by Alvin Kimel


Today Archbishop Rowan Williams delivered his anticipated lecture at the al-Azhar al-Sharif Institute in Cairo. As always, Williams is thoughtful, respectful, ecumenical, sober. In this lecture Williams desires to emphasize the common understanding of God shared by Moslems, Christians, and Jews, and to explain why the Christian understanding of the Holy Trinity does not contradict the Islamic understanding of God’s unity, aseity, self-sufficiency, and self-existence.

Historically, Islam has denounced Christianity as tritheistic and pagan. Allah is alone; he does not have a son. In his lecture Williams notes this concern and responds that Christian theologians have also rejected tritheism and the introduction of creaturely distinctions into the transcendent Godhead.

But what I wish to say to you today is simply that the disagreement between Christian and Muslim is not, I believe, a disagreement about the nature of God as One and Living and Self-subsistent. For us as for you, it is essential to think of God as a life that has no limit, as a life that is free. God is never to be listed alongside other beings.

Williams is speaking out of the depths of the theological tradition. Every orthodox Christian theologian would give his assent to this statement of the transcendence of deity. Williams continues:

All through the centuries that we call the Middle Ages, Christians, Muslims and Jews thought alike about this, and our greatest philosophers, Thomas Aquinas, Ibn Sina, Maimonides and others, all worked to make this clear. They would all have agreed that only if God is alone and needs no other is he worthy of our complete worship and devotion. God is not a being who is like us, only greater and more powerful. If God were like us only much greater, we might worship him out of fear instead of giving him free obedience and love. But the true God?s freedom is infinite and he can never be limited by any definition. When we have used up all the names that human language can find for him, we shall have spoken true things of him, but never expressed the whole truth which is hidden from created minds. And so we adore him in trust and thankfulness but we accept that we shall never have him in our grasp.

Here a question is raised for me: Is the transcendence of God the reason for our worship and adoration? If God does indeed, as Williams rightly says, transcend all creaturely categories, why does this entail the consequence that I need not “worship him out of fear.” I know that here I am showing my theological ignorance, but would someone please show me why the aseity of deity entails a God of love and mercy. I agree that if God is one being among many, just bigger and stronger, that he is unworthy of our adoration; but it is not clear to me at all why an infinite creator is not to be feared and perhaps even hated.

Do we begin with the unity or triunity of God in our theological reflections? Western theologians, until recently, have typically begun with the divine unity; Eastern theologians with the divine triunity. Given the influence of Jenson and Pannenberg on my own theological development, I side with the East here. Curiously, Williams, who knows the Eastern tradition well, begins with the unity. No doubt he does so here because he is seeking common ground with Islam. He thus meets Islam on its own terms; but I wonder if he does not thereby give away too much.

Do Christians in fact have any interest in asserting, as Williams does, that “God is alone”? I am reminded of St Hilary’s discussion of the Trinity, as he sought to reconcile the Christian confession with the Shema. We must avoid two errors, he states: making God into two Gods and making God into a solitary, lonely God (On the Trinity 7.8). I do not love and adore God because of his perfect self-sufficiency. I do not love and adore God because he is one and alone. I love and adore him because he died for me on the cross and rose from the dead. I love and adore him precisely because he is Holy Trinity.

It is thus with concern that I note Williams’s avoidance of the language of Incarnation. He employs, instead, the language of presence. For example: “If Christians say that the eternal Word and power of God was fully present in Jesus, son of Mary, can we avoid saying this in such a way as to imply that God is subject to a physical process, or that God has a second being alongside him?” Alexandrian Saints Athanasius and Cyril would not be happy with this way of formulating the divinity of Jesus. Williams mutes the dramatic differences between Islam and Christianity in their respective understandings of God by focusing his lecture almost completely upon the immanent Trinity, at the expense of God’s economic self-revelation in history. But the second person of the Holy Trinity is not merely present in Jesus of Nazareth; he is Jesus of Nazareth. This is the scandal of the gospel: the crucified man Jesus is the second person of the Holy Trinity. When we divorce our Trinitarian reflections from the economy of salvation, we inevitably move into a level of abstract unreality. But surely Williams knows this.

