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Islam (part 3)

February 25, 2008     Time: 00:22:32
Islam (part 3)


Conversation with William Lane Craig

Transcript Islam (Part 3)

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, we’ve talked about some of the political clashes among Westerners and Islam. We’ve been also concentrating on very crucial theological differences that just cause walls to often come up in dialogue between Christians and Muslims. A couple of those things are really prominent. One is the nature of God and the Trinity. The other is who Jesus is – his divinity.

Dr. Craig: With respect to the nature of God, the most fundamental issue would be the difference between unitarianism and trinitarianism. Islam is a form of unitarianism that says there is one person that God is. On Christianity, by contrast, we believe that there are three persons that God is. In addition to that, there are certain attributes of God, I think, that are quite different in Islam and Christianity. For example, in Christianity God is conceived to be all-loving and morally perfect whereas in Islam God is not all-loving, he only loves Muslims – those who are submitted to him. So with respect to God, there is both differences with regard to unitarianism versus trinitarianism as well as with regard to some of his attributes.

Kevin Harris: It is very offensive for our Muslim friends to consider God as being in some way triune. Let’s discuss the Trinity for just a moment. How is God only one God but there are three persons who are the one God?

Dr. Craig: As I understand the Trinity, we want to say that there are three centers of self-consciousness in God. By that I mean there are three persons who can say “I think that.” Just as in my being there is one center of self-consciousness that I call “I, me, myself,” in God there are three centers of self-consciousness. We call them the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit because of the different roles that they play in the plan of salvation. It is the Father who sends the Son to be incarnate. It is the Holy Spirit who in the church age ministers in the place of the Son and equips the church and empowers her for Christian life and work. So they have different roles in the economy of salvation. This is sometimes called the economic Trinity which would be the different roles played by these three persons in the plan of salvation. But in terms of the Trinity itself these are three co-equal persons who are all omnipotent, omniscience, omnipresent, eternal, have all of the superlative attributes of God and therefore are God.

Kevin Harris: So there are three persons who are the one God. Because something isn’t easy to understand, does that make it false?

Dr. Craig: Not at all.

Kevin Harris: That is a loaded question, I know.

Dr. Craig: Sure, of course. You have to demonstrate some sort of logical incoherence in the doctrine of the Trinity. But I don’t think there is any such logical incoherence. The doctrine of the Trinity is not the incoherent doctrine that three gods are somehow one God. Or that three persons are somehow one person. Rather, it is that there are three persons in the one God.

Kevin Harris: And that is not contradictory.

Dr. Craig: No, that is not in any way contradictory. When you understand that what the Qur’an rejects is not that doctrine of the Trinity but a caricature of it – namely that the Trinity is composed of God the Father, Mary the Mother of God, and their offspring Jesus – then I don’t see that the Muslim really has any substantive objection to the doctrine of the Trinity. It is not as though we are placing something on God’s level that is not God, which would be sacrilege or blasphemy to associate something that is not God with God himself. We are not doing that. We are saying rather within the Godhead itself there is a plurality. There are three centers of self-consciousness in God.

Kevin Harris: The skeptic will often try to attack the genesis, or the origin, of the doctrine of the Trinity and say, “Aw, come on. Somebody came up with that at some council.” How did we discover or determine the doctrine of the Trinity?

Dr. Craig: I did a Masters Degree in church history and the history of Christian thought and I can say pretty confidently that that skeptical representation is just ignorance of church history. [1] What the Council of Nicaea did was simply ratify what the church had believed right from New Testament times; namely, that Jesus Christ is God. He is equal to the Father. You find that in the New Testament itself. Not only are the attributes of deity predicated of Jesus in the New Testament and not only is Jesus called Lord which translates the Greek word for Yahweh – the name of God in the Old Testament. But in certain places in the New Testament, Jesus is actually explicitly called God. For example, in John 20 where Thomas falls at Jesus’ feet and says “My Lord and my God.” There are other confessions like that as well. So right from the New Testament, Jesus is called God and thought to be co-equal with the Father. It was only when certain persons began to deny this doctrine that the church rose up and said “We need to make an official declaration that these people are heretics and this is in fact incompatible with Christianity.” That is why the Council of Nicaea formulated and ratified the Nicene Creed, so as to make very clear that anyone who denied this doctrine was denying fundamental Christian truth. So we are not dependent upon later councils or formulations. We can go right to the New Testament and find there, I think, the affirmation of the deity of Christ.

