Answering Al-Ghazali Refutation of Jesus’ Divinity. Part 2. Arbitrary Metaphorical Interpretation.

Jesus claims to be divine when he declares publicly to the Jews, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30) However, al-Ghazali insists that the statement should be understood metaphorically rather than as literally. For him, Jesus’ prophetic mission was to show people the true God and to worship him alone. A literal interpretation of John 10:30 must be rejected as this would entail Jesus calling people to worship him instead of the true God. Jesus’ oneness with God describes his obedience which enables him to receives power from God to discharge his mission.

It is impossible that the Creator is present in any of these members of the body, or that he meant them literally. However, when the worshipping servant exerts all his effort to obey God, he will receive power and help from God which will enable him to speak with the tongue and strike with the hand and to perform other actions that bring him close to God. For this reason it is said of someone who empowers another person to strike with as word who would not otherwise be able to do it, ‘I am your hand with which you have struck’. This kind of metaphor is used widely, is both good and legitimate and is not rejected.” [p. 101]

But what about Jesus’ prayer where he refers to the glory which he shared with the Father, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5)? If Jesus shared the same glory with God before the creation of the world, then Jesus’ mode of existence must be divine in his pre-existence? However, for Al-Ghazali, the glory of Jesus described here refers not to divine glory per se, but the “fullness of the glory that was given to him is prophethood and messengership, and what entails from them in rank, the ascent to heaven, and his power to perform unprecedented miracles.” Likewise, the gift of glory which Jesus gave to his disciples was “to make them realize what pertains to their realization of the majesty of God, almighty and exalted.” [p 111]

Al-Ghazali writes, “If it is said, why is it not possible that the phrase ‘The glory that was given to him’ means the union which entitles him to be divine?” He retorts that the question is preposterous, “Is it possible that divinity be bestowed when the impossibility of this is a matter upon which intelligent people have unanimously agreed?…the founder of their divine law interpreted them metaphorically, defending this interpretation of them to guard against intending their factual meaning.” [p. 113]

For al-Ghazali, Jesus is only praying about a moral unity of will and love between himself and God. He notes that Jesus also prays for his disciples, “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you gave me, so that they may be one with you as we are…The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one.” (John 17:11, 22). A consistent interpretation would require Jesus to be referring to moral unity between himself and God, and then between his disciples.

[This passage] indicated the metaphorical aspect when he said, ‘I have given them the glory that you gave me, so that they may become one’. In other words, may this glory unite them and produce actions that unite them in obeying you, loving what you love, hating what you hate, willing what you will, so that they become as one person for there is no difference in their thoughts, deeds and beliefs, as we are one. This is to say, as I am one with you, because your glory that you gave me made me love only what you love, will only what you will, hate only what you hate, detest only what you detest, and no action or speech issue from me unless you are content with it. If it is established that this is his condition with God, it shows that the one who obeys him obeys God, may his name be exalted, and the one who obeys God obeys him, and this is the characteristic of the sent prophets. Then, emphasising the metaphorical aspect, he said, ‘As you, Father, are dwelling in me, and I am in you, may they also be united in us’. He intended to say, may their words and deeds be in agreement and joined together with your will. Your will is my will. We together are like one essence, for there is no difference in our wills. [p. 107]

Al-Ghazali proceeds to refute the suggestion that Jesus is making a claim of ontological unity with the Father with a reductio ad absurdum.

[Jesus] used a particle of comparison when he said, ‘As we are’, meaning a union like my union with you. If his union with God is the reason for his entitlement to divinity, then he must have prayed that his disciples become gods [emphasis added]…So when this condition arises in them the metaphor is appropriate. The evidence for the truth of this is, if a man has a friend who agrees with his aims and wishes in such a way that he loves what he loves, hates what he hates, and detests what he detests, it is acceptable for him to say, I and my friend are one. He, on him be peace, also showed in this passage that his union with him is metaphorical, and that he is not really God, when he said, ‘That they may become one with you as we are’. He meant, if they obtain assistance from you that makes them will only what you will, their union with you would be like my union with you; my condition with you is that I only want what you want and only love what you love. [p. 105]

‘By this we know that we dwell in him and he dwells in us’. [1 John 4:15] If this disciple, esteemed by them, understood that the indwelling that Jesus, blessing and peace be on him, explained in the above passages necessitated divinity, then he was ascribing to himself and to the others divinity, when he said, ‘By this we know that we dwell in him and he also dwells in us’. [p. 111]

The gist of al-Ghazali’s argument may be laid out accordingly.