Williams eloquently identifies the crucial difference between the Christian and Islamic understandings of God:

And the Christian also says something which may again be a source of disagreement. God is a loving God, as we all agree; but, says the Christian, God does not love simply because he decides to love. He is always, eternally, loving. His very nature, his definition is love. And the interaction and relation between the three ways in which God lives, the source and the expression and the sharing, is eternally the way God exists. The three centres of divine action, which we call Father, Son and Spirit, pour out the divine life to each other for all eternity, a sort of perfect circle of giving and receiving. And the only word we can use for that relationship of pouring out and giving is love. So as we grow in holiness, we become closer and closer in our actions and thoughts to the complete self-giving that always exists perfectly in God?s life. Towards this fullness we are all called to travel and grow.

Here is the foundation of our love, adoration, and worship of God and of our sacrificial discipleship and obedience. God does not just choose to act lovingly in history. He is love in his essential reality, a community of three persons united in utter self-giving. It is into this divine community that we are baptized, sanctified, and divinized. It is because God is love eternally that he does not need the world in order to love. It is because God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that we can truly declare that God is love.

G. K. Chesterton zeroed in on this difference between Allah and the Holy Trinity in his book Orthodoxy a century ago and noted the implications of this difference for the world:

Unitarians (a sect never to be mentioned without a special respect for their distinguished intellectual dignity and high intellectual honour) are often reformers by the accident that throws so many small sects into such an attitude. But there is nothing in the least liberal or akin to reform in the substitution of pure monotheism for the Trinity. The complex God of the Athanasian Creed may be an enigma for the intellect; but He is far less likely to gather the mystery and cruelty of a Sultan than the lonely god of Omar or Mahomet. The god who is a mere awful unity is not only a king but an Eastern king. The heart of humanity, especially of European humanity, is certainly much more satisfied by the strange hints and symbols that gather round the Trinitarian idea, the image of a council at which mercy pleads as well as justice, the conception of a sort of liberty and variety existing even in the inmost chamber of the world. For Western religion has always felt keenly the idea “it is not well for man to be alone.” The social instinct asserted itself everywhere as when the Eastern idea of hermits was practically expelled by the Western idea of monks. So even asceticism became brotherly; and the Trappists were sociable even when they were silent. If this love of a living complexity be our test, it is certainly healthier to have the Trinitarian religion than the Unitarian. For to us Trinitarians (if I may say it with reverence)–to us God Himself is a society. It is indeed a fathomless mystery of theology, and even if I were theologian enough to deal with it directly, it would not be relevant to do so here. Suffice it to say here that this triple enigma is as comforting as wine and open as an English fireside; that this thing that bewilders the intellect utterly quiets the heart: but out of the desert, from the dry places and, the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone.

Chesterton’s analysis seems to me to be both more theologically astute and more honest than Archbishop Williams’s lecture in Cairo. I understand the political reasons why the Archbishop chose to present the Christian God as he did—and his audience was Muslim—but is it really helpful to mute our differences if we are to understand our true differences?

The world is being torn asunder by Islamic terrorists. We would like to pretend that this violence is unrelated to the true Islam, but this is unrealistic and fanciful. (See Mark Lilla’s op-ed piece, Extremism’s Theological Roots, written a month after 9/11, and Andrew Sullivan’s This is a Religious War.) Last weekend Abdulrahman al-Rashed, general manager of Al-Arabiya television, published an article in response to the horrifying massacre of the innocents of Breslan, titled “The Painful Truth: All the World Terrorists are Muslims!” “Most perpetrators of suicide operations in buses, schools and residential buildings around the world for the past 10 years have been Muslims,” he wrote. “The picture is humiliating, painful and harsh for all of us.” The English version of his article begins with these words: “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.”

