November 08, 2015
Questions from a Muslim about the Trinity
Greetings Dr. Craig,
I'm a Yemeni Muslim, born and raised in Saudi Arabia, currently studying for a short term in Canada. I came across your work, and highly appreciate your contributions to modernizing and polishing, the scholarship from great men like Imam Al Ghazali and Thomas Aquinas. As a fairly conservative Muslim (perhaps because of my biases?), I find your arguments specifically for the Christian faith to be overall weaker than those generally for monotheism.
I personally believe that the biggest difference between Islam and proto-orthodox Christianity, is the concept of the trinity. My questions in summary would be:
1. How can you philosophically reconcile the trinity with monotheism?
2. Are the arguments for the trinity philosophical (like the ones for the existence of One God) or based on Scripture?
3. If based on Scripture, would that not necessitate believing Scripture is infallible (why trust it when it comes to the trinity, but not trust it on other issues)?
To expand on the first question:
You state that a person is divine, only when that person is maximally perfect. This is absolutely reasonable in my opinion, so I'm willing to grant it. However, does not the New Testament portray the other persons of the trinity as subordinates, at least in some respects, to the Father?
In terms of knowledge for example, Matthew 24:36 declares that no one except the Father possess knowledge of the hour. According to the argument of maximal perfection, would that then not mean that all other persons (Son and Holy Spirit included) are not maximally knowledgeable, and thus do not qualify to be considered divine?
To expand on the second question:
If you do present philosophical arguments for the trinity, are you able to present an argument for only a trinity? As in, would the same arguments not work if we supposed four or five or six persons in the God-head? Can you philosophically argue for a necessarily triune God?
To expand on the third question:
How can you reconcile the infallibility of Scripture, with various errors within Scripture, like numerical contradictions, or scientific mistakes?
Thank you for your time.
Thank you for your kind remarks! I’ve just been teaching my Defenders class about Ghazali’s cosmological argument.
I’ve addressed your questions in my chapters on the Trinity and Incarnation in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, so my responses here will be of a summary nature. I hope you’ll look more in detail at what I’ve written on these issues.
Certainly the difference between a Trinitarian and a unitarian concept of God is a major issue dividing Islam and Christianity. But, as I’ve argued in my debates and articles, I think that the deficiencies of the Islamic conception of God are even more serious than that.
As to your questions:
1. “How can you philosophically reconcile the trinity with monotheism?” In the chapter on the Trinity referenced above, I provide a model of the Trinity that enables us to do just that. In a nutshell the model is that God is a soul equipped with three sets of rational faculties, each sufficient for personhood. This model yields both monotheism (there is one soul that is God) and a plurality of persons (that soul has three centers of self-consciousness).
Yes, each person in the Trinity is maximally perfect. “However, does not the New Testament portray the other persons of the trinity as subordinates, at least in some respects, to the Father?” Here theologians have helpfully distinguished between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity. In my model the members of the Trinity considered ontologically (in abstraction from their relations to the world) are equally and maximally perfect. But in the divine economy, for the sake of our salvation the members of the Trinity assume different roles in the plan of salvation. The Father sends the Son into the world; the Son assumes a human nature and dies a sacrificial death; the Spirit comes in the name of the Son to continue his work until his return. The Son’s voluntary submission to the Father no more implies his inferiority to the Father than my wife’s submission to me in the economy of the family implies her inferiority to me.
It is true that many Christians think that there are relations of subordination, not only in the economic Trinity, but also in the ontological Trinity. But biblical scholars agree that this view is not taught in the New Testament, which was the concern of your question. And even those Christians would insist that subordination does not imply inferiority or imperfection.
As for your example, I agree that Christ, as the second person of the Trinity, knew the date of his second coming. But as I explain in my chapter on the Incarnation in Philosophical Foundations, not everything known by Christ in his incarnate state was consciously known to him. Most of it was subconscious. So in his human nature he did not know the date of his return; that is to say, it was not part of his conscious knowledge nor available to him.
2. “Are the arguments for the trinity philosophical (like the ones for the existence of One God) or based on Scripture?” The doctrine of the Trinity is derived from the teachings of Jesus and from Scripture.
I do think a plausible philosophical argument can be offered against a unitarian concept of God such as we find in Islam. As I argue in Philosophical Foundations, God, as the greatest conceivable being, must be perfect.
Now a perfect being must be a loving being. For love is a moral perfection; it is better for a person to be loving rather than unloving. God therefore must be a perfectly loving being. Now it is of the very nature of love to give oneself away. Love reaches out to another person rather than centering wholly in oneself. So if God is perfectly loving by His very nature, He must be giving Himself in love to another. But who is that other? It cannot be any created person, since creation is a result of God’s free will, not a result of His nature. It belongs to God's very essence to love, but it does not belong to His essence to create. So we can imagine a possible world in which God is perfectly loving and yet no created persons exist. So created persons cannot sufficiently explain whom God loves. . . . It therefore follows that the other to whom God’s love is necessarily directed must be internal to God Himself.
In other words, God is not a single, isolated person, as unitarian forms of theism like Islam hold; rather God is a plurality of persons, as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity affirms. On the unitarian view God is a person who does not give Himself away essentially in love for another; He is focused essentially only on Himself. Hence, He cannot be the most perfect being. But on the Christian view, God is a triad of persons in eternal, self-giving love relationships. Thus, since God is essentially loving, the doctrine of the Trinity is more plausible than any unitarian doctrine of God.
As you observe, this argument will not give us exactly three persons—but hey, who’s complaining? It’s enough to make the Christian concept of God more plausible than the Islamic conception.
3. “If based on Scripture, would that not necessitate believing Scripture is infallible (why trust it when it comes to the trinity, but not trust it on other issues)?” My answer above would require us to think that Jesus is a reliable and authoritative teacher about God, his Heavenly Father, and that Scripture is also reliable and authoritative when it comes to theological doctrine.
You ask, “How can you reconcile the infallibility of Scripture, with various errors within Scripture, like numerical contradictions, or scientific mistakes?” This is the same question that the Muslim faces with respect to the mistakes and contradictions within the Qur’an. One might try to resolve the contradictions and show that the mistakes are only apparent. But in my opinion no such heroics are needed.
First, even treating the documents of the New Testament as fallible sources, one is able to make a plausible case for Jesus’ resurrection in vindication of his radical personal claims, for which he was sentenced to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin. That shows that Jesus was who he claimed to be, the unique Son of God and Son of Man, and that we can therefore trust him when it comes to our doctrine of God.
Second, when it comes to the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, we need to learn humbly from Scripture itself what is entailed by divine inspiration. The Bible is not intended to be a science book, and ancient biography did not aim to achieve the accuracy of a police report. Many of the authors of Scripture may have believed geocentrism, for example, but they did not teach geocentrism. The authors of the Gospels would have been surprised to learn from moderns that their editorial activity in retelling the life of Jesus in different ways would count as errors on their part. We may trust the authors of Scripture to deliver to us correct doctrine about God without demanding or expecting from them information on science or modern historical accounts.