Unheard Voices in the “Son of God” Debate: The History of Christian-Muslim Encounter
by Charles L. Tieszen
Historical voices remain curiously absent from many modern discussions about using the term “Son of God.” The author uses Theodore Abu Qurrah, a ninth-century native of Edessa and Orthodox bishop of Harran, as an example of how early church leaders viewed the debate.
In the February 2011 issue of Christianity Today, Collin Hansen re-introduces an important theological and missiological debate: Should Christian missionaries and Bible translators reconsider how they translate the phrase “Son of God” with reference to Jesus in their ministry to Muslims? (Hansen 2011, 18-23; see also Brown 2000; 2005a; 2005b; 2007; Brown, Penny, and Gray 2009; Poythress 2005).
For many Muslims, the phrase suggests an inappropriate divine relationship, an opinion reinforced by the Qur’an (al-Taubah 9:30; Maryam 19:88-92). So when Muslims read the New Testament, they often shudder at the notion that God fathered a son with Mary. Their encounter with the “Son of God” in the Bible is thus an offensive barrier. As a result, Muslims can be quick to repudiate the Christian message before hearing much of it.
Eager to remove an obstacle to possible conversion, various Bible translators and missionaries wish to re-translate the phrase, hoping to communicate the essential meaning without the unintended confusion. As Hansen discusses, one among a handful of alternative phrases translators employ is “the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God” (Hansen 2011, 18). Phrases like this one are offered after much precise thinking and have yielded fruit on the mission field.
As might be expected, they have also been met with controversy. Christians of all kinds weigh in on the discussion. Among them are seasoned missionaries with significant experience in Christian mission to Muslims. They are keenly aware of how some Christian doctrine sounds to non-Christians and are adept at communicating the gospel in ways that avoid unnecessary pitfalls. The gospel is, after all, translatable (Sanneh 2009), and for this reason the message of Christ can be made fully incarnate in any culture (Walls 1996).
Bible scholars are also present at the table of debate. Aware of the New Testament background and the wider biblical theology behind the phrase “Son of God,” they too offer wise perspective (Abernathy 2010; Horrell 2010; cf. Dixon 2010 and Greer 2010). They emphasize the need to communicate the gospel clearly without sidestepping the original message of the Bible’s God-inspired writers.
Those concerned with the matter might feel comforted by such wide-ranging perspectives and depth of knowledge as they forge a way ahead for effective mission. Is the table of debate, however, really limited to biblical and missiological scholarship? Are these the only voices to which we should listen?
Those with ears sensitive to history might remain troubled that few engaged in the debate have thought to take soundings from an important, and arguably necessary, historical referent. Some have rightly wondered at the insistence of New Testament writers to refer to Jesus as the “Son of God” in spite of how the phrase was heard in a Greek context of anthropomorphic mythology (Hansen 2011, 23; cf. Brown 2005b, 140-141). Others reflect upon similar questions from patristic sources (Horrell 2010, 653-658).
But what about the many Christians who, since Islam’s inception and their first encounters with Muslims, worked tirelessly to clearly present and preserve Christian truth in an Islamic milieu? Ancient texts written by Christians about Islam and treatises written by Muslims about Christianity are plentiful. Nevertheless, these voices remain curiously absent from many modern discussions.
This is often the case even though the content of ancient texts and present debates are frequently quite similar. Is there a reluctance to consult this important body of literature? Are those involved in the “Son of God” debate simply unaware of it? In fact, those engaged in mission today would do well to avail themselves of these sources. Listening in on these ancient discussions may very well offer clues about how to navigate challenges like the modern “Son of God” debate.
Soundings from the Ninth Century
Consider Theodore Abu Qurrah, a ninth-century native of Edessa and Orthodox bishop of Harran, in present-day Turkey (Griffith 1997, 1-20). He wrote treatises in Syriac, Greek, and Arabic, many devoted to the challenges of Islam (Griffith 2008, 60-61).
Of particular importance is his relatively short work, “A Treatise on the Veneration of the Holy Icons.” How might soundings taken from this text impinge upon the modern “Son of God” debate? A brief sketch of the treatise will help to answer this question. Abu Qurrah announces the problem he faces in this way:
…many Christians are abandoning prostration to the image of Christ…
[because Jews and Muslims], especially ones claiming to have in hand a scripture sent down from God [Muslims], are reprimanding them for their prostration to these icons, and because of it they are imputing to them the worship of idols, and the transgression of what God commanded in the Torah and the Prophets, and they sneer at them. (Griffith 1997, 28-29)
In effect, Muslims were challenging the theology that was depicted in Christian icons. Of course, not only were Muslims generally opposed to artistic renditions of human form, but they hotly objected to the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation, his death on the cross, and his resurrection—all common scenes portrayed in icons. Muslims went further, not only challenging these doctrines, but also laughing and jeering at what was to them a rather foolish display of religious fervor.
