What does the Bible say about the Trinity?

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1 What does the Bible say about the Trinity? Introduction Christians and Muslims both believe in one God, and many people today think this means that Christianity and Islam are basically the same. After all (they say), our beliefs about God are the foundation of everything else that we believe, and if we have these in common, then we must be agreed on all essential matters. On this view, if there are differences between Christians and Muslims, these must be about secondary issues that do not matter very much. In fact, however, there is a fundamental and vital difference in what Christianity and Islam teach about God. Muslims believe not only that there is one god, but also in that god s absolute unity. He has no equals, partners or associates, and to connect him with others is the worst of sins (known as shirk). Thus Muslims deny that their god has a son, or that it is possible for him to have one. Christians, on the other hand, believe that the one God is a Trinity of persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Each of these persons is fully God, and each is distinct from the others, yet they are one God and not three. This understanding of God marks Christianity out decisively from both Islam and Judaism (the other religions that believe in one god) and shapes every aspect of Christian theology in a distinctive way. Far from giving us common ground with Muslims, the Christian view of God puts an ocean of clear water between us. In this article we shall consider what the Bible tells us about the nature of the one God who is three persons. We shall also look at some of the Muslim objections to its teaching and how we can respond to them. We can find all the building blocks for a clear and coherent doctrine of the Trinity in the Bible. It is grounded in three key statements, which we will examine in turn: 1. There is only one God. 2. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. 3. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons. The Trinity in the Bible 1. There is only one God The belief that there is only one God is fundamental to Old Testament (OT) teaching and faith. The basic Jewish confession of faith, the Shema, affirms it unambiguously: 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). 1 P a g e

2 So although the OT acknowledges the existence of various heavenly or spiritual beings, such as angels (Genesis 28:12; Psalm 148:2), it does not put them on a level with Yahweh, the God of Israel, who is the one true God. He is the everlasting God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1; Isaiah 40:28). He is the King of the whole world (Psalm 47:2; 97:5), who rules over all things as the sovereign Lord (Psalm 9:8; 103:19). He is the Redeemer and Saviour of His people Deuteronomy 32:15; Isaiah 60:16). In all these ways He is unique (Isaiah 44:6-8; 45:5-6). The implication of this robust confession of the one God is that the gods worshipped by the other nations have no real existence. The OT not only insists that there is no other god apart from Yahweh (Deuteronomy 4:35, 39; Isaiah 45:18-25); it also mocks the powerlessness of other objects of worship, whether idols of wood and metal (Isaiah 44:9-20) or pseudo-deities such as the Canaanite god Baal (1 Kings 18:25-29). Thus the God of Israel is not only incomparable; He is absolutely unique. The belief in one God was one of the basic and core convictions of the Jews in the period between the Testaments and into New Testament (NT) times. The NT writers never challenge it, but affirm it explicitly in several places (e.g. 1 Corinthians 8:6; 1 Timothy 2:5; James 2:19), and elsewhere simply take it for granted. It is an important basis for other NT teachings, such as Paul s understanding of justification by faith for Jews and Gentiles alike (Romans 3:29-30) and the unity of the Christian congregation (Ephesians 4:3-6). So whatever the NT writers say about Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, it is clearly not their intention to undermine the consistent Biblical testimony that there is only one God. Their teaching must be understood within this framework, even if it also develops it in new and unexpected ways. 2a. The Father is God The OT refers to God as Father (Deuteronomy 32:6; Isaiah 63:16; 64:8), and in the NT this becomes a frequent designation for Him. In the Gospels Jesus both speaks and refers to God as Father (Matthew 11:25-27; John 16:31 17:1), and He tells His disciples to address their prayers to God in the same way (Luke 11:2). There are also many references to God as the Father in the epistles (e.g. Romans 6:4; Ephesians 3:14). The deity of the Father is assumed throughout the NT; the title is a way of referring to the one God. In one passage all people are said to be the offspring of God because He is their creator (Acts 17:26-28), but the name Father is used especially to denote His fatherly relation to His own people. So for Christians He is not only the Father who made us and all things, but our Father who has given us new birth and adopted us into His family as His children. The Lord s Prayer invites us to address Him as our Father (Matthew 6:9), and both Paul (in Romans 1:7 and many other of his greetings) and James (James 1:27) use the same description for Him. But it is significant that God is also identified repeatedly in the NT as the Father of Jesus, and that this relationship is presented as unique. Thus Jesus Himself frequently refers to God as my Father (e.g. Matthew 7:21; John 5:17), and in the letters God is sometimes called the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (e.g. Colossians 1:3; 1 Peter 1:3). Except in the Lord s Prayer, Jesus never uses the phrase our Father, only my Father (see above) and your Father (Matthew 5:16), and He refers to Himself just as the Son (John 5:19-23). Also the message sent by the risen Christ to His disciples in John s Gospel says, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God; it marks out His relationship with God as Father from that of His disciples (John 20:17). 2 P a g e

