Middle East Resources

The Trinity and Christian Missions to Muslims

By Bassam Michael Madany

 

Islam has engaged the attention of Christians ever since its rise in Arabia in the seventh century. One obvious reason is the fact that most early Muslim conquests took place within Christian lands. “The People of the Book,” as Jews and Christians were called, faced the choice of adopting the faith of their conquerors, or of remaining in their particular religion. Those who persisted in their Christian commitment gave a reason for this decision. They could not, and would not forsake the Biblical Messiah, their Lord and Savior. By implication, they refused to believe in the “heavenly” mission of Muhammad as God’s final Messenger commissioned to call the world to Islam. From the beginning of the Christian-Muslim encounter, the main debate centered upon these fundamental doctrines: the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Some time later, when the irreconcilable differences between the teachings of the Bible and the Qur'an were recognized, the authenticity of the Christian Scriptures became another core issue of controversy.

The Qur’an refers to Jesus as the son of Mary who was sent by God to proclaim a specific message to the people of Israel. The details of the birth of Christ, his teachings, and miracles, as recorded in the Qur’an, are apocryphal. What were Muhammad’s sources for his accounts of the person and mission of the Messiah? In dealing with this subject, Professor Neal Robinson, a British scholar, wrote in his book, Christ in Islam and Christianity:

“Despite our extensive knowledge of Byzantine Orthodoxy and of the principal forms of Christianity which flourished in Syria and Persia, we know all too little about Christianity as practised in Najran [a city in Arabia inhabited by Christian Arabs] and Abyssinia [another name for Ethiopia] in the seventh century and even less about Arab tribal Christianity. The external evidence and the evidence of the Qur'an itself both point to a predominantly heterodox influence on the early environment of Islam. Although the external evidence would favour Nestorianism and Monophysitism, the internal evidence is equally indicative of some form of Jewish Christianity. We should probably think in terms of a variety of rival sects some of which may have vanished without trace.” [1]

As Islam developed over the centuries, so did its intolerant attitude towards Christianity. Its polemics were primarily directed against the Christian doctrine of God as Triune. Muslim theologians ridiculed the doctrine of the Holy Trinity because it had no basis in Allah’s “true” revelation in the Qur’an.  Furthermore, it was irrational. They also attacked the Christian doctrine of the Messiahship of Jesus, as revealed in the Christian Holy Scriptures, and confessed by the Church in the Nicene Creed. Therefore, these words of the Nicene Creed are abhorrent to the ears of Muslims:

“We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten from the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made; of the same essence as the Father. Through him all things were made. And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. He proceeds from the Father and the Son, and with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified.”

Denying this Trinitarian affirmation of the Fatherhood of God, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the personality of the Holy Spirit, the Qur’an responds:

“Qol hua Allah ahad, Allah assamad, lam yalid, wa-lam youlad, wa-lam yakon lahu kuf’on ahad.”  

“Say: Allah is one, Allah the Eternal One, He begot none, nor was He begotten, and no one is equal to Him.” [2] [Translation mine]

Basically, Muslims cannot accept the deity of Christ in the Trinitarian formulation and it inevitably leads to their rejection of the Trinity.  Muslims charge Christians with the sin of “shirk,” i.e., associating a mere creature with the Creator. In Islam, this is the unforgivable sin.

When this theological context is fully grasped, the challenge facing Christian missionaries in Muslim lands becomes apparent in all its starkness. How can the saving message of the Gospel break through the obstacle of Islamic theological intransigence toward one of Christianity’s main tenets? When preaching the Word of God to Muslims, should missionaries downplay the importance of the Trinity, or the deity of Jesus Christ?

Lately, some Western experts on world religions, having adopted theological pluralism, minimize the great gulf separating Christianity from Islam.  In his book “Jesus in the Qur'an,” Geoffrey Parrinder, Professor Emeritus of the Comparative Study of Religions at the University of London wrote:

“The encounter of the world religions is a major fact of our times and it demands a restatement of traditional theological expression. This restatement must take account of all the new knowledge available.” [3]

His “restatement” of the Christian religion illustrates how some Western scholars have downplayed the sharp differences between Christianity and Islam. Should their views achieve a wide acceptance among Western Christians, it would mark the end of their mission work among Muslims.

