Biblical Approaches to the Trinity 1: The Old Testament

Is the Trinity in the Bible?  I have talked with Jews, Muslims, atheists, and even some Christians who say no.  Recently I had the privilege of discussing the issue with an ex-Muslim and with a Jehovah’s Witness, who have prompted me to revisit the issue here.  Of course I admit that the word “Trinity” nowhere occurs in the inspired text of the Bible.  But the lack of a word does not mean the absence of the reality to which that word refers.  The word “omnipresent” is also not to be found in Scripture, but the idea of God’s omnipresence is clearly taught there (e.g. 1 Kings 8:27; Psalm 139:7-12).  Like God’s omnipresence, we need to explore what the Bible actually teaches about God’s oneness, and then consider what to call it.

Unity

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” (Deut. 6:4)  With this declaration, Moses set the standard for Hebrew monotheism: there is only one God.  Earlier he had already insisted that there is no other God (Deut. 4:35, 39).  Centuries later the Psalmist picked up the refrain when he declared, “You alone are God” (Psalm 86:10).  Some biblical scholars wish to assert that the Israelites did not believe monotheism (there exists only one God) but instead monolatrism (they worship only one God) or henotheism (I’ve got my God, you’ve got yours), but these passages are sufficiently clear, and indeed, the verse in Psalm 86 couples God’s uniqueness with the notion that all peoples, not just Israelites, will worship him!  This is not henotheism or monolatry.  The God of Israel explicitly stated to Isaiah, “Apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6).  That is the reason God commanded the Israelites to worship no other God (Exodus 20:3; Deut. 5:7), and God said to Isaiah that he would not share his divine glory with anyone else (Isaiah 42:8; 48:11).  The Old Testament is very clear that there is only one God.  On that point, Christians agree with Jews, Muslims, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A Grammatical Digression

Everything else I write in this post needs to be understood through the lens of the assertion that there is only one God.  Every other God is a myth.  But before we go further in investigating the Trinity and the Bible, we must clarify two small grammatical issues.

The very first sentence of the Bible is grammatically surprising.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).  Hebrew, like English, specifies whether nouns are singular or plural.  Hebrew, unlike English, also specifies whether past-tense verbs are singular or plural.  (English marks present-tense verbs for number, e.g. “he runs” vs. “they run,” but not in the past tense.)  In this verse, the verb is, as expected, singular (“he created”), but the noun “God” (in Hebrew, elohim) has a plural ending.  Clearly it has a singular meaning, since the verb is singular and elsewhere in the Bible we read that there is only one God (see above).  But it looks plural, and in other contexts (when referring to pagan religions) the very same word is typically translated “gods” (e.g. Genesis 35:2, 4; Exodus 12:12, among any others).   Nor is it just here: elohim is the most common way to say “God” in Hebrew (although there are others, such as el and eloah, which are singular).  Indeed, this apparently plural word for God is the word used in Deuteronomy 6:4: “The LORD our elohim, the LORD is one!”  Since elohim, when referring to the God of Israel, always takes a singular verb, this is not evidence of polytheism, and scholars debate why the Hebrew authors used a plural noun for a singular reality.  We will return to this question below.

The other grammatical point also occurs in the very first chapter of Genesis, and a few other places.  Having established throughout the chapter so far that God (elohim) takes a singular verb, in verse 26 God for the first time speaks of himself.  He has previously spoken of light, water, skies, ground, vegetation, and various kinds of animals, and they came into existence.  In verse 26, God speaks of humanity and the image of God, and he does so in a grammatically plural way: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.”  Yet when Moses immediately afterward narrates that this happen, he reverts to third-person singular pronouns and verbs for God: “God created mankind in his own image” (Genesis 1:27).  God also speaks in the first-person plural when discussing the punishment of humanity for eating from the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:22) and later the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:7).  The only other place where God may be speaking in the first-person plural is in the call of Isaiah, that great prophet of monotheism, who heard God say, “Whom shall I (singular) send? And who will go for us (plural)?” (Isaiah 6:8).  Everywhere else, when God speaks of himself, he does so in the singular.

