Of Gods and Men
This post stems from the abundance of misinformation and subterfuge that is passed off as Christian doctrine around the internet by Muslim apologists. I would rather believe that they just sincerely lack the basest understanding of the Christian religion than to think that they, with full knowledge, lie and mislead their Muslim audience in such a fashion. I say this because I have yet to hear or read of any Muslim apologist that can state, for example, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the incarnation, the idea of the Christian liberty, etc. as Christians themselves believe these and then attack it with any semblance of logic to show that, as Christians believe these things to be, they are wholly unintelligible (Here’s looking at you Ahmed Deedat, Zakir Naik, Shabir Ally, Joshua Evans etc.) and just plainly wrong. What’s worse is that I find the same lack of understanding from Christian converts to Islam, to the point where I have to honestly wonder whether it was their lack of knowledge which led to their apostatizing (Hosea 4:6) or whether all their prior knowledge on these matters is somehow dissolved in the process of their recitation of the Shahada? Therefore this post is dedicated to help dispel some common myths on the matter of Christian doctrine.
edit: In the course of writing the above preamble, I was drawn into a brief discussion with a Muslim Imam on the subject of truth and during this discussion, I was once again astounded by how little most Muslims know of the Christian doctrine and yet how readily they take it upon themselves to argue their position as if they held any level of proficiency in the field. More importantly, the Imam goes on to make some scathing mistakes that a simple discussion with a Christian or a bit of study could have fixed. Herein I should mention that in writing this little aside, I simply state what is demonstrably the truth and do not intend to belittle the person. The Imam may certainly know much about Islam, but by his comments it is clear that he has misunderstood Christianity.
1. The Holy Trinity:
If we are to begin anywhere, I suppose that this would be the best place to start seeing as it is the most contentious and the most misunderstood doctrine of all. Yet we Christians are partly to blame for this given that the average Christian will incorrectly define this most important doctrine in a manner reminiscent of Tritheism (which just so happens to be the misunderstanding which Muhammad and his Qur’an possessed of it) or Modalism. At this time it is not my intention to highlight the many references in the Old—and especially the New—Testament for the validity of this doctrine per se, but rather just to detail an explanation of what it is. Here is an excerpt of the Athanasian Creed which highlights the Christian understanding of the Trinity:
And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. […] So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. — Athanasian Creed
Christians believe in one God eternally existent in three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. None of these persons precede the other, nor is God divided into three parts so that each person is 1/3 God—no, the LORD our God is one—indivisible and supreme. Each member is fully and completely the one LORD. This is because there is a mutual indwelling between each person so that each is present in the other (John 14:8-11). Hence where one is, the others are as well. This mutual indwelling, while making possible the complete unity (in every imaginable way) between the members of the Godhead, does not mitigate the individuality possessed by the persons themselves. As such, the Godhead is made up of 3 distinct persons, yet not 3 separate persons.
At this point, one must tackle the common objection that all this talk of threeness betrays the Christian’s secret polytheistic proclivities. In my personal experience, this is perhaps the first question I am asked, “how can God be three?” There are many variations of the aforementioned question yet from what I have encountered, my discussions reveal a certain dishonesty on the part of the Muslim. Before I continue, I wish to make clear the fact that I do not insinuate that all Muslims are deceiving nor even that the majority of them are, but rather that in my personal dealings, this fact has shown itself to be true (as the reader will soon see) time and again. Now the nature of the question on the simultaneous oneness and threeness of God lays in the problem of how three things can be one yet not in themselves be identical with each other. As daunting a task as an explanation that entails such a matter of overwhelming complexity might be to undertake, the Bible quite clearly tells us that God has not left us in the dark—even when it comes to his very being.
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. — Romans 1:20 KJV
The above tells us that we can look to what the LORD has created in order to glean an understanding of his person and qualities. Therefore, with that understanding, let us tackle the challenge of reinterpreting the Trinity in simpler means through examples which God himself has seen fit to give us. Now, there are three ways in which I’d like to explain the Blessed Trinity yet they all rely on the same principle.
- Time: Let us take the example of time as a concept. As the concept of time is in itself, we have the simultaneous existence of the past, the present, and the future. The past is not the present, the present is not the future, and the future is not the past, yet is it that we have 3 times? No, the answer quite clearly is that we have only one time present in 3 real distinctions. While the present, past and future are not identical to one another, they each are the one Time. Furthermore, these distinctions within time are not each one third of time but rather they each, and individually, are fully and completely, the one Time. The present can accurately and rightfully be called Time and so can the other distinctions within the concept of time yet this does not lead to us having three times but simply three distinctions within the one Time.