It is evident that Parrinder seeks to make inter-faith dialogue a fruitful enterprise and his book concludes with a radical reappraisal of fundamental Christian principles:

“It is too easily assumed that all traditional doctrines are firmly based on the Bible. The Semitic view of God may need to be cleared of some Greek theories that have overlaid it. ... Terms like Son of God, Trinity and Salvation need to be re-shaped and given new point. Concepts of prophecy, inspiration and revelation must be re-examined in view of the undoubted revelation of God in Muhammad and in the Qur'an” [4]

At the same time he deplores and denigrates the orthodox Christian view of the Atonement:

“There is no doubt that Christians hold firmly to the Cross as a historical fact, but they are not bound to accept theories that would interpret it in terms of legal satisfaction or sacrificial substitution.” [5]

Such examples are cited to emphasize the fact that the consensus that had prevailed among Western Christian missionaries from the days of William Carey (1792) to the early years of the twentieth-century, no longer exists today.  In the past, regardless of certain doctrinal differences that prevailed among Protestant churches, they affirmed the supreme and final authority of the Bible, the Trinity, and the uniqueness, finality, and superiority of the Lord Jesus Christ and his substitutionary work on the cross. The consensus no longer exists as was well documented by Professor S. Mark Heim, of Andover-Newton Theological School, in his article, “Pluralism and the Otherness of World Religions,” published in FIRST THINGS, August/September,1992 [6]

What should be the Christian reaction to these developments? Parrinder’s thinking reflects the mindset of secular, pluralistic Western societies.  He seeks to bring Christian categories and doctrine into its orbit. But the tenets of the historic Christian faith must never be compromised in any way regardless of how unbendingly doctrinaire it appears to pluralistic secularists.  Do the Western modernist theologians ever stop to think that their Islamic counterparts will not bend to such categories either?  By suggesting that Christian theologians should gives Islam victory by default.

In the remaining part of this article, I would like to share with the readers of the Journal, how I dealt with this the doctrine of the Ontological Trinity in my radio and literature ministry among Arabic-speaking people over a period that spanned thirty six years.

I began proclaiming the Gospel in Arabic in 1958 over radio station ELWA, of Monrovia, Liberia. Later on, the Lord opened other avenues for the broadcasting of the Word on radio stations in Europe, and in the Middle East.

Even though I spent most of my active ministerial life in Canada and USA, I kept in touch with my field of endeavor through short wave radio, Arabic language publications, and frequent visits to the Arab world. The potential audience in the Arabic-speaking world is predominantly Islamic. How was I to do the work of an evangelist proclaiming the saving message of the Biblical Gospel?

Upon hearing a Christian radio program, most listeners would not have been sympathetic to its contents.  Sooner or later, they would discover that the purpose of the broadcast messages was to call them to faith in the Biblical Messiah, who was not only the son of Mary, but equally the Son of God. And this God was a triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It meant that I was asking them to change their loyalty from Islam to Christianity; from being followers of Muhammad to being believers in Christ and all that it entailed.  That was tantamount to asking them to apostatize. In their tradition, apostasy is a sin punishable by death. By what authority did I call people to make such a radical decision?

Ultimately, it was the Bible that gave me the authority, and the boldness to herald the Good News of Jesus the Messiah. As a member of the community known to Muslims as “The People of the Book,” I proclaimed the Good News that called for “repentance toward God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Acts 20 (AV)

Realizing, therefore, the absolute necessity of proclaiming a Biblical message every time I recorded a radio program, what specific approach did I use? Both my Christian heritage and my knowledge of Islam, led me to adopt the evangelistic system Paul used in his Letter to the Romans. Theologically speaking, it meant that I would begin with an emphasis on Biblical anthropology, followed by an exposition of Biblical Christology and soteriology. Then, I would go on to explain that salvation proceeded from the plan and unmerited love of the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I would further explain that the existence of this God, i.e., of the Holy Trinity, pre-dated the formulation of Trinitarian doctrine at Nicea (325 AD). The Trinity was a living reality, before the creation of the cosmos. A further reference to Ephesians 1, helped expound the role of the three persons of the Trinity in planning, procuring, and securing our redemption.

Continuing study of Islamic doctrine reinforced my decision to follow such a course of exposition. For notwithstanding the strong criticisms that have been leveled by Muslims against the Bible’s authenticity, the Trinity, and the deity of Jesus Christ, their greatest objection is to Biblical anthropology. Whereas the Christian view of man’s predicament is marked by recognition of the drastic results of the Fall, the Muslim view of man’s present condition is very optimistic. It may be described as a thoroughly Pelagian point of view.

This was articulated well in a 1959 article appearing in the quarterly The Muslim World (Volume 49, No. 1, January 1959), in which the Islamic doctrine of man was discussed. It contained a quotation from a paper read by a Muslim professor in 1957, at a gathering of some Christian and Muslim scholars that was held in Morocco. The Muslim professor said:

“The possibility of man’s deliverance and the way to follow have been indicated by the Qur’an in its address to sinners, fathers of the human race: ‘Go forth all of you from hence and if there comes to you guidance from Me then he who follows my guidance shall have nothing to fear, nor shall they know distress.” (Surah 2:38) By this solemn affirmation God Himself takes action for the salvation of man in the path of right. Islamic tradition then has the means to lead man to final perfection, the effect of which is liberation from the fear and from the sadness which prevent man from attaining the eternal blessedness which is life in God and for God.”

