IS THE TRINITY AN EXPLICIT BIBLE TEACHING?
The foundational teaching of theology is the ontological dogma of the Trinity. Owen Thomas remarks that "in the doctrine of God the most fundamental thing we have to say is that God is self-revealed as triune, as threefold, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit" (Thomas "Intro" 59). Thomas F. Torrance concurs by stating:
"there is in fact no real knowledge of God except through his revealing or naming of himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the three Persons are the one true God" (Torrance "Christian Doctrine" 15). So according to Christian theology proper, humans cannot know God unless they know Him as a threefold Being. Supposedly this is the manner in which He has revealed Himself--as triune. Commenting further on the Trinity, Torrance adds: "the New Testament does not speak of the Holy Trinity in parts or in various statements, for it is his one indivisible Self that God utters in his revelation" (Torrance "Christian Doctrine" 43). This Protestant theologian therefore concludes:
"the central focus of the Gospel upon the Deity of Christ is
the door that opens the way to the understanding of God's triune
self-revelation as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Quite clearly a
theological interpretation of the New Testament Scriptures must be at
once both Christological and trinitarian" (49).
It is manifest prima facie where Torrance stands vis-a'-vis the Trinity doctrine. He unequivocally testifies to its alleged truthfulness and avidly insists it is a Biblical teaching. Despite Torrance's utilization of ipse dixit and his frequent appeal to Holy Writ, serious questions linger concerning the Trinity. Is the Trinity teaching implied in the Old Testament? Is it explicit in the New Testament? Does the Bible teach the Trinity?
As with any theological question scholars are divided. Some scholars
say that the Trinity is implicit in the Bible; others say it is not.
Some theologians even claim that the Trinity is explicit in the New Testament. What are we to think?
One reference work that thoroughly discusses this issue is the
excellent book entitled _The Genesis Debate_. This anthological work is filled with intriguing issues derived from the book of Genesis. On
every issue two scholars take opposing viewpoints and argue either for
or against a particular proposition. The crowning point of the book is when two Trinitarians discuss the issue--is the Trinity teaching implicit in the book of Genesis? One erudite says yes,
the Trinity is implicit in the Bible (particularly in the book of Genesis). The other scholar says no, Genesis does not imply a Trinity. He further asserts that the Trinity is not taught in the NT. How does this learned man come to this conclusion? Let's review his arguments.
The scholar I am referring to is Alan J. Hauser (professor of religion
and philosophy at App State). Although possessing definite views
regarding the triune Godhead, his ideas are remarkably objective. On page 110 of the book _The Genesis Debate_, professor Hauser (while debating Eugene Merrill) discusses his views of the Trinity with respect to the Biblical book of Genesis. Hauser contends that "the doctrine of the Trinity is not implied in Genesis 1." In this basic contention, Hauser is not alone. Even Thomas F. Torrance who believes the Trinity without equivocation, offers the same sentiments. After providing extensive documentation from the New Testament to support his belief in the Trinity, Torrance cautions:
"This does not imply that the New Testament presents us with explicit
teaching about the Holy Trinity, far less with a ready-made formal
doctrine of the Trinity, but rather that it exhibits a coherent witness to God's trinitarian self-revelation imprinted upon its
theological content in an implicit conceptual form evident in a whole
complex of implicit references and indications in the gospels and
So what is Torrance saying? Is the Trinity an explicit
Bible teaching, according to this theologian? No, it is not. What is
more, Torrance says that the revealed dogma of the Trinity derives from "implicit references and indications in the gospels and epistles." Is it wise, however, to base our understanding of God on "implicit references and indications" recorded in the Bible? Can it lead to an accurate understanding of Almighty God and the "Son of His love"?
Both Hauser and Torrance are trinitarians. Both scholars also admit that the Trinity is not an explicit Bible teaching. Torrance justifies his belief in the Trinity by appealing to implicit Old and New Testament references. What about Hauser, however? How does he justify his position? He explains:
"since there are so many other factors on the basis of which one can affirm or deny the doctrine of the Trinity, it should be obvious that a Christian can simultaneously affirm the doctrine and yet deny that it is implied in Genesis 1" (Hauser "Debate"
These comments help us to appreciate two very significant points.
