The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity Pt. 1

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

This outline study presents a biblical case for the doctrine of the Trinity, citing roughly 1,000 references drawn from well over 300 different chapters of the Bible, including references from all 27 books of the New Testament. For an explanation of the method, reasoning, and background of this study, please see the Introduction.

I. There Is One God

II. This one God is the single divine being known in the OT as Jehovah or Yahweh (“the LORD”)

III. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is God

IV. The Son, Jesus Christ, is God.

V. The Holy Spirit Is God

VI. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each someone distinct from the other two.

VII. Conclusion: The Bible teaches the Trinity.

VIII. What difference does the doctrine of the Trinity make?

INTRODUCTION

It is often alleged that the doctrine of the Trinity is not a biblical doctrine. While the word Trinity is not in the Bible, the substance of the doctrine is definitely biblical. The doctrine is simply a formal way of systematizing the following six propositions, which may be viewed as premises of the doctrine:

I. There is one God (i.e., one proper object of religious devotion).

II. This one God is a single divine being, called Jehovah or Yahweh in the Old Testament (the LORD).

III. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is God, the LORD.

IV. The Son, Jesus Christ, is God, the LORD.

V. The Holy Spirit is God, the LORD.

VI. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each someone distinct from the other two.

Anyone who affirms all six of these propositions is affirming what is essential to the doctrine of the Trinity, since this is just what the doctrine of the Trinity says. In order to dispute the doctrine of the Trinity, then, one must take issue with one or more of the propositions stated above. Anything else is tangential to the issue. Objections based on the special theological vocabulary used in Trinitarian creeds, the conceptual difficulty of the doctrine, the political dimensions of ecclesiastical controversies involving the doctrine, the questionable conduct of some of those who adhere to the doctrine, and the like, fail to engage the biblical basis of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Ironically, anti-Trinitarians who profess faith in the Bible can be found who affirm all of these propositions, though they disagree among themselves as to which ones are biblical. All anti-Trinitarians affirm proposition #3. Anti-Trinitarians who affirm something akin to the ancient heresy of monarchianism or modalism generally affirm all but proposition #6 (though they actually have difficulty affirming #3 in a consistent manner). Anti-Trinitarians who affirm something akin to the ancient heresy of Arianism agree that Yahweh or Jehovah is a single divine being (cf. proposition #2) and affirm proposition #3; they also agree that the Father and Son are personally distinct but take a somewhat different view of the Holy Spirit (cf. proposition #6). There are still other variations. Each of these anti-Trinitarian groups considers its position obviously biblical. Thus, there is no need to appeal to extra-biblical considerations to settle the question, as all of the essential elements of the doctrine are addressed one way or another in the Bible.

The following outline study presents an overview of the biblical basis of the above six propositions, and therefore of the doctrine of the Trinity. Comments on the texts have been kept to a bare minimum; the emphasis is on the many biblical texts themselves. Roughly 1,000 references drawn from well over 300 different chapters of the Bible are listed, including references from all 27 books of the New Testament. The study makes no direct references to any specific non-Trinitarian religious groups but focuses solely on presenting the positive biblical evidence for the Trinity and responding succinctly to common objections to this evidence. No secondary sources are cited in the outline itself, though of course I have consulted numerous such sources.

Brief expositions of many of the texts discussed here can be found in the author’s book Why You Should Believe in the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989). Unfortunately, that book is out of print, but you can order a copy here. The material on the deity of Christ (point VI of the outline) is discussed in even greater depth in my more recent book Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ, co-authored with J. Ed Komoszewski (Kregel, 2007).

A proper evaluation of the biblical evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity will depend on the faithful application of sound principles of biblical interpretation. Here I will mention just two principles which, if followed, would prevent almost all interpretive errors on this subject.

The first is to interpret the implicit in light of the explicit. That is, texts that explicitly state that such-and-such is true are to govern our understanding of passages that do not address the issue directly. For example, many passages of the Bible state explicitly that God is omniscient, that is, that he knows all things, including the thoughts of men and all future events (1 Sam. 16:71 Chron. 28:9Job 37:16Ps. 139:1-4Is. 41:22-2342:944:7Jer. 17:10a). These texts must govern our understanding of passages which might seem to imply, but which do not assert, that God did not know something (e.g., Gen. 3:9-134:918:920-21).

The other principle is that we interpret logically but not rationalistically. Using the same illustration, if God knows everything ahead of time, then logically He must have known that Adam and Eve would fall into sin. However, to argue that if God knew Adam and Eve would sin then they would not be responsible for their choosing to sin is not “logical,” it is rationalistic. It may be difficult to understand how persons could be responsible for their sinful actions if God knew ahead of time that they would sin, but it is not illogical (not self-contradictory) to say so.

