The doctrine of the Trinity has come under increasing attack over recent years from a variety of groups. Some of these groups (such as Muslims and Jehovah’s witnesses) deny that this doctrine is even found in Scripture. They are often quick to point out that the word “trinity” is to be found nowhere in the Bible. This is correct. While the phraseology is not found in Scripture, however, the concept most certainly is.
In this article, I want to provide a definition of this important doctrine, explaining what exactly the Trinity is, as well as what is isn’t. I shall then examine the Scriptures to see whether they provide adequate substantiation of this concept.
So, what exactly do we mean when we talk about the Trinity? Writing in the early third century, in his Against Praxeas, Tertullian is credited with first employing the words “Trinity”, “person” and “substance” to convey the idea of the Father, Son and Spirit being “one in essence — but not one in person”. Indeed, Tertullian writes,
“Thus the connection of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Paraclete, produces three coherent Persons, who are yet distinct One from Another. These Three are, one essence, not one Person, as it is said, “I and my Father are One,” in respect of unity of substance not singularity of number.”
This concept was established as church orthodoxy at the famous Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. The Nicene Creed speaks of Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
It is this definition that I am going to assume in the discussion that follows. Succinctly, then, the doctrine of the Trinity may be defined thusly: Within the one being or essence that is God, there exists three co-equal and co-divine distinct persons — namely the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — who share that essence fully and completely. This concept is not to be confused with polytheism, which maintains that there are multiple gods. While orthodox Christianity emphatically holds there to be only one God, we nonetheless understand God to be complex in his unity. The concept is also not to be confused with the ancient heresy of modalism, which maintains that God exists in three different modes. The Son has never been the Father and the Holy Spirit has never been the Son or the Father. Modalism is refuted by the picture given to us in all four gospels (Matthew 3:16-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34) in which the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove and a voice is heard from Heaven “This is my beloved Son. With him I am well pleased.” Similarly, it should be noted that the Father, Son and Spirit do not each make up merely a third of the Godhead. Rather, each of the three persons is God in the full and complete sense of the word.
Having shown that Scripture emphatically rejects the notion that the Father, Son and Spirit are synonymous persons, only five propositions remain to be demonstrated in order to provide Biblical substantiation for the concept of the Trinity. Those propositions are:
- There is only one eternal God.
- The Father is the eternal God.
- The Son is the eternal God.
- The Holy Spirit is the eternal God.
- Although the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are non-synonymous persons, the concept of the Trinity does not violate the law of non-contradiction.
Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
The Bible Teaches Monotheism
The Biblical support for monotheism is extremely strong, and supporting references are far too numerous to list here. Nonetheless, let us content ourselves with a few examples.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor will there be one after me.
11 I, even I, am the LORD,
and apart from me there is no savior.
6 “This is what the LORD says—
Israel’s King and Redeemer, the LORD Almighty:
I am the first and I am the last;
apart from me there is no God.
7 Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it.
Let him declare and lay out before me
what has happened since I established my ancient people,
and what is yet to come—
yes, let them foretell what will come.
8 Do not tremble, do not be afraid.
Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago?
You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me?
No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.”
1 Corinthians 8:6:
Yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me.
The Deity of the Father
This is the least controversial of the five points, and many of the verses cited above would suffice to demonstrate it. Indeed, in the high priestly prayer of the Lord Jesus, recorded in John 17, Jesus says to the Father (verse 5), “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” The Father is similarly referred to as God in John 3:16, in which we read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
One could continue in this vein for some time. But since nobody is denying this contention, let us move on to consider the Biblical support for the perfect and complete deity of Christ.
The Deity of the Son
The Biblical support for the perfect and complete deity of Christ is similarly very strong. For example, Phillipians 2:5-11 states,
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
According to Jude 1:4,
For certain individuals whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.
Titus 2:13 similarly states that we…
…wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The apostle Peter similarly addresses his second epistle (2 Peter 1:1) to…
…those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours.
Colossians 1:15-20 speaks of Jesus thusly:
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
The passage uses the word “firstborn” in this context in the sense that Christ is the heir and all things are His rightful inheritance, not in the sense that he is himself a created being.