Firstly, we are not dealing with an adversary of the Trinity when we read the comments of Hauser. Secondly, Hauser admits that there are other factors which influence his decision to affirm the Trinity doctrine, whether it is an explicit Bible teaching or not. In contradistinction to this professor of religion, most Trinitarians say that the Trinity existed in seminal form in the Old Testament (like an acorn)--then it gradually grew into an oak tree in the New Testament (Merrill). It has also been asserted that the second and third century church taught the Trinity doctrine. There have been
many discussions back and forth over this matter and quite a few works
have been published to support both sides. But the evidence indicates
that "the doctrine of the Trinity is a relatively "late" development" (Hauser 111).
Charles Ryrie, Owen Thomas and Jaroslav Pelikan have all outlined the historical developments of the Trinity. All concur that the doctrine of the Trinity is a relatively "late" dogma. Ryrie states that the Trinity is implied in the writings of the early church (first century ecclesia), but it is not explicitly taught in those writings. It was not until 325 C.E. that a formulated creed was published, which "defined" and "clarified" the essential relationship between the Father and the Son. Even at that point, a full-blown doctrine of God' triunity did not exist. The Nicene Council only concluded that the Father and Son are ontologically one: it did not include the Holy
Spirit in the co-substantial relationship supposedly obtaining between the Father and Son. There was simply an implication that the Holy Spirit was in some way associated with the Godhead.
Yes there was an affirmation of belief in the Holy Spirit, but the
Nicene Creed did not put forth a triune statement about God. It would
take another fifty-six years and more "heretical" developments, before
the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was clarified.
Although activities were predicated of the Holy Spirit that can only be predicated of God, the Trinity was still not explicitly called God.
Further addenda or adjustments would be made before the church would
explicitly state that the holy spirit was equal to the Father and the
One early witness who testifies to these early developments regarding
the Trinity doctrine is Gregory of Nazianzus. In the work _Epistles 58_ Gregory Nazianzus explained the absence of the Holy Spirit from the ancient discussions about the Godhead, by stating that "the
Old Testament proclaimed the Father manifestly, and the Son more
hiddenly. The New [Testament] manifested the Son and suggested the
deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit himself is resident among us, and
provides a clearer explanation of himself." As late as 380, he wrote, "to be slightly in error [about the Holy Spirit] was to be orthodox." This statement too proves that the orthodox understanding of the Holy Spirit was not "clear" until 381. As a matter of fact, this statement further demonstrates that the church neither subscribed to nor affirmed the teaching of the Trinity until 381 C.E. It is clear that the "details" of the Trinity still had to be worked
out (The Christian Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan, Vol. I, p.
213. Cf. also Gregory Nazianzus--Orations 31.5). From a brief look at
these developments, it seems warranted to conclude that the NT does not present a clear expression of the Triune Godhead. Therefore, we could reasonably conclude that neither the primitive church nor the ante-Nicene fathers taught the Trinity. Gregory Nazianzus even proclaimed that Scripture did not, "very clearly
or very often call him [the Holy Spirit] God in so many words, as it does the Father and later on the Son" (Gregory Nazianzus, Orations 31.12).
Gregory's testimony is so important because he lived at the time when the Trinity assimilated its way into Christian didache. Concerning this prominent Christian "father," Jaroslav Pelikan says: "In remarkable summary of the controversy within the orthodox camp, composed in the same year, he [Gregory Nazianzus] declared: "Of the wise men among ourselves, some have conceived of him
[the Holy spirit] as an activity, some as a creature, some as God; and some have been uncertain which to call him . . . And therefore they neither worship him nor treat him with dishonor, but take up a neutral position." He did add, however, that "of those who consider him to be God, some are orthodox in mind only, while others venture to be so with the lips also."
