A Clash of Monotheisms, Pt 3: Sifat and Sharing of Attributes

A funny thing happens when you are married to someone for a long time: you start becoming more and more like each other.

More specifically, you begin to borrow attributes from the other person that you never had as a single person. You may start liking music that you’ve always detested because, through your spouse, you have been repeatedly exposed. You may start liking coffee or enjoying romantic comedies.

You may even find that you heretofore dry feet start adopting your spouse’s proclivity for sweaty feet.

You start getting gray hairs at the same time. Your knees and back go bad at the same time. You start finishing each other’s sentences more and more.

Within 3 years they will give up the pretense and just wear matching suits. Bank on it.
Within 3 years they will give up the pretense and just wear matching suits. Bank on it.

Eventually, you increasingly begin looking like each other. And I’m not just talking about wearing matching nylon track suits. I’m talking about physically merging features in this bizarre and amazing way as you age.

The net effect is that you have two distinct persons who have grown so close together through marriage that they share in an increasing way in the same attributes.

This is a very rough analogy for an important doctrine within Christianity that runs counter to the Islamic understanding of Allah. Let’s dig in further.

Introduction

I’m continuing a short series dealing with the three major apologetic concerns with respect to how Christians should engage with Islam: (1) Tawhid vs. Trinity (do Christians believe in 3 gods?); (2) the Islamic denial of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus; and (3) the accusation that Christians “changed” the Bible. (see intro post)

In the prior post on of Tawhid vs. Trinity, I discussed how Islam views Allah as pure unity in essence/being (“Dhat”), whereas Christianity holds in tension that God is ontologically both one and many, three in one.

In this post, I will discuss a second aspect of the central Muslim teaching of tawhid (recall: the absolute unity of Allah) which relates to whether Allah, as a monad or purely singular deity, can share his attributes with any other. Here, as before, we see a strikingly different understanding between Islam and Christianity.

(a) Muslim Doctrine of Sifat

The doctrine of sifat further elaborates the central teaching of tawhid by postulating that Allah is not only a pure unity in his fundamental essence, but also he possess oneness in attributes. Put briefly, sifat means that “no other being possesses one or more of the Divine attributes in perfection.”[1]

Traditionally, Islam teaches that Allah possesses a certain number of attributes, often denoted (asma’ or “names”), which are specific determinations or aspects of the divine nature. Though Allah is ONE (as established in the last post), his indivisible unity is nevertheless reflected in multiple various attributes.[2] The most common view is that Allah possesses Ninety-Nine such attributes/names, including Self-Sufficient, One, True, Holy, First, Last, and Ever-Living.[3]

Islamic scholars articulate three important aspects of these attributes:

  • They are unified. They do not suggest diversity within the identity of Allah but constitute a whole.
  • They are not divine in themselves, but they are necessary to Allah’s divinity.[4] It is not just that Allah just so happens to be, say, holy, but rather his holiness is necessary by virtue of the fact that Allah is (on Muslim accounting) the one true god.[5]
  • Most importantly, sifat holds that Allah’s attributes are so intricately connected to his person/essence that it is shirk “to suppose that other things and beings possess the same attributes as the Divine Being.”[6]

This third aspect is quite significant. It has often been argued that sifat is the Muslim equivalent to the Christian “problem” of coming up with a way to understand plurality within the unity of the Godhead.[7] However, we must observe that there is a massive difference between the Christian understanding of a plurality of persons (Father, Son, Spirit) and the Islamic view of a plurality of attributes (sifat).

The key implication to observe is that, on Islamic grounds, it is an unforgivable sin (shirk) to suppose that any other being, divine or otherwise, can participate in the attributes/names of Allah. It is precisely here that we run into a bit of a problem on the Christian side of the ledger.

(b) Christian Doctrine of Perichoresis

Christian theology affirms, alongside the first two aspects of sifat, that God indeed manifests various attributes, that these attributes are not themselves divine, and that they do not contradict God’s simplicity and oneness.

However, with regard to the third aspect of sifat, the paths diverge. Trinitarian doctrine holds that “the whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons” of the Trinity.[8] That is to say, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each fully share in all the attributes God has revealed of himself, such as knowledge, wisdom, truthfulness, goodness, holiness, righteousness, sovereignty, and so on. Whatever perfection is ascribed to the Father is equally ascribed to the Son, as well as to the Spirit—and vice versa. No attribute can be ascribed to one person of the Trinity that does not also fully apply to the others.