It should be kept in mind that a fruitful study of the Trinity depends to a considerable extent on a proper understanding of the nature of God. This outline touches on God’s attributes in various places but does not attempt to survey all of the relevant biblical material on the subject.

Note: This outline study has been a work in progress of mine since the late 1970s. A version that was several pages shorter than the current version was one of the most widely disseminated standard resources sent out by the Christian Research Institute (CRI) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. An electronic media version was created without my knowledge in 1994. Since that time it has appeared on various web sites in various editions (including some with unauthorized revisions), sometimes with permission and sometimes not. The version here, created for publication on the web site of the Institute for Religious Research, is the most recent version and includes the most significant revisions and additions in two decades (including some 300 new biblical references). In order to ensure the accuracy and integrity of this free resource, I am asserting my copyright to the work as its sole author. Anyone is welcome to print out and copy the outline study as much as they want as long as it is reproduced without change in its entirety (including this introduction and note). Permission must be obtained for posting this resource on another site.

I. There Is One God

One God: Explicit Statements

OT: Deut. 4:353932:392 Sam. 22:322 Kings 5:15Is. 37:2043:1044:6-845:51421-2246:9

NT: John 5:44Rom. 3:3016:271 Cor. 8:4-6Gal. 3:20Eph. 4:61 Tim. 1:172:5James 2:19Jude 25

None like God (in his essence)

Explicit statements: Ex. 8:109:1415:112 Sam. 7:221 Kgs. 8:231 Chr. 17:20Ps. 86:8Is. 40:182544:746:59Jer. 10:6-7Micah 7:18

Being like God a Satanic lie: Gen. 3:5Is. 14:14John 8:44

Fallen man become “like God” only in that he took upon himself to know good and evil, not that he acquired godhood: Gen. 3:22

Only one true God2 Chr. 15:3Jer. 10:10John 17:31 Thess. 1:91 John 5:20-21

Antitrinitarians sometimes argue that the word translated “true” in John 17:3 (alêthinos) actually means “archetypal,” referring to the Father as the archetypal or original God, thus allowing Christ to be designated “God” in a derivative or secondary sense.

Even if this interpretation were possible for John 17:3, it is not for the OT texts, since the Hebrew word for “true” (’emet) never means “archetypal.”

Elsewhere, the expression “the true God” in context contrasts this God with idols or false gods, not with genuine though derivative gods:

2 Chron. 15:3—Just as Israel was for many days “without the true God” but then turned back to him (vv. 3-6), so Asa turned to him by first removing all the idols from the land (v. 7[1]).

Jer. 10:10—Israel not to fear the gods of the nations, worshiped in idols (10:1-9); the true God is the living God (v. 10) and the Creator of the world (vv. 11-12).

1 Thess. 1:9—the Thessalonians turned from idols to serve the living and true God.

1 John 5:20-21—We are in the true God and eternal life (v. 20b), and should guard ourselves from idols (v. 21).

We should read the expression “the true God” in John 17:3 in light of its use elsewhere in the Bible as well as in its immediate context in John. Jesus’ point is not that the Father is the archetypal God from whom all other Gods are derived, but that God is only truly known in the Father whom Jesus his Son came to glorify. That God the Father cannot be known apart from the Son is a major theme in John’s writings (e.g., John 1:188:1914:6-792317:25-261 John 2:235:20). The parallel with 1 John 5:20 is especially significant: eternal life consists in knowing the Father as the true God and Jesus Christ (John 17:3); we know the true one in his Son Jesus Christ, and this is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20).

Ironically, critics of the Trinity often lean hard on John 17:3 to try to prove that Jesus cannot be God because the text says that the Father, as distinct from Jesus Christ, is the only true God. But this argument backfires when the “archetypal” understanding of John 17:3 is refuted, because John explicitly identifies Jesus as God (John 1:11820:28; see IV.A.2-4 below). Although Christ humbly honors the Father in this statement as the only true God, his statement does not necessarily mean that he (Jesus) is not also God—and the explicit statements in the same Gospel prove this was not his meaning.

All other “gods” are therefore false gods (idols), not gods at allDeut. 32:211 Sam. 12:21Ps. 96:5Is. 37:1941:23-2429Jer. 2:115:716:201 Cor. 8:410:19-20

Demons, not gods, are the power behind false worshipDeut. 32:17Ps. 106:371 Cor. 10:20Gal. 4:8

How human beings are meant to be “like God”

The image of God indicates that man is to represent God and share his moral character, not that man can be metaphysically like God: Gen. 1:26-275:11 Cor. 11:7Eph. 4:24Col. 3:10

The goal of being like Christ has the following aspects only:

Sharing His moral character: 1 John 3:2Rom. 8:29.

