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Christology in a Muslim Context - Part 4

October 19, 2017 by Jesse Digges

The idea that Jesus is God is not only absurd to a Muslim, but it is also the highest form of blasphemy. When you ask a Muslim to believe that Jesus is divine, from an Islamic perspective, you are basically asking them to purchase a one-way ticket to Hell. That is why this topic is the “stumbling block” in Muslim evangelism; it is the most offensive part of the gospel. The sin of shirk (to associate a creature with God) is the worst kind of sin that a Muslim can commit. Worse than murder. And for a Muslim to confess that Jesus is Lord is certainly shirk.

When Christians say that Jesus is God, Muslims will accuse us of making at least two different blasphemous errors. Firstly, that we are believing in two different gods (polytheism). Or second, that we are ascribing creaturely attributes to the Creator (blasphemy). Answering these objections will be our fundamental goal in sharing Christ’s deity with a Muslim.

I remember walking into the small shop of a middle-aged Muslim man in the western part of Uganda. He knew that we were Christians and had come to discuss the gospel with him. The man was indignant, “you Christians believe that Isa is a god?!” From the angry expression on his face I knew that I only had a brief moment to defuse the situation or we would not be staying long. Instead of giving a direct answer I asked him a question, “do you believe that Isa is the Word of Allah?” The veins retracted as a look of confusion and concentration came over him while he processed the question. His answer was “yes.” This was not a profession that he believed Jesus to be divine, but it became an open door to talk further about who Jesus really was.

Why did he say, “Yes?” Because this is one of Jesus’ unique titles in the Quran, and it cannot be denied by Muslims.

And mention] when the angels said, "O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary - distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah ]. (Q. 3:45)

O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, "Three"; desist - it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs. (Q. 4:171)

Many Muslims will try to argue that the meaning of this title for Jesus is simply that he is the object of Allah’s Word, not the actual Word of Allah. They say that Jesus has this title because he is a special creation of God taking into account the context of Surah 3:45:

She said, "My Lord, how will I have a child when no man has touched me?" [The angel] said, "Such is Allah; He creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, 'Be,' and it is. (Q. 3:47)

They will add that, according to the Quran, Jesus is a creature of God, therefore whatever Jesus being Allah’s Word does mean, it cannot mean that Jesus is the actual Word of God (i.e. that he himself is an attribute of God).

But these arguments are not sufficient to explain the use of this title for Jesus for several reasons. One, they do not take into account the gospel tradition from where this title certainly stems. The Study Quran commentary on Surah 3:45 shows this:

He is also identified as God’s Word (see also 3:45; 19:34), an idea that has clear resonance with the Gospel tradition, where Jesus is identified as the ‘Word’ of God (see John 1).[i]

Not taking into account the gospel definition of this title would be to deny clear evidence of its origin and meaning.

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. (John 1:1)

It seems that the Quran, while borrowing from the Christian tradition, heavily contradicts it. On the one hand, the virgin conception of Jesus and his unique title, Word of God, are affirmed and on the other hand, his divinity and unity with Allah are denied. This is deeply problematic. If the author of the Quran wanted to disprove the divinity of Jesus, he should not have borrowed a term which is literally meant to prove it!

Bible scholar Richard Bauckham so aptly points out that the very point of calling Jesus the Word of God is to both to uphold monotheism, that there is one creator God, and to show that the Word shares uniquely in the identity of the one God.

"The repetition is to highlight the two different relationships in which the Word stands to God: he was ‘with God’ and he ‘was God’, and both were simultaneously true. He is distinguished from God and yet shares the same divine identity…It certainly does not mean that the Word ‘was a god’ or ‘was divine’ in some lesser sense than the full deity of God himself, for the function of the statement is precisely to negate the possibility that the preceding statement (‘the Word was with God’) refers to some independent entity alongside or subordinate to God. Here, in the beginning, before creation, there is not room for any beings other than the one God".[ii]

The idea that this title cannot refer to Christ's deity since Jesus was a creature assumes the accuracy of the Quran and thus reasons from the wrong starting point. Christians have readily accepted that Jesus has a created human nature. The Father, through the Spirit, created the human nature of Jesus. Jesus being a creation of God does not contradict him also being the uncreated Word of God. It is the very point of the prologue of the Gospel of John to show that the uncreated Word entered creation.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

