Sunday, July 20, 2008

Christian Trinitarianism and Muslim Unitarianism, Part Two (with a detour into the Restoration Fellowship)

Last Thursday, I wrote a post entitled Christian Trinitarianism and Muslim Unitarianism, intended to set the background for a future post that I wanted to write.

It's now Sunday evening, and I finally got around to writing the post.

Also last Thursday, John at True Discernment linked to an article in the Daily Mail which read, in part:

Christian doctrine is offensive to Muslims, the Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday....

His comments came in a highly conciliatory letter to Islamic leaders calling for an alliance between the two faiths for 'the common good'....

He also said the Christian belief in the Trinity - that God is Father, Son and Holy Ghost at the same time - 'is difficult, sometimes offensive, to Muslims'.

Trinitarian doctrine conflicts with the Islamic view that there is just one all-powerful God.

Dr Williams added: 'It is all the more important for the sake of open and careful dialogue that we try to clarify what we do and do not mean by it, and so I trust that what follows will be read in this spirit.'

This was only part of the letter, which dealt with other issues such as violence and was in response to a letter sent by Muslims.

Rather than relying on news excerpts from the letter, I figured it would be best if I viewed the letter (Word document) myself. Here are the relevant portions:

At the origins of the history of God’s people, as Jewish and Christian Scripture record it, is the command given to Moses to communicate to the people - the Shema, as it has long been known, from its opening word in Hebrew:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

Such an imperative, as your letter makes clear, is of central authority for Muslims too.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!: The tawhid principle is held out in your letter as one of the bases for agreement. In addition to the passages you quote to demonstrate tawhid, we read in the Qur'an:

God: there is no god but Him, the Ever Living, the Ever Watchful. (al-Baqara 2:255)

He is God the One, God the eternal. He fathered no one nor was he fathered.
No one is comparable to Him. (al-'Ikhlas 112:1-4)

This last text reminds the Christian that this great affirmation of the uniqueness of God is what has often caused Muslims to look with suspicion at the Christian doctrines of God. Christian belief about the Trinity - God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit - appears at once to compromise the belief that God has no other being associated with him. How can we call God al-Qayyum, the Self-sufficient, if he is not alone? So we read in the Qur’an

The East and the West belong to God: wherever you turn, there is His Face.
God is all pervading and all knowing. They have asserted, "God has a child."
May He be exalted! No! Everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him,
everything devoutly obeys His will. He is the Originator of the heavens and the earth, and when He decrees something, He says only "Be," and it is. (al-Baqara 2:115-117)

Muslims see the belief that God could have a son as suggesting that God is somehow limited as we are limited, bound to physical processes and needing the co-operation of others. How can such a God be truly free and sovereign – qualities both Christianity and Islam claim to affirm, for we know that God is able to bring the world into being by his word alone?

Here it is important to state unequivocally that the association of any other being with God is expressly rejected by the Christian theological tradition. Since the earliest Councils of the Church, Christian thinkers sought to clarify how, when we speak of the Father ‘begetting’ the Son, we must put out of our minds any suggestion that this is a physical thing, a process or event like the processes and events that happen in the world. They insisted that the name ‘God’ is not the name of a person like a human person, a limited being with a father and mother and a place that they inhabit within the world. ‘God’ is the name of a kind of life, a ‘nature’ or essence – eternal and self-sufficient life, always active, needing nothing. But that life is lived, so Christians have always held, eternally and simultaneously as three interrelated agencies are made known to us in the history of God's revelation to the Hebrew people and in the life of Jesus and what flows from it. God is at once the source of divine life, the expression of that life and the active power that communicates that life. This takes us at once into consideration of the Trinitarian language used by Christians to speak of God. We recognise that this is difficult, sometimes offensive, to Muslims; but it is all the more important for the sake of open and careful dialogue that we try to clarify what we do and do not mean by it, and so trust that what follows will be read in this spirit.

In human language, in the light of what our Scripture says, we speak of “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, but we do not mean one God with two beings alongside him, or three gods of limited power. So there is indeed one God, the Living and Self-subsistent, associated with no other; but what God is and does is not different from the life which is eternally and simultaneously the threefold pattern of life: source and expression and sharing. Since God's life is always an intelligent, purposeful and loving life, it is possible to think of each of these dimensions of divine life as, in important ways, like a centre of mind and love, a person; but this does not mean that God ‘contains’ three different individuals, separate from each other as human individuals are.

