Trinity, Tawhid, and Monotheism

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Tawhid (توحيد ) and Trinity (الثالوث), and Monotheistic Belief in One God

If you’re anything like me you’ve struggled to understand Christian and Muslim differences about God. The doctrine of God is hard enough to grasp by itself let alone fathoming the differences between Christians and Muslims.

Maybe you’ve heard that Christians believe 1+1+1=1? Perhaps you aren’t sure about the meaning of tawhid, Shahada or shirk. Or maybe you’re so puzzled that you’ve given up trying to understand the differences and have concluded, “Christians and Muslims worship the same God” or “Allah knows best.”

If you’ve wrestled to understand the differences and why they matter, then read on. They matter eternally!

Christians and Muslims are Monotheists

At the core of Islam and Christianity is belief in One God. Christians and Muslims are monotheists.

The Muslim doctrine of monotheism is confessed in the shahada, the first pillar of Islam,

There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
لا اله الا الله محمد رسول الله (lâ ilâha illallâh, Muḥammadur rasûlullâh)

Shahada written in Arabic calligraphy (lâ ilâha illallâh, Muḥammadur rasûlullâh)
The Shahada, written in Arabic calligraphy

Monotheism is explicitly mentioned more than 260 times in the Muhsin Khan Interpretation of the Meanings of the Quran.1

Like Islam, monotheism is a central Christian doctrine. It was taught by Moses:

Deuteronomy 6:4
4Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.

Jesus affirmed monotheism as part of the first and greatest commandment:

Mark 12:28-30
28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

Tawhid and Trinity

So if Christians and Muslims are monotheists, what’s the difference? The difference is:

  • Christian monotheism is Trinitarian.
  • Muslim monotheism is Unitarian or Tawhid. 2

There is only one God (monotheism), but there is more than one type of monotheism.3

Therefore, the question is,  Which form of monotheism is true: Trinitarian or Unitarian (Tawhid)? Is the true definition Trinitarian monotheism or Unitarian (Tawhid) monotheism?

Many Muslims believe Trinitarian monotheism is shirk, the unpardonable sin of assigning partners or equals to God (Quran 5:17).4 The Qur’an contains strong warnings against shirk.5

Curiously, the Quran’s formal rejection of “Trinity” is not the Trinitarian monotheism historically believed by Christians.6

Summary of Biblical Monotheism and the Trinity

Trinitarian monotheism is summarized by the following seven points:

1. The Father is God.
2.
The Son is God.
3.
The Holy Spirit is God.
4.
The Father is not the Son.
5.
The Son is not the Holy Spirit.
6.
The Holy Spirit is not the Father.
7.
There is only one God.

When Christians say: (1) The Father is God; (2) The Son is God; and (3) The Holy Spirit is God we are identifying Who God is.

When we say: (4) The Father is not the Son; (5) The Son is not the Holy Spirit; and (6) The Holy Spirit is not the Father we are distinguishing the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The seventh and the final statement is the most challenging, “There is only one God”. The Greeks would say, “Zeus is god, “Apollos is god, and Dionysius is god” and there are three gods. Christianity says, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God and there is only one God.

To help clarify the above seven points, please consider the following diagram:

Diagram of the Trinitarian relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Scutum Fidei, Shield of the Trinity

How Can We Decide Between Trinitarian Monotheism and Unitarian Monotheism (Tawhid)? 

Jesus has authority to define the true form of monotheism

Christians are Trinitarian monotheists because of God’s work and revelation in history.7 The fact that Jesus Christ is alive and has risen from the dead is proof that Trinitarian monotheism is true. Jesus has greater authority to define true monotheism than anyone else, man or angel (Matthew 28:18-20; Ephesians 1:18-21; Hebrews 2:14).

Jesus based His life and teaching on the Old Testament Scriptures. Without doubt, the Old and New Testaments affirm monotheism (Deuteronomy 6:4Mark 12:29), but not Unitarian monotheism (Tawhid).

