Answering Al-Ghazali Refutation of Jesus’ Divinity. Part 1: Evasion in the Name of Metaphor


A. False Premises Distort the Reading of the Gospels
Unlike Muslim polemists who reject out of hand the divinity of Christ without examining the biblical evidence, Al-Ghazali mounts a critique of the divinity of Christ based on his reading of the gospels. However, the ineptitude displayed by al-Ghazali in his handling of the biblical texts seriously undermines his critique.

We look at school children with kind indulgence even when they repeat their mistakes in their class assignments. However, we are dumbfounded when a great thinker like al-Ghazali, whose mastery of philosophy is indisputable, commits glaring mistakes in his analysis of the gospels which are written in lingua franca (koine Greek) to be read daily by ordinary people. Somehow he ends up devising contorted metaphorical readings when the simple meaning is in plain sight.

How could a great thinker like al-Ghazali’s  stumble in his handling of basic biblical texts? The answer may be found in Thomas Aquinas’ famous quotation of Aristotle, “A small mistake in the beginning is a big one in the end.” [Thomas Aquinas, Being and Existence. J. Bobik translation] What is this “small mistake” committed by al-Ghazali at the beginning? Al-Ghazali strays into misleading hermeneutical paths when he imposes  interpretative premises which skew his reading of the biblical texts: (1) His fundamental premise is that God is not only transcendent; he is personally inaccessible even in his divine revelation. God remains remote above creation. God does not descend as he sends Jesus to be his human agent of divine revelation. (2) There is an unbridgeable ontological chasm between God and Jesus. There is no identity of being, only a qualified relationship between God and Jesus. Jesus is not God in substance; he receives ‘sonship’ as he grew in knowledge of God in his mission.

These premises are alien to the spirit of the gospels.  Al-Ghazali’s conclusion is already determined at the beginning of his analysis. As undergraduates, we used to refute advocates of erroneous views with a coup de grace retort, “your logic is correct, but it leads to the wrong conclusions because your premises are wrong.” Notwithstanding his impeccable mastery of logic, al-Ghazali is inexorably forced by his premises to reject the plain teaching of the gospels on the divinity of Christ.

Al-Ghazali would accept evidence from the gospels as legitimate only if it is conforms to his assumption that Christ is not the incarnate Son of God. He argues that the gospels testifies only to the humanity of Jesus, “In the gospel are passages that make clear the sheer humanity of Jesus.” [al-Radd al-Jamil, p. 97] As such, Christians have illicitly read the divinity of Jesus into the Gospel of John. Al-Ghazali lays out his hermeneutical principles:

The first principle is: passages that appear in agreement with reason should be left as they appear, and if they are in opposition to sound reason then they must be interpreted in the belief that literal meanings are not intended and therefore they must be considered as metaphors.
The second is: if passages are contradictory, some of which affirm sound judgement and others negate it, we should not leave them in conflict, unless we had already sensed in ourselves an utter incapacity for reconciling them and an impossibility of connecting them together in one meaning. [p. 97]

It is evident that al-Ghazali has ignored the Aristotelian dictum, “The benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself.” The critic should not immediately conclude that the document is either based on factual inaccuracies or contradiction when he comes across textual difficulties. The benefit of doubt should be given to the document itself. Al-Ghazali violates Aristotle’s dictum when he fails to read the biblical texts on their own terms. He resorts to all sorts of contorted metaphorical interpretations in order to evade the plain meaning of the texts. This is evident in his analysis of John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Al-Ghazali opines that John chapter 1 “has no connection at all with the establishment of the divinity of Jesus.” [p. 159] Al-Ghazali notes that for Christians, the essence of the Creator is one in substance yet has aspects. If the essence is not qualified by a prior existence, it is the intellect or “the hypostasis of the Father.” But if the essence is qualified by a prior existence like knowledge (the essence perceiving itself) it is the hypostasis of the Son. If the essence is being intelligible to itself it is intellection or the hypostasis of the Holy Spirit.

For al-Ghazali the Word (Logos) is merely an attribute of God.

So when he said, “In the beginning was the word”, he meant, in the beginning was the knowledgeable one, and when he said, “And the word was with God”, his meaning was, the knowledgeable one is eternally an attribute of God, intending to say that this attribute is eternally established in God. “Was” here has the meaning “is eternally’. When he said, “And God was the word”, his meaning was, this word that indicates the knowledgeable one, this knowledgeable one is God. [p. 161]

Al-Ghazali recognizes the significance of John 1:14, “The Word became flesh,” for determining the meaning of the Logos. However, instead of offering an analysis that is informed by the linguistic background of the “Word” (diachronic analysis) and its usage in early Christianity (synchronic analysis), al-Ghazali interprets this verse through the lens of Islamic theology – since Islam forbids any association between God and his creatures (shirk), the passage “has no connection at all with the establishment of the divinity of Christ.” What then does the verse mean?

Instead of exegeting directly from the original Greek text, al-Ghazali relies on the Coptic translation, “woh bisagi afer ow sarks.” Al-Ghazali claims that the Coptic word “afer” means “he made.” Accordingly, John 1:14 “makes clear that the knowledgeable one, who is identified with the hypostasis of the word which he asserted to be God, when he said, “And God was the word” made a body, and he lived among us, and we have seen his glory. In other words, this body which God made was actually Jesus, on him be peace, and it was he who appeared and whose glory was seen.” [p. 165]. Al-Ghazali elaborates,

In other words, the meaning of the saying “the word became flesh” is that God the knowledgeable one, who is indicated by “the word”, was separated from corporality. Later on its meaning becomes the knowledgeable one having corporality attributed to him, and he is the messenger, for if it is used for the essence restricted to knowledge, the term ‘the knowledgeable one’ is derived from it without doubt.
Once it is admitted that “the word” is used for the essence in terms of an attribute with respect to being an essence, then, since it is claimed that this is exclusive to the essence of God, its application to Jesus, on him be peace, must be by way of metaphor, because the equivocation of its meaning is established, and this is one of the most profound justifications for the metaphorical meaning. [pp. 167-169]

Al-Ghazali maintains that it is essential to understand the meaning of the Word to be metaphorical when it is applied to Christ in order to avoid the grave error of the Christians whose literal interpretation leads them to tri-theism: “Unbelievers are those who say that God is the third of three.”

