While the Bible might not mention the word “trinity,” the concept is Biblical and cannot be so easily dismissed. For almost 2,000, years this doctrine has been considered orthodox within the Church, including within the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches as well as Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist and most Pentecostal churches.
The greatest minds in the history of the Christian Church have affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity. Furthermore, the doctrine is not only standardly held within orthodox Christendom, it is also a necessary doctrine. Historically and in the contemporary era, when church bodies undermine the Trinity, it is sowing the seeds of heresy.
I think the first step in understanding the Doctrine of the Trinity is understanding that it is Biblical.
Wayne Grudem summarizes the Biblical teaching on the Trinity in three propositions:
- God is three persons.
- Each person is fully God.
- There is one God.
At first glance, these look to be contradictory. But from the early church until today, these three propositions have been affirmed. In fact, they must be affirmed because each of these propositions has strong Biblical attestation.
With the three scriptural statements, in arguing that God is three persons, the point is that there is distinction between the persons of the Trinity. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. The opening verse of John affirms both that Jesus was with God and that the Jesus was God in the beginning (John 1:1), and by virtue of the Son accompanying the Father, it shows that the two are distinct.
Another important piece of evidence showing the distinctiveness within the Trinity is when Jesus prays to God the Father throughout the gospels (Mark 1:35; Matt. 14:23; Luke 6:12, 23:34; John 11:41-42). Some have argued that this is a distinction between Christ’s two natures, such as his humanity praying to his divinity. However the matter is complicated to an even greater degree when factoring in the Holy Spirit. At the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, all three persons of the Trinity are present. Jesus is baptized in Mark 1:10, the Holy Spirit descends on him, and a voice from heaven addresses Jesus as the beloved son (Mark 1:11).
There are also verses which talk about the Spirit working with the Father and the Son (Matt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 12:4-5; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6; 1 Pet. 1:2).
The second proposition affirmed by scripture is that each person of the Trinity is fully God. There is rich Biblical support as to the divinity of Christ as the second person of the Trinity. Jesus is worshipped as God. He talks of being one with the Father, proclaiming his divinity (John 10:30). Jesus also calls God his Father, which the Apostle John says was putting himself on the same level with God the Father (John 5:18).
Jesus talks of his existence prior to the incarnation and before Abraham (John 8:58). The works of Jesus witness to his divine nature (John 10:25-26). Jesus is the image of God (Col. 1:15). Jesus tells Phillip that those who have seen him have seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is called the “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb. 1:3). When Thomas encounters the risen Lord and is able to see the pierced hands and side of Jesus, he exclaims “My Lord, and my God!” (John 20:28). In the context of Thomas making this proclamation, it is approved of by Jesus and agreed to by John as a climax of his gospel (John 20:20-31). After his resurrection in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is seen as being worthy of worship by the disciples (Matt. 28:9, 17). Jesus is worshipped at his ascension at the end of Luke (Luke 24:52). 1 Corinthians 8:6 speaks to monotheism while also calling Jesus the Lord. While the term “Lord” does not inherently speak to divinity, the verse further elaborates that it is through Jesus that all things and all people exist.
A significant support as to the divinity of Jesus is his ultimate victory over death on the first Easter. In the gospels, Jesus had already shown control over life and death by raising people from the dead (Luke 7:11-15p John 11:1-44), but it is only Jesus who was raised and never experienced the second death.
While being worshipped as God, Jesus does not deflect this worship. The Bible affirms that angels are not worthy of worship (Heb. 1:6). The Apostle Paul deflects a cult of personality within the Corinthian Church (1 Cor. 3:4-6). When Jesus heals a man born blind, the man worships Him (John 9:38). As has been mentioned, there are other instances in which Jesus is worshipped. For Jesus to not be God and to not forsake the worship of himself would be blasphemous. In Jesus coming to fulfill the Old Testament, he is also pointed to as being divine. In the prophecy of Isaiah 9:6-7, when talking of the child who will be born, it says he will have the name “Mighty God.” New Testament writers ascribe divine qualities to Jesus, as noted by John Feinberg. Jesus is immutable (Heb. 13:8); omniscient (John 2:24-25); holy (Luke 1:35); and he exists in aseity (John 5:26).
A further point to the divinity of Christ is that he forgave sins on multiple occasions, something that can only be done by God (Luke 5:20, 7:48). Paul also affirms that we have redemption and forgiveness through Jesus (Col. 1:14). Based on the Bible, and with a belief in the inerrancy of scripture, the divinity of Christ is clear.