Colossians 2:9 similarly asserts that “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”
Even in the Old Testament, in Isaiah 9:6-7, we read,
6 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.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
Citation of this passage is sometimes countered by claiming that the passage distinguishes between the “Mighty God” and the “LORD Almighty.” Such an objection is easily refuted, however, when one looks at Isaiah 10:21 and finds the title “Mighty God” being ascribed to Yahweh.
There are many more such references as well. When cultists come to your door, however, they will often attempt to find some wiggle room by crafty manipulations of the Greek. If (like me) you are not well acquainted with Greek, and are thus not competent in demonstrating their abuse of it, this can be quite daunting. There is, however, a means by which you can circumvent such discussions and still persuasively defend the deity of Christ. It is to this that I now turn.
There are numerous occasions in Scripture where titles that are ascribed to Yahweh are also attributed to Christ. One example of this is the title of “the alpha and the omega” or “the first and the last.” This title is ascribed to Yahweh in Isaiah 44:6 and 48:12, as well as in Revelation 1:8. It is attributed to Jesus, however, in Revelation 1:17-18. It is very clear from the context that it is Jesus who is speaking because he subsequently says, “I am the Living One; I was dead and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” Similarly, Revelation 2:8, in the letter to the Church in Smyrna, says “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again.” This title is also attributed to Jesus in Revelation 21:6, as well as in 22:13. Verse 16 of Revelation 22 makes it very clear that it is Jesus speaking, for he says, “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
A further example is the “I AM” title which Jesus ascribes to Himself in John 8:58 (“before Abraham was born, I am!”). The Greek (ego eimi) uses the very same phraseology used in the Septuagint in reference to Yahweh (e.g. Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 43:10). Indeed, the soldiers who come to arrest Jesus in John 18 draw back and fall to the ground upon the very utterance of the words “I AM” from Jesus’ lips. This highlights the theological significance of this phrase. The Jews in John 8 certainly understood what He meant, for they picked up stones to stone Him.
Another self-designation of Jesus in the New Testament is the famous “Son of Man” title, a clear reference to Daniel 7:13-14, in which we read the following:
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Here, Daniel describes a divine-human figure who would be given authority, glory and sovereign power, and would be worshipped by people of all nations and people of every language. When Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man before the high priest Caiaphas (Matthew 26:64-66), Caiaphas tore his clothes, charged him with blasphemy, and condemned him as “worthy of death.” The reason? Caiaphas new exactly what that title meant — it was a direct claim to deity, a crime punishable by death.
What’s particularly telling about this claim is that the Son of Man is worshipped by all people. Yet worship is to be given only to Yahweh, as we learn in Deuternonomy 6:13. This verse is quoted by Jesus during his temptation in the desert. In Luke 4:8, Jesus rebukes Satan, saying, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” Furthermore, Isaiah 42:8 says,
I am the LORD; that is my name!
I will not yield my glory to another
or my praise to idols.
This leads us to consider yet another of Jesus’ sayings. In John 17:5, Jesus says, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” In addition to his claim to pre-exist creation, Jesus here is also claiming to share the glory of the Father.
John 20:28 reports an incident where, following Jesus’ resurrection, Thomas — upon seeing the nailprints in His hands and feet — worships him calling Him “My Lord and my God!” Jesus nowhere rebukes this act of worship. This stands in contrast to when John fell at the feet of an angel and tried to worship him (Revelation 22:8-9) and was strongly rebuked: “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!” See Daniel Rodgers’ article here for a rebuttal to some of the common objections to this verse.
We also read in Hebrews 1:6, “And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Hebrews 1 contrasts the relationship between the Father and the angels with the relationship between the Father and the Son. In verses 7-12, we read the following:
7 In speaking of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels spirits,
and his servants flames of fire.”
8 But about the Son he says,
“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever;
a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.
9 You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
by anointing you with the oil of joy.”
10 He also says,
“In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
11 They will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
12 You will roll them up like a robe;
like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same,
and your years will never end.”
The writer of Hebrews here quotes two Old Testament passages (Psalm 45:6-7 and Psalm 102:25-27 respectively), both of which clearly refer to Yahweh, and applies them to Jesus.