3 Considered by itself, this usage could reflect nothing more than Jesus special relationship with God as His anointed king (Christ) and representative on earth (son of God). But when it is put together with other NT evidence it points to something even greater than this: an eternal relationship between a Father and a Son who are both fully God. 2b. The Son is God The NT writers present Jesus Christ as a unique human being, far greater than any other. He is given the exalted titles of the prophet (John 6:14), Christ (Romans 9:5), Son of God (Luke 3:22) and Son of Man (Matthew 20:28), and in His resurrection and exaltation He has also become the Lord (Acts 2:32-36). Paul shows that He now shares many of the roles fulfilled by God Himself: He is the object of faith (Galatians 2:20); He gives salvation and eternal life (1 Thessalonians 5:9; Romans 6:23); and He will come as judge to gather His people (2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18). But Paul s letters and John s Gospel in particular go much further than this. In Philippians 2:6-7 Paul indicates that Christ existed before the world was created (see also Galatians 4:4) and that He was equal with God. Colossians 1:15-20 says that Christ reflects the very image of God, and that He is God s agent in creation as well as reconciliation. In Him God s pre-existent Wisdom has become a human being, in whom the fullness of deity dwells bodily (Colossians 2:3, 9). So Christ has a heavenly origin before time began, and He is Himself divine; he may even be called God (Romans 9:5). For John, Jesus is the Word, who is to be identified with God Himself (John 1:1). This Word, who was with God in the beginning and is His agent in creation and revelation (John 1:2-5), has now become flesh among us (John 1:14). As the incarnate Word, Jesus is the supreme and final revelation of the Father (John 14:7, 9) and His principal agent on earth, performing the full range of divine tasks (e.g. John 3:17; 17:2), speaking the Father s words (John 14:10) and performing His works (John 10:25). Thomas confesses Him as his Lord and God (John 20:28), and the first letter of John calls Him the true God (1 John 5:20). Other NT writings develop these ideas in various ways. For example, the letter to the Hebrews presents Christ as the exalted and unique divine Son (Hebrews 1:2-3) who is superior even to the angels (Hebrews 1:4-14). And in the book of Revelation the exalted Christ receives worship along with God (Revelation 5:8-14), to whom alone it is said to be due (Revelation 19:10). So the NT affirms the deity of Christ, both explicitly and in the characteristics and roles ascribed to Him. Its presentation of Jesus clearly shows that the divine Father has an equally divine Son. 2c. The Holy Spirit is God In the OT the Holy Spirit is usually known as the Spirit of God or the Spirit of the LORD (Yahweh). He is God s agent in creation (Genesis 1:2). He comes in power on Israel s judges for the performance of great deeds (Judges 6:34; 14:6), and on Saul and David for the task of kingship (1 Samuel 10:6; 16:13). He is even reputed to catch people up and take them elsewhere (1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:16). In short, He is God s power in action. The Spirit is associated with the divine gifts of wisdom, understanding and skill (Genesis 41:38; Exodus 31:3). He is also the Spirit of prophecy, who inspires people to speak God s word (Numbers 24:2-3; 2 Chronicles 20:14-17; Ezekiel 11:5). He is identified so closely with God that rebellion against the Spirit of God amounts to rebellion against God Himself (Psalm 106:33). 3 P a g e

