The Christology of the Quran: A Disputed Question
by Paul Williams
A Case Study: A Christian theologian’s polemic against the Quranic understanding of Jesus and God in Alister McGrath’s book Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, SPCK Publishing (Nov 2009).
McGrath complains that the Quran misrepresents two key Christian beliefs: the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the divinity of Christ.
‘Most Christians find that the Quranic representation of these concepts bears little relation to their orthodox statements… The problematic Quranic representation of Christianity can be argued to reflect knowledge, whether direct or indirect, of heretical versions of Christianity that are known to have been present in this region. As we have insisted throughout this work, heresies must be considered to arise within the church, and hence can be regarded as “Christian,” even though in a weak sense of the term. Nevertheless, they cannot be regarded as authentically Christian. The Quran thus critiques ideas that lie on the fringe of the Christian faith – and that virtually all Christians would also agree to be defective.’ pp 224-225 Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth
McGrath believes the Quran represents Christians as worshiping a trinity made up of God, Jesus, and Mary, and that the Quranic polemic is really directed at the so-called Collyridian sect which treated Mary as a goddess. Collyridianism was an obscure Early Christian heretical movement whose adherents apparently worshipped the Virgin Mary. The main source of information about them comes from their strongest opponent, Epiphanius of Salamis, who wrote about them in 375 AD. However, there is no evidence that Collyridianism still existed in the Prophet Muhammad’s time (the 6th and 7th centuries AD)
McGrath further complains that the Islamic characterisation of the Trinity “simply cannot be sustained by any comparison with orthodox Christianity.” p. 225.
Furthermore, McGrath rejects the Quranic view of Jesus of Nazareth because he claims it reflects ‘heretical christologies’ that were allegedly popular in the Arabian peninsula and not the ‘orthodox’ view he himself holds.
As a former Christian who enthusiastically subscribed to all the orthodox beliefs concerning Jesus and the Trinity (as enshrined in the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon) I am nevertheless impressed by the precision and deftness by which the Quran demythologizes these ‘orthodox’ doctrines. McGrath does not appreciate the Quranic modus operandi by which it polemically unveils Christianity’s metaphysical errors. He expects it to be a compendium of Christian theology. It is not. The Quranic purpose lies elsewhere in refuting error and reasserting the truth about God and His prophets which Christianity (by which I mean the theologies of the historic Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches, not obscure 7th century heresies) has distorted.
Moreover, the Christology of the Quran bears a striking resemblance to recent biblical research that has concluded that neither Jesus’ family, nor the apostles, nor his Jewish disciples, believed that Jesus was God. They believed, like Muslims, that Jesus was the Davidic Messiah, but still a human being.
As the Lutheran biblical scholar Rev Professor Jeffrey J. Butz concludes in his significant work, ‘The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity’
“It is more than than intriguing that the Muslim understanding of Jesus is very much in conformity with the first Christian orthodoxy – the original Jewish Christian understanding of Jesus.” p186 (italics added).
“If Jewish Christianity had prevailed over Pauline Christianity, history would likely have been written quite differently. It is quite likely that such atrocities as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust would never have happened. If the Jewish Christian understanding of Jesus had prevailed, Jews and Christians might never have parted ways, and Islam would have never have become Christianity’s perceived enemy.” p 187
I propose to demonstrate that the Quranic polemic against Christianity is in fact relevant to the vast majority of Christians in all the major mainstream Churches, both in the 7th century at the time of the prophet and today. I will argue that the Quran, though not concerned to debate Christian theology, does accurately disclose the idolatry and error to be found in the substance of these two doctrines.
I will cite all the relevant passages that explicitly refer to Jesus and discuss their understanding of the Christian views of the Trinity and Jesus.
Surat 4, 171-2:
‘O people of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion, nor utter anything concerning God save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of God, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers, and do not say ‘Three’. Desist, it will be better for you. God is only One God. . . . The Messiah would never have scorned to be a slave of God.’
The Cambridge Islamic scholar Abdal Hakim Murad (also known as Tim Winter) comments on this passage:
‘The Qur’anic term for ‘exaggeration’ used here, ghuluww, became a standard term in Muslim heresiography for any tendency, Muslim or otherwise, which attributed divinity to a revered and charismatic figure. We are told that during the life of the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, a few of his devoted followers from Iraq, where Hellenistic and pagan cultures formed the background of many converts, described him as God, or the vehicle of a Divine incarnation – hulul. The claim of course irritated Ali profoundly, and he banished those who made it from his sight; but even today marginal Islamic sectaries like the Kizilbash of Turkey, or the Alawites of the Syrian mountains, maintain an esoteric cosmology which asserts that God became incarnate in Ali, and then in the succession of Imams who descended from him.’
‘Mainstream Islam, however, despite its rapid spread over non-Semitic populations, never succumbed to this temptation. The best-known of all devotional poems about the Blessed Prophet Muhammad: the famous Mantle Ode of al-Busairi, defines the frontier of acceptable veneration:
‘Renounce what the Christians claim concerning their prophet,
Then praise him as you will, and with all your heart.
