There’s an interesting article that was brought to my attention by a Muslim friend. He asked that I respond to its claims. The article exists at http://www.islam-guide.com/ch3-10-1.htm and though it claims to be an edited version of an article by Muslim apologist Shabir Ally, I can’t find the original version. In any case, it is representative of arguments typical of popular Muslim apologetics and has been fairly widely disseminated across the internet, so I thought it would be worthwhile to go through its arguments (note: there is one major argument in the article that I won’t deal with here because I’ve done so elsewhere: http://www.amazon.com/Responding-Muslim-Arguments-Against-Christianity-ebook/dp/B00SM0M1IY/). The title of the article is “The Bible Denies the Divinity of Jesus.”
The article begins by making a point that I agree with strongly:
“It is clear enough to everyone that the Quran denies the divinity of Jesus, so we do not need to spend much time explaining that” (Islam Guide).
Indeed, we read in the Qur’an, in Surah 4:171:
“O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three”; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs” (Sahih International Translation).
That the Qur’an dnies the divinity of Jesus is not a point of contention. However, the summary statement of what the article purports to do is:
“The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus is not God. In the Bible God is always someone else other than Jesus.
“Some will say that something Jesus said or something he did while on the earth proves that he is God. We will show that the disciples never came to the conclusion that Jesus is God. And those are people who lived and walked with Jesus and thus knew first hand what he said and did. Furthermore, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible that the disciples were being guided by the Holy Spirit. If Jesus is God, surely they should know it.
But they did not. They kept worshipping the one true God who was worshipped by Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (see Acts 3:13)” (Islam Guide).
What Is the Christian Position?
Before we assess the arguments in this paper, let us first state explicitly what the Christian position is. While there could be finer points of definition, we’ll use a basic understanding of Jesus as the second person of the Trinity who is fully God and took on humanity. The doctrine of the Trinity is that there are three discrete Persons who share equally the divine nature. They are not the same person, but three distinct persons.
It is possible that there is an order of authority in the Trinity from eternity, wherein the Son obeys the Father and the Holy Spirit obeys the Father and the Son, however this point is debatable (however, those who argue for this position will often argue that it does not create an inequality in essence any more than complementarian marriage does). There is, however, agreement that when the the Son, once He takes on humanity, obeys the Father and is sent by Him. Similarly, the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to save us, guide us, and dwell within us. However, all three are equally divine in nature and without beginning.
Further, Jesus is fully God and fully man, meaning the natures do not mix together to create some new nature. The human nature does not compromise the divine nature, but both remain fully. It is, however, the case that Jesus often chose to limit the use of His divine prerogatives– meaning that he hungered, thirsted, was tired, and even had to learn things. If He was not subject to these experiences, He could not have had a meaningful human experience and His human body would be merely a shell and a facade. Instead, He chose to identify with us in our humanity and the weakness that accompanies it.
This means that arguments against the divinity of Christ must do more than show that He isn’t the same person as the Father, or that in His humanity He obeyed the Father. It also can’t be based simply on pointing out that Jesus was a human. Christians already agree with Muslims that these points are true. For a Muslim to assert them as arguments against the Trinity or the divinity of Christ is to completely miss the point and attack a straw man.
Jesus’ Divinity in the Book of Acts
The central argument of the article’s arguments from the New Testament Book of Acts is as follows:
“Peter stood up with the eleven disciples and addressed the crowd saying: ‘Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.’ (Acts 2:22).
“It was God, therefore, who did the miracles through Jesus to convince people that Jesus was backed by God. Peter did not see the miracles as proof that Jesus is God.
“In fact, the way Peter refers to God and to Jesus makes it clear that Jesus is not God. For he always turns the title God away from Jesus. Take the following references for example:
‘God has raised this Jesus…’ (Acts 2:32)
‘God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ (Acts 2:36)
“In both passages, the title God is turned away from Jesus. So why he did this, if Jesus was God?” (Islam Guide)
This is a fair point to bring up. There are various possibilities as to why Peter would use the title of God for the Father but not Jesus. It could be that Peter wasn’t fully aware of the full extent of Jesus’ identity at this early stage. Another option is that the word “God” had a strong link in the Jewish mind to Him whom we would call the Father. The Jews didn’t have a concept of the Trinity, so would hear the word “God” and think of only one Person. The New Testament did not want to say that Jesus was the same PERSON as the Father, but that He shared the divine nature that the Father had. As a result, the word God is rarely applied to Jesus, though the divine nature is both assumed and stated to be His.
It does not undo Jesus’ divinity to point out, as our Muslim author does, that the Father raised Jesus up (Acts 2:32), since the New Testament also tells us that Jesus raised Himself up (John 10:17-18) and that the Holy Spirit raised Him up (Romans 8:11). In other words, the resurrection of Jesus was a Trinitarian action wherein all three members of the Godhead participated.
While Acts does not deny the divinity of Jesus, it does both imply and state that Jesus is divine in multiple places. In Acts 7:59-60, before the martyr Stephen is killed, he prays to the “Lord Jesus” that He would receive his spirit and forgive Stephen’s murderers of their sin. It is God alone who can receive prayer, and God alone that is capable of forgiving sins. Another turn of phrase for prayer is used in Acts 22:16, wherein Ananias tells Paul to “call on [Jesus] name” for salvation (see also Acts 9:14, 10:43). From the use of the word “Lord” for Jesus in Acts 1:21, it is apparent that the same “Lord” is prayed to in Acts 1:24 where the disciples say to Him that He knows the hearts of all men– a quality better known as omniscience. From these passages it becomes clear the early church prayed to Jesus (prayer being an activity viewed as only appropriate to God) and thought of Him as knowing all things and being able to save them. These are qualities of God and not of a prophet. In contrast, the greatest prophet of Islam, Mohammed, when he interceded for a sinner, was only able to lighten his sentence to the point that in hell he had to wear shoes made of fire that were so hot his brains boiled (Sahih Muslim Book 1, Numbers 409 and 415). In stark distinction to Mohammed, Jesus was a complete savior, which is a quality of God alone.
Finally, Paul also gives direct testimony to the divinity of Jesus, even using the word “God” to describe Him, in the book of Acts:
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, ESV).
Jesus the All-Knowing, All-Powerful
The article then cites places in the New Testament where Jesus has human limitations on his knowledge and power (Mark 6:5, Mark 13:32, etc.). It anticipates the Christian response and provides its own rejoinder:
“Someone may say that Jesus was God but he took the form of a servant and therefore became limited. Well, that would mean that God changed. But God does not change. God said so according to Malachi 3:6.
“Jesus never was God, and never will be. In the Bible, God declares: ‘Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.’ (Isaiah 43:10)” (Islam Guide).
There are at least two problems with this response. First of all, it understands Jesus’ taking on human experience as a change to His divine nature, which is simply not the case. His divine nature remained divine and His human nature experienced normal human limitations. What the Muslim would have to argue here is that it is simply impossible for God to take on humanity. If he does not feel comfortable placing that limitation on God, then he must admit that if God took on humanity and had a genuine experience of it, this would include the experience of human limitations. It is not the divine nature that experienced these limitations (how can a nature experience anything?) but the divine second person of the Trinity who experience them in the capacity of His human nature.
The second problem is that to support his argument, the author then cites Isaiah 43:10, which Jesus referenced of Himself in John 8:58:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I AM [in Greek, ‘ego eimi’].” (NASB).
This wording matches the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint or LXX) in Isaiah 43:10-11. (Jesus and the apostles were very familiar with the Septuagint and it is quoted numerous times throughout the New Testament):
“…understand that I am he [ego eimi– I AM]: before me there was no other God, and after me there shall be none” (Sir Lancelot C.L. Brenton, English Translation of the Greek Septuagint).
Jesus cites this passage in His claim to be divine and the Jews demonstrated that they understood him by picking up stones to stone him in the following verse.
In fact, the text does testify that Jesus was omniscient in His divine nature.
In John 16:30, we see the disciples reaching this conclusion for themselves:
“Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God” (ESV).
