Knowing Our Theology: The Encounter between Habib Ali Al Jifri and Miroslav Volf

 

He only orders you to evil and immorality and to say about Allah what you do not know. And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?”

(Qur’an 2:169-170)

volf

 

This article will be taken from the exchange between Professor Miroslav Volf (Director of the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture) and Sheikh Habib Ali al-Jifri (General Director of the Tabah Foundation)

First I want to say may Allah (swt) bless Shaikh Habib Ali al-Jifri in his efforts for daw’ah and spreading love and light among the Muslims and sharing knowledge.

I am writing this article because as if you have read the book: ‘Allah: A Christian Response’ and you read the section: The One God and the Holy Trinity you should be concerned how one of our top Da’ee was not able to interact with Professor Miroslav Volf and his Christian theology in a way that was informed and meaningful.

This is absolutely crucial to the Muslim-Christian dialogue.    Rather you are a Muslim who thinks of his or herself as Athari, Ashari, Maturidi you best think long and hard about your theological position and what you understand when you say Allah is One.

 

Allah is One…What?

Allah is One God?   O.K what does that mean?

I am typing with one keyboard, and I have one computer.  I myself am one person.

Yet, the Ashari and the Maturidi would say that I am a composite oneness or a unity. I am composed of parts/components whereas Allah (swt) is not subject is not a unity.

Yet, how true is this upon further investigation, especially when we consider the sifat (the attributes of Allah swt).

Is Allah a unity ( a coming together of …) a Tawheed (again a unity, a coming together of)  a Trinity  ( a three in one coming together of)?

Is Allah one in essence?

Is Allah one in attributes?

Are the attributes identical to the essence or other than the essence or in some static union a mystery as the Ashari assert?

 

Before you read my commentary of the exchange between Professor Volf and Shaikh Habib Ali Jifri I would encourage you to read this article here: 

http://christianthinktank.com/trin2.html

Again I cannot emphasize enough the importance of reading the above link is before continuing in this exchange. You can see just how well-read some of our Christian brothers are on the subject. Even Professor Volf read refutations of the various Trinity doctrines by the illustrious Shaikh Fakhr al-Din al-Razi.

THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN PROFESSOR VOLF AND SHAIKH HABIB ALI JIFRI 

In this section, I will be covering pages 127 to page 148 of the book as well as the exchange between the respected Professor and the respected Shaikh.

Now  I have no reason at all to doubt the encounter as told by Professor Volf. I find him to be humble and sincere.  What is shocking and it should be too many of you is that Habib Ali Jifri really had no frame of reference in dealing with Professor Volf’s theology.

So I would like to share with you the counter (according to Professor Volf) as well as some of the statements Professor Volf puts out there trying to explain the Trinity as he understands it. I will in general quote paragraphs from this section and I will give some thoughts on it as well.  This is not only directed towards our esteemed Habib Ali Al  Jifri but Professor Volf is telling the Christians in general that Muslims have absolutely no clue what our theology is (according to how we understand it).

 

“Do you think that Muslims and Christians worship the same God?”

Sheikh al-Jifri answered without hesitation: “Yes, they do. In the Qur’an it is written: ‘Our God and your God is One.'”

“But Christians believe that God is the Holy Trinity, and Muslims disagree. How do you then still affirm that the two worship the same God?” I pressed him.

He smiled enigmatically and said, “What the archbishop of Canterbury wrote about the Trinity in his response to the ‘Common Word’ was very helpful.”

The archbishop is a great and creative theologian,” I responded to Sheikh al-Jifri, “but he said nothing new in his comment son God as the Holy Trinity.”

“Yes?” he inquired. There was a note of mild surprise and curiosity in his voice. In his lecture at Yale University some six months earlier, Sheikh al-Jifri had stressed that Muslims “do not believe that God, mighty and majestic is He, can be divided.” He seemed to imply, of course, that Christians do. I wanted to reassure him that Christians and Muslims agree on this point.

“After the early centuries of intense debates, Christians have come to affirm what some theologians have described as  ‘the numerical identity of the divine substance,'” I continued knowing full well that the phrase is inexact but wishing to underscore an important and valid point. “For us, the divine ‘three’ are one single and undivided divide essence, not three divine essences next to each other comprising some kind of divine troika.”

I could not read his expression, but I sensed gravity in his manner as he slowly turned to face me, “Miroslav,” he asked, ‘Do you have time after the dinner to discuss this matter with me and my collaborators at the Tabah Foundation?” An immensely learned scholar of Islam and a spiritually attuned man, he knew that we had touched the heart of the matter. Was a way of opening up toward convergence about one of the main issues dividing Muslims and Christians? …

“The oneness of God (tawhid) is the principal at the very heart of Islam. This is the central issue for Muslims disputing with Christian claims about God. The reason is simple: if the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit cannot be understood as one, according to Muslim interpretations of God’s unity, then Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.”

