The Divinity of Jesus and the Incarnation
I. Muslim Questions
- Jesus is one of a long line of prophets. How can he be greater than Muhammad, who is the Seal of the Prophets?
- Jesus ranks as a great prophet who was born in a miraculous way, without a father; he also performed great miracles. But does this justify making him into a God?
- How can a human being at the same time be God?
- How can God let his prophet die on the cross? How ought we to conceive of a God who suffers and dies?
II. Muslim Perspectives
The transcendence of God means that he is utterly different from everything that has been created. Muslims feel thoroughly horrified by every attempt to associate with God anything from the created order (human beings included), to place it beside God (shirk) or to assimilate it with God (tashbïh). This feeling of horror is entirely in harmony with the Quran, which condemns any such attempts repeatedly and vehemently.
Titles applied by Christians to Jesus (e.g. Son of God) and to Mary (e.g. Mother of God) sound blasphemous to Muslim ears.
Realistic portrayals of the crucified Jesus are offensive to Muslims since Islam rejects sculptures of human beings, and especially of prophets.
The Quran often underlines the transcendence of God: There is nothing whatever like unto him (42:11). He is the Creator of all things and is radically different from everything in the created order.
In the long sequence of prophets an outstanding position is ascribed to Jesus.
We gave him [Abraham] Isaac and Jacob: all of them we guided. And before him we guided Noah, and, among his offspring, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses and Aaron; thus do we reward those who do good. And Zechariah and John, and Jesus and Elijah, all in the ranks of the righteous. And Ishmael, and Elisha, and Jonah, and Lot; and to all we gave favour above the nations. And to their fathers and offspring and brethren; we chose them and we guided them to a straight way. (6:84-87)
To Jesus, the son of Mary, we gave clear signs, and strengthened him with the holy spirit. (2:253)
Jesus, who had been proclaimed – literally confirmed (Quran 3:39) – by John the Baptist, was born of the Virgin Mary, without a human father.
Then we sent to her [Mary] our angel, and he appeared to her as a man in all respects. She said: I seek refuge from you in Allah the most gracious . . . . He said: I am only a messenger from your Lord to announce to you the gift of a holy son. She said: How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste? He said: So it will be. Your Lord says: That is easy for me, and we appoint him as a sign unto men and a mercy from us. It is a matter decreed. So she conceived him and she retired with him to a remote place. (19:17-22)
Jesus preached pure monotheism and performed great miracles. The Jews tried to crucify Jesus but God saved him by raising him to himself. Jesus will come again at the end of time as a sign that the end of the world and the day of judgement are imminent.
Behold! Allah said: O Jesus! I will take you and raise you to myself and clear you (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow you superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection. Then shall you all return to me and I will judge between you in the matters over which you dispute. (3:55)
That they said: We killed Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah – but they did not kill him, neither did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them. And those who differ about it are full of doubts, with no knowledge but only conjecture to follow. They certainly did not kill him – no, Allah raised him up unto himself; and Allah is exalted in power, wise. (4:157-158)
[The infant Jesus said:] So peace is upon me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life. (19:33)
Jesus foretold the coming of Ahmad (a name of the Prophet Muhammad):
And remember, Jesus, the son of Mary, said: O Children of Israel! I am the messenger of Allah to you, confirming the Law [Torah] before me, and giving good news of a messenger to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad.(61:6)
Jesus also denies that he has called himself God.
And behold! Allah will say: O Jesus the son of Mary! Did you say to men: Worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah? He will say: Glory be to you! Never could I say what I had no right to say. Had I said such a thing, you would indeed have known it. You know what is in my heart, though I do not know what is in yours. For you know in full all that is hidden. I never said to them anything except what you commanded me to say: Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord.(5:116-117)
The Quran calls Jesus a Word from God as well as Word of God. Jesus is also a Spirit from God, but unambiguously not Gods Son.
Behold! The angels said: O Mary! Allah gives you good news of a Word from him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the hereafter, and of those nearest to Allah.(3:45)
O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion, nor say about Allah anything but the truth. Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, was (no more than) a messenger of Allah and his Word, which he bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from him: so believe in Allah and his messengers. Do not say Three: desist; it will be better for you, for Allah is one God – glory be to him, (far exalted is he) above having a son. To him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And Allah suffices as a disposer of affairs. (4:171)
Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; he begets not, nor is he begotten; and there is none like him. (112)
They are unbelievers who say: Allah is Christ, the son of Mary. For Christ said: O Children of Israel! Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord. (5:72)
The Jews call Uzayr a son of God, and the Christians call Christ the Son of God. That is what they say with their own mouths. (In this) they only imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say. Allahs curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the truth! They take their rabbis and their monks to be their lords in derogation of Allah, and (they take as their Lord) Christ, the son of Mary; yet they were commanded to worship but one God: there is no God but he. Praise and glory to him: (far is he) from having the partners they associate (with him). (9:30-31)
After this survey of some of the key Quranic references to Jesus, it should be noted that although the Quran accords a position of great dignity to Jesus it in fact devotes significantly more space to both Abraham and Moses.
