The Trinity—Is It Taught in the Bible?
“The Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. . . . So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God.”
IN THESE words the Athanasian Creed describes the central doctrine of Christendom—the Trinity.a If you are a church member, Catholic or Protestant, you might be told that this is the most important teaching that you are to believe in. But can you explain the doctrine? Some of the best minds in Christendom have confessed their inability to understand the Trinity.
Why, then, do they believe it? Is it because the Bible teaches the doctrine? The late Anglican bishop John Robinson gave a thought-provoking answer to this question in his best-selling book Honest to God. He wrote:
“In practice popular preaching and teaching presents a supranaturalistic view of Christ which cannot be substantiated from the New Testament. It says simply that Jesus was God, in such a way that the terms ‘Christ’ and ‘God’ are interchangeable. But nowhere in Biblical usage is this so. The New Testament says that Jesus was the Word of God, it says that God was in Christ, it says that Jesus is the Son of God; but it does not say that Jesus was God, simply like that.”
John Robinson was a controversial figure in the Anglican Church. Nevertheless, was he correct in saying that the “New Testament” nowhere says that “Jesus was God, simply like that”?
What the Bible Does Say
Some may answer that question by quoting the verse that commences John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1, King James Version) Does that not contradict what the Anglican bishop said? Not really. As John Robinson doubtless knew, some modern translators disagree with the King James Version’s rendering of that text. Why? Because in the expression “the Word was God” in the original Greek, the word for “God” does not have the definite article “the.” In the earlier expression “the Word was with God,” the word for “God” is definite, that is, it does have the definite article. This makes it unlikely that the two words have the same significance.
Hence, some translations bring out the qualitative aspect in their translations. For example, some render the expression “the Word was divine.” (An American Translation, Schonfield) Moffatt renders it “the Logos was divine.” However, indicating that “divine” would not be the most appropriate rendering here, John Robinson and the British textual critic Sir Frederick Kenyon both pointed out that if that was what John wanted to emphasize, he could have used the Greek word for “divine,” theiʹos. The New World Translation, correctly viewing the word “God” as indefinite, as well as bringing out the qualitative aspect indicated by the Greek structure, uses the indefinite article in English: “The Word was a god.”
Professor C. H. Dodd, director of the New English Bible project, comments on this approach: “A possible translation . . . would be, ‘The Word was a god’. As a word-for-word translation it cannot be faulted.” However, The New English Bible does not render the verse that way. Rather, John 1:1 in that version reads: “When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was.” Why did the translation committee not choose the simpler rendering? Professor Dodd answers: “The reason why it is inacceptable is that it runs counter to the current of Johannine thought, and indeed of Christian thought as a whole.”—Technical Papers for the Bible Translator, Volume 28, January 1977.
The Plain Sense of Scripture
Would we say that the idea that Jesus was a god and not the same as God the Creator is contrary to Johannine (that is, the apostle John’s) thought, as well as Christian thought as a whole? Let us examine some Bible texts that refer to Jesus and to God, and we will see what some commentators who lived before the Athanasian Creed was formulated thought about those texts.
“I and the Father are one.”—JOHN 10:30.
Novatian (c. 200-258 C.E.) commented: “Since He said ‘one’ thing,[b] let the heretics understand that He did not say ‘one’ person. For one placed in the neuter, intimates the social concord, not the personal unity. . . . Moreover, that He says one, has reference to the agreement, and to the identity of judgment, and to the loving association itself, as reasonably the Father and Son are one in agreement, in love, and in affection.”—Treatise Concerning the Trinity, chapter 27.
“The Father is greater than I am.”—JOHN 14:28.
Irenaeus (c. 130-200 C.E.): “We may learn through Him [Christ] that the Father is above all things. For ‘the Father,’ says He, ‘is greater than I.’ The Father, therefore, has been declared by our Lord to excel with respect to knowledge.”—Against Heresies, Book II, chapter 28.8.
“This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.”—JOHN 17:3.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 C.E.): “To know the eternal God, the giver of what is eternal, and by knowledge and comprehension to possess God, who is first, and highest, and one, and good. . . . He then who would live the true life is enjoined first to know Him ‘whom no one knows, except the Son reveal (Him).’ (Matt. 11:27) Next is to be learned the greatness of the Saviour after Him.”—Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? VII, VIII.
“One God and Father of all persons, who is over all and through all and in all.”—EPHESIANS 4:6.
Irenaeus: “And thus one God the Father is declared, who is above all, and through all, and in all. The Father is indeed above all, and He is the Head of Christ.”—Against Heresies, Book V, chapter 18.2.
These early writers clearly understood these verses to describe the Father as supreme, over everything and everyone including Jesus Christ. Their comments give no hint that they believed in a Trinity.
