Do Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God?
Paul Jackson SJ
Origin of the Belief
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We have already seen this introductory formula of Christian prayer, comparable to In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Muslim introductory formula. We have also seen the introductory words to the Second Eucharistic Prayer:
Father, it is our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere
to give you thanks
Through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
The Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God is clear.
The very first thing that has to be stressed, and really cannot be overstressed, is that it is the belief of Christians. In other words, it is not something that can be proved. Christians can give reasons for their belief, but cannot prove it. One of the effects of living in a uniform culture based on a single basic religious belief system is the tendency to absolutize the main outlines of the belief system. Usually there are modifications within the system – for example, Catholics and Protestants among the Christians, and Sunnis and Shias among the Muslims – but these are within a single basic system, which goes unquestioned. If we go to medieval Europe it is common to see it referred to as 'Christendom.' On the Muslim side, there was the Muslim umma referred to as the 'Caliphate.' In general terms, both could be considered as examples of a uniform culture based on a single religious belief system. There were, of course, variations within the belief system, but they shared a common framework. In such a situation, things which are, strictly speaking, religious beliefs, are usually presumed to be facts. For example, the Jesuit priests who came from their European background to Akbar's court in Fatehpur Sikri in 1580 spoke of their basic Christian beliefs as though they were facts that could be proved by reason. A similar remark could be made about the basic beliefs of the Muslim scholars with whom they debated. This mentality has led both Muslims and Christians to refer to their respective religions as "the true faith." As a consequence, any other 'faith' would necessarily be 'false.'
At this point, a distinction has to be made between a basic, fundamental belief – such as "Jesus is the Son of God" – and details of the belief system as it has been elaborated over the centuries. Such a basic belief – as already asserted – cannot be proved. If you think about it for a while, it cannot be 'disproved' either. In itself it can neither be judged as 'true' or 'false.' Such a belief, of course, does not appear out of nowhere. It is rooted in history, in the man called Jesus. Two questions can be asked: "How do you know that Jesus is the Son of God?" And, "What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Son of God?"
The first question could be put more accurately as: "What is the basis for your belief that Jesus is the Son of God?" The answer to this question is found in the specifically Christian scripture, the New Testament, which includes, among other things, the Gospel narratives and the letters of St. Paul. The second question is, in fact, the key question of Christian Theology. Christians have tackled both these questions down the centuries. They are being examined afresh, both historically and theologically, in our own day and age. These are clearly intellectual pursuits. The merit of individual arguments adduced can be weighed in the scale of reason.
The equivalent Muslim fundamental belief is that "the Quran is the Word of God." The same comments could be made about it, and the answers to the same two questions would be similar, but different. The text of the Quran is intimately associated with Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. It has given rise to innumerable commentaries. It is also the basic source book for Muslim Theology. Both of these are intellectual pursuits. This involves discussion and agreement or disagreement, with a reason, or reasons, being adduced for a particular statement or interpretation. All of this, however, is within the framework of the basic belief in the Quran as the Word of God.
If a person visits a major Christian centre of theological studies and goes to visit the library he or she will be amazed at the sheer number of books on various aspects of Christian religious studies. Even today, the number of books being written, especially in the areas of scripture study, spirituality, theology and Church history, is quite amazing. Something similar can be said about the libraries of major Muslim madrasas, not to mention treasure troves found in libraries such as the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna. These libraries bear witness to the enormous intellectual activity associated with efforts to understand the basic faith of Christians in Jesus as the Son of God, and of Muslims in the Quran as the Word of God. These efforts flow on to the practical demands of living out one's faith as a sincere Christian or Muslim.
One comparatively recent phenomenon is the worldview of some of the people who study seriously texts such as the New Testament, which contains the Gospel narratives, and the Quran. Previously, with a few exceptions, Christians who were true believers in Jesus as the Son of God studied the New Testament, while committed Muslims studied the text of the Quran. In addition to such people, who still form the overwhelming majority of scholars, nowadays there is an increasing number of people with other worldviews involved in such studies. For example, there are some so-called "post modern" people from a Christian background who are no longer believers yet study the New Testament as an important text. Some such people also study the Quran, again as an important text. Committed Marxists have also done so. A number of committed Christians have studied and made available the meaning of the Quran in various languages. A group of Muslim scholars has undertaken a serious study of the Bible, as is evident from A Common Word Between Us and You, produced by 138 Muslim scholars and religious leaders, and addressed to the Pope and other Christian leaders. The text itself, as well as various responses and reports of follow-up meetings, has been widely circulated.
What is the significance of these new developments? Firstly, it would be naïve to think that they represent the majority of either Christians or Muslims. Attitudes, which have been imbibed by hundreds of millions of people over many centuries, do not suddenly disappear. One still finds polemical material being printed and circulated. Secondly – and this is what is encouraging – a certain amount of this material referred to above is based on a genuine desire to understand, rather than attack, the sacred scripture of the other party. A number of excellent studies are available that can be of benefit to both Christians and Muslims. This is also true of the rich spiritual traditions of both Islam and Christianity. For example, "The Classics of Western Spirituality," published by a Christian publisher in the United States, has included twelve classic works of Sufism, translated into English by reputed scholars.
It is important to see this present situation in its historical perspective. As already mentioned, in the medieval period there was Christendom and the Muslim Caliphate. The sixteenth century witnessed the clash between the Turkish Empire and Christian Europe. Confrontation, not dialogue, was the norm. In nineteenth-century Agra, point-scoring theological debates took place between Muslim and Christian scholars. In the early twenty-first century we are confronted with conflicts, in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, so it is not as though there are no conflicts involving Christians and Muslims. The encouraging newness is in the small though growing number of efforts on the part of Christians and Muslims to understand where the other party is coming from. This usually leads to mutual enrichment. Whether this trickle can develop into a stream depends on an increasing number of both Muslims and Christians who see not only the need - indeed, urgency – of such efforts, but who also experience this enrichment for themselves.
It is in this situation that we are examining the Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God. For an ordinary Hindu this belief poses no real insurmountable difficulty on account of the belief in avatars, divine appearances in human form. When it comes to an ordinary Muslim, however, the situation is completely different. Speaking about God in sura 112 the Quran says: Lam yalid wa lam yulad (He begot none, nor was He begotten). There is no ambiguity. This statement has sunk deep into the Muslim consciousness.
While the statement itself is absolute, it can be instructive, in the light of the theory of asbab un-nuzul – the occasions of revelation – to see what had occasioned it and similar statements. The answer to this is probably found in the struggle against idolatry. The Meccan leaders would have been happy with a compromise by which Allah would be recognized as the Supreme God, and the gods and goddesses in and around the Ka`ba could continue to be worshipped – and draw pilgrims to Mecca! In this way, the Prophet's message of the supremacy of Allah would be acknowledged, and the commercial interests of the Meccans would be safeguarded. Their hopes were dashed when the Prophet, speaking to the Meccans and referring to three important female deities, recited: Have you considered Al-Lat and Al-Uzza and the other, the third, Manat? Is He [i.e. Allah] to have daughters and you sons? This would be an unfair division. They are but names which you and your forefathers have invented! (Q53:19-23)
Persecution was the result of this clear stand against idol worship. This indicates the pivotal significance of what was said. Notice that the goddesses are referred to as the daughters of Allah. Sexual activity on the part of Allah is implied and then strenuously rejected. A person conversant with Greek and Indian mythology will be well aware of the projection of the human familial scene, including sexual activity, into the lives of the gods and goddesses. It is of crucial importance to try to get a grasp of the repudiation of idol worship and the propagation of an uncompromising monotheism that is clearly illustrated in the above quotation. As mentioned, it even led to persecution. It seems that this is the context in which lam yalid wa lam yulad originated and was consequently, and understandably, applied to God with respect to Jesus.
If we switch back to the religious convictions of the Jews at the time of Jesus, it has to be pointed out that, for at least a whole century, belief in an uncompromising monotheism had held sway. The battle against lapses on the part of some Jews into idolatry had been a long one, as any reader of the Old Testament can easily verify by studying the text. Because of the now firmly entrenched belief in monotheism by the time of Jesus, when He addressed God as Abba, there was not the faintest hint, or even possibility in his mind, of God as having a female consort! The same mentality applied to Jesus' followers when they were also invited to address God as Father. The whole emphasis was on a child-like attitude of complete, loving trust in a loving, caring God. This is also the spirit in which Christians today address God as Father when they pray.
Just as it is important for Christians to understand the origin of the Muslim rejection of Jesus as the Son of God, so too it is important for Muslims to understand what Christians have in mind when they think of Jesus as the Son of God. It ultimately comes back to the fact that Jesus addressed God as Abba, Father, which naturally implied some form of 'sonship' on his part.
"What does it mean to say that Jesus is the Son of God?" Theologians down the centuries have debated this great core question of Christian Theology. It has even been the source of struggles and conflicts, and the rise of different sects in Christianity due to different ways of understanding this belief. Reference can be made to the turmoil caused by one interpretation known as Arianism. Simply put – and the teaching has to be put simply, if we are not to get caught up in a whole labyrinth of Greek philosophical terminology – Arianism held that the Son was a creature. It has to be clarified that the 'Son' here refers to the 'Word', the Logos in Greek, the classic Gospel text of which is the beginning of John's Gospel narrative: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John, 1:1) The narrative comes to a climax: And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John, 1:14) The "now-in-flesh-Eternal Word" is Jesus. Of course the human being, the man known as Jesus, was fully human and, as such, created. He had a complete human nature. There is no dispute about this. It is often expressed as "The Word assumed a human nature." Since the Gospel says the Word was God, the Word could not cease being God by assuming a human nature. Thus it is believed that the Word, the Eternal Son, retains His divine nature, but now also has a human nature. Anyone who looks – including Christians – could see the man Jesus, but Christians also believe He is the Son of God. Need it be said, once again, that this is what Christians believe. God alone knows the number of Christians who have been martyred for refusing to deny their belief in Jesus as the Son of God. This belief is, of course, shrouded in mystery, and two thousand years of theological reflection have only served, so to say, to clarify what it does not mean, rather than 'explain' what it does mean. A deepening sense of the profound nature of this "mystery of the Incarnation," as it is called in Christian circles, is, paradoxically, a sign of deepening understanding, because it is, for them, an integral dimension of the unfathomable mystery of God.
A simple comparison may be helpful for some Muslims. Imagine a beautiful copy of the Quran. Imagine it is a manuscript copy. Open it up and see the exquisite gold-edged ornamentation of the Opening Sura. Reverently turn the pages and enjoy the beautiful calligraphy. Anyone who looks at it can enjoy its beauty. This is its created aspect. For a Muslim, however, it is much more than a beautiful book. It is the very Word of God. It is this firm belief in the Quran as the Word of God that forms the foundation of a pious Muslim's life. The importance of this belief cannot be overemphasized. It has provided nourishment for countless millions of Muslims.
Just as Muslims are invited to respect the Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God, so too are Christians invited to respect the Muslim belief in the Quran as the Word of God. There can be much fruitful discussion on a whole variety of questions that deal with historical matters and theological elaboration, but the fruitfulness of such interactions depends on this basic, sincere, mutual respect.