By Zia H Shah MD
Christianity is sandwiched between Judaism and Islam and three fourth of the Christian Bible is the Old Testament, so it is but natural to understand the Christian theology in light of both, especially Judaism, which precedes it.
In the three great monotheistic religions, Islam, Unitarian Christianity and Judaism, God is viewed as a supreme, transcendent being, beyond matter space and time, and yet the foundation of all that meets our senses that is described in terms of matter, space, and time. That is the Al Batin, the Hidden or the Transcendent God of monotheism. Furthermore, this God is not the god of Deism, who created the world and then left it alone, or the god of pantheism, who is equated with all of existence. The Transcendent God is a nanosecond-by-nanosecond participant in each event that takes place in every cubic nanometer of the universe. He has full knowledge of all things. God listens to every thought and participates in each action of His very special creation, a minute bit of organized matter called humanity that moves around on the surface of a tiny pebble in a vast universe.
This is the Jewish, the Unitarian Christian and the Islamic theology in a nutshell. It can be encapsulated in a simple yet elegant line of the Muslim creed, “There is no God but God (Allah)!” In contrast, the Trinitarian concept of God or nature of Jesus is an unending debate, extending over centuries, which I will document in this article, only until the time of Emperor Heraclius, who personally received a letter from the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him.
The debate about the very nature of God still rages in Christianity even in the 21st century.
To engage my Christian readers, let me suggest in the words of Sir Francis Bacon’s advice, “Read not to contradict … but to weigh and consider.”
The Holy Quran beautifully draws the character of the Prophet Solomon, his Deism along with his devotion to the Personal God of his forefathers:
And We (Allah) bestowed on David, Solomon who was an excellent servant. He was always turning to Us. When there were brought before him at eventide steeds of noblest breed and swift of foot, He said, ‘I love the love of horses because of the remembrance of my Lord.’ So great was his love of them that when they were hidden behind the veil, he said, ‘Bring them back to me.’ Then he began to pass his hand over their legs and their necks. (Al Quran 38-31-34)
Prophet Solomon sees the Personal God of his forefathers, Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac through His beautiful creation, more specifically through horses that he loves.
His father David sings the praises of the Creator God in Psalm after Psalm and the Psalm 72 is attributed to Solomon, in which he offers prayer after prayer to the Personal God of Jewish tradition, without knowing an iota about Jesus, for he preceded him by at least seven centuries:
Endow the king with your justice, O God,
the royal son with your righteousness.
May he judge your people in righteousness,
your afflicted ones with justice.
May the mountains bring prosperity to the people,
the hills the fruit of righteousness.
May he defend the afflicted among the people
and save the children of the needy;
may he crush the oppressor.
May he endure as long as the sun,
as long as the moon, through all generations.
May he be like rain falling on a mown field,
like showers watering the earth.
In his days may the righteous flourish
and prosperity abound till the moon is no more.
May he rule from sea to sea
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May the desert tribes bow before him
and his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores
bring tribute to him. (Psalm 72 [of Solomon]: 1-10, New International Version)
By the time we travel from the seventh century BC to the 20th century, in 2700 years, the Personal God of King Solomon and King David, changed for the many at least in the Jewish tradition, who would be referred to as reformed Jews, to the Deist God of Spinoza, the Founding Fathers of USA and Albert Einstein, which I will describe in a few words by three short quotes from Einstein:
That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.
That humble attitude of mind toward the grandeur of reason incarnate in existence, which in its profoundest depths, is inaccessible to man.
A belief bound up with deep feeling in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God.[i]
This article is not to suggest that the Trinitarian Christians are any less spiritual than the Jews, the Unitarian Christians or the Muslims. It is only meant to communicate the reality that their theology cannot be appreciated without learning about their emphasis on Trinity, Divinity of Jesus, Eucharist and their obsession with the person of the Jesus of Nazareth. These are certainly large issues and cannot be covered in the expanse of one article.
Here I will briefly touch on Trinity and then focus on the nature of Jesus, his contemporaneous alleged divinity and manhood.
Most well read and insightful Christian theologians agree that there is no mention of Trinity in the Old Testament or by the Jewish Prophets, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon, for a time span covering 2000 years.