Finally, it is difficult for Muslims to conclude that Jesus is only the object of the Word of God because the Quran itself calls Jesus the Word of Allah, it does not simply say that he is from the Word of Allah. Again, from The Study Quran:

"Some commentators interpret His Word here as the tidings Mary received of his miraculous conception in her womb or as an allusion to the Divine Creative Command Be! by which Christ was formed in Mary’s womb (see 3:45, 59; R, T). However, while all created beings are brought into existence through God’s Word, Christ alone is specifically identified as ‘a Word from God'".[iii]

"Jesus is thus seen as the Word of God Itself (4:171), though he is still a messenger".[iv]

Note that I am not saying that the Quran teaches the divinity of Jesus. Rather, I am showing that this unique title for Jesus has its origin in the Bible and that is where it finds its true definition.

Muslims are by and large completely ignorant of what is meant by saying that Jesus is God. Pointing them to John 1:1 will help to answer their fundamental philosophical objections, as we noted above, in the simplest way possible. The apostle John himself very purposefully places the “God/Word” distinction before introducing the “Father/Son” distinction so that the reader would understand that he is not denying monotheism, but rather expanding the understanding of it. The Son has no beginning, he is the eternal Word.

"In this final section of the prologue (vv. 13-18) it has become clear that ‘the Word’ was only a preliminary designation of the one who is revealed in the incarnation to be the only Son. This is why ‘the Word’ never appears in the Gospel (in this sense) after 1:14, which makes a transition from ‘the Word’ to ‘the only Son’ of the Father. The implication of this transition is that not only is the Word now revealed to be the only Son, but also God is now revealed to be the Father".[v]

It will prove deeply effective in our witness to Muslims if we follow John’s example here and start our introduction of Christ's divinity with Christ being the very Word of God. 

John 1:1 shows that there is only one God. This one God exists with relationship in His being - the Word was with God. Even though the Word is distinct in its relation to God, it is not a different god or another god, the Word was God. The Word of God is God’s word and not another god. This is John’s way of showing us the distinction of persons in the one being of God (the doctrine of the Trinity).

With John 1:1-14 we have laid the groundwork for answering some of the major objections Muslims send our way. For example, when they quote Numbers 23:19:

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.

Isn't Jesus a man? Isn't Jesus the Son of Man? Then he cannot be God right? Seems like a difficult question for the Christian to answer on the face of it, but it is not. The passage does not say that God cannot at some point in time, take on a human nature. We believe that the Word is uncreated. The word is God and not a man. And we believe that the Word became flesh. Jesus is therefore the uncreated-created, or the God-Man. Is this impossible? Who is man to say it is? This is in fact what Jesus and the Apostles taught. It is the meaning of John’s prologue.

Or how about questions which point out the distinction between Christ and God such as: “If Jesus is at the right hand of God, how can he be God?”

But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God. (Luke 22:69)

The answer, as we saw earlier, is that there is a distinction of persons in the One God. The Word was with God and the Word was God. It was the Word that became flesh (took on a created human nature). Just as the Word was with God and is God, Jesus is with God (at His right hand) and Jesus is God. As Jesus so simply proclaimed while echoing the Shema, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

And this brings us to a powerful way in which we can introduce the Trinity to a Muslim. The Trinity is Allah, His Word, and His Spirit. These three distinct persons share one being and name, “Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19).

To get even more practical in approaching this topic, one can present the argument in a syllogism as follows:

  1. 1) The Word of Allah is eternal.
  2. 2) Jesus is the Word of Allah.
  3. 3) Therefore, Jesus is eternal and must be Allah.

The reason this is so effective is because the majority of Muslims do believe the Word of God to be eternal. And they believe that the Quran, a created book, is the Word of Allah. Famous Islamic Scholar Al-Ghazzali said:

"The Qur'an is read by tongues, written in books, and remembered in the heart, yet it is, nevertheless, uncreated and without beginning, subsisting in the Essence of Allah, not subject to division and or separation through its transmission to the heart and paper. Musa - upon him peace - heard the Speech of Allah without sound and without letter, just as the righteous see the Essence of Allah Most High in the Hereafter, without substance or its quality".[vi]

Notice that the word of God is a mystery, because it existed before being written or becoming a creation. The word of Allah is distinct from Allah, but also must be Allah because it is uncreated and eternal. It is an attribute of Allah.

Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes about the Quran:

"It is the central theophany of Islam that the Quran was a reality before its revelation or descent to the Prophet. The Quran…immutable and filled with the abiding life of the Spirit and constantly affecting and guiding human life. For believers the Quran is not an inanimate book, but the living Word of God. Its verses, words, and even letters are living beings that speak to believers and also mysteriously “hear” them".[vii]

Replace Jesus (Isa) in every place where the word Quran is used and we are not far from an accurate Christology!

One begins to see that there is a massive contradiction here on the part of Muslims. While they condemn Christians for making two gods they retain a fundamental contradiction in their own religion. While accusing Christians of shirk they try to uphold two eternal things, namely Allah and the Quran without making two gods.

The problem can be demonstrated with a simple question, “Is the Word of Allah eternal?” If the answer is “yes” then we can ask, “is the Quran the Word of Allah?” Of course, the answer to this must be yes as well, leading to the final question, “did this book (the Quran) exist alongside God eternally?” If they were to say “no”, the Quran in not eternal but created, then they are not only contradicting orthodox Islam but they would be showing that the Quran is not Allah’s Word. Allah’s true word is eternal and one with him.

The reason this is not a problem for Christianity is because we embrace the doctrine of the Trinity. But Muslims have rejected any sort of plurality within God. He is a singularity, so saying the Quran is eternal is, well, shirk.

Another problem for Muslims is to explain how this eternal Word can be contained in a created book (the Quran). Islam rejects the idea that Allah can enter his creation. If the eternal can be contained in a book why not in the man, Jesus Christ?

Is it shirk to say that Allah has an eternal and divine Word (Jesus) that existed alongside himself eternally? It cannot be, because this is what Muslims say about the Quran. Muslims themselves have made the comparison between Jesus and the Quran.

"For example, in Christianity Christ himself is considered to be the Word of God or the Logos, and in a sense the New Testament is the word of the Word of God...One might say that, just as in the Eucharist worshippers become “attached” to the Word, that is, Christ, by eating the bread and drinking the wine, which are transformed through the rite into his flesh and blood, in Islamic rites worshippers “devour” the Word of God through the enunciation of the verses in the Quranic Arabic. For Muslims, Quranic Arabic is therefore, in the deepest sense, like bread and wine in the Eucharist or the body of Christ in traditional Christianity. Both are embodiments of the Word of God and therefore sacred".[viii]

I want to settle the minds of some who are reading this thinking, “I tried this and it didn't work, my Muslim friend still rejected the deity of Christ!” Don't be discouraged. It is our responsibility to proclaim Jesus as Lord, but it is the work of the Holy Spirit to convince someone of it (1 Cor. 12:3). Even though we try to remove the obstacles of this message by answering the philosophical and scriptural objections people may make, it is still a rock of offense. Many will reject our message. And before getting frustrated and giving up, recognize that Jesus himself was crucified over this very issue. The Jews demanded his crucifixion because he was “making himself equal with God” (Jn. 5:18). We have no excuses for silence when our message is rejected, even if it happens one thousand times! Finally, the more you actually share with Muslims the more you will get skilled in doing it. Try, and if you fail, try again. This is how you will become an effective witness.

Our goal is to present the doctrines of Christ in such a way as to dispel the false notions which Islam ascribes to Him. Let no Muslim perish and reject Christ on the basis of the lies that they have been taught. Rather, let Christ be rejected on the basis of the truth. Then their blood will no longer be on our hands.

 

[i] The Study Quran; commentary on Surah 3:4

[ii] Bauckham Richard. The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance. “The Trinity and the Gospel of John.” Inter-Varsity Press 2016. 95.

[iii] The Study Quran; commentary on Surah 3:4

[iv] Lumbard, Joseph. The Study Quran. In “The Quranic View of Sacred History and Other Religions".

[v] Bauckham Richard. The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance. “The Trinity and the Gospel of John.” Inter-Varsity Press 2016. 98.

[vi] Fifth Hijri Century, Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali said in his "Foundations of Islamic Belief (Qawa`id al-`Aqa'id) published in his Rasa'il and his Ihya' `Ulum al-Din and partially translated in Shaykh Nuh Keller's Reliance of the Traveller and by Mrs. Ahmad Darwish on the Mosque of the Internet

[vii] Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Study Quran. In “The General Introduction.”

[viii] Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Study Quran. In “The General Introduction.”

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