Minister Brandon Burke
THE TRIUNITY OF GOD
Trinity is, of course, not a biblical word. Neither are triunity, trine, trinal, subsistence, nor essence. Yet we employ them, and often helpfully, in trying to express this doctrine that is so fraught with difficulties. Furthermore, this is a doctrine that is not explicit in the New Testament even though it is often said that it is implicit in the Old and explicit in the New. But explicit means “characterized by full, clear expression,” an adjective hard to apply to this doctrine. Nevertheless, the doctrine grows out of the Scriptures, so it is a biblical teaching.
I. THE CONTRIBUTION OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
Unquestionably the Old Testament emphasizes the unity of God. However, there are clear suggestions that there are persons in the Godhead. Therefore, one might say that the Old Testament contains intimations that allow for the later revelation of the triunity of God. What are these intimations?
A. The Unity of God
The celebrated Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, which became Judaism’s basic confession of faith, teaches the unity of God. It may be translated “The Lord our God is one Lord,” or “The Lord our God, the Lord is One,” or “The Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” or “the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This last translation stresses the uniqueness of God more than unity, but it implies oneness by ruling out polytheism. Other passages like Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 4:35; 32:29; Isaiah 45:14; and 46:9 insist on Israel’s loyalty to the one God
B. Plural Words
We have already suggested that the plural name for God, Elohim, denotes God’s unlimited greatness and supremacy. To conclude plurality of persons from the name itself is dubious. However, when God speaks of Himself with plural pronouns (Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8) and plural verbs (Gen. 1:26; 11:7), it does seem to indicate distinctions of persons, though only plurality, not specifically Trinity.
C. The Angel of Yahweh
Though this designation may refer to any of God’s angels (1 Kings 19:7; cf. v. 5), sometimes that Angel is referred to as God, yet distinguished from Him (Gen. 16:7–13; 18:1–21; 19:1–28; Mal. 3:1). This points to personal distinctions within the Godhead. Since the Angel is called God, He could hardly be only a prophet, functioning in pre-prophetic times as the prophets did in later times (as Edmond Jacob suggests in Theology of the Old Testament).
D. Distinction of Persons
Some passages apparently distinguish persons within the Godhead.
1. The Lord is distinguished from the Lord (Gen. 19:24; Hos. 1:7).
2. The Redeemer (who must be divine) is distinguished from the Lord (Isa. 59:20).
3. The Spirit is distinguished from the Lord (Isa. 48:16; 59:21; 63:9–10). In these verses the Spirit is personal and active.
E. The Wisdom of God (?)
Many theologies (Berkhof, Payne, Thiessen) see the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8:12–31 as referring to Christ and thus an Old Testament indication of the existence of the Trinity. However, it seems better to understand the passage not as an adumbration of Christ but as describing the eternal character of wisdom as an attribute of God.
How shall we evaluate the Old Testament contribution to this doctrine? Berkhof concludes that there is “clear anticipation” of the fuller revelation in the New Testament, but its use of the word “clear” may push this into an overstatement. More accurate is Payne’s conclusion that the Old Testament contains “genuine suggestions of the Persons that make up the Godhead.”4 We might also put it this way: the doctrine exists only in seminal form in the Old Testament. It is questionable whether, without the flowering of the doctrine in the New Testament, we would know solely from the Old Testament what those seeds were.