Kevin Harris: When we get to the deity of Christ, this is also very offensive to our Muslim friends because they believe that that is the blasphemy of shirk?

Dr. Craig: Yes, to associate something with God. Again, I would say that would only be that if you thought Jesus was merely human. But of course that is not the Christian doctrine. The view of Jesus is that he is God incarnate. That is to say, God in the flesh. Therefore, Christ is truly God as well as truly human. That is the affirmation of the Nicene Creed – he is both. He is truly God and truly man.

Kevin Harris: We have a big fancy term for that – the hypostatic union.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think it is a good term. The idea of a hypostasis in Greek – hypo means “under” like in, say, for example a hypodermic needle. Hypodermic means under the skin. “Dermic” like dermatology – that’s the skin. So hypodermic is under the skin. So this means “under.” Then stasis is the Greek word for “stand.” So a hypostasis is something that “stands under” – it is the Greek equivalent really of the Latin word “substance.” A substance is “sub” (under) and “stance” (stand). So a hypostasis or substance is something that stands under and bears properties. It is a property bearer. So when we say that in Christ there are two natures in one substance what we mean is that there is one property bearer who has both divine properties and human properties. He has all the properties that go to make up a divine nature and he has all the properties that go to make up a human nature. So this hypostasis or individual is a property bearer that has a divine and a human nature and is therefore truly human and truly divine. So the idea of the hypostatic union is that these two are united in one person.

Kevin Harris: Two natures in one person.

Dr. Craig: Right. A rational hypostasis is a person. A hypostasis is in a sense an individual – a property bearer. A rational hypostasis is what we would call a person.

Kevin Harris: When I hear dialogues between Muslims and Christians, the issue comes up of the divinity of Christ quite often. If he were God then who was he praying to in the garden? Who was he crying out to from the cross, which we will get into in just a moment? And why did he not know all things and so forth?

Dr. Craig: It has been said that doing Muslim evangelism is a crash course in Christian doctrine. I think that is quite right. Muslims don’t understand the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. So they think that in proving that Christ had these human attributes like limited knowledge, praying to God the Father, growing in moral perfection, being weak and physically exhausted, even being limited in time and space – Christians agree with all of those because we think Jesus was truly human. He had a truly human nature. That doesn’t prove that he didn’t also have a truly divine nature in addition to that. [2] So the Christian is unmoved by all of these proof texts that the Muslim brings from the Gospels to show that Jesus was a limited human in all these ways because we recognize that. What the Muslim doesn’t understand is that we believe that Christ had two natures. So in addition to these human properties he also had properties like omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and so forth.

Kevin Harris: Paul seems to shed some real light on this in his second chapter of his letter to the Philippians. He talks about Jesus, who being in the very nature of God, did not grasp after that equality with God but became a servant. He became obedient. It was like he limited his rights as God and perhaps allowed them to be, what? Veiled?

Dr. Craig: I think that would be fair. What we don’t want to say is that he gave up his divine attributes. Because if he gave up his essential divine properties he would cease to be God and that would not be the doctrine of the incarnation which is that Jesus is simultaneously God and man, not that he was first God, and then became man, and then became God again so that he was sequentially God and man. The doctrine of the incarnation is that Jesus is simultaneously God and man. But certainly in this state of emptying that Paul talks about – this state of humiliation – Christ did not draw upon and display all of his divine attributes openly. As you say, he was ignorant of certain facts like the date of the second coming. I think he actually knew those insofar as he was divine, but insofar as he had a human conscious life he didn’t have that knowledge at his disposal. This was, as you say, veiled or restrained in some way.

