Debate Review: What is God Like – Tawhid or Trinity? – Dr. Shabir & Jonathan McLatchie (Part 1)
At the outset, it’s best to say that if you saw Dr. Shabir’s debate with Nabeel on this topic and if you saw Jonathan’s debate with AbdurRaheem Green, also on this topic, then there was no real need for this debate. Most of what each speaker presented was contained within those two previous debates. There were no new arguments from either debater. Although touted as a dialogue, Jonathan’s approach was more debate minded, whereas Dr. Shabir was laid back and more or less relaxed in his use of technical arguments (compared to his demeanor and approach in his debate with Nabeel).
Dr. Shabir’s Introduction
He began by repeating the same three points he articulated in the debate with Nabeel.
- T – for the text of scripture.
- H – for history.
- R – for reason.
Dr. Ally argued that according to the Bible, God declared that He was not a man and that only He should be worshiped. This God whose name we do not know with certainty, but whom we refer to as Yahweh due to combining the consonants of the tetragrammaton with the name of Adonai (Lord), cannot be Jesus as Jesus is a man. To further his point of allowing scripture to interpret scripture, he mentioned that there can only be one Yahweh and according to Isaiah 42, Yahweh sends his servant, this servant is identified as Jesus in Matthew 12. Thus, Jesus cannot be Yahweh as the Bible identifies him as the servant which Yahweh sends. He further argues that according to the Christology of the New Testament, Jesus is an intermediary of God who the Jews came to identify as an agent of creation. The language of the New Testament is also vague regarding Jesus’s station. He is constantly referred to as Lord, which is a term used to describe humans of varying stations. The term Lord in and of itself cannot deify someone.
At this point, Dr. Shabir began to speak on the language used in regard to Jesus in the Gospel ascribed to John. John 1:1c is problematic as the attribution of total deity to the Word (later identified as Jesus), is uncertain due to Colwell’s rule. Grammarians do dispute about the definiteness of attributing deity to the Word in this verse due to the absence of a defining article which the original author purposely left out, this opened the wording and subsequent understanding of the verse to dispute. If the author wanted to ascribe total deity to the Word, then they would not have intentionally left out the defining article and thus, total deity cannot be ascribed to Jesus the Christ given the author’s grammatical intentions. In John 20:17, Jesus allegedly states to Mary Magdelene that he was ascending to “my God” and “your God”, thus denying that he was God himself. We also see where during the time of Paul, he himself was also deified, as within his historical milieu he was considered Zeus and sacrifices were offered to him as attested in Acts 14.
Dr. Shabir focused more on the text of scripture, than the other two points of history and reason. I do believe that he should have reduced the amount of time he spoke on the Bible, as logically, once he established that the scripture was both historically unreliable and not reasonable, he would have negated the authority of the scripture itself. While his three pronged argument of THR is intelligent and concise, I do disagree with the acronym he chose and the order in which he articulated those points. He would have known that Jonathan would have heavily depended upon quoting the Bible as a proof for his beliefs, and I expected that he would have pre-empted this appeal to authority by demonstrating the use of the Bible as an authoritative source as useless. Thus, leaving Jonathan without any credible options of arguing in favour of the Trinity, as he would not have any other arguments in store but for appealing to the Bible. I used this approach myself in my debate with Chessie Edwards, who admitted after the debate that the rug was pulled from under him, and he could not articulate his belief in Jesus as a God, beyond appealing to the Bible.
The reason for doing this, is that once one allows a Christian to appeal to the Bible, the debate becomes focused on interpreting the Bible. Which would mean that the debate would be about whose interpretation was more correct and not many people will be convinced of a Muslim interpreting their scripture for them. I adopted this reasoning from Professor Burton Mack who argued that we should not allow an appeal to the New Testament to count as an authoritative argument. I highly suspect that Dr. Shabir chose to ease the burden of Jonathan, by sticking to basic, common, popular arguments which would be simple. The reason for this is twofold, primarily because he may have felt the debate of the same topic with Nabeel would have been too technical and thus alienated his core audience, and secondly, he may have wanted to take it easy on Jonathan given this was his first stage debate. Dr. Shabir is quite a kind person and he does not argue to win, but more to build relationships and to open the floor to dialogue and understanding. This isn’t a fault, but some may misconstrue his kindness as being lax with missionaries. My only other complaint would be that he did not spend much time speaking on Tawhid, while he did qualify the Trinity as a problematic belief, he did not dedicate enough time to offering the belief of Tawhid as a superior doctrine.
