How can Christians believe that there is only one God, and yet still call Jesus the Son of God?


[draft: May 7, 2009]


Note: This is not a 'scholarly piece'--it is a basic level reply to this honest individual's email. A real description/delineation of the issue would/will be much longer... and much later (smile). The data is not inaccurate—just incomplete and needing more loose ends tied up.

You wrote:

Hello dear,

Aslam-o-Alekum (Arabic greetings)

This is  XYZ. I was just browsing Christian websites and by the help of one my friends in a far city I came to you. So remember I am not Christian but I have some friends who are witnessed good Christians. I sometimes listen to Christian audio teachings.

I belong to a Muslim family, and my father is a leader of the mosque and my mother is daughter of a pure religious family. Although I am born and brought as Muslim under the teachings of Islam, I had a desire to learn about the Christianity and that is the main reason I ask questions and sometimes listen to sermons-- to know more things about this religion. Some of the sermons start with the very short psalms readings as we also believe in the psalms of Prophet David.

I listen to all these of messages with keen interests but my family doesn’t know about my activities.

Can you help me to know about HOW IS THE CHRIST SON OF GOD?

I believe in One and only great Allah

Hope to get soon from you, 

XYZ


………..


I wrote back:


Dear XYZ,

Thank you for such a warm and genuine greeting, friend.

My heart greets you warmly and wishes the best to you, as well!

I really appreciate your letter, and your obvious honest interest in this question. I can see that your parents have taught you well, to always pursue and hold on to truth—and yet be eager to learn all the things our great Allah/God would guide you to.


The Zabūr are a treasure of my heart, too. Of all the sections of the Bible, the Zabūr are closest in tone and wording (in my opinion) to that of the Qur’ān.

For example, Zabūr/Psalm 15

“Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy mountain? Those whose walk is blameless, who do what is righteous, who speak the truth from their hearts; who have no slander on their tongues, who do their neighbors no wrong, who cast no slur on others; who despise those whose ways are vile but honor whoever fears the Lord; who keep their oaths even when it hurts; who lend money to the poor without interest and do not accept bribes against the innocent. Whoever does these things will never be shaken.


Every one of these sentiments can be likewise found, even in similar wording, in passages from the Qur’ān:

"Can someone who knows that the revelation from your Lord is the Truth be equal to someone who is blind? Only those with understanding will take it to heart; 20 those who fulfill the agreements they make in God's name and do not break their pledges; 21 who join together what God commands to be joined; who are in awe of their Lord and fear the harshness of the Reckoning; 22 who remain steadfast through their desire for the face of their Lord; who keep up the prayer; who give secretly and openly from what We have provided for them; who repel evil with good. These will have the reward of the [true] home: 23 they will enter perpetual gardens, along with their righteous ancestors, spouses, and descendants; the angels will go in to them from every gate, 24 'Peace be with you, because you have remained steadfast. What an excellent reward is this home of yours!' (Sura 13:19; The Quran, A New Translation. M A S Abdel Haleen. OUP:2004)


As to your question about how is Christ legitimately called ‘Son of God’…

Many men better than I, more holy than I, more submitted to God than I, and more learned than I have tried to explain this to interested people of other faiths (especially good-hearted Muslims) over the past 14 centuries. I will probably not do as well as many of them, but I will try my best to be faithful to the Scriptures, to my understanding of our Only God, and to the realities of the limitations of our language and minds.

[This will not be well-organized—and I want to apologize up front for this (smile)--so I ask for your patience as I try to write down what comes to my heart. I do this before the face of our glorious, generous, and gracious God, knowing that He will hold me to account for my intentions, my integrity, and my humility in this attempt.

……………………….

[So, I told the Muslim friend in a quick email that I would write it up, but that it might take awhile (and that I was sick at the time).]


I began to write this up:


The very first thing that can be said—with absolute certainty—is that Christ is NOT the ‘son of god’ in the two senses correctly denounced in the Qur’ān.


The Qur’ān explicitly repudiates the claim that ‘Jesus is the wahlid of Allah’ over and over, and the Christian can agree with this completely. And the Qur’ān explicitly repudiates the idea that Allah ‘took a son unto Himself’ during history, and the orthodox Christian agrees with this completely too.


On the first point (Jesus as wahlid):

Divine sonship is denied in the Qur'an because Muhammad rejected the idea that Jesus was the product of a physical act of intercourse between God and Mary. There are two main Arabic words for son: walad and ibn. Both appear in the Qur'an. Walad is a noun that refers to the physical boy who results from the sexual union of a man and a woman. Ibn is a title of relationship. It appears, for example, in Sura 2:215 where reference is made to charity offered to family members, to orphans and to "wayfarers". A "wayfarer" is, literally, "a son of the road" or "ibn sabil". The Qur'an, in speaking of Jesus as "son", consistently uses the word walad rather than ibn. In the one (Medinan) verse denying the sonship of Jesus that uses the word ibn (Sura 9:30), the context is one of comparing Christians' elevation of Jesus as parallel to the Jewish elevation of Ezra as a son (ibn) of God. To give a human being such prestige or honour is not in the prerogative of Christians or Jews. The denial of Christ's sonship coheres almost exclusively in a disgust at the idea of Jesus as the physical product (a walad) of sexual union between God and Mary. One might argue that the Qur'an does not really deny the sonship of Christ in terms of his unique status with God (the essential ibn sense). If a "wayfarer" can be a "son of the road" in a non-physical manner, could not Christ be "son of God" in a non-physical sense?” [Kissing Cousins? Christians and Muslims Face to Face, Bill Musk, Monarch Books:2005, p342f]


The Christian denies any physical or through-marriage sonship of Jesus, and repudiates with equal clarity the polytheists of the Prophet’s day who affirmed that Allah had wives, sons, and daughters. Whatever the Christian means by ‘Son of God’, it does NOT include sex, birth, cohabitation, etc. It is purely spiritual and is not an act of reproduction.


On the second point (God as having taken someone—including Jesus—as a Divine son in history):

It is now time to consider the Quranic and Biblical use of the word ' Son' as applied to Jesus. This seems to be one of the great points of difference between these holy books, yet perhaps the difference is not so great as appears at first sight. Some of 'the sects have differed', and the Qur'an seeks to correct them.

There are many passages in the Qur’an denying that God has offspring, and only a few can be quoted. Perhaps the most famous is the short sura 112, al-Ikhlāṣ, the Unity: 'Say: "He is God, One; God, the eternal; he brought not forth, nor hath he been brought forth; Co-equal with him there hath never been any one".'

This short sura is one of the most popular, recited every day by most Muslims. It is a denial of God producing offspring in the human manner, and of God having any associates. It stresses the Unity of God and his difference from men. Since it is generally regarded as one of the earliest Meccan suras, this would mean that it was directed against the many gods of pagan Arabia, though later writers turned it also against Christian doctrine.

The attack on the polytheism of Mecca is taken up by name in 53,19-21:' Have ye considered Al-Lāt, and Al-ʿUzzā and the third, Manāt, the other (goddess)? Have ye male (issue) and he female?' This is a forceful rejection of the notion that God had either male or female offspring, and that the pagan gods or goddesses could be accommodated under this name. So constantly throughout the Qur'an such pagan deities are rejected. As W. M. Watt says, 'in passages denying that God has offspring the presumption is that the primary reference is to paganism unless there is a clear mention of Jesus'.

