by Joseph Nehemiah
Three reasons why we are constrained theologically and missiologically to teach the truths of a Trinitarian God and Christ as the preexistent Son of God.
A young couple comes to a pastor for premarital counseling. They seem to be sincere and deeply in love. However, after a few probing questions it becomes apparent that their “love” is based on a faulty view of each other. They do not understand the character and qualities of the other person. Their deep desire to be in love has blinded them to the reality of the nature and character of the other person. As any marriage counselor will tell you, if not corrected beforehand, the relationship will be doomed once the infatuation wears off and the reality of marriage sets in. Love, based on a faulty view of the other person, is dangerous at best and likely will result in divorce and/or misery down the road.
In the same way, a relationship with Christ, based on a faulty understanding of who he is, will encounter problems and misery down the road. On the field where I serve, both nationals and expatriates believe that multiple understandings of Christ make him more acceptable to our Muslim friends. The thought seems to be that long-held orthodox beliefs hinder growth in Muslim communities and are a source of faulty evaluation of these believers. To address this, some practitioners are proposing that we accept other ways of understanding Christ—perhaps even having multiple Christologies. This position and practice are counter-productive to the goal of seeing multiplying churches among Muslim followers of Christ.
Our relationship with Christ is not only the foundation of our salvation, it is also the source of our spiritual life. If we undermine the fullness of who Christ is, we also undermine the spiritual life that results from this belief. Our relationship with God will be stunted at best and irreparably harmed at worst. Muslim believers, whose struggles include overcoming sinful patterns in their life and withstanding the threat of persecution, need to know and experience all of Christ in order to overcome sin and withstand persecution.
We need to allow new believers time to understand and express the truths of the Triune God. This is different than stating that new believers do not need to accept the historic truths of the Triune God and the personal pre-existence of the Son. We should eschew the latter and firmly embrace and practice the former if we seek to be effective in our work. According to Joshua Massey, “Primary in our evaluation of Christ-centered movements among Muslims then should not be conformity to the language of Greco-Roman orthodoxy, but whether or not they are striving to obey all that Jesus commanded” (2004, 8). We should affirm this statement but should also be careful not to create a false dichotomy between belief and practice. Certainly many of our Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon friends live out the directives of scripture very scrupulously. Yet our evaluation of them would not be that they are born-again believers. Belief and practice are of equal importance. As Harold O. J. Brown states, “Trust in Christ, which is necessary for salvation, makes sense only in the context of certain doctrines, and what they tell us about him and his work” (1984, 20-21).
Our goal is for our friends to live out the fullness that they have in Christ, not to pass a Theology 101 exam. However, a right understanding of Christ is imperative in helping our friends “obey all that Jesus commanded.” As we will see below, this is the practice of the author of the Book of Hebrews writing to first century Jewish believers. He writes that their obedience, endurance and strength under persecution are dependent on a full understanding of who Christ is and what he did for his people. This puts a burden on those who have the privilege of working with Muslim believers. We should be patient in evaluating others’ faith based on their understanding of foundational doctrines. Yet we should also be committed to teaching all of who Christ is so that our brothers and sisters can enjoy all of who God is. As Thomas Torrance says, “Unless our salvation derives from the one ultimate being of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit eternally in himself, it is finally empty of divine validity and saving power” (1992, 123).
Here then are three primary reasons why we are constrained theologically and missiologically to teach the truths of our one God in three persons and Christ as the preexistent Son of God.
