[The following article is provided with the permission of the Christian Research Journal, www.equip.org).
Answering the Muslim Challenge to the Trinity
It is always the hardest part. The closing statements are completed. The audience has applauded your efforts. You take a deep breath, consider relaxing for just a moment, when you remember: now come the audience questions. Your mind is already exhausted, and now you get to fight the battle all over again. The only redeeming element of the ordeal is that you are limited in how long you have to answer. And so as I wrapped up my first debate with a Muslim apologist, I wondered what would be coming my direction as a long line of men dressed in Muslim garb formed behind the single audience microphone. I did not have long to wait. The first questioner went on for at least three minutes before finally getting to his point: “Was Jesus a white man or a black man?” My answer took substantially less time than his question: “He was a Palestinian Jew, actually, as the Bible says.” Next questioner was much more to the point:
Muslim: “You say Jesus is our Creator?”
Muslim: “And you say Jesus was a man and walked the earth?”
White: “Yes, the Word become flesh.”
Muslim: “And he was a real human being, you say?”
White: “Yes, fully man.”
Muslim: “So this means Jesus ate food, and that would mean it would pass through his body and be eliminated, and since that is unholy, then how could he be God?”
Answering audience questions is much like taking questions on a national radio program: you never know what to expect. And I surely had not prepared for that particular approach. My answer was rather straightforward, focused upon the main problem (the identification of natural bodily functions as unholy), but it illustrated one of the main problems we have in communicating the truth of the Trinity (and the attendant issue of the deity of Christ) to Muslims: the issues we are most prepared for do not carry nearly the weight with them that we would like, and the topics that cause them the greatest difficulties throw us a real apologetic curve.
Western Islamic Apologetics
While the outlines of historic, conservative Islamic belief are consistent between Islamic nations and Western democracies, the methods of apologetics obviously differs. In Islamic nations the sword (or in modern parlance, the gun) can be used to effectively “win the debate” with those systems that would criticize any element of Islamic belief. Many Islamic nations fine, imprison, torture, or even execute, those “guilty” of criticizing Mohammed, the Qur’ân, or basic Islamic beliefs. This is very much in line with Qur’ânic teaching:
The punishment for those who wage war against God and His Prophet, and perpetrate disorders in the land, is to kill or hang them, or have a hand on one side and a foot on the other cut off, or banish them from the land. Such is their disgrace in the world, and in the Hereafter their doom shall be dreadful. But those who repent before they are subdued should know that God is forgiving and kind. (5:33-34)
So, fight them till all opposition ends, and obedience is wholly God’s. (8:39)
Of course, the propagation of other beliefs, and especially of beliefs that are contradictory to the Islamic faith (such as historic, biblical Christianity) is viewed very much in the same light. To positively promote the truth that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and that salvation is found only through Him is to deny, in essence, the heart and soul of the Islamic confession of Mohammed as Allah’s prophet and the Qur’ân as His Word. When Islam takes power in a culture, apologetics comes to an end, and force becomes the final argument.
But in Western culture there is still an opportunity for dialogue and debate, and Islamic apologists are forced to stand on equal ground with others and give a reasoned case both for the positive confession of Mohammed as a prophet as well as negatively the denial of the historic Christian views of Christ’s person and work. The Muslim living in the United States is faced with a pluralistic society that still maintains many distinctively Christian features (even if they have been, in the vast majority of citizens, divorced from the divine truths upon which they were initially built). As a result conservative Islam has developed a form of “apologetics” that can present a number of unexpected twists and turns. Part of this apologetic is focused upon a defense of Mohammed and the Qur’ân, of course. But in most situations the apologetic takes the form of an anti-Christian polemic centered upon the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the resurrection. This study will focus upon preparing the Christian to give an answer to this new area of apologetic work and concern.
The Issues in Outline
What are the key issues that give form and shape to the Islamic apologetic challenge? We will first list them, and then address each in turn.
· Authority: While Muslim apologists will cite Scripture, they deny its ultimate authority and consistency, and place the Qur’ân as the highest authority in all things.
· Assumption of Unitarianism: Behind each of their arguments is the often undefended assumption of unitarianism. This assumption must be exposed and challenged!