What then is said about Jesus in this respect? There are only three clear references, apart from those which deal specifically with semi-trinitarian ideas which will be considered in the next chapter. The first is at the conclusion of the Meccan narrative of the birth of Jesus:

19,35-36/34-35:' That is Jesus, son of Mary - a statement of the truth concerning which they are in doubt. It is not for God to take to himself any offspring; glory be to him! when he decides a thing, he simply says "Be!" and it is.'


This we saw earlier to be the declaration of the birth of Jesus by divine decree, rather than explaining it through vulgar biological speculation in the manner of the apocrypha. But for our present purpose the key words are ' take to himself any offspring'. 'Take to himself means literally to 'acquire' (yatta-khidha), and so this verse denies that God acquires a son in the course of time. This had been said by Adoptionist and Arian heretics in Christianity, who said that Jesus became or was adopted Son of God at his baptism or some other moment. But the orthodox rejected this in teaching that the Son is eternal...

There are many other Quranic verses that reject this notion of 'acquisition' of a son, usually with little clear reference to Christian or semi-Christian belief. So 10,69/68: 'They say, "God hath taken to himself offspring" .' 25,2: 'To whom belongs the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, who hath not taken to himself offspring, and who hath never had any partner in the kingdom.' 19,93-94/91-93: 'They have attributed to the Merciful offspring, when it does not behoove the Merciful to take to himself offspring. There is no one in the heavens or in the earth but cometh to the Merciful as a servant.' 39,6/4: 'Should God wish to have offspring [or ' had God desired to take to him a son'], he would choose what he willeth of what he createth.'

These may all be presumed to be directed primarily against pagan polytheism, or at the most against the Adoptionist heresy. But two other passages are more pointed. 4,169/171: 'The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only the messenger of God ... God is only one God; glory be to him (far from) his having a son.' In the light of the above this can fairly be taken to mean that Jesus, as Messiah, was not added to God as a son.

Then 9,30 says: 'The Jews say that 'Uzair is the son of God, and the Christians say that the Messiah is the son of God; that is what they say with their mouths, conforming to what was formerly said by those who disbelieved; God fight them! how they are involved in lies! They take their scholars and monks as Lords apart from God, as well as the Messiah, son of Mary, though they were only commanded to serve one God, beside whom there is no other God; glory be to him above whatever they associate (with him)!'

'Uzair is the Biblical Ezra, the name being recognized by Muslim philologists as foreign. That he is here joined with the Messiah and with scholars and monks, suggests that saint-worship is in question. But the objection to the use of the word 'son' remains against the background of Arabian paganism, to which it 'could only mean one thing, namely, the son of God by cohabitation with a woman. That this is not what Christians meant by the term goes without saying.' [Jesus in the Qur’ān, Geoffrey Parrinder, OneWorld Publishers: 1995, pp.126-128]


And one other source:

Another Christian concept that the Koran criticizes vehemently is that Jesus should be God's son. The verse just cited that negates "three" continues by saying, "Glory be to Him-that He should have a son!" (4:171). Elsewhere the Koran says, "How should He have a son, seeing that He has no female companion, and He created all things, and He has knowledge of everything?" (6:101). … Koranic usage and the general Muslim understanding make clear that by son, Muslims understand not a symbol or a metaphor, but a physical son, born of a mother, God's supposed female companion. It may be that some Christians have thought that God has taken a wife, or that he somehow impregnated the Virgin Mary, giving birth to his son. But no Christian theologian has ever imagined such a thing. For Christians, Jesus' sonship is a reality, but it cannot be taken in a physical sense.[WR:VI, 171]


In both senses, the Christian repudiates the ideas that physical paternity is in any way involved, and that any ‘begetting’ occurred inside history/time.


Secondly, we should note that we are not talking about the ‘ruling’ or ‘royal’ type of sonship, since that is fairly innocent. For example, angels are called ‘sons of God’ (even though there is no hint of them being ‘offspring’ of God!), the kings of Israel (e.g., David and Solomon) are called ‘sons of God’, and even the nation Israel is called a ‘son’ of God in the Bible. Respected leaders were called ‘father’ out of respect, and a king’s subjects could be called ‘sons’. And, in the Injil, the believers are called children of God (and they can call God ‘Father’—Ephesians 4.6: “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all) But these are historical and functional and imply no procreation/reproduction by God. (In fact, Jesus --- as a royal descendent of David and heir to the messianic throne – was a ‘son of God’ in this official sense, too, but that is not the aspect of sonship that is difficult theologically.)


Thirdly, the Christian also does not (and indeed, cannot) affirm that Christ as ‘Son of God’ is somehow a ‘second God’, like an adult son living in the same household with his adult father would be. The Christian is ‘stuck’—so to speak—inside monotheism. The bible – both Old and New Testaments – are consistent in their insistence on this. In the Injil, both Jesus, James, and Paul affirm this:

Jesus (Mark 12.28ff): “One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Jesus (John 5.36ff): “I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the very work that the Father has given me to finish, and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. “I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; but if someone else comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?

James (James 2.19): “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Paul (1 Cor 8.4ff): “So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.”

Paul (1 Tim 2.3f): “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men—the testimony given in its proper time.


So, whatever the Christian means by saying that Jesus is the “Son of God”, it cannot mean that there are two or more Gods. [In Quranic terminology, Jesus is not a ‘two of three’, nor is God the ‘third of three’—cf Sura 5.73: “Unbelievers too are those who have said that Allah is the third of three. For there is no god except the One God…” . The Christian can—and must before God-- wholeheartedly agree with this statement.] The Christian is ‘locked into’ monotheism by the words of Scripture. There is ONE God and God is ONE (tawhid) BEING. There are no other beings equal to God, whatsoever.


……………………………


[Break: before I got any further in the writing, he had already written me again—eager for my response (which I obviously had barely started):


Is the faith complete without Christ? If there is one and only God should we not trust in Him only? How can I better understand these difficulties...friend.



I wrote just a brief note back, and then doubled my efforts to try and write something quickly/helpful. Here was my quick response:



The question is more complicated than that, and that is part of why I am giving careful thought to how to explain something that is poorly understood even by Christian Believers.

The problem comes with the difficulty of understanding and articulating the relationship between Christ and God the Father, and this difficulty is shared—in some form or another—with ALL monotheistic religions with a Personal God.

To use the form of the honest question you raised, I can show the difficulty (hopefully):

If I asked a Muslim theologian or scholar these questions, you can probably see that they would have to ‘go slow’ to answer also:

Do we have to trust the Mercy of Allah, or is it enough to trust ONLY Allah?”

Do we have to trust the Qur’an, or is it enough to trust ONLY Allah?”

Do we have to trust the way of submission, or is it enough to trust ONLY Allah?”

Do we have to submit to the Qur’an or is it enough to submit to Allah ALONE?”



See the problem? – There is a connection between all of the two ‘sides’ of the question—they are somehow connected in such a way that the question is somehow ‘wrong’ in the way it is worded. The good Muslim theologian would try to make clear and distinct the relationship(s) between the words/terms, which is what I will have to do with your good question. I AM trying to get clear-headed enough from this flu, as soon as I can, to try to respond—and I am very sorry if I am frustrating you by my limitations—but I can only go as fast as our God will let/empower me, in my current situation.



So, for the followers of Isa, the questions are similarly complex and ‘odd’ sounding. For example,

Do I have to trust Jesus and God, or do I trust God alone, or do I trust God through trusting Jesus?”

(sort of like “Do I submit to the Qur’an AND to Allah, or do I submit to Allah alone, or do I submit TO Allah THROUGH submission to the Qur’an?”)