In commenting on the paper, Edwin Calverley, the then editor of The Muslim World wrote:

[This] exposition of Muslim theology and its concepts of man and his salvation raises several deep questions. The Christian must always be perplexed about its ready confidence that ‘to know is to do,’ that man’s salvation happens under purely revelatory auspices and that through the law given in the Divine communication is the path that man will follow once he knows and sees it. The whole mystery of human recalcitrance and ‘hardness of heart’ seems to be overlooked.” [7] [Emphasis mine]

According to Muslim anthropology, man has no need for a divine Savior; he needs only to know in order to do the will of Allah. By performing the requirements of Allah’s Shari’a (Law,) man achieves the goal of his existence and gains entrance to Paradise.

Following is a brief description of the approach used in the radio messages beamed to the Arabic-speaking Muslim world. My starting point, following the order of the Letter to the Romans, was to expound the Biblical anthropology showing the lost condition of man, and his inability to please God by his own efforts.  Actually, the Qur’an follows Rabbinical Judaism in teaching that humans, by their own efforts, can achieve righteousness. The critique of Judaism in Romans 9-11, supplies us with a similar critique of Muslim “soteriology.” Read Romans 10 and imagine Paul addressing a Muslim attempting to establish his own righteousness by works rather than believing in God’s righteousness.

“Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God, and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Romans 10:1-4 (NIV)

In Chapter 2, Paul stressed the fact that a mere knowledge of God’s revealed will was not sufficient to achieve reconciliation with Him. Muslims regard themselves as enlightened, since they believe they possess God’s final revelation of His Law in the Qur’an. They believe the followers of other religions are living in ignorance. The strong words of Paul in unmasking the superficiality of Rabbinical Judaism fit Islam as well. But lest the bearer of the Good News be perceived as exhibiting racial arrogance or superiority, Paul announces the fact that None Is Righteous.

“What shall we conclude then? Are we any better? No, not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under of sin … Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” Romans 3:19, 20 (NIV)

It must be a shattering experience for a Muslim to hear such words proclaiming man’s inability to justify himself by the “deeds prescribed” in God’s sacred law. When the Holy Spirit opens his heart to receive the teaching in Romans (1-3), then he is ready to welcome the proclamation of the Gospel and its exposition in chapters 3:21-8.

“But now, a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” Romans 3:21-25a (NIV)

Once a Muslim accepts the Biblical teaching that the law, far from being a means for man’s justification, manifests his enslavement to sin, he is open to accept the Gospel as expounded in the Letter to the Romans. Patiently and methodically, the Christian messenger must teach the Scriptures. Teach how they witness to Jesus Christ, who was both the son of David, and the Lord of David. Teach how he alone could fulfill the law on our behalf, how he healed the sick, and restored some to life, revealing his Messiahship and his primary mission to seek and to save the lost.

According to Hebrews 1, our Lord brought about the completion of God’s revelation; but he did more than that:

“After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my son; today I have become your Father?’ To which of the angels did God ever say, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’?” Hebrews 1:3b, 4, 5, 13 (NIV)

Thus far, I have outlined my approach in teaching the Holy Trinity, the Fatherhood of God, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the personality of the Holy Spirit, in my radio ministry to Muslims. I would like to reiterate, that the Trinity must be proclaimed from the Scriptures, and by following the way it was gradually revealed within the Bible.

During my years of radio broadcasting, one episode remains fresh in my mind. Early in the nineties, I received a letter from a Muslim merchant who was residing in London, England. After commenting on my command of the Arabic language, he wondered how I could believe in the Trinity. The letter did not surprise me; after all, he was sharing with me the classical Islamic critique of the Christian doctrine of God.

The following is roughly a summary of my response to this honest inquirer:

“I appreciated very much your letter and its tone. I realize that you, as a Muslim believer, do not accept the Bible’s testimony about God. But let me assure you, at the outset, that what I have been broadcasting over the years is a faithful exposition of the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. There is nothing in my radio and literature work that is contrary to God’s revelation.

“I am not surprised that you have a great difficulty in understanding this Biblical teaching about the Trinity The reason I believe in the triune God is the fact it is part and parcel of God’s revelation. I trust that you will agree with me that when we deal with such doctrines as the attributes of God, and His nature, we cannot fully comprehend them. As believers in God, we are summoned to receive what His revelation teaches. So, we should not be surprised if in a revealed religion, there are mysteries that transcend the human mind.

