Dr. Gary Miller
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Christians and Muslims who learn something of one another’s religion find that a crucial issue is the nature of Jesus. The majority of Christians deify Jesus while Muslims say that he was no more than a prophet of God, a faultless human being. The doctrine of the Trinity avows that three distinct co-equals are God. In particular, Jesus is said to be God the Son or the Son of God. As the Muslim questions details of this theology the Christian characteristically forms a common explanation for our differences: He complains that Muslims do not understand the Trinity: that we are actually accusing Christians of Tritheism and other heresies.
So the Muslim seeks clarification of the teaching and asks at every step: “How could that be so?” For example, we insist that the term “Son of God” cannot have a literal interpretation. Sonship and divine nature would be necessary attributes of such an actuality, but these are incompatible. The first describes a recipient of life while the second describes One who received life from no one. These are mutually exclusive requirements then. To be a son is to be less than divine, and to be divine is to be no one’s son.
As a discussion proceeds, it is the Christian who will eventually take refuge in the response: “These are things that we cannot understand.” His assessment of the Muslim’s problem becomes his own confession. The Christian explanation becomes self-defeating so there is a change of tactic.
He complains that the Muslim refuses to accept what cannot be understood. But the modified approach is a diversion. Now the concepts of verification and understanding are confused. To illustrate: Chemical reactions may be verified but the atom is not thereby understood. Facts are catalogued but not always explained. This distinction is the key to our concise reply. It is the Muslim who must redirect the discussion. Our primary issue is more basic than resolving the incongruities of Trinitarian doctrine. Rather than ask how the Trinity can be so, we should ask why it must be so. “We ask, “Why must Jesus be divine? Can we verify the necessity of this belief?”
The Muslim Position
A few centuries ago, European philosophers commonly felt that a conjecture was proven if it could be shown to be equivalent to an assertion made by Aristotle. Unfortunately, such an approach stopped short of challenging Aristotle and discovering truth. Similarly, resting the Trinitarian case on what people have said about Jesus stops short of establishing the integrity of the authorities and the truth of the matter.
Our purpose here is no more than the illustration that belief in the Trinity can only be based on Church authority. Many Christians admit that this is the case while others insist that the teaching was elaborated by Jesus himself. “Let them produce their proof,” is the repeated admonition of the Qur’an, that is, ‘provide the documentation that Jesus himself claimed unqualified deity,’ (Qur’an 21:24). Unless this evidence can be produced, authorities are subject to challenge. Then the Christian may not evade the Muslim’s questions concerning understanding. The Christian will have no justification for maintaining an illogical position, unless he is content to rely on the opinions of men. If he will probe no deeper than this, the Christian-Muslim dialogue is finished.
For Christians, the only documents accepted as reporting the words of Jesus are the accounts given in the Bible. We leave the Muslim attitude toward the Bible for part II of this essay and find our motivation now in the Qur’anic verse, “Say: ‘0 People of the Book! You have no ground to stand upon unless you stand fast by the Law, the Gospel, and all the revelation that has come to you from your Lord.'” (Qur’an 5:71). Christians are advised to support their claims by citing their books. Thus Muslims believe that no saying of Jesus can be produced which shows him grasping at equality with God. The primary issue is not whether Jesus is God. The first question is whether he said that he was equal to God.
The Bible record of sayings credited to Jesus is quite meager. After allowance for duplication in the four gospel accounts, these sayings could be printed in two columns of a newspaper. None of this handful of texts is an explicit claim of deity. All quotations are implicit, that is, they require interpretation. We are told what Jesus said and then told what he meant. So our methodology takes an obvious form.
It is not our intention or obligation to reinterpret the Bible. We are satisfied to merely verify that Christian interpretations are insufficient, ambiguous, or impossible. We mean to argue: 1) that where the meaning of a quotation is clear, it is still insufficient to prove that Jesus claimed equality with God; 2) that other quotations cited are open to various interpretation, ambiguous; 3) and that still other quotations have been given interpretations that are impossible. This means the evidence is either inadequate, inconclusive, or unacceptable, respectively.
The virgin birth of Jesus and the miracles he demonstrated are cited by some as proof of his divinity. The insufficiency of the premise is obvious. We need only read the Biblical account of Adam’s creation, without father or mother, and the accounts of miracles associated with the prophet Elisha (Genesis and 2 Kings chapters 4, 5, 6). In the case of these two men, no Christian asserts their divinity, yet each has a qualification in common with Jesus.
Some maintain that Jesus was God because the Hebrew Scriptures predicted his coming. The inadequacy here is only slightly less apparent. The ancient Hebrew Scriptures are also cited as predicting the role of John the Baptist (Malachi chapter 4). These three arguments are mentioned to show that the ready claims of Christians betray a selective or forgetful recall of scripture. They know the fact of virgin birth as well as they know the account of Adam’s origins, yet they interpret the first and overlook the second.
Now to pursue our case indirectly. Does the Bible quote Jesus as claiming equality with God? Bible texts are produced to show that Jesus used the terms “son of man”, “son of God”, “Messiah”, and “saviour”. But each of these terms is applied to other individuals in the Bible. Ezekiel was addressed as “son of man” (Ezekiel chapter 3). Jesus himself speaks of the peacemakers as “sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Cyrus the Persian is called “Messiah” at Isaiah 45: 1. The duplicity of translators is manifested here, for they inevitably render only the meaning of the word “Messiah” which is “annointed”. Where other Bible verses seem to refer to Jesus, they prefer to transliterate “Messiah” or the Greek equivalent “Christ”. In this way they hope to give the impression that there is only one Messiah. As for “saviour”, the word is applied to other than Jesus (2 Kings 13:5). Christians choose to cite the forty-third chapter of Isaiah as proof that there is only one saviour. Again, translators have tried to obscure the fact that God is the only saviour in the same ultimate sense that He is our only nourisher and protector, though men also have these assigned tasks. By over specifying this pronouncement in Isaiah they hope to have us believe that God equals saviour and Jesus equals saviour therefore Jesus equals God. The conspiracy of modern translation is easily demonstrated. The King James Bible of 1611 is everywhere available. Compare it to a more recent translation, say the New American Bible of this century. In the earlier version we find 2 Kings 13:5 contains the word “saviour”, but in the newer version the synonomous word “deliverer” has been substituted. In fact,”saviours”, the plural, will be found at Obadiah 21 and Nehemiah 9:27. Here again, by substituting a different word, the connotation of divinity tied to the word “saviour” has been guarded in modern versions by less than honest translation.
Once more we have exhibited the insufficient warrant of arguments offered: Those terms said to connote divinity are used of individuals other than Jesus.
There is a quotation that should be mentioned here also. At John 8:58 it is reported that Jesus said, ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ Even if Jesus meant to claim by these words that he was alive before Abraham was, is this sufficient ground to say that he was divine? If Jesus lived in heaven then came to earth it might mean something remarkable, but it would not be enough to establish him as God incarnate.
Additionally, it should be noted that these words are open to other interpretation. Christians do not imagine that the prophet Jeremiah had a pre-human existence and so they find a suitable way of interpreting the words of Jeremiah 1:5 which portray such a situation, if taken literally. Why not apply a similar understanding in the case of John 8:58?