What the Bible says about the Trinity


Is the Trinity Biblical?

“The Trinity is just made up. The word doesn’t even exist in the Bible.” Down through history, this has been the great objection raised against orthodox Christian belief. In modern times, the Jehovah’s Witnesses in particular have argued vehemently that the whole idea owes more to pagan religion and philosophy than it does to Biblical teaching.

We have argued from the start that what we believe affects how we live.  If our faith is based on a lie, then our whole lives will be shipwrecked with no sense of purpose or direction.  If we believe a lie, then we commit idolatry and worship a false god.

So, at this stage, we are going to take a little time to provide a summary of what the Bible teaches about God as Trinity.  Of course, if you go looking for the word, then you won’t find it, but what we will argue is that the word ‘Trinity’ sums up the whole Biblical teaching that in God we see two aspects. First of all, the Bible presents God’s oneness and unity – the one true God who is without rivals.  Secondly, the Bible presents plurality and diversity within this one God so that we talk about God as being One God existing as three persons.

Oneness of God – monotheism – without rivalry

The key Old Testament text is Deuteronomy 6:4 which says, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one.”  This is sometimes called “The Shema” and it is still recited as the Jewish call to worship to this day.

God reveals himself by the name Yahweh – it has the idea of self-existence and also is associated with God as deliverer.  It is Yahweh who rescues the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and brings them into the Promised Land.[1] They are to worship him and him only. They are not to worship other living beings; they are not to make images and worship them.[2]

Loyal worship is not about religious observance or even obedience.  When the people are told to hear and remember that there is only one God, they are told to love him whole heartedly (heart, mind, soul).[3]  In fact, this is seen as the command which sums up the law and is described both by Jesus and his opponents, the teachers of the Law as the first and most important commandment.  The command to love others (your neighbour as yourself) flows out implicitly from this as the second commandment.[4]  So, when we talk about the oneness of God, we are back at love again.  His oneness commands an exclusive, faithful love.  Of course, this begs the question of what sort of God can legitimately demand our love: surely it is the God who loves us, the God who is love?

As Mike Reeves says:

“If salvation simply means him letting me off, and counting me as a law abiding citizen then gratitude (not love) is all I have.  In other words, I can never really love the God who is essentially just ‘The Ruler.’ And that ironically means I can never keep the greatest commandment: to love the Lord my God.”[5]

Throughout the Old Testament, this keeps coming up. God is the one who commands Israel’s worship and obedience.  He is the one they are to trust in and to rely on.  Yet so often they choose to worship idols.  Now if, at times, the love relationship is presented in terms of Father and Son, the other relationship image that the Old Testament uses is that of husband and wife.  God is the one who calls Israel as his bride.  This is a unique and significant image: the Canaanite religions around Israel had male gods with female goddesses as their consorts, but in the Bible, Yahweh’s consort is his people.  Monotheism upholds a high view of humanity as central to a good creation.

Sadly, Israel does not act faithfully and is likened to a prostitute who leaves her husband for other men.  This provides a graphic image of idolatry.  Of course, sexual immorality often had a literal part to play in pagan shrine rituals.[6]

God’s oneness tells us about his unique power and glory.  Deuteronomy 32:39 says “See now that I am He! There is no god besides me.” [7] Yahweh is the one who will share his glory with no other god (See the repeated refrain in Isaiah 43:11; 44:6; 44;24; 45:5-6; 45:18; 45:22; 46:9).  Here again is a reminder of God’s self-sufficiency.  He acts for his own name’s sake and his own glory (Isaiah 42:8; 42:11; 48:9-11).  Whilst monotheism provides a high view of humanity – and whisper it quietly but, whilst God will not share his glory with other gods, he makes us in his image so that sin is a falling short of and an exchange of his glory – monotheism prevents us from the hubris of thinking that all revolves around us.[8]

This raises a vital question when trying to understand who Jesus is.  Does he compete with God as a rival for power and glory or does he share in it?

Now, some historians and OT scholars have suggested that the ancient Israelites were not so much monotheists as henotheists.  They argue that they saw Yahweh as dominant among and over the gods – that he commanded their worship, but that the other gods were seen as real gods who were at least potential rivals (see e.g. Ex 15:11; Judges 11:24)

I think this is to miss a couple of points.

  1. That in OT literature, false gods may well at times be personified, but that is not to suggest that the writers always thought of the gods as real
  2. That it is possible to see (as Paul does in the NT) a real connection between spiritual beings (i.e. demons) and idols. These beings may have some power making them a type of god but it does not mean that they are of the same nature as the one true God.