It is debated why these plurals are here.  Use of a grammatical plural does not necessarily indicate a plural subject, as in the “plural of majesty” (Queen Victoria famously said, “We are not amused.”)  But if it is the plural of majesty, why does God stop using it?  Others suggest that God is speaking to the assembled angels, the “host of heaven.”  But no passage of the Bible suggests either that humans are created in the image of angels, or that angels are created in the image of God, so it is hard to make sense of Genesis 1:26 on this assumption.

What these grammatical surprises leave us with is questions, not answers.  Why is God, who is undoubtedly one, occasionally referred to in the plural, even (perhaps especially) at the beginning of his revelation?

The Plot Thickens

Given God’s unity, which we regard as revealed very clearly, God inspired some other astonishing statements in the Old Testament.  For example, Psalm 45 is addressed to the king (45:1), but in v.6 the psalmist recites, “Your throne, O God, will last forever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.”  So evidently the psalmist is here addressing God, and he continues with no apparent interruption, “You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your  companions by anointing you with the oil of joy” (45:7).  So unless one regards v.6 as a break, which is not indicated in the text, it sure looks like God anointed God as king over his kingdom.  Hrm.

A further surprise comes in a part of Isaiah’s prophecy popularized by Handel’s Messiah:

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6)

Some people have heard these words so frequently that they have ceased to convey individual meaning, merely evoking notions of Christmas.  But let us take it a step at a time.  There will be a male child who will govern.  That much is clear.  The following verse specifies that he will reign on David’s throne (Isaiah 9:7).  No trouble there.  But what will this royal baby be called?  “Wonderful Counselor” is an odd, but not intrinsically difficult, name for a young king.  But “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father” are not things that one calls humans.  “Prince of Peace” is, of course, the most famous name in this list, but the two in the middle are a real difficulty.  They are an even greater difficulty given that the very same God said to the very same Isaiah elsewhere, “I will not yield my glory to another” (Isaiah 42:8).  This messianic prophecy seems to suggest that the babe to rule will be called God, and we should not take that as a misrepresentation.  The “Mighty God” cannot be any other than the God of Israel; the only other use of this Hebrew phrase in the Bible is Isaiah 10:21.  So Isaiah 9 appears to assert that the “Mighty God” will be born.  Whoa.

There are other questions as well.  For example, the Spirit of the LORD speaks through the prophets (e.g. Numbers 11:25-26, 29; Nehemiah 9:30; among many other places), yet when they speak, “This is what God says” (2 Chron. 24:20; Ezekiel 11:5).  The parallelism in David’s “last words” suggests the same thing:

The Spirit of the Lord spoke through me;
    his word was on my tongue.
The God of Israel spoke,
    the Rock of Israel said to me… (2 Sam 23:2-3)

So who’s doing the talking, God or the Spirit of God?  Are these words God’s words or the words of his Spirit?  Who inspired the prophets, the Spirit of God or God himself?  Is this even a meaningful question?  Or what is the relationship between God and the Holy Spirit?

Complex Oneness?

The Bible is very clear that there is only one God.  Yet already in the Old Testament, there are hints that there is more to say on the subject.  God sometimes talks about himself in the plural.  There is a grammatical oddity, unique to Hebrew among the Semitic languages, that perhaps suggests a simultaneous plurality within the one God.  There are odd verses which suggest that God anoints God, or that God will be born, and there is the blurring of boundaries between God and the Spirit of God.  The Old Testament does not plainly teach the later Christian doctrine of the Trinity (one essence of God, eternally existent in three persons).  But it raises questions about God’s singleness, even as it asserts that there is only one God.  It suggests a somewhat mysterious complexity to God’s unity, a complexity that could be clarified by later revelation.

This is the first post in a series.  Read the second here and the third here.

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One comment

  1. I finally got to read all the way through. Wow! Thanks for all the work you put in this, and I look forward to more installments on this theme.

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