Prof. William Lane Craig is one of the leading Trinitarian Christian apologists and it is useful for the Unitarians to have his confession, which I have paraphrased a little, to keep it short: ‘If we Examine Trinity, through the lens of the Old Testament, it is not Believable!’
In a debate, referenced here, Rabbi Tovia Singer makes a good point about absence of Trinity in the Old Testament, and Prof. William Lane Craig has no genuine answer as to why God confused and not give the complete picture of Divinity to the Jewish prophets for 2000 years before Jesus, may peace be on him. However, William Lane Craig, an expert and an articulate debater that he is, weaves a verbose response of confusing and not defined terms, to keep those who are indoctrinated into the Triune understanding bewildered! But, he confesses the fact that the term Trinity is not mentioned even once in the New Testament.
For 2000 years before Jesus, the Jews never thought of Trinity, as in Craig’s own words there was no reason to, going by the Old Testament. So, how can Trinity be legitimate if none of the Old Testament Prophets preached it? Mind you, the Old Testament makes 75% of the Bible and the New Testament mount to nothing if it is not preceded by the Old Testament and that was the reason, why the Christian Fathers included it in the canon of the Bible. To listen to the debate, please go to the link provided.[ii]
Suffice here to say that Trinity has been referred to as the self-inflicted wound of Christianity.
The Trinitarian Christians take Jesus to be God and that is the monkey wrench, thrown in the Jewish theology by St. Paul and we have beginning of a new religion called Christianity.
Making a man into a God was a feat that could not be accomplished easily, in one generation or even in one century. It required coercion by the Catholic Church and several Ecumenical Councils spread over several centuries. So, join me on a historic journey as we collect different snapshots to understand, how Jesus, a man, a Jewish Prophet, son of Mother Mary, becomes fully divine while remaining a perfect man.
From Judaism of the first century, let us catapult to the seventh century and meet the Roman Emperor Heraclius (575 – 641 CE). Encyclopedia Britannica states about him:
Heraclius entered Dastagird with its stupendous treasure. Khosrow was overthrown by his son, with whom Heraclius made peace, demanding only the return of the Cross, the captives, and conquered Roman territory. Returning to Constantinople in triumph, he was hailed as a Moses, an Alexander, a Scipio. In 630 he personally restored the Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.[iii]
Heraclius was long remembered favorably in the Western church for his reputed feat in recovering the True Cross, which had been captured by the Persians.
However, the recovery of the eastern areas of the Roman Empire from the Persians once again raised the problem of religious unity centering around the understanding of the true nature of Christ. Most of the inhabitants of these provinces were Monophysites, believing that Jesus had a single “nature” which was either divine or a synthesis of divine and human. They rejected the Council of Chalcedon, which defined the nature of Jesus, at least, for the Roman Catholics.
To know about the Council of Chalcedon, we have to travel back, by about 150 years and visit modern day Istanbul. Let Encyclopedia Britannica do the talking again:
Council of Chalcedon, the fourth ecumenical council of the Christian Church, held in Chalcedon (modern Kadiköy (Istanbul), Tur.) in 451. Convoked by the emperor Marcian, it was attended by about 520 bishops or their representatives and was the largest and best-documented of the early councils. It approved the creed of Nicaea (325), the creed of Constantinople (381; subsequently known as the Nicene Creed), two letters of Cyril against Nestorius, which insisted on the unity of divine and human persons in Christ, and the Tome of Pope Leo I confirming two distinct natures in Christ and rejecting the Monophysite doctrine that Christ had only one nature. The council then explained these doctrines in its own confession of faith. [iv]
In other words, the Council repudiated the notion of a single nature in Christ, and defined that he has two natures in one person; it also insisted on the completeness of his two natures: Godhead and manhood. Jesus was perfect man and fully divine, like something may be an apple and an elephant at the same time? Humans and God are different things, but the paradoxical Christian affirmation is called a mystery because you cannot logically explain how Jesus can be both things at once.
Heraclius tried to promote a compromise doctrine called Monothelitism, to bridge the gap between Monophysites and the Council of Chalcedon.
Monothelitism is a particular teaching about how the divine and human relate in the person of Jesus, known as a Christological doctrine, that formally emerged in Armenia and Syria in 629. Specifically, Monothelitism is the view that Jesus Christ has two natures but only one will. This is contrary to the Christology that Jesus Christ has two wills (human and divine) corresponding to his two natures (Dyothelitism), as if he is a case of multiple personalities. But, nevertheless, Dyothelitism became the ‘received wisdom’ in Christian theology, in centuries after Heraclius.
