How the Church became Aware that God is Triune
The Messiah Jesus, the Son of Mary, was a messenger of Allah and his Word, which he breathed into Mary, and a Spirit from him. So believe in Allah and his messengers. And say not ‘Three’! It is better for you to desist. Truly Allah is only One. Surah 4:171
It was less than four centuries ago that the world first began to accept that the earth was a globe and that it was moving around the sun. Before that it had been universally believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe and that the heavens were circling it every twenty-four hours. There appeared to be no reason to doubt what was obvious to everyone. No one felt the earth moving and, as people watched the sun and moon rise and set daily with all the stars, it seemed obvious that Ptolemy was right – the earth was at the centre of a universe revolving around it.
After much original research, the great sixteenth-century astronomer Copernicus, however, came to the conclusion that the sun was at the centre of the universe and that all the planets including the earth were circling it. The apparent revolution of the visible universe around the earth, in his view, had to be rejected in favour of what might not have appeared to be true, but to him obviously was, and that is that the earth was rotating on its own axis every twenty-four hours and that the apparent revolution of the universe around the earth was simply a gross optical illusion.
Copernicus dared not publish his theses during his lifetime, knowing he would meet with strong opposition from the Church of his day if he did. He only published them from his death-bed. Galileo, who followed him a century later, was bolder than Copernicus and publicly claimed that the earth was rotating on its own axis and moving around the sun. He experienced exactly what Copernicus had feared – relentless persecution from the Church – and under intolerable pressure and threats from the Vatican he relented and renounced his views.
Within another century, however, the Catholic Church accepted the findings of modern science and today the theories put forward by Copernicus and Galileo are universally accepted. But, in their day, they appeared to be going against all good common sense and everyone’s natural perceptions. No one felt the earth moving under him, the sun visibly moved across the sky until it set, and so did the moon and stars in their normal courses. The suggestion that the truth was very different and that it went against common sense, was difficult to swallow, but it wasn’t too long before the unchallengeable evidences of the growing astronomical science had to be accepted and acknowledged. The universe is not moving in the way it seems or appears to be.
Many centuries earlier the emerging Christian Church was facing a similar challenge. The nation of Israel had, for many centuries, believed that there was only one God in contrast to the polytheism of the nations around about it. The Romans believed in a multiplicity of gods as did the Greeks. Polytheism was the order of the day, and the Jewish belief in one supreme God stood strikingly apart from the general religious consensus. Israel believed otherwise because God had spoken to the nation through its patriarchs and prophets over many centuries. To Moses God said ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:2-3). To Isaiah God said: ‘I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to graven images’ (Isaiah 42:8), and: ‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god’ (Isaiah 44:6).
To this day all Jews and Muslims agree with these statements. God is only one – he cannot be otherwise. There cannot be two or more gods in such a singular universe as ours. Many deists and other believers in only one Supreme Being have felt the same way. God is one, and can only be one in every possible way.
The early church was faced with a challenge. The Gentiles who had believed the Gospel of Jesus had also come to believe in the God of Israel who had sent Jesus into the world. Yet they were faced with a massive test – the Jewish apostles who had brought the Gospel to them had proclaimed that Jesus is Lord of all and that the Holy Spirit is the divine agent of the Father in heaven who regenerates and indwells all those who come to him through faith in his Son. What exactly was the relationship between them?
The challenge really only hit Christian theologians like Athanasius and other 4th century bishops when Arius and his followers offered their own alternative definition of this relationship. In the intervening centuries the expanding Christian Church had, without ever trying to define its beliefs, freely accepted that all new believers should be baptised in the single name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit pursuant to the Son of God’s own declaration to this effect (Matthew 28:19). In the 2nd century Justin Martyr had freely spoken of the Father, Son and Spirit in interchangeable terms. When the time came for this principle to be defined and determined by the Church in opposition to the unitarian definition being proposed by the Arians, the Church wrestled with the subject for many decades before it fully defined its position.