The latter point means that some of the beings mentioned may exist as actual powers and authorities and not just in the imaginations of the idol makers and worshippers.  As Frame notes

“The actual ontological status of these ‘gods’ is not always clear.  Does Chemosh actually exist according to Judges 11:24?  Or is Jepthah speaking ironically or by way of concession to the Ammonite way of thinking?  When Elijah challenges the Priests of Baal on Mount Carmel he refers to Baal sarcastically.”[9]

However, the issue isn’t about whether these beings exist and are worshipped as gods.

“If the doctrine of God’s oneness means that only one being has ever been called God, or that only one being has ever been worshipped, then of course it is false…But, as we have seen, the numerical oneness of God is also a qualitative oneness: there is only one supreme being and therefore only one being who deserves worship.”[10]

So the point is that for all the apparent power and knowledge that such beings might have and for all the worship and attention they attract, only Yahweh is truly God, all powerful, all knowing and worthy of worship.

I think that one of the mistaken assumptions found here is that religion has evolved so that monotheism is the pinnacle of progress from many gods representing different characteristics and looking after different territories to one uber-God who contains all the characteristics we look for in our gods and rules the Universe. In fact, if those who argue this are honest, they see the true pinnacle in the next step from having one God to no gods (Atheism). But it’s strange isn’t it that we keep assuming theoretical progress when normally what we see in cultures, societies and organisms over time is decline and decay.  Isn’t it at least equally likely (if not even more so) that religion has moved from the simplicity of one God to the complexity of many gods.

The assumption misses the point as well that the Bible draws the line in a different place to where students of religion tend to – not between spiritual and natural, but between the Creator and the created.  These other beings may be spiritual, may have power and influence, but they are creatures.  In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the earth and so all beings “seen and unseen,” gods, angels, animals and humans were made by Him.

This means that when we look at Jesus and the Spirit, then the important question to ask is “What side of the line do they come?”

So this is the one God of Scripture and that part of the survey may seem to be obvious and uncontroversial.  However, it is important to start with this because we are obliged to ask “one of what” and “in what ways is he one?” This is not simply a mathematical exercise, but concerned with God’s revelation of his own character.  Even at this stage, we may want to draw a sharp distinction between the one true God of the Bible who is love and the “one god” of other religions who is unable to be all the very things that make God unique and without rival because those gods are not Triune.

It’s also worth mentioning at this point an additional significance which we will come to later – the Shema provides the very basis for Paul (a Jew) to describe the work of Christ and the Spirit –somehow they fit into this oneness rather than competing with or destroying it.

Plurality within the Godhead

Whilst the major theme of the Old Testament is God’s oneness, commentators have noticed throughout the OT a number of hints and nods towards plurality within the godhead. For example, in Genesis 1:26, God says “let us make him in our image.” In Genesis 6:7, God says “Let us go down.”

There are other possible interpretations here if we take these verses on their own.  For example, it is possible God is addressing the heavenly host of angels. [11] However, it can’t be right given his desire to make humans in “our image.”[12]

It has also been suggested that plurality is used here not to count numbers, but to emphasise God’s greatest and majesty – a similar technique is seen when God is referred to as Elohim with the “ohim” bit tending to signify plurality in the OT, but Elohim so clearly in many contexts refers to one being.[13]

However, we can’t just take those verses on their own. We need to read them as part of the whole unfolding revelation. For example, we have the theophany incidents where God appears to the patriarchs.  Often, as well, there is an interesting overlap because the patriarchs and Old Testament  at some points talk about seeing the angel of the Lord and at others as seeing the Lord himself (See e.g. Genesis 16; Genesis 21:17-18; Judges 6:20 & 23).[14] In Genesis 18, Abraham has one such encounter where three men come to meet and talk with him.[15]

Then we have some of the Psalms which seem to describe a highly exalted and powerful figure. In Psalm 8, we have man who is for a while made lower than the angels but one day will be exalted to a position of extreme power and authority. In Psalm 110, God acts to favour the Psalmist’s master.  Who exactly is this master?  Well, note two things. First, the Psalm is written by David, the King.  In human terms, David was the top dog: he served no other master.  Israel at that time was free from outside dominion.  Secondly, there’s some incredible word play when we hear the Psalm read or read an English translation.  The original Hebrew tells us that “Yahweh says to my Lord, sit at my right hand.” (Psalm 110:1).   Except that it would never be read aloud like that because the name of God was never pronounced out loud.  Instead the word “Lord” was substituted for Yahweh so that our translations read “The Lord said to my Lord…”  There is someone who is David’s Lord, who is highly exalted and yet is differentiated from The Lord.