Some of these matters we MIGHT have to simply affirm/state without trying to understand the ‘how’ (like the Muslim Ash’arites--the fathers of contemporary Sunni orthodoxy-- had to do with the Face and Throne verses in the Qur’an, and the early debates over the eternity of the Qur’an):

As regards expressions involving the face of God, here, again, we find (apart from the anthropomorphists who held it to be a physical face) the Mu'tazilites held that 'the face of God' means God Himself, that it is common in Arabic to use 'the face' and mean the person. On the other hand, the Ash'arites maintained that He does have a face, that His face is an attribute pertaining to His essence sifat dhat.’ Building on the principle of tanzih/mukhalafatuhu li'l-hawadith 'that nothing which is applied to a created being should be ascribed to God in the same sense', the Ash'arites consider that — unlike the Mu'tazilites - they have not compromised the meaning of Qur'anic expression, while at the same time, unlike the mushabbiha, they have not conceded to the danger of anthropomorphism.’ Al-Ash'ari summed up the view of ahl al-hadith who state on this point: 'We say nothing on the subject except what God Almighty said and what the Prophet (peace be upon him) said. Thus we say: He does have a face, without specifying how. [Understanding the Quran: Themes and Styles, Muhammad Abdel Haleem, IB Taurus Books:1999, page 110]

And

To help simplify the complex arguments, we can cite as an example the debate over the eternity of the Koran. This discussion goes back to the fundamental theological issue of the exact relationship between the divine attributes and the divine essence. The Mu'tazilites, depending upon rational understanding and the laws of logic, insisted that the answer had to be "either/or": Either the attributes were the same as the essence, or they were different from the essence. Logically, it is impossible for a thing to be the same and different at one and the same time. They opted for making the attributes the same as the essence. Having done so, they concluded that the Koran had to be considered other than God's essence, and hence it was created.

In contrast, the Ash'arites insisted that God could not be made to fit into the constraints of human logic. We cannot claim to understand God in the same way that we understand the things of this world. "Either/or" may work for created things, but it does not necessarily work for the Uncreated, which belongs to an utterly different order of reality. In the end, the Ash'arites adopted a formula that breaks the laws of Aristotelian logic: "They [the attributes] are neither He nor other than He." Inasmuch as God's speech is the same as God and the Koran is God's speech, the Koran had to be eternal. Hence, the Ash'arites argued for its eternity, but they did not deny that the Koran was created inasmuch as it was written in books and recited by tongues. The Ash'arite formula on the attributes is an early expression of an idea that we have been discussing all along: God is both incomparable and similar at the same time. It is one of many ways of bringing tanzih and tashbih together into an apparently paradoxical marriage. [The Vision of Islam, Sachiko Murata and William Chittick, ParagonHouse:1994, pp245f]



Early in Islamic history, Arabian and Syrian Christians tried to say the same thing about Isa: As the Word/Speech of God (described so in both Injil and Qur’an, of course)—to use the sentence from the quote above—“God’s speech/Word is the same as God and (the non-physical part of) Christ is God’s speech/word…”. and the Christians could use the same response (back then) as the Ash’arites did to the Mu’tazilites: “We say Christ is a ‘part’ or ‘aspect’ of God, without specifying how.

But I am getting ahead of myself, and it is now almost 11pm and I must get some sleep or I will get sicker—but you can see some of the reasons I am trying to honor your request for real DATA on this important question…

Both Christians and Muslims (ignoring for a moment the terminology problems) have problems in talking about the great transcendent and incomparable (tanzīh) God and how He has interfaced with history and language, so we will BOTH be ‘stuck with’ revealed statements by God that we will have to simply ‘affirm what the Revelation says’, without being able to explain the ‘How’. So, since I do not want to go beyond what the Books say, I have to be very careful to stay within the general limits and boundaries set by the Scriptures—

So, bear with me friend, and I will do my very, very, best for your very, very honest and open and eager heart. I want you to critically examine what I write—since you will have to answer to our God for how you respond, just as I will have to answer for what I write--!

But thanks for keeping after me about this—I have been thinking about this topic for several years now, as I have read thousands and thousands of pages of Muslim theology and history (and the Quran several times in various English translations or interpretations). And I am eager to try to set this out in explanation the way I have experienced it myself in joygoodnight for now…

Warmly,

Glenn

…………………………………



(So, then I tried to pick up the pace of the writing…sigh… repeating some of the points about the common theological challenges in talking about the Exalted One. )


Fourthly, when the Christian theologian starts using human language in talking about the relationship between Jesus and God the Father, he quickly runs into the same sorts of problems that early Muslim theologians ran into in dealing with

(1) anthropomorphic language in the Qur’an,

(2) the question of the createdness-or-eternity of the Qur’an,

(3) the complete uniqueness/tanzīh of God; and

(4) concerning the ‘attributes’ of Allah.


So, here we have to digress from the Christian claims—briefly—to how Muslim theology historically dealt with some rather similar issues.


Let’s look at these issues in Muslim theological history, as a backdrop to our discussion of Jesus as “Son of God”.


First, the question of anthropomorphic language in the Qur’an.


The Qur’an includes a few descriptions of Allah which represent Him as having human-like (physical) characteristics—just like the Tawrāt and Injīl do. Muslim theology had to figure out what to do with such language, since God was known to be ‘non-physical’ and yet God had described Himself in such images. They (at least the mainstream Sunnis) settled on ‘affirming’ it, without ‘explaining’ it:

On the question of divine unity, al-Ashcari clung to his key scriptural texts that there is naught like Him (42:9) and none is His equal (i 12:4), which the Mu'tazilites accepted, too, as we have seen above. Allah is one, single, and eternal and can in no way be likened to his creatures. From this point of agreement, however, al-Ash'ari did not draw the same conclusions as the Mu'tazilites. As for the divine attributes, he accepted Allah's description of himself in the Qur'an. Thus he said: "If we are asked, 'Do you believe Allah has two hands?' the answer is: We believe it and His words / have created with my two hands (38:75) is proof of it." In addition to this scriptural support, he also offered a rational explanation based upon linguistic usage that "hands" cannot be understood allegorically to mean "grace" after the Mu’tazilite fashion. In ordinary Arabic usage (the language of the Qur'an) one cannot say "I have done something with my hands" meaning "with my grace." Nor can the expressions "hands" and "eyes" (54:14) and "face" (55:27) be understood in a crudely anthropomorphic way. Mankind simply cannot fathom these de­scriptions. They are to be accepted bila kayfa, "without questioning how" they all harmoniously form part of Allah's nature. This avoided risk of attributing to Allah what he had not revealed of himself." [WR:II2, 121]

On the problem of anthropomorphism al-Ash'ari systematically opposed the metaphorical interpretation of the Mu'tazilites, but he also denied any resemblance between God and his creatures. The danger of associating God with creation was so serious, in fact, that it would be sinful to even move one's hand while reading a passage concerning the hand of God. It is wrong to seek out metaphorical explanations, thus denying the plain sense of scrip­ture; it is equally wrong to attribute human characteristics to God. Thus the language of the Qur'an and the tradition is simply to be accepted, bila kayfa, without knowing how: "God is upon His throne, as He has said, The Merciful is seated on The Throne.' He has two hands, bila kayfa, as He said, 'I have created with My two hands'. . . and He has two eyes, bila kayfa, as He has said, 'Under Our eyes it floated on.'" [WR:NII, 147]


The orthodox (Ash’arite) Sunni had to affirm a seemingly paradoxical statement—without being able to explain the ‘how.