The Church knew that God is One, but it also knew, from an exhaustive study of the Christian scriptures it had inherited from the very apostles of Jesus himself, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were all divine personalities, deeply inter-related to each other, and co-existent in perfect harmony in terms of their characters, wills and personalities. The 4th century Church defined the God of the Christian faith in the only way the New Testament scriptures could allow him to be properly defined: one God in three persons, an absolute Trinity.
Jesus said: ‘I and the Father are One’ (John 10:30). He spoke of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth ‘whom I shall send to you from the Father’ (John 15:26). Paul addressed the early Corinthian church as follows: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all’ (2 Corinthians 13:14). The same Paul said of Jesus in another letter: ‘through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father’ (Ephesians 2:18). Statements like these, which saturate the writings of the New Testament, convinced the Church that God was indeed One and had never been other than One, but that his oneness was more complex than the Jews had ever thought or known it to be. Jesus had revealed that, within his absolute divine unity, God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three distinct persons, and had been so from all eternity.
The Church is to be commended for working out that the nature of the one Supreme Being was more complex than common sense might suggest it to be. To monotheists the unitarian oneness of God appeared to be as obvious as the static earth was until dissenters like Copernicus and Galileo proved it to be otherwise. The Church likewise discovered that the unity of God was not what it naturally appeared to be, and it realised that God is actually triune and has been so from all eternity. It was only when his Son Jesus came into the world and broke down the barriers between the holy God of the universe and unholy men on earth that the triune God could be known within his divine fullness. And the Church discerned this truth about God no less than thirteen centuries before scientists discovered that the earth is going around the sun.
Copernicus and Galileo challenged humankind to realise that the truth about the earth was not what common sense had made everyone think it was before its real place in the solar system was discovered. In the same way the Church knew, from what Jesus had taught and revealed, that the one Supreme Being was not the unitarian God that most people would, through the same common sense, take him to be. The Church discerned, from a greater revelation it had received, that God is indeed one, but only in essence and in the very character of his being. Within that unity dwell three distinct personalities, and it set about defining that relationship as definitively as it could. And it did so with great precision and accuracy: the three major divisions of the Church (Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox) have never had to redefine the Church’s doctrine in the seventeen centuries that have followed since the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople. Only the Eastern Church has diverged from the Church’s original position in any way – it came to believe that the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son in contrast to the other two major movements which have always held that both the Son and the Spirit proceed solely from the Father.
In every other respect the universal Church has unflinchingly held to the only doctrine of God it could possibly have accurately derived from its original scriptures – God himself is One, but is threefold in the personalities of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that relationship has been the same from all eternity and will continue to be so for all eternity. By the end of the 4th century that definition of the triune God had been settled, and all others had been eliminated. By the 6th century nothing had changed – the issue had been fully and finally determined.
The Quranic Threesome: Jesus, his Mother and Allah
How does the Qur’an respond to the Christian doctrine of the triune God? How does it handle the history of the establishment of this doctrine from the time of its revelation to the time of its own compilation in the 7th century after Christ? It actually says very little about it. It spends far more time denouncing the Arian belief that God had taken to himself a son than it does dealing with the Christian doctrine of three persons in one divine being, the triune God.
The Qur’an says: Wa laa taqulu thalathah – ‘And say not “Three”!,’ going on to say: ‘It is better for you to desist. Truly Allah is only one. Glorified is he from having a son’ (Surah 4:171). Here the Qur’an clearly denies a supposed Christian ‘threesome’, but it does not remotely mention or deal with the well-defined Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It just appeals to Christians not to speak of three gods – Allah is only one, it declares, not three. The Arabic word thalathah means no more than the number ‘three.’
There is only one other section in the Qur’an where this subject is dealt with. It begins: ‘They speak blasphemy who say of Allah that he is the Messiah son of Mary. For the Messiah said: “O People of Israel, serve Allah, my Lord and your Lord”’ (Surah 5:75). This charge is obviously laid at the feet of Christians, but there have never been any Christians within the three mainstream branches of the Church who have believed in a unitarian God who happens to be Jesus, the Son of Mary. This text misrepresents Christian beliefs, but it is the only one in the Qur’an that actually gets close to who the Christian scriptures proclaim Jesus to be: eternally divine within the one Supreme Being.