As a result, many Christians rejected icons, for fear of either the taunts Muslims might hurl at them or the doctrinal reprimands to which Muslims might subject them. They could carry on in worship quite easily without an icon. After all, what might it hurt to make this one seemingly trivial concession and downplay the use of icons? The sacrifice was, for many, worth a reprieve of Muslim ridicule.
Abu Qurrah could have responded similarly by suggesting worshipers curb their use of icons in light of their Islamic context. Even more, he could have, as others had, simply condemned the use of icons outright (Barber 2002). Instead, he argues for maintaining their use in the face of opposition, misunderstanding, and ridicule. The thrust of his argument is supported by five points.
1. He argues against the charge that icons inappropriately attributed “bodiliness” to God.
2. He admits that the use of icons is not commanded in scripture, but notes that rejecting icons on these grounds would require a logical rejection of other practices not mentioned in the Bible.
3. He suggests that departing from the practices of the early Church—which incorporated icons in its worship—would be, in effect, departing from Christianity.
4. He sets the use of icons in worship apart from idolatry and the Bible’s proscriptions against it.
5. He carries forward this same line of argument in light of his opponents’ specific charges of idolatry (Griffith 1997, 24-26).
A ninth-century debate among Orthodox Christians about the use of icons may seem quite far removed from a modern, largely evangelical discussion of Bible translation. Yet in both cases, Muslims approach a point of Christian faith or practice as a stumbling block.
Their response to icons, much like common reactions to “Son of God” language, was to ardently challenge the doctrine behind them. The harsh ridicule Muslims directed at Christian icons in the ninth century can be seen, in like manner, as the repugnance with which many Muslims continue to view the notion of Jesus as the “Son of God.” In both cases, Christians respond similarly. Some distance themselves from the point of concern; others embrace it, choosing alternative means by which to explain the distinctives of their faith.
There is at least one important difference. In our modern example, Christians are actively trying to present their beliefs to Muslims. In this sense, they are asking Muslims to look at their faith and they want them to have the best, most accurate view possible. In our ninth-century example, Christians were not necessarily presenting their beliefs, but rather trying to maintain them in light of their Islamic environment.
In this way, Muslims were viewing Christian faith and practice by virtue of their proximity, whether Abu Qurrah and his fellow believers wanted them to or not. Thus, Abu Qurrah may have been motivated by a slightly different set of circumstances than modern missionaries and Bible translators.
Yet in all of this, we are left with the profound similarity of Muslims looking in on Christianity. When they do, they bring a unique set of questions, assumptions, and starting points by which they interpret Christian belief and practice. Abu Qurrah and modern Bible translators are thus in a similar position to exert some measure of control over what Muslims see, how they see it, and how they understand it. In this light, soundings taken from Abu Qurrah’s treatise reveal a similar context to the modern “Son of God” debate. There is potential, then, to gain insight by listening to such historical voices as we consider how to navigate modern mission and Bible translation.
Modern Implications for the Medieval Debate
Abu Qurrah wrote in favor of icons, but what were the nuances of his argument that may have a bearing on the modern “Son of God” debate? What might Abu Qurrah tell us if we were to ask him about modern Bible translations and how the phrase “Son of God” is rendered?
To begin with, Abu Qurrah mentions the mysteries of God that, according to 1 Corinthians 3, strike human ears as foolishness (Griffith 1997, 33). These mysteries, for Abu Qurrah, are ridiculed because they are God’s “perfect wisdom,” the understanding of which “is attained only in the Holy Spirit” (1997, 33-34). Abu Qurrah adds in the words of the Apostle Paul, “No one can say that Jesus is Lord except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3; Griffith 1997, 34).
Of course, we cannot excuse ourselves from the effort of communicating our faith with clarity. Indeed, Abu Qurrah spent much time trying to do this very thing in dialogue with Muslims. Yet, in smoothing out difficult biblical texts, do we smooth out the mysteries of God, attempting to do in our own power the work of the Holy Spirit in helping such mysteries to take deep root in the lives of those who read the Bible? Would Abu Qurrah urge translators to let the “Son of God” stand as it is, depending upon the Holy Spirit to go before them?
This point would assume that missionaries and Bible translators follow the Holy Spirit by being in relationship with Muslims for the sake of friendship, religious dialogue, and discussion of difficult biblical texts. With this in mind, Abu Qurrah goes on to enumerate challenging passages in the Bible, topics that were just as mysterious as the doctrine depicted in icons, and verses as difficult to make sense of as the phrase “Son of God” (1997, 35-39).
