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Is the “Trinity” in the Bible?

Categories Biblical Studies Theology Historical Theology

In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of arguments against Christian theology using the doctrine of the Trinity as a proof.

Critics argue that since the Trinity isn’t overtly mentioned in the Bible, it’s not real.

The greater implication is that Christian theology can’t be trusted if orthodoxy rests on doctrines that aren’t even found in Scripture.

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Is the Trinity in the Bible?

It is always tempting to dispatch the question of whether the Trinity is mentioned in the Bible with the brief answer: the word is not there, but the idea is. After all, any concordance proves the first claim; any catechism the second.

Nevertheless, profound issues are at stake, because the church has always confessed the doctrine of the Trinity as something to be believed on the grounds of revelation alone as recorded in Scripture. The church should continue to do so. But the last few centuries of development in theology, hermeneutics, and biblical studies have brought the old dogma into a new context.

Nazianzus’ mathematical argument

Theologian and fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, Gregory Nazianzus found this question of whether the doctrine of the Trinity was explicitly in Scripture to be provocative enough to warrant serious attention. At the conclusion of his Five Theological Orations, he addresses the distinction between what is actually stated in Scripture and what must be admitted to be agraphon: not written.

In that context, Nazianzus is specifically arguing against the objection that there is not enough biblical evidence for the deity of the Spirit to warrant calling the Spirit “God.” His response is not that there is any other possible source of knowledge about the deity of the Spirit (tradition, mystical illumination, pure reason, etc.), but rather that a narrowly literal approach to Scripture is unable to detect all that Scripture teaches.

To this end, he presents a little didactic lecture on words, things, and meanings, concluding that Scripture can mean things that it does not explicitly formulate. “Why are you so dreadfully servile to the letter . . . following the syllables while you let the realities go?” he asks. Such syllable-mongering would not even be able to support arithmetical reasoning, he argues. “Supposing you mention ‘twice five’ or ‘twice seven’ and I infer from your words ‘ten’ or ‘fourteen . . .’ would you allege that I was talking rubbish? How could I be? I am saying what you said.”

The Trinity in Matthew 28:19

Nazianzus’s use of a numerical example is fruitful beyond his immediate purpose. Although he does not make the connection, part of the question about whether the doctrine of the Trinity is in the Bible is the question of whether the number three is in the Bible with reference to divine things.

Throughout his theological orations, Nazianzus explicates “the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19), which he summarizes as a threefold name.

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”Matthew 28:19

He frequently uses the word triad in reference to God, but also in reference to the threeness in the words of the risen Lord as he gave the baptismal command. Triad simply is Greek for threeness, just as thrynnysse is Anglo-Saxon and trinitas is Latin for threeness. Any reader of Matthew 28:19 must admit there is threeness, or trinity, in the biblical text.

The substantive question, of course, is “what kind of threeness is envisioned?” Subtrinitarian answers would include:

  • three titles
  • three modes of divine being
  • three manifestations
  • three roles
  • three people
  • three gods
  • three ways of talking about one God

But baptism in the name of one Father, one Son, and one Holy Spirit must signify three somethings, which puts threeness in the text, though not the word threeness. At the first level of analysis, Trinity is in Scripture as a very modest summarizing statement about how many names are to be counted in the one baptismal name in Matthew 28:19.

This simple counting is in itself not much of a foothold for proper Trinitarian theology, which sees three coeternal and coequal persons related by processions revealed in the missions.

But as certainly as twice seven is fourteen, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are related in Scripture as a threeness of some kind, though the word (threeness, thrynnysse, triad, trinitas) is not written. Only an exegesis “dreadfully servile to the letter,” one content with “following the syllables” while letting the realities go, would recoil from the conclusion. When Scripture lists the persons and we reply that there are three (perhaps even adding that these three are one), we are saying to Scripture, “I am saying what you said.”

Some elements of Trinitarian theology, therefore, are neither explicit in the words of Scripture nor ought to be expected to be. If the charge that Trinitarianism is absent from the witness of Scripture was brought forward as a winning argument against the Trinity, Nazianzus treated it as no such thing.

