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Trinity, crucifixion cited as key differences for Muslims, Christians

GRACEVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Since Sept. 11, the questions have become widely discussed: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? What does Islam and Christianity share in common? More importantly, are there essential differences between the two great religions that cannot be dismissed?

These were the questions addressed by Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., during The Baptist College of Florida’s annual Powell Lectures April 22-23. The historical theologian spoke twice at BCF’s main campus in Graceville.

While there are significant commonalities between the two great religions, George insisted that Islam’s rejection of the Trinity and crucifixion of Jesus pose unavoidable stumbling blocks for Muslims, demonstrating that the two religions cannot be said to worship the same God.

Despite the tendency in American culture — especially after the terrorist attacks of last fall — to reject exclusive truth claims and press for universal acceptance of all religions, George urged Christians to resist this pressure for two reasons. First, he said that to do so is dishonest, as any true Muslim would agree, and second, because doing so shows disrespect to deeply held convictions of both Muslims and Christians.

George urged Christians to better understand the theology of Islam as a means of reaching Muslims with the true gospel.

Today, there are more than 1 billion Muslims and, by the year 2025, George said Muslims will claim one of every three people in the world. Although many Americans associate Islam only with Arabic nations, only 15 percent of Muslims live in Arab lands.

Citing similarities between Islam and Christianity, George noted they are:

— Historical religions: “They take seriously history, unlike many religions of the East.”

— Textual religions: Both Muslims and Christians based their theology on a sacred text — the Koran for Muslims and the Bible for Christians. While Christians go to great effort to translate the Bible into many languages, Muslims insist only the Arabic version of the Koran is authoritative, while all translations are only interpretations.

— Teleological religions: Islam and Christians teach there is a purpose to life, including a final judgment with heaven and hell.

— Missionary religions: “They are concerned to spread the message they have into all the world,” George said.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the death of Jesus Christ on the cross represent key differences with Islam that cannot be ignored, George noted.

The “essential difference” is the claim of Muslims in the Koran (Surah 5:73) that “Christians believe in three gods,” George said, noting that the Muslim Student Association has published a tract for use on university campuses that prominently makes this claim.

Although this is a distorted, inaccurate portrayal of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, George said that many Christians are unable to refute the claim because the Trinity is a “neglected teaching” in Christian churches resulting in “widespread error, and even heresy, within the Christian community.”

One example of Christian distortion of the Trinity, George said, is the modalism heresy — the “idea that back in the Old Testament you had God the Father. And in the New Testament it’s Jesus, the Son. And now in the church we have the Holy Spirit, as though God was putting on different masks at different moments in the history of salvation.

“We need to recover a Bible understanding of the Trinity if we are going to be able to have dialogue and witness with Muslims who will point to this immediately as the weakest part of the Christian message,” George declared.

The biblical teaching on the Trinity, George said, starts with Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” which Jesus referenced in Mark 12:29.

“This is foundational to the Christian faith. … In Jesus Christ we encounter nothing less than the one true and living God,” George said, noting the prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The “intimacy” of the Godhead, George said, is seen in John 1:18 and the eternal relationship between God the Father and God the Son is found in John 17. “At the heart of God there is this loving relationship of Father and Son united in the bond of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is Lord. When we say that, this is what we are saying.”

The truth that God became flesh (John 1:14) — the “part of our human reality that is most susceptible to suffering, to getting hurt, to bleeding and dying” — is “shocking” to Muslims, George said. Islam, he said, cannot contemplate a loving God who is Father “because they think that brings God too close — makes him too much like a human being.” The sin of “shirk,” associating with God something that is not God, is unpardonable for Muslims. But this rejection of God as Father, the deity of Jesus and the personhood of the Holy Spirit means that it is wrong to say the god of Muhammad is the Father of Jesus, he said.

The statement “God has no son,” etched on the Jerusalem mosque known as the Dome of the Rock standing opposite the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, illustrates the Muslim rejection of Jesus’ deity and his crucifixion. “You either go with the Dome of the Rock or you go with Calvary’s cross,” George noted. “It always comes down to Jesus, doesn’t it?”

Ever since Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” George said that answers throughout history have been “many and varied.” And just as there have been heresies related to the doctrine of the Trinity, heresies about the nature and work of Jesus also have abounded.

Among Muslims, Jesus is held in very high regard as one in a line of prophets of whom Muhammad is the last. References to Jesus in the Koran are many where he is reported to be virgin born, is called the Messiah and is credited with working miracles, George said, noting that some who have converted to Christianity from Islam have reported that the references to Jesus in the Koran caused them to want to learn more about Jesus.

As much as Muslims will affirm about the person and work of Jesus, the crucial difference arises in their rejection of Jesus’ crucifixion that they claim he avoided at the last moment as someone else was crucified in his place, George said.

“There can be no Christianity without the cross. There can be no Islam with the cross,” he said. “The crucifixion of Jesus, the cross of Christ is the great dividing point between these two vast world religions.”

The cross is problematic for Muslims, George said, because Islam is a “theology of success. It is a theology of prosperity.” Allah, Muslims insist, would not allow a great prophet like Jesus to be humiliated.

This view of the cross should be a reminder of the truly shocking reality of the crucifixion for Christians who have “domesticated” it, George said. “The Christian doctrine of a Messiah, a Son of God, who suffers and bleeds and dies on the cross, who is put to death in such a public and shameful way, does not go down in a world that worships at the shrine of success and denies death.”

Christians, George insisted, sometimes live as if the Muslim version of the crucifixion is true. “We have lived as though the cross were simply a little thing that Jesus had to go through and then he was risen from the dead and now he is alive. … And we forget that we are to preach nothing else than Jesus Christ and him crucified. That’s the center of our message,” citing Galatians 6:14 and 2:20.

George insisted that the power of the cross is found in the fact that Jesus is God in the flesh. “Jesus wasn’t the only one crucified; thousands were crucified before him, thousands after him. But it was the fact that Jesus Christ was not just a prophet, not just a miracle worker — that Jesus Christ was the very eternal, divine Son of God.”

Like Martin of Tours of the Middle Ages, Christians today should ask, “Where are the nail-prints?” to “every theology and every religion and every philosophy that you encounter in your life,” George said. “If there are no nail-prints, it’s not the true Jesus, but a counterfeit.”

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  • James A. Smith
  • James A. Smith, Sr.
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