One final example I will consider is found in John 12:37-41:
37 Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. 38 This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:
“Lord, who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
39 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:
40 “He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their hearts,
so they can neither see with their eyes,
nor understand with their hearts,
nor turn—and I would heal them.”
41 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.
Here, John quotes two passages from the Old Testament and asserts that Isaiah said these things when he saw the glory of Jesus. The first of these passages is from the famous suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53. The second of those refers to Isaiah 6, in which Isaiah beheld the glory of Yahweh seated on his throne in the temple.
Again, in this vein one might continue for a long time. But let us now turn our attention to the status of the Holy Spirit.
The Deity of the Spirit
The Holy Spirit is another doctrine which has come under attack, with some groups (e.g. the Jehovah’s witnesses) denying the personhood of the Holy Spirit and asserting instead that it is merely an impersonal active force. In this section, I aim to demonstrate that this view is untenable and contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture.
One very clear reference to the deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit occurs in Acts 5:1-10, in which Ananias and Sapphira are charged with lying to the Holy Spirit and struck down dead as a consequence. Peter rebukes Ananias, saying, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit…You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” Here, not only does the personhood of the Holy Spirit become apparent (one cannot lie to an impersonal entity), but the Holy Spirit is also equated with God Himself.
Another example lies in Acts 13:1-2, in which the Holy Spirit speaks and calls out Paul and Barnabas, sending them out for the work ordained for them. In this passage, the Holy Spirit clearly assumes divine authority. We read,
1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.
A further passage we might look to is Ephesians 4:30, in which we are instructed “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Here, the Holy Spirit displays attributes of personhood — one cannot grieve an impersonal force.
The Holy Spirit is endowed with a will in 1 Corinthians 12:11: “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” 1 Corinthians 2:10-11 also ascribes knowledge to the Holy Spirit:
The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.
Mark 3:29 indicates that it is even possible to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit! Only God is able to be blasphemed.
Psalm 139:7-10 also indicates that the Spirit of God is omnipresent:
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
We also learn in Hebrews 9:14 that the Holy Spirit is eternal (“Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God”).
Does the doctrine of the Trinity violate the law of non-contradiction?
Some attempt to argue against the Trinity by asserting that the concept is in violation of the law of non-contradiction. How can God, they ask, be both one and three at the same time? The law of non-contradiction asserts that something cannot be ‘a’ and ‘non-a’ at the same time and in the same sense. I do not think the Trinity violates this principle, however, since the doctrine maintains that God is one in a sense and three in a different sense. He is one in substance or essence but not one in person. Indeed, many would argue that, in fact, a multiplicity within the Godhead is the only way in which God’s love can be an eternal attribute (within a monadic concept of God, to whom did God show affection before creation?).
Most of the objections to the concept of the Trinity stem from a misunderstanding thereof. Some point to instances where the Son is described as subordinate to the Father (e.g. John 5:30; John 14:28; 1 Corinthians 15:28). It is, however, both correct and consistent with the Trinity that there exists a subordination within the Godhead. Just as a wife submits to her husband (Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18; 1 Peter 3:1), so the Son submits to the Father.
Another objection maintains that the Trinity is never alluded to in the Old Testament. However, this is incorrect. For one thing, God often speaks with reference to Himself using pronouns such as “we” and “us”. There are also numerous preincarnation appearances of Christ (Christophanies), and the coming Messiah is predicted on numerous occasions. The Son of God receives mention in several places, such as in Proverbs 30:4, in which we read:
Who has gone up to heaven and come down?
Whose hands have gathered up the wind?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is the name of his son?
Surely you know!
The Spirit also features in the Old Testament. For example, Genesis 1:2 says that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
To conclude, the concept of the Trinity — the proposition that God, though being one in essence, is comprised of three divine persons — is thoroughly grounded in Scripture. The Bible attests to the complete and perfect deity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Though the Father, Son and Spirit are distinct and non-synonymous, the doctrine does not violate the law of non-contradiction since theology concerning the Trinity maintains that God is one in a sense and three in a different sense. Christians can thus confidently assert and defend the Triune nature of God, a doctrine extremely unlikely to have arisen as a human invention in the context of monotheistic Judaism.