In understanding the divinity of the Holy Spirit, two of the primary functions of the Holy Spirit in the Christian Church are to indwell and regenerate believers. Feinberg notes two theological implications which would result if the Holy Spirit were not fully God: “If the Holy Spirit is a lesser God or not God at all, how can we be sure that he can do any of these things?”
Furthermore, if the Holy Spirit is not fully God, and indwells believers, it seems difficult to have ultimate assurance that the sanctification of the Spirit would necessarily be approved of or in accordance with the will of God the Father.
Divine qualities are ascribed to the Spirit by Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:10-11, talking of the Spirit searching the depths of God, and then rhetorically asking “for what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” Michael Horton gives a treatment where he notes passages which ascribe various qualities of deity to the Spirit. The Spirit is omnipresent (Psalm 139:7-10); omniscient (Isa. 40:13-14); regenerative (John 3:5-6; Titus 3:5) and is given “divine homage” (Matt. 28:19; Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 13:14).
The third proposition given by Grudem that is essential to formulating the doctrine of the Trinity is that there is one God (Deut. 6:4-6). With the Shema, while it teaches that there is one God, it can also be argued that it is making a statement to God’s unity and integrity as one being. The fact that there is one God does not change in the New Testament and is affirmed by Paul (1 Tim. 2:5; Rom. 3:30). More importantly, the Biblical teaching on one God is also stated by Jesus. When asked what the greatest commandment is, the first part of his response refers back to the Shema (Mark 12:29-30).
On numerous occasions in the Old Testament, when the Israelites turn to idols, they are mocked because these pagan deities are unable to intercede or act on their behalf (Isa. 46:5-7; Jer. 10:5, 14-16, 14:22; Hos. 15:8). The reason is simple: it is because the pagan gods do not exist! There is only one God.
It has been argued that the doctrine of the Trinity comes from nowhere in the New Testament. But is this true? Within Christianity, Jesus is the ultimate hermeneutic through which to interpret the Old Testament. Jesus talks of a true understanding of the Old Testament necessarily pointing to him (John 5:45-47). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks of his coming in fulfillment of the Law (Matt. 5:17-20) and Jesus interprets moral issues with authority (Matt. 5:21-48). The synoptic gospels all attest to Jesus teaching as one with authority (Matt.7:28-29; Mark 1:22; Luke 4:31-32).
Glimpses of the Son and the Holy Spirit can be seen in the Old Testament, going back to the beginning of the Bible and prior to the beginning of time. The Spirit is present in creation, with the Spirit hovering over the face of the primordial waters (Gen. 1:2).
At the end of Genesis 1, God proclaims “let us make man in our own image, after our likeness.” (Gen. 1:26). This is a passage that would not necessarily be interpreted as Trinitarian in isolation. Various interpretations fall short of Unitarian interpretations. One is that it is God and the heavenly hosts who are speaking, but this view is problematic for two reasons. The heavenly hosts do not create, only God creates ex nihilo. The second problem with this view is that man is not created in the image of angels. Man is created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Another interpretation is the royal we, the idea that God is referring to himself in the second person while ultimately referring to him in his Unitarian sense. This view would be plausible if the royal we were utilized elsewhere in the Old Testament, but given the obscurity of such grammatical constructions, this interpretation should not be favored. While the plurality in Genesis 1:26 does not necessarily prove it is Trinitarian, the verse is assuredly not Unitarian.
Several books in the New Testament talk about the work of Jesus in creation. In part, these sections help to clarify Genesis 1. In the Christ Hymn of Colossians 1, it talks of Christ’s preeminence. The passage informs the reader that “by him all things were created” (Col. 1:16). Hebrews 1 talks of the majesty of Christ and shows his dissimilarity from the angels, because he is greater than the angels. In that passage, it talks of Jesus laying the foundation of the earth from the beginning, and says the heavens are the work of his hands (Heb. 1:16). One of the most significant passages with respect to Jesus’ role in creation is the beginning of the gospel of John. In that section, John writes that Jesus was in the beginning and that all things were made through Jesus, and that nothing has been made without being made by him (John 1:3). Jesus is specifically depicted as an actor in creation.
Based on all of these points, it is again affirmed that the doctrine of the Trinity is Biblical. Christianity is a monotheistic faith. There is one God who is three persons. Each of the three persons are distinct from each other and each of the three is fully divine.
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Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.