The Trinity as Radical Monotheism

  Thomas Michel, S.J.

1. Did the Qur’an misunderstand Christian teaching?

It is well known that one of the main Muslim accusations against Christianity is that Christians, in our doctrine of the Triune God, insert multiplicity into the nature of God. At the popular level, many Muslims believe simply that Christians worship three gods. To the followers of a religion like Islam or Judaism, whose central affirmation is the oneness of God, it is difficult to imagine a more basic or horrendous error. The subject is a difficult one to discuss with Muslims since their critique stems directly from statements made in the Qur’an, which they believe to have been revealed literally by God.

The Qur’anic passages which appear to deny the Trinity are not numerous but are emphatic in their rejection of Trinitarian concepts. Two passages, both taken from Surat al-Mâ’ida, are typical: “They disbelieve who say: ‘God is one of three’” (5: 77); and “Recall when God said, ‘O Jesus, son of Mary, was it you who said to the people: Take me and my mother as two gods apart from God?’ He replied: ‘Glory be to You! It is not for me to say what is not true. Had I said it, you would know it’” (5:116). Such affirmations, which imply that the Christian doctrine regards God as a composite of Allah, Mary, and Jesus, would seem to place a unsurmountable barrier to Muslim-Christian understanding on the nature of God.

Christians often claim that the Islamic rejection of the Trinitarian nature of God is based on a misunderstanding of Christian doctrine. Some go further to root this misconception in Qur’anic passages, an assertion which Muslims find offensive, as it implies that Muhammad, rather than God, was the author of the Qur’ân or else, what is even more blasphemous, that the Divine author of the Qur’ân was guilty of misunderstanding Christian teaching.

However, such passages must be considered in their historical context. For centuries before the time of Christ, the “Semitic triad” was evident in the religiosity of both nomadic tribesmen and settled populations of the Syro-Arabian region. Although the names of the divinities changed from place to place, from tribe to tribe, there was widespread belief in the High God (called by some Arabs Allâh, that is, “The God,” his consort (sometimes called Allât “the Goddess”) and their son Ba’l (or Ba’l Shamîm), that is, “the Lord.” It was natural for Christianized Arabs, poorly schooled in their faith, to identify the persons of this traditional triad with God “the Father,” Mary “the Mother of God,” and their son Jesus “the Lord.”

One can argue that it is this primitive, pseudo-Christian understanding which is strongly rejected by the Qur’an, implying, as it does, the physical generation of Jesus from a type of sexual union of God with Mary. Moreover, this concept has also been consistently rejected by Christian theologians, bishops, and councils. One can, in fact, find parallels in authoritative Christian sources, both before and after the time of Muhammad, to every Qur’anic condemnation of any form of multiplicity and association in God. Thus, the Qur’an can be read as rejecting these same unworthy understandings of God, proclaiming God to be far above such improper intermingling and, in effect, confirming Christian condemnations of similar erroneous interpretations. The Qur’an pronounces neither positively nor negatively on orthodox Christian trinitarian doctrine, because such was not encountered among the few semi-Christianized Arabs of the Hijaz region in which Mecca and Madina are located.
The weakness of the argument lies in the fact that we know so little about the form or forms that Christianity may have taken in 7th Century Arabia or even whether Christianity in the region of Mecca had progressed beyond the stage of isolated individuals who were attracted by or adopted some elements of Christian belief that it is difficult to move beyond conjecture and speculation.

2. Arab Trinitarian formulations

After the Muslim conquest of southwest Asia in the 7th Century, the Christian theologians who lived in Muslim domains and spoke and wrote in Arabic developed their theology of the Trinity in full consciousness of the objections of their Muslim neighbors. They used terms borrowed from Greek to define Trinitarian concepts, such as the term uqnûm, from the Greek γvώμη (form), to indicate the divine hypostases. However, uqnûm with its connotations of individuality referring to an autonomous subject of being and activity, was gradually replaced by the Arabic sifah, meaning attribute or characteristic. Sifah is not used in the Qur’an, although the term was used by Muslim scholars indicate God’s attributes.

Thus, the Arab Christian theological tradition developed in an intellectual context quite different from that of the scholarly circles of Byzantine and Western Europe which produced our traditional Trinitarian formulations. Arab Christian theology developed in an environment where any conceptualization of the Trinity had to be tested, even as it was being formulated, by the way in which that formulation would necessarily be heard and perceived by the omnipresent Muslim.