Second, the createdness-versus-eternity of the Qur’an.

We have already seen this example, that Muslim orthodoxy had ‘two eternals’—and it was ‘solved’ by simply ignoring it… It was paradoxically ‘affirmed’.

The question now at stake was: Does the Qur'an co-exist with God in all eternity? No controversy has influenced Islamic scholarship in general, and Qur'anic scholarship in particular, as decisively as this one. .. The new refined orthodox doctrine on the nature of the Qur'an is expressed epigrammatically in a sentence attributed to Ibn Hanbal: "What lies between the two covers is the Speech of Allah" (Ibn Hanbal, 1959, 1:415). It specifies that the Qur'an, the Speech of God, is eternal, and uncreated in its essence and sense, (but) created in its letters and sounds (harf wa jarh). Soon it came to pass that that "which is read in the prayer niches as it emerges from the throats of the believers" was upheld as inseparable from God's eternal and uncreated word. The expression "my uttering of the Qur'an is created" was denounced as heretical and even Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari (d. 256/870), the great compiler of Prophetic tradition who considered such pronouncements permissible, was not saved from denunciation. As the scope of the doctrine of the eternal and uncreated Qur'an expanded, the position articulated by Ibn Hanbal and later the Ash'arites, came to occupy the center and their doctrine triumphed as the intermediate position.” [WR:QUG:105, 109]

(The Christian recognizes in this the amazing parallels with the challenges of understanding the Incarnation… when a mosque accidentally burns to the ground, does the eternal Qur’an—‘incarnated in a scroll’-- in the building burn too? …)


Third, the complete uniqueness/tanzih of God.

Muslim orthodoxy (both Sunni and Shi’i) holds that Allah is absolutely Other and Unique and Beyond Everything. Historically, this is called tanzih:

Tanzih means literally "to declare something pure and free of some­thing else." It is to assert that God is pure and free of all the defects and imperfections of the creatures. In the perspective of tanzih, God is so holy and pure that he cannot be compared to any created thing, including concepts, since all our ideas are created. The Koranic verse that expresses tanzih most clearly is "Nothing is like Him" (42:11). [WR:VI, 71]

In their anxiety to purify the concept of tawḥīd, the Muʿtazilites extolled, on the contrary, tanzīh, ‘withdrawal’, the via remotionis which they applied with extreme rigour: one must deny God every created thing, as the Kur’an commands. The Djahmites, disciples of the Djabbārite Djahm b. Safwān, had practically denied the existence of the attributes, God being known only as an inscrutable omnipotence. The Muʿtazilite tanzīh, on the other hand, took the theistic standpoint of a ruling God. They recognized the divine attributes of knowledge, power, speech, etc., but asserted that they were ‘identical with the essence’, a distinction which was, for them, hardly more than nominalThe ‘orthodox’ schools likewise practiced tanzīh, i.e., they denied God any resemblance to anything: He is neither body nor substance (djawahar, in the sense of bounded substance) nor accidents, nor is He localized, etc. (It must be noted that the Karrāmites had recognized God as substance, by which they understood self-existent)—The Ashʿarite reform, in the name of the ‘golden mean’, held itself equally aloof from the Muʿtazilite tendency to prove everything rationally, and from the literalism of the mudjassima. This was the famous principle bilā kayfa lā tashbīh, ‘without ‘how’ or comparison’”. It accused the Muʿtazilie tanzīh of amounting to the as taʿtīl [emptying, denying], divesting the attributes of all reality and making of God no more than an empty concept. The Ashʿarites, for their part, while recognizing the entire reality of the attributes, since the Kur’an informs us of them, yet affirmed that this reality can in no way compromise the perfect divine Unity.” [EI, s.v. ‘Allah’]

Taken to its extreme (which some of the groups seemed to approach), one cannot even speak of Allah at allHe could not be a concept, a subject of a sentence, a target for prayer—for all of these are ‘things’, or ‘concepts’, or ‘a direction’ or ‘some-things’… A God who cannot be the subject of language cannot—logically—even reveal His will to humans in a Scripture.

The ‘answer’ of Sunni orthodoxy was simple: we affirm it anyway, and we cannot explain the ‘how’We said God is ‘merciful’, but not in any way like we say a human ruler is ‘merciful’. And thus the question of –“then what DOES ‘merciful’ mean when God says it?”—arises to the foreground. And any religion or belief system that starts with God’s absolute Otherness can go no further than that… and, in fact, you cannot even ‘say’ that ‘God is unlike every other thing’—since that makes God an object too… You get the point… Muslim theology had to accept some basic ‘realities’ without being able to defend them or explain the ‘how’.


Fourth, the ‘attributes’ of Allah.

It all comes to a head here, of course, when the Muslim theologian wants to praise Allah. He wants to proclaim the greatness of His mercy, His power, His patience, His wisdom, and so on. Muslim theology --- as it developed its theology—had to proclaim these attributes while also developing its view of the unicity/unity/tawhīd of Allah. The ‘more’ perfections/attributes of God they proclaimed (as either found in the Qur’an or articulated in Hadith), the greater the problem of the ‘singularity’ of God’s being became. Theology said that Allah could not ‘contain’ any multiplicity. He could not have mercy and justice ‘inside’ (for that would be plurality). [Technically, He could not actually even ‘speak a sentence’—since a sentence consists of separate words—again, a plurality.]

Later Muslim theology tied itself up in knots on this , just as Christian theologians had done previously with Aristotelian notions of a ‘God without parts’—a monad, an undifferentiated ‘blob’ of existence… A concept so removed from the Living and Loving, patient and passionate God of the Scriptures… No theology has adequately framed theology ‘cleanly’ in this perspective…

And, like others before them, the Muslim theologians had to move back to what was revealed: We affirm it because God said it, and we give up on understanding the how. We just affirm—without further explanations—that God has a multiplicity of attributes, but that this multiplicity somehow, someway does NOT contradict or compromise His unity, tawhīd, essence.

Now, I have used mainstream Sunni theology to show that this ‘tension’ or ‘inexplicability’ is accepted methodologically, but the same thing can be shown from mainstream Shi’i groups as well, since most of them adopted many of the Mu’tazilite perspectives in their theologies. For example, the Twelvers:

But it was the adoption of Mu’tazilism, the school par excellence of divine justice, that signaled the true development of Twelver Theology” [Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, p.92]

For the Mu’tazilites, the ‘gross’ anthropomorphisms of the Qur’an cannot be taken literally, or God’s transcendence (and difference from the creation) would be compromised. Even human-looking descriptions of Allan (‘attributes’) could not really refer to something in/with God, for that would likewise be a problem. But their solution seemed to make God more-or-less unknowable altogether (although it probably did a better job at defending divine unity), and still ended up in paradoxes also:

This formula (the Hanbali/Asherite ‘affirm the Face, but don’t ask how’ position) horrified the Rationalists [tn: the Mu’tazilites], and especially scholars such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the West; 980-1037], who considered God’s attributes—God’s knowledge, speech, etc.—to be nothing more than ‘guideposts’ that merely reflected the human mind’s understanding of the Divine, not the Divine itself. The Rationalists argued that God’s attributes could not possible exist eternally with God, but must be a part of creation. Assigning eternal attributes to God would, according the Wasil ibn Ata (d. 748), founder of the Mu’taziliate school, be tantamount to arguing for the existence of more than one eternal being.[No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, Reza Aslan, RandomHouse:2006, p.155]

