Does Saint Paul Believe in the Trinity?

Does Saint Paul Believe in the Trinity? September 9, 2023

The doctrine of the Trinity solidified as a doctrine, which is to say as a particular teaching of the church, over a long period of time. The heavy lifting took place across the first five centuries of the faith. Does that mean the Trinity is not in the Bible? Is it part of the New Testament? Did Saint Paul believe in the Trinity?

How did we get to “The  Great Three in One?”

To answer the question about St. Paul, we first need to take a quick look at the development of the doctrine. There were two main questions in those early centuries of Christianity that pressured the teaching. Both were chiefly liturgical questions.

The first: what words should we use when we talk about Jesus’ connection to the God of Israel? If we say that from the beginning of all things he “was God,” as John’s Gospel says, then we need to talk about what the word “God” means. It seems like the old definition from Deuteronomy 6:4 has shifted. Is God still one? Eventually a similar conversation would grow around the identity of the Spirit. But the debates about Jesus were the louder of the two.

The second question: what language should we use in baptisms and public prayers when we identify the God we’re praying to? When we say a doxology over the water, for instance, do we say it just like Jesus said it in Matthew 28? What happens if you add prepositions like “through the Spirit or “with the Son?” Did we mess anything up? Did we just mispronounce God’s name? Is mistaking God’s name like making a typo in on Google Maps? If we key it in wrong, are we heading to the wrong address?

As these questions (well, not the Google Maps question) expanded in debates, letters, and councils, a consensus eventually grew. Not a universal consensus, but a more-or-less consensus. Jesus is “true God from true God,” and the word “God” means one divine essence which eternally exists as three divine persons. By the 5th century, most Greek Christians were using the word ousia to name what is one in God, and hypostasis to name what is three.

How Does Paul Use God’s Name?

This is not Saint Paul’s vocabulary. If by “believe in the Trinity” we mean to ask whether Paul ascribed to the Council of Constantinople’s Trinitarian definitions from 381, the answer is a pretty clear no. Paul never uses the word “Trinity,” let alone homoousion to patri, “of the same substance as the Father.”

Still, Paul thinks that Jesus’ resurrection has revealed something radical about the name of God. Without losing his unity, God has revealed himself to be three.

Theologian and Pauline scholar Wesley Hill shows how Paul works out this renaming by breaking open the one name of God and allowing us to step inside. Kurios, or Lord, is the Greek translation of the Hebrew name for God: the Tetragrammaton, or four-lettered name YHWH. Kurios comes to be Paul’s favorite way of identifying Jesus, as in Romans 1:7: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Let’s look for some more examples.

The Trinity in the Epistles

One familiar formula we find doesn’t just say “God our Father and…,” using a conjunction, but unites the two more closely with a preposition. So 2 Corinithians 11:31 says “The God and Father of the Lord Jesus…” God most immediately means Father for Paul. But you can’t say Father without saying who that one is Father of. And his answer: Jesus, the kurios. God is YHWH the Father of YHWH. That’s some wild theology, Paul.

In fact, it’s not just the character of Jesus who now allows us to identify God, but the Father’s act of raising Jesus from the dead. Here is how Galatians opens:

Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead… (1.1)

The Easter event is not just something that God does, for Paul; it shapes a new way of naming who God is. God is the raising one and the risen one. And God is also, as he’ll insist in Romans 8 and other places, the Spirit, or power, that does the raising.

Paul’s way of identifying the Spirit especially shows him to be trinitarian. For here we see how he conceives of God’s being as the dance of three that forms our life and faith. Our faith responds to the power of the Father, revealed in the Son, and given to us in the Spirit. So in 1 Thessalonians Paul is

remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. (1:3-5)

So… Does Paul Believe in the Trinity?

Such is the consistent emphasis of Paul’s trinitarian theology. God is the one who raised the Lord Jesus. That same God is among you when the Spirit moves and works within you and your communities.

Paul is not saying that God is no longer one, or that the Jews were wrong in the way they named God (see Romans 4 if you’re not convinced). Instead, he is saying that in Jesus’ resurrection we draw in so closely to the one God of Israel that we can experience God as three. God is the power at work in us, the incarnate one who shares that power with us, and the source of both incarnation and power, to whom all our prayers are ultimately addressed.

Yes, Saint Paul believes in the triune God. But perhaps it would be better to say the doctrine of Trinity is staunchly Pauline. The development of language to name the God who is three and one is a faithful interpretation of scripture. This includes the letters of the Apostle who spent his later years in wonder at the news of resurrection, marveling at how this news transforms the way we pray.

Browse Our Archives