It was apparently not only "careful distinctions, derived from
unpractical philosophy and vain delusion" that could be blamed for this confusion, but also the undeveloped state of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Son in the Trinity." ( The Christian
Tradition, Jaroslav Pelikan, p. 213. Cf. Gregory Nazianzus, Orations,
21.33, 31:5. Also Basil, On The Holy Spirit 3.5). Gregory Nazianzus makes it very clear that the Bible is not explicit in the matter of the Trinity. It does not call the holy spirit God "very often or clearly." In fact, German theologian Karl Rahner writes that the NT never applies the Greek term QEOS to the holy spirit. It is also of interest that Scripture never enjoins Christians that prayer should be offered to the Holy Spirit, nor are Christians ever instructed to worship the Spirit of God. These omissions and more appear strange if the Spirit is fully God. Furthermore, we read that "the liturgical usage of the church did not seem to provide instances of worship or prayer addressed to him [The Holy Spirit]" (The Christian Tradition, Vol. I, p. 212). Based on the foregoing information, it seems that one may safely conclude that Hauser's conclusions are valid when he says that the Trinity is of a relatively late origin:
"While the church eventually came to view as
heretical many of the positions presented by early
Christian writers about the nature of Christ, his
person and work, the relationship of the Father to
the Son, etc., most of these nonorthodox positions
are not specifically and unequivocally ruled out by
the New Testament itself. Many of those whose
teachings were later declared unorthodox
maintained that certain New Testament passages
supported their views and argued, sometimes
eloquently, in support of such claims. They could not
have done so if the New Testament were so clear in
delineating the doctrine of the Trinity that positions
other than those eventually spelled out by the
councils were automatically ruled out. We do well to
remember that, on balance, most heretics were not
evil persons who deliberately tried to pervert the
teachings of the New Testament. Many of them were
sincere and well-intentioned interpreters who
advocated theological positions that the Church, in
its wisdom, eventually came to view as wrong" (128).
Lest it be concluded from the above-quoted material that Hauser
denounces non-Trinitarian Christians, note the following:
"There is an excellent example in Mark 15:33-36 of the way in which
different people will place the same words in different contexts . . .
The evangelist, writing for a Christian audience, leads his readers to
understand Jesus' words as an expression of the spirit of affliction
described in Psalm 22. Those standing by the cross, however, understand the same words in the context of their suspicion that Jesus was a messianic revolutionary who planned a rebellion against Rome and conclude that Jesus still expects help from Elijah . . .Thus the same words are understood in two different ways by persons who place them in different contexts of meaning" (128).
Hauser further asseverates that neither John 1, Colossians 1 nor
Hebrews 1 explicitly spell out the doctrine of the Trinity. These
verses "are only individual statements and ideas, which were later
incorporated into the church's doctrine"
Further evidence is thus provided that the Trinity evidently is not a clear Bible teaching. We must therefore pose the query, should we put faith in a doctrine that does not have explicit Bible support?
Continuing with Hauser's analysis of the explicitness or lack thereof
vis-a'-vis the Trinity, we now turn to the book of Genesis and what it
has to say about the triune Godhead. Genesis 1:2 is one verse invoked
by some who believe that the Old Testament implies the Trinity. This
verse (according to the RSV) reads: "the earth was a formless void and
darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters" (NAB reads similarly).
One of the significant terms in this Scriptural passage is "wind". The Hebrew word translated "wind" is ruach. Some translations render ruach as "spirit" or "active force." Either translation is philologically acceptable. Based on the context of Genesis 1:2, however, Hauser opts for ruach meaning "wind" in this case. He bases his conclusions on the use of ruach in Genesis 6:17; 7:15; 7:22. In early church usage, it seems that there was an extensive debate about how ruach should be translated. Hauser relates: "a number of early church fathers favored 'spirit'; Tertullian vacilated; Epharaem and Theodoret favored 'wind.'" See W.H. McClellan, "The Meaning of Ruah 'Elohim in Gen. 1:2," Biblica 15 (1936) 519-20. H.M. Orlinsky, "The Plain Meaning of RUAH in Gen. 1:2," Jewish Quarterly Review 48, 174-80, cites numerous commentators . . . who argue for "wind" (129).
