SCRIPTURAL BASIS FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY
Prof. Michael Ogunu
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (200), “There is only one God: 'The Christian faith confesses that God is one in nature, substance and essence'”.
The Trinity is the term employed to signify the central doctrine of the Christian religion — the truth that in the unity of the Godhead there are Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, these Three Persons being truly distinct one from another.
Thus, in the words of the Athanasian Creed: “the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God”. In this Trinity of Persons the Son is begotten of the Father by an eternal generation, and the Holy Spirit proceeds by an eternal procession from the Father and the Son. Yet, notwithstanding this difference as to origin, the Persons are co-eternal and co-equal: all alike are uncreated and omnipotent. This, the Church teaches, is the revelation regarding God's nature which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came upon earth to deliver to the world: and which she proposes to man as the foundation of her whole dogmatic system.
In Scripture there is as yet no single term by which the Three Divine Persons are denoted together. The word trias (of which the Latin trinitas is a translation) is first found in Theophilus of Antioch about A.D. 180. He speaks of “the Trinity of God [the Father], His Word and His Wisdom (To Autolycus II.15). The term may, of course, have been in use before his time. Afterwards it appears in its Latin form of trinitas in Tertullian (On Pudicity 21). In the next century we find the word in general use. It is found in many passages of Origen (“In Ps. Xvii”, 15). The first creed in which it appears is that of Origen's pupil, Gregory Thaumaturgus. In his Ekthesis tes pisteos composed between 260 and 270, he writes:
There is therefore nothing created, nothing subject to another in the Trinity: nor is there anything that has been added as though it once had not existed, but had entered afterwards: therefore the Father has never been without the Son, nor the Son without the Spirit: and this same Trinity is immutable and unalterable forever (P.G., X, 986).
It is manifest that a dogma so mysterious presupposes a Divine revelation. When the fact of revelation, understood in its full sense as the speech of God to man, is no longer admitted, the rejection of the doctrine follows as a necessary consequence. For this reason it has no place in the Liberal Protestantism of today. The writers of this school contend that the doctrine of the Trinity, as professed by the Church, is not contained in the New Testament, but that it was first formulated in the second century and received final approbation in the fourth, as the result of the Arian and Macedonian controversies. In view of this assertion and that of less serious critics like Aribisala, it is necessary to consider in some detail the evidence afforded by Holy Scripture.
It is true that the word “Trinity” is not found in Scripture, but the outlines of the doctrine can be seen indirectly through passages that teach the absolute unity of God and the divine sonship of Christ.
We see the Trinity revealed gradually, indirectly, and in various ways (cf. Hebrews 10:1) through the many references to God’s unity and transcendence as well as the episodes that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church have regarded as “theophanies” (i.e. mysterious appearances of one or more persons of the Trinity) in the Old Testament in passages such as Genesis 1:26 (God here speaks of himself in the plural form), Genesis 3:22, 11:27; Genesis 16:7-13; Exodus 3:2-14 (where we discover God using two names or titles for himself: Elohim and Yahweh; these names seem to imply one who sends and one who is sent, corresponding to the Trinitarian relationship between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit), Psalm 2:7; Psalm 109:1-3; Isaiah 7:14 (Emmanuel is the name for the miraculously conceived child of a virgin; it means “God is with us”), 9:6; Isaiah 11:2; 35:4; Proverbs 8:22-31; Wisdom 7:22-28; Wisdom 8:3-8; Ezekiel 11:5; Ezekiel 36:27; Joel 2:26; and Malachi 3:1.
Perhaps the most striking of the Bible’s explicitly Trinitarian passages is Matthew 28:18-19, quoted below. Notice that the Lord uses the singular form “name”, not the plural “names”, when he gives this directive. This usage implies the unity of the Three divine Persons in the Trinity.
Matthew 28:18-19: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”.
The evidence from the Gospels culminates, as shown above, in the baptismal commission of Matthew 28:20. It is manifest from the narratives of the Evangelists that Christ only made the great truth known to the Twelve step by step.
First He taught them to recognize in Himself the Eternal Son of God. When His ministry was drawing to a close, He promised that the Father would send another Divine Person, the Holy Spirit, in His place. Finally after His resurrection, He revealed the doctrine in explicit terms, bidding them “go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18). The force of this passage is decisive. That “the Father” and “the Son” are distinct Persons follows from the terms themselves, which are mutually exclusive. The mention of the Holy Spirit in the same series, the names being connected one with the other by the conjunctions “and . . . and” is evidence that we have here a Third Person co-ordinate with the Father and the Son, and excludes altogether the supposition that the Apostles understood the Holy Spirit not as a distinct Person, but as God viewed in His action on creatures.
