Associators

The Muslims use a very distinctive term to apply to the Christians. They call them 'associators'. The word first occurs in Christian literature in St John of Damascus who was born a generation after the Muslim conquest of the Middle East (675 CE). His father was the chief representative of the Christians to the Caliph who resided in Damascus and John who spoke Arabic had contact with Muslim thinkers. In his monumental work the Fount of Wisdom, written when he was a monk at the monastery of Mar Saba in Palestine, he includes a long chapter on Islam, one of the first efforts of a Christian thinker to respond to the challenge of the new religion that had arisen in Arabia several generations earlier. '[The Muslims] call us Associators', he writes, 'because, they say, we introduce beside God an associate to Him by saying that Christ is the Son of God and God.' John was not simply passing on something he had heard from Muslim critics in Damascus or Palestine. He had studied the Koran and knew that the charge could be found in the sacred book of the Muslims. In Surah 3, The House of Imram, it reads:

Say, 'People of the book! Come now to a word common between us and you, that we serve none but God, and that we associate nothing with Him, and do not some of us take others as Lords, apart from God.'

In the same treatise John of Damascus alludes to an even more explicit passage from the Koran dealing with the deficiencies of the Christian doctrine of God. Muhammad, says John, said that there is one God 'who was neither begotten nor has he begotten'. The reference here is to Surah 112 which in its entirety reads: 'In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Say: "He is God, One, God, the Everlasting Refuge, who has not begotten, and has not been begotten, and no one is equal to Him."' It is clear from this Surah that Muhammad was familiar with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, indeed the Koran gives an Arabic translation of two of the technical terms used in Trinitarian theology, begotten and unbegotten, gen[n]etos and agen[n]etos.

The Muslim critics were correct. The Christians were associators. Because of the economy, they found it necessary to say that God the Father had associates. What is more, in response to the Muslims, Christian thinkers urged that such a way of conceiving God was preferable not simply because it was reasonable, but because it was found in the biblical tradition that Muslims shared with Christians and Jews and that was evident in the Koran. In discussion with Muslims, John of Damascus does not begin with arguments about the nature of God in general. The Koran, he notes, speaks of the 'Word' and also of the 'Spirit'. In saying that the Word and the Spirit are 'outside of God', and hence in 'trying to avoid making associates of God', Muslim thinkers have 'mutilated God'. He continues:

It would be better to say that God has an associate than to mutilate God and deal with him as if he were a stone, or wood, or any of the inanimate objects. Therefore you accuse us falsely by calling us Associators; we, however, call you Mutilators of God.

St Hilary's phrase 'not a solitary God' was felicitous. In its original setting it was a tentative effort to find a way of explaining that after the coming of

Christ it was not possible to conceive of God as a solitary monad. Though God was still confessed as one, God was not alone. But it led to more. If God is not solitary and exists always in relation, there can be no talk of God that does not involve love. Love unites Father, Son and Holy Spirit, love brings God into relation with the world, and by love human beings cleave to God and to one another.

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