· Arguments from Eisegesis: Despite questioning the veracity of Scripture, Islamic apologists are quick to quote from the Bible, though they rarely do so with sound knowledge of its backgrounds, languages, and context.
The doctrine of the Trinity is a biblical doctrine. It is derived first and foremost from the acceptance of Scripture alone and all of Scripture as the rule of faith for the Church. Obviously, then, when Islamic apologists engage in a critique of this doctrine, they do not share the foundational commitments that gave rise to the Trinity in the first place. The Christian then must begin by explaining the origin and source of the belief, which may well require at least a cursory statement of why you believe the Bible to be the Word of God and why you believe it has been accurately handed down to us today (the subject of the previous article in this series in the CRI Journal). But even if the conversation does not go into issues of the text of Scripture, the fact that we must allow all of Scripture to speak must be emphasized from the start, for as we are about to see, the primary issue with the Muslim denial of the key truths of the Trinity flows from their unwillingness to allow the Bible to define its own theology. Instead, Islamic categories are pressed upon the biblical text, resulting in tremendous error.
It should also be remembered that the Qur’ân directly addresses the issue of the Trinity. Since this is so, and since the Qur’ân is held in the highest position of authority for the Muslim, the Christian often faces a real difficulty. Many Muslims will not allow the historic doctrine of the Trinity to define the conversation because the Qur’ân misrepresents the Trinity. Therefore we at times face the strange situation of being told that what we are defending is not, in reality, the Trinity at all! Instead, what we believe has been “changed” by Christians down through the ages to make it easier to defend. What does the Qur’ân say about this important topic? Note these words:
They are truly infidels who say: “God is the Christ, son of Mary.” But the Christ had only said: “O children of Israel, worship God who is my Lord and your Lord.” Whosoever associates a compeer with God, will have Paradise denied to him by God, and his abode shall be Hell; and the sinners will have none to help them. Disbelievers are they surely who say: “God is the third of the trinity;” but there is no god other than God the one. And if they do not desist from saying what they say, then indeed those among them who persist in disbelief will suffer painful punishment….The Christ, son of Mary, was but an apostle, and many apostles had (come and) gone before him; and his mother was a woman of truth. They both ate the (same) food (as men). Behold, how We show men clear signs, and behold, how they wander astray!….Tell them: “O people of the Book, do not overstep the bounds of truth in your beliefs, and follow not the wishes of a people who had erred before, and led many others astray, and wandered away from the right path. (Surah 5:72-73, 75, 77)
A fair reading of the text of the Qur’ân tells us that a person who believes in the deity of Christ is an “infidel.” The text assumes, but does not prove, unitarianism (i.e., it denies the distinction of the divine persons and assumes that the being of God is shared by only one person). It puts words in Christ’s mouth that may be loosely drawn from John 20:17 that the author intends to be a denial of the Trinity. But these words are only a denial of various forms of modalism, not of the historic doctrine of the Trinity itself. The Bible is filled with passages that differentiate the Father and the Son.
Next the Qur’ân raises the very serious issue of shirk, the concept of associating anything or anyone with God. Islam believes the Trinity involves one in the sin of shirk, and for this reason the Muslim with whom we speak seriously believes we are seeking to entice them to the sin of idolatry. This section of the Qur’ân shows how serious this is in Islamic belief, for it dooms one to hell itself, with the added notification that there is none to help them. There is no forgiveness for such a serious sin. But how can a person who believes the Trinity be guilty of shirk?
It is just here we see further evidence that the Qur’ân is not an inspired document, for in these next words it gives firm evidence that its author did not understand the doctrine of the Trinity that had already been clearly established and taught for centuries. To say “God is the third of the Trinity” is to completely misrepresent the doctrine. Even if one were to say “Christ is a third of the Trinity” this would involve error, for fundamental to the entire doctrine is the truth that each of the divine persons shares fully in the divine being. The Father is not 1/3 of God, nor the Son, nor the Spirit. Each is fully God. God’s being cannot be divided up. It is simple (i.e., not compound) and indivisible. The author of the Qur’ân did not understand this. Surely a person would be a “disbeliever” for saying “God is the third of the Trinity” but they would be disbelieving the doctrine of the Trinity to say so! That is obviously not the intention of the author of the Qur’ân. It is plainly the intention of this book of Muslim Scripture to represent the Trinity as teaching the divisibility of the being of God, for how else could this involve one in the sin of shirk, that of associating something or someone with God?