The Jewish and Christian Scriptures do not affirm Unitarian monotheism (Tawhid)

The first chapter of the Bible establishes a form of monotheism, but it is not the form of Unitarian monotheism (Tawhid) found in the Quran (Genesis 1:1-2, Genesis 1:26,27 with John 1:1-3).8

Other examples of monotheism–the kind of monotheism not found in the Quran–include: 

  • The Angel of the LORD (Genesis 18:1-2,17; 32:28-30; Exodus 3). These are texts wherein God appears in the form of a man.9
  • Statements King David made in the Psalms (Psalm 2; 45:6-7 with Hebrews 1:8-9110:1 with Matthew 22:35-46)

These are not explicitly Trinitarian texts, but they are incompatible with Unitarian monotheism (Tawhid). However, these texts are compatible with the Trinitarian monotheism Jesus revealed and was sentenced to die on the cross for (Matthew 26:63-68).

Jesus’ teaching about God

Jesus Christ gives the definitive answer to the true form of monotheism (John 10:30):

Jesus’ teaching about monotheism was vindicated when He rose again from the dead, which connects the Christian doctrine of the Trinity with the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

Trinitarian doctrine and God’s work in history are beautifully joined together in one of the most important titles for Jesus: Christ.

The title “Christ” is a reference to Jesus’ authority to define the true form monotheism.

The life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ are historical events and reasons Christians are Trinitarian monotheists. The Quran is confused–and probably contradictory–because:

  1. The Quran does not affirm Trinitarian monotheism (Quran 4:171; 5:73) and rejects Jesus Christ’s death on the cross (Quran 4:157), and therefore His resurrection from the dead.
  2. The Quran refers to Jesus as “Messiah/Christ” (Quran 3:45).

The reason the Quran is confused and contradictory on this point is because Messiah/Christ are key titles affirming: (1) Jesus’ relationship to the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity (see 1 Samuel 16:13; John 1:32-34; 20:22); (2) God’s relationship to His people through faith in Jesus (Acts 2:36-41); and (3) Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God the Father.11

  • Jesus’ disciple Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ in Matthew 16:13-23 and Jesus explained this title in terms of His death and resurrection.
  • Jesus testified to the High Priest and Sanhedrin that He is the Christ and was condemned for blasphemy (Matthew 26:63-68).
  • Peter preached Jesus as the Christ in Acts 2:32-36, defining “Christ” in terms of Jesus’ death on the cross, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven,

Acts 2:32–36 
32God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.
33Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
34For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand
35until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” ’
36“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Jesus left Christians two signs that affirm Trinitarian monotheism

Furthermore, two of the most important rites Jesus handed down to the church highlight both history and Trinitarian monotheism: (1) The Lord’s Supper highlights God’s work in history culminating in Jesus (Luke 22:14–20; see also 1 Corinthians 11:23-26),12 and (2) baptism highlights Jesus’ having fully revealed monotheism as Trinitarian (Matthew 28:18-20).13

The Christian Doctrine of the Trinity and Belief in One God Involves Mystery

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is revealed by God; however, that does not mean we can fully and exhaustively understand this glorious truth. God is greater than our ability to fully comprehend Him.

In church history Saint Augustine (354-430) probably thought more about the doctrine of the Trinity than any other uninspired writer, with the possible exception of John Calvin. There is a story about Augustine walking upon the ocean’s shore, greatly perplexed about the doctrine of the Trinity. As he meditated, he observed a little boy with a sea shell, running to the water, filling his shell, and then pouring it into a hole which he had made in the sand.

Painting of “The Vision of Saint Augustine” by Sandro Botticelli (c.1488). A little boy is explaining to St. Augustine that he is trying to put the Sea into a little hole that he dug.
“The Vision of Saint Augustine” by Sandro Botticelli (c.1488)

“What are you doing, my little man?” asked Augustine.

“Oh,” replied the boy, “I am trying to put the ocean in this hole.”

Augustine had learned his lesson, and as he passed on, exclaimed, “That is what I am trying to do; I see it now. Standing on the shores of time I am trying to get into this little finite mind things which are infinite.”14

It should come as no surprise that the Christian belief in the Triune God involves mysteries that transcend the human mind.

