by David Teague
How do missionaries in Muslim churches speak of the divinity of Christ without appearing to contradict their belief in monotheism?
An important question within recent New Testament scholarship has been: “If the first Christians were strict monotheists, how did they come to worship Christ as divine?” In other words, how did they deal with the seeming contradiction? This relates to another important question for Christians who live in Muslim cultures today: How do we speak of the divinity of Christ without appearing to contradict our belief in monotheism? The early Church began under the strict monotheism of first century Palestinian Judaism. Many Christians today live under the strict monotheism of Islam. Can an analogy be drawn across the centuries to teach us how to communicate Christ’s divinity to Muslims?
Most Christians do not know what life is like in a strictly monotheistic culture. We are not first century Jewish villagers who daily recite the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Mark 12:28-31; Deut. 6:4). Most of us are not awakened at four a.m. in Amman, Jordan, to the sound of the muezzin calling out, “There is no God but Allah.” Most do not hear Muslim television preachers wail about the heresy of shirk, the association of anything material or human with Allah (Qur’an 4:48). “Nothing, nothing,” Muslims say, “can be associated with God lest it diminish the holy transcendence of God.”
Today, the Church outside of the Middle East is largely ignorant of all this difficulty. Christians freely say, “Jesus is God,” but they have no idea how this sounds to a strict monotheist. Once, in my theological role in the Middle East, my Arab colleagues cautioned me not to blithely say, “Jesus is God.” I was dumbfounded, but they explained, “It’s carelessness. To Muslim ears, when you talk like that, all they hear is the heresy of shirk. Besides, it’s sloppy thinking.” Quoting Athanasius, the early church father, they continued: “The Son is God in all things, except that he is not the Father.”
In other words, they carefully preserved the distinction between the Son and God the Father in heaven while I blurred it. They felt the distinction was essential in explaining who Christ is within Muslim contexts. The Son is divine, but the Father—God in heaven—is still infinite, eternal, and beyond human conception.
They encouraged me to use indirect language in how I spoke of Christ’s divinity. The New Testament never has the direct equivalency statement, “Jesus is God.” We do have some close statements, as in Thomas’ confession, but never a simple, clear declaration. Instead, we find a series of indirect statements: Hebrews 1:3—the Son “is the radiance of God’s glory” and “the exact representation of his being”; Colossians 1:15—“the image of the invisible God”; Philippians 2:6—“who, being in the very form of God”; and 1 Corinthians 8:6—“through whom all things came and through whom we live.” Then there is the use of the title Lord with a divine charge (cf. Rom. 10:9).
This hesitation to use direct equivalency statements seems due to the difficulty of speaking of the divinity of Christ in first century Palestinian monotheism. The indirect language indicates divinity; however, in a way that respects the position of God the Father in heaven.
Some Western scholars have now become aware of the difficulty of speaking of Christ’s divinity within a strictly monotheistic culture. In his commentary on Philippians, Ralph Martin first cites a number of Paul’s circumlocutions concerning Christ’s divinity and then concludes: “Why this restraint in vocabulary on the part of an apostle so obviously committed to the lordship of Jesus Christ? Perhaps it was due to the influence of Jewish monotheism on Paul, the former Pharisee (2004, lxiii; cf. 1 Cor. 8:5–6).
Richard Bauckham is another scholar who recognizes the difficulty (Bauckham, 1999). He affirms that the New Testament writers assert the divinity of Christ, not by making bold equivalency statements, but by including Jesus in the unique identity of Yahweh. He and other scholars use the phrase Christological monotheism to describe how the first Christians included Christ in this unique identity of Yahweh.
This unique identity developed within the Hebrew’s covenant relationship with Yahweh. As the centuries passed, the Hebrews experienced Yahweh guiding them, defending them, and instructing and chastising them. They developed a covenantal knowledge of Yahweh. When the first disciples encountered Jesus, they confessed that their experience was consistent with their prior covenantal knowledge of Yahweh. They witnessed Jesus’ sovereignty over all things. He calmed the storm, cast out demons, forgave sin, healed the sick, and raised the dead. His death was an atonement for the sins of the world. He ascended to heaven as the judge of the world. They prayed in Jesus’ name and miracles happened.
They included Jesus in the unique identity of Yahweh because of what they had experienced. This did not create a philosophical problem with their monotheism because they were not thinking about God philosophically; they were experiencing God covenantally. Their encounter with Christ was consistent with what they already knew about Yahweh, so they chose the language of Christological monotheism to describe Christ’s divinity.
This is why the New Testament quotes Psalm 110 some twenty-two times to identify the Messiah with the sovereignty of God. This is also why Paul composes a “messianic Shema” in 1 Corinthians 8:6 by weaving the name of Christ into the traditional Jewish Shema. And this is why the New Testament speaks of Christ as involved in the creation of all things (John 1:1-3; Col. 1:15-17).
Perhaps most importantly, the New Testament authors confessed that Christ was the fulfillment of the story of God. Isaiah 40-55 promised that there would be a final, eschatological victory of God in the world and that it would happen through the atoning death of a servant (Isa. 53:10). Bauckham argues convincingly that three major NT scriptures about Christ’s divine identity (Phil. 2:6-11, Revelation, and John) look to Isaiah 40-55 as their source (1999, 45-69).
In short, Bauckham argues that the first Christians confessed Christ to be divine without contradiction with their monotheism because their experience of Christ was consistent with their prior convenantal knowledge of Yahweh.
WHAT IS USEFUL?
Christological monotheism raises two important questions as we seek to communicate Christ’s divinity within Muslim contexts: (1) Are we making a proper analogy? and (2) If we are, what can be learned? Christological monotheism describes how the first Christians included Christ in the unique identity of Yahweh. At first glance, this seems to offer a striking analogy to Christians living in Muslim cultures. Both situations concern how to communicate the divinity of Christ within a culture dominated by a strict monotheism. But there is an important difference: The monotheism of Islam is not the monotheism of the Bible. Islam focuses on the transcendence of God. The Bible, on the other hand, also describes God’s immanence.
In the Bible, we read of theophanies, such as the Lord God walking in the cool of the day in Eden. God communicates through the prophets and acts within the covenant. Salvation is described as peace with God. Messianic prophecies speak of Immanuel, God with us. The earliest Christians felt that God wanted to know and to be known: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the word of life” (1 John 1:1).
Muslims do not share this same understanding of the immanence of God. For this reason, their concept of monotheism differs from the covenantal monotheism of the Hebrews, causing the analogy between first century Judaism and Muslim cultures to be imperfect.
We also have to acknowledge that Islam developed independently from the Bible. Indeed, the words “Allah” and “Yahweh” do not share the same cultural and contextual associations. In the Bible, Yahweh constantly acts for the redemption of the world through a covenant people, a depiction not shared in the same way in the Qur’an. However, despite the lack of a perfect analogy, Christological monotheism can still be helpful for communicating Christ’s divinity within Muslim cultures. It is useful when we teach it as part of the biblical metanarrative.
Although Muslims lack a covenantal knowledge of Yahweh, they can still learn it. The biblical metanarrative is the story of God—the self-revelation of God to the world through a chosen people. Muslims need to comprehend this before they can understand how it is completed in Christ. Metanarrative approaches, such as chronological Bible storying, provide the proper interpretive framework for communicating the divinity of Christ to Muslim cultures. In that framework, Christological monotheism does have value. It also has value when we seek to explain the meaning of the cross. Muslims do not understand how God would allow his holy prophet to suffer the shameful death of crucifixion. Christological monotheism explains how. It reminds us that Jesus is not just a part of the story of God—he is intrinsic to it. He completes it. There is something within his death that we need to grasp in order to know God.
Understood apart from the biblical metanarrative, Christ’s crucifixion does seem utterly shameful. But within the context of the story of God, it is the fullest revelation of the identity of God, as foretold in Isaiah 40-55. We cannot know what God is really like apart from the atoning death of the Messiah. Concerning this, Bauckham makes a crucial point:
While the Fathers successfully appropriated, in their own way in Nicene theology, the New Testament’s inclusion of Jesus in the identity of God, they were less successful in appropriating this corollary, the revelation of the divine identity in Jesus’ human life and passion. To see justice done to this aspect of New Testament Christology we have to turn to the kind of theology of the cross which Martin Luther adumbrated and which has come into its own in the twentieth century. (1999, viii-ix)
In other words, our task is not simply to communicate words about the deity of Christ. We are also to live out a sacrificial witness. In the cross, we find redemption, but we also learn how to live a life of redemptive sacrifice for the sake of others. Both our teaching and our passionate service are needed to help our Muslim friends to know who Christ really is.
Aiding us in this endeavor will be the Holy Spirit. It is no slight matter that many Muslims are now experiencing God through dreams, visions, and miracles. Since Muslims do not understand the biblical metanarrative, they lack the conceptual framework to understand the divinity of Christ. It takes time to teach the biblical metanarrative. Our merciful God seems to be helping many Muslims “catch up” by sending them experiences to open them to the divine nature of Christ. To fully understand these experiences, however, inquirers will need to become grounded in the biblical metanarrative and in Christological monotheism.
Christological monotheism can be used to teach the divinity of Christ in Muslim cultures, but it should be taught as part of the biblical metanarrative. Within that context, the incarnation is no longer shirk; instead, it is the fulfillment of the story of Yahweh. The crucifixion is no longer shame; rather, it provides us a glimpse into the true heart of God.
Bauckham, Richard. 1999. God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
Martin, Ralph and Gerald F. Hawthorne. 2004. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 43: Philippians (Revised Edition). Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
David Teague served in the Middle East under Interserve from 1983-1992. Presently, he teaches and does consulting work. He is also helping to develop a course on leadership and spirituality for mission leaders.