1. Scripture teaches it. It is not my purpose here to expound the scriptural support for the Trinity and personal preexistence of the Christ. There are numerous books, commentaries, pastors and theologians who have skillfully established and defended these foundational truths. These doctrines are scriptural and are therefore indispensable to the believer. Alister McGrath is correct when he states,
The doctrine of the Trinity can be regarded as the outcome of a process of sustained and critical reflection on the pattern of divine activity revealed in scripture, and continued in Christian experience. This is not to say that scripture contains the doctrine of the Trinity; rather, scripture bears witness to a God who demands to be understood in a Trinitarian manner. (2001, 321)
Although one may find theologians who differ (as happens on any issue), the overwhelming understanding of scholars from all theological traditions is that of the divine Christ. The New Testament authors present Christ in this way (see Rom. 9:5 and Titus 3:4, 6). Any practice allowing for multiple understandings of the passages in which Christ can be divine on the one hand and not divine on the other are contradictory, and thus counter-productive in a believer’s understanding of Christ. The Apostle Peter also clearly describes Jesus as God and Lord in 2 Peter (“…by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ” [1:1] and “… the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” [1:11]). The apostles had no difficulty seeing the Father as being Jesus’ God and as being God at the same time, thus eternally existent. Taken together, Jesus is seen as the eternally preexistent Son of God. Peter, Paul, the Gospel writers and the author of Hebrews all affirm the eternality of Christ and the Triune nature of God.
The Church across the ages and cultures has affirmed and reaffirmed the belief in the Trinity and the personal preexistence of Christ as the eternal Son of God. This is who God eternally is—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When we acknowledge these truths, it is not in acquiescence to a certain culture’s expression of these truths (Greco-Roman, European, Asian or Middle-Eastern), nor to any certain age (fourth century, sixteenth century or twenty-first century). We are teaching what the scriptures teach.
In the study of C5 believers it is stated that, “more than half of those surveyed expressed their understanding of God in terms of Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (Parshall 1998, 486). Praise God for these and praise God for the others who have not yet expressed their understanding in this way. This is not to say that one group is the true believers and the other is not. We do our friends a great disservice if we judge the genuineness of their faith on the completeness of their understanding or their ability to fully express these truths. Which one of us can fully express the truths of the Trinity, anyway? Yet we do an equal disservice to our friends if we leave them in their misunderstanding, or state that it is possible to have multiple Christologies (i.e., personally preexistent and not). Both cannot be true. As one theologian noted, “The law of noncontradiction is as much rooted in Hebrew thought as in Greek thought. Antithesis—the concept that mutually exclusive things cannot both be true—is a central theme in both the Old and New Testament” (Lindsley 2004, 144).
We cannot present conflicting viewpoints. We may feel a freedom in the West to play with supposed nuances of the truth, but the cultures that our friends live in do not view truth about God in this way. Indeed, our friends have keen intellects and see through our faulty thinking and dubious practices.
The proper desire of Massey and some other practitioners is to guard the monotheism Christianity believes in, and that our Muslim friends fervently propound. In pursuit of this goal, however, the need is not for multiple Christologies, but for an understanding and presentation of the doctrine of the Trinity as “a doctrine of the one Lord God with a profounder understanding of the inner unity of his eternal being” (Torrance 1992, 106-107).
This is what Matthew 11:27, Luke 10:21-22 and John 5:16-30 are telling us about God. We focus on the difference between the Father and the Son (and the Spirit) when we should be focusing on the unity of their knowing (Matt. 11:27) and doing (John 5:17, 19, 21, 22), thus presenting God as he is—one God. This is why John tells us that they are both to be honored as God (5:23). Our need is to guard the eternal Trinitarian relationship of the one God. Torrance warns us to guard against
analytical and dualist ways of thinking to separate the doctrine of the one God from the doctrine of the Triune God, as though the doctrine of the three divine persons were not intrinsically and essentially integrated with the doctrine of the one indivisible being of God. Apart from that integration, Trinitarianism constantly threatens to pass over into some form of tritheism. (1992, 107)
We do not need to propose multiple Christologies nor back away from truths that have long been held because we believe they have been tainted by cultural bias. Instead, we need to continually focus on the integration of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and emphasize the oneness of God. In the final analysis we trust that God has fulfilled his promise and has guided his Church across the centuries and cultures into all truth (John 16:13).