The Islamic theological tradition aims to set Jesus and all that is distinctive about him (his conception without a human father, his miracles, his titles Word of God and Spirit of God) in the context of what is normal for prophets. Before Allah, Jesus is like Adam: [Allah] created him from dust, then said to him Be, and he was. (Quran 3:59). The creation of Adam with neither a father nor a mother is seen as even more miraculous than the conception of Jesus without a father. The title Word of God only indicates a prophet, or alternatively the creative act of the word of God which caused Jesus to be conceived in Marys womb. Anyway, Muhammad is a greater prophet than Jesus since Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets (Quran 33:40).
This description of Muhammad is paralleled by a tendency in Islamic mysticism to call Jesus the Seal of the Saints, since, while Muhammad remains the Seal of the Prophets, the word and the spirit of God were fully bestowed on Jesus.
More recent Muslim publications about Jesus present him as a righteous man who suffered persecution (K?mil Hussayn); as the prophet of love (Abb?s Mahm?d ?Aqq?d); as the liberator of humanity (Kh?lid Muhammad Kh?lid); or as one who inspires a higher personality (Fathï ?Uthm?n).
In the religious life of Muslims Jesus does not generally play an outstanding role; indeed in this respect he is less significant than Mary. To Muslim eyes, the person and role of Jesus have been exaggerated by Christians; the Christian deification of Jesus is a blasphemy. Furthermore, in the course of history Christians have repeatedly, and in the name of the cross of Christ, acted with aggression towards the Islamic world.
III. Christian Perspectives
1. From the earthly ministry of Jesus to the Easter faith
Recent studies of the New Testament stress that Jesus was a fully human person, but one in whom the rule of God comes near. In the preaching and in the acts of Jesus God is revealed as both his Father and our Father. Jesus was born and grew up like every other human being. After he had left his home and family in Nazareth, he was baptized by John the Baptist. This was a pivotal moment when, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus experienced Gods affirmation of him as his beloved Son and, simultaneously, Gods commissioning of him as his servant. The language used at the baptism of Jesus (e.g. at Mark 1:11) echoes Old Testament passages which speak on the one hand of the King of Israel as Gods Son (e.g. Psalm 2:7) and on the other hand of a mysterious servant of God through whose extreme sufferings Gods salvation will be extended beyond Israel to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 42:1-7; cf. also Isaiah 49:1-7; 50:4-11; 52:13 – 53:12).
Jesus claimed to be more than all the prophets and the teachers of the Law who came before him. A teacher of the Law says: Moses has said . . . A prophet says: Thus says the Lord . . . But Jesus, without appealing to any higher authority, simply says: Truly I tell you . . . Especially striking in this regard is the sermon delivered by Jesus in his home town Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30), in which Jesus in effect says: I am the one in whom what was promised through the prophets becomes reality. Finally, in speaking of God, Jesus did not place his hearers and himself in the same position before the one whom he called Father. Rather, he distinguished between your Father and my Father. Human beings are children of this Father, but Jesus alone is the Son in an absolute sense.
Those who heard the preaching of Jesus quickly grasped that they must either accept his unprecedented claims, and therefore dedicate themselves wholly to him and his teaching, or alternatively must regard him as a blasphemer and deceiver on an extraordinary scale. Those who chose not to believe in Jesus therefore behaved quite consistently by arresting him and having him executed, condemned under their own law as a blasphemer and under the law of the occupying Romans as a disturber of the peace. And they appeared to be right. Nothing happened as they mocked him on the cross: He saved others; he cannot save himself (Mark 15:31).
We know what happened next. The utter despair of the disciples, who had given up all hope (Luke 24:21), did not last long. Jesus appeared to them as the Living One, risen from the dead. This caused them – and those who came to faith through their testimony – to reflect on how they could most adequately express what needed to be said about Jesus. They called him the Son of God; so also they prayed to him and publicly confessed him. It is certainly possible to express what is meant by this differently, especially today. But this title Son of God was particularly appropriate for the confession and the proclamation of the faith – and it has always remained so.
Furthermore, Jesus himself hinted that this title conveys the truth. In the Gospels there are frequent passages in which either Jesus calls himself the Son or others wonder whether he is the Son of God (e.g. Matthew 16:16; Mark 14:61-2; Luke 1:32). And since he so emphatically calls God my Father, how can it be wrong to call him the Son of God?
To call Jesus the Son of God was to make quite clear the claim that he is unique, more than just a man. It was enormously challenging to apply this title to Jesus because in doing so the Christian faith was eradicating all the images (whether glorious or bizarre) which the Jews and the Greeks had formed of the sons of the Gods. The Son of God, Christians insisted, is none other than this Jesus – this controversial, mocked, persecuted, executed Jesus. It is no wonder that the powerful did not tolerate this.