The phrase “in the name” (eis to onoma) affirms alike the Godhead of the Persons and their unity of nature. Among the Jews and in the Apostolic Church the Divine name was representative of God. He who had a right to use it was invested with vast authority: for he wielded the supernatural powers of Him whose name he employed. It is incredible that the phrase “in the name” should be here employed, were not all the Persons mentioned equally Divine. Moreover, the use of the singular, “name”, and not the plural, shows that these Three Persons are that One Omnipotent God in whom the Apostles believed. Indeed the unity of God is so fundamental a tenet alike of the Hebrew and of the Christian religion, and is affirmed in such countless passages of the Old and New Testaments, that any explanation inconsistent with this doctrine would be altogether inadmissible.
The supernatural appearance at the baptism of Christ is often cited as an explicit revelation of Trinitarian doctrine, given at the very commencement of the Ministry. The Evangelists see in it a manifestation of the Three Divine Persons.
Besides these passages there are many others in the Gospels which refer to one or other of the Three Persons in particular and clearly express the separate personality and Divinity of each. In regard to the First Person it will not be necessary to give special citations: those which declare that Jesus Christ is God the Son, affirm thereby also the separate personality of the Father. The Divinity of Christ is amply attested not merely by St. John, but by the Synoptists. A few of the more important messages from the Synoptists, in which Christ bears witness to His Divine Nature are enumerated here as follows:
· He approves the confession of Peter when he recognizes Him, not as Messias — a step long since taken by all the Apostles — but explicitly as the Son of God: and He declares the knowledge due to a special revelation from the Father (Matthew 16:16-17).
· Finally, before Caiphas He not merely declares Himself to be the Messias, but in reply to a second and distinct question affirms His claim to be the Son of God. He is instantly declared by the high priest to be guilty of blasphemy, an offense which could not have been attached to the claim to be simply the Messias (Luke 22:66-71).
St. John’s testimony is yet more explicit than that of the Synoptists. He expressly asserts that the very purpose of his Gospel is to establish the Divinity of Jesus Christ (John 20:31). In the prologue he identifies Him with the Word, the only-begotten of the Father, Who from all eternity exists with God, Who is God (John 1:1-18). The immanence of the Son in the Father and of the Father in the Son is declared in Christ’s words to St. Philip: “Do you not believe, that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me?” (14:10), and in other passages no less explicit (14:7; 16:15; 17:21). The oneness of Their power and Their action is affirmed: “Whatever he [the Father] does, the Son also does in like manner” (5:19, cf. 10:38); and to the Son no less than to the Father belongs the Divine attribute of conferring life on whom He will (5:21). In 10:29, Christ expressly teaches His unity of essence with the Father: “That which my Father hath given me, is greater than all . . . I and the Father are one”. The words, “That which my Father hath given me”, can, having regard to the context, have no other meaning than the Divine Name, possessed in its fullness by the Son as by the Father.
Rationalist critics lay great stress upon the text: “The Father is greater than I” (14:28). They argue that this suffices to establish that the author of the Gospel held subordinationist views, and they expound in this sense certain texts in which the Son declares His dependence on the Father (5:19; 8:28). In point of fact the doctrine of the Incarnation involves that, in regard of His Human Nature, the Son should be less than the Father. No argument against Catholic doctrine can, therefore, be drawn from this text. So too, the passages referring to the dependence of the Son upon the Father do but express what is essential to Trinitarian dogma, namely, that the Father is the supreme source from Whom the Divine Nature and perfections flow to the Son.
In regard to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the passages which can be cited from the Synoptists as attesting His distinct personality are few. The words of Gabriel (Luke 1:35), having regard to the use of the term, “the Spirit”, in the Old Testament, to signify God as operative in His creatures, can hardly be said to contain a definite revelation of the doctrine. For the same reason it is dubious whether Christ’s warning to the Pharisees as regards blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31) can be brought forward as proof. But in Luke 12:12, where it is stated that “The Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what you must say” (Matthew 10:20, and Luke 24:49), His personality is clearly implied. These passages, taken in connection with Matthew 28:19, postulate the existence of such teaching as we find in the discourses in the Cenacle reported by St. John (14, 15, 16). We have in these chapters the necessary preparation for the baptismal commission. In them the Apostles are instructed not only as to the personality of the Spirit, but as to His office towards the Church. His work is to teach whatsoever He shall hear (16:13) to bring back their minds to the teaching of Christ (14:26), to convict the world of sin (16:8). It is evident that, were the Spirit not a Person, Christ could not have spoken of His presence with the Apostles as comparable to His own presence with them (14:16). Again, were He not a Divine Person it could not have been expedient for the Apostles that Christ should leave them, and the Paraclete take His place (16:7). Moreover, notwithstanding the neuter form of the word (pneuma), the pronoun used in His regard is the masculine ekeinos. The distinction of the Holy Spirit from the Father and from the Son is involved in the express statements that He proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son (15:26; cf. 14:16, 14:26). Nevertheless, He is one with Them: His presence with the Disciples is at the same time the presence of the Son (14:17-18), while the presence of the Son is the presence of the Father (14:23).