It is also good to note that ruach is translated "breath" in Psalm
18:15 with reference to the "breath" of God. Concerning God's "breath," Hauser explains:
"unlike the breath of all flesh, the breath (ruach) of God is clearly a powerful force, one that can shake the cosmos. Combined in the idea of the "breath of God" are the analogies of breath (as in human breath) and of a powerful wind" (114).
God is therefore said to possess "breath" in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. In actuality, God does not have "breath". This is a Biblical analogy that helps us to appreciate Jehovah's possession of an irresistible, potent, awesome invisible force through which He accomplishes His inexorable sovereign will. This "force" can "shake the cosmos" and I believe that it was employed by God to shape the universe (Ps. 33:6). Genesis does not portray this "breath" (ruach) as a persona, but rather as the active force of God the Father.
This point is suggested by a further analysis of the word ruach in Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament canon. The OT utilizes ruach to denote not only symbolic "breath" but a literal "force" (wind) as well. It is used in this manner in Genesis 8:1 (Cf. also Numbers 11:31). God is also said to walk through the Garden
of Eden in the 'breezy' part of the day. These texts show the manner in which ruach can be translated or understood. Hauser thus concludes
that "wind" (not "spirit") is the best translation of ruach in Genesis 1:2. He bases this understanding on the meaning of ruach as well as the context of Genesis 1.
Can we make a definite assertion about what the ruach is in Genesis 1:2? Was it just "wind" or the ruach Hakodesh of Yahweh? I must admit that I lean toward the idea that the ruach mentioned in Genesis 1:2 refers to God's Holy Spirit. My views are based primarily on Psalm 33:6 and 104:24ff. Although I part ways with Hauser as to what the ruach is in Genesis 1:2, I can agree that there is no implication of a Trinity in Genesis. While the ruach may belong to God, this doesn't mean that the Holy Spirit exists as some third "person" in a triune Godhead. To the contrary, God's Spirit is likened to the "breath of his mouth" in Psalm 33:6. True, God does not literally depend upon some type of "breath" to keep His life sustained--He is completely self existent, with God is the source of life, by light from Him we live and see light (Psalm 36:9)--it is therefore not literal breath discussed in Psalm 33:6, the Bible is simply using analogous language. Yet the analogy teaches us that God's Spirit is not a Person: it is a force. 1 Corinthians 2:11 seems to buttress this notion when it compares the holy spirit to the self-consciousness of God. The appearance of ruach in Genesis 1:2 thereby provides no proof for the Trinity doctrine.
Another significant word we need to analyze is Elohim. Genesis 1:2
associates Elohim with ruach. Some therefore point to the use of Elohim as proof that ruach in Genesis 1:2 denotes God's Spirit (i.e., the supposed third Person of the Trinity). Hauser insists that this is erroneous thinking for two primary reasons: 1)Elohim doesn't always mean "God." At times it can evidently mean, "awesome" or "powerful." WE RUACH ELOHIM would thus denote "a powerful wind sent from God." (Hauser, 117) This definition would harmonize with the thoughts in Hosea 13:15 and Job 30:22. At any rate, no proof would exist for calling the Spirit of God a person. To further elucidate this point, let us notice Hauser's line of
"Let us briefly examine the use of 'spirit of God' in the Old
Testament. The first part of the phrase, 'spirit of,' is commonly used
in the construct state in Hebrew to denote the motivating force or
dynamic power of a person or of God. In 2 Chronicles 36:22 we are told
that 'the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia' to issue
a proclamation allowing worshipers of Israel's God to rebuild His
temple (cf. Ezra 1:1). In 1 Chronicles 5:26 God stirs up 'the spirit of Pul king of Assyria - that is, the spirit of Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria' to carry away some of the tribes of Israel" (118, 119).
"In these instances 'spirit of' does not denote an
entity in any way separate from the person but rather
the active, forceful power of that person (cf. also
Gen. 45:27; 2 Kings 2:15; 1 Sam. 30:12; Hag. 1:14).
Why should we presume that it is different when the
object of the phrase 'spirit of' is God? When we are
told in Judges 14:6 that the 'spirit of the LORD
came mightily upon' Samson, and that Samson tore
apart the lion, does this mean that the Holy Spirit
seized Samson? What is meant instead is that
God's power came upon Samson and gave him
strength (see also, for example, Judg. 6:34, 11:29).
