Why Does the Trinity Matter?
I’ll be honest; the idea of the Trinity—that the God of the Bible is a triune being who is one in essence and three in persons—is a concept I personally have trouble fully understanding. It’s taught in Scripture and is a logically coherent concept, so I accept it as true. But, like the dual natures of Jesus, how it’s possible is a mystery. And I don’t think we should be surprised that an infinite creator God who spoke the very universe into being is an entity that our finite human minds can’t completely comprehend. The best and brightest scientists of our time don’t know what consciousness is, or how gravity works, or how wild animals know precisely where to go every year when they migrate across hundreds of miles. So how can we expect to understand everything about the God who created consciousness, gravity, and migratory animals?
The Trinity in the Tanakh (Old Testament)
The word trinity means “tri-unity,” and it’s not a word you’ll find anywhere in the Bible. However, the concept of the Trinity is taught in many passages. It’s something God revealed progressively over time throughout Scripture. While the Trinity does not come into full focus until the advent of Christ, we get hints of God’s plurality of being in various ways throughout the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). In fact, one could argue that the first glimpse we get of this plurality is found in the opening verses of the very first book:
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.Genesis 1:2-3
In this passage, we see God as the Father speaking and as the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters. Some even claim that in the subtext of this passage we also see the Son. In John 1, which is patterned after Genesis 1, Jesus (the Son) is referred to as the Word through whom all things were made. So perhaps in this verse in Genesis, when we read the phrase “and God said,” we’re seeing the Son manifest as the Word of God. Does this passage prove the Trinity? No. But it’s a compelling picture of it.
A few verses later in Genesis 1:26, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Why is this passage written in the plural in the original Hebrew? Some have suggested that it’s the use of the “royal we.” However, there are no other examples of a monarch using plural verbs or plural pronouns of himself in all of Old Testament Hebrew. Others have suggested that God is speaking of Himself and the angels. However, Scripture does not teach that man was made in the image of angels, nor that angels participated in the creation of man. Others suggest it is God speaking to His divine council, informing them of what He is about to do. (A view I am sympathetic to.) While this verse is a long way from a formal doctrine of the Trinity, it may provide another intriguing picture of the plurality of God.
There is also a mysterious little story in Genesis 18:1-15, where three visitors come to visit Abraham bearing prophetic news. Throughout the passage, the author interchangeably refers to these visitors both using plural pronouns (e.g., “them” and “they”) and also in the singular as “Adonai” (Lord). In other words, the passage seems to be portraying God appearing to Abraham as three men. Proof of the Trinity? No. Another intriguing picture of the plurality of God? Perhaps.
Interestingly, some Jewish scholars are beginning to reluctantly admit that the theological idea of the Trinity can be found in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Jewish professor Benjamin Sommer said:
We Jews for centuries have objected to the Trinity, have labeled it pagan, have said, “Well, it’s clear the core of Christianity doesn’t come out of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. (Christians) are being disloyal to the Old Testament.” Actually, I think that’s not true. To my surprise, I came to the conclusion—somewhat to my dismay—that we Jews have no theological right to object to the Trinity . . . Fundamentally the theological model used by Christianity is a model that shows up in our own sacred literature.
If you read some of the church fathers on the story of Abraham and the three visitors, they make a linkage between that story and the doctrine of the Trinity . . . Those three visitors become a harbinger of, a hint at, the later idea of the Trinity . . . And they’re really correct that there is a linkage between the theological intuition that’s behind the idea of the Trinity and the theological intuition that’s behind the story in Genesis 18.Benjamin Sommer, Jewish Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages, Jewish Theological Seminary of America
There is also the work of Alan Segal, a professor of Religion and Jewish Studies. In 1977 Segal, himself a Jew, published a groundbreaking book called Two Powers in Heaven in which he examines rabbinic evidence for the early Jewish teaching known as “two powers in heaven,” which stems back to at least 200 BC. This idea was borne out of mysterious passages in the Tanakh (i.e. Dan 7:9; Ex 23:20-23; 15:3) that suggest there is a plurality of being in God; they show an invisible YHWH in heaven at the same time as a visible YHWH on earth. This “two powers” teaching was an accepted part of Jewish theology up until the second century AD when Jewish religious leaders began to see it as evidence in support of Christianity so they labeled it a heresy.