When interpreting the hypostases they (Christians) have followed a path which has obliged them to talk about the existence of three gods, in the mind and in fact, distinct in their essences and their natures, which is to deny the essence of God, may his name be glorified. The result is that they make the Father equivalent to the essence in terms of fatherhood, and the Son equivalent to the essence in terms of sonship, and the Holy Spirit equivalent to the essence in terms of proceeding. Then they say that God is one. [p 171]

Al-Ghazali s’ refutation of the divinity of the Jesus seems plausible only because he ignores the literary context which would have brought clarity to the meaning of religious terms in Judaism in the first century AD. His refutation of the divinity of Jesus is emptied of its power of persuasion when it is pointed out that he has substituted the original Greek word, “egeneto” (became) with a dubious Coptic translation of the word, “afer” (he made).

B. A Contextual Reading of the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18)
The dubiousness of Al-Ghazali’s translation becomes apparent in the light of the historical lexicography of the “Logos”. For the Jews, the Word of God is more than a sound. The Word of God is the dynamic and creative power of God in action. God’s Word was the agent of creation. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host.” (Psalm 33:6. Also Gen. 1:2, 6, 9, 11, 14, 24, 26). Furthermore, since the Jews took special care to observe the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain, they avoided vocalizing the name divine name, the LORD (YHWH). They substituted it with reverent periphrasis like “the Blessed,” or “the Holy One.” When hearing the Targum (Jewish Aramaic translations of the Old Testament), the Jews understood “the Word of the Lord” as equivalent to God Himself.

More importantly, the Apostle John deepens to the meaning of the Logos in the light of the new revelation of Jesus Christ:
First, the Johannine prologue (John 1:1-18) begins with the relation of the Logos with the Father. The Word was with God (pros ton Theon). “Pros” connotes a face to face relation. The Word existed in personal communion with the Father. Al-Ghazali’s attempt to avoid the literal meaning of the passage may be justified only if the Logos were merely an impersonal attribute of God. But John here describes the Logos in personal terms. The phrase, “The Word was God” is emphatic in affirming the deity of the Word without blurring the distinction between the personal quality of the Word and the personal quality of God.

Second, there can be no metaphorical evasion of the meaning of John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” It is granted that “became” (egeneto) has a semantic range that includes “born”, “made”, “come into being or existence”, “happened”, “become something or come into a certain state.” But the precise meaning is finally determined by how the word is used in immediate context. C.K. Barrett in his Greek commentary teases out the probable meaning.

It is difficult to determine precisely the meaning of ἐγένετο. It cannot mean ‘became’, since the Word continues to be the subject of further statements—it was the Word who ‘dwelt among us’, and whose glory ‘we beheld’; the Word continued to be the Word. The meaning ‘was born’—the Word was born as flesh, man—would be tolerable were it not that γεννηθῆναι has just been used in this sense, and a change of verb would be harsh. Perhaps ἐγένετο is used in the same sense as in v. 6: the Word came on the (human) scene—as flesh, man. [C.K. Barrett, Commentary According to John, p. 165]

Third, it is common for Muslims to claim that the Apostle John must be influenced by Greek thought since he uses the word “Logos”. However, there is no parallel of an incarnate Logos in the Hellenistic world. Indeed, John’s affirmation of the incarnation of the Logos is a direct refutation of Hellenistic philosophical dualism that separates god from his world. Any discerning reader would know that John is drawing from the Old Testament sources (Exodus 33:7-34:35). In Exodus, God spoke and God’s word was written in two stone tablets. Now, in Jesus Christ, God’s Word or Self-expression has become flesh. Hence the added qualifying phrase, “[The Word] dwelt among us.” More literally the Greek verb skēnoō means the Word pitched his tent or tabernacle amongst us. For the Greek-speaking Jews, the term reminds them that God spoke to them in the “tent of meeting (skēnē)…God has chosen to dwell amongst his people in a yet more personal way, in the Word-become-flesh.” [D.A. Carson, Gospel of John, p. 127]

This interpretation is further confirmed by the phrase, “we have seen his glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Carson concludes, “By alluding to such themes, John may be telling his readers that God manifested himself most clearly when the Word became flesh. The incarnate Word is the true šeḵînā, the ultimate manifestation of the presence of God amongst human beings, for this Word became a man. [Carson p. 128] The Apostle John testifies that he and the other apostles saw the glory of the only-begotten Son. This glory is the glory which Jesus shared with the Father before the creation of the world (John 17:5). The radiance and majesty of Christ which shone through his miracles, his death and resurrection are the attributes of deity shining through the veil of the human nature of Christ. In short, God himself in the Word entered human history, not as a phantom, but as a real man of flesh in an act of abasement or self-humiliation. Conversely, Jesus Christ is God in so far as God reveals himself to the world.

Our contextual reading of the prologue of John demonstrates that the Christian teaching of the divinity of Christ provides a holistic and coherent reading of the biblical texts. In contrast, al-Ghazali’s Islamic-informed premises force him to approach the text in a piecemeal fashion. The end result of his “refutation” is a flawed Islamic theological reading imposed onto the biblical texts.