rh qds (Trimingham, Christianity Among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times, p. 301) which clearly means that it was in the power of the "Merciful One" (ar-Rahmann) and his "Messiah" (wal-Mashih) and the "Holy Spirit" (war-Ruhul-Qudus). Thus there is clear evidence that the true doctrine of the Trinity was known in the Arabian Peninsula.
There is no evidence that any Christian sect actually believed that the Trinity consisted of God, Jesus and Mary, least of all that God was the third of these three, although there were a number of sects which venerated Mary almost to the point of deifying her, such as the Collyridians. The Nestorians, however, widely distributed in the regions of western Asia, believed that Mary was indeed no more than a woman "and that it was an abomination to style her, as was the custom of the church, the Mother of God" (Irving, The Life of Mahomet, p. 51). Whatever confusion existed about her status among Christians only seems to have been compounded rather than corrected in the Qur'an.
No Christian should fear making a defence of the doctrine of the Trinity to Muslims and should always use the opportunity to witness to the manner in which God has redeemed us through the work of his Son and the presence of his Spirit in our lives. In fact, once a Muslim is himself put on to the defensive to explain the Qur'anic teaching on this subject, the Christian evangelist will find that the doctrine itself can be far more easily justified than the Qur'anic misconception of it. Our doctrine is the true doctrine, the true God is indeed the Triune God of the Bible - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and we need never fear standing on the rock of this revealed eternal truth.
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