Christians believe that in a mysterious manner we have a limited share in the characteristics of divine life. Through the death and rising to life of Jesus, God takes away our evildoing and our guilt, he forgives us and sets us free. And our Scriptures go on to say that he breathes new life into us, as he breathed life into Adam at the first, so that God’s spirit is alive in us. The presence and action of the Holy Spirit is thus God in his action of sharing life with us . As we become mature in our new life, our lives become closer and closer (so we pray and hope) to the central and perfect expression of divine life, the Word whom we encounter in Jesus – though we never become simply equal to him. And because Jesus prayed to the source of his life as ‘Father’ , we call the eternal and perfect expression of God's life not only the Word but also the ‘Son’. We pray to the source of divine life in the way that Jesus taught us, and we say ‘Father’ to this divine reality. And in calling the eternal word the ‘Son’ of God, we remind ourselves that he is in no way different in nature from the Father: there is only one divine nature and reality.

It's probably impossible to explain the Trinity, but whatever one may say about Rowan Williams, I find no fault with what he said here.

And neither does N. T. Wrong:

Rowan Williams acknowledges that the doctrine is difficult for, and sometimes offensive to, Muslims. But he notes that this offensiveness provides all the more reason to clarify the peculiarities of the Christian doctrine....

But that’s not what you’d understand from the media reports of Rowan Williams’ letter, which have been as wilfully (or perhaps ignorantly) inaccurate — much like the general misreporting of his comments on sharia law.

The Telegraph simply states that there is a conflict between the Christian Trinity and the Muslim Allah — the very conflict which Rowan Williams was attempting to challenge or at least nuance....

Rowan Williams’ comments are taken out of all context with the opening line of the Daily Mail’s article, which generalises even more broadly....

As I mentioned earlier, my first post was intended to serve as a backdrop to this discussion of Christian vs. Muslim views of God. But before I could get to this extended discussion, I received the following comment from Adam Pastor:

Greetings Ontario Emperor

On the subject of the trinity,
I recommend this video:
The Human Jesus

Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you to reconsider "The Trinity"

Yours In Messiah
Adam Pastor

I haven't watched the video (if I have problems watching 30 minute videos, I'm not going to rush to watch 100 minute videos), but I did look at the beliefs of the Restoration Fellowship:

There is one God, the Father (1 Cor. 8:6), the one God of the creed of Israel affirmed by Jesus Christ (Mark 12:28ff). The Father is "the only true God" (John 17:3).

There is one Lord Messiah, Jesus (1 Cor. 8:6), who was supernaturally conceived as the Son of God (Luke 1:35), and foreordained from the foundation of the world (1 Pet. 1:20).

The Holy Spirit is the personal, operational presence and power of God extended through the risen Christ to believers (Ps. 51:11).

The Bible, consisting of the Hebrew canon (Luke 24:44) and the Greek New Testament Scriptures, is the inspired and authoritative revelation of God (2 Tim. 3:16).

In the atoning, substitutionary death of Jesus, his resurrection on the third day, and his ascension to the right hand of the Father (Ps. 110:1; Acts 2:34-36), where he is waiting until his enemies are subdued (Heb. 10:13).

In the future visible return of Jesus Christ to raise to life the faithful dead (1 Cor. 15:23), establish the millennial Kingdom on earth (Rev. 20:1-6, etc.) and bring about the restoration of the earth promised by the prophets (Acts 1:6; 3:21; 26:6, 7).

In the regenerating power of the Gospel message about the Kingdom (Matt. 13:19; Luke 8:12; John 6:63), enabling the believer to understand divine revelation and live a life of holiness.

In baptism by immersion upon reception of the Gospel of the Kingdom and the things concerning Jesus (Acts 8:12; Luke 24:27).

In the future resurrection of the saved of all the ages to administer the renewed earth with the Messiah in the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 2:26; 3:21; 5:10).

Christians ought never to take up arms and kill their enemies and fellow believers in other nations (Matt. 26:52; John 15:19; 18:36; 1 Pet. 2:9-11; 1 Chron. 22:8).

Here is their writing on John 1:1. And here is Hans Wendt's writing on John 8:58. Just don't expect Occam's Razor in the latter explanation.

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