While the above is logically robust, a likely rejoinder would be that a human does not experience the three distinctions within time simultaneously and from then the objector might surmise that the analogy of time is a faulty one. What such a line of thinking actually betrays is an inability to understand the words “time as a concept”. What the rational individual should understand from such a phrase is that herein I, as the author, speak of time as it is in itself (completely removed from subjective personal experience. I use the word “subjective” for is it not truth that time is objectively manifested in three distinctions yet that we subjectively only experience one distinction at a time? Actually, we only ever experience the one distinction—the present—and recognize only one distinction—the past—but here I am becoming far too removed from my point.) and when this little detail is appreciated, the analogy is proved to be above reproach. Yet let us suppose that the analogy of time really was as faulty as the objector would like us to believe and that their objection on the ground of experience was indeed valid—even then there are other analogies that the Christian might use.
- Space: The thought of space itself having been created by God is altogether mind-blowing (how can any entity be located anywhere before the creation of an area to be situated in, in the first place?) but as fun as such a discussion would be, that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Space is conventionally measured in length, width, and height. Length is not width, width is not height and height is not length yet they all are the one Space. Once more, we do not have three different space but one space manifested in three distinctions. The prerogatives of space apply equally and fully to each of the three distinctions such that each can be called, faithfully and truly, Space. Yet it is not three Spaces that we have but one.
- Matter: Matter is present as solid, liquid and gas. As with the other examples, none of these three are identical to one another yet there exist not 3 matters. Rather, we have three distinctions within the one Matter. Each distinction can be called the one Matter without thereby rejecting the same terminology for the other two.
The two above examples are perhaps better than the one of time simply because there is little risk of being misunderstood by the objector and because the simultaneous distinctions and unity (as concerns the respective concepts) are readily experienced. At the risk of sounding repetitive, the Trinity functions a bit like the concept of time (or matter, or space) in that just as the Father is not the Son, the Son not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit not the Father; The past is not the present, the present not the future, and the future not the past and yet we do not have three times, but one time and not three gods, but one God. What the above served to illustrate is how a thing could be three in one and one in three at the same time. As with all analogies, there comes a point where they just break down but simply for the purpose of displaying the logical foundation of simultaneous oneness and threeness, the above analogies are irreproachable.
Earlier on, I did briefly mention the subject of dishonesty and here is why I had said such a thing. It has been my experience that after going through the above with Muslims, while I would be met with little to no objections, they all would state that they still didn’t understand the Trinity as it strictly relates to oneness and threeness. Personally I find that deceiving given the fact that they have no trouble understanding the (respective) simultaneous oneness and threeness of time, space, and matter. Yet perhaps it is imperative to their beliefs that however it is explained, their ignorance of the details of this doctrine should remain constant. Afterall, given that the Qur’an consistently misunderstands the doctrine of the Holy Trinity as teaching three separate gods, it would not do for one to claim to understand a thing which Allah himself did not.
2. Jesus, the Son of God:
To say that Jesus is the Son of God is not to say that God took for himself a consort and Jesus was literally born from the union thereof (as it is misunderstood in the Qur’an)—rather, it is a title (to be distinguished from God the Son) that Jesus assumed in entering his creation and being born a man. Like the title, “Messiah”, which was used of various others throughout the bible (yet all pointing to that final “Messiah” who would rule over all), the title, “Son of God”, is not unique to Jesus yet when used in reference to him, conveys something far greater than in its previous applications. In fact, the conveyance is two-fold:
a) His birth: It is without question that the term “Son of God” refers to his miraculous birth (though perhaps not primarily) in that, while it was not due to a sexual union of any kind, the man, Christ Jesus, is the very Son of God in the respect that his human nature was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. As such the man, Jesus, is a unique individual in the sense that his birth was completely supernatural (when God had long since implemented a normal cycle for births) and as far as these terms can be used without implying intercourse, God is his father in a sense that he is not for anyone else. In his birth Jesus gained the title of Son of God in that he was the preexistent (God the) Son, who condescended to be born a man—to become the veritable human son of the Father.
When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? 14And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. 15He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? 16And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. 17And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. — Matthew 16:13-16 KJV
b) His divine nature: The term also directs one to the position which Jesus has always held from eternity past, namely, that of being God the Son. He has always been the Son to the Father. This is understood from the bible itself. Aside from the many instances where Jesus is called or equated to God himself, he is also described as “the only-begotten Son”.