Can the Quran be the Word of God if it denies Trinitarian monotheism?

Is the Quran the Word of the One True God?

Please contact me if you have questions or would like to talk further.
Click here, if you have questions, or if you would like to talk more about the Bible or Qur’an.

The Christian answer must be an emphatic, “No!” The Quran cannot be the Word of the One True God because the Quran does not affirm the One True God revealed in the Bible and God’s work in history leading up to Jesus Christ.

An Invitation to Believe in the One True God

If you believe in Jesus, then you should be a Trinitarian monotheist who confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior (John 20:27-28). Believe in Jesus and be baptized in the Triune Name of God (Matthew 28:18-19; Acts 2:36-42).

Articles you may be interested in:

Do you believe in the Bible Jesus believed?

The Uncertainty of the Quran and Jesus’ Crucifixion

Watch: Trinity and Tawhid

References on the Trinity and Tawhid

Bavinck, Herman. The Doctrine of God.
_____________. The Divine Trinity.

Clark, Gordon. The Trinity.

Boettner, Loraine. The Person of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1943).

Bowman, Robert. The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity: An Outline Study

Fuller, Reginald. The Foundations of New Testament Christology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965).

Gibon, Margaret Dunlop (ed. and trans.), Fī tathlīth Allāh al-wāḥid, On the triune nature of God, in Studia sinaitica 7 (London, 1899), 2-36, 74-107.

Haddad, Rachid, La Trinité divine chez les théologiens arabes (750-1050) (Paris, 1985).

Hardy, Edward (editor), Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954).

Letham, Robert. The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004).

Madany, Bassam M., “The Trinity And Christian Missions To Muslims.” Reformation & Revival 10.3 (Summer 2001): 119-134.

Machen, Gresham, J. Is the Bible Right About Jesus? (Pamphlet)

Morris, Leon. The Lord From Heaven (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1958).

Packer, J.I. Trinity – God Is One and Three

Rowdon, Harold (editor), Christ the Lord: Studies in Christology presented to Donald Guthrie (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982).

Shahada, Wikipedia.

Sproul, RC. The Holy Trinity Part 1 “Monotheism” and Part 2 “The Biblical Witness to the Trinity.”

Tawhid, Wikipedia.

Thomas, David. Anti-Christian polemic in early Islam. Abū ʿĪsā al-Warrāq’s “Against the Trinity” (Cambridge, 1992).

Warfield, B.B. The Person and Work of Christ (Philadelphia: P&R Publishing Co., 1950).
__________. The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity

Wells, Tom. “The Doctrine of the Trinity: Is it Biblical?” Reformation & Revival 10.3 (Summer 2001): 41-52.

White, James. The Forgotten Trinity (Bethany House, 1998). He has a helpful video by the same name.

Zacharias, Ravi. The Law of Non-Contradiction and the Trinity.