Peter reaches the same conclusion in John 21:17:
“and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything’” (ESV).
Other places testify that Jesus has supernatural knowledge of people’s inner thoughts and intentions, such as Mat 12:25, Mat 22:18, Luke 6:8, John 2:25, and Rev 2:23.
As for omnipotence, Jesus does claim to have complete power over all things in Matthew 28:18 (“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me’” [ESV].) and John also claims this power for Him (“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” [ESV]).
Paul Believed that Jesus Is God
When discussing Paul’s view of God, the author of this article makes exactly the kind of argument that I pointed out above simply doesn’t count– differentiating God the Father from Jesus:
“Many people use Paul’s writings as proof that Jesus is God. But this is not fair to Paul, because Paul clearly believed that Jesus is not God. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul wrote: ‘I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions…’ (1 Timothy 5:21).
“It is clear from this that the title God applies not to Christ Jesus, but to someone else” (Islam Guide).
Of course, Christians believe that God the Father and Jesus are not the same person. As a result, the above argument doesn’t even touch on the Christian position. One might argue though that if Paul doesn’t like to use the word “God” to describe Jesus (since the word usually suggests God the Father in the mind of Jesus readers), he ought to have communicated in some other way that Jesus was God. In fact, he does. Most explicitly in Titus, Paul does break his usual usage and chooses to apply the word God to Jesus:
“waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,” (Titus 2:13, ESV). In the following chapter (verses 4-6) Paul refers to both “God our Savior” and “Jesus Christ our Savior” who together pour out the Holy Spirit onto believers.
As this Muslim author is wont to do, he again brings in false dichotomies by ignoring category distinctions in the doctrine of the Trinity:
“When he was in Athens, Paul spoke of God as ‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands.’ (Acts 17:24). Then he identified Jesus as ’the man he (i.e. God) has appointed.’” (Acts 17:31)” (Islam Guide).
Jesus of course obeys the Father completely in His incarnation. However, Paul does not distinguish Jesus from the one who made everything and is Lord of it:
“[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17, ESV)
Our Muslim author also fails to take into account the consequences of his arguments:
“For Paul, the Father alone is God. Paul said that there is ‘one God and Father of all…’ (Ephesians 4:6). Paul said again: ‘…for us there is but one God, the Father . . . and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ…’ (1 Corinthians 8:6)” (Islam Guide).
If 1 Corinthians 8:6 proves that only “the Father alone is God” to the exclusion of the Son, then does it also prove that Jesus alone is Lord, to the exclusion of the Father? The author seems to fail to take this into consideration and offers a very flawed argument indeed.
There is also at least one example in the article of the author seemingly forgetting the point he’s trying to prove:
“Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Philippians 2:6-11) is often quoted as a proof that Jesus is God. But the very passage shows that Jesus is not God. This passage has to agree with Isaiah 45:22-24 where God said that every knee should bow to God, and every tongue should confess that righteousness and strength are in God alone” (Islam Guide).
The author is quite correct that Paul quotes Isaiah 45:22-24 where God says every knee will bow to Him, and indeed Paul applies this passage about God to Jesus. This seems to be an open-and-shut case– Paul believes that Jesus is God (and yet this section of the article is titled “Paul Believed That Jesus Is Not God”). But what is the Muslim author’s rejoinder to this clear proof that Paul thought of Jesus as God? Simply that this passage couldn’t have possibly been applied to Jesus because it’s about God and Jesus isn’t God. Talk about begging the question!
Finally, the author again fails to understand the doctrine of Jesus being both fully God and fully man:
“Paul said that God alone is immortal. Immortal means he does not die. Check any dictionary. Now, anyone who believes that Jesus died cannot believe that Jesus is God. Such a belief would contradict what Paul said here” (Islam Guide).
This is another example of the author completely missing the point– Jesus was fully God and fully man, God in flesh. It is of course true that the divine cannot go out of existence. However, Jesus was also fully human. Because Jesus was a man, He could die. Because He was perfect and divine, “it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24, ESV).
