This is the first of a five part series investigating the differences between God as described in the Quran and the in Bible, and the implications thereof.
Which God Can Speak to His Creation?
The nature and character of God as described in the Quran is very different from that as described in the Bible. The Islamic concept of God is that of Tawhid, in which God is ultimate unity, and only unity. The Christian concept of God is that of Trinity, in which God is both ultimate unity and ultimate plurality – a God one in essence and three in person. These two concepts of God cannot both be true, just as the respective Scriptures in which these two concepts are expounded cannot both be true. Which God, if either, has actually spoken to His creation?
Or perhaps, we should first ask the logically prior question – which God, if either, has the ability to speak to His creation? Which God can communicate with mankind? This is the question that this first part in this series seeks to address. In coming to answer this question, we find that the Islamic position has a fatal flaw that renders Allah mute, while there is a fundamental strength in the Christian position through which the Triune God can speak into the world.
Who is Allah, Such That We Should Listen to Him?
Perhaps the place to start in evaluating whether Allah is capable of communicating with his creation is to go to the Quran itself, to see what it requires us to believe:
Say, “He, God, is One, God the Eternally Sufficient unto Himself. He begets not; nor was he begotten. And none is like unto Him.”
– Surah 112
This surah is a classic Quranic proof text for the doctrine of Tanzih – the transcendence of God. On the Islamic position, God holds himself above creation, such that the categories that apply to creation do not apply to Him. God has reserved for Himself his own unique categories of being. As such, the Quran testifies of Allah that ‘none is like unto Him.’
The originator of the heavens and the earth, He has appointed you mates from among yourselves, and has appointed mates also among cattle. He multiplies you thereby; naught is like unto him.
– Surah 42:11
The Quran teaches here that Allah has created the world such that the beings therein have likenesses to each other: Man has a likeness to woman, his mate. Cattle have their own likeness, to themselves. Man and cattle have a likeness in that they multiply in the same fashion. Everywhere we look in creation we see beings that, on some level, hold a likeness to one another. All created being can be validly compared to other created being. But Allah is not so. There is nothing in creation that holds a likeness to him. He is utterly unique.
Abdurraheem Green of the Islamic Education and Research Academy agrees:
Whatever you can imagine, whatever you can conceive of, God is not like that. […] God has certain attributes, God has certain qualities; and no created thing shares those attributes and qualities with God. God has unique qualities and attributes.’
– ‘Unbelievable’ podcast, May 15,2015, 6:41, 15:51
A being that bears no likeness to anything else must be unique at every point. The Quran disallows any continuity between God and man: God has His own categories of being, while man has his own categories of being. If a predicate is truly applied to God, then it cannot be thus applied to anything in creation. Allah is utterly unique, uniquely unique, unique in every sense.
What Can Be Known About God is Plain to Them?
If Allah is such a being, what kind of knowledge can humanity have of Him? What tools of reasoning does Islam provide to talk about God?
Univocal knowledge of God must be ruled out on the Quranic data. To say that `Mohammad is good` and `God is good` in a univocal sense is to say that Mohammad and God are good in the exact same way – the predicate of goodness is applied identically to both. This is an obvious violation of the Quranic data.
However, analogous knowledge of God must also be rejected, on the same grounds. To say that Mohammad and God are both good, but in a different but comparable sense is to say that there is still a likeness between God and man. Analogous knowledge allows for the discontinuity between man and God required by the Quran, but it is an incomplete discontinuity – Analogy still carries with it the continuities of univocal knowledge, and with it the likenesses to creation that the Quran says Allah does not have. J Windrow Sweetman recounts the time that a muslim scholar was asked if we can analogize Allah’s attributes to human attributes, he responded that we cannot, because Allah is la thani – the incomparable, unique in every way. (Abdu Murray, Grand Central Questions, pg 199)
Islam, then, based on the teaching of the Quran can only provide equivocal knowledge of God. But this leaves us with only dark mysteries of God. The categories that mankind has for thinking about God as he is in himself simply do not apply to God. As such, any predication made of God may be true, but the quality being predicated will have a completely different and unrelated meaning than that it holds within the realm of human experience. Duncan MacDonald, in commenting on this issue, states that:
No terms applicable to a created being may be applied to Allah, or if they are – as so often in the Quran – it must be clearly understood that their meaning as applied to created things is no clue as to their meaning when applied to Allah.