“May I remind you of a theological controversy that took place in the ninth century in Baghdad regarding the Qur’an? Some Muslim theologians taught that the Qur’an was created at the time of its revelation to Muhammad, (610-632 A.D.) That was necessary to safeguard the unity of Allah. However, an influential theologian and expert in the Shariah Law, Imam Hanbal, refused to accept that formulation and declared that the Qur’an was eternal. He was persecuted and imprisoned by the caliph. As you may well know, that event in your history is known as “The Ordeal of the Qur’an.” Several years later, it was the Hanbalite view that prevailed. To this day, it continues to be the official teaching of Sunni Islam.

“Muslims believe that Allah is eternal, but they confess that the Qur’an is also eternal. I do know that this is your own belief, but I do not jump to the conclusion that you confess the existence of two gods. I realize that there are mysteries that transcend our capacity to comprehend.  Should you not treat me in the same way, and not charge me with believing in three gods?”

What I pointed out to the Muslim correspondent was his obligation, as a fellow human being, to deal with me “quid pro quo.” Just as I do not accuse Islam with dualism, Muslims should refrain from regarding Christians as propounding a plurality of gods.

When we study the history of Islamic teachings, we become aware of deficiencies inherent in its doctrine of God. For example, Muslims teach that God is the “wholly Other.” He is a transcendent Being. There is no similarity whatsoever between the Creator and man, the crown of creation. Muslim theologians have devised the notion that “Allah huwa bila kayf” i.e. Allah is unlike anyone else. Neither in the Qur’an, nor in the Tradition (Hadith), is there anything close to the teaching of Genesis 1:26a, 27: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (NIV)

The doctrine of the image of God in man is another fundamental Biblical teaching. In the radio broadcasts I referred to it often, not only when dealing with creation, but also when teaching the doctrine of redemption. But I would never mention the fact that man is made in the image of God and after His likeness, without saying immediately, that I was actually quoting from the Pentateuch, or as the Muslims call it, “Tawrat Moussa.”

Since Islam propounds the doctrine of a solitary and transcendent God, it follows that no Muslim claims that he or she, can know Allah. Muslims study Allah’s Shariah and seek to conform to its demands or prohibitions; but they cannot “know” Him. Nothing in their tradition approximates these words of Paul: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection …” Philippians 3:10a NIV

It was this teaching about an impersonal God in Islam that contributed to the rise of the mystical movement known as Sufism. The Sufis played an active role in Islamic history as they tried to fill a spiritual vacuum created by the strict unitarianism of Islam. Over against the teaching that Allah could not be approached except through obedience to the demands of the Shariah, they pointed to a different way of pleasing the Almighty and thus attaining the bliss of Paradise.  Sufi leaders taught that through meditation and a strict discipline, a Muslim might arrive at the goal of existence. One such spiritual exercise they advocated was the recitation by a group of assembled men, of the Beautiful or Ninety-nine names of Allah.

Eventually, Sufism departed further and further from Orthodox Islam.  As an Egyptian scholar put it, “Sufis tended to be heretical. They taught that intuition was the way to understanding. Some of them advocated monism, while others went as far as pantheism, and claiming that there was no difference between good and evil.” [8]

The basic problem with the Islamic doctrine of God is that He remains an impersonal and remote being. A Muslim’s relation to his creator is that of a slave (‘abd) to his master. This explains the frequently given name of ‘Abdallah among Muslims. On the other hand, the doctrine of the Trinity reveals the centrality of God’s attribute of love, as we notice in Christ’s prayer on the eve of his passion. “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” John 17:24 (NIV)

In conclusion, the relevance of the doctrine of the Trinity in Missions to Muslims and to followers of other religions can appreciated by converts who find comfort and power to persist in their new-found faith, by tracing it back to the actions of the three Persons of the Trinity, as Paul taught in the opening words of Ephesians 1:

3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession—to the praise of his glory. (NIV)


Notes

1. Christ in Islam and Christianity by Neal Robinson. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 1991. p.22

2. The Qur’an. Surah #112

3. Jesus in the Qur’an by Geoffrey Parrinder. Rockport, MA: Oneworld Publications, 1995. p. 14

4. Parrinder, p. 173

5. Parrinder, p. 169

6. From the introduction: “We have witnessed in recent years the flowering of various Christian pluralistic theologies calling for unequivocal affirmation of the equal validity of all world faiths. It is argued that Christianity (and to some extent other traditions) has been infected by a virulent exclusivist virus, the disease of imagining its religious truth superior to all others and its path to salvation the only one. Advocates of pluralistic theology maintain that there is no antidote to this virus but a consistent reconstruction of the fundamentals of Christian faith.” Pp. 29-35

7. The Muslim World, Vol. 49, No. 1, January 1959

8. “The Rational and the Irrational in Our Cultural Heritage,” by Dr. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, Dar Al-Shurouq, Beirut, Lebanon (This book is available in Arabic only, it shows no publication date; most likely, it was published in the 1970s.)