Being raised with glorified, immortal bodies like His: Phil. 3:211 Cor. 15:49.

Becoming partakers of the divine nature refers again to moral nature (“having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust”), not metaphysical nature: 2 Pet. 1:4; see also Heb. 12:10; on the meaning of “partakers,” see 1 Cor. 10:18202 Cor. 1:171 Pet. 5:1.

Are mighty or exalted men gods?

Scripture never says explicitly that human beings are gods.

Powerful, mighty men are explicitly said not to be gods: Ezek. 28:29Is. 31:32 Thess. 2:4.

Man and God are opposite, exclusive categories: Num. 23:191 Sam. 16:71 Chron. 29:1Job 32:13Ps. 56:411Prov. 3:4Is. 31:3Ezek. 28:29Hosea 11:9Matt. 19:26John 10:33Acts 12:221 Cor. 14:2.

Moses was “as God,” not really a god: Ex. 4:167:1.

Ezek. 32:21 speaks of warriors or soldiers as “mighty gods,” but in context they are so regarded by their pagan nations, not by God or Israel; cf. Ezek. 28:29

The elohim before whom accused stood in Exodus was God himself, not judges, as many translations incorrectly render: Ex. 22:8-928; compare Deut. 19:17.

The use of elohim in Psalm 82, probably in reference to wicked judges, as cited by Jesus in John 10:34-36, does not mean that men really can be gods.

It is Asaph, not the Lord, who calls the judges elohim in Ps. 82:16. This is important, even though we agree that Ps. 82 is inspired.

Asaph’s meaning is not “Although you are gods, you will die like men,” but rather “I called you gods, but in fact you will all die like the men that you really are.”

The Psalmist was no more saying that wicked judges were truly gods than he was saying that they were truly “sons of the Most High” (v. 6b).

Thus, Ps. 82:1 calls the judges elohim in irony. They had quite likely taken their role in judgment (cf. point 6 above) to mean they were elohim, or gods, and Asaph’s message is that these so-called gods were mere men who would die under the judgment of the true elohim (vss. 1-27-8).

Christ’s use of this passage in John 10:34-36 does not negate the above interpretation of Psalm 82.

The words, “The Scripture cannot be broken,” in this context probably mean “the Scripture cannot go without having some ultimate fulfillment” (cf. John 7:23Matt. 5:17). Thus Jesus is saying that what the OT judges were called in irony, he is in reality; he does what they could not do and is what they could never be (see the Adam—Christ contrasts in Rom. 5:12-21 and 1 Cor. 15:21-2245 for a similar use of OT Scripture).

The clause, “those against whom the word of God came” (John 10:35) shows that this “word” was a word of judgment against the so-called gods; which shows that they were false gods, not really gods at all.

Finally, these wicked men were certainly not “godlike” or “divine” by nature, so that in any case the use of elohim to refer to them must be seen as figurative, not literal.

Even if men were gods (which they are not), this would be irrelevant to Jesus, since He was God as a preexistent spirit before creation: John 1:1.

Are angels gods?

Scripture never explicitly states that angels are gods.

Demonic spirits are not gods, 1 Cor. 10:20Gal. 4:8; thus, being “mighty spirits” does not make angels gods.

Satan is therefore also a false god: 2 Cor. 4:4.

Psalm 8:5 does not teach that angels are gods.

Ps. 8:5 is paraphrased in Heb. 2:7, not quoted literally (for a similar example of such paraphrase, cf. Ps. 68:18 with Eph. 4:8). In Ps. 8:5elohim certainly means God, not angels, since Ps. 8:3-8 parallels Gen. 1:181626-28. (Hebrews is here following the Septuagint, or Greek translation of the OT, in using “angels” in place of “God.”) Note that the Psalmist is speaking of man’s exalted place in creation, whereas Hebrews, while agreeing on man’s exalted status compared to the rest of creation, applies the Psalm to speak of the lower place taken by Christ in becoming a man compared to his intrinsic status as divine. Thus, Heb. 2:7 may not mean to equate angels with gods at all (and the writer never draws that conclusion).

Having argued that Christ, unlike the angels, bears the designation “God” (1:8), it would be odd for the writer to imply just several verses later that the angels were “gods” (supposedly in 2:7).

