Explaining the Trinity to Muslims

Recently, the following question was received by OCN:

Hi, Thanks for a great page and I’m very happy to see my Orthodox brothers and sisters from around the world. I have a question maybe you could help me to answer. I have a friend (a Muslim convert) who is questioning the Trinity. According to him the Christians took the words of Jesus and twisted them to create a Trinity. He explains that Jesus never said he is 3 in 1 only the followers of Paulus since it was Paulus who created the Trinity. My friend said this was the main reason he left Christianity. What chapters in the bible can I find what Jesus said about the Trinity? Maybe you can provide me with explanation to this subject. Thanks for your help! Best Regards Mara

Fr. Brendan Pelphrey responds:

Christians believe that God is love. The Trinity defines love: the love of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father, of the Father for the Spirit, of the Son for the Spirit, and of the Spirit for the Father and the Son. It is, finally, a love which is so great that it went out of itself. This is why God created and sustains all that exists.

Here we see that love is not a feeling or emotion, as many people think. Rather, love is a permanent relationship of self-giving and eternal mercy and compassion. Jesus Christ is the revelation to humanity of that permanent love, in which the Son lives in the Father, and the Father in the Son, and the Spirit in the Father and the Son.

This kind of love is beyond our understanding. It is not rational. We cannot argue about it or prove it. However, we can experience it, and this experience changes lives and brings us into loving relationship with everything that exists, because God loves all things and is at work in all that exists.

Mara’s friend has not experienced divine love. Divine love is very different from religion, in which people agree with certain dogmas and therefore congregate with other like-minded people. Mara’s friend left religion, which he called “Christianity,” because certain things did not make sense to him. So while his objections deserve answers, we have to realize that arguments like this will not change his life. Such arguments do not create love in the hearts of people who see God only in terms of rationality.

Beyond this, Muslim objections to the Trinity are part of a whole set of assertions that together make up Islam. For every false assertion that we can correct, there will always be more objections to Christian faith. For example, if we show that in the Bible there are clear images of the Trinity, then it will be objected that the Bible is inaccurate or that it has less importance than the Qur’an.

Nevertheless, it is possible to show how the Muslim objections cited above are false.

To do this carefully requires more than just a few words, so in the future we hope to present a series on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. We will see what the doctrine of the Trinity actually is, where it appears in the Bible, what this means about the nature and person of Jesus Christ; and some practical implications of the mystery of the Trinity for Christian life. In the meantime, the following is a “short version” in response to the objections raised by Mara’s friend.

Jesus never claimed to be God. Actually, He did. In fact, this is exactly why He was crucified. There are many examples of this in the Gospels, but perhaps the clearest are in the Gospel of John. Jesus says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30); “If you knew me, you would know the Father also” (John 8:19); “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8); and “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10). These statements are unambiguous.

The accounts of Jesus’ trial also tell us that the main charge brought against Him was that He made Himself equal with God. Here we should remember that in Jewish faith, the promised Messiah (or in Greek, “the Christ”) was considered to be Emmanuel, meaning “God among men” (Isaiah 7:14). In Mark 12:35-36, Jesus points out that the Messiah is not simply the son of David, but is called “Lord” (meaning God) by David himself. There is no question that Jesus identified Himself with the promised Messiah, who was understood to proceed from God and to be divine.

In Matthew 26:57 ff., we read that Jesus was accused of saying He could rebuild the temple in three days—something which only God could do. Then the High Priest asked Him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus answered, “You have said it!” (or, “You have said so!”). Then Jesus said, “After this you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of Heaven.” In other words, the assertion was true.

Jesus often referred to Himself as “the Son of Man” (cf. John 6:62). This phrase does not mean an ordinary man, but is a direct reference to Daniel 7:13 ff. in which the prophet Daniel describes a vision of the Messiah who would bring mankind to the presence of the Father. In John 8:28, Jesus says clearly, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he…” Here He clearly identifies Himself both as the Messiah, and God.

There is no evidence that Jesus was God in the flesh. Actually, Jesus’ whole ministry was filled with evidence that He had the power of God and proceeded from the Father. He fulfilled hundreds of specific signs of the Messiah that are prophesied in the Old Testament. These included healing the sick, casting out demons, restoring sight to the blind, making the lame walk, causing the deaf to hear, and healing withered limbs. He fulfilled prophecies of where He would be born, and how. Jesus’ birth from the Virgin Mary was the first of the signs that He was indeed the promised Messiah. This sign is acknowledged even by Muslims, although some Muslims claim—contrary to history—that Jesus was born in Babylon and not in Bethlehem.