The following phrase proves this, “there is no god other than God the one.” It is the Qur’ân’s teaching that the Trinity divides God up and violates its understanding of biblical monotheism (called “Tauhid” in Islam). Modern Muslim apologists repeat the refrain today by alleging the Trinity is fundamentally inconsistent with the confession of monotheism. When it is pointed out to them that the doctrine of the Trinity in all of its classical expressions begins and ends with the affirmation of the unity of God’s being and the absolute truth of monotheism, the response is to question the accuracy of the definitions, for the Qur’ân says otherwise! This brings us back to the authority issue, and the fact that the Qur’ân misrepresents the doctrine is a valuable apologetic tool to demonstrate the true nature of its supposed status as a revelation from God.
The Qur’ân goes on to prescribe “painful punishment” for those who “persist in disbelief” (i.e., continue to believe in the Trinity). It likewise asserts boldly that Christ was “but an apostle” or as another translation renders it, “only a Messenger.” This is plainly a denial of His divine nature. The Qur’ân has the mistaken idea that Christians make Jesus and His mother Maryinto two separate gods aside from the true God. Note these words:
And when God will ask: “O Jesus, son of Mary, did you say to mankind: ‘Worship me and my mother as two deities apart from God?’” (Jesus) will answer: “Halleluja. Could I say what I knew I had no right (to say)?…I said nought to them but what You commanded me: Worship God, my Lord and your Lord. (Surah 5:116-117)
It is sadly easy to understand where the confusion on Mohammed’s part came from: in visiting Jerusalem around the beginning of the seventh century he would have observed a strong Marian devotion. Combining this with ignorance of sound Christian teaching and biblical revelation, and operating upon an unchallenged assumption of unitarianism (discussed below), the only possible response would be to see the Christians as promoting forms of polytheism, with Jesus and His mother as separate gods. Mohammed argues that Jesus and Mary were human because they ate food: something that, he assumes everyone knows, God does not and cannot do. Of course, the Christian who understands that Jesus is the God-man, fully God and fully man, knows this objection is baseless, but the task is communicating this truth to the Muslim who follows the errors of his religion’s founder made many centuries ago.
Assumption of Unitarianism
The next important aspect of the discussion with a Muslim on the doctrine of the Trinity has to do with an all-too-common problem faced by the Christian apologist: commission of category errors. Anyone who has dialogued with one of Jehovah’s Witnesses knows the importance of keeping one’s categories straight: many of the “strongest” attacks upon the deity of Christ are based upon confusing the categories of divinity and humanity, especially as they apply to Christ in His incarnate state, or in confusing categories when applied to the relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. This is even more important in dealing with Muslims, since as we have seen category errors are a part of their ultimate authority (the Qur’ân).
The first issue that you must be prepared to address is the ever-present assumption of unitarianism on the part of the Muslim. The vast majority of his arguments against the Trinity will be focused upon a simple formula: “God is one. Therefore God cannot be three.” What does this statement assume? It assumes that when we affirm the unity of God’s being we likewise must affirm the singularity of His person. That is, unitarianism asserts that God’s being is one, and can be shared by only one person. In contrast, trinitarianism likewise asserts that God’s being is one, but insists that the biblical evidence proves that three divine persons share fully in the one diving being. An unproven but simply assumed unitarianism is committing a category error by insisting that the statement “God is one” applies to both “being” and “person,” when the biblical revelation tells us it is referring only to the category of being. The Muslim who repeats the words of Deuteronomy 6:4, “The Lord our God is one” assumes this means “one person.” The Christian must explain the difference between “being” and “person” and then challenge this assumption repeatedly, for it will come up over and over again in the Muslim’s attempt to string together a biblical case against the Trinity or the deity of Christ. Being is what makes something what it is: person is what makes someone who they are. As human beings our category of existence is “human,” but each of us is a distinct person. We are one “what” and one “who.” But God’s being is not limited to time and space as ours is, and is shared fully by three divine and eternal persons, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. One what, three whos. You cannot assume the Muslim has ever had anyone explain these basic issues to them, and even then, you may have to repeat yourself and use different terms to get the message across. It can be a very frustrating experience, but if we love God’s truth, we will not weary in well-doing.
