Divided by Christ

CHRISTIANS WHO LIVED under Muslim rule in the eighth century found themselves with an unusual status—second-class but sometimes respected, more often pitied for their “inferior” religion than directly persecuted. This led to some interesting debates.

Then, as now, some Christians cast the discussion in confrontational terms, while others opted for measured interfaith dialogue. The ways in which John of Damascus (ca. 675–749) and Nestorian Patriarch Timothy I (779–823 or 778–821) approached Islam highlight the contrast.

(Note: Nestorianism, which rejected the complete blending of Christ’s human and divine natures, was denounced at the 431 Council of Chalcedon. Despite this apparent deviation from orthodox Christianity, Patriarch Timothy presents the faith clearly in his debate with the caliph.)

Polemic Contrasts

John of Damascus, like his father and grandfather before him, held a position of honor in the local Muslim government. But for reasons unknown, in about 726 he retired from public office and entered the great monastery of Mar Saba (St. Sabas) near Jerusalem.

While there he wrote the Fount of Knowledge, a massive work that contained a section “On Heresies.” Here we find his judgment against Islam, which he viewed not as a new religion but as a heretical schism from Christianity. He also viewed Islam as a threat—while he was writing Fount of Knowledge, a nearby bishop was executed for preaching against Islam.

John begins with the unequivocal statement, “There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist.”

Although John does not soften his language, he does at least credit Muhammad with leading his people from idolatry to monotheism, to the “One God, creator of all, who has [not] been begotte“ Then the argument quickly resumes.

John was no gentle compromiser. He was severely careful (and was usually successful) neither to distort Muslim teaching nor to paint it any more Christian than it actually was.

He finished the sentence above with the complete Islamic formula: “who has neither been begotten nor has begotten,” thereby clearly relating all his criticisms to the basic theological difference between Islam and Christianity, namely Christology.

John’s subsequent arguments are subsidiary: the lack of reference to Muhammad’s prophethood in the Bible (which Muslims accept as revelation); the impossibility of separating God from his Word and his Spirit; the defense of Christian veneration of the cross as no more an idolatry than the Muslim veneration of the ka'ba; and criticisms of Muslim polygamy.

All these are lesser differences. To John, the crucial difference is this: the God of the Muslims is not the Christian God. Allah had no son. John’s God is the Father of Jesus Christ.

Polite distinctions

Patriarch Timothy took a more moderate approach in his dialogue with Abbasid caliph Mahdi a generation later. The all-powerful caliph invited the argument himself, and, considering the times and the situation, both patriarch and caliph displayed remarkable tolerance and courtesy.

As the patriarch later recorded the proceedings, he had scarcely finished the customary complimentary address when the caliph “did something to me which he had never done before; he said to me, ‘O Catholicos, [how can] a man like you who possesses all this knowledge and utters such sublime words concerning God, . . . [say that God] married a woman from whom He begat a Son.’”

Thus, as bluntly as when John of Damascus 40 years earlier wrote against Islam, the arguments began again on the subject of Christology.

But Timothy was no polemicist, and times had changed. He coolly agreed that the statement was a blasphemy: “Who would say such a thing?” Nevertheless, he continued, “Christ is the Son of God"—not, however, “in the carnal way.” And the debate went on for two days.

The arguments ranged from how God could have a son and how he could die, to the mathematical contradiction involved in the doctrine of the Trinity; and from Muslim claims of Muhammad’s supreme prophethood to their charges that Christians had corrupted their own Scriptures.

On the second day, the caliph asked the most sensitive question of all. “What do you say about Muhammad?” One can almost sense the tense silence in the room as all wondered how the Christian from the dhimmis would answer his Muslim king.

Whereas John of Damascus brusquely described Muhammad as “a false prophet,” Timothy managed to combine polite diplomacy with Christian integrity.

The patriarch noted the good that Muhammad had accomplished: he “taught the doctrine of the unity of God, . . . drove his people away from bad works and brought them nearer to the good ones, . . . separated his people from idolatry and polytheism, and attached them to the cult and the knowledge of one God.”

The caliph said, “If you [only] accepted Muhammad as a prophet, your words would be beautiful and your meanings fine.”

The patriarch, equally courteous, compared the Gospel to a precious pearl and closed with this prayer for the caliph: “May God grant to us that we may . . . share [the pearl of the faith] with you.” CH

By Samuel Hugh Moffett

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #74 in 2002]

Samuel Hugh Moffett is emeritus professor of missions at Princeton Theological Seminary. This article was adapted from his book A History of Christianity in Asia, vol. 1 (Orbis, 1998).
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