The Doctrine of the Trinity

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Church Tradition, Scripture and History

Note: you can click on any underlined Bible reference in this writing to go to the Bible Gateway website to see the reference in full, usually in the ESV (English Standard Version). You can then move to any other available version (in any language) or see the passage listed in multiple English versions.

Introduction

The doctrine of the Trinity states that God consists of three persons, namely the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This doctrine occupies a central place in all “orthodox” Christian denominations.

Does it occupy a central place in the Bible and particularly in the New Testament?

Has it occupied that place throughout the history of the Christian church?

Church Tradition

The Nicene Creed is a formal church statement of Christian doctrine created in 325 AD. It has 3 main sections, one for each person of the Trinity. From then till the present time the Trinity has been a central doctrine of all mainstream Christian churches. It clearly states that Jesus is God: “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father Light of Light, very (true) God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;”

Every traditional Roman Catholic or Anglican church service makes mention of the Trinity, often several times. The doxology, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost” is sung at the end of every psalm. (Ghost is simply the old English word for Spirit.) Many preachers preface their sermons with the words, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Many traditional church services end with the words of “The Blessing”: “The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen”. Alternatively services end with the grace: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (from 2Cor 13:14).

Most churches use the Trinitarian formula when baptising, according to the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

Many traditional English hymns have a Trinitarian theme. For example the hymn “Holy, holy, holy. Lord God Almighty” ends with the words “God in three persons, blessed Trinity”. The popular hymn St Patrick’s Breastplate begins “I bind unto myself this day the strong name of the Trinity” and goes on with the words “three in one and one in three”.

Countless churches in western countries are called Trinity Church or Holy Trinity Church.

For many denominations, belief in the Trinity is the acid test of orthodoxy. All denominations that believe in the Trinity are considered to be orthodox. That means of course Roman Catholics, Greek or Russian Orthodox, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians etc and many, but not all, Pentecostal groups.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christadelphians and others who do not believe in the Trinity or deity of Christ are considered to be sects.

As we see, the traditional church has placed a huge emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity. Is this teaching based on Scripture as we would imagine? Or is it based mainly on church tradition?

We will turn to the Bible to find an answer.

Scripture

The Word “Trinity”

How many times does the word Trinity occur in the Bible? The answer is zero. The word occurs nowhere from Genesis to Revelation. In fact it has no equivalent word in either Hebrew or Greek.

The number three is never associated with God in any way. By contrast we read in Deut 6:4 (as every Jewish person knows) “Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH is one. We also have the plain words of Jesus, “I and the Father are one (John 10:30). He did not say, “I and the Father are two separate persons”.

The New Testament places a huge emphasis on the name of Jesus and almost none on the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus uses the phrase my name more than 20 times in the gospels. Here are some references: Matt 18:20 Matt 18:20, Matt 18:5, Matt 24:9, Mark 16:17, John 14:13, John 14:26, John 16:23. The phrase name of Jesus occurs 10 times in the book of Acts. (See Acts 2:38, Acts 3:6, Acts 4:18, Acts 8:12, Acts 16:18, Acts 26:9.)

Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). Anyone going to a traditional church service would think he had said, “Do everything in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”.

The Word “Person”

How many times does the word “person” occur in the Bible? Same answer as for Trinity! Zero! In fact neither ancient Hebrew nor ancient Greek had any word for person. (Modern Hebrew uses the word adam (אדם) meaning man). The church needed a suitable word to describe God the Father and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They coined the Latin word “persona” from the Greek word προσωπον (they have the same root letters of p, r and s). The word προσωπον means face and was used to describe the masks worn by actors in Greek plays. The idea was that God had three faces - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. English dictionaries say the word person means a human being or a man, woman or child.

The Word “God”

Before discussing whether the Holy Spirit and Jesus are God, we must ask a question. What is the meaning of the word God? Or to be exact, what is the meaning of the Hebrew word Elohim (אֱלֹהִים)? Does Elohim mean the same as the English word God? The answer is “No”! The exact meaning of the word Elohim is not known though it seems to contain the idea of strength and power. It is something like the Almighty. In the Old Testament, of course, it is normally translated God. Sometimes, however, Elohim is translated angels as in Ps 8:5. Sometimes Elohim is translated as powerful or important human beings as in Ps 82:6: and Exod 22:8. Θεος (Theos), the Greek word for God, is used in the New Testament in a similar way to Elohim. It usually means God, but can also refer to angels or men.

Is the Holy Spirit God?

The Old Testament scarcely mentions the Holy Spirit, but refers frequently to the Spirit of God. In the New Testament the Holy Spirit (πνευμα ἀγιον) is mentioned 89 times, including 40 times in the book of Acts. I think most people agree that the Holy Spirit and the Spirit of God are the same.

Are God and his Spirit two separate persons. Nothing in the Bible indicates that this is so. My spirit and I are not two separate persons. They are both me. You and your spirit and your mind and your body all make up the one person you. Are God and his Spirit separate beings? The Hebrew word for spirit רוּחַ (ruach) and the Greek word πνευμα both literally mean wind or breath. Is God’s spirit or breath really a separate person from God?

Is Jesus God?

The New Testament mentions the name of Jesus almost 1000 times, but how many times does it say he is God? Its writers make many wonderful statements about Jesus, but none of them say he is God.

All the above verses could have stated clearly that Jesus was God. None of them does. Other New Testament passages tell us many wonderful things about Jesus; but none of them say that he is God. That is the teaching of the church, but not the teaching of the Bible.

What did Jesus himself say about his own identity? He asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). Jesus gave his full approval to Peter’s answer: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:16). Why did Peter not say, “You are the Christ, the living God”? Simply, it is because the Church tells us that Jesus is God, but the Bible and Jesus himself do not.

Only one verse in the whole New Testament appears to tell us clearly that Jesus is God. When the risen Jesus walked through closed doors and showed Thomas his nail-pierced hands and feet, Thomas exclaimed in amazement, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). This was not a formal statement about the nature of Jesus, but rather an exclamation of wonder when he came face to face with God in Christ. He saw God in Jesus. Only recently Jesus had said in his presence “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). We cannot interpret this one statement to mean that Jesus is God when, as we have seen, none of the plain statements about Jesus of any of the New Testament writers do that. We must remember also that the words for God in Hebrew and Greek can also simply mean a great or important person.

Some Bible passages are ambiguous regarding the Trinity and different translators have translated them differently. Historically, the vast majority of translators have been Trinitarians and have given the benefit of the doubt to Trinitarian translation. The translators of the highly influential English King James Version of the Bible were all Anglican bishops who would invariably have had Trinitarian bias. They’d have lost their jobs and possibly their lives if they hadn’t! This translation has had a strong influence on all later translations in English and other languages. (See King James Version.)

Of special interest are the well-known words of Isaiah 9:6: “His name will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace”. This was a prophecy with two fulfilments. In the short term it referred to the birth of King Hezekiah and in the long term to the birth of Jesus. There are two problems. The Hebrew verb (יִּקְרָא) translated will be called is active rather than passive. Also Eternal Father is not a natural description of either Hezekiah or Jesus. A more fitting translation could be: “The mighty God, the Eternal Father has called his name Wonderful Counsellor, Prince of Peace”.

Two other verses Hebrew 1:8,9 (see Biblical Unitarian website Heb 1:8) and Rom 9:5 ESV (see also Rom 9:5 RSV) both appear to state that Jesus is God. These also have translation or interpretation problems, which can easily be researched on the internet.

Allow me just one more thought in this section, and possibly the most important thought in this writing: if Jesus is God and we are mere mortals, there is little hope that we will ever be like him; but if he is Son of God, and we by new birth become sons and daughters of God, and brothers and sisters of Jesus, then we have the amazing possibility of being transformed into his likeness and living the life that he lived.

Specific Bible verses

Where does the Bible name the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit together? We will look at the strongest New Testament verses.

1. Matthew 28:18,19: And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. This is much the strongest New Testament passage used to support the doctrine of the Trinity. Verse 19 is the only verse containing all the words Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but this verse in no way states that God is a Trinity consisting of three persons.

Additionally, this verse has the following serious problems which we can easily miss because of its familiarity.

All recorded baptisms in the book of Acts are “in the name of Jesus”. See Acts 2:38, Acts 8:16, Acts 10:48, Acts 19:5; see also 1Cor 1:13. Can we seriously believe that Jesus had told his disciples to baptise “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and that they totally ignored his instructions?

Furthermore, this verse does not match anything that Jesus had previously said. As we have seen, he uses the phrase my name 20 times in the 4 gospels, but nowhere does he speak about the “name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.

This verse occurs in its standard form in all available Greek manuscripts, but the church historian Eusebius (263-339 AD) quotes it as “Go ye and make disciples of all nations in my name.” Probably this was what Matthew originally wrote, but it was altered to include the doctrine of the Trinity early on before manuscripts began to be copied. After the words “All power is given to me ...”, Baptise in my name makes perfect sense; baptise in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit does not.

The Biblical Unitarian website Matthew 28:19 gives more details about the problems with this verse.

2. See 1John 5:7,8 (KJV): and 1John 5:7,8 (ESV). The KJV (and the NKJV which is translated from the same Greek manuscripts) includes the words “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost”. Most modern translations which are based on older Greek manuscripts omit them. These words were almost certainly added by a well-meaning scribe to support the doctrine of the Trinity. If so, it confirms the idea that scribes could have also altered the text of Matt 28:19.