The Mu'tazilite thesis regarding the creation of the Qur'an appears as ill founded on the same grounds that it presupposes, namely, the radical observance of God's transcendence. By stressing transcendence, the belief in the scripture's created status implies that the divine attri­butes are not real, but are rather revealed in a worldly language for the convenience of human comprehension. The reality of divinity seems to be determinable by the judgements of human reason, which see fit to reject multiplicity even to the point of refuting the attributes and affirming that God's Word was created. The Mu'tazilites censored, through rational directives, the classes of meaningful propositions that could be uttered about the divine. However, by believing that "human reason" sufficiently measures what is applicable to God, transcendence became paradoxically delimited by a negation of the attributes. Fur­thermore, the unfolding of this rationalist impetus resulted in picturing the Qur'an as a creature.In an archetypal Mu'tazilite move, Wasil ibn 'Ata' jd. 748) is believed to have rejected the affirmation of the attributes of knowledge, power, will, and life, in order to negate a "plur­ality of eternals".” [Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, p.123]

The Mu’tazilite tawḥid, like that of some modern philosophers such as Martin Buber, is a unity in name only; the question of how the supposed unity can contain differentiated contraries is simply ignored.” [Ency of Islam, 3rd Ed. Cyril Glasse, s.v. “Mutazilites”]


In a recent compendium of Imami doctrines, the article entitled “Oneness of the Attributes” reveals the same dynamic—the unity is ASSERTED, without any real proof or explanation, while the multiple attributes are AFFIRMED too:

“The second degree of Tawhid pertains to the oneness of the di­vine attributes. We know that God is the possessor of all attributes of perfection; both intellect and revelation indicate the reality of the attributes within the Essence of the Creator. Therefore we know that God is Knowing, Powerful, Living, Hearing, Seeing, and so on. These attributes are distinguished one from the other as regards meaning: that which we understand by the word 'Know­ing' is distinct from that which we understand by the word 'Powerful'. But the question is this: If these attributes are distinct in terms of meaning, are they also distinct in terms of objective reality, that is, within the divine nature, or are they united at this level?In response to this question, we would say that if such distinc­tions are found within the Essence of God, then there will be multiplicity and compounded-ness within the Divine Essence. It must therefore be understood with the utmost clarity that while these attributes are distinct from each other as regards their respective meanings, they are at one as regards their inmost reality. In other words, the Essence of God comprises, within its abso­lutely undifferentiated nature, all of these perfections; it is not the case that one part of the Essence consists of knowledge, an­other part of power, and yet another of life. As the sages say: 'Nay, He is Knowledge, all of Him; He is Power, all of Him; He is Life, all of Him.'Therefore, the essential attributes of God are in reality eternal and everlasting, partaking of the absolute unity of the Divine Es­sence. The view of those who regard the attributes of God as eternal and everlasting, but somehow added to the Essence, is erroneous. This is an opinion derived from a false analogy between the at­tributes of God and those of man…” [Doctrines of Shi’i Islam: A Compendium of Imami Beliefs and Practices, by Ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani, Article 29.]


This is, of course, the same problem we saw for the Sunni’s: the ‘contraries’ are asserted/affirmed, while ignoring (deliberately, as an act of faith even) the contradictions/challenges therein… See the problem?

………………..


Okay, so I just wanted to set this as backdrop… Muslim theology has always had problems with the Divine nature, human language, and the limits with our ‘precision’ and ‘understanding’ of the ‘how’. I am not ‘picking on’ Muslim theologians--!—but rather showing that they are ‘brothers in difficulty’ with their Christian theologian counterparts!

Our Christian exploration will show the same kinds of problems: We accept the ‘THAT’ on the basis of revelation, we describe the ‘WHAT’ as best we can with analogies, other scriptural clues, and technical language, and we often can NOT specify the ‘HOW’ beyond more than a page or two of discussion—before we get caught up in contradictions, logical impossibilities, and even blasphemy.

So, I ask for the Muslim readership of this next part to remember this background—and do not judge the explanation by criteria that would also be a problem for your tradition. Do not use a ‘double standard’, but use the same ‘stones’ for weighing the Christian position, as you would for weighing your own.

Ok, here I go…


Now, when we turn to the Christian’s affirmation that “Christ is the Son of God”, we are faced with the same basic challenges:

  1. We say it only because God in the Scriptures says it

  2. We know what it does NOT mean

  3. We do NOT know ‘how’ it can be the case

  4. We can only suggest analogies—but we cannot ‘depend’ on them because they all ‘break’ at some point.

  5. We submit to it—because the truth comes from God alone.


Let’s look at each of these:


One: We say it only because God in the Scriptures says it.


God speaks this from heaven:

Matt 3:16: As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." [Notice in this passage that the Father calls him "My Son" and indicates that He is 'pleased' with Jesus--even BEFORE His ministry begins.]

Matt 17.5: While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!"--Note: The Father speaks again, recognizing Jesus as His Son--beloved, well-pleasing, and worthy of attention, toward the end of His earthly ministry.


God reveals this truth to Jesus’ followers:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” [Gospel of Matthew 16:13ff. Notice that Jesus referred to Himself as the ‘Son of Man’, but that God the Father had revealed to Peter—directly without a human intermediary—that Jesus was ‘Son of the living God’.


Jesus—in His humility—almost always referred to Himself with the more lowly title “the Son of Man” (even when describing His exalted roles in the future), but never referred to anyone but God as His “Father”. He always confirmed that He was submitted to the will of God, always doing what pleased Him, but always acted as if He and the Father were uniquelyconnected’ or ‘one’ in a special sense.

Mt 11.27: No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.--Notice: Jesus claims to be the ONLY person who knows the Father! And to be the only distributor of that knowledge! This is a claim to unique Sonship and relationship to God if there ever was one.

Jn 14.9: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? 10 Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. 11 Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.--These are statements of extreme unity--they boggle the mind in the metaphysics, of course, but their import as to the indentity/unity/shared-life are quite clear.

Jn 5.17ff: Jesus said to them, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working." 18 For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. 19 Jesus gave them this answer: "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. 21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. 22 Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him.

Jn 6.38: For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me

Jn 6.46: No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.--This is an unusually strong statement. No one has seen the invisible Father, except the Son who is 'from God'. A very strong claim to uniqueness, exclusivity, and intimacy with the Father.

Jn 8.38: I am telling you what I have seen in the Father's presence,--Notice: Jesus actually claims to have SEEN the Father, not just to have HEARD the Father.

Jn 10.30-39: I and the Father are one." 31 Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him, 32 but Jesus said to them, "I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?" 33 "We are not stoning you for any of these," replied the Jews, "but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God." 34 Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your Law, 'I have said you are gods'? 35 If he called them 'gods,' to whom the word of God came -- and the Scripture cannot be broken -- 36 what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, 'I am God's Son'? 37 Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. 38 But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father." 39 Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp. [This passage is so very clear as to the intent and content of Jesus' claims--they were explicitly claims to being a “part of God” and “united with the Father”! His affirmation of unity (30) is understood immediately as being a claim to deity (33). Jesus defends his affirmation with a technical argument in Rabbinic style ("qal wahomer": BEAP:69). The general argument type is like this: "If it is okay to use the term X in a limited sense on Y, then it is certainly okay to use it in an expanded sense on a Z that is so much more than Y". In this passage, He thus argues that if it was okay in the Psalms to call the Israelite leaders 'elohim' (lowercase ‘gods’) once, then it was CERTAINLY appropriate to call the pre-existent One, special of the Father, perfect image of the Father's character and actions, "GOD". And, once again, they understood that claim to REAL union with God the Father, and tried to seize him! His claims were quite clear in those days--He was claiming to somehow HE was in the Father, and the Father was in him—union of being, but with multiple ‘persons’.]

