Evangelical Christians have inherited a rather bizarre sounding doctrine of God. Many believers take this doctrine for granted, but would be hard pressed to explain it to anyone. Some openly reject the doctrine as unbiblical. This is the doctrine of The Trinity. It teaches that the God of the Bible is a complex being consisting of three equally divine persons, but that these three persons comprise one divine essence, not three gods. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each 1/3 God, but each is fully God, while each is distinct from the other persons.
This trinitarian formula has been passed down to Christianity from its earliest days, and is the result of hashing over the biblical data in search of what it systematically tells regarding the question of the nature of the Father God, the nature of Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and their relationship to each other.
Unfortunately, most of that hashing over of the biblical data took place a long time ago. As a result, many sincere Christians fail to see the connection between the doctrine as it is expressed today, and the texts it developed from. The formula as it stands today is not substantially altered from that expressed by the creed of the Council of Nicaea, in 325 AD.
Alternate theories have developed. This chapter will seek to address some of those theories by identifying the points where they depart from trinitarianism, and their reasoning for doing so. Usually these objections to trinitarian language are trying to protect some other aspect of orthodox theology. For that reason, these arguments should be welcomed in academic theological study, even if at the end their premises are rejected.
The Biblical Data
The first place to turn, however, is not to the theories, but to the word of God. A survey of the Bible’s teaching about the nature of God reveals that the authors of the trinitarian formula were trying to summarize the biblical data when they developed the formula.
The very first verse in the Bible contains a grammatical contradiction. In Genesis 1:1 the verb bara’ is properly translated “he created.” But the subject of that verb – God, the one who created – is called ‘Elohim, which in form is masculine plural. The Jews developed many explanations for this apparent contradiction, but at least it suggested that the God who created the universe could not easily be defined. In the same chapter, God says “let us make man in our image” (1:26) which suggests again that God’s nature is a plurality of some sort. There is nothing in the context that suggests that God was talking to anyone else but himself. The occasional use in the Old Testament of plural pronouns when God is referring to himself,1 and plural verbs when referring to God’s activities2 and times when the titles “God” or “LORD” seem to refer to two persons at the same time3 seem to suggests that a raw Unitarianism does not capture God’s nature.
The contradiction is more than a grammatical one, because basic to Judaism is the concept of monotheism. The Bible affirms that monotheism in a number of places. In Deut. 6:4 the LORD is proclaimed to be one. In the face of pagan nations who claim that other beings are equally divine, God tells the Israelites that he alone deserves the title deity. This is more than simply a protest against idolatry. It is a fundamental testimony to the nature of God. But Moses, who wrote Deut. 6:4, is the same author who penned Genesis 1. Either he is contradicting himself, or he is suggesting a fundamental monotheistic deity who (in some sense) is also a plurality.
In the New Testament, this fundamental monotheism of Deut. 6:4 is retained in statements of essential theology. James takes it as a standard of orthodoxy to believe that “there is one God” (2:19). Paul repeats these words numerous times (1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5). Yet when Jesus commands baptism in the name of this one God, he tells the church to baptize believers in the name of “The Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Notice that there is only one name mentioned. “The Father” is not a name, it is a title. “The Son” is likewise a title. “The Holy Spirit” is a title as well. If Jesus had in mind a name here, it could only be the name which, in our English Bibles is translated LORD. The name in Hebrew is YHVH. Thus the term which the Bible uses most for God applies equally to all three members of the Trinity.
The monotheism that the Bible proclaims is preserved by the trinitarian formula because each of the three persons of the trinity is called by the same name, identifying each with the same being, the same God. God is one “what” and three “whos” at the same time. There is no trickery here. If the data that the Bible presents allowed some other explanation, then the trinitarian formula should be renounced.
But the trinity is often rejected for another reason: it does not make sense. The reason is does not make sense is that it is an attempt to describe God’s nature. His nature is difficult to describe because there is no one else to compare it to. The Bible constantly affirms that there is no one else like God.4 We have already seen in the previous chapters that some aspects of God’s nature are exclusive to him alone. We should not expect to fully understand or relate to those attributes which are exclusive to God. God’s triune nature is one of those attributes.