Jesus’ Divinity in the Gospel of John
Our Muslim author opens this section with discussion of the doctrine of Jesus as “the Word” in John:
“This Gospel in its final form says one more thing about Jesus that was unknown from the previous three Gospels — that Jesus was the Word of God. John means that Jesus was God’s agent through whom God created everything else. This is often misunderstood to mean that Jesus was God Himself. But John was saying, as Paul had already said, that Jesus was God’s first creature… Anyone who says that the Word of God is a person distinct from God must also admit that the Word was created, for the Word speaks in the Bible saying: ‘The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works…’ (Proverbs 8:22).” (Islam Guide)
The problems with this assessment are immense. To begin with, Proverbs 8:22 does not say that the Word was the first of God’s works, but is speaking of a personified form of wisdom. It is true that some scholars think that John might be reflecting on this passage (and passages from other, non-canonical works such as Sirach in the 24th chapter) to develop His idea of the Word, though a significant amount of scholars tend to suspect that John is reflecting more on the Greek (particularly as explicated by Philo) understanding of the “Logos,” though I think that there is a significant argument to be made that John is reflecting on the Targumic tradition of the “Memra” (see John Ronning’s The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology). The word translated in this verse as “brought me forth” also provides difficulties for the translator, as it can also mean something like “to possess” or “to acquire.” The church father Athanasius understood it to mean “constituted me as the head of creation.” So even if one did take this to be prophetic of Jesus or reflective of how the apostles saw Jesus, it wouldn’t necessarily demonstrate that He was a separate creation of God. In any case, even if John is developing the idea of wisdom in earlier Jewish writings, this doesn’t mean he’s applying the concept wholesale. He could simply be reflecting on part of the wisdom tradition without using all of it.
Putting that miscitation aside, our author also strongly implies that Christians think that John believes Jesus is the Word because John simply uses the phrase “the Word.” This is not so. We believe that John thinks Jesus– the Word– is God because John tells us that, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). John here is careful to distinguish the Father (whom he refers to as THE God) from the Word, whom He claims shares all of the divine qualities with the Father while still being a distinct person. However, it is the case that if John is reflecting on the Targumic tradition of the Word (where “Word of God” stands in for “God” when God interacts with creation) then his use of “Word” would also imply Jesus’ divinity.
In any case, John so manifestly believes in the divinity of Jesus (as noted, he literally calls Jesus divine and claims that He created the universe– “All things were made through Him” in v. 3) that trying to prove otherwise is the ultimate exercise in futility. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are more subtle when dealing with this topic, so one might forgive our Muslim author for not seeing the divine Jesus in their writings. John is so explicit that any unbiased reader couldn’t miss it.
The author supports his claim that John believes Jesus was God’s first creature by citing Revelation 3:14 which refers to Jesus (in the King James Version at least) as “the beginning of the creation of God.” However, this translation is misleading. The Greek word here translated beginning is “arche” and can mean the first of something or the origin of something. This understanding of arche corresponds well to Revelation 21:6, where we read that God is the beginning (arche) and the end. Arche can also refer to a power over something, as it does in Luke 20:20 and Romans 8:38. This understanding of the word works well with verse 21, which shows Jesus as a conqueror sitting on his throne. These interpretations are at least as plausible as the one the Muslim author postulates, if not more so. Because Revelation seems so strongly to assert Jesus’ divinity (1:8 and 1:17-18, 5:13, etc.) it makes the Muslim interpretation here significantly less likely.
Our Muslim author closes his section on John by again completely missing the point:
“In fact Jesus himself told the crowds, that they have never seen the Father, nor have they heard the Father’s voice (John 5:37). Notice that if Jesus was the Father, his statement here would be false“ (Islam Guide).
Obviously, Christians don’t believe that Jesus is the Father so this only serves to further demonstrate how completely irrelevant so much of Muslim Dawah (apologetics) is when it comes to interacting with Christian beliefs. This kind of argument only serves to convert someone who calls himself a Christian but doesn’t actually know the central Christian truth propositions.