Three in One

One of the most unusual new doctrines introduced by Christianity was the Trinity: the idea that God, although he is one, also simultaneously exists in three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – all of which are equal in power and glory, possess the same will, and are composed of the same divine substance. Although Christian theologians through the ages have fiercely debated the exact meaning of this doctrine, and although it is repudiated by both Judaism and Islam as polytheistic, the Trinity remains by far the most common way for Christians to reconcile their belief in the unity of God with their beliefs about the divinity of Jesus.

Although there are non-trinitarian denominations of Christianity and thus it cannot be said that all Christianity depends upon this doctrine, it is certainly no exaggeration to say that the Trinity forms the foundation for the beliefs of the great majority of Christian sects. Therefore, if it can be shown to be scripturally unsupported or inherently problematic, the position of these sects will be greatly weakened. This essay will attempt to show just that.

The former difficulty will be addressed first. Though church councils in the fourth century CE and beyond may have defined and clarified the concept of the Trinity for subsequent generations, if their conclusions cannot be shown to be based on the Bible, it must be concluded that they were simply inventing.

We first consider the issue of whether the Trinity can be found in the Old Testament. Even before examining the actual text, there is one fact that is well worth considering: as stated above, Jews do not, nor did they ever, believe in the Trinity. This should be seen as highly relevant, because if the Judeo-Christian deity exists and is indeed a trinity, why would he not tell his own chosen people that? If it was always his intention to redeem humanity in the person of Jesus, should he not have prepared the Jews for that by telling them ahead of time that he was three in one? For him to conceal this basic fact about his own nature for so long would only have confused them when it was finally revealed and increased the likelihood that they would reject Christianity as a false religion. (“Shadow of Turning” addresses this consideration further.)

An excerpt from, of all places, the work of a Christian apologist confirms this point:

“If [Jesus] had simply announced, ‘Hi, folks; I’m God,’ that would have been heard as ‘I’m Yahweh,’ because the Jews of his day didn’t have any concept of the Trinity. They only knew of God the Father – whom they called Yahweh – and not God the Son or God the Holy Spirit.”
—Ben Witherington, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ; Zondervan, 1998. p.178.

Simple intuition would thus lead one to the conclusion that the Trinity is not supported by any verse from the Old Testament. This intuition is further supported by verses such as the following:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.” —Deuteronomy 6:4

“I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me.” —Isaiah 46:9

“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me.” —Deuteronomy 32:39

“I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me.” —Isaiah 45:5

Granted, Christian apologists will probably claim that even these verses, although they strongly affirm God’s unity and uniqueness, do not contradict the Trinity. But they certainly do not support it, either; as stated above, the Trinity is a doctrine utterly foreign to the Old Testament. And in any case, if these verses do not constitute a denial of the Trinity, then what would? How could these verses possibly have been written differently so that modern-day Christian apologists would accept them as claiming that God is one and not three? Would that even be possible, or is the Trinity, like many other religious ideas, designed to be impossible to disprove with any imaginable evidence?

As an aside, some Christian apologists occasionally claim the Trinity is supported by OT verses such as Genesis 1:26, in which God refers to himself in the plural. Even if such a translation is accurate (a claim which is debated, even by Christians), such a vague and cryptic reference in no way constitutes support for the entire convoluted doctrine of the Trinity, especially when set against strong claims of God’s absolute unity such as the ones presented above. A more plausible interpretation, in light of these verses, is that the use of the plural was intended to imply God’s addressing a “heavenly court” of angels. See, which cites Christian authors to this effect.

Moving on to the New Testament, we will find that scriptural support for the Trinity is equally thin. To start with, consider the strongest trinitarian verse in the NT:

“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” —1 John 5:7 (KJV)

This verse does indeed convey, if not a fully detailed explanation, at least a reasonable sketch of the Trinity as it is usually understood. Unfortunately, it is also a forgery – a very late interpolation to the original text – as even Christian apologists agree:

“[Jehovah’s Witnesses will] say, ‘That’s not in the earliest manuscripts.’ And that’s true enough. I think that these words are found in only about seven or eight copies, all from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. I acknowledge that is not part of what the author of 1 John was inspired to write.”
—Bruce Metzger, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ; Zondervan, 1998. p.84.

To be fair, Metzger and others do feel that the idea of the Trinity is supported by other NT verses. However, most of these are far less direct than the one quoted above. Consider several frequently cited candidates:

“And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” —Matthew 3:16-17 (KJV)

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all.” —2 Corinthians 13:14 (KJV)

“For in [Christ] dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.” —Colossians 2:9 (KJV)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” —John 1:1 (KJV)

“That all men should honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him.” —John 5:23 (KJV)

“Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.” —John 8:58 (KJV)

“[Jesus said,] I and my Father are one.” —John 10:30 (KJV)

To begin with, the first two verses, which are meant to suggest the Trinity by listing all of its members in close proximity, are highly vague. Certainly they do not even come close to stating that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all three distinct persons in one, or that they each separately possess all the characteristics of God. As such, they can offer only minimal and highly indirect support for this doctrine.

The verse from Colossians comes closer, but still misses the mark when it comes to supporting the entirety of trinitarian theology. It does not, for example, contradict “adoptionist” theologies in which the Son was not always a part of the godhead, but a human being who at some point in his life was imbued with divine power. It does not rule out theologies in which the Son is merely a different aspect or mode of God, rather than an entirely distinct person. It also does not rule out theologies in which the Son is a lesser emanation of the Father, a created being of similar divine substance but not equal in power or status. And it says nothing at all about the status of the Holy Spirit.

It is no coincidence that the next four quotes all come from the Gospel of John. Out of all the books in the New Testament, this one is by far the most explicit supporter of trinitarian-like doctrines, and if it were to be removed, there would be very little left in the Bible to hint at such an idea. However, even those verses do not go far enough to support the Trinity as it has come to be defined. The first such example, the Logos hymn from the opening of John, does not rule out the Son’s being either a different aspect of God or a lesser created being. (The following verse says that “without him was not any thing made that was made”, but this does not rule out the Son being the object of the very first creative act – participating but as the created rather than the creator – and then subsequently creating everything else.) The second, while it says the Son should be honored in the same way as the Father, again does not conflict with adoptionist theologies, nor those that view the Son as a different aspect or mode of God rather than a separate person, nor those that postulate the Son as a lesser emanation of the godhead – God’s emissary, to be honored by human beings just as they would honor God, yet not God himself. The third does not contradict any of these interpretations either; one could postulate that the divine essence that was manifested in Jesus existed before Abraham, without being the same as God. The fourth is also susceptible to these interpretations, as well as a pantheist interpretation in which everything that exists is one with God. And of course, none of these verses say anything at all about the Holy Spirit, which is a concept left curiously ill-defined by the Bible; at best, they support a duality, not a trinity.

Although they may establish, at minimum, the biblical existence of such entities as the Son and the Holy Spirit, such verses do not even come close to supporting the modern understanding of the Trinity. They do not support the modern beliefs that those two entities are co-eternal and uncreated and of the same substance as the Father; they do not contradict adoptionist beliefs that Jesus was not always God’s Son; they do not support the belief that the Son and the Holy Spirit are omniscient, omnipotent or omnipresent; they do not support the belief that all three entities are truly God in and of themselves as opposed to mere emanations of the divinity, or conversely, that they are mere different aspects or modes of the same unified being. If the authors of the Bible had had a full-blown trinitarian theology in mind and had written with the intent of supporting that doctrine, it is remarkable how much they left out, compared to what they could have said.

By contrast, there are NT verses that do not lend themselves so easily to a trinitarian interpretation. Consider the following:

“For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” —1 Timothy 2:5

This verse clearly suggests that Jesus is not God himself, but a man who mediates access to God. Or consider Colossians 1:15, which speaks of Jesus as “the firstborn of every creature” – in other words, a created being. This verse is supported by several that refer to Jesus as “begotten” – a notion that implicitly contains the notion of coming into existence – such as John 3:16. There are also verses that speak of things Jesus cannot do (Matthew 20:23, Mark 6:5) and things he does not know (Mark 13:32). If the Son is equal in divine status to the Father, these would seem to be problematic. Finally, consider John 14:28, in which Jesus claims that the Father is greater than him. Although trinitarian apologists have, of course, come up with explanations for these verses – usually involving complicated rationales about obscure concepts such as kenosis or the relative status of the three members of the godhead – the fact remains that they can fit at least as well, and in most cases better, into non-trinitarian interpretations.

In summary, as far as the New Testament goes, the idea of the Trinity is not wholly without scriptural support, but neither does scripture require it. A great deal of interpretation is involved either way. There are verses that can fit into a trinitarian framework (although that is not such a great feat, since as mentioned above, there are almost no imaginable passages that could not be). These same verses, as well as others, can also be fit into non-trinitarian frameworks. The NT evidence is simply not decisive one way or the other. However, what should be seen as more decisive is the complete absence of the Trinity from the Old Testament, as well as its basically irrational nature, discussed below.

Even beyond the question of scriptural support, we must ask the question of precisely what the doctrine of the Trinity means. Christians say that their religion is not polytheistic, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three separate gods but are in some way all the same being. But if this is the case, then what is it that makes the Christian god a trinity? In what way are the three distinct while at the same time remaining one?

The difference is not one of presence or extent; all three members of the Trinity are believed by Christians to be omnipresent. The difference is not one of power; Christians believe all members of the Trinity to be omnipotent. Nor is the difference one of knowledge; Christians believe all members of the Trinity to be omniscient. But what else can be the source of the distinction? Do the members of the Trinity have separate consciousnesses, so that their thoughts are different from each other? Do they have separate wills, so that their desires and preferences differ? If neither is the case, then in what sense are they distinct?

This is the fundamental paradox of the Trinity. If the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have separate consciousnesses or desires, then they are each separate gods, and there is no sense in which they are the same being. In that case, Christianity is polytheistic. But on the other hand, if the Son and the Holy Spirit have no separate consciousness or will from the Father, then they have no independent existence at all – they are merely instruments or tools through which God works to accomplish his will. One would not call a carpenter’s hammer a carpenter in and of itself, nor would one say that the carpenter was the same as his hammer. In this case, if the members of the Trinity have no separate consciousness, will or desires, then there is no Trinity at all – the whole doctrine is essentially just a convoluted way for God to talk to himself. Either way, the resolution is the same: the Christian divinity can be either one or three, but not both at the same time.

When trying to explain the meaning of the Trinity, Christian theologians often speak of it as a divine mystery that lies beyond full human comprehension. If this is true, it is strange that God, if he wanted us to understand and relate to him, would create us in such a way that a fundamental aspect of his nature would lie forever beyond our grasp. But a more important objection to such claims is this: If a claim is labeled beyond our ability to understand, then how are we supposed to tell if it is true? What assurance do theists have that the Trinity is a true fact about the world that is genuinely beyond our ability to comprehend, as opposed to a false claim invented by people whose illogical nature is protected from scrutiny by labeling it a mystery we aren’t intended to understand?

But of course, there is no such assurance. The Trinity, if it is to be believed, must be believed purely on the basis of faith. And this is what, as an atheist, I find unacceptable. Like other religious doctrines, the Trinity bears all the hallmarks of an idea invented by men – men who could not come up with perfect solutions to the logical problems in the system they had created, and so instead tried to paper over those problems, to prevent people from examining them too closely, by warning others in advance that this is something they should not expect to make sense. Such irrationality should be rejected by all thinking minds; it has never brought us anything of benefit. The light of reason points the way to a better path, if only we are willing to follow it.