God the Three in One
I. Muslim Questions
- Are you really monotheists (muwahhid?n)?
- Do you believe in three gods?
- Who are these gods?
- How can God be called Father or Son?
II. Muslim Perspectives
1. At the centre of the Islamic faith stands thoroughgoing monotheism:
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. (Quran 112)
2. Islam is deeply convinced that it is impossible to comprehend God through all too human words, such as Father and Son, which indicate primarily fleshly realities. Christians have become so accustomed to giving a spiritual meaning to both these words that they have perhaps forgotten their more obvious sense.
3. The theological explanation of the Trinity through the concepts nature (tab??a) and person (shakhs, uqn?m) does not greatly help. Of the Arabic equivalents for person, shakhs conveys the idea of a visible form, while uqn?m (the technical term used in Arabic Christian theological writing) is unfamiliar to contemporary Arabs. Tab??a refers to a created nature.
4. The Quran understands the Christian doctrine of God the Three in One as tritheism and refers to Christians taking Allah, Jesus and Mary as three deities – an approach which the Quranic Jesus himself specifically condemns:
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. (Quran 5:116)
5. The Quran makes no reference to the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity.
1. For the Quran, Christians and Jews are People of the Book (ahl al-kit?b). On the basis of the Quran it remains an open question, however, whether Christians are to be considered as monotheists (2:62; 3:110-115; 4:55; 5:69,82), as unbelievers (kuff?r: 5:17,72-73; 9:30), or as idolaters (literally associators [mushrik?n]: 5:72; 9:31).
2. The Quran reproaches Christians for saying three (thal?tha) with reference to God (4:171). They say that God is the third of three (5:73), which would seem to include Jesus and Mary (5:116).21 They say that Jesus is God (5:72,116), or the Son of God (9:30, using the Arabic word ibn for son; 19:34-35, using the word walad), although in truth the one and only God begets not, nor is he begotten (lam yalid wa lam y?lad, 112:3).
3. Muslim exegetes and theologians have taken a wide range of views of the Christian understanding of God. Fakhr al-d?n R?zi (1149-1209), one of the great Quranic commentators of the classical period, acknowledges that no Christians of his day are of the opinion that Mary belongs to the Trinity: the Quranic reference must be to the version of the Christian faith of a sect no longer in existence. Many modern scholars have followed R?zi on this point.
4. One also finds among Muslim theologians some astonishingly perceptive accounts of the doctrine of the three divine persons. Many even acknowledge that Christianity is a genuine form of monotheism. The fact remains, however, that most Muslims take the view that Christians are tritheists.
III. Christian Perspectives
1. Who is God?
Christians are thoroughgoing monotheists and have the task of defending the monotheism which they have received from Israel. God is one. Within this frame of reference they believe that God has revealed himself as Lord and Saviour through and in Jesus Christ. This assumes that God has made himself present in Jesus Christ, but that does not mean that God has made the totality of himself present in Jesus Christ, leaving nothing as remainder. The humanity in Jesus does not absorb the divinity and the divinity does not abolish the humanity. From the beginnings of Christianity onwards these points were the basis of the theological reflection and the spiritual experience which led to the doctrine of the Trinity. The Good News (Evangelium) which we have received from Jesus is not only that God exists and that he is one; it also tells us who God is. Jesus leads his disciples into loving knowledge of God and into fellowship with him:
Then, after speaking in many places and varied ways through the prophets, God last of all in these days has spoken to us by his Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). For He sent His Son, the eternal Word, who enlightens all men, so that He might dwell among men and tell them the innermost realities about God (cf. John 1:1-18). Jesus Christ, therefore, the Word made flesh, sent as a man to men (Epistle to Diognetus VII.4), speaks the words of God (John 3:34), and completes the work of salvation which His Father gave him to do (cf. John 5:36; 17:4). To see Jesus is to see His Father (John 14:9). For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through His whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious Resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover, He confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed: that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal.22
2. Father – Son
Working on the basis of the deeds, the behaviour and the words of Jesus, the first inspired witnesses (apostles and evangelists) used the word Son to indicate the unique relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the one whom he called his Father and to whom he prayed in the words Abba Father. They saw in the deeds of Jesus that he claimed to exercise truly divine power, for instance in forgiving sins. They therefore concluded that there is a distinction in God between the origin of all things, the source of being and life (the Father), and the one to whom this source gives life, the firstborn of all creation (the Son). This Son receives his being entirely from the Father in a relationship of utter submission and love. So Jesus does not exist through himself; he is entirely from the Father, who gives to him all that he is. He is thus a reflection of the Father, like the Father, receiving everything from the Father. The concept of the Word, developed in classical Greek thought, helps illuminate this Father-Son relationship within God. The Word is brought forth from the Intelligence to express its nature; the Word is distinct from the Intelligence and at the same time manifests it. And it is the Word which, in Jesus Christ, becomes flesh, human.
