Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Christianity and Other Religions Part 4

Question 5: My Muslim friend tells me that I believe in three Gods. What does she mean?

Although one of the similarities between Christianity and Islam is belief in one God, there are major differences in how that oneness is expressed. Islam states that God is one and that to believe in the trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), is tritheism (believing in three gods as opposed to monotheism which is belief in one God). Muslims accuse Christians of tritheism, which they consider shirk. Shrik is associating partners to Allah (or polytheism) and is the unforgivable sin.[1]

The Qur’an addresses the issue of the trinity in the following verses:

  • “Thus, in regard to the Trinity, the Qur’an says, ‘Say not ‘Three’—Cease! (It is) better for you! —Allah is only One God.” Surah 4:171

  • “They surely disbelieve who say: Lo! Allah is the third of three; when there is no God save the One God. If they desist not from so saying a painful doom will fall on those of them who disbelieve.” Surah 5:73

  • “Say: He is Allah, the One! Allah, the eternally Besought of all! He begetteth not nor was begotten. And there is none comparable unto Him.” Surah 112

The Trinity

Muslims take extreme care to protect the oneness of God. Christians also take care to protect the oneness of God, but Christians understand the identity of God differently. Christians believe that God is a trinity—three in one. The Muslim critique can serve as a challenging reminder to Christians that we serve a God who truly is one. Often times Christians can make the mistake of falling into tritheism. We see the Father doing X and the Son doing Y without grasping that the Father is the Son and the Son is the Father.

In the trinity, God is made known through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. None of these aspects of the trinity exist without the other two. When Christians speak of the trinity, there is a danger of going to one of two extremes. Some Christians make the mistake of trying to over-explain the trinity; they use pictures and analogies to make the trinity “make sense.” On the other end of the spectrum, there are Christians who believe the trinity is so mysterious that we should not even try to understand how it works.

Both of these extremes are a problem. Over simplifying the trinity does not do the trinity justice. Anytime we think that we have grasped the trinity and completely understand how it works, we deceive ourselves. However, if we simply give up thinking about the trinity because it is too “mysterious,” we begin to despair and don’t experience the benefits of contemplating this mystery. The difficulty for the Christian lies in finding a balance to these two extremes.

When Dale Bruner speaks on the trinity, he speaks of the “shyness of God.”[2] All throughout the Gospels, we see the Father, Son and Holy Spirit continually deflecting attention away from themselves and pointing towards another.

The “shyness” of the Spirit:

The Spirit comes in the Son’s name not to draw attention to himself, but to bear witness to the Son and glorify the Son. And so Jesus says:

“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said” (John 14:26).

“But when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own, he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:13). The Spirit points to Jesus saying “Look! Listen to him. Learn from him. Follow him. Worship him. Love him.”

The “shyness” of the Son:

All of this attention does not go to the Son’s head. The Son does not travel through the land claiming that he is the greatest. The Son says:

“If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me” (John 8:54). Jesus says he came to serve, not to be served (Mark 10:45). He submits to the Spirit when the Spirit leads him into the desert to be tempted (Matthew 4:1). He submits to the Father at Gethsemane when he says, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

The “shyness” of the Father:

We hear the Father’s voice twice in the Gospels. Once at Jesus’ baptism and then again at the Transfiguration. In both places the Father says the same thing: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 3:17; 17:5).

Over and over again we see the Father, Son and Holy Spirit deflecting to one another. Each seems to be pointing to the other. This type of relationship is kind of like a dance where each bows to the other while still in relationship.[3] God exists in fellowship with Godself. God is always in communion. One is never without the others—they are never acting alone.

Why is this such a big deal? What does it matter if the God is really Jesus, or if the Spirit is really God? Why do we talk about the person of the trinity? Would it not be easier to simply speak of one God and leave all of these details out? Why is this such a big deal?

In order to address these questions, we have to refer back to the revelation of God that was mentioned earlier. God chose to reveal Godself as Jesus Christ. God came to earth as the human Jesus in order that we might know God. God came as Jesus, known as “Immanuel,” meaning, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). In the Old Testament, God spoke to the people through the prophets. But now, rather than speaking through someone, God becomes someone. We do not hear about God through a messenger. We hear about God from God! We are given a direct revelation!

Again, in order to understand the gravity behind this concept, we have to refer back to what Christians say makes Jesus so special. When Jesus died on the cross, God died on the cross. Everything hinges on this understanding. Consider this: if Jesus is not God, than Jesus’ death on the cross did no more for us than the death of any good person.

Christians believe that Jesus took on our sin and died on the cross. He was raised three days later, showing victory over our sin. If Jesus is not God, than our sin was not taken upon the cross. And if our sin was not taken upon the cross we are in a hopeless, sinful state. But thanks be to God, God has conquered our sin by Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, we worship Jesus because he is God. If we worshipped Jesus without acknowledging him as God, we would be guilty of idolatry.

God is one. God exists as a fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is an unbreakable, mysterious union, which is another aspect of God’s transcendence (meaning this is beyond our comprehension). Christians worship a big God.

[1] McDowell 302.

[2] John Ortberg, “The ‘Shyness’ of God. Christianity Today. 32:66 (2001) 1. From hereon referred to as “Ortberg.”

[3] Ortberg 2.


millinerd said...

Rock on Amanda, and well researched. There are LOTS of Muslims in Germany and it's nice to have people with whom I share faith in common, but nevertheless the differences are indisputable.

Simplicity is always compelling, but "If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. . . . anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about." (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity p.145)

But to put the ball back in our court, I sometimes wonder if many Muslims will turn out to have been better stewards of the less revelation they have been given than we Christians have been of so much more.

pk said...

Amanda, I don't know how many readers you have had that regularly pull out their own Qur'an to follow along in, but I've been one of them ;-)

Amanda said...

"I sometimes wonder if many Muslims will turn out to have been better stewards of the less revelation they have been given than we Christians..." Ah. Interesting question, Matt.

To use the parable of the talents, perhaps they are producing more with one talent then we are with ten...

Kari said...

to say simplifying reduces meaning doesn't fly with me.

we when say to each other in the world that "although you are from a rich family in france or an orpan home in cambodia, you are still at your core human and you are of value because we share that bond," we are simplifying our differences in order to find a common bond, a way to love each other and share with each other in life. we still value the fact that the cambodians life is vastly different than our own, and we can still be enriched by that difference - simplifying doesn't cange that. simplifying enriches the relationship so we can see our common ground and then go from there.

this seems very different than saying an apple and a cardinal are red. =)

just a thought...love you...kari