To call Jesus Lord raised similar issues. The Greek version of the Old Testament already in use by the time of Jesus used this same word (Kurios) to translate the Hebrew divine name Yahweh, though Kurios could also signify Master. For the Greeks Kurios was a divine title, so it was natural for Caesar to adopt it for himself since he demanded veneration as a deity. Martyrdom was therefore the fate of those Christians who, resisting this veneration of Caesar, insisted: Jesus alone is Lord.
2. The development of the Churchs doctrine of the person of Jesus
The teaching of the Church is quite clear: Jesus Christ is the Son of God become human! Jesus is a truly human being, our brother. He is born to a human mother, grows up and matures, learns a trade, suffers hunger and thirst, displays joy and compassion, anxiety and anger. He is a human being with body and soul – truly one of us, close to us. It is this belief in the reality of the Incarnation that justifies for Christians the artistic depictions of Mary and of Jesus which are so questionable to Muslims.
Over the centuries the Church has resolutely held to this teaching. To many it appeared easier to believe in a God who only seemed to be present on this earth, only seemed to have lived and suffered. In that case, however, God would not truly have entered into our humanity, and we would only seem to have been redeemed. But God did indeed become human for the sake of all human beings, and our whole humanity is thus healed by him. Nevertheless, the Church has always at the same time confessed Jesus as Lord, which indicates nothing less than the divine name Yahweh.
It remains central for Christian faith that the Son of God is one of us, with all that that entails, sin excepted. Jesus is therefore both divine and human in one person. For centuries Christians have struggled with the depths of the meaning of this sentence. It has been necessary to reject many heresies which have given one-sided emphasis to either the divine or the human nature in Jesus. In truth he is both fully human and fully divine, even if this cannot ultimately be explained: fully human, with a human soul and a human will, so that through his obedient humanity he could redeem our humanity; and yet also fully God, of one substance with the Father – as the Church expressed it in 325 at the Council of Nicaea. Divinity and humanity are united in the person of the Redeemer. Personal experience of God thus becomes possible. The believer encounters the human Jesus Christ – and so also encounters God himself.
In response to questions from Muslims, there should be no concealing of the fact that faith in Jesus as the incarnate Son of God is an essential part of the apostolic confession of faith. Only by the working of the Holy Spirit can we acknowledge and proclaim Jesus as Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Christian faith understands itself as the answer, made possible by the Holy Spirit, to the question posed by the historical person of Jesus. Since this Christian confession is an answer arising from faith, it cannot be demanded of others who do not share this faith. We must recognize that there are other interpretations of Jesus: a Marxist interpretation, for example, or that of the Brahmo Sam?j (a 19th century Hindu reform movement); interpretations given by Muslims or by Jews, and so on.
In this regard two observations should be made. Firstly, respect should be shown for the claims of historical and literary criticism, at least when these are based on serious academic work and are not the product of pure imagination. Secondly, it should be acknowledged, even by those who do not share the Christian faith, that the Christian interpretation of Jesus is one of the range of possibilities.
IV. Christian Responses
1. The mysteries of the Incarnation and of the divinity of Jesus occupy a central place in the Christian faith. For Christians, the doctrine of the Incarnation does not signify the deification of a man. Rather, in the Incarnation the eternal Word of God takes on a human nature and so becomes a human being. The expression Son of God serves as a pointer to the divine origin of Jesus and to the fact that in Jesus God has made himself present to humanity in a unique way. It is not a biological statement, such as would make of God a parent in the ordinary human sense. In this context it is worth noting a passage from the 4th Lateran Council (1215): This reality [the divine nature] neither begets nor is begotten7. This corresponds to Quran 112:3: He begets not, nor is he begotten (lam yalid wa lam y?lad). The context of this Quranic verse is, however, quite different as the Quran is here primarily protesting against Meccan polytheism, which attributed biological procreation to God, and is concerned with Christian teaching about Jesus only secondarily.
2. The point raised earlier in this chapter about the history of military aggression in the name of Christ will be addressed in chapter 9 below.
3. Between the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation and the statements of the Quran there are linkages which can appear significant to the Muslim. Many Muslims recognize that the Quran holds the central place in Islam which Jesus holds in the Christian faith. Muslims believe that the Word of God (kal?m All?h) is eternally in God (kal?m nafsï); according to several theologians it is even identical with Gods essence. It has been revealed in the form of a Scripture, the Quran as the Word of God become book (kal?m lafzï). A Christian believes that Jesus is the Word of God, but in a sense different from how a Muslim understands his Quranic title kalimat All?h. The Christian faith bears witness that Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Lord, is the final and perfect revelation of God in history.
Translator: Revd. Dr. David Marshall