Footnotes

  1. Islam claims “absolute monotheism” and yet the Qur’anic Allah speaks about himself in the plural at least 72 times. How is this absolute? For a list of every reference to monotheism in the Qur’an see, “Monotheism in the Quran”.
  2. Unitarianism is a belief about monotheism common to Islam, Rabbinic Judaism, Sikhism, a 16th century movement called Unitarianism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the fourth century there was a unitarian movement in Christianity called Arianism. Arianism was condemned by the Christian church as heretical and biblical monotheism was explained in the Nicene Creed.
    Here’s a short video showing the remains of the earliest church building—a Christian prayer hall—yet found by archaeologists. It is evidence that Christians were Trinitarian monotheists long before the Nicene Creed was written, because this is what the Bible, Jesus, and His disciples taught.
  3. Monotheism is not “mono.”
  4. “The Qur’an’s rejection of shirk is categorical and absolute (a concise statement is found in Quran 112). It is the only sin for which, even theoretically, there is no forgiveness: “God will not forgive the act of associating [anything] with him, though he might forgive anyone he likes anything other than that” (Qur’an 4:48, 116). The Arabic phrase for “anything other than that,” mā dūna dhālika, also connotes “anything less than that” — again implying that shirk is the greatest of all sins, all other sins being “less” than it.” (Mir, Mustansir, “Polytheism and Atheism”, in: Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC.
  5. Quran 34:20-24,
    20And indeed Iblis (Satan) did prove true his thought about them, and they followed him, all except a group of true believers (in the Oneness of Allah). 21And he (Iblis Satan) had no authority over them, except that We might test him, who believes in the Hereafter from him who is in doubt about it. And your Lord is a Hafiz over everything. (All Knower of everything i.e. He keeps record of each and every person as regards deeds, and then He will reward them accordingly). 22Say: (O Muhammad SAW to those polytheists, pagans, etc.) “Call upon those whom you assert (to be associate gods) besides Allah, they possess not even the weight of an atom (or a small ant), either in the heavens or on the earth, nor have they any share in either, nor there is for Him any supporter from among them. 23Intercession with Him profits not, except for him whom He permits. Until when fear is banished from their (angels’) hearts, they (angels) say: “What is it that your Lord has said?” They say: “The truth. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.” 24Say (O Muhammad SAW to these polytheists, pagans, etc.) “Who gives you provision from the heavens and the earth?” Say: “Allah, And verily, (either) we or you are rightly guided or in a plain error.” (Muhsin Khan) 
    Quran 35:40,
    Say (O Muhammad SAW): “Tell me or inform me (what) do you think about your (so called) partner gods to whom you call upon besides Allah, show me, what they have created of the earth? Or have they any share in the heavens? Or have We given them a Book, so that they act on clear proof there from? Nay, the Zalimun (polytheists and wrongdoers, etc.) promise one another nothing but delusions.” (Muhsin Khan).
    Quran 46:4,
    Say (O Muhammad SAW to these pagans): “Think! All that you invoke besides Allah show me! What have they created of the earth? Or have they a share in (the creation of) the heavens? Bring me a Book (revealed before this), or some trace of knowledge (in support of your claims), if you are truthful!” (Muhsin Khan)
  6. “[T]he Kur’an formally rejects any doctrine of the Trinity. It should however be pointed out that the Trinity as understood and rejected is not the same as that which is taught by Christian dogma, and defined by the councils which were held before the revelation of the Kur’an” (Anawati, G.C. “ʿĪsā.”, in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, ed. P. Bearman et al. [Leiden: Brill, 1986-2004]).
    Nevertheless, the Quran’s rejection of “Trinity” and affirmation of Unitarian monotheism (Tawhid) is problematic because Unitarian monotheism (Tawhid) was never taught by Moses, the Old Testament Scriptures, nor by Jesus and the New Testament Scriptures. The importance of Unitarian monotheism (Tawhid) for Islamic theology goes back to a mythical day taught in the Qur’an, the Day of Alastu.
  7. “The relationship between Christian beliefs in monotheism (doctrine) and history is found in the Nicene Creed (AD 381),
    We believe in one God, the Father Almighty (doctrine), Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible (history).
    And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father (doctrine); by whom all things were made (history); who for us men, and for our salvation (doctrine), came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. (history)
    And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified (doctrine), who spake by the prophets (history).
    In one holy catholic and apostolic Church; we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins (doctrine); we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. (history) Amen.
