What Does the Old Testament Say about the Trinity?
In the New Testament, Christians are given a new lens through which they see God. He is still the one true God we discover in the Jewish Shema prayer:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”—Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (emphasis added)
But we discover Jesus and the Holy Spirit as distinct persons who are also God. Because of this New Testament revelation, Christian orthodoxy relies on an understanding of God as a Trinity—one living and true God who exists eternally as three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In light of this revelation, can we expect to see traces of the Trinity revealed in the Old Testament as well? Dr. Fred Sanders, Associate Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, answers this question in his online course, The Triune God. The following post is adapted from this course.
9 Possible Signs of the Trinity in the Old Testament
There’s a whole set of traditional ways to find the Trinity in the Old Testament—and it’s kind of a mixed bag. Some of them provide a good demonstration of the elements of trinitarianism in the Old Testament. As soon as the Trinity is revealed in the New Testament and we have a clear revelatory statement about what’s going on in regards to the godhead, it throws a light back on the things we’ve seen in the Old Testament.
Here are some traditional proofs (some more compelling than others) for the presence of the Trinity in the Old Testament.
1. The distinction between Elohim and Yahweh
Some commentators make a lot out of the distinction between the name Elohim and the name Yahweh. Right at the very beginning of Genesis, you have two different ways of talking about God during the act of creation.
A lot of older theologies ask, “What is the ultimate reason why two names are given to us right at the beginning of Scripture?” Within that question is an analysis—one that relies on an assumption. That assumption can be summarized in this question: “Why is the one God called both Elohim and Yahweh?” These older theologies keep working at that question until getting to a trinitarian distinction.
It’s hard to summarize exactly what that distinction is because it’s never stated as simply as “the Father is Elohim and the son is Yahweh.” Instead, it’s a witness to a diversity of naming that establishes what’s going on within one God.
It could be that the use of multiple names for God points to his trinitarian nature.
2. The plural form of the name Elohim
While the word Elohim has the distinct im ending that marks it as plural, Elohim seems to be an agent of singular verb actions. It would irresponsible to translate Elohim as gods as in “In the beginning the gods created the heavens and the earth.” So it seems that that this name of God that is plural in nature could also point to the coming New Testament revelation of the Trinity.
3. The concept of the angel of the Lord
Throughout the Old Testament we catch glimpses of an agent of Yahweh who sometimes behaves as if he were the presence of the Lord, and at other times he appears to be an emissary. It’s easy to understand how a trinitarian theologian, informed by the New Testament, would recognize the angel of the Lord—a figure who seems to be with God and to be God— as a christological figure.
- “The angel added, ‘I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.’”—Genesis 16:10 (emphasis added)
- “‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he [the angel of the Lord] said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’”—Genesis 22:12
- “On that day the Lord will shield those who live in Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the angel of the Lord going before them.”—Zechariah 12:8
Many think that the angel of the Lord is a Christophany—a manifestation that, while distinct from God, is also God.
4. The concept of wisdom personified (Proverbs)
In the book of Proverbs, we are introduced to the wisdom of God personified as a woman. This personification is a speaking agent who is difficult to distinguish. We’re left wondering if this is just a way of talking about God or if it’s an agent sent from God. How much of it is personification, and how much is an actual person?
Does the personification of wisdom in Proverbs allude to a trinitarian reality? Many theologians would suggest it does.
5. The concept of the Lord’s “word” personified
There are points in the Old Testament where God’s very word is personified as it would be if God’s Word referenced Jesus.
- “For the word of the Lord is right and true;
he is faithful in all he does.”—Psalm 33:4
- “The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”—Isaiah 40:8
In his gospel, John describes Jesus as the Word of God. This sheds new light on the on many of the Old Testament references to God’s Word.
6. The Spirit of God in the Old Testament
Similar to the personification of wisdom in the Old Testament, many things said about the Spirit “going forth” or “being with” seem to indicate agency. It seems throughout the Old Testament that the Spirit is the self-conscious immanence of God, as well as the revelation of God. God’s Spirit also seems to dwell with God’s followers, and seems to act as an objective personality.
- “Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.”—Psalm 51:11–13
- “Yet they rebelled
and grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
and he himself fought against them.”—Isaiah 63:10
- “Come near me and listen to this:
‘From the first announcement I have not spoken in secret;
at the time it happens, I am there.’
And now the Sovereign Lord has sent me,
endowed with his Spirit.”—Isaiah 48:16
Jesus promises us the Spirit in the New Testament, and in Acts we see the Spirit’s advent at Pentecost. In light of this, it’s no surprise that this would reframe our understanding of God’s Spirit in the Old Testament.
7. Old Testament passages in which God speaks of himself in the plural
At different times, God speaks about himself using singular pronouns and at others, he opts for plural ones:
- “I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you”—Genesis 9:9 (emphasis added)
- “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’”—Isaiah 6:8 (emphasis added)
- “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”—Zechariah 12:10 (emphasis added)
- “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’”—Genesis 1:26 (emphasis added)
- “And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”—Genesis 3:22 (emphasis added)
- “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”—Genesis 11:7 (emphasis added)
- “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?—Isaiah 6:8 (emphasis added)
Outside of the the New Testament’s revelation of the Trinity, it’s hard to make sense of the singular/plural dichotomy in these passages. Engaging them with a trinitarian understanding sheds new light on their possible implications.
8. Old Testament passages where more than one person is expressly named
These are passages where the Lord speaks of himself or the Messiah in a repetitive, reduplicative way:
- “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever;
a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.
You love righteousness and hate wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
by anointing you with the oil of joy.”—Psalm 45:6-7
- The Lord says to my lord:
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”—Psalm 110:1
The repetitive expressions of God in some Old Testament passages may point to various persons in the Trinity.
9. Passages where the name of God is repeated three times
There is a rich tradition of interpreting passages where God’s name is repeated three times as a trinitarian reference. The most referenced example of this is Numbers 6:24–26:
“The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.”
Many theologians believe passages, like this one in Numbers, demonstrate a preview of the Trinity by repeating God’s name in threes.
Reading the Old Testament with the Trinity in mind
How do we read these passages in a way that will preserve their mystery and shed some light on what we learn about the godhead from the New Testament?
One way we can do this and maintain interpretive integrity is by rereading. Rereading is a crucial exegetical practice.
Rereading is the act of studying a document by reading it all the way through to the end—and once you have an understanding of the document as a whole—you read it all the way through again. This gives you an enriched understanding of the document as a whole. This allows you to understand the sense that individual parts make on their own, but help you also grasp the higher meaning that is generated by understanding them in relation to each other.
What is required for doctrinal interpretation of the Old Testament is a hermeneutical framework that acknowledges the complex structure of revelation, and an approach to reading the documents that precede and follow the revelation.
Rereading is the key hermeneutical category for this kind of interpretation. It captures the ambiguity and concealment of the original writings, but also accounts for the progressive revelation and the attendant growth in understanding of the earlier material.
Literary theorist E. K. Brown has said, “There is nothing magical in reading. It is in re-reading that some magic may lie.”
We are not seeking anything magical, although the category of rereading might open up a relatively sober approach to the fascination with concealment that has animated much mystical interpretation of the Scriptures.
Rereading makes possible an interpretive interplay between the text’s parts and its whole.
Northrop Frye argues that “the critical operation begins with reading a work straight through, as many times as may be necessary to possess it in totality. At that point the critic can begin to formulate a conceptual unity corresponding to the imaginative unity of his text.”
Immersive mastery of a text opens up new interpretive possibilities in negotiating the whole dialogue, which is one of the main engines in discerning the meaning for the reader. The eye of the mind can scan the whole, ranging backward and forward in it.
Bonaventure observed that “no one can appreciate the beauty of a poem unless his vision embraces it as a whole.”
Rereading delivers an “awareness of the totality of the text” and allows for “intercommunication” of textual features by correcting against “inherently linear models of reading.”
Is there a danger in rereading?
Rereading can even be made to sound subversive and transgressive, as if in the high-theory war between reader and author, rereading is a matter of taking up arms in anarchic rebellion against the author.
Matin Calinescu situates rereading as a counter-practice against the regime of normative first reading. But normative first reading could be a side effect of romanticism, which expects textual love at first sight, or of scientism, which expects self-evident meaning to be transferred at a single reading that does not need to be savored for its literary quality.
Rereading is, after all, one of the primary pleasures of popular reading.
Successful novelists from Jane Austen to J. K. Rowling prove themselves to their fans not by how good their books are for reading but for rereading. Whole new vistas of insight and enjoyment open up to the reader who returns to certain well-structured books, where there is a palpable frisson between intuiting the whole text at once and reclaiming the linear experience of another trip through it.
Scripture, religiously experienced, is obviously another key site of rereading.
It is not only an interpretive practice to be embraced by the consumers of the Bible, but because of the cumulative character of the biblical canon, rereading is a crucial element in the production of Scripture. Rereading is a mode of the New Testament’s use of the Old.
R. T. France has pointed out:
“In the argument of Hebrews we see a first-century example of a Christian expositor whose instinct it was to develop his argument by focusing successively on a number of key texts, and in each case not simply to quote it and pass on, but to stay with it, exploring its wider implications, and drawing it into association with other related Old Testament ideas, so as to produce a richer and more satisfying diet of biblical theology than could be provided by a mere collection of proof-texts. Like a dog with a particularly juicy bone, he returns to his chosen text again and again, worrying at it and aiming to get all the goodness out of it for the benefit of his readers.”
The New Testament writers as rereaders of Scripture
The New Testament writers follow the lead of Jesus himself in creatively rereading their Scriptures in the light of who he is and what he has done.
Rereading is a mode of scriptural re-engagement that allows trinitarian interpretation to maintain the original meaning of the Old Testament, but also to layer onto it the insights that arise from later developments of its themes. Genesis 1 says that God created the heavens and the earth. A reader who continues through Genesis knows where the story goes from there, and learns a great deal about the character of the God of the first chapter.
A rereading of Genesis 1 is enriched by the knowledge that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob created the heavens and the earth. Or again, a reader who continues through to Deuteronomy learns even more about his character and his ways. A rereading of Genesis 1 is in this case enriched by the knowledge that the God of the Exodus created the heavens and the earth.
Or again, a reader who continues through to the end of the New Testament learns a great many surprising things about this God, and a rereading of Genesis 1 in this case is enriched by the knowledge that the God who raised Jesus from the dead created the heavens and the earth. In fact, the trinitarian rereading of Genesis 1 has to answer several questions:
Does the extended sense of the rereading of Genesis 1 include the sense, “In the beginning, the Trinity created the heavens and the earth,” or does it rather include, “In the beginning, Jesus created the heavens and the earth,” or does it rather include, “In the beginning, God the Father created the heavens and the earth through the Son and the Spirit”?
We know it includes, “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
We do not need to sort out all the layers of these questions here. We only need to recognize that rereading preserves the original linear sense while adding the holistic sense, and that much depends on what amount of text counts as the whole.
Trinitarian theology is rereading of the Bible for the identity of God, comprehending the total meaning of the text without erasing or replacing the linear meaning from the first reading.
Learn more about the doctrine of the Trinity. Sign up for Fred Sanders’ Triune God online course.