3. 2Cor 13:14: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” This verse is known as the Grace and is very familiar to many people because it is frequently quoted in church services, but it does not in any way state the church doctrine of the Trinity.

4. Other verses like 1 Cor 12:4-5, Eph 4:4-6, 1 Pet 1:2 and Rev 1:4-5 are similar. They mention God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but in no way do they state that God is a Trinity consisting of three persons.

History

The doctrine of the Trinity did not begin in New Testament times. Surprisingly, it began long before the time of Jesus. The Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Indians, the Greeks and the Egyptians all had doctrines of trinities of gods! (See the website Ancient Trinitarian Gods for more about this.) Several of these religions claimed that their three gods were all one.

The Babylonian trinity consisted of Nimrod, Semiramis and Tammuz, who were father, mother and son. The Hindu trinity consisted of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Other ancient religions had similar trinities.

Neither Jesus nor his apostles taught the doctrine of the Trinity. As we have seen, it appears nowhere in either the Old Testament or the New.

What happened after the days of the early church? Did the church steadily grow to maturity and in the knowledge of the truth for the next few centuries? Or did it begin a downward slide into darkness, error and paganism? What did the New Testament writers predict?

None of these writers had positive predictions for the future. They foresaw the coming apostasy of the church which finally reached its lowest point just before the time of the Reformation.

The doctrine of the Trinity gradually gained ground until the time of the Emperor Constantine. He decreed that Christianity should be the religion of the Roman Empire. He wanted a version of Christianity that would be acceptable to the pagan Roman empire. It was at this point that the church began to adopt pagan festivals, pagan buildings and many other pagan practices. Was it coincidence that this was the time when the church officially adopted the doctrine of the Trinity? It subsequently became the church’s central doctrine. (For more information see website God’s Plan for All - ch 26.)

Other religions had father and son and mother gods, but the church had no obvious choice for the third person of the trinity; so it appears that the Holy Spirit was co-opted for this role.

From the time of Constantine on, belief in the Trinity became the acid test of who was a genuine Christian and who wasn’t. Anyone who didn’t profess belief in the Trinity was labelled a heretic.

This state of affairs has continued from then till the present day. The penalty for disbelief in the Trinity has varied greatly over the centuries. At times it has been exclusion from the dominant national church. At other times it has even been burning at the stake. Today it is usually exclusion from any official position in any church or organisation that believes in the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity has a very bad history!

Here we must ask a question: what is the true test of faith? Is it verbal assent to the doctrine of the Trinity? What test did Jesus give? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). What did Paul say? “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ is not of him” (Rom 8:9). And in John’s words: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (John 5:12). These are the real tests of faith.

Human organisations need human tests for membership. What does a candidate say he believes? But the true church of God is not a human organisation. “Man (and most of the church) looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1Sam 16:7).

Outsiders

The doctrine of the Trinity is a big stumbling block for outsiders. If Jesus is God and is a separate person from God the Father, and if the Holy Spirit is another separate person, outsiders immediately conclude that Christianity teaches the existence of three separate gods.

For Jews, the doctrine of the Trinity has been the defining difference between themselves and Christians. The central prayer in Jewish liturgy is known as the Sh’ma - “Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH is one” - שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד - Sh’ma Yisra’el, YHWH 'Eloheinu, YHWH 'eḥad. These are the exact words of Deut 6:4. Orthodox Jews recite the Sh’ma daily. Many Jews were put to death at the hands of the church in times past and died with the words of the Sh’ma on their lips.

Muslims also place a strong emphasis on the fact that Allah (the Arabic word for God) is one. No doubt many of them believe that Christians worship three gods.

For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the doctrine of the Trinity has proved an excellent starting place to point out to church members that the teachings of their church are false. (See Jehovah's Witnesses and Jesus Witnesses.)

Summary

Church: the Trinity has been the central doctrine of mainstream Christian churches and denominations for 1700 years or more. This doctrine states that the Godhead consists of three persons, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost (Spirit). Each of these is God and they are all one.

Bible: Neither the word Trinity nor the word person occur anywhere in the Bible. Neither does the number 3 occur anywhere in connection with God. The Bible gives Jesus many wonderful titles, including Son of God, but nowhere does it call him God.

History: doctrines of trinities existed in Babylonian and other ancient religions long before the time of Jesus. The doctrine occurs nowhere in the New Testament. It became official church doctrine after the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and brought many pagan practices into the church. From that time people who have not believed in the Trinity have suffered every level of persecution from mild to burning at the stake.

Many of us who have grown up in nominally Christian countries have been taught the doctrine of the Trinity from our earliest years. Most of us have accepted it without question.

If the doctrine of the Trinity is right and true, we should hold it fast. If it is a false Babylonian teaching dressed in Christian clothing, we should reject it together with the many other false teachings that church traditions have taught us.

The following above-mentioned websites give further information on various aspects of this subject (I may not agree with everything they say):

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