Letters to a Muslim Friend — Letter 7

I’ve had a chance now to review the paper you sent on the Trinity. This is a key issue, as I’ve said in the past. It is the major difference between Christians on the one hand, and Jews and Muslims on the other.

It is a fundamental teaching of Christianity–but it must be understood properly. And I think non-Christians don’t understand it very well and I think that is largely our fault. So let me try to explain, as best I can, what Christianity teaches.

First let me say that while the word, “Trinity,” appears later, I believe the teaching is clearly present in the New Testament, and is rooted in the teachings and self-understanding of Jesus.

I’ll summarize the points of the New Testament (I discussed these at length, with references, in the sermon I sent you). Jesus called the God of Abraham, “Father.” He said, both, “The Father is greater than I,” and “The Father and I are one.” He spoke of being with the Father before his life on earth. He prayed to the Father, but he also claimed divinity–he claimed to be the “I Am” who spoke to Moses. He claimed to be able to forgive sins, and he healed. He breathed on his disciples, and they received the Holy Spirit. And he spoke of the Holy Spirit as being sent from the Father. The Spirit’s role, he said, was to testify about him (Jesus). So the New Testament both confesses one God, and it identifies that God with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And Jesus sent the twelve to baptize “in the name (singular) of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Thus, apart from any later theological and philosophical speculation, the God of the New Testament is identified by this relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit. The New Testament says the Father created all things through the Son. And it says he didn’t count equality with God some thing to be grasped at, but humbled himself, taking the form of a slave.

This has nothing to do with Hinduism, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians, or the Romans. It has everything to do with God’s sovereign free choice. He created all, and when man sinned, did all he could to continue the relationship, and to restore the brokenness. He maintained his faithfulness to humanity, and sent his Son to be with us, to share our pain, to share our suffering, to suffer because of our sin. That Son he raised from the dead, and he sits at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us as our great high priest. And he will come again, to judge the living and the dead.

I need to make some corrections to some facts. I think some sources you used were inaccurate. There was no opposition at Nicea. The vote of the assembled bishops was almost unanimous in favor of Orthodoxy and against the heresy of Arius, who pictured Jesus in truly pagan fashion as some kind of demigod (only two voted in favor of Arius’ teaching). A good source for a factual presentation of the development of Christian teaching is Jaroslav Pelikan’s masterful multi-volume history of Christian doctrine.

Also, the Trinity never included Mary. She was not replaced by the Holy Spirit. This is very confused. She was called “Mother of God” (Theotokos) to affirm that the child in her womb was fully God, and fully man. The opposition, following the teachings of Nestorius, separated the human and divine parts of Jesus so that they acted independently. Thus, Nestorius said she was merely “Christotokos,” the bearer of the human part of Jesus. Chalcedon, affirming Jesus’ complete divinity, said that therefore she had to be called “Theotokos,” because it was Jesus in her womb, fully God and fully man. She was not worshipped. She was not divine. She was always and only ever understood by Christians as a woman who was chosen by God, who through the angel Gabriel informed her that she would have a Son, though a virgin, and that her son would be called the Son of the Most High.

You say, “No Prophet ever claimed to be God or equal to God.” But Jesus did–and the Qur’an affirms that he is a prophet, sent by God with the Gospel, or good news. His words are very clear–and they appear only in the New Testament. This is the Book that the Qur’an insists is a divine message.

Consider these passages:

“And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’ Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ … ‘But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ …” Mark 2:5-7,10a

“‘Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.’ And he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this, who even forgives sins?’” Luke 7:47-49

“I and my Father are one.” John 10:30.

“The Father is in me, and I in him.” John 10:38.

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.’” John 14:6

John 6:35-51 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me;39 and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” 41 The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not murmur among yourselves.44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that any one has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

John 8:57-59 Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple,[b] going through the midst of them, and so passed by.

So it seems to me that the Bible is very clear. And I believe that God spoke this Word through the prophets and the apostles, and that he preserved it from error. We can trust what it says.

Now, let me turn to some arguments.

You suggest, “According to Holy Trinity, all the three in the Godhead are Gods, co-equal and co-eternal. Therefore, the followers should equally worship God, Jesus (P*) and the Holy Ghost. However, they do not.” Let me clarify. All are not gods, but together are co-equal and co-eternal and are the one God. Yes, Christians do worship the Trinity. We worship the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

You suggest, “As Mary is the mother of one part of the Godhead, then she must be the mother of all the three parts, the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost, because your mother cannot be the mother of only one part of you and not of the other parts. How then Mary can be mother of both the father and the son?”

Again, I must clarify what Christianity teaches. She is the mother of Jesus. The Father sent his Son to be born of her by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit over-shadowed her, Scripture says, and she conceived. It was the Son, she bore. Not the Father, not the Spirit, though she bore him through the power of both.

You say, “A clergy in the church explained Trinity to the faithful as like ‘a person, Mr. X, can be a father, and at the same time be a son and an uncle.” I fear you’ve been misled on this. That’s not the Christian teaching. That’s an early heresy known as Sabellianism, or modalism, which said the three persons are just three roles.

I won’t go point by point with the chart on “God #1 and God #2,” but again, I must try to clarify Christian teaching. Jesus’ Sonship is from eternity. He did not come into existence when he took on human form. He was not the product of a union between God and a woman, as if there were some fleshly union as in the pagan myths. That is horrific even to think about. His sonship is unique. The term “son” represents a relationship he had through all time with the Father. He was “in the bosom of the Father” before Creation, John says. There is One God, not three, but he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The second person of the Trinity, the Son, through whom the Father created the world, willingly became a human, willingly assumed our humanity, willingly accepted the limitations. And he continued the conversation with the Father through the Spirit that he had from all eternity. No, no one can see God–except that he veil himself, and stoop, and allow himself to be seen, and grasped. I don’t think this detracts from his power and his greatness–I think this magnifies his greatness, and his mercy, and his graciousness.

A good article on the subject is by the Boston College philosophy professor, Peter Kreeft (http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/christ-divinity.htm). He refers to an argument C. S. Lewis made. There are only three choices of who Jesus was. He claimed to be God. This is clear. He was either right or wrong. If he was wrong, and he knew it, then he was a liar. If he was wrong, and he didn’t know it, he was a madman. If he was right, then he is the eternal son of God, and the one the Father sent to be Lord, Savior, and Judge. Being merely a good man, merely a prophet, is not possible–because he didn’t claim to be a good man. He didn’t claim to be a prophet. He claimed to be the Lord. We believe him, as nothing in the Bible or the Qur’an would suggest that he is either mad or a liar.

May the Spirit of God guide us, in humility and in love, to seek his Truth always. Amen.