Catholicity, Creeds, and Converts

The clear articulation of Scriptural truth found in church creeds can serve as an invaluable guide for teaching new believers from Muslim and other religious backgrounds.

Ever since the mid-twentieth century, Christian missions work has been fighting to escape the specter of colonialism.

Unfortunately, the fear of perpetuating such forms of cultural imperialism has caused some Western missionaries to abdicate their role of teaching the doctrines of the faith in favor of facilitating an unimposing self-discovery.

To be fair, it is true that naïve approaches to culture and arrogant assumptions of superiority did at times attend missions efforts of yesteryear. It is also true that the gospel message transcends, translates into, and transforms all cultures. But still, the Bible is nowhere ashamed to instruct the teaching of what it calls “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”[1]

In fact, the church throughout time and across different contexts has wrestled with the same biblical texts and theological questions as each new generation of Bible readers will encounter. In crafting careful biblical answers to these questions, the church has established creeds that hold the whole biblical testimony together and present the revealed truth of the Scriptures. This singular and central message confessed by all Christians is what the creeds refer to as the “catholic faith.”[2]

These theological guardrails established by the councils and creeds, then, are not monuments of imperialism. Rather, they are the product of careful biblical and theological synthesis of the Scriptures in which the eternal God has revealed himself. Thus, the catholicity represented by creedal confession is a gift to those who are for the first time coming into contact with the biblical testimony.

In this brief article, I want to argue that the impulse to withhold time-tested theological and doctrinal insights is both uncatholic and uncompassionate. In fact, I would argue that our brothers and sisters who have come out of a Muslim background need to be exposed to the sturdy faith espoused by and articulated in the ecumenical creeds such as the Athanasian Creed.[3] Let me demonstrate this by considering three aspects of the anti-Christian baggage encumbering our brothers and sisters who have come to faith from a Muslim background.

The Qur’anic Allah and the Biblical YHWH

First, we need to consider the baggage that our Muslim friends bring into their conception of who God is. Both Christians and Muslims believe that there is only one God who is creator, judge, and sovereign over all things. However, that initial similarity dissolves into difference as soon as one begins describing who this sovereign creator is. Others have more fully treated the differences between the biblical YHWH and the qur’anic Allah.[4] For our purposes, I simply want to recognize the difference in nature.

This discussion can begin with simply noting that the Bible regularly refers to God as Father. Islam, by way of contrast, vehemently denies that God is to be known as Father insofar as it insinuates that he has a son. While agreeing with the monotheism of Christian theology, Islam everywhere denies the reality of Trinity.

Both the Qur’an and Islamic theology vehemently reject the idea that God might exist as a tri-personal being. The Qur’an repeatedly contends that Allah is one (ex. Q. 6:101; 35:3; 40:62). Sometimes this assertion is also paired with a rejection of any concept of his begetting (ex. Q. 112:1-4) and other times with an injunction not to say of him, “Three” (ex. Q. 4:171). In addition to this, the greatest sin in Islam is assigning partners to God. This is the sin of shirk.

As such, there is significant and specific baggage that our formerly-Muslim brothers and sisters need to work through as they articulate and grasp the different nature of the God revealed in their newfound biblical faith.[5] This leads to the second point in that it has obvious consequences for how the Qur’an’s Jesus character differs from the biblical portrait.[6] 

The Qur’anic Messiah and the Biblical Incarnate Son

Islam and Christianity appear to share a respect for the person of Jesus the Messiah. The Qur’an even refers to its Jesus character as “al-Messih.” The qur’anic Jesus is one who performs miracles, brings a message from God, and is revered as the second greatest prophet in Islam. However, the similarity proves thin when considering the heart of the biblical testimony to what Christ did and who he is.

The qur’anic Jesus figure refuses to receive worship, is explicitly not the son of God, and avoids crucifixion.[7] In fact, later Islamic traditions contend that ‘Isa was rescued away while one of his followers was made to die as his substitute.[8] By undermining the central work of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection, the Jesus of the Qur’an proves to be an anti-Christ in biblical terms.

Thus, for former Muslims who have come to faith, Jesus is a complicated figure. Such complications are compounded as new believers from Islamic backgrounds come across passages in the gospels that seem to highlight Jesus’s humanity in ways that would seemingly be unsuited to the divine. Think, for example, of Jesus’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane as recorded in Luke 22:42: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me–nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done.” On the other hand, Muslims reading John 14:9 will likely be confused as Jesus claims that “The one who has seen me has seen the Father.” Some guidance as to how to hold together the biblical testimony and articulate a faithful Christology will be necessary. Yet the potential for confusion is not limited to theology proper and Christology. It also bleeds over into pneumatology.