B. B. Warfield on biblical trinitarianism

His response is echoed fifteen hundred years later in B. B. Warfield’s comments on the same subject. Writing the “Trinity” entry in the 1915 International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Warfield freely admitted that “the term ‘Trinity’ is not a biblical term”—a rather cheeky opening line for the “Trinity entry” in a Bible encyclopedia.

But Warfield laid out the range of doctrinal commitments contained in fully elaborated Trinitarianism (one God in three persons who are co-equal but distinct) and said that the terms of that doctrine were not set forth in the words of Scripture. Instead, Warfield argued, “a doctrine so defined can be spoken of as a biblical doctrine only on the principle that the sense of Scripture is Scripture. And the definition of a biblical doctrine in such unbiblical language can be justified only on the principle that it is better to preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture.”

If “the sense of Scripture is Scripture,” there need be no dichotomy between what the Bible says and what it means. But where a distinction exists, there may also exist the logical possibility of having one without the other.

This is what Warfield posits: that it is possible to repeat the words of Scripture while departing from its own meaning, and conversely that it is possible to prescind from the words precisely in order to cleave to the meaning more securely. If forced to choose, the theologian would have to choose the truth of Scripture rather than the words of Scripture.

Karl Barth on the divine revelation of the Trinity

Yet Trinitarian theology could not actually advance along some hypothetical path that departed from the actual words in the text of Scripture. Theology should at least keep itself on a short tether connecting itself to the words of Scripture. Karl Barth gave an eloquent account of the attitude appropriate for the preacher, and it applies also to the theologian.

“The right attitude,” Barth said in his lectures on homiletics, “is that of one who is not concerned with self but with something else, who is so caught up . . . that there is no time for other things.”

Barth is emphasizing that our attention should be on the word of God rather than our own formulations; the good preacher will be asking, “What does it say?” rather than, “What should I say?”

When the attention is properly fixed on the words of Scripture, “the sermon will be like the involuntary lip movement of one who is reading with great care, attention, and surprise, more following the letters than reading in the usual sense, all eyes, totally claimed.”

This portrayal has not usually seemed flattering to preachers, let alone theologians, who enjoy the satisfactions of careful craftsmanship as much as any worker does, and who prefer not to think of their hard-earned formulations as an accidental by-product of rapt attention. And it is tempting to think these directions are for students at an early stage of development, a stage that mature theologians have so transcended that we can now multitask by putting one eye on Scripture and the other on the form of our own statements.

But Barth was describing the attitude, not the thought process, of the one who ministers the word of God. And he was offering a simile, not prescribing a method. The sermon, or the theology, will not be involuntary lip movement.

When Barth turns from homiletics in general to an actual dogmatics of the Trinity, he explicitly insists on the need for intelligent paraphrase. The Father’s own revelation in Christ through the Spirit is the text we focus on, while our theological formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is the commentary we speak.

Reading the words and extracting the meaning

Our theological formulation “translates and exegetes the text. And this means, for example, that it makes use of other concepts besides those in the original. The result is that it does not just repeat what is there. To explain what is there, it sets something new against what is there.”

Barth always treated the work of theology as honest labor in the field of the humanities. As such, it requires creativity and innovation and is subject to assessment and peer review. None of that is denied when we take the further step of noting theology’s peculiar character as a response to divine revelation.

Theology, therefore, does not do its work by simply repeating the words of Scripture. It answers back with what it hears there, and in giving its answer, theology may be heard making any number of noises not found in the text.

This answering back is crucial to the theological task. It is what shows that something more than memorization of syllables is happening. It is what shows that one theologian has understood rightly and another has not. Anyone who is not willing to take the risks of translation, paraphrase, metaphrase, summary, and explanation has not yet crossed the threshold of theological speech.

“It is one thing,” said Francis Turretin, for a doctrine “to be in Scripture according to sound and syllables, or formally and in the abstract; and another to be in Scripture according to meaning and according to the thing signified, or materially and in the concrete.”

Turretin does not mean there is a dichotomy between the two ways for a truth “to be in Scripture,” as if we always had to choose between sound and meaning, formal and material. All doctrines must have some purchase on the text, even if they must then be formulated using other words which are themselves chosen and employed for their meaning.

The example Turretin uses is the term theology itself. It is not a Bible word; Turretin admits it is not in Scripture according to sound, but only according to sense. Nevertheless the component parts are found in Scripture, and are even brought into relation several times.

Furthermore, Scripture uses a number of other terms to indicate something like theology: teaching, the form of sound doctrine, the full counsel of God, and so on. Minting the word theology (or appropriating it from extra-biblical Greek) is a matter of listening actively to Scripture and saying back what we understand by what we are hearing.

Is the Trinity sound or sense?

Though the nature of theology itself is at stake here, the term we are asking about is not theology but Trinity. Is it biblical to speak of the Trinity? When we use this word, are we speaking sound or sense? While the truth of Scripture is Scripture, so are the words.

Theological usage must make the leap from direct biblical language to its own helpful vocabulary. It must move from “the language of Canaan” to another tongue. But the leap from one vocabulary to the other ought to be a short one, and the latter vocabulary ought to signal its dependence on the former with enough clarity to keep the next generation’s language-learners from forgetting what all these terms indicate.

Theology, with its terminological specifying, consistent systematizing, and logical sequencing, does not make an improvement on Scripture, as if perfecting it somehow, or succeeding in saying what Scripture was unsuccessfully trying to say. It is dependent on the words of Scripture and ought to make this evident. In the way it speaks, theology as a whole and Trinitarian theology in particular occupies a place between sound and sense, in regular contact with both.

Trinitarian theology cultivates both the sound of Scripture’s own language and the sense of those words, given new articulation by new interpreters. As a result, it ought to be compounded of both, making use of Scripture’s own infallible language, as well as the fallible language of our best attempts to analyze what Scripture says.

Barth described the utterly creaturely, purely responsive character of the doctrine in strong terms: “The doctrine of the Trinity is a work of the Church, a record of its understanding of the statement or of its object, a record of its knowledge of God or of its battle against error and on behalf of the objectivity of its proclamation, a record of its theology and to that degree of its faith, and only to that extent, only indirectly, a record of revelation.”

The theologian’s responsibility

Christians have always claimed they got the doctrine of the Trinity from the Bible itself. While acknowledging they had rendered the doctrine more explicit, and also admitting they had manufactured a set of extra-biblical terms to help them articulate it with greater clarity and conciseness, they insisted the reason they believed in the Trinity is that they found it in Scripture.

In some periods of theological history, it may have seemed that most of the work to be done was the work of elaborating the metaphysical implications of the revealed doctrine, or of illustrating the principles involved, or of extending the analogical footholds for the belief. But in our own time, it has become crucial for Trinitarian theology to demonstrate as directly as possible that it is biblical.

The doctrine of the triune God must be known to be biblical and shown to be biblical. We cannot settle for claiming the doctrine merely harmonizes in some way with other biblical themes.

If the suspicion has arisen that there are many ways of stating the gist of what is in Scripture, it may be tempting to present Trinitarianism as one of many possible legitimate trajectories that can be seen as emerging from the fullness of hermeneutical possibilities. We might win acceptance for Trinitarian theology as something relatively unobjectionable precisely because we present it as nonmandatory and contingent, a kind of semi-playful option among many, though graced with the favor of deep tradition.

Now is not the time for these softer demonstrations and more allusive performances\. In cultures marked by faith and docility toward the church’s teaching, it may have been possible to rest the burden of proof on the church’s tradition.

But tradition was always a temporary resting station, a placeholder for revelation and the authority of Scripture. In contemporary intellectual culture, the full evidential weight of Christian faith in the triune God must fall on Scripture. If the doctrine is to thrive and serve its proper function in the Christian doctrinal ecosphere, it must be on the basis of Scripture.

Learn more by signing up for The Triune God online course, taught by Fred Sanders.

In this video, Fred Sanders introduces the course:


This post is adapted from material found in The Triune God online course.

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