“Consider the Athanasian Creed, one of the most robust Christian statements about God as the Holy Trinity, approved by the great majority of Christian churches and read in many congregations in public worship on Trinity Sunday. At the very beginning, it states plainly: “We worship one God.” But it does not leave it at that. The full first line of the section about God reads: “We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither blending the persons nor dividing the essence.”

 

3.) Objection: God is not one of three divine beings in the Trinity. Response: Again, exactly right. When Christians speak of the three in God, they do not mean “three gods of limited power,” writes the archbishop. The Athanasian Creed makes the same point by saying the divine essence is “not divided.”  To divide the divine essence in any way is to slip into polytheism, which Christians reject.”

My comments: 

The question here for the Christians is not rather or not the divine essence is divided but rather or not it is shared!  Shared between whom or what? What is interesting is that Professor Volf and the vast majority of Christians will negate modalism as a heresy. Modalism is a “heretical view that denies the individual persons of the Trinity.”

 

Professor Volf continues:

“The critical issue in all these objections is this: Do Christians, their explicit statements to the contrary notwithstanding, divide the divine essence in the way they speak about God?  The great medieval Muslim commentator Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1149-1209) thought that Christians did just that. With the doctrine of the Trinity, he said, Christians are “actually affirming the existence of several ‘self-subsisting essences.'” This is, from the Muslim perspective, “pure unbelief,” he insisted. “Pure unbelief” at the heart of the Christian faith! That’s just about as far apart as two religions could be, despite all their similarities. And yet, contrary to al-Razi’s opinion, I suggest that there is an actual agreement on this very issue. “

“Even from the Christian perspective, affirming the existence of multiple self-subsisting divine essences is polytheism and “pure unbelief”.  That is why the Athanasian Creed unambiguously and repeatedly states that “dividing the divine essence” is unacceptable. A basic rule for Christians as they speak about God is this: “Never divide divine essence.” This is the phrase I used in my conversation with Sheikh al-Jifri, and he immediately recognized it as addressing the crux of the tension between Christian and Muslim conceptions of God’s unity.”

 

My comments:

Notice that the Volf says that ‘affirming the existence of multiple self-subsisting divine essences is polytheism’. Yet we have to ask” What about affirming the existence of multiple selves subsisting persons?

Again we see the phrase: ‘dividing the divine essence is unacceptable‘ but sharing the divine essence?

Volf continues:

“Recall the crisply formulated conclusion that Nicholas of Cusa reached after examining Muslim and Jewish critiques of the doctrine of the Trinity: “In the manner in which Arabs [Muslims] and Jews deny the Trinity, assuredly it ought to be denied by all.” The Christian creeds and the great Christian teachers reject dividing the divine essence no less adamantly than do Muslims and Jews. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a preeminent contemporary Muslim scholar, agrees: “The doctrine of the Trinity certainly does not negate Divine Unity in mainstream Christian theology.”

My comments:

First, with due respect to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, he is a Perennialist. His teacher was Frithjof Schuon, another Perennialist.  Their goals and objectives are to try and remove exclusivity of doctrines and in the view of myself and most other Muslims obscure those areas of distinction in our respective theologies.

Secondly, the doctrine of the Trinity may not negate the idea of the Divine being consisting of a team (unity) but it certainly does go against Islamic theology.

Volf continues:

You are simultaneously saying two contradictory things, namely, that the divine essence is undivided  and that the divine ‘Persons’ are distinct.”

“Clearly, it is one thing to reject dividing the essence, and another thing actually to avoid dividing it. So how do Christians actually keep the divine essence undivided? In addition to stating clearly that there is only one “numerically” identical divine essence, they note that the “Persons” are tied and intertwined together in a most intimate manner, more intimate than any relation between creatures could ever be.”

“There are two related ways of understanding this intimate connection between the divine Three who are indivisibly one. Every act of one “Person” is always caused by all three. If this were not the case, then, as Augustine put it, “the Father [would do] some things, the Son others, and the Holy Spirit yet others. And this would be utterly unacceptable, he explicitly states. It would verge on polytheism.”

My comments: 

It is interesting to see Professor Volf put “numerically” and “Person” in quotation marks. So Professor Volf says, “Every act of one “Person is always caused by all three.”   So now a thinking Muslim should also ask Volf and the Christians are this: Is every act done by all three?

If every act is caused by all three is every act done by all three?

Did the Father die for us?

Did the Holy spirit die for us?

Did the Father ‘give’ his Son, in which the Holy Spirit ‘gave’ his Son in which the Son ‘gave’ his Son?

Does Miroslav Volf believe in Patripassianism?   Patripassianism is the idea or belief that the Father suffered along with the Son on the Cross.

