The Trinity in Scripture

  • Question from GT, United Kingdom

    What does the Bible say about the Trinity?

    The Bible is not a ‘systematic theology’ so the complex doctrines of the faith, such as the Trinitarian nature of God, are never laid down in Scripture as unarguable fact. The development of the doctrine of the Trinity took place over a few centuries, but there are a couple of points to make about that.

    Firstly, the theologians who argued for the Trinitarian view of God saw themselves as explaining and defending both the Biblical revelation of God and the historic faith of the church held since the time of the apostles. Secondly, the description of God as Trinity was not the development of an idea in isolation. The creedal formulations of early Christianity were a response to other points of view, which were being subsumed into the faith, but were in danger of turning Christianity into a belief system not unlike the Gnostic cults of the time or the Greek ‘philosophical’ systems. For example, concepts such as ‘Logos’, used in John’s prologue, meant different things to different people. It is a thought-form borrowed from Greek philosophy that meant more than just ‘Word’ as translated in John chapter 1, it also meant ‘creative principle’, ‘divine mind’, ‘demiurge’ (the being that existed to allow the Transcendent One to interact with the evil material world), or any number of other ideas.

    The theologians often referred to as ‘church fathers’ had to face these twin problems – the Bible was clear about the character of God, but vague about the nature of God and the information that was given could easily be misconstrued and cause confusion. Over the course of the fourth century, during the ‘Arian controversy’, this vagueness gave way to complicated statements of the faith; the creeds (from the Latin word ‘credo’, meaning ‘I believe’ and also the root of the English word ‘credible’).

    The Arian controversy is worth summing up briefly. It was based loosely on Greek philosophical ideas that stated that the ‘One God’ created an intermediary who interacted with the world. This obviously paralleled the Christian idea of a ‘Father’ and a ‘Son’. In this system the ‘Father’ had to precede the ‘Son’, so the Arians catchphrase became ‘there was a time when the Son was not’. In some time before time, the Father dwelt alone, then created the Son and through the Son created the world. This all sounds very complicated and artificial to modern minds, but it tapped into the kind of religious beliefs that were popular and it was a thorough-going logical system, which made it very attractive.

    The problem for those who opposed Arianism was that Jesus Christ was considered the Son of God and not merely a created being. How else to explain classic Bible verses like Jesus’ statement ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10 verse 30)? This led to the classic formulation at the Council of Nicea in AD325 that Christ was ‘begotten’ not created. The ‘Son’ was therefore distinct from the created order – a fact that was considered vital if he was part of the plan to save creation – and, because the ‘Father’ could not be a father without the Son, the Son had to have existed eternally. Hence the phrase used by those early theologians that the Son is ‘eternally generated’ by the Father.

    That would be complicated enough, but then further disputes arose over the deity (or not) of the Holy Spirit. One theologian who held to the Nicene Creed was Gregory of Nazianzus and his argument for regarding the Holy Spirit as fully divine came to be accepted as almost the final word on the matter. Shortly before the Council of Constantinople in AD381, Gregory preached this sermon as the fifth in a series of orations that covered the nature of God from a Trinitarian standpoint. Interestingly he recognised the difficulty faced by Trinitarians regarding the paucity of Scriptural references for the doctrine, paraphrasing his opponents’ argument as ‘from whence are you bringing in upon us this strange God, of whom Scripture is silent?’ (Gregory’s Fifth Theological Oration can be found in anthologies of Patristic texts. A very good, readable version can be found in the Library of Christian Classics, Volume 3, published by SCM in 1954).

    Gregory’s argument for accepting the Holy Spirit as divine hinged on a number of activities undertaken by the Spirit according to Scripture as well as the Spirit’s attributes. For example, the Spirit sanctifies, so must be divine for only God can make something holy. In that sense, the Holy Spirit must be divine because only God is intrinsically holy. (There are numerous other instances in the Bible where the Spirit is described in divine terms or undertakes divine activity.) The threefold blessing of ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, which had been a part of the Christian baptismal rite since apostolic times, was also considered an indicator of the equality of status among the divine persons.

    The earliest Christians were very keen to read back into Scripture the various doctrines of the faith, so they had no problems reading the Old Testament and discovering ‘references’ to Christ and even to the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that meant they took texts well out of their Biblical context, or interpreted stories where certain mysterious characters, for example Melchizadek in Genesis chapter 14, were regarded as pre-Incarnation representations of Christ. This use of Scripture has to be regarded with caution, but there are hints in the Old Testament of a plurality in God (Isaiah chapter 6 verse 8 being the classic example). Then in the New Testament, the Messiah refers to God as his Father (implying a shared nature), is referred to himself as divine in several places by the New Testament writers and introduces a third entity, the Parakletos (John chapter 16, translated as Counsellor or Comforter), in a way that implies this new person is an adequate replacement.

    This giving of a ‘new counsellor’, the Spirit, was where Gregory believed the life of the Church began and this became his key argument for the divinity of the Spirit. The Old Testament revelation was of the Father-Creator, the New Testament revealed the Son-Redeemer and the ‘third transition’ – the institution of the Church or community of saints – revealed the Spirit. “Now the Spirit himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of himself.” (Library of Christian Classics, Vol. 3, p.209) The unvoiced commentary is that those who disputed the deity of the Spirit, did not know the Spirit and were not really Christians.

    In conclusion, then, the Bible never lays out the doctrine of the Trinity in a neat ordered way. It was left to later generations to take what had been revealed in Scripture and arrange that revelation into an ordered doctrine that did not conflict with what was revealed in the Bible. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the concept of a three-personal God and sums up this development of the doctrine of the Trinity.

    People already knew about God in a vague way. Then came a man who claimed to be God; and yet He was not the sort of man you could dismiss as a lunatic… They saw Him again after they had seen Him killed. And then, after they had formed into a little society or community, they found God somehow inside them as well: directing them, making them able to do things they could not do before. And when they worked it all out they found they had arrived at the Christian definition of the three-personal God.” (C.S. Lewis, op. cit. page 139)

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