In the remaining New Testament writings numerous passages attest how clear and definite was the belief of the Apostolic Church in the three Divine Persons. In certain texts the coordination of Father, Son, and Spirit leaves no possible doubt as to the meaning of the writer. Thus in 2 Corinthians 13:13, St. Paul writes: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you”. Here the construction shows that the Apostle is speaking of three distinct Persons. Moreover, since the names God and Holy Spirit are alike Divine names, it follows that Jesus Christ is also regarded as a Divine Person. So also, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11: “There are diversities of graces, but the same Spirit; and there are diversities of ministries, but the same Lord: and there are diversities of operations, but the same God, who worketh all [of them] in all [persons]”. (Cf. also Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Peter 1:2-3)
But apart from passages such as these, where there is express mention of the Three Persons, the teaching of the New Testament regarding Christ and the Holy Spirit is free from all ambiguity. In regard to Christ, the Apostles employ modes of speech which, to men brought up in the Hebrew faith, necessarily signified belief in His Divinity. Such, for instance, is the use of the Doxology in reference to Him. The Doxology, “To Him be glory for ever and ever” (cf. 1 Chronicles 16:38; 29:11; Psalm 103:31; 28:2), is an expression of praise offered to God alone. In the New Testament we find it addressed not alone to God the Father, but to Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 4:18; 2 Peter 3:18; Revelation 1:6; Hebrews 13:20-21), and to God the Father and Christ in conjunction (Revelations 5:13, 7:10).
Not less convincing is the use of the title Lord (Kyrios). This term represents the Hebrew Adonai, just as God (Theos) represents Elohim. The two are equally Divine names (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:4). In the Apostolic writings Theos may almost be said to be treated as a proper name of God the Father, and Kyrios of the Son (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 12:5-6); in only a few passages do we find Kyrios used of the Father (1 Corinthians 3:5; 7:17) or Theos of Christ. The Apostles from time to time apply to Christ passages of the Old Testament in which Kyrios is used, for example, 1 Corinthians 10:9 (Numbers 21:7), Hebrews 1:10-12 (Psalm 101:26-28); and they use such expressions as “the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31; 2 Corinthians 5:11; Ephesians 5:21), “call upon the name of the Lord”, indifferently of God the Father and of Christ (Acts 2:21; 9:14; Romans 10:13). The profession that “Jesus is the Lord” (Kyrion Iesoun, Romans 10:9; Kyrios Iesous, 1 Corinthians 12:3) is the acknowledgment of Jesus as Jahweh. The texts in which St. Paul affirms that in Christ dwells the plenitude of the Godhead (Colossians 2:9), that before His Incarnation He possessed the essential nature of God (Philippians 2:6), that He “is over all things, God blessed for ever” (Romans 9:5) tell us nothing that is not implied in many other passages of his Epistles.
The doctrine as to the Holy Spirit is equally clear. That His distinct personality was fully recognized is shown by many passages. Thus He reveals His commands to the Church’s ministers: “As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said to them: Separate me Saul and Barnabas . . .” (Acts 13:2). He directs the missionary journey of the Apostles: “They attempted to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus suffered them not” (Acts 16:7; cf. Acts 5:3; 15:28; Romans 15:30). Divine attributes are affirmed of Him.
· The work of justification and sanctification is attributed to Him (1 Corinthians 6:11; Romans 15:16), just as in other passages the same operations are attributed to Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 2:17).
To sum up: the various elements of the Trinitarian doctrine are all expressly taught in the New Testament. The Divinity of the Three Persons is asserted or implied in passages too numerous to count. The unity of essence is not merely postulated by the strict monotheism of men nurtured in the religion of Israel, to whom “subordinate deities” would have been unthinkable; but it is, as we have seen, involved in the baptismal commission of Matthew 28:19, and, in regard to the Father and the Son, expressly asserted in John 10:38. That the Persons are co-eternal and coequal is a mere corollary from this. In regard to the Divine processions, the doctrine of the first procession is contained in the very terms Father and Son: the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and Son is taught in the discourse of the Lord reported by St. John (14-17).
Copyright © Professor Michael Ogunu 2015
Version: 5th May 2015