It is the Greek word “monogeneis.” This is not simply “begotten,” for that expression can be applied to all believers, those who have been begotten or born again by the Spirit. This is a unique expression for a unique person, the only-begotten Son of God. The expression appears in John 1:14, 1:18,> 3:16, and 3:18. It would literally mean the “only generated one.” This is the key expression for the doctrine of “the eternal generation of the Son,” meaning, he always was the only begotten Son. The expression does not refer to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, because he is the Son from eternity past.
[…] You can only beget a child that has the same nature as you have—a son or a daughter. There is nothing else you can beget (unless you were speaking very figuratively). Your son or your daughter will inherit his or her nature from you—genes, personality—all of it. You can use “make” or “create” for producing a child; but when you use “beget” it only means you produce a child that has your nature.
Now follow this carefully. If Jesus is said to be the begotten Son of God (using the figure from human language to make the point), then Jesus has the same nature as the Father. If Jesus has the same nature as God the Father, then Jesus is divine and eternal as well. If he is eternally God, then there was never a time he was literally begotten—which is why we know the language is figurative to describe his nature, and not his beginning. To call Jesus “the only begotten Son” means that he is fully divine and eternal. He is God the Son. — Christian Leadership Center
Rather than positing a different God aside from God the Father, the bible and this doctrine simply teach that there is a plurality within the Godhead. Such that the One God is eternally existent as more than one person. Not only is the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity compelled onto the believer by an unbiased reading of scripture such that if we are to logically believe all things spoken of God within the Tanakh and New Testament, we would have to posit a plurality within the being of God. Anyway it would only make sense for there to be a plurality within the being of God. For example, an eternal monad like that of Islam and other unitarian religions cannot be just, nor personal, nor loving, (much less eternally have been so) without an inherent change in his very being. But I digress, this in itself is a subject for a later date.
3. Jesus, the Son of man:
As with the title “Son of God”, the above term is not singular to Jesus Christ and yet in his appropriation of the term, it is done to explicitly teach something fundamentally greater than what one might first expect from a casual reading thereof. First of all, it must be stated that the title does in fact emphasize his humanity in that he terms himself the Son of man, the son of mankind. Yet it is substantially wrong to say that this title negates his deity or that it is inherently in contrast to the term “Son of God”. In his use of the term, Jesus Christ was alluding to the eschatological figure from the book of Daniel who was given all power and authority in heaven and on earth and would reign over an everlasting kingdom with eternal glory (Daniel 7:13-14). On that note, if this description of the Son of man doesn’t scream divinity, then I certainly don’t know what else does. Jesus himself at times used the two titles interchangeably and claimed the expected prerogatives of one title for the other (see John 5:24-27 and John 6:27). Yet perhaps the most telling example is of the manner in which his Jewish audience understood his words:
And the high priest arose and said to Him, “Do You answer nothing? What is it these men testify against You?” 63But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, “I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!” 64Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, “He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! 66What do you think?” They answered and said, “He is deserving of death.” — Matthew 26:62-66 NKJV
Clearly the foremost authority of that era’s Judaism understood exactly what Jesus was claiming. He claimed divinity in that he declared that he would descend from heaven with “the Power” (i.e. the ultimate power) the very power of God and did so through the use of language only used of the One true God—YHWH. The reader should note that the idiom “coming on the clouds of heaven” is used throughout the Old Testament to speak of God when he is about to judge, nations, peoples, etc.—it is a pronouncement of judgement upon sinful man. We find this use in Isaiah 19:1, Jeremiah 4:13-14, Zephaniah 1:15-17 to simply name a few. Hence one can understand why he was charged with the death penalty by the Sanhedrin for his supposed blasphemy. Therefore, the title “Son of man” is not at all used in a fashion as to negate claims of divinity on the part of Jesus—rather—he oftentimes used it to affirm this very thing such as in the above excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew.
4. Jesus, the God-man:
For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Essence of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Essence of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood into God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ. — Athanasian Creed
In short, Jesus is believed to be both God and man, the God-man, by Christians. This is because we do not pick and choose which portions of the bible to believe; rather, we believe in it as a whole without the need to invent such fanciful myths as that of irredeemable corruption perpetrated long, long ago in a land far, far away simply because it does not say what we’d like it to.