– Duncan MacDonald, One phase of the doctrine of the unity of God, pg 29
The Study Quran, in the commentary on Surah 112, verse 4, says:
[God] is unique. As created things can be described by attributes such as living, seeing, and hearing, by which God is also described, the meaning here is that nothing bears any likeness or equality with God’s Essence or Self.
Consider all the qualities that one is tempted to predicate of Allah that would also apply to a created being. Examples of goodness, wisdom, or beauty can all be found within the created order; To predicate of Allah goodness, wisdom, or beauty in the sense in which the terms are informed by human experience is to make the same category error as when saying that blue tastes cold. Allah cannot be said to be good or wise or beautiful in this sense. But nor is He not good or wise or beautiful. He is simply ‘other’. He is unique. To say that God is any of these qualities is, in actuality, to say nothing meaningful.
As such, God, being utterly unique and known only equivocally, is a being of which all predication is empty predication. God, as he relates to human experience, is utterly unknowable. All we have is a blank identity, Allah is Allah. Al Ghazali, the Muslim philosopher and theologian reached the same conclusion nine hundred years ago:
The end results of the knowledge of the arifin [those who have knowledge] is their inability to know Him, and their knowledge is, in truth, that they do not know Him and it is absolutely impossible for them to know him.
– Al-Ghazali, Quoted by Fadlou Shehadi, Ghazali`s Unique Unknowable God, pg 37
Revelation From an Unknowable God?
The Quran describes God as being so ‘great,’ that He does not have categories of being that are univocal or even analogous to those as found in His creation – it does not so befit His majesty. But a God who is transcendent in the way described in the Quran is a God who cannot communicate truly of Himself. This leads to a great and irresolvable contradiction between the Quranic claim to be a revelation of God, and the doctrine of the transcendence of God. We arrive at two mutually exclusive propositions.
- God is revealed in the Quran (Man has continuity of thought with God)
- God is transcendent (Man has no continuity of thought with God)
If we take proposition 1 seriously, if the Quran is in fact a true revelation of Allah, then God exists in such a way that He can communicate His will linguistically and propositionally. The Quran, a literary work, is the expression of the will of Allah and the content of which is expressed in the categories of creation and human experience. Humanity is therefore able to understand this communication. But a revelation of Allah expressed in the categories of creation is a denial that he has his own unique categories. If Allah can speak truly of himself in the categories of creation, then there is in fact a very deep continuity between man and God. This is a denial of the transcendence of God as elaborated in the Quran itself. The Quran, then, is false in teaching proposition 2.
If we take proposition 2 seriously, if the Quranic description of Allah existing with no likeness is correct, then there exists no continuity between divine and human thought. God created mankind to exist in a state of complete ‘otherness’ from God. Any communication from Allah that would be comprehensible to the human mind would have to use the categories of creation and human experience as the content of communication – content that in no way reflects who or what Allah is in Himself. Allah leaves man in a state of complete inability to access His true character, thought, or will. And since man cannot access the will of God – since God has isolated himself in his own transcendence – the Quran is false in teaching proposition 1.
This is contradiction. These two Islamic doctrines, the transcendence of God and the revelation of God, are at war against one another. Where one is true, the other must be false. The Quran, then, in teaching both, must be rejected as being false – it claims to reveal, in human language, the will of a God who cannot reveal his will in human language. Indeed, the Quran is the very speech of a God who is incapable of speaking to his creation.
Transcendence is often interpreted to mean that God is so far from us that he can have little to do with our thought or experience. On this view, we cannot know God. Indeed, God cannot reveal himself to us in clear ideas, words, and sentences. This view only appears to be a pious view of God`s mystery. […] If God is so far from us that he cannot interact with us, cannot reveal himself, cannot speak to us, then practically speaking there is no God.
– John Frame, Systematic Theology, pg 41
The Triune God is There and He is Not Silent
So it seems that God must have some kind of continuity with mankind for revelation to be possible at all. Islam, in positing a God that is utterly unique, has precluded the possibility of God speaking to his creation. So what, then, does Christianity offer as an alternative?
Christians would agree with their Muslim neighbours that univocal predication cannot be used of God. Man and God do not exist in the exact same fashion.
[Anyone attempting to use univocal predication for all of reality], tacitly makes himself superior to God. He has to be superior, in principle, if he is to control precisely the expressions that he will employ in order to determine what can be the case both with the Creator and the creature. He denies his creaturely status. He denies the fundamental character of the Creator-creature distinction.
– Vern Poythress, Logic, pg 138.
But, as we have seen in the Islamic case, equivocal knowledge of God is empty knowledge. In contradistinction to the Islamic view, the Christian is not forced to admit a dark mystery of God. Instead, The Triune God of scripture has freely chosen to create beings that bear the dignity of having been made ‘in His image’ (Genesis 1:26, 5:1). The Bible describes the relationship of man to God as being an analogous – Indeed; the entire created order has continuities to Him.
According to Trinitarian theology, the world is a derivative reflection of the originality of God. God is original, while the world is derivative. So we may say that God is the archetype, the original pattern, while the world is an ectype, derived from and dependent on the archetype. […] Man being made in the image of God implies that we are like him.
– Vern Poythress, Redeeming Mathematics, pg 31
The Muslim might respond that it is a lowly God that, in creating, chains himself to His creation. But this is not the case. God was free to create a world utterly unlike Himself; there are no constraints on God in that sense. But rather, in deciding to create, God had nothing higher or greater or more beautiful than Himself to use as a type for His creation. Creation bears a resemblance to the Creator because God saw nothing greater than Himself to act as a type for His creation.
Another corollary of a Trinitarian theology is the biblical notion of the ubiquity of revelation, such that all things must reveal their creator in various ways (Ps 19, Rom 1:18-20). […] The God who is Trinity is completely self-informed, every output of His activity is revelatory of Him, since there were no ideas or patterns above or distinct from the nature of God according to which God could create. [The Bible] seizes on a multitude of created qualities, emotions, animals, weather patterns, etc., to describe God. In addition to supplying capable analogies of God, all of the members of creation must reveal the eternal plan of God, as they are exhaustive expression of it (Rom 8:28, Eph 1:11, Matt 10:29), and indirectly color our conceptions of his eternal wisdom goodness, grace, creativity, etc.
– Bosserman, The Trinity and the Vindication of Christian Paradox, pg 143
In contradistinction to Islam, the transcendence of God as described in the Bible does not preclude his knowability. The Triune God has purposely made the world in such a way that He is knowable. God has created mankind in His image, man being himself a revelation of God, and capable (and inescapably so) of true knowledge of his creator. This is not exhaustive knowledge – knowledge of God as God knows himself – just as creation as ectype does not exhaust God as archtype; Far from it! Nothing could do that except God Himself. But our knowledge of God is nonetheless true, because God has established continuities between God and his creation.
In revealing Himself, God “accommodates” himself to us. That is, He does not speak to us in His own Trinitarian language, but in ways that we can understand. God is as a loving parent who speaks “baby talk” to us, who “lisps” to us. [In doing so], God does not speak less than truth. A mother who speaks baby talk to a child does not intend to deceive him, but to convey truth in a way suited to the child’s understanding
– John Frame, Systematic Theology, pg 704
When the Bible, which is the propositional and linguistic revelation of God, says that God is love, that He is compassionate and gracious, the Christian can know that these terms express truth about God as they are analogous to the love, goodness, and graciousness that are within human experience, written of authoritatively in the Bible, and ultimately demonstrated in the revelation of God incarnated in the person of Jesus the Christ. This is a knowledge that surpasses knowing simple facts, but rather of knowing God Himself. Knowing God on a personal level is of such importance on the Christian position, that it spoken of as being soteriological:
This is the covenant that I’ll make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD. “I’ll put my Law within them and will write it on their hearts. I’ll be their God and they will be my people. No longer will a person teach his neighbor or his relative: ‘Know the LORD.’ Instead, they’ll all know me, from the least to the greatest of them,” declares the LORD. “Indeed, I’ll forgive their iniquity, and I’ll remember their sin no more.”
– Jeremiah 31:33-34
This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
– John 17:3
The reverence afforded Allah in the Quran appears to be a great piety. However, this reverence is of such a nature that it is destructive to the claim that the Quran is the eternal, uncreated speech of Allah revealed to mankind. Allah has created the world in such a state of ‘otherness’ that communication is not possible.
On the Christian position, however, God has created the world to carry his communicable attributes generally, and in mankind specifically as His image in the world. Mankind has indelible knowledge of God by virtue of being in His image, and is confronted in the external world with God`s communication, as everything is revelatory of God in some fashion. The claim of the Bible to be the linguistic and propositional revelation of God`s will and character fits naturally in such a world, and is consistent with the Christian conception of God`s transcendence.
According to scripture, God identifies himself clearly in nature, in history, and in word spoken and written. He is mysterious, to be sure, incomprehensible. But his incomprehensibility does not contradict his knowability. If God is not knowable, then he cannot save us from our sin. For to have eternal life is nothing less than to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent.
– John Frame, Systematic Theology, pg 41