The Qur’anic Ruh al-Quddus and the Biblical Holy Spirit

 The Qur’an in several places refers to a figure named ar-Ruh al-Quddus.[9] This is the same language used by the Arabic Bible to name the third person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit is said to have been sent by God to empower and strengthen ‘Isa, and in some promising places the Qur’an appears to simply recognize this heavenly figure as a key player in the work of revelation.

Far from being the biblical Holy Spirit, however, the qur’anic ar-Ruh al-Quddus is merely understood within Islamic theology to be the angel Jabril who is reportedly responsible for delivering the teaching from the heavenly book. This is supported by references such as Qur’an 26:193 which states of the Qur’an’s reception, “The trustworthy spirit has brought it down on your heart, so that you may be one of the warners in a clear Arabic language.” Thus, Islamic traditions contend that this “Holy Spirit” is the Jabril who reportedly appeared to Muhammad in the Cave of Hira and facilitated the Qur’an’s revelation.[10]

In summary, then, new believers who have been shaped by Islamic theology come to the biblical text with a bias against its Triune revelation, a distorted vision of who the incarnate Son of God is, and a misunderstanding of the one the Bible will reveal as the Holy Spirit. Rather than leaving them and their churches to figure it out on their own, missionaries helping to integrate these brothers and sisters into the great cloud of witnesses need to bring with them the benefit of the catholic faith and the celebration of joining the church produced by the catholic confession.

The Advantage of the Faith Catholic

At this point, it should be clear that the biblical Trinity will confront and reject the conception of God presented by the Qur’an. But the doctrine of the Trinity is not merely the product of Christian theological ingenuity or cultural creation. Rather, the Trinity is the result of biblical exegesis. The Trinity is also non-negotiable to the Christian faith and gospel salvation.

As we invite new believers from a Muslim background to read and wrestle with the biblical testimony, then, they will confront the same questions that Christians throughout the ages have asked. Of John 1:1-8 they will ask, “How is it that there can be one God who can be both the Word and with the Word?” Or of Luke 22:42, they will ask, “How is it that Jesus can have a will that needs to give deference to the will of his Father?” These perennial questions press on all readers of Scripture, but perhaps with a unique pressure for former Muslims due to the baggage they are bringing into the process of answering the question, “Who is the biblical God?” For anyone who has studied church history, the possible answers available are many and varied—and mostly lead to theological disaster.

“As we invite new believers from a Muslim background to read and wrestle with the biblical testimony, then, they will confront the same questions that Christians throughout the ages have asked.”

Rather than leaving our new brothers and sisters to discover the dangers of heretical directions in their interpretation for themselves—perhaps shipwrecking the faith of some in the process—missionaries have a wonderful gift to offer them: the knowledge that they are neither alone nor the first to encounter these questions. By God’s grace, the gospel by which they have been saved has also called them up into a great cloud of witnesses who have, for the last two thousand years, been working out the intricacies of the biblical testimony to who God has revealed himself to be.

The precise language of the Athanasian Creed affirms the tripersonal unity of the God of the Bible in ways that are rooted in Scripture and guarded from error. It captures and clings to the points of tension that the Bible introduces as the creed begins by stating: “Now this is the catholic faith: that we worship one God in Trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confounding their persons nor dividing their essence.”[11] It goes on to discuss the persons of the Trinity with clarity concerning each person’s equal divinity and also distinction regarding each person’s properties.

For instance, of the Son, the Athanasian Creed confesses, “The Son was neither made nor created; he was begotten from the Father alone.”[12] It goes on to clarify the divinity and humanity of Jesus, later stating,

Our Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is both God and man, equally . . . completely God, completely man, with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity . . . He is one, however, not by His divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself. He is one, certainly not by the blending of his essence, but by the unity of his person.[13]

And likewise the Creed affirms of the Holy Spirit that He is divine, uncreated, immeasurable, and eternal. It states, “The Holy Spirit was neither made nor created nor begotten; He proceeds from the Father and the Son.”[14] With various other particular affirmations, the creed concludes with a resounding statement: “This is the catholic faith: that one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully.”[15]

Each of these affirmations can be grounded in Scripture, and one can readily find examples of the Creeds that are embedded with biblical references throughout.[16] Each of these affirmations likewise strikes at some of the Islamic baggage that threatens to distort a former Muslim’s reception of Scripture. How could we justify withholding such a gift from those who are part of the church catholic? Why would we not use this as a tool to usher these brothers and sisters into the community of faith.