In doing so, it becomes clear that the Bible is a book meant to be read in relationship with others. Are readers meant to approach this sacred text without any challenges, explanatory help, or discipleship? If Muslims quickly reject the Bible after reading taboo phrases like “Son of God,” is it because Christians are not reading it by their sides, doing the explanatory work that we sometimes expect of footnotes?
As Abu Qurrah argues, the Bible and Christian practice are replete with interpretive challenges. Just as the Holy Spirit must enlighten readers individually, so might understanding be sought in the context of Christian-Muslim relationship. Thus, we must not sacrifice the importance of personal contact in Christian mission (Johnson and Tieszen 2007) and even Bible reading.
Perhaps Abu Qurrah’s greatest contribution is his suggestion that, in an environment heavily populated by Muslims, icons became boundary markers highlighting the unique theological distinctions of Christian faith (Griffith 2008, 145; Griffith 1997, 6-7, 48, 75). In an Islamic context where God revealed himself via sacred text (the Qur’an)—and thus only this text was artistically depicted—icons stood as an important symbol of the doctrine that distinguished Christians from Muslims.
Icons proclaimed quite loudly that, for Christians, God revealed himself through the person of Christ and postured himself toward humanity in his work on the cross. Thus, it was the person of Christ and his death and resurrection that was artistically rendered in icons (Griffith 1997, 29). In this light, turning away from icons as an aspect of Christian spirituality was to remove one of the few things that emphasized the differences between Christianity and Islam.
At a time when attraction and conversions to Islam were growing, the dilution of such doctrinal boundaries made the differences between the two religions less clear and diminished the reasons Christians might have for adhering to their faith. In this way, icons became
…a necessary part of the Christian witness in the Islamic milieu to the truth of [Christian] faith in the divinity of Christ and…publicly declared those very points of Christian faith which the [Qur’an], in the Muslim view, explicitly denied… (Griffith 2008, 145)
An Important Boundary Marker?
With this in mind, is “Son of God” language an important boundary marker not dividing Muslims and Christians relationally, but making explicit one of the distinctives of the Christian faith?
Perhaps it is, at the very least, a signpost urging readers of the Bible to stop here and consider. The question of what it means for Jesus to be the “Son of God”—and the important doctrine lying behind the phrase—can go easily unconsidered with a smoothed-out translation like “the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God.” In what way, exactly, is Jesus understood to “originate” from God and how is it that he is a “beloved” son?
Readers may be less likely to think about these questions with such a smooth translation of “Son of God” and may, therefore, import their own meaning into his person. This might be especially true in a context where a “praised one” (ahmad/muhammad) was sent by God as the “seal of the prophets” (khatim al-nabiyin; al-Ahzab 33:40).
Without such language like “Son of God” to mark Christ’s person and work off as distinct in the Christian view, readers may be left unaware of the significant doctrinal weight the words “the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God” are forced to bear. Like icons were for Abu Qurrah, it may be that “Son of God” is a better boundary marker, pointing out the distinctives of Christianity. It may, moreover, do a better job of suggesting that Muslim and Christian readers of the Bible come together in relationship for dialogue and explanation.
Of course, there are other considerations presented by the “Son of God” debate—both for an alternative translation and against it (Hansen 2011, 21-23)—that may not have a parallel in Abu Qurrah’s text. In any case, on whichever side of the debate missionaries, Bible translators, and other interested participants fall, may they do so by having first invited voices to speak to them from missiological, theological, and historical perspectives. Posing hypothetical questions to ancient Christians like Abu Qurrah may help to discern potential pitfalls where they may otherwise not be detected.
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Brown, Rick. 2000. “The ‘Son of God’: Understanding the Messianic Titles of Jesus.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17(1): 41-52.
_____. 2005a. “Part I: Explaining the Biblical Term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 22(3): 91-96.
_____. 2005b. “Part II: Translating the Biblical Term ‘Son(s) of God’ in Muslim Contexts.” International Journal of Frontier Missions 22(4): 135-145.
_____. 2007. “Why Muslims Are Repelled by the Term ‘Son of God.’” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43(4): 422-429.
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Johnson, Todd M. and Charles L. Tieszen. 2007. “Personal Contact: The sine qua non of Twenty-first Century Christian Mission.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43(4): 494-502.
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Walls, Andrew F. 1996. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
Charles L. Tieszen, PhD, is an independent scholar, researching and writing on topics related to the history and theology of Christian-Muslim relations.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 292-298. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.