The next verse reads: ‘They speak blasphemy who say of Allah that he is the third of three.’ Once again there is no mention of a trinity here, only a charge that Christians blaspheme who say that Allah is the third of three (thalithu thalathah). The Qur’an immediately responds that ‘There is no god but the one God’ (Surah 5:76). The other two of whom the Qur’an speaks must therefore be two other gods distinct from Allah who, significantly, is only believed to be the ‘third’ of the threesome of which it speaks. Who might the first and second gods in this text be?
The Qur’an proceeds to define them very clearly. It immediately responds: ‘The Messiah son of Mary was only a messenger. Other messengers like him had passed away beforehand. And his mother was a faithful woman. They both used to eat food’ (Surah 5:78). The essence of the response is easy to follow – Jesus was only a human messenger and his mother Mary was only a faithful human being as well. To sustain themselves from day to day they had to regularly replenish themselves with food. So how could they be two gods besides Allah when they could only continue their temporary human lives by regularly nourishing themselves? Allah is self-subsistent – they most certainly were not.
Muslim scholars and writers have been at pains to avoid this obvious implication – that Jesus and his mother Mary are the two other gods besides Allah (who is only the ‘third’ of the threesome). To admit this is to admit that the Qur’an has completely distorted the (by then) well-established Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Instead of recognising it for what it was clearly defined to be, one supreme divine being who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it has twisted it into a threefold polytheism of Jesus, Mary and Allah – in that order.
To avoid this conclusion Muslims have resorted to various and, at times, tortured arguments to try and make out that Jesus and Mary are not the other two gods referred to, but the only conclusion that can be drawn from a forthright and honest interpretation of the text is that this is exactly what the Qur’an is alleging: that the ‘three’ (thalathah) are the Messiah, his mother and Allah. In earlier centuries some of the most famous Islamic commentators on the Qur’an (including Jalalu’din, Yahya and Zamakhshari) had no doubt that this passage taught unambiguously that the Christians believed in a threesome of Jesus, Mary and Allah.
This is confirmed in another passage from the same chapter only forty-one verses further on which begins: ‘And when Allah will say, “O Jesus son of Mary, did you say to mankind: Take me and my mother as gods apart from Allah?”’ (Surah 5:119). In reply Jesus, speaking as a loyal servant and prophet of Islam, rigorously denies this, saying that Allah knew his mind and that he only commanded them to serve Allah, his Lord and theirs. The question that arises, however, is why Allah would want to ask him if he had ordered his hearers to take him and his mother Mary as two other gods in addition to Allah.
The only viable answer comes from the previous verse we considered – his followers (the Qur’an alleges) blasphemously say of Allah that he is the third of three gods, with Jesus and his mother being the other two. So, Allah will ask Jesus, ‘did you teach them this, to believe that I am the third of three and that you and your mother are the other two gods in this threesome?’ The Qur’an is very clear on this: there are those who say that Allah is the third of three different gods, but Jesus and his mother Mary cannot be taken as gods from the heavens seeing they were both humans who had to eat food simply to sustain their temporary earthly lives. And because there are those who allege this threesome, Allah will ask Jesus himself whether they got this from him – that he and his mother are two gods apart from Allah (the third).
This is the plain and obvious meaning of the texts we have considered. It begs another question, however. Why would the Qur’an confuse the Christian Trinity so badly and mistake Jesus, Mary and Allah as the three persons whom Christians identify in this ‘threesome’? In Muhammad’s time there were no Christians anywhere who believed in a polytheistic triad, a happy family of God the Father, Mary the Mother, and Jesus the Son. It has been thought for a long time that the excessive veneration of Mary in some Christian circles as the theotokos (mother of God) or as a divine person in her own right was the cause of the Quranic error in wrongly defining the Christian Trinity, but there is another potential source of this misrepresentation, and when it is analysed, the evidences are overwhelming and convincing.
We have already seen how dependent the Qur’an was on various Gnostic texts for its misunderstanding about Jesus being the generated or created Son of God, and it will not surprise us to find that those same texts are the most likely source of the Quranic tritheism of Jesus, Mary and Allah.