The Holy Spirit Reveals All Truth
Jesus promised his disciples that after his death and resurrection, the holy spirit would be given to them as a helper. He promised: “When that one arrives, the spirit of the truth, he will guide you into all the truth, . . . and he will declare to you the things coming.”—John 14:16, 17; 15:26; 16:13.
After Jesus’ death, that promise was fulfilled. The Bible records how new doctrines were revealed or clarified to the Christian congregation through the help of the holy spirit. These new teachings were written down in the books that later became the second part of the Bible, the Christian Greek Scriptures, or “New Testament.” In this flood of new light, is there ever any revelation of the existence of a Trinity? No. The holy spirit reveals something very different about God and Jesus.
For example, at Pentecost 33 C.E., after holy spirit came upon the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, the apostle Peter witnessed to the crowd outside about Jesus. Did he speak about a Trinity? Consider some of his statements, and judge for yourself: “Jesus . . . , a man publicly shown by God to you through powerful works and portents and signs that God did through him in your midst.” “This Jesus God resurrected, of which fact we are all witnesses.” “God made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you impaled.” (Acts 2:22, 32, 36) Far from teaching a Trinity, these expressions by the spirit-filled Peter highlight Jesus’ subordination to his Father, that he is an instrument for the fulfillment of God’s will.
Soon after, another faithful Christian spoke about Jesus. Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin to answer accusations. Instead, Stephen turned the situation around, charging that his accusers were like their rebellious ancestors. Finally, the record says: “He, being full of holy spirit, gazed into heaven and caught sight of God’s glory and of Jesus standing at God’s right hand, and he said: ‘Look! I behold the heavens opened up and the Son of man standing at God’s right hand.’” (Acts 7:55, 56) Why did the holy spirit reveal Jesus to be simply the “Son of man” standing at God’s right hand and not part of a godhead equal with his Father? Clearly, Stephen had no concept of a Trinity.
When Peter carried the good news about Jesus to Cornelius, there was a further opportunity to reveal the Trinity doctrine. What happened? Peter explained that Jesus is “Lord of all.” But he went on to explain that this lordship came from a higher source. Jesus was “the One decreed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.” After Jesus’ resurrection, his Father “granted him [gave him permission] to become manifest” to his followers. And the holy spirit? It does appear in this conversation but not as the third person of a Trinity. Rather, “God anointed [Jesus] with holy spirit and power.” Thus, the holy spirit, far from being a person, is shown to be something impersonal, like the “power” also mentioned in that verse. (Acts 10:36, 38, 40, 42) Check the Bible carefully, and you will find further evidence that the holy spirit is not a personality but an active force that can fill people, impel them, cause them to be aglow, and be poured out upon them.
Finally, the apostle Paul had a fine opportunity to explain the Trinity—if it had been true doctrine—when he was preaching to the Athenians. In his talk, he referred to their altar “To an Unknown God” and said: “What you are unknowingly giving godly devotion to, this I am publishing to you.” Did he publish a Trinity? No. He described the “God that made the world and all the things in it, being, as this One is, Lord of heaven and earth.” But what of Jesus? “[God] has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed.” (Acts 17:23, 24, 31) No hint of a Trinity there!
In fact, Paul explained something about God’s purposes that makes it impossible that Jesus and his Father are equal parts of a Trinity. He wrote: “God ‘subjected all things under his [Jesus’] feet.’ But when he says that ‘all things have been subjected,’ it is evident that it is with the exception of the one who subjected all things to him. But when all things will have been subjected to him, then the Son himself will also subject himself to the One who subjected all things to him, that God may be all things to everyone.” (1 Corinthians 15:27, 28) Thus, God will still be over all, including Jesus.
Is the Trinity taught in the Bible, then? No. John Robinson was right. It is not in the Bible, nor is it a part of “Christian thought.” Do you view this as important to your worship? You should. Jesus said: “This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ.” (John 17:3) If we take our worship of God seriously, it is vital that we know him as he really is, as he has revealed himself to us. Only then can we truly say that we are among the “true worshipers” who “worship the Father with spirit and truth.”—John 4:23.
a According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907 edition, volume 2, page 33.
b Novatian is referring to the fact that the word for “one” in this verse is in the neuter gender. Hence, its natural meaning is “one thing.” Compare John 17:21, where the Greek word for “one” is used in an exactly parallel way. Interestingly, the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967 edition) generally approves of Novatian’s De Trinitate, although it notes that in it “the Holy Spirit is not considered a divine Person.”
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The plain sense of Scripture clearly shows that Jesus and his Father are not one God
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Why did not holy spirit reveal that Jesus was God after Pentecost 33 C.E.?