3. Through the Word in the Spirit
So the Father begets the Word-Son and through him creates the world, because Gods Word has creative power, bringing forth everything that is. The whole creation thus bears the mark of this Word of the Father and can be a source for the knowledge of God (as the early Fathers of the Church taught, speaking of seeds of the Word). This creation finds its fulfilment in human beings, created by God in his image and according to his likeness (Genesis 1:26). Human beings attain wholeness by the rediscovery of this likeness to God, with the way to this goal being opened up by the Word that has become human. Through Jesus, humanity can enter into a right relationship with the Father, the source of Jesus life. This righteousness, Gods setting right of human beings with himself, is the work of the Holy Spirit in us (as in Jesus). The Spirit of Gods love makes it possible for us to become children of the Father and brothers and sisters of the Son, the relationships for which we are destined in and through the Word of God. The Apostle Paul tells us that through the Holy Spirit we can call God Abba (Father, even Daddy; Galatians 4:6). We are thus Gods children by adoption. We live with, through and in Jesus (the doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer).
4. Father – Son – Spirit
A second distinction within God thus becomes apparent. Already in the Old Testament there was mention by name of the Spirit, designating the creative power of God, the divine breath of life (ruah in Hebrew, r?h in Arabic). This same Spirit inspired the prophets and led the people of Israel, directed the mind of the people towards the knowledge of the true God and guided their history so that they might submit to Gods will. Through the Spirit the Creator remains in a living relationship with his creation and the creation remains open to the activity of the Creator. Jesus confirms this revelation, above all in his own person, since he is conceived by the Holy Spirit, who unites in him divinity and humanity. In the Spirit Jesus is the Son of God, and it is the Spirit (especially in Lukes Gospel) who is the source of his activity. But Jesus also tells us that this Spirit is the one who establishes the communion which binds him to the Father and makes them one. This very relationship, however, must necessarily be divine: only God can bring unity with God. This Spirit is therefore of the same nature as the Father and the Son: he is divine. He is the bond of communion within Gods very self, the principle of Gods unity. As the reciprocal love between the Father and the Son, he is not only a divine attribute, but truly God. Hence the ancient practice, among the first Christians, of offering prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. We turn to the source of our life through Jesus, whom we follow, in the Spirit, whom he gives to us at baptism and who binds us back to the Father as his adopted children.
5. Communion in Love
The Spirit is therefore the inner law leading Christians on Gods way. He brought life to Jesus and brings life to us also. The whole creation is thus called to enter into the loving communion which God is in Gods very self. The Spirit is given to human beings to enable them to be the free and creative agents of the universal reconciliation which is the work of God and humanity in co-operation. Unity is indeed the source and the goal of the whole work of God, for unity is in Gods very self. What distinguishes Christians from Muslims, however, is that they believe that this unity is communion, in a relationship of love.
In her task of fostering unity and love among men, and even among nations, [the Church] gives primary consideration . . . to what human beings have in common and to what promotes fellowship among them. For all peoples comprise a single community, and have a single origin, since God made the whole race of men dwell over the entire face of the earth (cf. Acts 17:26). One also is their final goal: God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, and His saving designs extend to all men (cf. Wisdom 8:1; Acts 14:17; Romans 2:6-7; 1 Timothy 2:4) against the day when the elect will be united.23
The triunity of God is fundamental to the Christian faith, drawing us away from the allure of idols, which are not God, and directing us towards the worship of the one and only, true and living God. More than that, it is the source of the unity of the human race, which is called to enter into the divine fellowship through the Holy Spirit.
[Jesus said to the disciples:] If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you . . . . On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me . . . . Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:15-18,20,23)
Through baptism, and in the Spirit, Christians have become members of the Body of Christ. In this Body they continue the mission of Jesus to liberate the human race from the imprisoning powers of death. Having been received into his Body they enter into eternal life, which is a sharing in Gods own life. They receive this gift (which is Jesus himself) and strive to live by it. They seek to persevere in adoration of the divine mystery and to be guided by the Holy Spirit.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. (Ephesians 3:20-21)
7. The origin of the doctrine of the Trinity
It is important to draw attention to the origins of this doctrine. In this context a distinction can be drawn between the content of the doctrine and its cultural clothing.