The importance of avoiding category errors can be illustrated by providing a response to the common use of John 17:3 to deny the deity of Christ. Scripture says, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” The argument used by anti-Trinitarians (and pressed repeatedly by my opponent in the debate noted above) goes like this: Jesus, as a man on earth, is praying to God in heaven. He differentiates Himself from the Father by referring to God in the second person, “You.” And most importantly, He denies He is God by saying that the Father is “the only true God.” Jesus cannot be deity if He says the Father alone is God! How does one respond to such an assertion?
Surely one can point to the surrounding context, including the clear reference to the deity of Christ in John 17:5 (“the glory which I had with You before the world was”) as arguing strongly against the conclusion offered. But more foundationally the interpretation offered assumes its own conclusion, and this is what must be challenged and corrected. Notice the unstated foundation of the argument: if the Father is the only true God and if God is unitarian in nature, then Jesus cannot be deity. But what if we remove the assumed unitarianism? The weight of the argument disappears. It is obviously true that the Father is the only true God, for there is only one true God, and no one is going to expect Jesus to be teaching polytheism! But as long as the assumption of unitarianism is left out of the equation, the conclusion is left without a foundation. Yes, the Father is the only true God, but since the being of God is not limited to being shared by a single person, then Jesus can likewise be called the “only true God” for He shares fully that same divine being (John 1:1, 17:5, Romans 9:5, Titus 2:13, etc.). The only weight the argument has is its own implied unitarianism! Sadly, this argument is often allowed to go unchallenged, no matter who is presenting it.
Islamic apologists found their biblical arguments against the Trinity upon this assumed unitarianism. They may not state it openly, or even use the terminology itself, but the sharp apologist will identify the implied unitarianism in the arguments placed before him. This will come out as we examine some of the favorite passages used by Muslim apologists.
When challenged, Muslim apologists, like most anti-Trinitarians, have a difficult time defending unitarianism. They are rarely challenged on it and hence have not had to explain why “God is one” must mean “God is one in being and in Person.” Citation of such passages as the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4ff) may be provided, but very rarely will a substantive defense be mounted. The fact is every passage that affirms monotheism is wholeheartedly embraced by every Christian Trinitarian. But going beyond “God is one” to “God is unipersonal” is a completely different issue requiring one to deal with the biblical evidence of three divine persons, and this the Muslim apologist is generally not ready to tackle.
To help the Muslim understand this area, you might explain that the Trinity is not the opposite of monotheism (an assumption they may be carrying into every word you speak). You might say, “The opposite of monotheism is polytheism, and we both know that is wrong. Where you and I disagree is not about whether there is only one true God, but whether that God is limited to one divine Person, or, as the Bible reveals, three Divine Persons. Our conflict is between your assumption of unitarianism, and my acceptance of the divinely revealed fact that there are three divine Persons who have eternally existed in relationship with each other.” At this point, a few questions might be asked to make sure the Muslim understands that you are not promoting polytheism and that the real issue is whether the Scriptures reveal the existence of more than one divine person.
One other assumption that is common to Muslim apologists must be addressed. Just as the Trinity is unique in its nature, so too the nature of Christ as the Incarnate One is unique. Muslims hold to traditional beliefs that preclude the very possibility of God entering into human flesh. Some are rather basic, as the one noted from the audience questioner at the beginning of our study. But in general they can all be boiled down to the idea that Allah would never deem it fitting to enter into His own creation. Further, they will focus upon the alleged difficulties that would exist if God were, in fact, to become incarnate.
Surely there are many speculative questions about Jesus’ life that the Word of God does not answer. We do not know almost anything about what it was like to live with a sinless person, exactly how Christ would behave as a child (outside of the fact that at age twelve He knew His Father and His Father’s business). Such questions know no end, but they can be answered by asking the question of the Muslim: does the Creator of all things lack the capacity to live within His own creation if He chooses to do so? Is God incapable of this? Is the Muslim truly comfortable saying that Allah has the power to create the universe but not to enter into it? Ask for a basis for believing God does not have this power. When the question of “why” is raised, move directly to the glorious condescension of love of Christ that brought Him into human flesh (John 1:14-18, Phil. 2:5-11).
