This is the third post in a series. Read the first post here and the second here.
Does the Bible teach that God is Trinity? While the word “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible, we have discussed how the Old Testament presents God as united and unique, but it also hints at something more about God. Jesus, a devout Jew, affirmed the unity and uniqueness of God, but he also claimed for himself divine authority, roles, attributes, and prerogatives on the basis of his unique unity with the Father, whom he identified as the God of Israel (John 8:54). How did Christians get from there to the Trinity? And what do Christians mean by the Trinity anyway?
The Apostles on God and Jesus
Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would bring to the mind of his followers everything he had said to them (John 14:26), and the earliest Christians certainly collected what they remembered Jesus as saying and reflected on it. But the apostles were not primarily philosophical theologians coining new jargon for church doctrine; they were far more concerned with proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus and setting up churches to carry on the message after them. They were also limited people like us, not understanding God fully and growing over time in their knowledge of him (John 2:22; 12:16), even while struggling with doubts (Matthew 28:17). (I do believe, however, that what they wrote on the subject which made it into the Bible was divinely inspired!) So the apostles certainly did not use the word “Trinity.” But they did worship Jesus (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:52), a divine prerogative which mere humans and even angels were required to reject (Acts 10:25-26; 14:14-15; Revelation 22:8-9). Worshiping anything other than God would break the very first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3), so clearly the apostles believed that Jesus deserved divine honor.
The apostles, all of whom were devout Jews, believed that the God of Israel was the only true God. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “We know that ‘An idol is nothing at all in the world’ and that ‘There is no God but one.'” (1 Corinthians 8:4; cf. Romans 3:30). Earlier, he and Barnabas had contrasted the “worthless things” of sacrifices to Zeus with “the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (Acts 14:15). James affirmed that God’s oneness is so incontrovertible that even demons acknowledge it (James 2:19). John ended his first letter with a closing warning: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). So the apostles did not believe that worshiping Jesus contradicted their monotheistic belief. It did lead to some puzzles.
The apostles experimented with what to call Jesus in relation to God. They called him God’s Servant (Acts 3:13; 4:27), God’s Messiah (i.e. “Christ”: Luke 9:20; Acts 2:36; 3:18; 1 Corinthians 3:23), God’s Son (Mark 1:1; Romans 1:4; 1 John 5:20). All of these are correct. These same apostles were even increasingly comfortable explicitly calling Jesus himself “God,” starting very early. Already one week after the resurrection, when the apostle Thomas faced the risen Jesus, he called him, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Paul wrote to the Romans that Jesus Christ “is God over all, forever praised!” (Romans 9:5). To the Christians in Philippi, Paul described Jesus before his birth as “being in the form of (i.e. as) God” who possessed “equality with God” (Philippians 2:6). Writing to his friend Titus, Paul spoke of the expected return of “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). Peter likewise opened his second letter by appealing to “the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ” which gives faith to Christians (2 Peter 1:1). Finally, and most famously, John penned the opening lines of his gospel about Jesus as God’s Word, using phrases which evoke the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1; cf. 1:18).
So the apostles did not use the term “Trinity” and did not work out a detailed philosophical explanation, but they believed that there is only one living God, the creator of all things and the God of Israel, and yet they worshiped Jesus and were willing to call Jesus “God’s Son” and even explicitly “God.”
Good Theories and Bad
Some Christians after the apostles had a bit more time on their hands and a desire for philosophical consistency, and were inclined to ask nosy questions and suggest possible answers. (I might be one of these.) The question arose, “How can God be the Father of Jesus, and Jesus also be God, and yet there be only one God?” Various answers were suggested. Some people had the idea that maybe Jesus was just a man, yet God adopted him, so Jesus was called “God” by courtesy, or like a family name (a viewpoint called, unsurprisingly, “adoptionism,” and believed again today by various liberal groups suspicious of supernaturalism). Others suggested that there was only one God, but sometimes he acted in the role of Father and sometimes in the role of Son (which we label “modalism” or “Sabellianism” and which is held by Oneness Pentecostals today). Yet others proposed that Jesus was more than a mere human, and was the first created thing, through whom all else was created, and is called “God” as a form of honor (this position, accepted by Jehovah’s Witnesses today, is “Arianism,” not to be confused with “Aryanism“).