Jn 11.4: When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it."--Notice, this event couples "Gods glory" with the "glorification of God's SON"! The two are somehow identical.

Jn 20.17: Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"--This is one of the strangest passages in scripture, with an odd construction. Why does Jesus differentiate between HIS sonship and the sonship of His followers? Probably since His Sonship is totally unique. Craig (RF:245) points out "And notice that although Jesus may have taught his disciples to pray to God as 'Abba,' he never joined them in praying 'Our Father...' On the contrary, he always referred to God as 'My Father'. This distinction leads to an odd circumlocution like John 20.12...Jesus prayer life thus shows that he thought of himself as God's Son in a unique sense that set him apart from the rest of the disciples."

I ascend to my FatherThat was what He had said often before (in effect); but now He adds and your Father. His Father was their Father too, although there was a difference in the relation (see on 2:16, below); and of this He would remind them now. Observe He does not say “Our Father.”

And my God. So He said “My God” on the Cross (Mk. 15:34); cf. Rev. 3:2. He is still Man, and so Paul repeatedly has the expression “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6, etc.). And His God is the God also of His disciples — the only God. [Bernard, J. H. (1929). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel according to St. John. Paged continuously. (A. H. McNeile, Ed.) (2:671). New York: C. Scribner' Sons.]


He showed this difference in John 2.16:

According to Jn., Jesus seems to object to the traffic in itself, honest or dishonest, as secular business that ought not to be transacted in a sacred place: “Make not my Fathers house a house of merchandise” (but see above, at p. 87). The remarkable phrase my Father”—not “our Father”is not found in Mk., but it occurs 4 times in Lk., 16 times in Mt., and 27 times in Jn. We have thus the authority of Mt. and Lk., as well as that of Jn., for regarding it as a phrase which Jesus used habitually. It indicates a peculiar relationship between Him and God, the Father of all, which is not shared by the sons of men (cf. Jn. 20:17).

[Bernard, J. H. (1929). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel according to St. John. Paged continuously. (A. H. McNeile, Ed.) (1:91). New York: C. Scribner' Sons.]


Although He did not often call Himself “Son of God” or even “Messiah”, He always affirmed it when someone else did so. He never rebuked them for this, and even confirmed their statements as truth:

Matt 26.63ff: The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." 64 "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." 65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?" "He is worthy of death," they answered.[Notice how clear this is: Jesus calls Himself the ‘Son of Man’, but agrees with His enemy that He is indeed ‘The Son of the Living God’. And the enemies understand that this is not the same kind of innocent ‘sonship’ that Christians describe of themselves. I call God my Father, and I accept that He accepts me and treats me as a ‘son’, but my personal claim that “God is my Heavenly Father’ would not have gotten ME killed at that trial!—they knew the difference between my ‘sonship’ and Jesus’ “SONship”]

John 1.26-30,34: "I baptize with water," John replied, "but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." 28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing. 29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, `A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.'... I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God."

Jn 17.5: And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began


Even the demons/jinn knew His status as unique Son—but He would not let them exalt Him, before He had finished the work the Father had sent Him to do on Earth in human form:

Matt 8.28-29: When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way. 29 "What do you want with us, Son of God?" they shouted. "Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?"

Mark 3.11-12: Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, "You are the Son of God." 12 But he gave them strict orders not to tell who he was.


These passages are from the time in which Jesus walked on earth. We could fill pages and pages with similar statements from other books of the New Testament, written by His followers.

I should also mention that there are many, many passages in which Jesus is spoken of as God’s Son in the human-ruler type of fashion (like David and Solomon and other kings in ancient Israel were called ‘sons of God’. On the day they were proclaimed kings over the nation, they were said to have been ‘begotten’ (i.e. adopted) of God—as an earthly prince might be made a ruler of a small state, by his king father. )

But the passages above are too strong for this rather innocent (and traditional) sense. They were understood by His contemporaries to be blasphemous statements, and claims of some kind of equal-but-submissive relationship to/with/within God the Father. To be honest with the New Testament (the same one that was present in the Prophet’s day and time) is to admit that it uniformly bears witness to this exalted and above-human/above-angelic sonship of Jesus to God the Father.

And this brings us to point Two…


Two: We know what it does NOT mean

We know that these ascriptions of ‘divine Sonship’ by Jesus and his earliest disciples do NOT mean God took a wife who had a baby, or that God somehow ‘turned a man into a god’ (an impossibility—God is not created or made!).

We know that these particular scriptures do not talk about ‘normal’ and ‘weaker’ forms of sonship—that of a ruler (e.g. David, elders of ancient Israel), or of a trusted servant (e.g. the angels who witnessed the creation of the world by God), or of a covenant partner (like ancient Israel was called the ‘son’ of God in the Tawrat).

Of course, this agrees with the Qur’an—God has no ‘offspring’. We have noted this already, but let me restate/requote it here—Christians agree with the Qur’anic rebuttals of divine ‘procreation’(!):

Another Christian concept that the Koran criticizes vehemently is that Jesus should be God's son. The verse just cited that negates "three" continues by saying, "Glory be to Him-that He should have a son!" (4:171). Elsewhere the Koran says, "How should He have a son, seeing that He has no female companion, and He created all things, and He has knowledge of everything?" (6:101). … Koranic usage and the general Muslim understanding make clear that by son, Muslims understand not a symbol or a metaphor, but a physical son, born of a mother, God's supposed female companion. It may be that some Christians have thought that God has taken a wife, or that he somehow impregnated the Virgin Mary, giving birth to his son. But no Christian theologian has ever imagined such a thing. For Christians, Jesus' sonship is a reality, but it cannot be taken in a physical sense.[WR:VI, 171]

And so we are ‘stuck with’ point number Three…


Three: We do NOT know ‘how’ it can be the case

Just as the Muslim theologian cannot say ‘how’ Allah can sit on a throne, and cannot say ‘how’ there can be an eternal Word which is separate-from-but-identical-with Allah, and cannot say ‘how’ the word ‘merciful’ applies to an Allah who cannot be compared with humans who are ‘merciful’, so the Christian cannot say ‘how’ there can be ONLY ONE GOD, but TWO “minds”(?) or “consciousnesses” which are ‘inside’(?) this ONE BEING GOD.

And, just as the Muslim theologian has to still STATE and AFFIRM what they cannot explain (because they are submissive to the Qur’an), so too the Christian has to still STATE and AFFIRM what they cannot explain (because they are submissive to the Scriptures—the same Scriptures which the Qur’an is said repeatedly to be a confirmation of).

So, to be perfectly honest, we humans are not able to really explain the ‘how’ of God, nor of how God relates to the created world (including the created human body of Jesus).

We simply are required to affirm that the One Unique God is greater than all created beings, in that He contains more than ‘just’ one Mind. Created beings are somewhat unitary—we have one body and one mind—but the Divine Being cannot be compared to that, or constrained to that simple of a model. He is more complex than we, more robust than we, more ‘rich inside’ than we. He somehow incorporates a Father and a Son ‘within’ a SINGLE BEING.

