Getting the Trinity out of the Ivory Tower

This post first appeared as “Getting the Trinity out of the Ivory Tower” which was posted on the IMES blog on June 8, 2017.

I wonder if the Trinity is an “ivory tower” issue in theology that, in reference to the Muslim world, should not be brought into the conversation. However, since my hesitation owes more to the rancor that has dominated the conversation than to conviction, I’ll go with conviction.

The defining concept of Allah in Islam is tawḥīd. That’s an Arabic word derived from the same root as the word wāḥid “one.” Literally it means “to make one.” So when the Muslim recites the creed “there is no God other than Allah…” he or she is affirming and practicing tawḥīdrecognizing that Allah is a unique and singular being. He cannot be associated with any created thing, whether material or in the mind of the worshipper.

An icon of the Holy Trinity, painted by Andrei Rublev in 1410

Here’s the rub. There’s a long history of polemical interaction between Christianity and Islam. Christians, through their profession of the Trinity and the human-divine nature of Christ often became “exhibit A” of defective tawḥīd for Muslim intellectuals as Muslim polemicists took the Trinity as the target for their polemical attacks.[1] Of course, Christians responded, attempting to defend the Trinity rationally and philosophically.

The polemical interaction bears all the marks of “ivory tower theology” with its impenetrable terminology and arcane argumentation. After reading the literature, the contemporary Christian may be inclined to “leave that skeleton in the closet.” Due to its unproductive nature, would not we who wish to represent Christ’s Kingdom in the Middle East today be wise to move on to more productive areas of conversation? After all, the two great world faiths have much in common not to mention a lot of issues to resolve in political, social and economic realms. Should not peace-making and coexistence be our focus, especially given the contemporary outbreak of religious violence seen recently in London, Manchester, Beni Suef, Egypt and Baghdad? Let’s leave behind the perennial theological conflicts to find more fertile ground for Muslim-Christian interaction.

Think again about the Trinity in the Muslim context, even demonstrate it in peace-making between Muslim and Christian communities. Bring the skeleton out of the closet and here’s why we must reassert the Trinity in the Middle East.

First, because the Trinity is the gospel

The Trinity expresses a God who is love by his very nature, a God whose unity is not monadic (a single unit) and impenetrable to all but self. In the Trinity, we understand that God always was and always will be a unique community of self-giving love, a preferential fellowship of eternal joy. In light of the Trinity, the self-giving of Christ becomes comprehensible. As we join ourselves to Christ by faith, we are ushered into that perfect love relationship where we find love, wholeness and power to live in and for Him. Jesus Christ becomes our older brother restoring us to a fellowship long lost but now joyfully regained. This is the good news, the gospel for ourselves and for Muslims. The rationale of divine love may be difficult to grasp, but in the Trinity, we glimpse at least something of the depth and beauty of this God whom John defines as love.

Second, because we love people and specifically we love Muslims

The pain of alienation from the Father’s love is everywhere present in our world but it is particularly heart-rending in today’s Middle East. The displacement of peoples, the oppression of dictators, the dispersion of families after generations of close proximity, the atrocities of ISIS, al-Qaeda and the like…all of these have led to a moment of existential pain seldom rivaled in history. If it is true, as one theologian claims, that the Trinity changes everything,[2] can we coldly withhold the revelation that God, the head waters of all being, is a community of self-giving love rather than a lone being of transcendent self-satisfaction?

Finally, it may well contribute to the renewal of Christ’s church here and elsewhere

It was here that the Trinitarian conception was formulated but, sadly, its renewing beauty is often lost amidst the struggle to exist as a numeric minority. The church here, as is true of the church throughout the world, struggles with leadership crises and power plays. A true assessment of the Trinity has the conceptual power to recalibrate our understanding of leadership, community, family relations and mission. The moment is ripe to re-examine the Biblical Trinity, allowing its beauty to transform us.

Through Christ we have come to know God differently. Let us enter into the conversation with our Muslim friends about who God is.

Recently, I spoke in a local church at which at least 80% of those in attendance were Muslims. I shared with them that as a young child, no one was bigger in my eyes than my dad. He could solve any problem. He seemed to know about anything and everything. I was amazed by my dad and had a deep reverence for him. But our relationship did not stop there. I have fond memories of dad taking me on his lap, with his arms around me, calling me “my boy.” I began to love dad. Dad’s invitation to enter into relationship with him only added to my reverence for him. As I shared my story, I noticed affirming smiles and nodding heads among my listeners. Many of them were eager to discover God’s self-giving love which does not compromise his holiness and greatness, but deepens our love for God.

Perhaps we are reluctant to speak of God’s Trinitarian nature with Muslim friends because we don’t know how to go about it. Rational argumentation will generally prove fruitless. Demonstration through genuine self-giving love is the best preparation for the conversation. Then the Scripture illumined by the Holy Spirit fills out the picture of the Trinitarian God. Much more could be said, but for now, consider with me that the moment may be right to get the Trinity out of the ivory tower and into the hearts and minds of those we love.

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[1] There are many examples of Muslim-Christian polemic throughout the medieval period. Two prominent Muslims who attacked the Trinity are Abū ʽĪsā ibn Hārūn ibn Muḥammad al-Warrāq (d. after 864AD) and the convert from Christianity to Islam ʽAlī Ibn Rabban al-Ṭabarī (d. 855). See Abū Īsá  al-Warrāq and David Thomas, Anti-Christian Polemic in Early Islam : Abū ʻīSá Al-WarrāQ’s ‘against the Trinity’, University of Cambridge Oriental Publications (Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1992). See also David Thomas, “Ali Ibn Rabban Al-Tabari. A Convert’s Assessment of His Former Faith,” in Christians and Muslims in Dialogue in the Islamic Orient of the Middle Ages, ed. M. Tamcke (Beirut: 2007).

[2] Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).

Sources:

al-Warrāq, Abū Īsá , and David Thomas. Anti-Christian Polemic in Early Islam : Abū ʻīSá Al-WarrāQ’s ‘against the Trinity’. University of Cambridge Oriental Publications.  Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

A Common Word between Us and You.  Amman, Jordan: The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought, 2009.

Sanders, Fred. The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything.  Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.

Thomas, David. “Ali Ibn Rabban Al-Tabari. A Convert’s Assessment of His Former Faith.” In Christians and Muslims in Dialogue in the Islamic Orient of the Middle Ages, edited by M. Tamcke, 137-56. Beirut, 2007.

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