Each of the persons of the Trinity is revealed in the Old Testament, and his existence and purpose is clarified in the New Testament. Psalm 2:7 records a conversation between God the Father and someone else. The Father is speaking to someone else who is in heaven with himself, and proclaims to that person “”You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” That other person was not an angel, as is made clear by the author of Hebrews (1:5). The New Testament affirmation is that this statement was made to Jesus Christ before he was born (Acts 13:33; Hebrews 5:5).
So trinitarian thought affirms that Jesus (in addition to being fully human) is also fully God, so preexisted his own incarnation.
Jesus constantly spoke of the Father sending his Son into the world.5 It was clear that he was not sent in the same way that the prophets were sent, because behind each of these references is that incarnational appointment as high priest under the new covenant (Hebrews 5:5). He was not sent just to be a messenger to the world, but he was sent to be its Savior, as Paul6 and John7 would proclaim in their epistles. A prophet could come from earth, and be a sinner just like us. But a Savior had to come from heaven,8 — from above9 –and be sinless, like God.
So, when Jesus did finally make his appearance in the flesh among the human race, God the Father declared that he was unique, because of his special relationship with him. Other people were God’s children by virtue of creation and subsequent procreation. Jesus was God the Father’s only begotten Son in whom the Father is well-pleased, and upon whom the Holy Spirit dwells and remains without limitation.10 He is uniquely the Son of God,11 therefore he knows the Father like no one else, and is equally known by the Father.12
Jesus also infuriated the Jewish leaders by claiming that special relationship. They correctly understood that Jesus was making himself to be equal with God. They were right in accusing him of blasphemy if his statements were not true.
John 10:22-33 ESV
At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem.
It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the
colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and
said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are
the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you,
and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s
name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because
you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and
I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life,
and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out
of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater
than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s
hand. I and the Father are one.” The Jews picked up stones
again to stone him. Jesus answered them, “I have shown you
many good works from the Father; for which of them are you
going to stone me?” The Jews answered him, “It is not for a
good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy,
because you, being a man, make yourself God.”
It was a serious thing to reject what Jesus was saying about himself here. Those who refused to listen to his voice were not part of his flock. He was not claiming to be the Father, but he was claiming to be one (that is, equal) with his Father. He was claiming full deity just as the Father has full deity.
Another factor that leads to trinitarian thought is how the biblical record treats the Holy Spirit. The language used of him is personal, and, when taken seriously, prevents the assumption that the Holy Spirit is just another name for the Father, or some influence or power sent from the Father. Although the title “Spirit” is neuter in Greek, the New Testament authors do not treat the Holy Spirit as a mere influence. They insist on using masculine pronouns when referring to him. He is a “he,” not an “it.”13 The actions he is said to perform are actions of a person who can communicate and whose words can be rejected, and even blasphemed against.14 The “he” in question is not the Father. The Son was sent from the Father. The Spirit was also from the Father but was sent by the Son (John 15:26).
Like the Son, the Spirit will have a mission, and carry out that mission on earth. In fact, the Holy Spirit would take on the same mission as Christ did, so far as the discipling of Christ’s followers is concerned. This is what Jesus meant when he said that the Holy Spirit would be another Helper. In John 14:16 Jesus predicts that the Father (one person) will answer his (another person’s) prayer and send another Helper (third person) who would be with the disciples forever. By using the term “another” here, Jesus implies that he (Jesus) was the first helper.
