The Trinity – an expression of God’s redemptive purposes
The most familiar object of Muslim attack and scoffing is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, for it is judged to be not only blasphemous but irrational. That, however, is not surprising. A notable Christian scholar, A. S. Peake, has, admitted that much the same attitude is taken towards the doctrine by a large class of people in the West who have little or no interest in theology. He says, “It seems an arithmetical puzzle which shocks the reference of the most devout: while it provokes the derision of those who pride themselves on a robust common sense.” A Muslim journal once affirmed that the Christian belief was comparable to the formula 1+1+1 = 1 a conclusion which if reached by a schoolboy would promptly earn for him a spanking!
But the Muslim makes no serious attempt to weigh the reasons put forward by Christian theologians for the origin of this doctrine, or to consider what its real implications are. We find the influence of the fundamental doctrine of Islam so dominating the minds of Muslims that any statement about the nature of God not expressed in conformity with it, is rejected out of hand. And, of course, they claim that support is found in the pages of the Quran for their protest against what they deem yet another blasphemous heresy on the part of Christians.
References to the Trinity in the Quran
The wording of the relevant verses is, to say the least, curious:
> “O ye people of the Book! Exceed not the limits in your religion’
>’of God, say not what is untrue. The Messiah, Jesus, Son of Mary, is but an apostle of God ………… Believe, therefore, in God and His apostles, and say not ‘Trinity’ forbear—it will be better for you! For God is one God’, (An-Nisa 4:171).
> “They surely blaspheme who say.’ God is the third of three’ for there is no god but the one God and if they refrain not from what they say, a grievous chastisement shall befall such of them as do blaspheme”, (Al-Maidah 5: 73).
>”And when God shall say, ‘0 Jesus, Son of Mary, hast thou said unto mankind Take me and my mother as two gods, besides God?’ He shall say, ‘Glory be unto thee! It is not for me to say that which I know to be not the truth; had I said that, verily Thou wouldest have known it: Thou knowest what is in me, but I know not what is in Thee”. (Al-Maidah 5:116).
Commenting on the first of these verses Mr. Yusuf Ali says:”Here the Christian attitude is condemned, which raises Jesus to an equality with God; in some cases venerates Mary almost to idolatry; attributes a physical son to God; and invents the doctrine of the Trinity, opposed to all reason, which according to the Athanasian Creed, unless a man believes, he is doomed to hell for ever.”
Maulana Muhammad Ali in his comments on the above verses, contends that the Quran “nowhere says that the Christian Trinity is formed of Jesus, Mary and God,” as some Christian critics of the Quran have concluded. The reference to Mary, he says, has to do with the Roman Catholic doctrine of the worship of Mary”; and adds, “Had Mary not been worshipped by the Christians as the Mother of God’, the conclusion would have been safe that the Quran mistook Mary for the third person of Trinity” (The Holy Quran notes 654, 723, and 751). On the contrary, since the Quran nowhere associates the Holy Spirit with the Trinity, it seems reasonable to hold that, in some way or other, Mary was connected by Muhammad with this doctrine. Moreover, the remarks made by JalaIain on the first two verses, and by Baidawi on 4:168, make it clear that in their opinion at any rate, the Quranic view of the Trinity did consist of Father, Mother, and Son. (# Jalalain, Urdu ed. Husaini Press, Agra, pp. 214. 248; Baidawi, op, cit. I, p. 319.) The extraordinary veneration known to have been shown by Abyssinian Christians for the Virgin Mary may, conceivably, have given rise to such a notion.
The first thing to be said, and said emphatically, is that we, no less than Muslims, believe in the Unity of God, there is no Christian anywhere who believes in “three gods”. This fundamental conviction concerning the Unity of the divine being was expressed by Jesus Christ Himself; for He quoted the words of Moses to the Israelites:
<“Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord”, (Deuteronomy 6:4).- He went on to add the ethical content of this belief (Mark 12:29,30):
>”And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength”,
He even declared this to be “the greatest and foremost commandment”. But to the Christian, as to the Jew, the supreme fact disclosed by this utterance is that the divine being is a righteous and holy God, not that He is one.
What support has the doctrine in Scripture?
The Muslim may say, however, and with much semblance of truth, that whereas the doctrine of the Unity, which he holds, has abundant support in the actual words of the Quran the Christians have departed from the plain teaching of the Bible, as set forth in the passage just cited, and have invented a doctrine which has, contrary to all expectation, no support in their Scriptures. The objection, so stated, raises two questions:
1) What is “the one great theme” of the New Testament?
It is true that at a very early date the form of Christian doctrine did become Trinitarian, nevertheless, if the distinctively Christian teaching about God were to be compressed into a single phrase, it would be the declaration, not that God is Triune, but that He is redemptive love. The doctrine of the Trinity becomes significant for the Christian, in relation to this redemptive purpose of God. And while data for this doctrine are to be found in the gospel narratives, yet the great theme – proclaimed alike by Jesus and the Apostles is always that of God’s offer of grace to sinful men. Indeed, one cannot for a moment imagine that when Jesus Himself went about the towns and villages of Palestine, speaking of God and revealing God through His works of mercy his chief concern was that the people should grasp the idea that God was to be thought of as “in three persons”. The truth is that neither the doctrine of the Trinity, nor the Unity, could ever be received as, in themselves, a gospel, “good news” for men in need of a saving knowledge of God.