This doesn’t sound like a classical Trinity at all!

The following Biblical text refutes Professor Volf’s theological musings.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)

*Note*

Jesus has never had an existence in which he was not the son. At least not in mainstream Christianity.

So how can the son -which is divine shared essence not know when the father which is divine shared essence not know the announcement of the day of judgment?

There is no escape clause by saying, ‘Well he is speaking about his human nature’.  No! That is just you trying to escape from the inescapable proof text.  There never was a time in which Jesus was not divine (according to Christian theology). He has always been the ‘God-Man’.

 

Professor Volf continues:

“The second way to think how the divine “Persons” are tired together is their mutual indwelling or, in technical terminology, perichoresis. Again, as Augustine put it, ‘they are always in each other’ and never “alone”. One divine “Person” is what it is, not simply in virtue of being distinct from others, but in virtue of the presence of the other two “Persons” in it. The Father and the Spirit are always “in” the Son; to be the “Son” is to be indwelled by the Father and the Spirit.”

 

My comments:

First by ‘perichoresis‘ what Professor Volf means is by the following illustration:

 

So let us bring this quote up from Professor Volf: One divine “Person” is what it is, not simply in virtue of being distinct from others, but in virtue of the presence of the other two “Persons” in it.

Let us juxtapose it next to the Athanasian Creedal statement: “We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither blending the persons nor dividing the essence.”

After reading something like this we need to ask some very direct questions.  In what way are the persons distinct?  Is this not Sabellian Trinitarianism? 

 

Professor Volf continues on page 137,

“When it comes to God, the act of one person is always done by all three, because the other two are always “in” the third.”

 

My comments:

Again, in what way are these persons distinct? Thus, far it seems only in appellation ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’ a redundancy.

 

Professor Volf continues:

“For al-Razi the proof that the Christians putatively “affirm one [divine] essence,” but in reality posit three divine “essences” is that “they deem it possible for one of these essences to inhere in the person of Jesus and of Mary.” If Christians truly considered the divine essence to by indivisible, then it could not be that one “Person,” the Word, would have become incarnate in Jesus Christ; rather, all three would have become incarnate. To have the incarnation of just one of the Persons, argues al-Razi, you need more than one divine essence. Incarnation is therefore an irrefutable proof of Christian polytheism.”

 

I would encourage you the reader to see this entry here: https://primaquran.wordpress.com/2019/05/11/does-the-biblical-text-assert-two-incarnations/

 

Professor Volf actually proves al-Razi’s point when he (Volf) says,

“Though only one Person is incarnate, all three Persons are present and act in that one Person who became incarnate.”

 

My comments: 

If that is not a contradiction than certainly there is no such thing as a contradiction!

This is why Allah (swt) says,

“O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three”; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs.”  (Qur’an 4:171)

The Creator knows best about his essence and attributes.  So when the Creator says, ‘Do not say, ‘Three” desist -it is better for you.’   The proof is in the pudding.   Even the most learned of Christian scholars like Professor Volf when they begin to unpack their beliefs they will end up falling into modalism, sabellianism, patripassionism, and or outright polytheism.

 

Certain Trinitarian Christians may think they are playing some clever balancing act between polytheism and modalism when in reality they are not.

 

Professor Volf on pages 139-142 really begins to express his frustration in Christian theological terminology.

Professor Volf says,

“To avoid confusion over precisely that issue, many theologians counsel against the use of the word “Person” to refer to one of the three in God. We might be able to put it this way. Christian tradition uses the word “Person” not because it expresses exactly what Christians believe, but because there is no word more adequate to speak of the three in God. So we use the word, knowing we must mentally adjust its meaning when it refers to God.”

God is uncreated and infinite. Therefore God is inexpressible, beyond our concepts, beyond our language.”    “The very reality of God is such that God always remains inconceivable, a mystery that can never be properly named or puzzled out.”   “And yet we speak of God-guided by God’s self-revelation. We have true knowledge of God, but we are capable of understanding much better what the divine Mystery is not than what that Mystery is. Important strands in all three Abrahamic faiths agree on this.”

 

My comments: 

If Professor Volf truly believed that God was infinite why does he believe that the infinite could incarnate into the finite?

The Creator gives us revelation in a language comprehensible to us. The ability to understand abstract concepts.  All of this so that we can have a cogent and proper theology!

Do Christians believe that God is the creator of both space/time is Created by the divine?

Do Christians believe that God is omnipresent?  In all things and/or identical to all things?

These are interesting statements coming from Professor Volf, a Christian who often tell us that they know God?

Contrast the statements of Professor Volf with the following statements that are attributed to Christ Jesus.

