Islamic Perspective on the Doctrine of the Trinity

The three great monotheistic faiths of the world – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – share a belief that there is only one supreme being, the Lord and creator of the universe. This is often summarised in an Old Testament verse, known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6: 4). Islamic critics of Christianity regularly criticise Christians for apparently deviating from this emphasis upon the unity of God (often referred to by the Arabic word tawhid) through the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is argued to be a late invention, which distorts the idea of the unity of God, and ends up teaching that there are three gods.

The witness of the Qu’ran to what Mohammed thought that Christians believe is not quite as clear as might be hoped, and this has led some interpreters of Islam to suggest that it holds that Christians worship a trinity consisting of God, Jesus, and Mary (Qu’ran 5: 116). Although there are reasons for suspecting that Mohammed may have encountered heterodox forms of Christian belief in Arabia, including unorthodox statements of the Trinity, it seems more likely that the doctrine has simply been misunderstood as implying that Christians either worship three gods or that they worship a single God with three component parts.

From what has been said thus far, it can be seen that this concern rests on a misunderstanding. Christians believe in one God, and one God only – but a God whose revelation discloses this God to have a certain specific character and nature, which Christian theology has believed must be faithfully reflected and represented, even if this seems counterintuitive. Far from teaching that there are three gods – whether God, Jesus, and Mary, or any others – Christianity proclaims that there is only one God, who became incarnate in Christ. Historically, the starting-point for Christian reflection on the doctrine of God has been the divinity of Christ – something that Islam decisively rejects.

For Christians, God is known fully and directly through Christ. Where Islam holds that one may know the will of God but not the face of God, Christianity holds that both have been fully and definitively revealed in Jesus Christ. Mohammed is seen as one who wrote down the revelation entrusted to him by the angel Gabriel; Jesus is one who was himself the definitive revelation of God. Classic Christian theology holds that, as God incarnate, Jesus reveals God and makes restoration to him possible through his saving death and resurrection. Underlying the Islamic criticism of the doctrine of the Trinity is a more fundamental concern about the identity of Jesus Christ himself. For Islam, Jesus is a prophet – and not God incarnate.

Having established the divinity of Christ, Christian theology then asks: what sort of God is made known and available in this way? How are we to think about God, to do justice to the self-revelation of God as the one who created humanity and the world, who redeemed us in Jesus Christ, and is present now in the world through the Holy Spirit? The doctrine of the Trinity has never been seen as compromising or contradicting the unity of God. The Trinity, to put it as simply as possible, is ultimately the distillation and correlation of the Christian tradition’s immensely rich teaching about the nature of God.

c/f McGrath, Alister E., Christian theology : an introduction, 1953

Categories: Defending the Faith

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