2. It is practical to their faith. I am indebted to Dennis Green for his keen insights into the similarity between first century Jewish believers and Muslim believers. Green rightly states that the culture and situation most closely resembling the situation most Muslim believers find themselves in today is that of the Book of Hebrews (1989, 234, 241). Although the recipients of Hebrews were in the Greco-Roman milieu, they would not have been cultural heirs of Greco-Roman thought. The Book of Hebrews was written to address a stunted growth due to a failure to fully understand and appropriate the person and work of Christ. The recipients were most likely believers from a Jewish background who faced persecution from their own religion and the Roman government. Many of them were failing to grow either because of persecution and trials for their faith or because they simply were not embracing and applying their faith in Christ in their lives. There was a tendency among the readers to look back to their old religion and rely on external Judaic practices instead of the internal transformation of Christ for right standing before God. This is why the book is so relevant to believers today. It most closely represents the situation believers find themselves in. We would do well to learn from the author’s manner of addressing his readers’ problems.
The Book of Hebrews is full of exhortations toward growth (2:1-3; 3:12-14; 4:1; 5:11ff; 6:9-12; 10:23; 12:1-2, 12-13, 25; chap. 13). The reason for their fledgling faith was twofold and intertwined. On the one hand, there was a lack of understanding the message of Christ (2:1-3). On the other hand, there was sinful behavior (3:12). Of course these are really two sides of the same coin as true knowledge of Christ is obeying Christ. One cannot say he or she truly understands a biblical statement unless he or she is living it out.
How does the author address these issues? He does so by communicating the nature of Christ—both his deity (1-2) and his humanity (3-4). He also communicates the superiority of Christ to their old system of belief. The word xreitton is used thirteen times in Hebrews to contrast Christ with what went before him. Christ is the better: revelation (1-2), builder (3), high priest (7), author of better covenant (8) and bringer of a better sacrifice (9). Many Christians working with Muslim believers use this book successfully to disciple believers.
The author understands that the Son of God, who is God’s word to us, is the same Son of God through whom the world was created (1:1-2). He is the one who laid the foundations of the earth (1:10). He is God (1:8) and is worshipped by the angels as such (1:6). The author shares in the stream of biblical thought concerning the preexistence of Christ as stated by John (John 8:58) and Paul (Col. 1:15-17).
The benefits of knowing Christ fully are many: (1) internal change resulting in a truly changed life and the power to live out this changed life (8:7-10); (2) internal cleansing, forgiveness and release from guilt, as opposed to external or ceremonial cleansing (9:11-15); (3) the law of God is written on our hearts (10:16-18); (4) a direct relationship with God (10:19, 22); (5) the courage to hold fast to Christ in the midst of trials and persecution (10:23) and (6) the love to serve others (10:24-25). It is the fully divine, fully human Son of God through whom the world was created who alone can strengthen believers to overcome sin and withstand persecution.
In other words, if we want to fully benefit from knowing Christ, we must know him fully. Doing otherwise results in what Green calls “stagnated contextualization.” By this he means “contextualization which has been employed as a means of facilitating the transition of Muslims from Islam to Christianity, but which then comes to operate as a barrier to their proceeding to a complete experience of Christ and his salvation” (1989, 245).
This “complete experience of Christ” is the deepest need of Muslim believers. We must not deny our brothers and sisters this by offering an incomplete or contradictory understanding of Christ.
3. It confronts the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. At best, statements holding to multiple Christologies end up being antithetical to each other. At worst, they lead to the denial of Christ’s deity and make Jesus simply a great prophet or revealer of God. Besides the above mentioned problems, this position acquiesces to at least two important tenets of Islamic theology: the eternality of the Quran and the supremacy of Muhammad.