(i) Jesus belongs to Israel, the chosen people. His thinking is entirely permeated by the spirit of a thoroughgoing monotheism (Mark 12:28-34). The Bible speaks repeatedly of the jealousy of the one and only God with regard to false gods. Jesus does not say that he is God but calls himself Gods Son (John 10:36), or simply the Son (cf. Matthew 11:27). Jesus points to his heavenly origin precisely by using the title Son of Man, which he takes from the vision of Daniel (Daniel 7). What is fundamental is that Jesus lives in a distinct relationship to God, whom he dares to call Abba. The titles Son of God and Messiah were, on their own, too vague in the time of Jesus to be able to communicate his view of himself. Jesus spoke only rarely of the Holy Spirit, but his life is nevertheless lived entirely in the power of the Spirit.
(ii) It is only after the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus that the disciples, through the powerful inspiration of the Spirit, understand the meaning of what they have experienced with Jesus. They then come to recognize that this Christ (Messiah), living, risen from the dead, is identical with Jesus of Nazareth, with whom they have lived and whom they have seen dying on the cross. They dare to confess that he is Saviour and Lord, and that in his relationship to his Father he is in a quite unique sense the Son of God. So from this point trinitarian language begins to appear, the title Son of God is used, and there is also talk of the Spirit of God (in Greek pneuma, the divine breath), whose presence the apostles have experienced so powerfully, even before they have given him a precise name. We thus come to the central confession of the Christian faith, that God is Father, Son and Spirit. This confession owes its existence to the reality of the risen Jesus and is rooted in the faith of the apostles.
(iii) Because of the extremely numerous christological heresies of the 3rd and 4th centuries, it became necessary to strengthen faith in both the unity of God and also in the reality of the Father, Son and Spirit. A gradually maturing process led finally to the formula of the 4th Lateran Council in 1215, which explains that there are distinctions between the persons but unity in nature. The Father is the unoriginated origin, the Son owes his origin to the Father from all eternity, and the Spirit proceeds from both. Thus, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are of one substance.24
IV. Christian Responses
1. Christians unambiguously confess faith in the one God. Classical Christian theology affirms that in relating to the creation the Creator acts as the one and only God.
2. The threeness relates both to Gods saving acts in history and also to Gods inner life. It does not undermine his unity in any way. Mathematical categories are not capable of grasping the reality of God.25 One and the same God is Father, Son and Spirit. In Jesus Christ God has become truly human. Suffering and death thus do not leave God unaffected. These divine names belong to the very core of the Christian faith and represent a part of its inheritance which has been passed on from the earliest stages. However, these concepts are not to be understood in the sense of an act of begetting by God, in the human sense of the word begetting. We agree absolutely with Muslims in our firm rejection of such an idea.26 The refusal of Muslims to apply the concept of Fatherhood to God can help Christians to remain conscious of the metaphorical character of all language about God. Even for the Christian faith, God remains ineffable, beyond human speech. In other words, the terms Father and Son are used in a much wider sense by Christians than by Muslims. The one God is called Father because he is the source of all being; he is called Son because in Jesus he lives entirely from this source; he is called Spirit because he communicates himself to his creation. God, the One, perfect and complete in himself, exalted, is in his very self love, interpersonal exchange, loving mutuality of giving and receiving. He is God in three persons, the triune God.
3. Where questions are raised about the meaning of the terms nature and person, clarification should be sought from the historical context, making reference particularly to the distinction between the modern understanding of personhood and that of the classical philosophical and theological tradition.
4. God exists in three distinct modes of being (ahw?l), both in his relationship to us and in the relationships between the divine persons.27
5. Some medieval Christian theologians writing in Arabic favoured the use of certain metaphors in their attempts to explain the doctrine of the Trinity with Muslim questions in mind. So, for example, they pointed to how fire contains flame, heat and light, and to the three forms of ice, water and steam in which the same element appears.
6. It is worth considering the ninety-nine most beautiful names [i.e. of God] (al-asm? al-husn?), which play an important role in Islamic spirituality and theology. These names (e.g. the Almighty, the Compassionate, the All-Knowing, the Victorious, the Avenger) give expression in Islamic piety and theology to the abundant richness of Gods being; in Muslim understanding, however, they of course do not jeopardize Gods unity. When reflecting upon these divine names in the context of explaining the Christian teaching on the Holy Trinity one should keep in mind two points. Firstly, the persons of the Trinity, strictly speaking, do not belong to the same category as the most beautiful names. The divine names and attributes in Islamic understanding describe aspects of the divine nature, while each of the three persons in the understanding of the Christian faith is fully God and therefore can be described by all the divine names, with the possible exception of certain names which Christians might not wish to apply to God. It is therefore not possible to use the divine names to distinguish the divine persons. Secondly, Muslims will ask why Christians only emphasize three names for God, when there are in fact many more most beautiful names for God. Here the point made above applies again. For Christians, there are indeed many attributes that can be predicated of God; Christians may in fact include attributes other than those listed in the most beautiful names identified by Muslims. But as regards divine persons, God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so Christians speak of Three-in-One, Trinity.