The Gnostic Triad: the Father, Mother and Son
The Gnostics believed that there is a divine source of all things and they named it ‘The One.’ They did not believe that he was a personal God and, while he still existed in his singular all-sufficiency, he was never more to them than ‘The One.’ The Apocryphon of John was the foundational text of the Gnostic movement – it was pre-eminent among Gnostics as their basic text-book defining the origin of the cosmos, the plurality of heavenly beings that fill the higher pleroma, and the multitudes of other creatures who fill the lower order, especially the living creatures that inhabit the surface of this planet.
The Apocryphon says of the Gnostic deity, the source of all things, ‘The One is a sovereign that has nothing over it.’ It goes on to say, ‘The One is the Invisible Spirit. We should not think of it as a god or like a god. For it is greater than a god, because it has nothing over it and no lord above it.’ The text continues: ‘It is eternal, since it does not need anything. For it is absolutely complete. It has never lacked anything in order to be completed by it. Rather, it is always absolutely complete in light’ (NHS, p.108). Only excerpts can be given here (the original passage is very extensive) of how the Apocryphon defines The One before reflections of his being separated from him and became the aeons that fill the heavenly realms, the Gnostic pleroma.
The text continues: ‘The One is illimitable, since there is nothing before it to limit it, unfathomable, since there is nothing before to fathom it, immeasurable, since there was nothing before to measure it, invisible, since nothing has seen it, eternal, since it exists eternally, unutterable, since nothing could comprehend it to utter it, unnameable, since there is nothing before it to give it a name’ (NHS, p.108-109). Up to this point, this could just as easily be a definition of Allah, the supreme, unknowable, inimitable God of Islam, detached from everything in the created order below him.
But then this eternal, absolute, incomparable deity suddenly changed. He saw his own image before him in a spring of the Spirit. When he beheld a reflection of his image in the eternal luminous water before him, he reflected on it, and his image became a reality. She appeared in his presence, and she became an independent being and his female counterpart. Her name is Barbelo, and ‘She is the first Thought, the Image of the Spirit. She became the universal womb, for she precedes everything’ (NHS, p.110). The Gnostic deity had split into two different beings, and he, the All-in-All, henceforth became known as the Father (a title the Gnostics borrowed from the growing Christian community in their midst) while his female reflection of himself became the Mother.
But then, a most unusual event occurred. ‘The Father gazed into Barbelo, with the pure light surrounding the Invisible Spirit, and his radiance. Barbelo conceived from him, and he produced a spark of light similar to the blessed light, but not as great. This was the only Child of the Mother-Father that had come forth, the only offspring, the only Child of the Father, the pure light’ (NHS, p.111). The text draws towards a conclusion with these words: ‘The holy Spirit brought the divine Self-Generated Child of himself and Barbelo to perfection, so that the Child might stand before the great Invisible Virgin Spirit as the divine Self-Generated, the anointed, who honoured the Spirit with loud acclaim’ (NHS, p.112).
The Child was none other than the Son of the great eternal Father and his Mother, Barbelo. He became the Christ, and indwelt Jesus during his life and public ministry. The text adds: ‘The twelve aeons belong to the Child, the Self-Generated, and everything was established by the will of the holy Spirit through the Self-Generated’ (NHS, p.113).
There are a number of identifications here that help us to understand not only how Gnosticism responded to the growing impact of the Christian mission, but also how the Qur’an responded to the Christian faith many centuries later. Although The One reminds one so much of the Allah of the Qur’an before he produces a reflection of himself, it is the result of this activity that changes the picture completely. The Father and the Mother, Barbelo, produce an offspring, the Child (more correctly, the Son), who took over the man Jesus. It is this unfolding revelation that makes the Gnostic deity more identifiable with the Christian God which was part of the Gnostic intention not to distance itself too far from the growing Christian faith. He became the Father, which parallels the uniqueness of the Christian Father, the first person of the triune God. He begets and conceives a Son who possessed and took over the man Jesus, an activity which takes place by the work of the Holy Spirit. So far, so good – this sounds similar to the Christian position in its unfolding revelation save especially for the suggestion, adopted by the Arians, that the Father created the Son and conceived him at some point in time.