Kevin Harris: It would be incoherent to say that Jesus somehow emptied himself of divinity because God is not something that can be emptied.

Dr. Craig: That’s right. It would be like saying God could cease to exist, which is logically impossible because God is a necessary and eternal being. So it is logically impossible for God to cease to be God. Therefore, the notion that Jesus somehow gave up his divinity when he became man is a pagan idea, frankly. It is similar to Zeus in Greco-Roman mythology turning himself into a swan or turning himself into a bull for a temporary period of time. That kind of metamorphosis is really a pagan idea that is completely foreign to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation.

Kevin Harris: We need to chase the incarnation here for just a moment. Awesome, wonderful doctrine of the Bible. Incarnation. Let’s spell some of the things out there for it, Bill, because often we find ourselves talking about what it is not as well as what it is.

Dr. Craig: Right. I think that the proper way to think of the incarnation is not as some kind of subtraction. It is not as though the second person of the Trinity subtracted, or gave up, some of his attributes and turned himself into a human being. That is a completely foreign idea to Christianity. The way to think of the incarnation is as a matter of addition. In addition to the divine nature that he already had, the second person of the Trinity took on a human nature as well. So that now, instead of one nature which was divine, he had two natures – one of which was divine that he had from eternity and a human nature which he assumed at the moment of the virginal conception in Mary’s womb.

Kevin Harris: So not the subtraction of deity but the addition of humanity.

Dr. Craig: Right.

Kevin Harris: Did you come up with that Bill?

Dr. Craig: I don’t think so [laughter]. That’s just good orthodox doctrine.

Kevin Harris: OK. The incarnation wasn’t like a possession – God possessed a human. It seems to go beyond that.

Dr. Craig: That is a very good point. In the doctrine of, say, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we believe that God lives within Christians. That he indwells us. Or in demon possession, we think of a spiritual being that has taken control of the body of some other person. But the union of Christ with his human nature is much more intimate than that. It is not a mere, as you say, possession or indwelling of God in the man Jesus of Nazareth. No, we want to say the person who was Jesus – that person had two natures. One a human nature and one a divine nature. So you have a divine person with a human nature and a divine nature.

Kevin Harris: Even after the resurrection and his ascension, as Jesus is at the right hand of the Father now and when we see him one day at his second coming, is he still going to be that God-man? Is he still going to be that incarnation, that two natures?

Dr. Craig: Yes, that is one of the intriguing things about Christianity. [3]  I think the doctrine of the resurrection and the ascension of Christ show that the possession of a human nature was not merely a temporary thing that the second person of the Trinity did for thirty years in order to secure our salvation and then gave up. Rather, the resurrection and ascension of Christ show that the incarnation is a permanent state of the second person of the Trinity. It is an affirmation, I think, of human being, of the worth of human being. And of the worth of the material world as well, that the second person of the Trinity should take on this sort of a material existence and take it on into eternity for ever.

Kevin Harris: So when Jesus prayed to the Father and he obeyed the Father and he listened to the Father and so on, he is doing that as a man.

Dr. Craig: That is right. We see in the Gospels the humanity of Christ on display. It is only occasionally that glimpses of his divinity will come through. For example, in the transfiguration or in moments of clairvoyant knowledge or perhaps miracles. But for the most part you see the man Jesus walking about Palestine, teaching people to obey God the Father, praying to God himself, suffering, dying. It is the humanity of Jesus that tends to be on display there in the Gospels.

Kevin Harris: How do Muslims view the crucifixion of Christ?