These are tantalising hints of what is to come in the New Testament when we will see these Psalms applied to Jesus. Hebrews applies Psalm 8 to Jesus as the one who fulfils God’ promises and becomes the mediator between God and Man (Hebrews 2:5-9).  No other human being is declared Lord and invited to reign at God’s right hand – no other human being is told “Today you are my Son.”[16]

Then, in Daniel 9, we have the vivid image of one who looks like the Ancient of Days and coming towards him in the clouds is one like a son of man – someone with human appearance, distinct from the Ancient of Days but clearly exalted and bearing cosmic power.  As with the Psalms, these verses are taken up and applied to Jesus in the NT so he himself takes up the title “Son of Man” for himself.

The New Testament Shema One God in Three Persons

As mentioned earlier, in his letters, Paul does something incredible: he uses the Shema to show how God can be both one and three.  He takes the liturgy of Ancient Israel and draws Jesus (God the Son) and The Holy Spirit into it. For example, in Ephesians 4 v 3-6 we are told to

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  There is one body, and one Spirit –just as you were called to one hope- when you were called- one Lord, one faith –one baptism; one God and Father of all who is over all and through all.

The repeated statement “There is one” echoes Deuteronomy 6, but here a number of things are emphasised. “There is one Spirit” and this Spirit is the basis of our unity, “one God and Father” and “one Lord.” The latter refers to Christ who takes on the title of Lord in the NT.  As we saw earlier, ‘Lord’ can simply be a reference to a human master, but throughout the OT, it is used in lieu of the name Yahweh.  When Paul tells us that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” we are meant to sit up and take notice.

Now the Ephesians verses also talk about one faith, baptism and hope, so simply being included in the list is not proof of divinity. However, in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, Paul is even more explicit.  Here he is talking about whether it is okay to offer food to idols and notes that idols are nothing because there is only one god (1 Corinthians 8:4).  Then he says,

For even if there are so called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” (1 Cor 8:5-6)

Do you see what happens here?  Paul echoes the Shema. “There is one God.” This is the creator God. All was made (has its origin in him) and belongs to Him or exists in Him.  This true God is distinguished from false gods and lords.  Yet within the Shema, something radical and explosive has happened. The Lord Jesus Christ has been included in that contrast against idolatry.  NT Wright says,

The real shock of the passage is of course simply the expansion of the Shema to include Jesus within it.  The fact that Paul can do what he has done here in verse 6 without explanation or justification, speaks volumes for the theological revolution that has already taken place.[17]

In other words, whilst there were many points that Paul had to explain, argue and prove, this is something he can simply state as evidence knowing that it will be widely accepted.  The church was already proclaiming an exalted position for Jesus.

Now I do have one small quibble with Wright’s phraseology here.  No Jew would presume to add to the Godhead – this would itself be idolatry and I doubt Wright would want us to think in those terms either, so when we talk here about Christ being included, it is not that something has been added to the equation.  Rather, it is as though Paul has put the Shema under a microscope so that we can see the detail and realise that the Son has always been included within the one.

No Rivals

The overall Bible picture presents us with a God who is at the same time “One” and yet “plural” (three). The Trinity shows us how it is possible for there to be one God without any risk or possibility of rivalry. The Son and the Spirit are included within our definition of God and as we have seen before, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are united in purpose and will so that there is an eternal oneness and unity to them which is unbreakable.

[1] Exodus 3:14 and 6:3.

[2] Exodus 20:2-6 and Deuteronomy 5:7-10.

[3] Deuteronomy 6:5.

[4] See e.g. Luke 10:27.

[5] Reeves, The Good God, 2.

[6] This the theme through the book of Hosea, see also Ezekiel 16.

[7] On this see, John Frame, Doctrine of God, 623.

[8] For more on this point and especially the significance of the Isaiah passages, see John Piper, Desiring God (Leicester, IVP, 1986).

[9] John Frame, Doctrine of God, 626

[10] John Frame, Doctrine of God, 626.

[11] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-11 (WBC 1. Columbia, 1987), 27-28.

[12] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 19-20.

[13] Gordon Wenham, Genesis 1-11 (WBC 1. Columbia, 1987), 27-28.

[14] Letham, The Holy Trinity, 22.

[15] See Letham, The Holy Trinity, 22.

[16] See Acts 2:34 and Hebrews 1:5-13)

[17] NT Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (London, SPCK, 2013), 665.