A = glory of God
B = glory of disciples
C = glory of Christ

B = C
A ≠ B
Therefore,  A ≠ C

Al-Ghazali assigns an equivalence between “B and C” and a disjunction between “A and B” in order to arrive at his conclusion that “A ≠ C.” However, the move to assign an equivalence between the glory of the disciples and the glory of Christ is questionable. To be sure, Christ gave glory to the disciples, but this does not constitute the ground for equating the gift and its source. For example, while it is correct to affirm that God gives life to humans, it would be wrong to deduce from this affirmation that there is an equivalence between the life of God and the life of humans. Such an equivalence would mean human life is both eternal and endowed with divine perfections, which obviously is not the case. Since the argument rests on ill-defined premises/logical terms, we conclude that the argument is logically unsound.

Al-Ghazali shifts the meaning of glory in his argument. Glory is univocal (when he contrasts the glory of God with Christ) and is equivocal (when he compares the glory of Christ shared with his disciples). Al-Ghazali’s restriction of the meaning of glory to be either univocal and equivocal then decisively induces him to assert that Christ cannot literally or ontologically share the glory that is inherent to God. His argument appears persuasive to the uninitiated. He ‘wins’ the argument since he exercises the right to define the terms of the discussion. [For a fuller discussion on analogical language, see my earlier post – Analogy in Theological Language. Part 2].

However, Christianity has historically avoided being impaled by the linguistic horns by refusing to restrict the meaning of words to be either univocal and equivocal. Instead it includes the use of analogical language when describing the nature and attributes of God. According to Thomas Aquinas there is “between an infinitely perfect being and finitely perfect beings there is an infinite difference in perfection (certainly an infinite differs from a finite in more than a finite way). And where there is an infinite difference in perfection there cannot be a univocal predication. A given perfection cannot mean totally the same thing as applied to God and creatures, for God and creatures are separated by an infinite degree of perfection… An infinitely perfect Cause produced finitely perfect effects. And the perfections found in these effects cannot be predicated in exactly the same manner (i.e., univocally) of God” [Norman Geisler & Wilfred Corduan, Philosophy of Religion 2ed.(Baker, 1988), p.258].

In analogical terms, Christ and man each possesses glory formally (that is, each of them possesses, quite literally and unmetaphorically, glory). But man possesses glory in the mode proper to man and Christ possesses glory in the mode proper to in Christ. Finally, God possesses glory in that supreme, and by us unimaginable, mode proper to self-existent Being itself. We may express the analogical relationships between the glory of Christ and the glory given to man in John 17 in the following quasi-mathematical form (without taking the equal sign too literally)

The analogical relationships given in this diagram emphasizes the need for nuance when interpreting the meaning of glory in the Bible. It demonstrates why al-Ghazali’s interpretation is simplistic when he reduces the glory of Christ to the empowerment for his earthly mission which he shares with his disciples.

It is appropriate at this juncture to conduct a detailed analysis of the meaning and method of the metaphor. A metaphor embodies similarity between two things. For example, when the Psalmist describes how God “makes the clouds his chariot” (Psalm 104:3), he is highlighting the correspondence between the swift movement of clouds across the sky and that of a chariot over a road. A metaphor is a bifocal statement – it identifies an effect on one level (clouds) and then transfers that meaning to another level (road). After all, the word “metaphor” itself implies such a transfer, since it is based on the Greek words meta, meaning “over,” and pherein, meaning “to carry.” The meaning of the first term in the comparison must first be clarified and then certain related meanings may be transferred to the second half.

We being by looking carefully at one half of a comparison and then transfer certain appropriate meanings to the other half. Note that the comparison is rooted in reality. In interpreting the Gospel of John, our first responsibility is to identify how the Bible carefully defines the glory of God to serve as a basis of the comparison. The next step is to interpret what the comparison means, that is, to bring out both the similarities between the two halves of the comparison. The superficiality and arbitrariness of al-Ghazali’s metaphorical interpretation of the Bible becomes evident as he fails to identify how the bifocal elements of the term “glory” are related. This methodological omission inevitably leads to the dubious conclusion that A (the glory of God) ≠ C (the glory of Christ) without qualifications.

As a contrast to al-Ghazali, Rudolf Schnackenburg offers an example of a proper metaphorical, analogical and contextual reading of John 17 which highlights how  Christ and his disciples each manifests glory in distinctive ways. Rudolf Schnackenburg writes,

Jesus refers, in this discourse, to what he has done for the disciples: he has kept them in the Father’s name (v. 12); he has given them the word of the Father (v. 14); he has sent them into the world (v. 18) and he has sanctified himself for them (v. 19)…Our present statement is, on reflection, the culmination and the summary of what Jesus ‘has given’ to the disciples whom he leaves behind in the world and sends out into the world. This view is reinforced by the fact that he refers here to the δόξα [glory] that ‘the Father has given to him’, just as the Father gave him the words (v. 8) and his ‘name’ (vv. 11f). The perfect tenses of the verbs point to the lasting quality of what has been given to them. Jesus himself possesses the Father’s glory and has possessed it from eternity, but he also regains it after his exaltation on the cross (see v. 5). The disciples are to have a share in this glory (see v. 24) by the glorified Christ’s communication to them of divine life. This, as we have seen, was the meaning of his petition to be given once again the glory that he has always had with the Father (see v. 2). Here, then, δόξα must point to the fulness of divine life, which is directed towards ‘glory’, in an anticipatory language that already makes present what will only be fully realized in the heavenly or future world…This, then, is the culmination of the Johannine vision of the presence of salvation which is certain for those who believe in Christ and which will be theirs in such fulness that it can at least once (it is exceptional even in John) be designated by the highest term for fulfilment (δόξα).

The δόξα that he has already given them (see v. 22) is a temporary gift, an anticipation or a foretaste of the full δόξα, consisting of a participation in his own revealed δόξα. This is why Jesus also says ‘my glory’. His glory is the glory of the Son (see John 1: 14) that is assigned to him. I tis the glory that he has possessed from eternity, ‘before the foundation of the world’, in the Father’s love. He has revealed this glory even during his active existence on earth so that the disciples might behold it (ἐθεασάμεθα, John 1: 14). [Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel According to Saint John vol. 3 (Burns & Oates, 1982), pp. 192, 195]

We conclude that al-Ghazali’s analysis is logically unsound and metaphorically mistaken. Our next post will remedy his deficient analysis, by offering a linguistic and contextual reading of the Bible which will confirm Christ’s ontological unity with the Father, while taking cognizance of the dynamic aspects of Christ’s glory as we follow the trajectory of the revelation of God in Christ from his pre-existence to the incarnation and eschatological glorification.


3 thoughts on “Answering Al-Ghazali Refutation of Jesus’ Divinity. Part 2. Arbitrary Metaphorical Interpretation.”

  1. Dear Dr. Kam-Weng, Shalom:

    Appreciate your refutation of al-Ghazali; wish related articles (including your others composed in defense of Christ’s Deity vis-a-vis Christian-Muslim apologetics) could be published in book form. GOD bless, and stay connected.


  2. Hi Kim Sai,
    Thanks for the encouraging feedback. Publication is still a long way to go. Did not write the articles as parts of a deliberate book project. The articles are more initial probing thoughts rather than carefully constructed pieces as they are ad hoc responses to various emerging issues around us. But one never knows. Insyaallah.
    God bless,

  3. Thank you for this series. One is struck by how strenuously the author of the “Refutation” sought to deny the deity of Jesus, and to what lengths he was willing to go in his attempt. This is actually one of the central efforts of Islam, and Dr. Kam Weng shows how important it is to understand both the denial of Jesus’ deity and the arguments used to support it – especially in majority-Muslim contexts. I traced the diminution of Jesus in the Quran in “The Quran with Christian commentary” (Zondervan Academic 2020), noting verse-by-verse the transformation of His divine glory into the merely human ‘Isa. I look forward to Dr. Kam Weng’s next post, which offers the remedy to the deficient analysis of the “Refutation.” Much more work along these lines is needed, and it is a truly global project.

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