2) What support have we in Scripture for this doctrine?
We are therefore led to make the farther observation that this doctrine, as a creedal statement, is not to be found in Scripture. It is not there because it was not yet formulated when the last book in the New Testament was completed. Its origin is due to the facts which underlie the Christian experience of God’s redeeming love, and to prolonged reflection upon that experience; a conclusion to which believers were led by the Holy Spirit. For instance, it is not possible to give an adequate exposition of St. Paul’s faith in the deity of Christ without recourse to a theology which is essentially Trinitarian. Consider these statements of his:
> “God who shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ”(2 Corinthians 4:6).
In this passage we see the very elements out of which, at a later date, the doctrine of the Trinity was, so to speak, crystallized: a) God, in His transcendent being is inscrutably above the universe; b) God made manifest to men in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; God present, unseen but very near, in the hearts of men.
3) Foreshadowing’s of a creedal statement may be seen in the following:
>”Baptizing them into the Name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. (Matthew 28:19) – a baptismal formula.
>”The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”( 2 Corinthians 13: 14) – a form of benediction.
The doctrine in relation to early experience of the Christian revelation
We turn, then, to consider more closely the nature of that experience which led the early Christians to arrive at conclusions which prepared the way for such a statement of their faith about God, notwithstanding their exceeding strong monotheistic convictions.
In the first place they were compelled to account for the Person of Jesus Christ. They could place Him in no known category. Not His teaching particularly, but His character, His personal dealings with them, proclaimed Him to be related to God, to the power and wisdom and love of God, in some unique and unheard-of manner, They owed it to Him that they had become “new creatures”, (2 Corinthians 5:17) rescued from bondage to evil and filled with new hope and purpose and power for living. And though, as Jews they had been brought up to abominate idolatry as the one unpardonable sin, yet we find them putting their whole faith in Christ. They were thus compelled to adjust their new experience and conviction to the fundamental fact of the Divine Unity. And they solved the problem by concluding that Christ belonged, in some mysterious way, to the category of “God”.
It became, in time, a necessity of thought for them to declare that there must be some hitherto unsuspected “distinction” within the divine nature, and their way of indicating this conviction was to call Christ the “Son of God”, or the “Word of God”. That, for these men, was “a triumphant discovery, based on experience, as all scientific truth must be based “.
Similarly with their experience of the Spirit. In strict accord with the promise made to them by Jesus Himself, they found that the Spirit took of the things of Christ and revealed them unto men. His words literally came true, for the Spirit carried on the characteristic work of Christ in men’s hearts, convicting them of sin and sanctifying them unto righteousness (John 16:8,14-15) and, in particular, they themselves, through fellowship in the Spirit, came to apprehend more deeply the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God. But, again, these ways of the Spirit’s dealings with them were the very ways of God Himself, so what could they do but conclude that the Spirit also rightly belonged to the category of “God”, In other words, God the Father proclaimed by Jesus, Jesus Himself “the Son of God”, and the Holy Spirit at work within them, were essentially one in redemptive purpose and activity. That was a fact apprehended in their experience in the Spirit, and from it came the legitimate inference that God is Triune.
If the Muslim can be brought to understand that in the doctrine of the Trinity an attempt is made to explain our apprehension of the redemptive operation of God’s Holy Spirit within us, then, though it may still appear unacceptable to him, he will see that it is no longer unreasonable, and certainly not blasphemous. And, of course, among Muslims themselves there is, not withstanding the rigidity of the more common doctrine of Allah, a very real belief in God’s intimate dealings with men. The Sufis, in particular, have frequently carried their doctrine of “union with the Beloved” to such extravagant lengths that many of them, in days gone by paid for their temerity with their lives.
Let us, then, invite the devout Muslim to explore the phenomena of spiritual experience, his and ours. It is when the Muslim, under conviction by the Holy Spirit, is driven to ask,’ Who can this be who so deals with me’? That he is in the way of understanding something of this great mystery about God.
Reasons for formulating the doctrine of the Trinity
The early Christians, as has been indicated, were themselves satisfied that they had come, through the Spirit’s guidance, to perceive in this “mystery” new clues to the nature of the One living and invisible God. At first they formulated no doctrine about it; there was no need. But the time came when the truths they held were called in question and, by controversy, imperilled; and so, in self-defence, they sought to reduce their convictions to creedal form.
The more they thought upon this mystery, the surer they were that, for this fuller knowledge of God, their experience of Jesus, the Heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit was, in its very nature, inseparable. It was this that led to the conception of what may be called, for want of better language, the “three-foldness” of God; and the Church at length agreed to define the truth she held as indicating “a real distinction within the Godhead – differentiation of being or function”. But the doctrine so formulated, did not, and does not; affirm “the reality of independent conscious beings, qualified by separate essences”. So that if and when the word “person” is used in speaking of the Trinity it must be understood that a) it is a term that has been in use in this connection for many centuries; b) it is used in a sense quite different from that which it ordinarily conveys, and (c) that it is still forced upon us by the very poverty of human language. Further, no Christian claims that even the most widely-accepted definition of the Trinity is adequate to the ultimate truth about God, but we do claim that it is a contribution to a better understanding of the mystery of His nature.