The Trinity, The Creed, and the Church

Missionaries who intend to invite people to consider the gospel are inviting people to know the God of the gospel. The knowledge of this God has been delivered through the Scriptures and hammered out into careful statements reflecting the biblical message by the church catholic throughout the ages. While the creeds are not Scripture, they are the product of deep and broad reflection on Scripture and can serve as guides for those reading and interpreting the Bible with new believers from a Muslim background.

I believe that missionaries should not only familiarize themselves with the creeds, but should prepare themselves to incorporate them in their ministry. These time-tested affirmations protect young believers against lop-sided and heretical interpretations. They also serve as a compassionate gift to new brothers and sisters, providing them with the confidence that the faith they are espousing is the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. If these new believers are in every sense part of the church catholic, they should in every way be equipped with the fruit of the labors of the church throughout the ages. Teaching these things is not cultural imperialism. Rather it is catholicity.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Radius International on January 16, 2024. Used with permission.

[1] Jude 3; See also, Matthew 28:19; 1 John 2:24; 2 Peter 3:18; Titus 1:9; 1 Timothy 4:6-15; 2 Timothy 2:2, 3:10-4:5.

[2] The word catholic in this sense means universal, or applying across all times, places, and peoples. See Chad Van Dixhoorn, ed., Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms: A Reader’s Edition (Crossway, Wheaton, IL: 2022), 21.

[3] See R. C. Sproul, “The Athanasian Creed,” 2007, Ligonier, Online: Sproul notes that the formal adoption of the so-called Athanasian Creed was at the fourth Council of Toledo in 633 AD. This timeframe corresponds with the traditional Islamic dating of its founder’s death (632 AD). While the Athanasian Creed likely has its origins two centuries prior, it is interesting to see how a document that clarifies and codifies the biblical and Christian confession of the Trinity is adopted in parallel with the rise of a faith that would come to stalwartly reject any conception of plurality within God.

[4] For example, see Ayman Ibrahim’s helpful article on the question of YHWH and the Allah of the Qur’an here: See also William Lane Craig’s short treatment

[5] Ex. Qur’an 9:30-31: “The Jews say, “Ezra is the son of God,” and the Christians say, “The Messiah is the son of God.” That is their saying with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before (them). (May) God fight them. How are they (so) deluded? They have taken their teachers and their monks as Lords instead of God, and (also) the Messiah, son of Mary, when they were only commanded to serve one God. (There is) no God but Him. Glory to Him above what they associate!” Gordon Nickel, The Qur’an with Christian Commentary (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2020), 209—210. Nickel’s volume uses the translation work of AJ Droge, The Qur’an (Bristol, CT: Equinox, 2013), though I intentionally want to link to his volume as a recommendation for Christians interested in purchasing a version of the Qur’an to investigate for themselves. Another recommended version with commentary from a Muslim would be Sayyed Hossein Nasr, ed. The Study Qur’an (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2015).

[6] Compare Qur’an 17:111, which states, “Say: ‘Praise (be) to God, who has not taken a son, nor has He any associate in the kingdom, nor has He any (need of) an ally (to protect Him) from disgrace. Magnify Him (with all) magnificence.” Also, Qur’an 112:1-3, “Say: ‘He is God. One! God the Eternal! He has not begotten and was not begotten, and He has no equal. None!” Both of these—and other such references—use the word walad and its derivatives to refer to son while Qur’an 9:30-31 cited in the main text is the only use use of the exact biblical language of ibn Allah.

[7] For a comprehensive listing of places where the Qur’an mentions ‘Isa, see

[8] See the commentary and citations of various Islamic authorities to this point recorded by Sayyed Hossein Nasr, The Qur’an, 262n157.

[9] For example, see Qur’an 2:87, 253; 5:110; 26:193; 19:17.

[10] Nasr, The Study Qur’an, 921n192-93.

[11] Line 3 of the Athanasian Creed. Van Dixhoorn, Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms, 21.

[12] Line 22 of the Athanasian Creed. Van Dixhoorn, Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms, 22.

[13] Selections from lines 30-37 of the Athanasian Creed. Van Dixhoorn, Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms, 22.

[14] Line 23 of the Athanasian Creed. Van Dixhoorn, Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms, 22.

[15] Line 44 of the Athanasian Creed. Van Dixhoorn, Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms, 22.

[16] Here is one example, though others exist: