Is Trinitarianism Monotheistic?

The bedrock of normative Judaism has always been strict monotheism—the belief that there is numerically only one God, the God of Israel, whose name is YHWH, usually written as “Yahweh.” This belief in one God is what made a Jew a Jew. It distinguished Jews from their neighbors, who during antiquity were polytheistic.

Jews have always believed that their faith is expressed so resolutely in what they call “the Shema.” Recorded in their scriptures, it reads, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6.4-5 NASB).

The Hebrew word that is translated “one” in Deuteronomy 6.4 is echad. Its primary meaning is the numeral “one,” and it is so translated over 600 times in the New American Standard Bible (NASB). The second most prominent translation of echad in the NASB is the word “each,” which is so translated fifty-five times. So, echad usually means numerically “one.” Context is the primary determining factor.

Jesus repeatedly endorsed the Shema. Like any other Jew, he seemed to believe that God was numerically one. For example, a scribe once asked him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” (Mark 12.28; cf. Matthew 22.36). Jesus answered by quoting the Shema, saying it was “foremost” (Mark 12.29). The scribe replied, “Right, Teacher, You have truly stated that he is one; and there is no one else besides him” (v. 32). Jesus accepted this as correct by replying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34). Did Jesus mean that God was one person and not two or three? It seems that he did because that’s what the scribe meant.

On another occasion, the Johannine Jesus even more precisely identified God as numerically one. Jesus said to his accusers, “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” (John 5.44). Later, Jesus prayed to the “Father” on behalf of his disciples, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (17.1, 3). So, Jesus not only described the Father as “the one and only God” and “the only true God,” but he distinguished himself in doing so. This represents a clear denial by Jesus that he himself is God.

Trinitarian scholars insist that they are monotheistic, thus believing in one God. But most of them define “one,” here, as a unity rather than numerically. Many Muslims and Jews, who also claim to be monotheistic, reject this definition, contending that monotheism means belief in numerically one God, who is a single person. Thus, they allege that Trinitarianism is tritheistic, meaning belief in three gods.

So, how did we get this word monotheism? Henry More, a Cambridge Platonist philosopher, coined the word “monotheism” in the 17th century. It represents a transliterated conjoining of two Greek words. The word “mono” derives from the Greek word monos, meaning “only,” “alone,” or “single.” But as a prefix, “mono” can also mean numerically “one.” The word “theistic” derives from theos, the Greek word for “god.” So, theism means “belief in god.” Joining these two words together signifies belief in numerically one god/God in contrast to the word polytheism, which means “belief in many gods” or “more than one god.” Yet Trinitarians define the one God of the Bible as three co-equal Persons. It seems questionable that Trinitarian Christianity can be categorized as monotheistic. That’s why some modern scholars reject the word “monotheism” as a useful category.

However, in Jesus’ phrase quoted above–calling the Father “the only true God” (John 17.3)–this phrase in the Greek text is monon alethinon theon. Remove alethinon (true) from it, and we have a biblical basis for the word “monotheism.”

Jews have vehemently defended their monotheism against Trinitarianism. And they have denied any hint of Trinitarianism in their scriptures. For many religious Jews, the church doctrine of the Trinity seems blasphemous, and this is surely how Jews would have viewed it during the time of Jesus. Raymond E. Brown rightly says of that era, “For the Jew ‘God’ meant God the Father in heaven.” (The Qur’an repeatedly rejects the doctrine of the Trinity as blasphemous.)

The main thing that has divided Christians and religious Jews has not been whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, but whether the one God consists of more than one Person. Jewish writer David Klinghoffer rightly explains, “In Talmudic and other early rabbinic literature [produced during the early centuries of the Christian era], the most often heard polemical theme directed against Christians has to do with the charge that the latter worshipped two gods. Not three, as in later Christian formulations—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—but two. In the first centuries of our era, not all Christians had yet become formal Trinitarians, for the Holy Spirit had not yet joined the pantheon.”

Then, how should monotheism be defined? Larry Hurtado suggests that, despite anomalies, we should “take people as monotheist if that is how they describe themselves.” But most Christians don’t allow such a loose definition for confessional conversion to their faith. Most church denominations have established some criteria for deciding who is a genuine Christian (though they often disagree on the criteria). In fact, this usually is reflected in their requirements for formal church membership.

Thus, Christians generally do not accept a person as one of their own merely because that person professes to be a Christian. Rather, prospective converts must meet the established criteria of that particular church community. In times past, such standards often have been set forth in the form of a catechism or a creed. The New Testament (NT) reveals that the early Jewish Christians required at least the following confessional criteria: Jesus is Messiah, Savior, and Lord, and God proved it by raising him from the dead (Romans 10.9-10; John 20.30-31; 1 Corinthians 15.3-4).

Likewise, it seems there could be some criteria for determining who is a monotheist and who is not which would go beyond mere profession. I suggest as a simple formula the etymology of “monotheism” set forth above, a definition which is in sharp contrast to “polytheism.” And that is indeed what characterized ancient Judaism from the religions of its neighbors: Jews worshipped numerically one God whereas their neighbors worshipped many gods. Accordingly, it is very doubtful that either Binitarianism, which is belief in two Persons in one Godhead, or Trinitarianism, which is belief in three Persons in one Godhead, can rightly be categorized as monotheistic.