For although he was of human nature,
He was the best of humanity without exception.’
A few years previously, the twelfth-century theologian Al-Ghazali had summed up the dangers of ghuluww when he wrote that the Christians had been so dazzled by the divine light reflected in the mirror like heart of Jesus, that they mistook the mirror for the light itself, and worshipped it. But what was happening to Jesus was not categorically distinct from what happened, and may continue to happen, to any purified human soul that has attained the rank of sainthood. The presence of divine light in Jesus’ heart does not logically entail a doctrine of Jesus’ primordial existence as a hypostasis in a divine trinity.’
(From The Trinity a Muslim Perspective, text of a lecture given to a group of Christians in Oxford, 1996. The full text can be viewed online at masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/trinity.htm)
Those who say, ‘God is the Messiah, son of Mary,’ have defied God. The Messiah himself said, ‘Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord.’ If anyone associates others with God, God will forbid him from the Garden, and Hell will be his home. No one will help such evildoers.
Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God. If they persist in what they are saying, a painful punishment will afflict those of them who persist. Why do they not turn to God and ask His forgiveness? The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; other messengers had come and gone before him; his mother was a virtuous woman; both ate food [like other mortals]. See how clear We make these signs for them; see how deluded they are. Say, ‘How can you worship something other than God, that has no power to do you harm or good? God alone is the All Hearing and All Knowing.‘
Say, ‘People of the Book, do not overstep the bounds of truth in your religion and do not follow the whims of those who went astray before you – they led many others astray and themselves continue to stray from the even path.’
Verse 72 above is clear: Christians have proclaimed that God’s Messiah is God. But our earliest surviving gospel, that of Mark, portrays a very human figure who prays to God; who does not know vital information because it has not been revealed to him (the date of the End); and who even denies that he is “good” (Mark 10). Moreover, in the Gospel of John there is a saying of Jesus which is remarkably similar to Jesus’ words in the Quran.
Quran: The Messiah himself said, ‘Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord.
Gospel of John: Jesus said to her…“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
In both passages Jesus has a God. Therefore he cannot logically be God (as God is One God).
But what about the Quranic statement,
‘Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God’?
Is this not a misunderstanding of orthodox Christian doctrine? I think not, once we understand the polemical methodology of the Book. McGrath misunderstands the Quran’s purpose when he comments: ‘This could easily be interpreted, in quasi-pagan terms, as the divine Father, Son, and Mother’ (note 4 on p.268).
The Quran is not a textbook of Christian theology. It does not enter into intra-Christian debates about the nature, substance and hypostasis of the Godhead. A comparison of two Latin terms might be relevant and helpful here: de jure and de facto.
De facto: said of something that is the actual state of affairs, in contrast to something’s legal or official standing, which is described as de jure. De facto refers to the “way things really are” rather than what is “officially” presented as the fact.
In Christian texts we often read of the following three items: God, his Son/Messiah and the Holy Spirit. For example, I Corinthians 8 states:
‘For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.’
I Corinthians 11 states:
‘I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.’
Here God is the half of two, so to speak.
In 2 Corinthians 13, God is the third of three:
‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.’
Now official Christian doctrine says that God, his Son and the Spirit are One God. The Quran does not engage with this de jure position but tackles head on the de facto reality: God is presented as one of three, God = the Father God without remainder, the Messiah/son is clearly distinct from and subordinated to God (as in 1 Corinthian 11). The ‘Spirit‘ is perhaps a personified attribute of God himself (as in OT usage) but in Paul it is virtually a separate hypostasis (though this is disputed).
The Quran in its saying, ‘Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God’, appears to be reasserting the pure, undiluted monotheism of the OT prophets. The danger of associating other beings with God such as Jesus, is that the latter become progressively deified, a process Western scholars have long documented in the New Testament itself. This the Quran condemns.
When God says, ‘Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people, “Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God”?’ he will say, ‘May You be exalted! I would never say what I had no right to say – if I had said such a thing You would have known it: You know all that is within me, though I do not know what is within You, You alone have full knowledge of things unseen – I told them only what You commanded me to: “Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.”
My comments on the last passage above apply this passage too. The Quranic teaching is another example of a de facto critique of Christianity, by insisting that Jesus is just a messenger of God, merely a mortal human being. His mother was merely a creature too (though a Lady of great virtue). Both have become the objects of veneration, prayers and even worship in the mainline churches over the last 2000 years. Only in the past several centuries have the newly formed Protestant churches rejected the worship of Mary, but they continued to worship her son nevertheless. A lesson half learned perhaps.
God asks of Jesus, ‘Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to people, “Take me and my mother as two gods alongside God”?’ In truth Jesus never said such a thing, as his almost incredulous reply attests, May You be exalted! I would never say what I had no right to say…’
It will now be obvious that McGrath has not appreciated the subtlety of the Quranic critique of Christian beliefs. Once this is grasped then the Quranic message can be appreciated for what it is: a piece of precision polemic of enduring and universal relevance, as pertinent as today’s newspaper.
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© 2013 Paul Williams