This doctrine, which is grounded in Scripture and was ultimately fleshed out by the church fathers, is typically called perichoresis (or circumincession). It is, understandably, a bit difficult to get one’s head around. In a nutshell, the doctrine is that this plurality of attributes is not, so to speak, parceled out among the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, such that each person has, say, one-third of them, or that one of them lacks what another possesses. Rather, there is “a completely mutual indwelling in which each Person, while remaining what he is by himself … is wholly in the others as the others are wholly in him.”[9]

Where does the Bible teach this? Here are a few examples:

  • Jesus is in the Father, and the Father is in him (John 10:38; cf. John 5:19).
  • The power of the Father is ascribed to the Spirit, who is also of Christ (Rom 8:8–11).
  • The fullness of the deity dwells in Christ (Col 2:9).
  • In numerous places, attributes of God the Father are ascribed to Jesus (such as prerogative to forgive sins, omniscience, eternal pre-existence, etc.) and the Spirit (revelatory authority, ability to penetrate men’s thoughts, volition/sovereign will, etc.).
  • Perhaps most importantly, the Trinitarian baptismal formula in Matt 28:19 makes a profound statement: we baptize in the name (to onoma, singular, appears once in the text) “of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In contrast to sifat, which denies that the “names” of Allah are shared with anyone, in Christian teaching the single “name”—which is invested with all the authority and power of the Godhead—is equally shared by the three persons of the Trinity.

The intimacy and intensity of the relationship among the three persons of the Godhead is of such a kind that they are perfectly in harmony—yet still distinct. They neither merge into one another (unitarianism or pantheism) nor divide from one another in an absolute way (polytheism). Rather, there is a mysterious interpenetration of attributes, a mutual enveloping of realities. But, as one theologian said, “The whole concept stretches us to the limits!”[10]

(c) Interim Conclusions

In short, the doctrine of sifat (subset of tawhid) in Islam denies that any other person, divine or otherwise, could share in the perfect attributes of Allah. Christian trinitarianism, however, holds essentially the exact opposite: all three co-equal, co-eternal persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—equally share/participate in the divine attributes. Whatever perfections can be ascribed to one can be ascribed to the others. In the next post, I will further nuance this by differentiating between the attributes of God (and the notion of perichoresis) and the saving actions of the persons of the Godhead, a concept known as the “economic” perspective of the Trinity.

Connecting to the pew

The doctrine of perichoresis is not talked about very much, likely due to it’s complicated name and conceptual difficulty, but it is central to trinitarianism and is often assumed when the perfections of Jesus are preached. But it is easy to lose sight of the importance of such a view.

Do we think of Jesus and the Holy Spirit as sharing in the same perfect attributes as the Father? Or do we fall into the trap of thinking that the Father is, in blunt terms, the “head honcho” who has all the “omni” attributes? And that Jesus is the “sweet little baby, 8 lb 6 oz cute little cuddly Jesus“?[11] And that the Spirit is…well, do we even think about the Spirit in the same realm at all? Do we have an implicit mental hierarchy of the persons of the Trinity?

____________________

[1] Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Religion of Islam (sixth ed.; Columbus: The Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam, 1990), 109.

[2] I’ll leave it to the philosophers to decide whether there is not already some inherent contradiction between Dhat (pure ontological unity) and Sifat (plurality in attributes of this unity) at the logical level.

[3] The chief attribute/name (apart from “Allah” itself) is Rabb, which “means the Lord Who brings all that is in this universe to a state of perfection through various stages of growth.” It is used 960 times in the Qur’an (versus Allah at 2,800). See Ali, Religion of Islam, 118-122.

[4] See H. A. Wolfson, “The Muslim Attributes and the Christian Trinity,” HTR 49/1 (1956) 5ff.  See also Jon Hoover, “Islamic Monotheism and the Trinity,” The Conrad Grebel Review 27/1 (2009), 65. There has been considerable historical debate among Islamic traditions concerning whether the attributes are to be identified with Allah’s essence (risk: they are one and the same as Allah) or distinguished from Allah (risk: Allah is emptied of attributes altogether).

[5] On this Christians would, in principle, agree.

[6] Ali, Religion of Islam, 110-111.

[7] As in Hoover, “Islamic Monotheism,” 71, who writes (in my opinion incorrectly), “The Christian problem of how to speak of the three as one and the one as three is akin to the Islamic theological problem of conceiving the unity of the multiple divine attributes in al-tawhîd al-sifât.”

[8] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 88.

[9] Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology, 491; citing T. F. Torrance’s The Trinitarian Faith.

[10] Douglas Kelly, Unpublished Course Notes for Systematic Theology I (2011).

[11] Note: pardon the language.

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