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The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity - Introduction

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The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity - Introduction

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

It is often alleged that the doctrine of the Trinity is not a biblical doctrine. While the word Trinity is not in the Bible, the substance of the doctrine is definitely biblical. The doctrine is simply a formal way of systematizing the following six propositions, which may be viewed as premises of the doctrine:

1. There is one God (i.e., one proper object of religious devotion).

2. This one God is a single divine being, called Jehovah or Yahweh in the Old Testament (the LORD).

3. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is God, the LORD.

4. The Son, Jesus Christ, is God, the LORD.

5. The Holy Spirit is God, the LORD.

6. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each someone distinct from the other two.

Anyone who affirms all six of these propositions is affirming what is essential to the doctrine of the Trinity, since this is just what the doctrine of the Trinity says. In order to dispute the doctrine of the Trinity, then, one must take issue with one or more of the propositions stated above. Anything else is tangential to the issue. Objections based on the special theological vocabulary used in Trinitarian creeds, the conceptual difficulty of the doctrine, the political dimensions of ecclesiastical controversies involving the doctrine, the questionable conduct of some of those who adhere to the doctrine, and the like, fail to engage the biblical basis of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Ironically, anti-Trinitarians who profess faith in the Bible can be found who affirm all of these propositions, though they disagree among themselves as to which ones are biblical. All anti-Trinitarians affirm proposition #3. Anti-Trinitarians who affirm something akin to the ancient heresy of monarchianism or modalism generally affirm all but proposition #6 (though they actually have difficulty affirming #3 in a consistent manner). Anti-Trinitarians who affirm something akin to the ancient heresy of Arianism agree that Yahweh or Jehovah is a single divine being (cf. proposition #2) and affirm proposition #3; they also agree that the Father and Son are personally distinct but take a somewhat different view of the Holy Spirit (cf. proposition #6). There are still other variations. Each of these anti-Trinitarian groups considers its position obviously biblical. Thus, there is no need to appeal to extra-biblical considerations to settle the question, as all of the essential elements of the doctrine are addressed one way or another in the Bible.

The following outline study presents an overview of the biblical basis of the above six propositions, and therefore of the doctrine of the Trinity. Comments on the texts have been kept to a bare minimum; the emphasis is on the many biblical texts themselves. Roughly 1,000 references drawn from well over 300 different chapters of the Bible are listed, including references from all 27 books of the New Testament. The study makes no direct references to any specific non-Trinitarian religious groups but focuses solely on presenting the positive biblical evidence for the Trinity and responding succinctly to common objections to this evidence. No secondary sources are cited in the outline itself, though of course I have consulted numerous such sources.

Brief expositions of many of the texts discussed here can be found in the author’s book Why You Should Believe in the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989). Unfortunately, that book is out of print, but you can order a copy here. The material on the deity of Christ (point VI of the outline) is discussed in even greater depth in my more recent book Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ, co-authored with J. Ed Komoszewski (Kregel, 2007).

A proper evaluation of the biblical evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity will depend on the faithful application of sound principles of biblical interpretation. Here I will mention just two principles which, if followed, would prevent almost all interpretive errors on this subject.

The first is to interpret the implicit in light of the explicit. That is, texts that explicitly state that such-and-such is true are to govern our understanding of passages that do not address the issue directly. For example, many passages of the Bible state explicitly that God is omniscient, that is, that he knows all things, including the thoughts of men and all future events (1 Sam. 16:7; 1 Chron. 28:9; Job 37:16; Ps. 139:1-4; Is. 41:22-23; 42:9; 44:7; Jer. 17:10a). These texts must govern our understanding of passages which might seem to imply, but which do not assert, that God did not know something (e.g., Gen. 3:9-13; 4:9; 18:9, 20-21).

The other principle is that we interpret logically but not rationalistically. Using the same illustration, if God knows everything ahead of time, then logically He must have known that Adam and Eve would fall into sin. However, to argue that if God knew Adam and Eve would sin then they would not be responsible for their choosing to sin is not “logical,” it is rationalistic. It may be difficult to understand how persons could be responsible for their sinful actions if God knew ahead of time that they would sin, but it is not illogical (not self-contradictory) to say so.

It should be kept in mind that a fruitful study of the Trinity depends to a considerable extent on a proper understanding of the nature of God. This outline touches on God’s attributes in various places but does not attempt to survey all of the relevant biblical material on the subject.

Note: This outline study has been a work in progress of mine since the late 1970s. A version that was several pages shorter than the current version was one of the most widely disseminated standard resources sent out by the Christian Research Institute (CRI) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. An electronic media version was created without my knowledge in 1994. Since that time it has appeared on various web sites in various editions (including some with unauthorized revisions), sometimes with permission and sometimes not. The version here, created for publication on the web site of the Institute for Religious Research, is the most recent version and includes the most significant revisions and additions in two decades (including some 300 new biblical references). In order to ensure the accuracy and integrity of this free resource, I am asserting my copyright to the work as its sole author. Anyone is welcome to print out and copy the outline study as much as they want as long as it is reproduced without change in its entirety (including this introduction and note). Permission must be obtained for posting this resource on another site.