Is belief in the one God beneficial and salutary to humanity? This is a question raised by Regina Schwartz in her book The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. Surely the short answer to this question is yes, if the one God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But if the one God is Allah … the answer may be a resounding no!

11 September 2004


Rowan Williams’s recent lecture in Cairo has once again raised for me the question, Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? I think that the answer is yes, for two reasons. First, Muslims and Christians believe that the God they worship is the God who revealed himself to Abraham. Second, Muslims and Christians believe that the God they worship is the one transcendent, infinite creator of the universe. Though we may understand this one God in very different, and incompatible ways, it would appear that we intend to worship the same God. Yet I am still not happy with this answer.

I have a similar problem when it comes to praying with generic theists, which is why I do not support prayer in the public schools. It’s not that I oppose it–I just don’t support it. I pray to God through Jesus Christ in the name of Jesus Christ. I do not know any other God to whom to pray nor am I interested in praying to any other God. I certainly do not believe in praying to the deity of American civic religion. Should we assume that because a prayer is addressed to “Almighty God” the Christian and non-Christian intend to pray to the same God?

When the Gallup poll reports that the large majority of Americans believe in “God,” I am not impressed. What I want to know is, Which God do they believe in? What is his name? How is he identified?

Archbishop Williams’s lecture presumes that Christians and Muslims worship the same God and therefore mean the same thing when they talk about the divine infinity, transcendence, aseity and self-existence. Muslims need not, therefore, regard us as idolaters, despite all of that trinitarian talk about the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. But when we Christians and Muslims describe God as infinite or transcendent, do we in fact mean the same thing?

What is missing in all of this is the man Jesus. We assume that we already know who and what God is, but that we know him just a bit better if we know Jesus. But the doctrine of the Holy Trinity wants to say much more than this. It wants to say that Jesus is himself constitutive of deity. We begin with the confession of Nicaea:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

Immediately we note the identification of God as Father. Outside of a Christian context, this might seem like a general metaphorical description, similar, say, to Zeus being called “father of gods and men.” But Christians know that we are here talking about the One who is the Father of Jesus, the one to whom Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” The confession is historically specific. We confess our faith in the God who is eternally defined by his relationship to one Jesus of Nazareth. It is this relationship between the Father and his incarnate Son that is internal to the divine being. As St Athanasius declared: “God, in that he ever is, is ever Father of the Son.” Father, therefore, is not a metaphor projected by humanity upon the Godhead; it is a proper name and title that designates the divine person who eternally begets Jesus the Son and with whom Jesus exists in eternal relationship.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

The Father has a Son, and his name is Jesus, the man who was born of Mary and crucified under Pontius Pilate. Ahh, the philosopher objects, we must in this part of the creed be talking about the preexistent Son, the logos asarkos, the second person of the Trinity “before” the Incarnation. But that’s not exactly what the creed says, is it? The symbol identifies the second person of the Trinity, through whom the world was made, by the name “Jesus Messiah,” “Jesus Anointed One,” “Jesus the Christ.” And that is the whole point. The creed is concerned with the God who has revealed himself in history, the God who has embodied himself in the chosen One of Israel, the God who has saved us by sufferings and death and paschal resurrection. It certainly is not interested in philosophical speculation on the nature of God apart from the history of salvation. “Before Abraham was,” Jesus declares, “I AM.”

Jesus Christ is constitutive of God. This is the creedal confession. We proclaim this every Sunday when we recite the Nicene Creed, whether we know it or not. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father; God is the divine Father of this Jesus; the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of their relationship. And together, in mutually defining relationship and perichoretic union, they are the one God.

Excepting perhaps Jurgen Moltman and Wolfhart Pannenberg, no contemporary theologian has seen this more clearly than Robert W. Jenson, and no theologian has stated it as bluntly as he. We cannot speak rightly about God, Jenson tells us, unless we mention Jesus in the same breath. This is the whole reason that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was developed.

From the ancient church on, the root trinitarian assertion is that the history God has with us, as Jesus the Israelite with his “Father” in their Spirit, is not merely a manifestation or revelation of God but is God. In Jonathan Edwards’ language, to assert God’s triunity is to assert that “the glorious things of the gospel,” that is, the whole history narrated and promised in the message carried by the church, are what is “exalting” in God…. The inherited dogma itself, worked out at the councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) and by the “Cappadocian” thinkers in the intervening period, interprets the biblically proclaimed history between “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit” as not only a history between God and us but as constitutive of God’s own reality. (America’s Theologian [1988], pp. 91-92)

The original point of trinitarian dialectics is to make the relations between the identities–for example, that the Father’s knowledge of himself is what he sees in Jesus–and therewith, the temporal structures of evangelical history, constitutive in God. (Triune Identity [1982], p. 119)

We cannot think rightly about God unless we think God through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. We cannot talk rightly about God unless our God-language is semantically grounded in the history of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with Israel and the Church. It is this insight that the Nicene Creed was designed to protect. What happens with the Nazarene–his birth, his living, his suffering, his dying, his rising–really matters to God, for they happen in God. These events define and interpret the divine identity and being. God cannot be abstracted from our world or from the history that he shares with us. As Jenson pointedly puts it: “God is eternally and in himself the Father of a particular one of us” (“The Christian Doctrine of God,” in Keeping the Faith [1988], ed. Geoffrey Wainwright, p. 33).

The narrative of Jesus Christ interprets deity. If this is true, then all of those big words that we use about God–infinity, transcendence, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, aseity, self-existence–must themselves be reinterpreted through this narrative. At no point are we allowed to retreat to a stance of philosophical speculation that ignores the revealed truth that God is Triune.

Theological reflection requires us to state that even if God had never created the world, even if he had never become incarnate in Jesus Christ, he would still be, eternally and forever, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have no idea what this means and how it is possible; but we have to say it if we are going to confess Jesus as our Lord and Savior. But once we have said this, we must promptly acknowledge that it has little theological cash value, for we are not and never have been in a position to speak about the immanent Trinity in separation from God’s self-communication in history. As Karl Rahner famously put it: “The Immanent Trinity is the Economic Trinity and vice versa.”

A corollary of this is that we cannot speak about the second person of the Holy Trinity as if he had never become incarnate—born of Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised on the third day, exalted to God’s right hand. In the words of Martin Chemnitz : “It is the nature of the hypostatic union that now after the incarnation the person of the Logos cannot and ought not to be considered or made an object of faith outside of, without, or separate from the assumed nature, nor in turn the assumed flesh outside of and without the Logos, if we wish to think reverently and correctly.” The logos asarkos is a theoretical construct. All we truly know is the Word made flesh. If we are not ready to declare to the world that God created the universe through a Crucified Jew, we have not yet comprehended the Church’s doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

In his work on heresies, St John of Damascus devotes several pages to Islam. He notes that Muslims refer to Christians as associators. “The Muslims call us Associators,” John writes, “because, they say, we introduce beside God an associate to Him by saying that Christ is the Son of God and God.” And of course, the Muslims are absolutely correct. We will always be seen by Islam as idolaters, because we worship Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, and declare that he is “of one substance” with the Father. No amount of philosophical wheeling-dealing can reduce the offence of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Indeed, if we ever find that our trinitarian proclamation ceases to offend those of unitarian faith, it will mean that we have abandoned the gospel.

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? The answer, I suppose, is still yes; but perhaps we must also simultaneously answer no. I’ll give St John, who was scandalized by the Islamic rejection of the Holy Trinity, the final word: “Therefore you accuse us falsely by calling us Associators; we, however, call you Mutilators of God.”

14 September 2004

%d bloggers like this: