A bit of background: Once upon a time, Islam seemed unstoppable. Coming out of nowhere, it had quickly spread over what seemed like much of the world. They had a vigorous culture, formed around a relatively simple and appealing theology, and a book, the Qur’an, about the length of the New Testament. Further, they were leaders in many areas of human culture, including philosophy. Many Christians lived under their rule, were steeped in their culture, and spoke Arabic as a first or second language. Christians reacted to Islam in many different ways – treating it as a Christian heresy, or as a forerunner of the antichrist. They also, over time, interacted with Muslim thinkers on a theoretical level. Trinitarianism has always puzzled Muslim theologians and philosophers, so there developed apologetic traditions on both sides, defending or attacking the Trinity doctrine, and related claims, such as that Jesus was the Son of God, both divine and human.
Some time between the middle of the 1100s and the early 1200s, an Orthodox Bishop named Paul of Antioch came up with a novel approach to convincing Muslims of the truth of Christianity, in his Letter to a Muslim Friend. This book doesn’t attack Muhammad or his prophethood in any way; to the contrary, it accepts him as a prophet. It argues, though, that his ministry was limited to Arabia, to a people long enveloped in pagan darkness. To get the complete truth, he urges, Muslims need to accept the message of Jesus and his apostles as well. Further – and here’s where Paul’s argument is the most bold, or rather, the most foolhardy – the book claims that the Qur’an itself supports the Christian claim that Christ is the Son of God, as well as the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. If you’ve read much of the Qur’an, you’ll know what a hopeless cause this last part was. Still, this was a popular book, and it was later re-issued in revised and expanded form by one or more anonymous authors, and sent out in 1316 and again in 1321 as The Letter from the People of Cyprus. We now possess texts and English translations of two Muslim replies to this later version. But I digress. (See Ebied & Thomas, eds. Muslim-Christian Polemic during the Crusades: The Letter from the People of Cyprus and Ibn Abi Talib al-Dimashqi’s Response (Brill, 2005).)What’s so interesting about this scenario for my purposes is how the Christians understood “the” doctrine of the Trinity, and how they presented it to their Muslim interlocutors. Here’s how the doctrine is presented in The Letter from the People of Cyprus:
“…we only intend by [the doctrine of the Trinity] to refine the teaching that God is a thing, living and articulate… the essence [being, reality] is the Father, the speech is the Son and the life is the Holy Spirit.” (Ebied & Thomas, p. 325)
Wow. That’s straight up modalism, presumably noumenal, concurrent FSH modalism. To be most specific, each divine “person” is identified with a (timeless?) event, with God’s having a certain property – being a real thing (Father), being articulate (Son), and being alive (Spirit). The classic Muslim objection to trinitarianism is that it is simply a kind of polytheism. Note how neatly this move beats that objection! There’s only one God, only one divine Person here, who has three properties. This “victory” comes, though, at a heavy price.
A couple of comments. First, I haven’t traced this modalistic move to its earliest known source in Christian-Muslim interaction, but I strongly suspect that it didn’t start with Paul of Antioch. I believe it may go back as early as some time in the 800s. Maybe I’ll post on that when I find it. Could it be that for hundreds of years, this is the best that many Christian apologists could come up with? I’m assuming that this was how they really understood the doctrine, and was not merely a convenient, temporary “spin” on it, adopted for polemical purposes. (Could be wrong, but this seems the safest course in the absence of contrary information.)
Second, to my knowledge, this spin on the Trinity doctrine was never decried as heresy, in either Western or Eastern Christianity. Actually, it seems very close to, though genuinely different than, mainstream thinking. Surely, Augustine’s many analogies in his On the Trinity had some influence here.
Third, Christians still jump to, or expose their allegiance to, various forms of modalism when interacting with Muslims. My next post will be on a contemporary example of this.