4 In the NT the Spirit descends on Jesus for the fulfilment of His divine mission (Mark 1:10-11), which includes the proclaiming of the Gospel and the performance of powerful works (Matthew 4:23). In the book of Acts the coming of the Spirit on the disciples at Pentecost is seen as the promised outpouring of the Spirit of prophecy on God s people (Acts 2:17-18), and He fills them to speak God s word (Acts 4:8; 13:9). Because the Spirit is the vehicle of God s power and God s word, He is equated directly with God. Like God, He is eternal (Hebrews 9:14) and all-powerful (Luke 1:35); He knows everything (1 Corinthians 2:10-11) and gives new birth (John 3:5-7). Where the Spirit lives, God lives (1 Corinthians 3:16), and to lie to the Spirit is to lie to God (Acts 5:3-4). Both Paul and John affirm that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God (Romans 15:19; John 3:34), but they also identify Him closely with Jesus. For Paul He is nothing less than the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:19), while for John He is a replacement for Jesus of the same kind (John 14:16). This connection is a further indication of the deity of both the Son and the Spirit. So the Bible bears a clear and consistent witness that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God the Father, and the NT adds that He is the Spirit of God the Son. His own deity follows naturally from these premises. 3. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons The Bible teaches that there is only one God, and that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God. How are these statements to be reconciled? The easiest solution is to see the Father, the Son and the Spirit as no more than different ways in which the one God operates and reveals Himself, either at different points in history or at the same time. On this view there is no real distinction between the three; they are just alternative names for the same God. However, this simple idea is firmly denied by the New Testament, which maintains that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons. The Father is not the Son or the Spirit, the Son is not the Spirit, and the three are in relationship with one another. There is plenty of NT evidence that the Father is distinct from the Son. In the same place where John says that the Word was God, he also says that the Word was with God (John 1:1), thus differentiating Him from God the Father. Jesus is also said to be our advocate and priest before the Father (1 John 2:1; Hebrews 7:24), which implies a distinction between them. Moreover, Jesus experience of the Father and prayer to the Father (e.g. John 12:28) makes no sense if they are not different individuals; in effect He would be conversing with Himself. In the OT the Spirit is not seen as a person in His own right, distinct from the Father. But in the NT the Spirit is distinguished from the Father (Romans 8:27), and He is said to engage in a range of personal activities, including speaking (Acts 8:29), bearing witness (Romans 8:16), forbidding certain actions (Acts 16:6-7) and approving others (Acts 15:28), being grieved (Ephesians 4:30), and deciding the distribution of gifts (1 Corinthians 12:11). And although the Greek word for Spirit is neuter, He is denoted by masculine pronouns in John 15:26 and 16:13-14, which also point to His personal nature. 4 P a g e

5 The Son and the Spirit are also explicitly distinguished from each other (John 14:26; 16:7). Jesus is anointed by the Spirit (Luke 4:18), speaks about the Spirit as someone distinct from Himself (Matthew 12:32) and breathes the Spirit on the disciples (John 20:22). The relationship between the three persons is one of activity and agency. The Father carries out the work of creation and redemption in the Son and by the Spirit (Colossians 1:15-20; Romans 8:3-4). Thus He can be said to send the Son (Galatians 4:4) and the Spirit (John 14:26) to accomplish His purposes. The Son also fulfils His work through the Spirit (Acts 10:38), and He too is said to send the Spirit (John 16:7). So the NT brings together its confession of one God with its affirmation that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all God in terms of three distinct divine persons in relationship with one another. It is this understanding that allows the writers to link the three so closely together, both directly (Matthew 28:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14) and more obliquely (1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Ephesians 4:4-6; 1 Peter 1:2). And it is this that provided the foundation for later Christians to construct the full-orbed doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity and Christian mission This Biblical understanding of God provides an effective response to Muslim objections to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In this section we will look at three of these objections: that Christians deny the unity of God; that we believe in a trinity of God, Mary and Jesus; and that the claim that Jesus is God s Son amounts to blasphemy. Three gods? The Quran speaks out strongly against associating partners with the one god. Q 4:116 says, Allah forgiveth not [the sin of] joining other gods with him. Those who teach the doctrine of the Trinity are said to be sacrilegious and will be punished most severely for their offence: They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except one god. If they desist not from their word [of blasphemy] verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them (Q 5:73). So in Islam the unity of the one god is absolute, and Muslims criticise Christians severely for supposedly denying this unity and asserting that there are three gods. They condemn this belief categorically, as no better than pagan polytheism (belief in many gods) and idolatry. They also suggest that the Trinity is not a Biblical doctrine, but that it was invented by the Christian councils in the 4th and 5th centuries. Some of Muhammad s early advisers were Ebionites, members of a sect that confessed Jesus as the Messiah but denied the doctrine of the Trinity as incompatible with the OT belief in one god. So it is perhaps unsurprising that early Islam came to understand the doctrine as involving belief in three gods. But our review of the evidence shows that the Bible is clear and consistent in its own teaching that there is only one God. This is not only one of the basics of OT faith; it is both assumed and asserted by the NT writers too. We have also seen that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are personal distinctions within the one God, not names for three separate gods. 5 P a g e