He began by defining what the doctrine of the Trinity was. This is something I strongly agree with, opening a debate by delimiting the scope of the discussion. As a proponent of socratic thinking, this was a pleasant and welcomed feature of his presentation. As previously mentioned, it was expected that Jonathan would base his arguments about the nature of God by mainly appealing to the Bible. He opened by declaring that the Bible was a wholly Trinitarian text (timestamp in video, he says, “The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is thoroughly Trinitarian.”), which unfortunately for him, was pre-empted by Dr. Shabir who demonstrated it was not, thus Jonathan’s first argument was already weakened by Dr. Shabir. Jonathan then presented three other arguments which he felt negated the validity of the doctrine of Tawhid.
- Tawhid has its own internal problems.
- The disciples were Trinitarian.
- The Injeel is Trinitarian.
Of his first argument, he stated:
P1 – If Tawhid is true, it must be consistent.
P2 – Tawhid is not consistent.
C – Therefore Tawhid must not be true.
Technically, this (form of argument) is referred to as Modus Tollens. The problem here, is that you have to prove the premises before you can qualify and validate your conclusion which is expected to be a tautology. In attempting to do this, Jonathan disappointed me greatly. All he did was refer (timestamp in video, he says “Those who saw Shabir’s debate with Nabeel Qureishi would’ve been exposed to the problems with reconciling the eternality of the Qur’an with the doctrine of Tawhid.”) to the argument that Nabeel used regarding the Qur’an being the eternal word of Allah, yet physical and created. I was disappointed because this is an argument copied from Jay Smith, which Samuel Green tried to use on me in my debate with him, which Nabeel later picked up and tried to use against Dr. Shabir. The problem here is that Dr. Shabir already addressed this argument, and so have I. Jonathan merely repeated Nabeel’s poor argument. He did not try to revamp the argument, he did not add anything to the argument, he did not articulate it differently, he did not try to incorporate Dr. Shabir’s response to Nabeel into the argument. He quite literally just repeated the argument, which was already responded to. Naturally, I would expect, that if he did his homework and decided to use an argument which was already refuted, that he’d adjust the argument in some way. He didn’t do that. He presented nothing new. It was at that point I wondered why he even offered to debate the same topic if he was merely going to repeat the same points from the previous debate of the same topic by offering nothing new.
At this point, he presented another argument, namely that there are other creators other than Allah. He did not seem to understand that what he presented was the fallacy of false equivalency, wherein the Qur’an mentioned numerous times that there were agents of God who had abilities attained by the “leave/ permission of Allah”, which are temporal and not absolute. Logically, this would mean their abilities are not inherent and eternal, but appropriated by God, thus his argument was non-sequitur from the get go. I firmly believe that he did not critically consider this argument beyond a cursory copy and paste from Answering Islam’s website. Ironically, he attempted to present this argument in syllogistic form, but the argument was inherently non-sequitur due to its format including the fallacy of false equivalency. How he did not realise this, was impossible to understand, if he is using logic, he should know what fallacies are and how they inhibit his premises. What’s troubling is that in the same sentence he declares that Allah has no partners, then states in the same breath that the Holy Spirit shares in the divinity of God. That’s a contradiction, so either it is his argument and conclusions were wrong, or he forced a false conclusion which he himself did not notice.
His second argument was that the disciples of Jesus were Trinitarian. Interestingly, I had a debate on this topic earlier in the year and demonstrated that according to the proto-orthodox Christian tradition, the disciples were definitely not Trinitarian. At this point he introduced a very strange argument.
P1 – If the Disciples of Jesus were Trinitarian then the Islamic concept of God is false.
P2 – The Disciples of Christ were Trinitarian.
C – Therefore the Islamic concept of God is false.
Jonathan cannot make such an argument and believe that he is arguing logically. This is known as the fallacy of circular reasoning. What is worse was his attempt at drawing out the logical routes. He presumed that Dr. Shabir could refute his argument in one of two ways, firstly that the disciples were later misled or secondly, that the disciples were overcome (by other groups). Jonathan posited that the second option was impossible as the Qur’an says they were victors. The problem therein with his reasoning is that the Qur’an does not say in what way they were victors. He assumes that it has to be in the promulgation of their beliefs, which the Qur’an does not state itself. It is alleged that the early Christians were persecuted and the religion did not become “accepted” until Constantine’s conversion. According to Jonathan’s appeal to the Qur’an, he alleged that the Qur’an mentioned the disciples of Christ were victorious. Yet the Church was not accepted or mainstream until 300 years after them, so in what way were the disciples victorious according to his reading of the Qur’an? It would then mean that his interpretation was wrong, given that victory was not achieved as he understood it to be during the time of the disciples and so the victory being referred to here is not what he is asserting. The victory may have very well been that they themselves held on to their true faith despite persecution and in this way they were victorious in the sight of God. I do not believe that Jonathan spent more than a minute thinking of this argument, for if he did so, he’d realise instantly that the disparity between his idea of the normative proto-orthodox Church’s “victory” and that of the disciples exceeded the bounds of the Qur’an’s teaching.
