A few months back, the Trinity Channel hosted a debate between Dr. Tony Costa and Ijaz Ahmad on the question, “Was Jesus the Son of God or Only the Prophet of God?”, making this the latest in a long line of Christian-Muslim debates on Christology, and the first to feature Ijaz going against Dr. Costa. For those who haven’t seen it yet, you can view it here.

Listening to this debate, I found that it was interesting, but I found that there were many theological and historical issues that were raised that point to some confusion as to certain aspects of Christian theology, as well as the historical background behind that theology. In this review, I hope to look at some of those issues, and look at some of the things that perhaps should have been said but weren’t.

Theological Issues

To begin with, I am very appreciative of the fact that Dr. Costa was clear in his explanation of what the historic orthodox Christian doctrine of God is. Some misunderstandings came up during the course of the debate (such as the definitions of terms such as “Nestorianism”), but Costa was more than able to explain how the accusation of Nestorianism does not really hold, and that his presentation is consistent with the Christology that was promulgated at the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon.

That being said, one of the major issues that needs to be addressed early on is Ijaz’s appeal to “logic” and “rationality.” He appears to take it for granted that what regards as “rational” according to his Islamic worldview would be shared by his audience. It is naïve to think that Christians would find what he regards as rational to be rational according to our worldview (and conversely, we wouldn’t expect him to see the rationality of Dr. Costa’s argumentation for Christian theology, either). The simple reason for this is that we have different starting presuppositions, and the fact that we have different presuppositions means our perceptions regarding what is and isn’t rationality will be different. In this light, Ijaz’s logical appeals appear to be little more than rhetorical flourish, which would no doubt enforce the views of the already convinced, but do little to persuade the more skeptical.

Ijaz also points to the fact that Christians tend to sometimes be confused among themselves on areas of theology. Now, how could this be, when Jesus promised to guide Christians into all truth (John 16:13)? The simple answer to this is that this claim fundamentally misunderstands how the work of the Spirit is conceived in Christian theology. The work of the Holy Spirit doesn’t bring about perfect knowledge instantaneously. His work is a gradual process, both at an individual and communal level. This is what is known as Progressive Sanctification, which is derived from passages such as 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Philippians 2:13. In the area of theology, it is true that individual Christians don’t always understand what the Biblical view of God is, and this occasionally manifests itself in the form of heretical sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But these are the outliers. By and large, all of Christendom has a fairly uniform consensus as to what constitutes an orthodox Christian doctrine of God, as exemplified by the Nicene Creed (which is affirmed by all major Christian denominations). Such an impressive degree of unanimity surely demonstrates that this claim of confusion is blown way out of proportion.

Apart from that, I have to just wonder at some of the interpretations of biblical passages that are cited during the debate. For example, Matthew 26:39 is cited as an example of Jesus having a will that is in opposition to the Father’s, despite the verse very clearly stating that Jesus is in complete submission to the Father’s will. How Ijaz managed to extract the complete opposite meaning from what the verse actually says is a mystery. But this is not the only example of such misinterpretation. Another one concerns Matthew 27:46, which is construed as Jesus feeling that he has been forsaken by God. What is ignored is the fact that this is a quotation of Psalm 22, which is a Davidic Psalm which begins with a complaint about enemies persecuting the Psalmist (in language that closely parallels the experience of Jesus on the cross), but ends with the vindication of the one persecuted. By quoting the beginning of the Psalm, Jesus is invoking the final vindication that is also found in the Psalm. James White says it best in his note on Matthew 27:46:

The words of Jesus at Matthew 27:46 have come in for many kinds of interpretation. Unfortunately, many of the theories have compromised the Bible’s teachings on the nature of the relationship between the Father and the Son. The Father was never separated from or abandoned the Son. This truth is clear from many sources. Jesus uses the second person when speaking to the Father (“why have You forsaken?” not “why did He forsake Me?”) as if the Father is no longer present. Immediately on the heels of this statement Jesus speaks to the Father (“Father, into your hands…”) showing no sense of separation. Whatever else Jesus was saying, He was not saying that, at the very time of His ultimate obedience to the Father, that there the Father abandoned Him. Rather, it seems much more logical to see this as a quotation of Psalm 22 that is meant to call to mind all of that Psalm, which would include the victory of v. 19ff, as well as verse 24 which states, “For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”[1]

Having taken care of these misunderstandings, we can see that the Christian case hasn’t at all been assailed in the issues that are raised. Having looked at the theological and exegetical aspects of the debate, we now move on to the historical aspects.

Historical Issues

Over the course of the debate, various issues pertaining to the history of Christianity and the New Testament also came up. These have to do with the eyewitness quality of the New Testament, the transmission of its text, and canonization. Comparisons between early Christianity and Greco-Roman Paganism are also touched on, as well as a brief excursion into early Islamic history vis-à-vis the conversion of Christian Arabs to Islam.

Regarding the New Testament, Dr. Costa makes the point that the New Testament is the best resource that we have for learning about the historical Jesus, and even liberal scholars acknowledge this fact. By contrast, nobody ever looks to the Qur’an to find out what Jesus said and did, and that it is historically worthless for the purpose of historical Jesus studies. This, I believe, is one of the most germane historical issues to come up in the debate, and one that Ijaz never successfully rebuts. At no point in the debate does he adduce any first century evidence for the Islamic version of Jesus. He merely attempts to argue that the New Testament cannot be regarded as a first century eyewitness because all extant manuscripts that we have of the New Testament are from the second century and later. But this is a moot point since 1) we know for a fact that these documents were composed in the first century, and 2) the New Testament documents as they come down to us reflect these originals, with variations being on matters that only touch upon minute details that do not change the story or teachings of the text. As Frederic Kenyon once wrote regarding the manuscript evidence:

The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.[2]

The only way that this attempt at a rebuttal would hold is if one posits massive corruption taking place in the century or so between the writing of the autographs and our earliest extant manuscripts—an argument that I am sure Ijaz is smart enough not to make, even if other Muslims might.

And on the topic of the transmission of the text of the New Testament, Ijaz does make some rather puzzling remarks, such as the claim that patristic quotations of the NT are worthless in establishing NT text. This is despite the fact that the UBS/Nestle-Aland text lists patristic quotations right alongside manuscript witnesses, and despite the fact that Bruce Metzger, one of the greatest scholars in textual criticism, regards the early church fathers as valuable witnesses for the New Testament text, as evidenced in his extensive citation of them in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. He demonstrates the importance of comparing manuscript evidence with patristic citations in this quote:

Today, it is possible to identify the type of text preserved in New Testament manuscripts by comparing their characteristic readings with the quotations of those passages in the writings of Church Fathers who lived in or near the chief ecclesiastical centers.[3]

New Testament scholar Daniel Wallace concurs with Metzger. He writes:

The ancient church fathers quoted so often from the New Testament that it would be possible to reconstruct almost the entire New Testament from their writings alone. All told, there are more the one million quotations of the New Testament in their writings. They date as early as the first century and continue through the thirteenth century, so they’re extremely valuable for determining the wording of the New Testament text.[4]

These are hardly the words of people who regard the Church Fathers as useless for determining the text of the New Testament. By making such a claim, Ijaz shows how out of touch he is with the opinions of those who actually study textual criticism.

But this is not the last of the inaccurate assertions over the course the debate. Ijaz’s attempt to characterize Christianity as being the result of syncretism with Greco-Roman religion is also problematic for the main reason that it is based on outdated ideas regarding the history of Christian thought, and ignores more recent scholarship that emphasizes how thoroughly Jewish most of the core tenets of the Christian faith are.[5]  Belief in the resurrection of Christ, for example, is predicated on the Jewish belief in the final resurrection of the dead. Such a belief was incomprehensible to the Greeks, who had no such concept in their thinking.[6] This is seen in their reaction to Paul’s preaching of the Resurrection in Acts 17:18, who regarded it as mere “babbling.”

The same is true of the divinity of Christ, which was already apparent as early as the mid-first century, before Christianity spread to the rest of the Roman world, and could be traced directly back to Jesus’ teachings. As Darrell Bock explains:

This belief comes very early in the movement, a point that cannot be doubted. Our historical sources date these ideas to the mid-first century as they contend that they reflect what Jesus taught (Marhsall 1976). Evidence that Jesus taught such things is found especially in the community’s earliest innovative worship practices. They proclaim Jesus Christ, the Savior, to be worthy of worship. They affirm such worship through the Lord’s Supper, hymns, and theological summaries. These elements of worship and the teaching summaries that affirmed them are important historical pieces of evidence for how the core tradition was taught and passed on.[7]

Also, the supposed similarities between Christianity and Paganism that are cited by most skeptics include ideas that even Muslims accept, such as the virgin birth of Christ, as well as some of His miracles (the conspiracy film Zeitgeist is a good example of this). Is Ijaz prepared to reject even these ideas on the basis of his syncretism argument? I wouldn’t think so, so why does he expect us to reject the Incarnation on the same basis?