[If you are interested in starting a discussion group about whether or not Jesus is God and God is triune, visit our website]

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At Forty Years Old I Best Saw the Light–Trinity Doctrine No Longer Seemed Right.
Can Genuine Christians Be Trinitarian or Non-Trinitarian?
  • Cole J. Banning

    Certainly there is a sense in which Trinitarian Christianity is monotheistic primarily because we have defined our terms in such a way as to make it so. If you want to use a different definition of monotheism, one which requires not only unity of being but also unity of hypostases, then obviously there’s nothing that anyone can possibly do to stop you.

    Nor would I argue that Trinitarian monotheism is the same thing as the strict monotheism of Judaism. It clearly isn’t, although I would point out that the oldest parts of the Hebrew scriptures seem to draw from a henotheistic worldview rather than a strictly monotheistic one. I’m also curious how such a strict monotheism makes sense of passages such as Proverbs 8. But these are sidebars; I’m not arguing that the Hebrew scriptures teach Trinitarianism in any direct sense. Heck, I’m not even arguing that the New Testament does so.

    However, it’s unequivocally incorrect to say that orthodox Trinitarians believe in three gods. No matter how you parse it, that’s just false. Maybe there’s something subtle I’m missing to the distinction you want to make between a “unity” and “numerically one,” but it seems to me pretty clear that in orthodox Christian Trinitarianism God is not only a unity, but numerically one. There is only one God. Period. Anything else is heresy (from an orthodox Trinitarian perspective).

    You seem to be taking advantage of a confusion between our ordinary language use of the word “person” and the specialized theological usage as a translation of the Greek hypostasis. The Trinity are not (in orthodox Trinitarianism) three separate people who together make up God, the way three members of a family might make up that family. Instead, the hypostases of the Trinity share a unity of essence: they are all, quite literally, the same metaphysical entity, in a way which is avowedly paradoxical and mysterious. The “persons” of the Trinity are not their own separate gods–on this point, Trinitarian theology is absolutely and unrelentlessly unequivocal.

    And this isn’t just true of abstract theology. When actual Christians get confused about the Trinity and fall into heresy–which, admittedly, happens fairly often–it’s almost always either modalism or partialism, and hardly ever tritheism.

    Now, I suspect that you might take this as evidence of us either being disingenuous (because we’re not using his definition of monotheism) or, more charitably, that Trinitarian Christians are confused about what we actually believe. (And of course, given the abysmal state of catechesis in the Church today, the latter is almost certainly true!) But given the utter clarity that orthodox theology teaches that there is no division in being within the Godhead, I don’t see how one can argue that Trinitarians understand God as being even “numerically three.”

    You might argue something along the line that Trinitarians cannot simply declare by fiat that a distinction between separate persons doesn’t require a belief in different gods. But if Trinitarians cannot define what our own theology is, who can? One can argue that the Trinity as a doctrine is incoherent–and I might even agree with you; there’s a reason why we call it a “holy mystery”–but saying that Trinitarians believe in three gods is just flat-out incorrect, and seems to willfully misrepresent what orthodox theology teaches.

    • kzarley

      I will reply to your paragraphs by numbering them as follows:

      #1, 3, 7: That’s my point. Trinitarians saying their position is monotheistic doesn’t make it so. Defining words is something people need to agree upon. I was a Trinitarian for 22 years; I don’t think it should be deemed monotheistic. As for hypostasis, theology must be stated in people’s languages.

      #2: Monolatry perhaps, but not henotheism. Whether or not to interpret monolatry in early OT texts depends on how elohim is treated. Poetic Prov. 8: most Trinitarian scholars deem it inconsequential since they rightly view wisdom as personified, not as a person nor a hypostasis as Greek church fathers did.

      #3, 7: You repeatedly say Trinitarianism is belief in numerically one God. I think if people who take no position on this subject were asked about it, they would say Trinitarianism looks like the worship of three G/gods.

      #6, 7: I don’t think I am misrepresenting Trinitarianism. I know what it is. I’m not saying Trinitarians teach three gods but that that’s the way it looks to outsiders. I think you err in saying Trinitarians don’t “understand God as being even ‘numerically three.’” They believe God is three co-equal & co-eternal Persons and that these Persons are separate individuals who share one essence. For instance, they believe the Father and Jesus are God as well as two separate, individual Persons who sit on the Father’s heavenly throne side-by-side. Most unbiased people would say that looks like two G/gods, as Jews and Muslims do, and I think they are right.

      #4, 7: Trinitarians say people cannot understand their doctrine because, as you say, it is a “mystery,” therefore they should believe it. Wow, and they say you have to believe it, even though you can’t understand, in order to be saved. That is intellectual suicide, and I call it a copout. In my RJC book, I state, “Those who advance such arguments do not seem to grasp that, if their doctrine is incomprehensible, how can they comprehend it, let alone explain it? And why should anyone believe the originators of this doctrine, since according to these assertions they could not have understood it either?” I think God made the gospel (good news) simple so that we simple people can understand it. What is it? The Father is the one God, Jesus is a man, and God sent Jesus to die for our sins.

    • Anthony F. Buzzard

      Jesus stated that the bedrock, quintessential fact about
      true religion is: God is a single, undivided SELF(Mk 12:29; Jn 17:3), certainly
      not a Triune God. In thousands of occurrences of the words for GOD in the Bible,
      who can show that a single one of these means a TRIUNE GOD? Every
      scholar knows that the Trinity is a much later development of non-biblical,
      church councils. Is this not cause for alarm and a return to Jesus in Mk. 12:29?
      When Bible writers wrote GOD, they never meant Trinity.