Ask my family, friends, or students and they will tell you that as a historic Christian I am truly captivated with the triune nature of God. Historic Christianity affirms God’s triunity: one God in three persons. God is one divine “What” (essence or being) and three personal “Whos” (persons or subsistences).
One reason for this preoccupation is that I view the Trinity as one of historic Christianity’s most distinctive truths and one of the faith’s deepest revealed mysteries. Moreover, I’m convinced that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16) precisely because God is a Trinity. The plurality of persons within the one divine being of God means that God is analogous to a loving human family.
Here is the Trinity doctrine in six biblically based statements:
|There is only one God||Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 43:10; 1 Timothy 1:17|
|The person of the Father is God||John 6:27; Ephesians 4:6; Colossians 1:2–3|
|The person of the Son is God||John 8:48; 10:30; Philippians 2:6|
|The person of the Holy Spirit is God||Genesis 1:2; John 14:26; Acts 5:3–4|
|The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are distinct and simultaneously distinguishable persons||Matthew 28:19; Luke 3:22; 2 Corinthians 13:14|
|The three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) are frequently listed together in a triadic pattern of unity and equality||John 15:26; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 2:18|
St. Augustine of Hippo articulated the idea that the Trinity makes God perfect in love within God’s nature itself. Consider Anglican theologian Gerald Bray’s commentary on and summary of St. Augustine’s reasoning:
“God cannot be love unless there is something for him to love. But if that something were not part of himself, he would not be perfect. The Bible does not teach us that God needed the creation in order to have something to love, because if that were true, he could not be fully himself without it. So Augustine reasoned that God must be love inside himself. To his mind, the Father is the one who loves, the Son is the one who is loved (the ‘beloved Son’ revealed in the baptism of Jesus), and the Holy Spirit is the love that flows between them and binds them together.”1
The Trinity is critical for Christians to appreciate because it allows God to “be love” within himself and, therefore, not in need of finding love outside (in his creation). Therefore, the triune God is unsurpassably loving. This distinguishing quality, combined with his other infinite attributes, makes God, as St. Anselm put it, the greatest conceivable being.2
This idea came out in an online discussion I had with a Muslim apologist (I’ll call him M), several months ago. Our interaction included a respectful debate about whether Allah is perfect within himself regarding love (one of Allah’s 99 names in the Qur’an is “the loving”). Here I present our exchange (paraphrased) starting from where I ask M to address some questions.
A Muslim-Christian Online Exchange about Allah and Love
Me: M, let me ask you some questions if you don’t mind. I’ll number them for your convenience: (1) Is Allah a single, solitary God (one person)? (2) If so, is Allah also a God of love? (3) If true, then who did Allah love in eternity before he created angels and human beings? (4) Since Allah had no one to love in eternity was he lonely? (5) Or does Allah need to create in order to fulfill himself? (6) If so, how can Allah be loving and sovereign? In other words, perfect in himself?
M: Here are my answers.
(1) Yes: Say, ˹O Prophet,˺ “He is Allah—One ˹and Indivisible (Al-Ikhlas, 2).
(2) Yes: He is the Most Merciful of the merciful (Yusuf, 64).
(3) I don’t know.
(4) Yes: He is the First and the Last (Al-Hadid, 3).
(5) No: Allah—the Sustainer ˹needed by all˺ (Al-Ikhlas, 2).
(6) I don’t know.
I apologize for this very brief series of answers. It is challenging for me to answer philosophical inquiries, but in Islam we are instructed to act according to the Qur’an and Sunnah, and this was my knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah. And it is narrated on the authority of Omar ibn Al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet of Allah (prayers and peace of Allah be upon him) said: “Contemplate on the signs of Allah but do not think about Allah (Himself)”
Me: According to the Qur’an, Allah is both loving (Arabic: “self-giving or sacrificial”) and sovereign (an independent ruler). Yet Allah can’t be a loving God from all eternity because before he created he had no one to whom he could give his love (a single divine person all alone). Love must be given. Moreover, if Allah did create (angels and humans) in order to get love then he is in need and can’t be considered an independent ruler. Logically, it appears that Allah is either loveless or needy. Thus the claims of the Qur’an seem to stand in logical contradiction with regard to Allah. As a defender of the truth of Islam, can you resolve this logical tension?
M: I don’t quite understand this point. Love must be given? If someone does not give love, does that mean he does not have this particular attribute at all?
Me: How can Allah be a God of love when he is all alone in eternity with no one to share his love? No one to give his love to? Love must be given and shared freely. Love requires a relationship with another person (friendship, family, caring). Was he lonely? Was he needy? Did Allah then create out of a desperate desire to love and be loved? If so, how can Allah be called in the Qur’an “the loving”? How can Allah be an independent ruler? How can Allah be perfect when he has to find love outside himself? These seem like reasonable questions. If you don’t know the answers then maybe you can ask your imam. Does Islamic theology have an answer to this logical challenge?
M: Yes, right. Thank you for your questions. I am looking for answers to these inquiries but according to my research, either there is no true religion at all, or if there is, Islam is correct—based on a series of arguments and reasons.
Me: As a human being, my heart cries out for truth, goodness, and love. How about you? As a Muslim, does Allah give you truth, goodness, and love? Do you love Allah and does Allah love you?
M: So, let me ask and try to get answers for you. As long as I’m responding to your questions, maybe you can view this website that explains and defends the Islamic religion: Many Prophets One Message.
Me: M, I have studied Islam and I respect Muslim people. I will continue to read about your religion. I’m glad you are looking for answers to my questions.
M: Yes, my friend. So give me time to find answers to your inquiries. As Jesus (peace be upon him) said, I say, “Peace be with you” (John 20:21).
Me: As-salamu alaykum.
In the next article, I’ll continue the discussion by sharing how M’s imam answered my questions and how our interaction continued from there.
Reflections: Your Turn
How important is the Trinity to understanding how God can be love within himself?
- For a similar discussion I had with a Jehovah’s Witness, see “How the Trinity Shows God’s Love.”
- For further study about the Trinity, see “My Three Favorite Books on the Trinity.”
- For a further comparison of Islam and Christianity, see my two books God among Sages (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017), 159–88; and A World of Difference (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), chapter 15.
- For an introduction to Islam by a Muslim scholar, see Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).
1. Gerald Bray, “8 Things We Can Learn from Augustine,” Crossway (website), posted November 16, 2015.
2. See my discussion of St. Anselm’s ontological argument (greatest conceivable being) in Kenneth Richard Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2019), 82–83.