Each of these viewpoints was considered and rejected by the majority of ancient Christian leaders, as incompatible with one or another aspect of God’s revelation in the Bible. Adoptionism runs afoul of what God said to Isaiah: “I will not give my glory to another” (Isaiah 48:11). It seems to counter Jesus claiming to exist before Abraham’s birth (John 8:58) and Paul speaking of Jesus, before his birth, as “being in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6). Modalism satisfies those passages, but how can that theory explain the baptism of Christ, where a voice from God the Father spoke and sent down the Holy Spirit like a dove upon Jesus being baptized (Matthew 3:16-17)? According to a modalist view, the many times that Jesus said, “My Father sent me” (fourteen times in John) would all reduce to “I sent myself in a different costume,” and that does not seem to make sense. Arianism preserves the different actors in the interactions between Jesus and God the Father, and allows for Jesus speaking of his existence before Abraham’s birth two millennia earlier, but how then could Paul worship and serve Jesus, when he condemned people who “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised” (Romans 1:25)? Arianism also founders on God’s statement to Isaiah cited above, that he would not give another his glory, which is no doubt why Jehovah’s Witnesses carefully mistranslate the passages cited above in which the apostles called Jesus “God.”
Instead of these faulty explanations, ancient Christian leaders, and their successors and followers to the present, identified a few key necessary ideas, hinted at in the Old Testament, claimed by Jesus, and held by the apostles. There is in fact only one God, and no created being can be called God. Jesus’s Father is God. Jesus is God. Jesus is not his own Father. But there is more.
And the Holy Spirit, Too!
The Old Testament had mentioned God’s Spirit already in the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:2), and had referenced God’s Spirit performing divine actions, such as inspiring prophets. Jesus had promised his close followers that after his departure, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17). The fact that the Spirit is another, suggests that in some sense the Spirit is the same sort of thing that Jesus is. After rising from the dead, Jesus commanded his followers to baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), suggesting a shared authority among the three named persons. Indeed, although “Spirit” is technically a neuter noun in Greek (an “it”), Jesus chose to refer to the Holy Spirit as “he” and “him” (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7-8, 13-14) instead of what would be expected and considered non-offensive, “it.” Perhaps the grammar was making a point.
The apostles likewise spoke of the Holy Spirit frequently, often in the same breath with God and Jesus (Acts 10:38; Romans 15:30; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 1:17; Philippians 3:3; 1 Peter 1:2). Peter rebuked a couple for having “lied to the Holy Spirit,” which he described as having “not lied just to human beings but to God” (Acts 5:3-4); this may hint that the Spirit is also God. Paul, speaking of the variety of spiritual gifts, nevertheless emphasizes the unity of “the same Spirit… the same Lord… the same God at work” in the different spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
Later Christians puzzled about the Holy Spirit for even longer than they puzzled about Jesus. Some suggested that God’s Spirit is another way of saying “God” (but this runs into the same trouble as modalism when God sends his Spirit). Others concluded that the “Spirit of God” was another way to refer to Jesus (but then how can Jesus describe the Spirit as “another advocate”?). Yet others seem to have argued that the Spirit of God was just not God, but instead someone created by Jesus (this is the view ascribed to the “Pneumatomakhoi,” those who “fight against the Spirit”) – but in this case how could a mere creature know all the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:10-11)? In the face of these explanatory failures, Christians eventually came to the view that there is still only one God, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son, but is the same God as the Father and the Son.
The Oneness and Three-ness of God
The conclusion of the long process of early Christians figuring out what they believed about God, Jesus, and the Spirit, can perhaps most briefly be summed up in the words of the Athanasian Creed: “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet they are not three Gods, but one God.” Christians have continued to insist that there is only one true God, and yet the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit are three distinct individuals who are jointly the same God. The Old Testament’s hints about God’s complex oneness, Jesus’s claims to full participation in divine unity without singleness, and the apostles’ appropriation of Jesus’s claims and their implications that he and the Spirit are “also God,” together force Christians to recognize that there is not only a oneness about God, but there is also a certain “three-ness” to the one and only God. The Latin word for “three-ness” is trinitas, from which English gets the word Trinity.
So when critics say the “Trinity” is not in the Bible, they are right about words but wrong about meaning. It is true that the word “trinity” is not to be found there. But as we have observed, it is possible for the reality described by the word to be expressed even without using the word. The notion of God’s “three-ness” (trinitas) is an attempt to understand and synthesize what the Bible teaches about God’s complex unity, and about the simultaneous divinity and distinction of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)