Now, Ijaz does point to Justin Martyr as a purported witness for the syncretic nature of Christianity. Regarding this, two points need to be made: 1) Justin Martyr is just one voice among many in the conversation between Early Christianity and Paganism. The fact that he said what he did does not mean that his views were unanimously held or even widespread. Contrast his view with that of Tertullian, for example, who completely rejected any links between Christianity and Greek thought of any kind, going so far as to say, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”[8] 2) His use Justin ignores the reason why he made the arguments that he did. He was a converted Platonist. His apologetics were attempts to make Christianity appear more palatable to those who were versed in the ideas of Hellenistic philosophers (he also did occasionally interact with Jews, but that was largely a side-arena). It shouldn’t be surprising if Justin exaggerated the similarities between the two in order to win over audiences.

Finally, I would like to note that Ijaz’s inaccurate historical arguments extend not just to Christian history but Islamic history as well, especially when he speaks of early Christian conversions to Islam. The Banu Tanukh are one example. Ijaz would have the audience that the Arab Christians of the Tanukh tribe were persuaded to convert to Islam due to certain affinities that it had with their beliefs. But history tells a different story. As Robert Hoyland points out:

[B]y the time of the caliph Mahdi (159-69/775-85) the question [of whether Arab Christians under Islamic rule may remain Christian] was no longer up for debate. The Christian Arab tribe of Tanukh was given the stark choice of conversion or death, as is recorded in a local inscription: ‘In the year 1091 {780} the commander of the faithful came . . . and ordered that the churches be torn down and that the Tanukh become Muslims (nhaggrûn).’[9]

The same can be said of the Banu Taghliub (who are not mentioned in this specific debate but has been mentioned by Ijaz elsewhere). As late as the time of the Caliph Walid (705-715), the Muslims were still attempting to persuade them to convert from Christianity to Islam.  It is reported that Walid sent a message to one Sham’Allah, a chief of this tribe, telling him: “While you are a chief of the Arabs, you shame them all by worshipping the cross.”[10] They did not convert to Islam in any significant numbers until during the Abbasid period (750 and later) in order to gain political power, and even then it happened gradually.[11]

Though one can multiply examples, it is clear from the extant records that it was not the majesty of Islam but political and military pressures that caused many of the Arab Christians to eventually convert to Islam. Moreover, it is equally clear that most of these conversions took place not during the time of Muhammad or of the Rashidun caliphs but during the reign of the Umayyads and Abbasids.

Conclusion

To conclude, this debate has been interesting, and a few new ideas have been put forward that have not previously come up in Christian-Muslim debate. But overall, the debate could hardly be considered innovative or ground-breaking, and many of the inaccurate analyses of the evidence that were made during the course of the debate have resulted in more heat than light. Plus, as I have pointed out above, there were many places where assertions were made that were just factually incorrect. Hopefully though, this review would have provided some of that much-needed clarification, and is a step towards taking the discussion that took place during the course of the debate and leading it to a more positive direction.

Footnotes

[1] James R. White, The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1998), 217.

[2] Cited in F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), 20.

[3] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994),4-5.

[4] Quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 83. Emphasis Added.

[5] The main work on this topic is Ronald Nash’s The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), which is a text that I highly recommend anyone studying Christian origins to have.

[6] Darrell L. Bock, The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 148-150.

[7] Ibid., 207-208.

[8] Tertullian, “Prescription Against Heretics,” New Advent (Accessed 06 November 2015) http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0311.htm

[9] Robert G. Hoyland, Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the coming of Islam (New York: Routledge, 2001), 246.

[10] Ibid.

[11] M. Lecker, “Tag̲h̲lib b. Wāʾilm” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, ed. P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs (Brill Online, 2015), Accessed 16 November 2015, http://referenceworks.brillonline.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/taghlib-b-wail-SIM_7298

Bibliography

Bock, Darrell L. The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006.

Bruce, F. F. Bruce. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980.

Hoyland, Robert G. Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the coming of Islam. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Komozsewski, J. Ed, M. James Sawyer and Daniel Wallace. Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. Kregel Publications, 2006.

Lecker, M. “Tag̲h̲lib b. Wāʾil.” Encyclopaedia of Islam. Second Edition. Edited by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Brill Online, 2015. Accessed 16 November, 2015. http://referenceworks.brillonline.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/entries/encyclopaedia-of-islam-2/taghlib-b-wail-SIM_7298

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed.). Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994.

Strobel Lee. The Case for the Real Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007.

Tertullian. “Prescription Against Heretics.” New Advent. Accessed 06 November 2015. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0311.htm

White, James R. The Forgotten Trinity: Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1998

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