The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, delivered a lecture about the basics of Christianity at the Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan. Some traditionalists pounced on his description of the Incarnation as allegedly heretical. Others congratulated him for doing a splendid job of sensitively explaining the faith, in a satisfactorily-orthodox way, to an audience of Muslims.
The passage that seemed to spark the most conservative ire was this one (with extra paragraphing added):
We believe that Jesus, Son of Mary, is fully a human being. But we believe more than that.
Because of the divine authority that he shows in his power to teach and to forgive, as our gospels describe it, we say also that the whole of his human life is the direct effect of God’s action working in him at every moment.
Some of our teachers have said that his human life is like iron that has been heated in the fire until it has the same power to burn as the fire does.
We call him the Son of God. But we do not mean by this that God has physically begotten him, or that he is made to be another God alongside the one God.
We say rather that the one God is first the source of everything, the life from which everything flows out. Then we say that the one God is also in that flowing-out.
The life that comes from him is not something different from him. It reflects all that he is. It shows his glory and beauty and communicates them.
Once again, our teachers say that God has a perfect and eternal ‘image’ of his glory, sometimes called his wisdom, sometimes called his ‘word’, sometimes called his ‘son’, though this is never to be understood in a physical and literal way.
And we say that the one God, who is both source and outward-flowing life, who is both ‘Father’ and ‘Son’, is also active as the power that draws everything back to God, leading and guiding human beings towards the wisdom and goodness of God. This is the power we call ‘Holy Spirit’.
So when we speak of ‘the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, we do not at all mean to say that there are three gods – as if there were three divine people in heaven, like three human people in a room.
Certainly we believe that the three ways in which God eternally exists and acts are distinct – but not in the way that things in the world or even persons in the world are distinct.
It’s not hard to understand why these concepts are difficult for non-Christians to accept. They doubtless strike the outsider as entirely mystical, even speculative, without any sort of testable connection to the real world.