The eternality of the Quran. A hadith of Sufyaan ibn ‘Uyaynah (d. 198AH) said, “He has lied (who says that the Quran is created).” A Muslim believer once expressed this idea to me. He said, “Either Christ is eternal or the Quran is eternal; that is the choice.” This statement has been reiterated by other Muslim believers with whom I have interacted. If we give up the eternality of Christ, we concede an important point: If Christ, the word of God, is not eternal (preexistent), then their word, the Quran, is. A commentary on the 16:40 from the Quran confirms this: “Verily, our word unto a thing when we intend it, is only that we say unto it: Be!—and it is.” Therefore the Speech of Allah, by the will of Allah, is the cause of the creation. Therefore, it cannot be created; for if it were created, it would mean that a created characteristic has itself created another object, and this is not possible. In other words, a created object does not have the ability to create another object; only the creator has this ability (Ammaar Yasir Qadhi 1999, 34). Our believing friends understand the importance of guarding the personal preexistence of Christ. They remind us that we should not surrender this point. The eternality of Christ is crucial to their faith. It counters and fills an important point that they have surrendered.
The supremacy of Muhammad over Christ. When we allow for multiple Christologies we are in danger of making Christ simply a man full of God or perhaps the greatest of all the prophets. Statements that Christ is “far greater than any prophet” are counter to the thinking of our Muslim friends. They would deny that Christ was the greatest prophet—that is why Muhammad came. As Kenneth Cragg says, the Muslim understands the need for Muhammad to come because
a certain incompleteness must attach to Jesus’ messengership inasmuch as it did not emerge into ‘manifest success.’ Ideal man holds the sword of Caesar in his hand and he has the heart of Jesus in his breast. These being compatible, Jesus lacked the first and therein lies the partiality of his mission and the superiority of Muhammad. (1999, 51-52)
Our friends see Muhammad as the greater one. Jesus was great in many ways; however, what he did was incomplete. The choice was not which one was greater. Our Muslim friends have already decided on that. We present not a choice, but two totally different persons—one great and one divine. In denying the preexistence of Christ, we make him simply one of the prophets. We must offer not one who is better, but a whole new category of person. We may think that we are removing a stumbling block in God becoming man. If we follow this thinking to its end, as our friends most certainly do, then we lose the uniqueness of Christ in comparison to Muhammad. In doing so, we lose more than we gain. Again, theology is ultimately practical.
Scripturally, we cannot support any teaching that does not hold to the personal preexistence of Christ or presents multiple Christologies as acceptable. Practically, we must not allow any teaching which does not give our friends all that they need to overcome sin and withstand persecution. Apologetically, we dare not sacrifice the eternality of Christ and his uniqueness as the eternal Son of God. Instead, we need to affirm,
What God is toward us in his revealing and saving acts as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, He is antecedently and eternally in himself, but what God is antecedently and eternally in himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit he is toward us in his revealing and saving acts in Christ and in the Holy Spirit. (Torrance 1992, 123-124)
PRESENTING CHRIST PROPERLY
Understanding Christ fully is paramount to obeying him. It is paramount in enjoying him. It is the ultimate need of Muslim believers who are seeking to live out their faith in hostile environments. We must not judge their faith on a partial or incomplete understanding of Christ. Yet we dare not leave them in this state. May we who walk with them patiently and faithfully help them know all of Christ so they may experience and enjoy all the fullness of who he is. This is what a solid marriage between Christ and his bride is built upon.
Brown, Harold O. J. 1984. Heresies. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company.
Cragg, Kenneth. 1999. Jesus and the Muslim, An Exploration. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.
Lindsley, Art. 2004. True Truth. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Green, Dennis. 1989. “Guidelines from Hebrews for Contexualization.” In Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road. Ed. Dudley Woodberry. Monrovia, Calif.: MARC Publishers. 233-250.
Massey, Joshua. 2004. Misunderstanding C5 and the Ultimate Translatability of Christ. Unabridged online edition, 8. Accessed November 15, 2006 from http://bgc.gospelcom.net/emis/pdfs/Misunderstanding_C5.pdf.
McGrath, Alister. 2001. Christian Theology: An Introduction. 3rd edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Torrance, Thomas. 1992. The Mediation of Christ. Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark.
Yasir Qadhi, Abu Ammaar. 1999. An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’aan. Birmingham, UK: Al-HIdaayah, Publishing and Distribution.
Joseph Nehemiah (pseudonym) works in the Middle East developing teaching and training materials for church leaders in partnership with Muslim Background Believers.
Copyright © 2007 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.