There is *no hint* of a separate person within the
Godhead from the Father acting upon the individual .
. . see, for example, 2 Kings 2:16; 1 Sam. 10:6;
Thus Hauser summarizes his view of Genesis 1:2 by demonstrating very
thoroughly that the Old Testament concept of the Spirit of God is not
synonymous with the Trinitarian concept of the Holy Spirit as God. In this evaluation and analysis he is supported by P.K. Jewett who believes that the Holy Spirit (as recorded in the Old Testament) never refers to "a Person distinct from the Father and the Son," but rather "the divine nature viewed as vital energy" (Jewett qtd. by Ryrie 346). While Genesis 1:2 does not provide support for a triune God, there are other passages that scholars turn to in Holy Writ to buttress the Trinity doctrine. In particular, some Trinitarians appeal to Elohim passages.
One of these verses is Genesis 1:26. The ancient lawgiver Moses there
recorded "And God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our
likeness.'" To support their position, Trinitarians often invoke this
verse as proof that God is triune. Does the fact that Genesis 1:26 uses the word "us," and also employs the plural
possessive pronoun "our" mean that Genesis 1:26 endorses or adumbrates the ontological dogma of the Trinity? Before we hastily conclude that this is the case, please note the comments of Charles Ryrie:
"We have . . . suggested that the plural
name for God, Elohim, denotes God's unlimited greatness and supremacy. To conclude plurality of Persons from the name itself is dubious. However, when God speaks of Himself with plural pronouns (Gen. 1:26, 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8) and plural verbs . . . it does seem to indicate distinctions of Persons, though only plurality, not specifically Trinity" (51).
Hauser expands on this argument. He does not think that the use of the
Elohim in Genesis 1:26 proves that Genesis teaches God's triunity. One reason that Hauser concludes this has to do with the Hebrew
word Elohim. Granted, Elohim is morphologically plural as are "us" and "our." But these words, while they might seem to indicate plurality, definitely do not suggest triunity. It must also be kept in mind that in Hebrew it is common for the plural noun to cause the verb to be plural (Cf. Genesis 20:13, 35:7). E.A Speiser therefore renders Genesis 1:26 as follows: "The God said, 'I will make man in my image, after my likeness.'"
Commenting on Deuteronomy 6:4 and its use of Elohim, Baptist seminarian president John. D.W. Watts reports that Elohim conveys "to the Semitic ear the idea of the total sum of divine attributes and powers . . . 'One Lord' conveys the essential idea. He is unique, different, exclusive. He is not many, but one . . . Yahweh is a single unified person. In no sense is he to be understood as represented in diverse forms and appearances in different
places as Baal and other nature deities were" (The Broadman Bible
Commentary, Vol. 2, p. 214).
There is also another probable explanation for Genesis 1:26 and its use of "us" for God. The Hebraic expert Gesenius described the Hebrew word for "us" as a "plural of self-deliberation." Both Gesenius and C. Westermann have upheld this view and classed Isaiah 6:3 in the same category. In other words, what Gesenius says is that God could have been talking or 'deliberating' with Himself at Gen. 1:26. While this is a grammatical possibility, I personally concur with the view which holds that the Father (Jehovah) was addressing His Son at Genesis 1:26 when he said "us" and "our." The New Testament would also appear to support such a conclusion (Col. 1:15-17). At any rate, if God spoke to His Son, this still would not prove the Trinity. Only two persons would be involved, not three. The view that God was "self-deliberating", however, cannot be easily discounted and seems less problematic.
From all these points, what are we to conclude? The weight of the
scholarly and Biblical evidence is that Genesis does not imply a
Trinity. The ruach mentioned at Genesis 1:2 is ambiguous and the plural pronouns found in Genesis 1:26 also don't per se indicate a Trinity, but possibly a plurality. The O.T. does not contain the Trinity in seminal form, but teaches about a God who is truly ONE--the God of the Shema, whose name is Jehovah.