Now I’ll stay clear of filling this last section with quote after quote from the bible which teach this doctrine (it really is plainly taught in scripture) because I simply want to focus on the matter of the hypostatic union. In laymen’s terms, this is the doctrine which stipulates that the eternal second person of the Trinity, in entering his creation and being born a man, took on a second nature he did not previously possess—that of a human. It must be noted that the divine nature did not become finite. Absolutely not, God as he is in himself did not become finite, rather he added onto himself the nature of humanity (and everything that comes with this nature) without divesting himself of divinity (that itself being impossible) so that within the one Christ there exist simultaneously two natures without the dilution of one into the other.
The Divine and human natures cannot alternate, so that the Divine should become human or the human Divine; nor can they be so commingled as that a third should be produced from the two which is neither wholly Divine nor wholly human. For, granting that it were possible for either to be changed into the other, it would in that case be only God and not man, or man only and not God. Or, if they were so commingled that a third nature sprung from the combination of the two (as from two animals, a male and a female of different species, a third is produced, which does not preserve entire the species of either parent, but has a mixed nature derived from both), it would neither be God nor man. Therefore the God-man, whom we require to be of a nature both human and Divine, cannot be produced by a change from one into the other, nor by an imperfect commingling of both in a third; since these things cannot be, or, if they could be, would avail nothing to our purpose. Moreover, if these two complete natures are said to be joined somehow, in such a way that one may be Divine while the other is human, and yet that which is God not be the same with that which is man, it is impossible for both to do the work necessary to be accomplished. For God will not do it, because he has no debt to pay; and man will not do it, because he cannot. Therefore, in order that the God-man may perform this, it is necessary that the same being should [be] perfect God and perfect man, in order to make this atonement. For he cannot and ought not to do it, unless he be very God and very man. Since, then, it is necessary that the God-man preserve the completeness of each nature, it is no less necessary that these two natures be united entire in one person, just as a body and a reasonable soul exist together in every human being; for otherwise it is impossible that the same being should be very God and very man. — Cur Deus Homo, Chapter VII
The question then becomes, whether it is logical for a person to be both God and man at the same time seeing as to be God means to be infinite and to be man is to be finite. While in truth, this question has already been answered by the verbiage above, I suppose that it wouldn’t hurt to go over it again in far simpler terms.
Keeping in line with my wish for simplicity, let us imagine a triangle. Now we all know the nature of a triangle i.e. it’s attributes, the things that make a triangle a triangle as opposed to a rectangle or circle. Good. Now let us at this point imagine a box. Once more we know what is the nature of a box and furthermore, we are also aware that the nature of a box is in direct contradiction to the nature of a triangle. Now suppose that we were to place the triangle within the box, would we then have a confusion, a mixing, an intermingling of the two essences/natures? No, we would possess one unit (the Triangle-Box if you would like) with the essences of both objects intact. The triangle would not cease to be a triangle and neither would the box cease to be a box—on the contrary we would now have a unit that possesses in its being the very attributes of both in that it is not half a box and half a triangle but rather a full (perfect) triangle and a full (perfect) box. A veritable Triangle-Box, wherein the unit is one but the essences are two. In just the same manner does the Christian speak of God becoming man. God did not cease being God, he did not convert the divine essence into a human essence; instead he took on a second nature aside from his divine nature. As such in the unit that is the individual, Christ Jesus, there are two natures with contradicting attributes simultaneously present. As with the Triangle-Box, Jesus can claim the otherwise mutually exclusive prerogatives that come with each nature because of them being simultaneously existent in his being. Such that he can increase in knowledge as man, but always have known all things as God. Such that he can pray to the Father as man, yet have no need to do so as God. Such that should he will it, he is able to give his life unto death as man, and yet death never having any power or hold over him as God. He does everything as the God-Man—mystery upon mystery. In short, He is both three-sided and four-sided at the same time.
The above shows that the doctrine of the incarnation is logically sound, much to the great detriment of our Muslim brothers-in-humanity and while I had hoped to also speak of the Christian liberty, I really did bite off too much than I could chew and I will have to take a break for today. It is understood that as much as I have written, I have not even begun to scratch the surface of these subjects and there is much, much more that I could have said (and in fact needs to be said!) for this to prove an adequate post on these matters but as far as a basic introduction on these things goes, I think that the above is good enough.
Whether you are a Christian, a Muslim, or whatever else, I hope that the above was helpful in gaining a better understanding of the Christian conception of God.