Dr. Craig: This is one of the, I think, most tremendous ironies of Islam. Of all the facts about Jesus to deny they pick the one fact which is the most indisputable fact about Jesus of Nazareth that is acknowledged by every historical scholar today; namely, his crucifixion. According to the Qur’an, Jesus was not crucified. This was a lie. It says that it only seemed to the Jews that they had crucified him. Later Muslim tradition interpreted this to mean that somebody else was made to look like Jesus and was crucified in his place. Some Muslim traditions say it was Judas Iscariot that God had somehow changed his appearance so that he looked like Jesus and he was crucified in the place of Jesus. Jesus was assumed into heaven so that he was never crucified. So Islam wants to spare Jesus the humiliation and the suffering and the death of the crucifixion. It denies the passion of the Christ in effect. As I say, it is ironic that it should do that because this is the one fact about Jesus of Nazareth that everybody who studies Jesus acknowledges.

Kevin Harris: So the crucifixion and the resurrection are just out the window when it comes to Islam.

Dr. Craig: That is right. Obviously, if Jesus didn’t die on the cross, then he wasn’t raised from the dead either. So they deny the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus which of course are central to Christian belief. I think you begin to see how different Islam is from Christianity because that means there is no atonement for sin. There is no substitutionary death on our behalf. There is no resurrection of Christ to vindicate his atoning sacrifice. So this means the doctrine of salvation in Islam and Christianity is completely different because Christ doesn’t give his life for us as a sacrificial offering to God because they deny the fact of the crucifixion.

Kevin Harris: Wrapping up today, Bill, it appears a good response to our Muslim friends not only to be loving but also a defense of the resurrection of Jesus might go a long way.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that when we focus on the resurrection we are not only at the heart of the Gospel but you are also on very solid historical ground because, as I say, the vast, vast majority of New Testament scholars – not evangelicals, not conservatives – but the mainstream of New Testament scholarship agrees that Jesus of Nazareth was executed by Roman authority, by crucifixion, around Passover time. That thereafter he was given an honorable burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea – remember, the Sanhedrin. Thereafter, his tomb was discovered empty by a group of his women followers. That various groups and individuals then experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. And that the earliest disciples, despite every predisposition to the contrary, came to believe suddenly and sincerely that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Those facts, I think, go to undergird the belief that Jesus died and was raised by God from the dead and therefore Christianity is true and Islam is in fact false.

Kevin Harris: Our question of the day, Dr. Craig: if God knows what we need before we pray, then why pray? [4] 

Dr. Craig: So that we will get what we need. Right? I mean, that’s the idea. He knows what you need before you ask him but you have got to ask him. Therefore, prayer, I think, moves the hands of God. God will do things in answer to prayer that he would not have done had we not prayed. Now, that doesn’t mean that we change God’s mind. Maybe that is what is behind the question here. Prayer doesn’t change God’s mind because he knows what you need before you ask him and he knows that you will pray. But prayer has an effect in the sense that were we not to pray then God would not have moved in the way that he will.

Kevin Harris: It seems like we participate with God in prayer. It is a way for him to allow us to participate with him in some way.

Dr. Craig: Very much so. It really means that we cooperate with God in bringing about certain events and effects in the world.

Kevin Harris: I can’t see God changing his mind. There is some biblical descriptions that seem to indicate that he changed his mind. How are we to understand those?

Dr. Craig: I think they need to be read in the broader context where the Scriptures say that God knows the end of the beginning. He knows the words that I am going to speak even before they are on my tongue. He prophesied the future. In these accounts, I think we need to understand that the Bible is largely a storybook. It is a story of narratives. These narratives are told from the human point of view. Therefore they have all the color and the vivacity of the storyteller’s art. So they will portray God as repenting on something or is asking questions like “I am going to go down to Sodom and see if the report that I have heard is really true.” Well, that is just a kind of human storyteller’s approach to God that isn’t meant to be theologically picked apart and criticized.

Kevin Harris: Are they just literary tools to tell the narrative?

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I think that is right. It is just a way of telling a colorful and lively story about man’s interaction with God and it is told from the human point of view. That is all. [5]