At this point, he began to appeal to the New Testament as a historical witness, but for those of you familiar with Dr. Shabir’s works and my own, we already know that the New Testament en toto is not historically viable nor accurate. I have explicitly explained this in great detail in my debate with Steven on the very topic of the beliefs of the disciples using palaeography, papyrology, form criticism, textual criticism and historical criticism. The following links should be sufficient to refute his appeal to the New Testament as a historical witness, especially in his appeal to the Patristics:
- Was there early evidence of homonymous fabrications?
- Can we use the earliest Patristic witnesses to reconstruct the New Testament?
- Falsification of Acts of the Apostles and other New Testament literature by early anonymous scribes.
- The Patristics’ Errors in Identifying the Gospel Ascribed to Mark.
He began to close his argument by referring to hadith criticism’s use of the isnad or chain of transmission. Unfortunately, he merely referred to the use of the chain of transmission by Islamic scholarship, what he utterly failed to do was qualify the authority of these alleged chains of transmission by applying the methods of hadith criticism to the chains themselves. I myself did this in my debate with Steven, in fact this was one of the arguments I researched in great detail and whose historicity the early Church itself disputed. Thus, by both Christian historical traditions and the methodology of hadith criticism, the chains of transmission in regard to John used by Jonathan are known to have been falsified and are historically inaccurate. I do not believe that Jonathan spent more than a few minutes constructing this argument, nor do I believe he consulted any major works of Patristic criticism, especially due to the reason his sole academic source seemed to be Richard Bauckham, whom I also referenced in my debate. I do believe he rushed through this portion of his opening statement, and I do not believe he himself knew in any great detail the methodologies of hadith criticism, and so his appeal to this Christian isnad was mere buzz word dropping.
What can we take away from Jonathan’s presentation? We need to take into consideration that this was his first stage debate and this was a debate with Dr. Shabir of all people. With that in mind, his preparation was not up to standard and he seemed to rely on previously used arguments from Nabeel’s debate and his debate of the same topic with AbdurRaheem Green. If we were to identify his main arguments, they would be easily recognizable by anyone who is familiar with Islamic and Christian inter-faith discourse, namely that the Qur’an validates the New Testament, that the disciples believed Jesus was God and that the Bible is historically accurate. He did not present any new arguments, nor any new research, nor did he seek to upgrade any of the arguments he copied from other Christian debaters. Most of his presentation seemed to comprise of quickly assembled syllogistic arguments that were not critically assessed or put together with much thought and research behind them. He did not seem to put a lot of effort into his opening presentation, it almost seems rushed and half done, with most of his content directly sourced from his debate of the same topic with AbdurRaheem Green. I really wonder if he thought AbdurRaheem Green and Dr. Shabir were on the same level of study about the Christian religion. That is the impression he gave me. I strongly believe that he did not prepare his debate statement with Dr. Shabir’s education in mind.
One major difference between this debate and the one with AbdurRaheem Green was Jonathan’s comfort level. He certainly seemed uneasy and nervous, and at times he just appeared to be uncomfortable with addressing the crowd. His nerves may have gotten the better of him. Most notably, he rushed through his presentation, he spoke quite quickly and I fear that coupled with his accent, most of the audience would not have followed what he said. In contrast, Dr. Shabir almost seemed to be too relaxed and at times engaged with persons in the audience. As a Muslim though, I do not believe that Jonathan stuck to the topic. Although he began with defining the Trinity, he never really explained or spoke about the teachings of the Trinity, how they made sense, what the value of the Trinity was, why God would or could be a Trinity, how the Trinity was superior to Tawhid. Rather, what I got from Jonathan’s presentation is everything but the Trinity itself. His entire focus seemed to be on establishing that the Trinity was historically viable through the teachings of the Qur’an, and in doing so, he never dealt with the Trinity itself. I did not gain any new knowledge about the Trinity, I didn’t hear him speak on the reasoning of why God had to be a Trinity of persons or how it was possible for an immutable and impassible God to become a man and suffer. Jonathan just seemed to miss the mark spectacularly. As a Muslim, Jonathan’s opening simply did not present the Trinity to me and that is perhaps his greatest failure in this debate.
In Part 2, I’ll cover the Rebuttals.
and God knows best.