We do not know HOW this can be the case, but – as we have noted repeatedly already -- it is not radically different from the Muslim theologian’s challenge with ‘two eternals’: an eternal Allah and an eternal Qur’an. The Muslim theologian must state: there is only ONE ‘eternal’, but this ONE eternal ‘contains’ two separate-but-identical (see the paradox problem here?) ‘somethings’—Allah and His Word/Qur’an.

We both ‘run out of words’ and ‘run out of understanding’ in these cases—for God is beyond us, yet He still discloses truth to us in human words in Scripture.

I wish I could explain it – and I wish I understood it myself! – but we humans are ‘stuck here’, no matter where we stand. But the Christian no more understands the ‘how’ of the divine Sonship of the mind of Christ, than a Muslim theologian understands the ‘how’ of the eternity of the Qur’an.

But we should remember that we are not ‘in the dark’ here—we are not guessing at this, for we hold that God Himself has revealed these words and these statements and these ‘images’ to us. We have to affirm them, and they DO MEAN SOMETHING, but we cannot be very precise about the ‘how’.

Which leads us to the ways we try to understand (vaguely, dimly, in outline) these revealed words.


Four: We can only suggest analogies—but we cannot ‘depend’ on them because they all ‘break’ at some point.

Historically, Christian theologians have generally tried to understand this plurality-in-oneness through analogies and philosophical terms. I personally do not think they achieved much more than what the Injil/New Testament states in the more general terms.

I do not presume to know more than those before me, but I do have peace and a clear conscience before God in my heart for one ‘analogy’ or ‘perspective’ on this, suggested by the words of Jesus Himself.

For me, when Jesus made the statement that “He who has seen me, has seen the Father”, this was a key to understanding more of the ‘what’but not the ‘how’—of the unique Son/Father relationship described in Scripture.

Here’s how I see this… in a couple of parts:

Have you ever noticed how you can see the ‘parents’ in the face of their child? We often comment that a kid has his father’s eyes, but his mother’s nose? Or the height of the mom, and the feet of the dad? And so on… We even use the expression ‘I can see your dad in your chin line’ or ‘I can see your mom’s eyes in you’…

We obviously do not mean that the mother’s actual eyes were removed from her and put into the son, but we also don’t mean that the eyes of the son are ‘accidentally like’ those of his mother. We know that the form of the eyes of the mother are somehow present in the eyes of the son.

Of course, in modern times we know the ‘how’ of that relationship: the genes/DNA. The ‘information’ in the mother’s genetic material/DNA is ‘shared’(?) with the genetic material/DNA of the son. The material itself is physically separate (i.e., their bodies are physically separated in space), but the information content of the genes is ‘identical’ (or ‘shared’ between the two bodies).

[An analogy from Muslim theology might help with this image. In Muslim theology, two physical copies of the Qur’an are physically separate, but the information content of them is identical (or ‘shared’ between the two copies). Or—even more complex—the content of the heavenly eternal Qur’an is said to be ‘in between the covers’ of every physical copy of the Qur’an on earth, but still also up in heaven.]

In this sense, the mother ‘is present inside’ the son (in the sense of the shared DNA), even though they are physically separate.

Next part: In this same sense, though, the son is already “present in” the parents (since all of the DNA comes from the pair). Hypothetically, if humans were like some asexual life forms, fathers (for example) could create identical ‘sons’ from their single set of genes, or mothers could create daughters identical to them – through their single set of genes. And if these sons/daughters—identical in ‘information content’ to their father/mother—lived INSIDE the body of the parent (and was not ‘born’ later into a separate body), it would look like a single being (body, in this case), with two minds (father and son), who looked identical. To ‘see’ the facial expressions and ‘hear’ the speech of one, would be to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the other one TOO.

[We actually even experience this with fathers/sons—we can ‘hear’ the father’s voice in the son’s telling of a story, for example.]

If an adult father and an adult son somehow ‘shared’ the same body, then they could meaningfully talk about each other—as if they were separate persons—without denying that they were the same organism.

It is a complex image—but not unimaginable—but we might expect an Exalted God to be more complex and more robust and more complicated that we simple beings of clay.

Next part: In fact, the human race can also be seen as ‘one being’ with ‘many personalities’. Since we all were somehow present in some initial set of parents (both Muslim and Christian tradition holds to one original human as the progenitor of the entire race), in an ‘information’ sense we ALL were ‘present’ in Adam—in some sense. We were not ‘merely potentially’ in Adam (as ‘potential combinations of chromosomes’), but we were somehow contained in him. Through time, we ‘left his body’, but we---importantly—shared the exact same human nature. We all ‘share’ the same human nature (not numerically, but informationally—or in essence), but we are different minds/souls.


So, we can get some idea from this natural analogy of what it means that “to see Christ is to see the Father” and vice versa.


We are limited by space, however, in our case, so human fathers and sons have to have ‘different spaces’ (i.e., different bodies), but we can theoretically imagine a father-mind and a son-mind sharing the same body/essence, speaking and acting in complete unity.


But space is not our only problem—so is time.

The big problem with this analogy, of course, is that some ‘act of begetting’ (of the father begetting a son) had to occur. This is an event, which implies time (for us), and therefore has a ‘before’, a ‘during, and an ‘after’. And this ‘event’ aspect of the analogy violates our Second Point above—that we know what sonship CANNOT mean. We know that God the Father cannot ‘beget’ (within His being) as an act because it violates our understanding of His eternity and changelessness. In other words, there would have to be a ‘before the begetting’ and an ‘after the begetting’—and most theologians of Christian or Muslim persuasions would deny that God could ‘change within His being’ like this.

But again, the Christian theologian has the same problem of God’s relationship to time/space as the Muslim theologian. “When” did Allah speak the Mother of the Book (the heavenly Qur’an)? The prevailing theological position (of the Asherites) is that He has always been speaking it, is speaking it now, and will always be speaking it—it is an ‘eternal speaking’, and identical with His timelessness—no sequence, so historical flow/order, no ‘before/after’.

And that is exactly the approach the Christian theologians have had to take, too—in other to understand some kind of ‘eternal begetting’! When the creeds call Christ (not his body, of course) ‘eternally begotten, not made’, then they are making the same kind of statement as the historical Muslim theologian: “eternally spoken, not created”. It is the same kind of challenge, with the same limitations on ‘how’ and precision, but still a meaningful thing to say. It can be affirmed, it can be understood ‘somewhat’ (i.e.. I can conceive of an act that only has a ‘during’, and not a ‘before’ and ‘after’—for example, God knowing His own mind is an ‘eternal act’ without beginning or end), and it can be submitted to, but it cannot pressed for much more detail.

It is NOT ‘merely’ a figure or analogy, but something ‘real’ and ‘true’—although we cannot affirm the ‘how’.

There are two more comments I want to make about this analogy.

The first has to do with the ‘complexity’ of ascribing multiple “minds” to the One Being God. Back in the early days of Muslim-Christian theological debates, the Muslim theologian would argue that the notion was ‘nonsense’ and contradictory. Because the Christian theologian could not explain the ‘how’, nor explain how a single unitary Being could ‘contain’ multiple persons—contrary to everything we know about ‘beings’ and ‘persons’—the Muslim theologian could dismiss the Christian position.

But the door swings both ways… The Muslim theologian (in internal debates with other Muslim theologians) affirmed—and this became the official position—that God is ‘without comparison’ (tanzih).

Tanzih means literally "to declare something pure and free of some­thing else." It is to assert that God is pure and free of all the defects and imperfections of the creatures. In the perspective of tanzih, God is so holy and pure that he cannot be compared to any created thing, includ­ing concepts, since all our ideas are created. The Koranic verse that expresses tanzih most clearly is "Nothing is like Him" (42:11). [WR:VI, 71]


So, Christian theologians in the early debates could use this principle to argue FOR this ‘odd concept’ of multiple minds/persons inside the ONE God.

For example, here’s a paragraph from Abū Rū’iṭah al-Takrītī (c. 775-835 AD):

When a religion finds that it describes God by the attribute "nothing is like Him", then it [truly] worships of Him and knows Him. And if a religion discovers it describes God with anthropomorphism and comparison with creatures, then ignorance of Him is its perpetual goal. Each of those professing the unity of God, with the exception of the Christians, do not hesitate to describe Him as one, single, and numberable. … 30 What do you say about one human being, and one king? Is not each one of them a single [individual] ? Which comparison is more important than what you describe? As for the Christians, they reject any comparison [of creatures] and likeness with [God] when they describe Him as three hypostaseis (persons/minds) and one ousia (being/entity). .. . But when it is found that He is three hypostaseis and one ousia, then His description is above every comparison and likeness [with creatures], because it is not possible that a single ousia [having] three hypostaseis, which is identical in all of its essences, exists in creation. [WR:DTPT,197ff]

See how the ‘oddness’ of the concept of multiple minds in the ONE GOD could be used to show the incomparable greatness of God?

Secondly, I do have a ‘small’ concept of multiplicity-in-unity, which I experience on a daily basis. My own inner spiritual life seems to be ‘plural’ itself. When I am tempted to so something evil, I experience a ‘tug of war’ in my will between my conscience (a voice telling me to resist the temptation) and my ‘selfishness’ (a voice telling me to not resist the temptation). It is like there are two or three different persons/minds inside my one head!

Likewise, when I have an opportunity to do good, my conscience (inner voice) urges me onward, while the selfish-voice points out that it will cost me something, make me tired, be a bother, etc. It’s like there are a couple of different ‘minds’ inside my one head.

I don’t think I am multiple persons—in the full sense, of course—but I can see how, in an exalted BEING, these ‘voices’ could be real ‘persons’—although they would be in agreement about the good, of course.

But this means that I can basically have a notion (however imprecise and however unexplained) how the One God could be both a Father and a Son ‘inside’.

And even though I am using an ‘analogy’, I am NOT affirming that God is ‘like the creature’(!)—no more than a Muslim theologian is affirming that God is ‘like the creature’ when he calls Allah a Ruler, a Judge, a Teacher, etc. All of the images are partially true (because God uses them) and partially false (because God is somehow ‘different’ from the other objects we describe with these images/analogies).


And finally…


Five: We submit to it—because the truth comes from God alone.

For the Christian, we can go no further—we submit to it because God in the Scriptures explicitly said it.

I can have a notion of what it means—based on these few analogies—but I cannot explain the ‘how’.

I am like the ancient Muslim theologians, when they were wrestling with how a unitary, single Being God could have ‘multiple attributes’—and still be tawhid.

Ashʿarites, for their part, while recognizing the entire reality of the attributes, since the Kur’an informs us of them, yet affirmed that this reality can in no way compromise the perfect divine Unity. Simultaneously opposing Muʿtazilites and falāsifa, and following al-Ghazzālī, they later arrived at this approximation: ‘the attributes subsist in the divine essence; they are not God and are nothing other than He’” [EI]

See? They simply ‘affirmed it’—that multiple attributes ‘inside’ God, did not compromise tawhid/unity. And they end with a paradoxical statement: they are neither God nor not-God!!!


The Christian is “forced by the revealed Word of God” to the same place: We affirm the plurality of minds in the perfect divine unity…

And the Qur’an, by the way, does not really speak to the Christian notion per se:

When the Koran criticizes the followers of other religions, it is criticiz­ing a perceived distortion of tawhid. In doing so, it has recourse to versions of Christian and Jewish teachings to which the followers of those religions do not necessarily subscribe.

To take a simple example, it is commonly said that the Koran rejects the Christian concept of the Trinity. Inasmuch as the Trinity is under­stood as negating tawhid, this is true. But not all Christians think that the Trinity negates tawhid. Quite the contrary, most formulations of the Trinitarian doctrine are careful to preserve God's unity. If "three-ness" takes precedence over oneness, then the Koranic criticisms ap­ply. But among Christians, the exact nature of the relationship between the three and the one is a point of recurring debate. One of the actual Koranic verses that are taken as negating the Trinity says, 'Those who say, 'God is the third of three' have become truth-concealers" (5:73). Even an elementary knowledge of any Christian catechism tells us that God is not "the third of three." Rather, God is one and three at the same time. Inasmuch as he is three, he presents himself to his creatures as three persons -Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Another Koranic verse says something similar, but now we have this first verse to help us understand what is being criticized:

The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him. So have faith in God and His messengers, and do not say, "Three." Refrain; better it is for you. God is only One God. (4:171)

Notice that this passage gives Jesus an extremely exalted position and recognizes that he has qualities possessed by no other prophet. How­ever, it stresses once again that there is but a single God. If faith in Jesus leads to the affirmation of three gods, then the Koran rejects that. But again, the actual Christian position is highly subtle, and few if any Christians would hold that they have faith in other than a single God.” [WR:VI, 170]


And—in all honesty and humility—we Christians are going to have the same problem with what is called the ‘Incarnation’ (i.e. the Son of God ‘attaching itself’--?—to a human body in history). We are going to have the SAME terminology/precision problems trying to ‘describe’ how an eternal divine Person can be ‘embedded’ in a human body, that a Muslim theologian will have trying to ‘describe’ how an eternal divine Qur’an is ‘embedded’ in every physical copy on earth… We—like the Muslim—affirm that the One God is all-powerful, and He—should He will it socan do any of these things, without us being able to understand the ‘how’ but with us being required to believe/affirm it!

We must let God be God(!), and not allow our logic or reasoning to persuade us to resist His explicit statements.


Conclusion.

So, I don’t claim to understand the ‘how’, but you should see that that alone is not a fair reason to dismiss this belief.

And I don’t understand all the practical implications of this on my spiritual life and worship.

But one I do know and can see from this ‘odd’ doctrine, and that is that it shows the incomparable Love and Mercy of God the Father, in sending His Son (Who willingly came on this mission, because of their shared attribute of Love) to rescue us from our sins. The eternal love between the Father and the Son is the basis for my confidence in the mercy of God and my future with Him in peace/heaven.

Consider how the followers of Isa were almost ‘shocked’ by the lengths to which the love of God would go, in reaching down to sinners such as us. God was not just merciful, but He was aggressive in His love, coming to earth to provide redemption for those who had spurned his Laws, His Love, and His Beloved Messengers over the ages:

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us allhow will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2)

For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Rom 5)

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3.16ff)

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John)

3 For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. (Romans 8)

The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. (Jesus speaking, Gospel of John)

There are many treasures to be found in getting to know God the Father and the Lord Jesus, and their beautiful relationship of loving and honoring One Another. But that will have to wait to a different time… I only wanted to try to point your heart toward an understanding of Christ that was true to Scripture, honoring to the ONLY GOD, and something what was not a disgraceful physical concept, but rather a lofty, pure, spiritual, eternal relationship worthy--and possible--only by the Unique and Robust and Fullness that is our God.

I hope this helps get you started on meditating through this important—and liberating—theme…

Warmly, and in the love and walk with God with you, Glenn



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