The Christian Doctrine of God in the East from the Beginnings of Islam to the Present

Heiko Wenzel

Martin Tamcke (ed.), The Christian Doctrine of God in the East from the Beginnings of Islam to the Present (11 Articles in German, 4 Articles in English), Beirut Texts & Studies N° 126, Orient Institute, Ergon: Würzburg 2008, VIII + 224 pp., 42,00 €.

This volume gathers papers presented at the symposium on the Christian Doctrine of God in the Mashriq held at the graduate school of the George August University of Göttingen under the title “Images of God, Gods and the World.” With it Martin Tamcke, expert in Eastern Church studies and History at the University, has broken fresh ground for “a theological history of the diverse traditions of the Christian Orient” (p. VIII). The contributions deal with three periods, Early Islam, Medieval to Modern, and the Age of Missions to the present. Most of them deal with Christians’ concern to formulate adequate expressions of Christian beliefs in an Islamic context, whereby the main focus is on the Trinity and Christology.

Two concrete examples, Martin Heimgartner’s “The Trinitarian Doctrine of the East Syrian Patriarch Timotheos (780-823) in dialogue with Islam” (pp. 69-80) and Georges Tamar’s “Christian Trinitarianism and Islamic Monotheism: Yahya Ibn Adis’ view of God” (pp. 83-99) convincingly demonstrate the influence, for Timotheos, of Platonic philosophy and, for Yahya Ibn Adis, of Aristotelean and Neoplatonic thought-forms in this respect. Both are concerned to persaude their Islamic dialogue partners that “Christians are not polytheists but believe in one trinitarian God” (p. 83). At that time, 9th century AD, many Greek philosophical writings were being translated into Arabic (p. 83), often by Christians (p. 13, 83) who took into account the religious and intellectual context to communicate their beliefs comprehensibly and employed Greek philosophical ideas as their platform.

Assaad Elias Kattan portraits the current Byzantine-Orthodox Metropolitan of Mount-Lebanon, Georges Khodr, whose theology can be summarized by the title of his contribution “The Cross as Submission (islam) to the Will of God” or “Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified Lord” (p. 214). In all he says about Jesus he engages explicitly or implicitly with the Muslim background and always links the Incarnation with the Cross (p. 216). Khodr rejects Islamic theology’s denial of Jesus’ crucifixion and seeks a point of contact in Islamic mysticism. He rejects any ideological Christian interpretation of the Cross which promotes a Crusader mentality, triumphalism or self-flagellation (p. 217). By denoting the Cross as the peak of revelation (p. 220) he explicitly “corrects” aspects of Islam (p. 219). Last but not least Khodr argues that Jesus in his death on the Cross perfected love and practised unconditional submission (= islam) (p. 222).

This book raises many important questions which should stimulate further research. The editor is to be congratulated, for a number of contributions underline “excellent examples of how to maintain religious identity with cultural openness” (p. 83, note 1), and the work as a whole affords valuable insights into important acpects of the Eastern Doctrine of God and the form it took against the backdrop of Islam.