Even if Heb. 2:7 did imply that angels are “gods,” in the context of Hebrews 1-2 these angels would be those falsely exalted above Christ. (The focal claim of Hebrews 1-2 is that Christ is greater than all the angels.) Cf. also Rev. 19:10 and 22:8-9 on the problem of the worship of angels (as well as possibly Col. 2:18).

Elsewhere in the Psalms angels, if spoken of as gods (or as “sons of the gods”), are considered false gods: Ps. 29:186:8-1089:695:396:4-597:7-9 (note that these false gods are called “angels” in the Septuagint); 135:5136:2138:1; cf. Ex. 15:1118:11Deut. 10:171 Chr. 16:252 Chr. 2:5.

Even if the angels were gods (which the above shows they are not), that would be irrelevant to Jesus, since He is not an angelic being, but the Son who is worshipped by the angels as their Creator, Lord, and God: Heb. 1:1-13.

Does the plural form of Elohim refer to “gods” or “Gods”?

It is true that the Hebrew word elohim (usually translated “God”) is grammatically a plural form. However, when it refers to “gods” in the plural (typically false deities), elohim regularly takes plural verbs, adjectives, and pronouns (e.g., “other [pl.] gods,” Ex. 20:3Deut. 5:7; frequent in the OT; “these [pl.] are the gods,” 1 Sam. 4:8; “so may the gods do [pl.] to me,” 1 Kings 19:2; “you [pl.] are our gods,” Is. 42:17; etc.). When it refers to the true God, the Creator, the object of Israel’s proper worship, it regularly takes singular verbs, singular adjectives, and singular pronouns. For example, “created” in Genesis 1:1 is a singular verb form, despite the fact that elohim (“God”) is grammatically a plural noun. Most Hebrew scholars understand this use of the plural form elohim for God to be an example of the plural of fullness (or plenitude, amplitude, etc.).

The simple fact that the OT occasionally uses elohim with reference to a single pagan god, such as Ashtoreth, Chemosh, or Molech (1 Kings 11:533), is sufficient to show that elohim can refer to a single deity (see also Judg. 6:3111:2416:23241 Sam. 5:71 Kings 18:24a252 Kings 1:2361619:37).

The Greek OT (or Septuagint) translated elohim in these contexts consistently with the singular noun theos (“God”), and when the NT quotes the OT it also uses the singular form theos (e.g., Deut. 6:13, in Matt. 4:10 and Luke 4:8Deut. 6:16, in Matt. 4:7 and Luke 4:12Ex. 3:6, in Matt. 22:32Mark 12:26, and Luke 20:37Ps. 22:1 in Matt. 27:46 and Mark 15:34; etc.).

Since the plural form elohim can be used even with reference to an individual pagan deity, we should also not regard this plural form as evidence of the Trinity.

Conclusion: If there is only one God, one true God, all other gods being false gods, neither men nor angels being gods, and none even like God by nature—all of which the Bible says repeatedly and explicitly—then we must conclude that there is indeed only one God.

II. This One God Is the Single Divine Being Known in the OT as Jehovah or Yahweh (“The LORD”)

This one God is known in the OT as Jehovah or Yahweh (“the LORD”)

Texts where Jehovah is said to be elohim or elDeut. 4:3539Josh. 22:341 Kings 8:6018:2139Ps. 100:3118:27; etc.

Texts where the compound name “Jehovah God” (Yahweh Elohim) is used: Gen. 2:4-915-223:18-913-1421-2324:3Ex. 9:30Ps. 72:1884:11Jonah 4:6

Only one Yahweh/Jehovah: Deut. 6:4Mark 12:29

The Bible never speaks of “the gods” as a group that includes Yahweh; nor is creation ever credited to “gods”; nor does it ever enjoin the worship of “gods”; nor does it speak in any other way that would imply that Yahweh was one of a group of deities. In fact the Bible explicitly rejects these types of statements (e.g., Deut. 5:6-106:4-513Is. 43:1044:6-824).

Conclusion: Jehovah is the only God, the only El or Elohim

This one God, the LORD, is one single divine being

The Bible always refers to the LORD or God in the third person singular (he, his, him), never as they, and speakers in the Bible addressing God/the LORD always do so in the second person singular (you singular). Citing texts is really unnecessary because there are far too many occurrences, but see, for example, Gen. 1:510Ex. 3:612-1420:7Deut. 32:391 Kings 18:39Ps. 23:2-3.

Whenever in the Bible the LORD or God speaks to human beings or other creatures, he always speaks of himself in the first person singular (I and my/mine, not us/we and our/ours). Of the obviously numerous examples, see the especially famous examples in Ex. 3:14Ex. 20:2Deut. 5:6. He says “I am the LORD” or “I am the LORD your/their God” some 164 times in the OT (especially in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Isaiah, and Ezekiel).