Arguments from Eisegesis
Eisegesis is the opposite of exegesis: it is reading into the text a meaning its original authors never intended. Exegesis, on the other hand, allows the text to speak for itself, for it seeks solely to draw from the text its originally intended meaning. Sound exegesis takes into consideration everything that we use to communicate in a written form: background, context, and language (grammar, lexical meanings of words, etc.). Doing the work of exegesis shows respect for the original text. Engaging in eisegesis shows no respect for the text or its author. None of us likes to have our writings misinterpreted and improper assertions, motivations, or conclusions attributed to us by careless reading of what we have written. In the same way we show respect for God’s Word when we handle it with care and seek to hear what it says without inserting our own thoughts, traditions, desires, or beliefs in the place of God’s truth.
It should be remembered that the majority of Muslims who would seek to present biblical arguments against the Trinity will probably believe the Bible to be inconsistent and self-contradictory. As a result they will not feel the need to interpret a passage in light of others that may be clearer or more to the point. In fact, the primary force in their interpretation will not be other passages of the Bible at all, but the over-riding teaching of the Qur’ân. When dealing with passages where this becomes clear, using phrases like, “Interpreting this passage consistently with the author’s own expressed views elsewhere” or “doing our best to avoid showing disrespect to the text by ignoring its own context” can be helpful in communicating the concept.
Popular Islamic apologetics is almost devoid of exegetical content. In comparison with higher level anti-Trinitarian groups, the material found in the standard Internet-level websites promoting Islam in the United States and other Western countries is simply abysmal. The vast majority of biblical information presented to Muslims by their apologetics community is horrifically flawed on almost every possible level. Wild claims about alleged contradictions and corruptions are mixed in with more “standard” types of arguments against inerrancy, seemingly without any recognition or understanding of the problems with the materials being presented. But the fact that the argumentation is bad does not make it much easier to rebut. A very bad argument can be held just as firmly as an only slightly flawed one.
One highly effective way to cut down the number of passages you will have to deal with specifically is to clear up one of the major misconceptions right at the start. The largest portion of the arsenal the Muslim will attempt to use is made up of those verses that differentiate between the Father and the Son. Passages such as Colossians 1:1 which contain the phrase, “an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God” will be thrust forward (based again upon unitarian assumptions) with the conclusion, “See, Jesus is not God!” These can all be handled at one time by stating at the beginning, “Proving that the Father is not the Son is not going to assist you in showing the Bible does not teach the Trinity, for that is something we believe. The Father is not the Son, and since the normal term for the Father in the New Testament is ‘God’ and the normal term for the Son is ‘Lord,’ all the passages you might present differentiating them from one another will only cause me to nod my head in agreement.” Of course, merely explaining it will not stop the recitation of the verses, but, after one or two examples are offered and responded to in the same fashion, the point can be driven home.
One argument that figured prominently in the above mentioned debate was based upon Jesus’ words recorded in John 8:40:
But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.
Jesus calls Himself “a man who has told you the truth.” The Greek word for “man” is anthropos. We all know God is not a man, and since Jesus is a man, He cannot possibly be God. In fact, since the differentiation between God and man is basic to both Christianity and Islam, this one consideration alone makes it plain the Trinity is in error!
Upon examination such an argument is clearly circular. It assumes what it seeks to prove. It is based upon the assumption that God could not become man, and that the Christian belief in Jesus as the God-man is precluded not by the teaching of this passage but by definition. Surely Jesus was a man who told the truth. He was also the eternal Word who became flesh (John 1:1), the great I Am who was before Abraham (John 8:24, 85, 18:5-6), our God and Savior (John 20:28). John did not intend us to isolate one term to the exclusion of the rest of his testimony.
Of course, the classic passages that one must deal with when responding to all subordinationists (those who make Christ either a lesser deity, or mere creature) are raised though often without much concern for context. John 14:28 (“The Father is greater than I am”), John 20:17 (“my God and your God”) or “God is the head of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:3) are often cited, and the sharp apologist will need to be ready to give a fair, biblically-based apologetic for the relationship of the Father to the Son during the Incarnation (the Father was positionally greater than the Son when the Son voluntarily humbled Himself, hence the words of John 14:28; and Jesus as the God-man would not be an atheist, hence, as a perfect man, the Father would be His God) as well as the roles taken by Father, Son, and Spirit in redemption (the eternal covenant of redemption). But one needs to be aware of the fact that the Muslim may not have the same “bent” on his use of the passage as that of one of Jehovah’s Witnesses or a member of the Way International. Asking basic questions about what they think the passage means can help you to keep the conversation going the right direction.
When I rose to give my closing statements to the mixed Muslim and Christian audience, I asked the Lord to guide me in speaking His truth so as to communicate to the unbelievers there the truths He would have them to hear. I very strongly emphasized the biblical truth that Jesus Christ is our Creator (Colossians 1:15-17), and that every breath we breathe, every beat of our heart, is a gift from His hand. And if what the Bible says about Jesus Christ is true, then we need to not only obey that revelation, but we need to deal with Christ’s claims upon our lives. Dismissing Him as a mere prophet would be to show Him great disrespect, and to die without knowing our Creator would be to die in our sins. I let the Word of God testify to the grandeur and majesty of Christ, and did all in my capacity to communicate as clearly as possible the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13, 2 Peter 1:1).
That is all any of us can do: speak the truth in love, and trust God to glorify Himself with the results. I pray this study has edified you in your knowledge of God’s Triune nature and emboldened you to stand for that truth even in the face of Islamic apologetics.
 See my previous CRI Journal presentation on this in “Loving the Trinity” Volume 21, Number 4.
 For those who wish to engage the Muslims on their own ground, a strong case can be made from the Qur’ân against the idea of the corruption of the text of the Bible, despite the popularity of this belief amongst Muslims today. A number of articles at www.answering-islam.org address this very issue. Surah 6:34 reflects a common theme in the Qur’ân, “There is no changing the word of God: the news of (past) apostles has come to you already.” See as well Surah 5:65-66. The fact that most American Islamic apologists choose to assume corruption of the text of the Bible is noteworthy.
 Ahmed Ali, Al-Qur’ân: A Contemporary Translation (Princeton University Press, 1994). Unless otherwise noted, this is the version of the Qur’ân used throughout the study.
 Modalism is a term used to describe a wide variety of beliefs that share the common theme of denying the existence of three divine and eternal persons. Modalism reduces the divine persons to mere manifestations of a single person, or to “modes” of being.
 I.e., no excuse can be made by making reference to early trinitarian controversies. When the Qur’ân was written, the issue had been settled, and the Christians with whom Mohammed had contact would well know the truth of the doctrine.
 Amatul Rahman Omar and Abdul Mannan Omar, The Holy Qur’ân: Arabic Text-English Translation (Noor Foundation International, 2000).
 Two days after the debate noted in this study (against Hamza Abdul Malik) I debated a leading Oneness proponent on the doctrine of the Trinity. Ironically, though in the first debate my opponent vociferously denied the deity of Christ, and in the second affirmed it strongly, they both used the same unitarian arguments. In that debate against Robert Sabin I presented three primary evidences of the eternal existence of the Son as a divine person in distinction from the Father, John 1:1, John 17:5, and Philippians 2:5-11. See these debates for a fuller explication of the means of presenting these truths at www.aomin.org.
 In fact, it is my experience that some apologists will use the Trinitarian discussion as a means of transitioning into their real goal, which is the demonstration of the alleged corruption of the text of the Bible.
 In case the reader wonders how my Muslim debate opponent handled those passages that identified Jesus as God, he dismissed every single one of them as a later addition to the text of Scripture. When challenged to provide historical documentation in support of this allegation of massive textual corruption, he failed to do so. This became very clear when I pointed out that he was citing biblical passages, and given his standards, we might as well conclude they were all inserted as well! Most Muslim apologists will at least try to use the more common “Jehovah’s Witness” style arguments about these passages rather than simply dismiss them as a wholesale example of corruption.
 These issues are addressed in my fuller work, The Forgotten Trinity (Bethany House, 1998).