The Old Testament never mentions the Trinity. Actually there are over fifty references to the Trinity in the Old Testament. Some examples are in Genesis 18, Psalm 110, Proverbs 30:4, Isaiah 9:6, Isaiah 48, Isaiah 49, and Zechariah 3. Perhaps the most striking of the “theophanies” (appearances of God) in the Old Testament is the story of the visit of God to Abraham at Mamre (Genesis 18).

The Bible says that the LORD (Hebrew, YHWH) appeared to Abraham in the form of three angels. In the story, the verbs used for the angels are sometimes plural and sometimes singular: thus there are three, but there is only One. Historically, this passage left rabbis puzzled as they tried to interpret it. How could there be One who is Three? But in the Book of Genesis, God is always referred to both in the singular, as one God (El), and in the plural (Elohim). This is illustrated in Genesis 1:26: “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Even the first two verses of the Bible (Genesis 1:1-3) refer to the Trinity: God created, the Spirit hovered over the Deep, and the Word of God (Dabar) created light.

It does not make sense for God to be One and Three at the same time. To the prophet Isaiah, God said, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways” (Isaiah 55:09). The logic of God is not our logic. That is why what is impossible for man, is possible for God (compare Matthew 19:26). We are not God, and we cannot know the essence of God.

However, the “mathematics” of God, as revealed in Christ, are: 1 + 1 + 1= 1.

Therefore, the nature of the Trinity is considered by the Church to be a mystery which, as God’s creatures, we cannot explain. However, it can be illustrated by the idea of “co-inherence” in contemporary physics. Science has discovered that certain sub-atomic particles must be considered as both separate particles, and as existing only within (or “one with”) other particles at the same time. Historically, the Church has used the example of three separate candle flames that come together and burn as one: the flames are all one, even though they are three.

The Greek word used for the “co-inherence” of the Three Persons of the Trinity is perichoresis, which literally means “running in a circle.” It means that when we see the Son, we see the Father, who has sent the Spirit to reveal the Son, who gives the Spirit, who draws us to the Father, who is only seen in the Son…  Each One reveals the Others, and is found only in, and with, the other divine Persons.

This mode of existence defines what it means to be “person.” We cannot be real persons in isolation. Christians believe that our own nature, as persons, is a mirror of the person-hood of the Holy Trinity.

It does not make sense for Jesus to be God and Man at the same time. Although we cannot understand how or why God came to live among men, this is exactly what God promised that He would do, as recorded by the Old Testament prophets. He did this without ceasing to be God. St. Athanasius used this illustration: imagine pouring a glass of wine into a glass of water, in which the water becomes “all wine,” but the volume of water does not change. In other words, the water and wine coexist in the same time and place, even though wine and water have different qualities altogether. This is the co-inherence of God in man, and man in God, so that there is no change in either. Jesus is both fully God, and fully man. (Also, see the previous answer.)

The idea of the Trinity was made up by “Paulus” (St. Paul). No. The Trinity is mentioned not only in all of the Gospels, but also in the Old Testament. While it is true that the Gospel of John was written after the letters of Paul, it is also true that the Gospels of Mark and Luke, and possibly Matthew, were earlier—even before Paul’s conversion to Christian faith. Jesus mentions the Trinity clearly in Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”

The Holy Bible was written by men. Later translations changed its meaning. Therefore, the Bible does not have the authority of the Holy Qur’an, which was dictated to the Prophet directly by the angel Jibriel, revealing the very words of Allah’ (God). It is interesting that Muslims insist that the Qur’an has to be read in Arabic if it is to be understood. This is opposite to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which from the beginning was preached in all languages (see Acts 2), but without changing its meaning. This was because the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ was not in words, but in the flesh, just as God promised through the prophets of old. Jesus was himself the living Word (logos) of God.

It is also worth pointing out that in history there have been many other books that claimed to contain the exact words of God. However, these books do not agree with one another. Which one is true? Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus also warned that many people would come after Him, claiming to be the Messiah or claiming to be the only path to God. These are false prophets.

How do we know what is true? Perhaps the only way is to judge according to people’s works. Human nature tells us that murdering everyone who does not agree with us is not what we were intended to do with our lives. It can never be justified, even though religious groups often do it in the name of God. But Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28). For me, at least, this sounds like Truth.

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