Why is any of this important? Because to deny any part of the Trinity is to deny a part of Holy Scripture. The doctrine of the Trinity is a foundational teaching of the Bible that has long been held as a litmus test for heresy. Scripture teaches five truths that we must hold in tension. Consider the following small sampling of scriptural data that supports each of these five facts, which are all true at the same time:
|Biblical Truths||Scriptural Data|
|The Father is God||Deuteronomy 32:6|
Isaiah 63:16, 64:8
Jeremiah 3:19 Matthew 6:26 Luke 12:30 John 20:17 Romans 15:6 1 Corinthians 8:6 2 Corinthians 1:3
|The Son is God||Matthew 11:27, 28:18, 25:31-33 John 5:22, 27, 30, 8:16, 17:2 Acts 17:31 Romans 2:16 Ephesians 1:22-23 Colossians 2:10 1 Peter 3:22 Philippians 2:10|
|The Holy Spirit is God||Mark 3:28-29 Acts 5:3-4, 9:31 Romans 15:30 1 Corinthians 6:11 Philippians 2:1 Hebrews 10:15-17 Revelations 2:18, 29|
|The Father, Son and the Holy Spirit are distinct from one another||Matthew 28:19 Romans 15:19 2 Corinthians 13:14 Ephesians 2:21-22, 4:4-6 Philippians 3:3 Revelations 1:4-5, 2:7|
|God is one||Deuteronomy 6:4 Zechariah 14:9 Mark 12:29 1 Corinthians 8:6 James 2:19|
It may be hard for our finite minds to grasp what this means fully, but the amount of scriptural data that supports each of the five statements above is overwhelming. These statements are harmonized logically in the Christian teaching that “God is one in essence, and three in persons.” Let’s take a brief look at some examples from God’s Word.
Scriptural Data for the Trinity
First, there are many passages in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit stand alongside one another and share divine status. For example, Matthew 28:19 says, “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.”
Second, if the concept of the Trinity is not true, then many of Jesus’ teachings make no sense. For instance, He tells His disciples: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). In this passage, Jesus asserts three distinct, divine entities: (1.) The Son tells us that (2.) the Father will send (3.) the Holy Spirit. Jesus did not say, “When I send myself in my own name, I will remind you of everything I said.” Our Lord chose His words to indicate that, in addition to Himself, there is Another who will send, and yet Another who will be sent. It’s clear that each of these three entities or “persons” must be divine based on the functions they are performing.
Another example is found in Matthew:
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”Matthew 3:16-17
Again, we see three distinct persons; the Father speaking from heaven, the Son being baptized on earth, and the Holy Spirit descending from the Father to the Son. And at the same time, we know that God is one. Without the concept of the Trinity, this passage becomes nonsensical. With the Trinity, it’s a beautiful picture of a triune God at work in His universe.
It’s in these passages (and the many others like them) that we get a clear picture of the New Testament authors who “fully endorsed the three key theological strands that would later be woven into a tight doctrinal cord: only one God exists; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons; and the title ‘God’ befits each of them.”
When it comes to the Trinity, there is something more stirring than the mystery of how. It is the majesty of the why. Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias notes:
There is unity and diversity in the community of the Trinity; there is both majesty and mystery. If God ever says He loves, who was He loving before creation? If God says He speaks, who was He speaking to before creation? Both communication and love are contained in the Godhead right from the beginning . . . It’s only in the Christian faith that love precedes life. In every other belief system, life precedes love.Ravi Zacharias
What does Zacharias mean when he says that in every other belief system “life precedes love?” It means that in those other worldviews, love—rather than being past-eternal and grounded in God—is merely a human concept that came about after the advent of mankind. The ramifications of this position are staggering. If love did not exist until human life arrived on the scene, it means that God existed without love for a past eternity. It also means love can be defined to mean whatever we humans want it to mean. This is the exact opposite of the biblical concept of love:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love . . . And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.1 John 4:7-8, 16
Scripture teaches that God is eternal, and God is love. Therefore, love is eternal. Said another way, God has always existed, therefore love has always existed. However, love can only exist in a relationship between persons. So in order for love to be past-eternal, there must also be past-eternal persons in a relationship. And Christianity teaches that love has existed eternally in the triune relationship within the Godhead. Moreover, mankind was made in the image of God, which is why we hunger for relationships and love. The core of what it means to be human is to be in relationship with others. Our triune God modeled that before Creation and He models it for us in the pages of Scripture:
Looking through John 5:19-27; 16:13-15 is just fascinating. The Father entrusts all things to the Son: his authority, his power over life, and judgment. But the Son will not do anything by himself; he will only do what he sees the Father doing. The Spirit will not speak of himself nor seek his own glory. He will bring glory to Jesus by taking what belongs to Jesus and showing it to us. Three self-giving, self-effacing persons constitute the amazing God whom Christians worship!R. G. Coleman
The bottom line is that if we deny the Trinity, we are denying the very nature of God and undermining the true, biblical meaning of love.
(For more on the beauty and necessity of the Trinity, I highly recommend the book Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves.)
 John 1:1-3.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 227.
 Benjamin D. Sommer, “The Bodies of God and The World of Ancient Israel,” Lecture Series.
 Also see Romans 15:19; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Ephesians 2:21-22, 4:4-6; Philippians 3:3; and Revelations 1:4-5, 2:7.
 John Y. Kwak and Douglas Geivett, “Trinity: A Historical and Theological Analysis.”
 Ravi Zacharias, “Unity in Diversity, the Majesty & Mystery of the Trinity”
 Genesis 1:26-27, 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7.
 Thanks to Ravi Zacharias for these beautiful insights on the nature and outworkings of the Trinity.