But that is as far as the likenesses go. The Spirit here is purely an agent, the key figures are the Father, Mother (Barbelo) and the Child (the Son, Jesus). Even though the doctrine of the Trinity would only be fully defined about two centuries later (the Apocryphon of John dates to about 180 – Irenaeus mentioned it), the Gnostics were well aware of the triune Christian deity, but redefined it as the Father (the eternal Source of all things), the Mother and the Son (a reflection and pro-creation respectively which took place sometime later).
Hereafter the Gnostic triad of the eternal Father, reflected Mother and generated Son, are regularly mentioned in the corpus of Gnostic literature. The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit says that: ‘Three powers came forth from the Great Invisible Spirit: the Father, the Mother, and the Child. They came from the living silence of the incorruptible Father, from the silence of the unknown Father’ (NHS, p.253). The eternal, The One, is the original Gnostic All-in-All who became the Father when he was accompanied by the Mother Barbelo who was a reflection of him, and their Son whom they procreated. These three alone form the Gnostic eternal Triad – all other subsequent heavenly offspring, reflections and aeons are creations of a lower order of beings.
The Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit then goes into some detail to define the Father, the Mother and her Son, and says: ‘These are the three powers or three realms of Eight that the Father (the original All-in-All) brought forth from within through forethought’ (NHS, p.254). The Three Forms of First Thought also speaks of the divine Triad that ‘exists as three abiding entities: the Father, the Mother and the Child.’ The text then quotes Barbelo, the Mother, as saying ‘through me all took shape. I am the Mother, and the light that she appointed as a virgin’ (NHS, p.723).
Following this comes her offspring, the Christ, the Child, the anointed one, who took over the man Jesus. He is the ‘perfect Son’ who revealed himself to the heavenly aeons who ‘originated through him,’ the perfect Son, the Christ (NHS, p.724). The Apocryphon also talks of ‘the three, Father, Mother, Child, perfect power’ (NHS, p.114).
All these texts tell us exactly where the Qur’an got the idea that Christians worship three gods, Jesus, Mary and Allah. The Gnostics perverted the Christian Trinity and turned it into a Triad of whom the All-in-All was one (who became the Father) with his reflection Barbelo and her offspring the Child becoming the other two gods, the Mother and Son respectively. It was all-too-easy for the Qur’an to misrepresent this as Allah (the All-in-All, the One), Mary (the Mother) and Jesus (the Son). Just as the Qur’an mistook the Arian Son of God (a generated god apart from the eternal Father) to be the subject of Christian belief, rejecting this Son of God as another created god, a partner to Allah; so it also mistook the Gnostic Triad to be the ‘threesome’ in whom Christians believed. It did not know the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (the Christian Trinity), it knew only the Gnostic Triad which it conveniently reshaped into the One (Allah), and two other gods, the Mother (Mary) and her Son (Jesus).
This is why the Qur’an argues that the mother and her son were only ordinary humans who both used to eat food. This is why the Qur’an says Allah will ask Jesus if he taught the people around him to worship him (the Son) and Mary (his Mother) as two other gods in addition to Allah. That was the substance and essence of the Gnostic Triad, The One, the Mother (Barbelo) and the Son (the Child who became the Christ, Jesus). The Qur’an has confused the Gnostic Triad with the Christian Trinity and has denounced a definition of the former (The One with two other gods, the Mother and the Son), confusing it with the latter (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) which it obviously neither knows nor remotely comprehends. By replacing Barbelo with Mary it once again becomes secondary literature, adapting its original source.
Hence the misrepresentation in the Qur’an that Christians believe that Jesus (the Son) and his mother (Mary) are two other gods apart from Allah – a belief totally foreign to the Christian Church throughout its history but common to Gnosticism and its teaching that the Mother and Son are the two other gods apart from The One, the eternal All-in-All, who became the Father.
By John Gilchrist from Chapter 7 of his book “The Quran and the Historical Jesus”.