This factor led Arab Christian theologians to formulate their Trinitarian understanding in terms of sifât as the normal translation into Arabic of the hypostases defined by the early Councils. The common Trinitarian understanding in Arab regions has always been that of “One God with three essential characteristics,” which produced an understanding significantly different in nuance from the Western tradition that translated hypostasis into Latin as persona and ultimately produced the concept in modern European languages of “One God in three persons.” The Latin persona underwent a considerable historical evolution in meaning from its original sense in theater indicating a “mask” or “role,” (which survives in the phrase dramatis personae) to its modern understanding as referring to “a being possessing independent consciousness or rationality.” The Byzantine theological tradition has generally rejected the Greek equivalent of “person,” πρoσωπov, in favor of _πoστασις in Trinitarian formulations.

3. Three persons in One God or One God in three modes of subsisting?

Karl Rahner, one of the few modern European theologians who has attempted to formulate Trinitarian doctrine in full awareness of Islamic monotheist sensitivity, has noted that the terminology of “three persons in God” is, to say the least, “misleading and open to misunderstanding.” Although one can find a sound explanation of the phrase by redefining “person” out of its normal usage, the modern Christian and non-Christian will almost inevitably think of God as a type of committee made up of three people or, in Rahner’s words: “three subjects differing from one another in their subjectivity, knowledge, and freedom, and wonder what kind of logic it is that permits three persons understood in this way to be simultaneously one and the same God.” Just as the Qur’an may well have been responding to something other than the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity, so Muslims of today, in denying the Christian Trinity, may in fact be denying Christian propositions that do not express well the content of that doctrine.
I believe that a more accurate expression of what Christian faith teaches about the triune God can be achieved by returning to the original meaning of hypostasis as defined by the early Councils. This can perhaps best be translated as “mode (or manner) of subsisting,” which Rahner prefers, or “mode of being” as suggested by Karl Barth. Speaking of the one God who subsists in three distinct modes is also closer to the traditional Arab Christian formulation of one God with three essential characteristics or sifât.

An objection often raised against regarding the trinitarian hypostases as “modes of subsistence” or “manners of subsisting” is that this is a reformulation of the modalist error of the important 2nd Century theologian Sabellius, whose writings were condemned by the Council of Nicaea. However, at Nicaea, the concept of modality as such was not condemned and, in fact, the Nicaean Fathers incorporated much of Sabellius’ theology into their teaching. What was condemned in the thought of Sabellius was his view that the divine modes of being and acting were not part of God’s eternal nature, but rather ways of being which God adopted upon creating the universe. The hypostatic modes were seen by Sabellius as being extrinsic to God’s unchanging nature, historically conditioned “accidents” rather than pertaining to God’s essence.

One must grant that Sabellius’ effort to preserve the Divine Unity, while his formulation had much to commend it, departed from orthodox Christian understanding. The Council of Nicea corrected Sabellius’ views by affirming the traditional belief that the Divine hypostases, or modes of God’s being and acting, were eternal rather than originating in time, real, rather than logical constructs, and essential, that is, pertaining by necessity to God’s essence and not extraneous characteristics added on to God’s nature. If any modern modalistic formulation of the Trinity is to remain faithful to the Conciliar understanding, it must affirm the One God whose three modes of subsistence are eternal, real, and essential to the Divine nature.

4. Mutual challenge of monotheist believers

We must proceed beyond the matter of adopting the most suitable terminology to the more central question about the nature of God which religious monotheists pose to one another. On the one hand, Muslims (and Jews) must continually ask Christians whether our profession of faith in the Triune God does not amount to a disguised tritheism, or how that belief can be lived out religiously by one for whom the acknowledgment of one God is the very heart of the believer’s faith. On the other hand, the Christian in dialogue must continually ask the Muslim (and the Jew) whether they need to go farther to achieve a radical monotheism whose expression Christians find in the doctrine of the Trinity.

For all monotheist believers, questions regarding God’s oneness are not speculative problems whose solution is to be sought in metaphysics, but rather efforts to know better this Living God who creates, teaches, saves, and gives life. Christians’ experience of the God of revelation and salvation is of a threefold nature. It is an experience of the one God, who does not live and remain in a metaphysical remoteness, but a God who continually seeks to impart God’s own self to created humans in truth and love as our own eternal life. For Christians, it is not a question of God revealing something other than God, but rather God’s own self-revelation to humankind in both our historical contingency as well as at the transcendent core of our existence. God’s historical self-revelation Christians find in the incarnation of God’s eternal message or Logos in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s active, transcendent presence at the heart, not only of human nature, but of the whole created universe, Christians call the Holy Spirit.

If our concept of God is not that of the distant totally Other, but rather of God who has freely chosen to be part of contingent and transient human history and who remains actively present at the innermost core of creation, it is not sufficient to speak of an eternal Message embodied in a covenant, a people, or a sacred text. We must consider God’s active presence in terms of divine self-revelation: God’s self-revealing presence in the vicissitudes of human life and God’s transcendent self-revelation in every particle of the cosmos.

A radical monotheism requires that the one God have these two ways or modes of presence and activity in history and in creation and that these modes be not created and not different from God. For if we are speaking of a genuine self-communication of God to the creature, then the modes of communication must be themselves divine and not some created mediation.

For a believer who is content to worship and obey an incomprehensible God from an infinite distance, this discussion might appear irrelevant. But if we believe that God might also be intimately near, and if we respond to a religious thirst for intimate communication with this radically present God, this would imply that God has ways or modes, which are themselves divine, not created, and not separate from God, by which God enters definitively into human history and also remains as a life-giving presence at the transcendent core of the created universe. Anything less would lead to created mediations (angel, Book, shekinah etc.) and unacknowledged polytheism.

The key differences between the Christian and the Islamic perceptions of the Living God would seem to come down to two. The first is the distinction between revelation and self-revelation, that is, between a God who reveals a Message or Book and God who reveal’s God’s own living presence. Islamic faith speaks of revelation, Christian faith of self-revelation.

Secondly, if one believes that God is radically present in human history and as the transcendent spark at the core of the every created thing, one is lead to ask how God is present. Speaking of “how” is to speak of modalities, the ways God actualizes this Divine presence. Whereas Islamic faith does not address the question of modality, Christian faith holds that God’s ways are two, God’s historical self-revelation in the human person of Jesus and God’s transcendent and active presence at the heart of creation, which we call the Spirit. Thus the two divine processions and two missions of classical Trinitarian theology.

If Trinitarian belief is ultimately concerned with the ways or modalities by which God is present in transitory human history and in the cosmos, one explain the Christian belief in terms of Divine presence. A modern theologian in Egypt has formulated Christian Trinitarian belief in just such terms, speaking of al-hadrât al-ilâhiyya, the Divine presences or, better, the forms of divine presence: Allah hâdir la-na,” “God present for us,” whom Christians call Father, Allah hâdir ma’-na, “God present with us” the Logos incarnated in the man Jesus, and Allah hâdir fî-na, “God present in us,” whom we call the Spirit.

Christian faith is centered on the one God who created and still creates, who loves and reveals Godself to all men and women at all times, a God who saves and gives life. It is a faith in this one God who freely chose not to remain aloof from human history, but to enter into the human project as an embodiment of eternal wisdom, and to accept the consequences that flow from that decision. It is a faith that denies that everything in this universe is ultimately measurable, quantifiable, but affirms instead that at the heart of the smallest sub-atomic particle of matter, in the very energy that since the first moment of the Big Bang has impelled the expanding universe of galactic clusters, black holes, and cosmic threads is a divine spark, a transcendent something that cannot be grasped by human intelligence or instruments, because it is divine and hence essentially beyond matter and energy, the stuff of creation. This kind of faith can truly be called the radicalization of monotheism.

The central concern of Islamic theology is that of tawhid, affirming Divine Unity. As a Christian, I agree that this is both the goal of religious faith and the goal of theology as reflection on that faith. With Muslims, we want to avoid, on the one hand, ta’tîl, considering God so different and remote as to prevent a vibrant response in faith and, on the other, tashbîh, confusing and intermingling God with creation. I would describe the doctrine of the Trinity as radical tawhîd in affirming the ways or modalities by which the One Eternal, Infinite God is present “for us, with us, and in us,” in our personal lives, our history and universe, avoiding the ta’tîl of remoteness and irrelevance and avoiding the tashbîh of implicit polytheism by positing created mediations.

No doubt the debate between Muslims and Christians will continue for centuries to come. Each has a duty to challenge the other. If the Islamic vocation in our world remains that of witnessing to God’s true oneness and challenging any conceptualizations or formulations that would diminish or deny that Unity, the Christian vocation is to bear witness that this one and same God is radically close to humankind, has become part of our changeable human history, and unceasingly lives and acts at the heart of the cosmos. One might say that Muslims approach the Divine with the basic question, “Who?” and the answer of Islamic faith is “Allah, the One God.” Christians agree and then ask a second question, “How?” and the answer of Christian faith is “in three essential modes of Divine presence.”



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