The term “another” is also significant because the Greeks used two words that can be translated into English as “another.” The term heteros means another of a different kind. We see that word in our English word heterosexual. A heterosexual has sexual relations with another person of a different gender. The opposite is a homosexual, who prefers relations with a person of the same (homos) gender. The point is, if the Holy Spirit were merely an influence from God, an impersonal power, then the Greek word John would have used in John 14:16 would naturally be heteros but it was not. Instead, John used allelos. This word also translates into English as “another” but it means another of the same kind. If Jesus, as a person, came as a helper for his disciples, then he would send the Holy Spirit, who is also a person to pick up the slack in his physical absence. For God so loved the world that he sent his Son. For Jesus so loved the world that he also sent another person: the Holy Spirit.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit had made a noticeable appearance together at the baptism of Christ.15 It was not until after the Holy Spirit appeared and began manifesting himself in the early Church that believers began putting one plus one plus one together and coming up with a God who is three persons. By the time the epistles were written, this had become so clear that invocations for blessings to God were now written not just to the Father, but to both the Father and the Son.16 And references to God’s work in believers’ lives would include all three persons.17
Not all evangelical believers see the data above as conclusive proof for the doctrine of the trinity. Some objectors, like the Arians and modern day Unitarians18 seek to preserve the monotheism by down-grading the Son to a lesser “god” with a small “g,” (which they would then argue is not God at all), and down-grading the Spirit to God in action (denying his distinct person-hood). Others seek to preserve the unity by merging all three persons into one, like the Oneness Pentecostals19 do when they insist on “Jesus Only.” They apparently see the examples of God’s plurality in speech or action as merely a plurality of manifestation of the one monotheistic God of the Bible.
Sometimes opponents of the Trinity object to it ad hominem because they believe the doctrine came from Catholicism, and thus must necessarily be wrong. While it is true that the first believers in the Trinity were Catholics, it is also true that the first believers in justification by faith and sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers (as those doctrines came to be expressed by the reformers) were also Catholics. The fact is, the doctrines that reveal the apostate nature of Roman Catholicism had not yet fully developed when the doctrine of the Trinity was approved by the Council of Nicaea. Its creed represents a Church seeking to conform to the Bible and present the Bible’s theology.
The trinity is a touchy subject for most of us. It has even been a matter upon which evangelicals have chosen to deny membership or fellowship to those who hold different opinions. While we evangelicals are sometimes quite liberal in our acceptance of those with differing theological views, this subject often seems too sensitive for that. After all, the nature of God himself seems too essential, too basic to allow much wiggle room.
There is also a practical reason that this doctrine is held with such fervor. To lose the triune nature of God is to miss out on a God to whom relationships are part of his essential being. Both Unitarians and Oneness Pentecostals proclaim a God who is categorically one person. Trinitarians proclaim, worship and serve a God whose unity has always been a manifestation of a unique eternal relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Trinitarians like to think that knowing the Triune God teaches us something about true unity in relationships.
Sincere Advent Christians have promulgated both the Unitarian and Trinitarian positions, but the debate has not always been as irenic as it could have been. The clashes in the past were partly due to the sensitive and important nature of the debate. But some of them (to our shame) have resulted from failure to treat each other with respect. May God forgive us.
1 Gen. 3:22; 11:17; Isaiah 6:8.
2 Gen. 20:13; 35:7.
3 Psalm 45:6-7; 110:1; Hosea 1:7.
4 Deut. 4:35,39; 1 Kings 8:60; 1 Sam. 42:8; Isaiah 45: 5,6, 18,21,22; 46:9; Mark 12:32.
5 John 4:34; 5:24,30,36,37; 6:38,39,44,57; 7:16,28,29,33; 8:16,18,26,29,42; 9:4; 11:42; 12:44,45,49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:8,18,21,23,25; 20:21.
6 Gal. 4:4,6.
7 1 John 4:9,10,14.
8 1 Cor. 15:47; 1 Thess. 1:10; 4:16; 2 Thess. 1:7; Heb. 12:25.
9 John 3:31; 8:23.
10 Matt. 11:27; 24:36; Mark 13:32; Luke 10:22.
11 Matt. 4:6; 8:29; 14:33; 27:40,43,44; Mark 3:11; 12:6-8; 15:39; Luke 4:41; 22:70; compare John 1:34,49; 9:35; 11:27.
12 Matt. 11:27; Luke 10:22.
13 John 14:17, 26; 15:26; 16:13.
14 Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10.