September 15, 2014
Try to envision the scene: A Christian named Timothy meets with a Muslim named Mahdi for two days of dialogue about their religions. The meeting is cordial, and to us, some of the arguments may be surprising.
Timothy says that Muhammad is worthy of all praise by all reasonable people. He argues that a true prophet is one who speaks of God, his Word and his Spirit, and that since Muhammad did so in the Qur’an, he walked in the path of the prophets. This assertion does not quite come to the point of saying that Muhammad was a true prophet, but it does imply clearly that much of what Muhammad said was in keeping with the message of the prophets. Timothy’s admission that there is truth in the Qur’an may surprise many of us, but the Qur’an does write of both the word of God and the spirit of God. Of course, the Qur’an conceives of word and spirit differently from the Christian Scriptures, and so Timothy’s mention of them leads naturally to a discussion of the Trinity.
Mahdi insists that if Timothy believes that Muhammad is worthy of respect, he should accept his words. Timothy asks which words he is to accept. Mahdi replies, unsurprisingly, with the central tenet of Islam, that there is no god but God (Allah). Timothy asserts that he affirms this, although he has learned it from the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospel, not from Muhammad. Then Mahdi claims, of course, that Timothy believes not in one God absolutely, but in one God in three. Timothy replies, “I do not deny that I believe in one God in three, and three in one, but not in three different Godheads, however, but in the persons of God’s Word and His Spirit. I believe that these three constitute one God, not in their person but in their nature.”
Mahdi greets this classic statement of Christian trinitarianism with the expected incredulity, and asks how three persons do not constitute three gods. What follows is a wide-ranging discussion of both the Bible and the Qur’an, in which each man tries to show that not only his own scriptures, but even the other’s scriptures, support his view of God. Timothy quotes famous passages in the Old Testament in which God speaks with plural pronouns (“let us make man…,” etc.), as well as passages in the Qur’an in which Allah speaks with the plural pronoun “we.” He insists that such plurality must be understood as an indication of the Trinity. Mahdi counters this argument by insisting that the plurals in both the Bible and the Qur’an indicate the marks of divine majesty and power, and do not imply that there is actually a distinction of persons in God. Here again is a surprise, because the Muslim is interpreting the plural pronouns in the Old Testament in the way that Christian Old Testament scholars normally do. The Christian, in contrast, insists that such plurals point to the Trinity—even when they are found in the Qur’an.
The conversation wanders on, as Mahdi insists that the Christian belief that God has a Son lowers him to the level of humanity, and even implies that he engaged in sexual relations. Timothy counters that fatherhood and sonship are different in the case of God than in the case of people. We beget sons in time through sexual relations, but God has always had an eternal Son, as incomprehensible as it is to us how that could be the case. Here Mahdi is asking a common question—one that Christians and Muslims alike may wonder about. Timothy responds with a classic Christian answer, one rooted not only in the Bible but in the church’s reflection about God in the fourth-century Trinitarian controversy.
The long dialogue provides not only interesting and surprising exegetical arguments, but also an example of a gracious and fruitful way for Christians to interact with Muslims. It reminds us that many Muslims, like Mahdi, know our Bible and hunger for truth, and that our patient interaction with them and their questions may help remove some of the barriers preventing them from embracing Christ. In a contemporary climate dominated by suspicion and even hatred between the two religions, this dialogue reads like a breath of much-needed fresh air.
So where did this dialogue take place? Chicago? New York? Maybe London? No. It took place in Baghdad. If that is not surprising enough, the even bigger surprise is when it took place. You might have thought it was recent, as a result of “modern” tolerance, the comparative study of religion, or global connectedness. No, the discussion took place in the year 781, one year after Timothy became patriarch of the East Syrian Church, whose patriarchal see was located in, of all places, Baghdad. Mahdi was the Abbasid Caliph headquartered in Baghdad, the leader of all the Arab Muslims in the Levant.
That such a dialogue took place there, and especially then, stands as a reminder that the world has not always been as we imagine it. Christians and Muslims have not always been geographically separate from each other, as we might have thought. They have not always had as little knowledge of each other as we might have imagined. Nor have Muslims always had as little sympathetic interest in Christianity as we might have believed. Come to think of it, it isn’t even true now that Muslims are all separate from us, know nothing of us, and have only hatred for us. Many of them are among us, and willing to talk to us about our God, and theirs. As we try to engage with them, we might do well to remember that Christians have done this before, and we might have much to learn from their past efforts.
Click here for the English translation of this dialogue.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.
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November 15, 2011
Author’s Note: Journeys are strange. You hardly ever end up where you thought you would, and you definitely never get there in the manner that you conceived. That has been as true for me as it was for Jonah the morning he woke up to take a leisurely cruise to Tarshish. Over the next few weeks I will be writing a series of blog posts exploring how I came to and through seminary. It’s a strange tale with no straight lines. But it’s my story, and it is the path that the Lord has led our family down. It’s not idyllic. I hope that encourages you. Also, in case you just joined the conversation, Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 can be found here.
God works in mysterious ways. In the case of how I ended up at Gordon-Conwell, he worked for my good in a way that I could not see in spite of my focus in a different direction. So how did I end up at Gordon-Conwell? To quote Prince Herbert from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Well, I’ll tell you.” (cue music)
After taking my first seven courses through Fuller, my job in Colorado transferred me to a small golf community in North Carolina. It was a long move for our family, but one that we were excited to make. In the midst of having three children, sometimes it is difficult to keep all of the details of life at the forefront of one’s mind. Thus, it was a short while after arriving in North Carolina that I realized that the nearest Fuller campus was in Colorado Springs – a mere 1700 miles away. My pay level was prohibitive to flights back and forth, so I began searching for a new school.
Now, at this point in the story I have to explain that those of us from Colorado are a bit different. We like to wear sandals and shorts. A lot. We also don’t dress up much. However, people in North Carolina do.
Thus, as I started searching for seminaries within 150 miles of my home I became a bit disconcerted that everyone – everyone! – on the website of each school that I looked at was wearing a suit. I didn’t have anything against suits, it was just that, as someone who worked with high school kids at the time, I preferred casual clothing in the groups with which I spent my time.
And then I found it shining in the night – more beautiful than William Shatner’s spoken version of “Rocket Man”: the Gordon-Conwell Charlotte Campus website. There were lots of smiling faces and no three-piece suits. I was intrigued. So, I called down, scheduled a campus visit and the rest, as they say, is history.
I wish that I could write that I chose Gordon-Conwell because of its wonderful and inquisitive student body (which it has), its academically challenging atmosphere (it is), and its excellent faculty members (they are), but I did not. I chose Gordon-Conwell because of the fashion choices of those on their website.
Addendum: The irony in this story is that the Lord used such a frivolous way to make a decision in order to show me my love for the academic world. Within a few years I would discover my love for studying and begin to pursue a career in academia, all of which required that I be at such an academically rigorous school. However, that story is for a later post. Next time I will talk a bit about my time with the wonderful people at GCTS-Charlotte.
Brian has an M.Div. (2010) from Gordon-Conwell’s Charlotte campus, a Th.M. (2011) in Historical Theology from the South Hamilton campus, and is currently strengthening his language skills while in the MACH program. He hopes to matriculate into a doctoral program in August 2012 that will allow him to continue in his study of the thought of Augustine of Hippo. He has a wonderful wife, three great children, and spent ten years in ministry to teenagers, primarily with Young Life International.
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