This conclusion cannot be circumvented by saying that there is one “Godhead” consisting of a plurality of divine beings. The word “Godhead” is equivalent to the word “Godhood” (-head is an old English suffix meaning the state or status of something, as in maidenhead, the state of being a maiden or virgin). In the English Bible it is used to translate three closely related words: theion (“divine being,” Acts 17:29), theiotês (“divine nature,” Rom. 1:20), and theotês (“deity,” Col. 2:9). In none of these texts does “Godhead” refer to more than one divine being. The use of “Godhead” as a term for the Trinity is not found in the Bible; it is not inaccurate per se, but it must be understood as a term for a single divine being, not a group of gods.

However, the Bible never says that God is “one person.”

Heb. 1:3 KJV speaks of God’s “person,” but the word used here, hupostasis, is translated “substance” in Heb. 11:1 KJV; also in Heb. 1:3 “God” refers specifically to the Father.

Gal. 3:20 speaks of God as one party in the covenant between God and man, not as one person.

Job 13:8 KJV speaks of God’s “person,” but ironically the Hebrew literally means “his faces.”

The use of plural pronouns by God in Genesis 1-11

As already noted, the Bible always refers to God in the singular, and he always speaks of himself with singular pronouns (I, me, mine, my) when addressing creatures. These singular forms do not disprove that God exists as three “persons” as long as these persons are not separate beings.

At least three times God speaks of or to himself using plural pronouns (Gen. 1:263:2211:7), and nontrinitarian interpretations cannot account for these occurrences.

A plural reference to God and the angels is not likely in these texts. In 1:26 “our image” is explained by the parallel in 1:27, “in God’s image.” In 3:22 “like one of us” refers back to 3:5, “like God.” In 11:7 “let us go down and there confuse their language” is explained immediately in 11:8-9, “So the LORD [Yahweh] scattered them abroad from there … The LORD confused the language of the whole earth.” Angels were evidently present when God created human beings (cf. Job 38:4-7), but the Bible never includes them as participants in creating human beings. Nor does the Bible ever speak of humans as being in the image of angels.

That the plural is in some way literal is evident from 3:22 (“like one of us”) and from 11:7 (“Come, let us go down”), which parallels the people’s statements “Come, let us …” (11:3, 4).

The “literary plural” (possibly, though never clearly, attested in Paul) is irrelevant to OT texts in which God is speaking, not writing.

The “plural of deliberation” or “cohortative plural” (as in “Let’s see now …”) with reference to a single person is apparently unattested in biblical writings, and clearly cannot explain the plural in Gen. 3:22 (“like one of us”).

The “plural of amplitude” or of “fullness” (which probably does explain the use of the plural form elohim in the singular sense of “God”) is irrelevant to the use of plural pronouns, and again cannot explain Gen. 3:22 and 11:7.

The “plural of majesty” (the royal “we”) is possibly attested in 1 Kings 12:92 Chron. 10:9; more likely Ezra 4:18; but none of these is a certain use of that idiom; and again, it cannot explain Gen. 3:22 and 11:7.

There are two factors that may explain why these intradivine plural pronouns occur only in Genesis 1-11.

These plural pronouns express communication among the divine persons, rather than communication from God to human beings or angelic creatures.

It may be significant that the use of these plural forms is reported only in Genesis 1-11, prior to the revelations to Abraham, when the focus of biblical revelation became the fostering of a monotheistic faith. The history of the OT is a history of the struggle to establish Israel as a community committed to belief in one God. In that context it would have been confusing to have referred overtly to the three divine persons of the triune God. This also explains why there is no overt revelation of the three persons in the OT.

The uniqueness of God should prepare us for the possibility that the one divine Being exists uniquely as a plurality of persons

Only one God, thus unique: see I.A

None are even like God: see I.B

God cannot be fully comprehended: Is. 40:18251 Cor. 8:2-3

God can be known only insofar as the Son reveals Him: Matt. 11:25-27John 1:18

Analogical language needed to describe God: Ezek. 1:26-28Rev. 1:13-16

God is transcendent, entirely distinct from and different than the universe, as the carpenter is distinct from the bench

Separate from the world: Is. 40:22Acts 17:24

Contrasted with the world: Ps. 102:25-271 John 2:15-17

Created the world: Gen. 1:1Ps. 33:6102:25Is. 42:544:24John 1:3Rom. 11:36Heb. 1:211:3

Continue to the next segment: The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity Pt. 2.

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