6 It is true that the systematisation of the doctrine of the Trinity was not fully developed until some centuries after the NT was written, but it was created by the churches based on the Scriptures. Indeed, it was thoroughly and solidly grounded on Biblical testimony, and was intended as a coherent and systematic expression of that testimony in the language and concepts of the time. God, Mary and Jesus? Some Muslims believe that Christians worship a Trinity composed of Father, Mother (Mary the mother of Jesus), and Son (Jesus Himself). Q 5:116 says, And behold! Allah will say: O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, Worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah? He will say, Glory to Thee! Never could I say what I had no right to say. It appears that Muhammad thought Christians believed that God had had a physical relationship with Mary, which resulted in the birth of Jesus. The Quran suggests that this follows necessarily from the view that the one god has a son: How can he have a son when he hath no consort? (Q 6:101). It is possible that there was an extreme sect in the time of Muhammad that did worship a trinity of God, Mary and Christ. But more probably the misunderstanding arose only from the great veneration accorded to Mary by some of the Christians whom Muhammad met. The view that Mary is one of the persons of the Trinity is not found in the Bible; in fact it is a crude caricature of Biblical teaching, which is that the Trinity is comprised of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Although Scripture presents Mary as highly favoured by God, it never comes close to suggesting that she is divine. She is portrayed as just a human being, while each person of the Trinity is shown to be fully God. Nor do the conception and birth of Jesus arise from any kind of sexual encounter between God and Mary. Instead the angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her (Luke 1:35). Nor, for that matter, does God the Son begin to exist only when Jesus is conceived; as we have seen, He existed as God even before creation. God can have no son? For Muslims it follows from the absolute unity of the one god that he can have no son. Q 112 insists, Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not nor is he begotten; and there is none like unto Him. And in Q 19:35 we read that It is not befitting to (the majesty of) Allah that he should beget a son. In Islam Jesus is only one prophet among many and much inferior to Muhammad. To claim that he is the son of god, or that the one god can have a son at all, is blasphemous: They say: (God) Most Gracious has begotten a son! Indeed ye have put forward a thing most monstrous! (Q 19:88-89). The Quran does not deny the existence of God s Spirit as it denies that of his Son, but it also does not present the Spirit as a distinct person; to do so would also contradict its teaching on the unity of the one god. As in the OT, spirit seems to be only a name for divine power; for example, Q 58:22 says, He has written faith in their hearts and strengthened them with a spirit from himself. But the Biblical teaching that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct persons, who relate to one another within the life of the one God, undermines the Muslim view. As we have seen, this is how the NT reconciles the certain truth that there is only one God with the equally sure fact that the Father, Son and Spirit is each fully God. It affirms that the Father can have a Son, and a (personal) Spirit too, without the divine unity being compromised in any way. The divine Sonship of Jesus 6 P a g e

7 follows naturally from His deity, but in Scripture it does not then follow that there must be more than one God. Conclusion So each of the three key statements that make up Biblical teaching on the triune nature of God can be used to address one of the Muslim objections to the Trinity. Christians do not believe in three gods; there is only one God. We do not worship a trinity of God, Mary and Jesus; it is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit who are each fully God. And no blasphemy is involved in our confession that God the Father has a Son or a personal Spirit; these three are distinct persons related within the one God. Yet the nature of God is a profound mystery that can never be fully understood by finite human beings. The Bible is clear that God is Three-in-One, and it tells us something about what this means. But exactly how that is possible can never be completely explained, and ultimately our proper response to the triune God is to fall down before Him in worship and adoration and to offer our lives to Him in worship and sacrifice. So it is not only for the sake of our mission to Muslims and others that we should understand and uphold this doctrine. It sets out to us the nature of the God whom we worship and serve, who calls us to acknowledge and honour Him as one God in three persons, the blessed Trinity. May we know Him and confess Him as nothing less than this. This article is taken from Barnabas Aid, the magazine of Barnabas Fund, May/June Barnabas Fund P a g e

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