JESUS CHRIST – ESCHATOLOGICAL PROPHET AND INCARNATE SAVIOR
A CHRISTIAN PROPOSAL TO MUSLIMS (PART 4/4)
The Gospels make clear that Jesus was not only bringing a special message. He personified what God reveals. He was not only an ‘emissary’ but the personality in and through whom God is known. Whereas in Islam the Quran is the very ‘text’ of divine truth, the New Testament is the access to the Christ-expression of God. The Scripture has its being by derivation from the prior and primarily reality of ‘the Word made flesh’
Indeed, the life of Christ confirms a prophethood that is deepened, if not climaxed, in a one-for-all incarnate revelation of God. As the writer of the book of Hebrews testified,
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in many ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he has appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
III. BEYOND SHIRK TO SALVATION
It is precisely at this point that the most fundamental difference between Islam and Christianity becomes evident. One cannot evade the uncompromising insistence of Islam that there can be no association with God (shirk). God does not forgive the association of a partner with Himself: a lesser sin than that He forgives to whom He wills (Surah 4:48, 116).
To be sure, the Quranic insistence was a forceful rejection of polytheism common among Arabs at that time which included teaching that God had wives (Surah 72:3), sons (Surah 2:116; 6:100-101; 10:68; 17:111; 18:4; 19:91-92; 21:26; 25:2) and daughters (Surah 6:100; 16:57; 17:40; 37:149-153; 43:19; 53:27). It was all too easy within the context for Muhammad to misunderstand the designation ‘son of God’. For example, Surah 4:171 and Surah 5 rejects the Trinity on grounds that it amounts to tri-theism.
The rejection of association with God and of the idea that God begets is emphatically found in Surah 112:1-4:
Say: He is God, the One and Only;
God, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begets not, nor is He begotten;
And there is none like unto Him
Undoubtedly, Muslims protest that acceptance of the incarnation would tantamount to an apotheosis of a man. To acknowledge the deity of Christ is seen as committing the sin of shirk (sin of association). To this, Cragg deftly points out that similar but unacknowledged logical moves are involved even for the Muslims understanding of the revelation of divine will.
It is undeniable that linking eternal attributes to anything other than God poses an immediate logical problem. In other words, if Christian revelation is challenged to answer the charge of an apotheosis of man, by the same token, the charge of an apotheosis of language confronts the alternative Islamic understanding of revelation. God may transcend the boundaries of human language and religious experience. But surely, asked Cragg, his transcendence cannot negate our human God-talk and human religious activities like prayer and worship. Indeed, such admission is a pre-requisite to any possible appreciation of Jesus as the focal point where divine expectation and human response meet.
Cragg also counters that
We do not do justice to that unutterable transcendence, however, if we plead it to negate what is given in revelation. Surpassing mystery is one thing, total enigma would be another . . .There could be no obeying a wholly elusive Lordship. . . Revelation becomes a sorry joke if its claims are no more than a tantalizing stance, an ‘as-if’ which derides us when it most enjoins. ‘We have not created the heaven and the earth and all they hold together as if We jested’ (Sura 21:16, 44:37). We must not equate the frailty of language with the futility of faith /1/
Reservation about the possibility of God’s revelation in Christ is understandable for Muslims endued with great zeal to preserve the transcendence and sovereignty of God. The Christian response must be to stress that the question whether the incarnation did or did not occur has to be settled eventually by an investigation of the historical records, and that our conceptual formulation of God should be shaped in a response to how the one God has actually revealed himself to be. The Christian must patiently and firmly assert that
If God is personal, knowledge of Him must be a personal revelation. He can never be only propositional. . . .And the “Who” cannot be known except in Self-communication. Words, teaching, ideas, propositions, must become “the Word” –experience, fellowship — before revelation is complete. . . . Revelation is not simply recorded in a book; it is embodied in a Person /2/
To be sure, the Christian must remain sensitive to the Muslim’s misgivings that in the teaching of the Incarnation of God in Christ, the unity and sovereignty of God were compromised nevertheless. Cragg, on his part, expresses reservation at the propriety of translating the word shirk into the English word ‘association’. This, he considers as misleading. With his considerable competence in Arabic, he argues that the actual restriction is a “plural” worship, the alienating of what alone is divine to what is not, as idolatry in all its forms/3/
Divine revelation therefore includes creating relationships that need not be rejected on grounds of shirk. On the contrary, the divine-human relationship is a logical conclusion of divine rule over his creatures. Semitic religions point to a God who is vitally concerned with man. This concern flows from the Creator/creature relationship, which is further characterized by the giving of the law and revelation, guidance and reminder, command and submission. Does this Christian view of ‘God in Christ’ somehow unwarrantably and improperly ‘compromise’ God? Cragg answers that ‘God in Christ’ is consistent with the nature of God to rule, to respond and to care. We see parallels in Islamic language of ‘sending’ and ‘mission’ in the prophetic sense of risalah. That is to say, the Creator has a stake in the creature. Divine intervention in human affairs cannot compromise God since he is only exercising his authority over what he inherently owns. One may even push the argument further and affirm that “It was an act of divine benevolence God was obliged to perform. The concept of divine justice requires requital of evil, compensation for innocence, and what is salutary for man” /4/
Muslims rightly reject any attempt to ascribe ultimacy to anything outside of God. The Christian shares this insistence but goes further by insisting that such negation should be redemptive. In this regard, God’s sovereignty should include his ability to enact the drama of redemption within the flux of history. Otherwise God would remain in splendid isolation and irrelevant to humankind.
1. Kenneth Cragg, Jesus and the Muslim (George Allen Unwin, 1985), p. 200
2. Cragg, Call of the Minaret (Oxford UP, 1964), p. 290. Note 2nd ed, by Oneworld Pub., 2000.
3. Cragg, Jesus and the Muslim p.204.
4. Ibid., 202