  8. It is important to understand that God gradually revealed Himself over time, Before the coming of NT redemption, human beings knew God less fully. This deficiency is not an incidental fact arising merely from some mental or moral deficiency in the individual or the society. It is an inevitable consequence of the very structure of history and the structure of redemption. Human knowledge of God can grow only in step with the redemptive operations that work out God’s plan. Consequently, God’s Trinitarian character is only dimly revealed and dimly understood in the OT. Trinitarian theology in its full form rests on NT revelation (Vern Sheridan Poythress, “Reforming Ontology and Logic in the Light of the Trinity: An Application of Van Til’s Idea of Analogy”; Westminster Theological Journal Volume 57:214).
  9. In Exodus 3:1-6 the Angel of the LORD appears to Moses in the burning bush and tells Moses to take off his sandals because he was standing on holy ground. The Angel of the LORD identifies Himself in Exodus 3:6 with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He also reveals His name as Yahweh (Exodus 3:13-16; 4:1-5). It is evident from Exodus and the Angel of the LORD passages in Genesis that Yahweh gradually revealed Himself in ways incompatible with the Unitarian monotheism (Tawhid) of the Quran.
  10. There is much confusion in Islam about the word “gospel” and the Christian “gospels” because the Qur’an speaks of “the Gospel” (Injeel) as a holy book sent/revealed from heaven to Jesus (cf. Qur’an 5:46; 57:27). However, Jesus never received a heavenly book and He never gave a book to His disciples. The Qur’anic Injeel does not exist and has never existed, whereas the Christian gospels are real books about Jesus.
    Long before the Qur’an, the biblical word gospel (Greek: εὐαγγέλιον) referred to good news and preaching (Greek: εὐαγγελίζω) the good news about the kingdom of God, God’s Messiah (Christ), and what Jesus accomplished (1 Corinthians 15:1–4).
    After Jesus died on the cross, was resurrected and ascended into heaven, His followers preached and later wrote down the good news in books Christians call the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are divinely inspired accounts about the good news of Jesus’ death for sin, His victory over the devil and death, and eternal life to those who believe in Him (John 20:30-31).
    If you have never read a Christian gospel, I recommend you read the gospel of John.
    The Qur’an not only invents a book that never existed (Injeel), the Qur’an denies Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection, and invents a time in the past when all humanity allegedly testified to Islamic belief, the Day of Alastu.
  11. Some Muslims may dismiss the more than 500 references in the New Testament to “Christ” and argue that the Christian Scriptures are corrupted and therefore ignore how the titles Messiah/Christ are used in the Bible. But this exposes one of Islam’s major deviations from the Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Judaism: Islam is unhitched from redemptive history. By this I mean that Islam rests entirely on the recitation and life of a single man and his claims to what supposedly happened centuries before him. Islam’s detachment from redemptive history is novel and a corruption of Abrahamic religion,”The Hebrew-Christian faith did not grow out of lofty philosophical speculation or profound mystical experiences. It arose out of the historical experiences of Israel, old and new, in which God made Himself known” (George Eldon Ladd).
  12. “…in all churches in all lands, there exists a rite, performed, usually, on the first day of the week, in which, amid innumerable variation of detail, one point is fixed and central, viz, that bread is broken, and that the fruit of the vine is poured out and drunk; and that he who breaks the bread and pours forth the wine says that he does so in obedience to an express command given by the Saviour on the night before the day on which He died; for that He, on that night, Himself took bread, broke it, and gave it to be eaten, poured wine, and gave it to be drunk, saying, that the bread was His body broken, and that the fruit of the vine was His blood shed for man, concluding, “This do in remembrance of Me.” (William Henry Temple Gairdner, The Eucharist as Historical EvidenceThe Nile Mission Press, Cairo, Egypt).
  13. “Christian baptism is administered “in the name of” not three Gods, not two creatures plus one God, not three parts of God, and not three stages of God, but one God who is eternally Father, Son, and Spirit (Gregory of Nyssa, On Not Three Gods,” NPNF [A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. 1st Series, 14 vols. 2nd series, 14 vols. Edited by H. Wace and P. Schaff] 2 V, pp. 331–37)…Its liturgical importance, its strategic location in the Gospel of Matthew as the final command of the Lord, and the fact that it has been so frequently referred to by early Christian writers make this text the centerpiece of triune teaching. It implicitly affirms the divinity, the distinctness, the equality, and the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit. It assumes and calls for an act of adoration and profession of faith in the triune God (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures. XVI.4, NPNF 2 VII, p.116)” (Thomas Oden, The Living God: Systematic Theology, Vol. I:202).
  14. The story may be legendary, but is given to illustrate the greatness of God. A similar version is related by Alister McGrath who wrote, “For Augustine, the point was simple: Si comprehendis non est Deus. If you can get your mind around it, it cannot be God. Our thoughts about God are bound to seem illogical and muddled, precisely because what they refer to lies beyond our full knowledge and understanding” (Christian Theology: An Introduction, fifth edition [Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011], 235.).