“You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (John 4:22)

“Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you (the only true God) have sent.” (John 17:3)

 

Alas! Professor Volf is saying that:  “The very reality of God is such that God always remains inconceivable, a mystery that can never be properly named or puzzled out.”

Yet, if this is the case why is Professor Volf even speculating on that very nature and reality with doctrinal creeds devised by men?

“And they worship Me in vain, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.'” (Mark 7:7)

He only orders you to evil and immorality and to say about Allah what you do not know. And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?” (Qur’an 2:169-170)  

 

Professor Volf continues:

“Recall the argument of Nicholas of Cusa that God is not just beyond concepts, but also beyond numbers. “One” and “three” do not apply to God the way they apply to human beings or to any other things in the world.”

“God is not one thing among many things in the universe, not even one supremely important thing without which none of the other things could exist. Instead, God is unique and categorically different from the world. We always go wrong when we employ numbers with regard to God the way we employ them with regard to created things.”

“Yet you can’t remove math from God entirely. To say that there is one undivided divine essence excludes, for instance, the option that there are eighteen gods, the number of Titans in the Greek pantheon. But “one” does not mean that, instead of there being eighteen gods, there is only one god belonging to the same category as all eighteen would if they existed.”

“Then we would be reducing the one true God to an idol–a unique idol, but an idol nonetheless–because God would still be one “entity” in the world. Monotheism would be then indistinguishable from idolatry. Instead, to affirm that there is one God means that there is only one, unique, and incomparable divine being, on a different plane of existence from everything that is not God.”

Consider, now, the “three” in God. To say that there are three “Persons” in the Trinity excludes, for instance, the option that there are twelve, the number of Olympians in the Greek pantheon. It excludes also the option that there is only one. But it does not say that, instead of there being either twelve or one distinct and separate individual essences in God, there are exactly three such individual essences, for, in fact, there are no individual essences in God.”

 

My comments: 

There is much to be said about the above statements.
Professor Volf says:  “
We always go wrong when we employ numbers with regard to God the way we employ them with regard to created things …”

And do not say, “Three”; desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God.”  (Qur’an 4:171)

Professor Volf says: Instead, to affirm that there is one God means that there is only one, unique, and incomparable divine being, on a different plane of existence from everything that is not God.”

That dear Professor is Islam!

Professor Volf says,

“But it does not say that, instead of there being either twelve or one distinct and separate individual essences in God, there are exactly three such individual essences, for, in fact, there are no individual essences in God.”

Subhan’Allah!  Look at the above statement from Professor Volf and remember what  al Razi said:

“For al-Razi the proof that the Christians putatively “affirm one [divine] essence,” but in reality posit three divine “essences” is that “they deem it possible for one of these essences to inhere in the person of Jesus and of Mary.” If Christians truly considered the divine essence to by indivisible, then it could not be that one “Person,” the Word, would have become incarnate in Jesus Christ; rather, all three would have become incarnate. To have the incarnation of just one of the Persons, argues al-Razi, you need more than one divine essence. Incarnation is therefore an irrefutable proof of Christian polytheism.”

Also, keep in mind this is THE KEY ISSUE, that for Christians (or at least this particular Christian) the essence of God is not one!

 

Professor Volf continues:

“My purpose is more modest: to demonstrate that the rejections of the “Trinity” in the Qur’an do not refer to normative Christian understanding of God’s three-ness and that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity doe snot call into question God’s oneness as expressed in Muslims’ most basic belief that there is “no god but God.”  What the Qur’an may be targeting is misconceptions about God’s nature held by misguided Christians.”

 

My comments: 

First who or what are ‘misguided‘ Christians is a matter of debate even among Christians themselves! Just as we Muslims have such debates and intra-faith disputes.  It is also important to note that the Qur’an nowhere, ever attempts to define what ‘The Trinity’ is.   This is simply because there is no such thing as ‘The Trinity’.   In reality, there are various concepts of Trinity, and Allah (swt) admonished the Christians not to say Three! That it would be better for them!

The Qur’an also states:

Indeed, the truth is denied by those who say, “Behold, Allah is the third of a Three” – seeing that there is no deity whatever save the One Allah. And unless they desist from this their assertion, grievous suffering is bound to befall such of them as are bent on denying the truth.” (Qur’an 5:73)

God is the third of a Three?

Look at the diagram below:

God is the Father (The Third of Three Persons 3/3)

God is the Holy Spirit (The Third of Three Persons 3/3)

God is the Son (The Third of Three Persons 3/3)


If What Christians are telling us about the divine is factual than according to them God has never been the first of three, or the second of three. If the three persons are always co-eternal, co-substantial,   and co-equal, God would always be the third of three.

He only orders you to evil and immorality and to say about Allah what you do not know. And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?” (Qur’an 2:169-170)

With Allah is the success!

 

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