Heraclius’ philosophy was rejected, in due course of time, as heretical by both sides of the dispute. For this reason, despite his wonderful victories, Heraclius was viewed as a heretic and bad ruler by some later religious writers. After the Monophysite provinces were finally lost to the Muslims, Monotheletism rather lost its raison d’être and was eventually abandoned.[v]
Early Christianity came in numerous additional flavors. Let me mention two more here.
There was Marcion, the son of the bishop of Sinope. He was a contemporary of Tertullian, a Church father, who was to coin the term Trinity. Marcion rejected the deity described in the Jewish Scriptures as inferior or subjugated to the God proclaimed in the Christian gospel. This dual-god notion allowed Marcion to reconcile supposed contradictions between Old Covenant theology and the Gospel message proclaimed by Jesus.[vi]
Then there was docetism. It is the doctrine according to which the phenomenon of Christ, his historical and bodily existence, and thus above all the human form of Jesus, was altogether mere semblance without any true reality. Broadly it is taken as the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his physical body was a phantasm. The word docetai (illusionists) referring to early groups who denied Jesus’ humanity, first occurred in a letter by Bishop Serapion of Antioch (197-203), who discovered the doctrine in the Gospel of Peter, during a pastoral visit to a Christian community using it in Rhosus, and later condemned it as a forgery. Docetism was unequivocally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and is regarded as heretical by the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, and many others.[vii]
For additional details about early Christianities let me suggest a book by Prof. Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew.
The spirituality of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is about the influence of the Personal God in our world and human history. He is omnipotent and omnipresent.
At the time of the battle of Badr, a year or so after the Prophet’s migration to Medina from Mecca, as an unarmed army of Muslims of 313, faced a well-armed Meccan army of a thousand strong, no secular person would have gambled for the Muslims. As the battle started, the Prophet took a handful of pebbles and threw it towards the enemy and lo and behold, shortly, a sandstorm began to blow in the eyes of the Meccans. A miracle indeed! The Quran describes it as, “And thou threwest not when thou didst throw, but it was Allah Who threw.” (Al Quran 8:18)
The Muslims did not take the expression too literally. For them, Muhammad always remained a man, a very special man, a man who received the final Scripture of Almighty God, the Holy Quran, a man who was to deliver to humanity the perfect and the literal word of Allah, the All Knowing. The Quran says:
Say, ‘I am only a man like yourselves; but I have received the revelation that your God is only One God. So let him who hopes to meet his Lord do good deeds, and let him join no one in the worship of his Lord.’ (Al Quran 18:111)
The early Muslims did not over play their hand, even though some would in centuries to come, so for all practical purposes, Muhammad, peace be on him, remained a man, a messenger of God, seal of the Prophets, the greatest of the sons of Adam, but never God.
But, on the other hand St. Paul and his group, who would later be known as proto-orthodox group over played their hand and Jesus became God and son of God at the same time, co-eternal with God the Father, while being a son, another of the Christian mysteries, which the Church dare not explain. Mother Mary became Mother of God, another dilemma, which will continue to haunt Christian theology in our age of information and curiosity.[viii]
This is perhaps the very reason, why the Christians in the West are increasingly becoming unaffiliated with Christianity and the younger generations, the so called Generation X and Generation Y, as many as a third have adopted agnosticism or atheism.[ix]
Interestingly, those who remain in the Trinitarian Christian camp, when they have to imagine Transcendent God, they resort to the Jewish and the Islamic concept of God, as it is not possible to imagine a hybrid, a man-god or a god-man. It is logically not possible to imaging divine flesh that Jesus was allegedly made of, according to the Christian dogma.
No one has seen ‘divine flesh,’ and no one can imagine a human, who is human yet divine, as we conceive of humans as those who have 46 chromosomes, with flesh, blood and bones and God is God the Father of Christian tradition, who is Transcendent Sublime and Imperceptible. You just cannot imagine them together in the same thought.
Is it time for the Trinitarian Christians to begin to acknowledge the Jewish, the Unitarian Christian and the Muslim concept of God, which they already use by imitation?
Until the Christians do so in large numbers, I will settle for the consolation, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!”