While it is not possible for human beings to understand everything about God (Rom. 11:33), we can know some things about him, namely what he has revealed about himself (Deut. 29:29).1 My purpose here is not to wade into the quagmire of the historical debates between unitarians and trinitarians or dissect and evaluate sabbelianism, modalism, arianism, socinianism, et al. My primary concern in this study is simply, what does the Bible say?
In Acts 17:29 “God” is described as to theion, an expression referring to everything that belongs to the nature of God and is variously rendered “the Divine Nature,” “the Godhead,” “the Deity,” “the Divine,” “the Divinity” (cf. Rom. 1:20; Col. 2:9; 2 Pet. 1:2-4). The human equivalent would be “Man” in the sense of “Human Nature,” “Humanity,” or “Mankind.” Just like the word “Man” can be used to describe either an individual (Rom. 5:12) or all persons who comprise humanity (Psa. 8:4), the question is whether or not the word “God” is used in a similar way.
The Bible clearly affirms that there is only one true God (1 Cor. 8:4; cf. Deut. 4:35, 39; 6:4; Jas. 2:19; Acts 17:23-29), and since God is the Divine Nature, there is only one Divine Nature. Seeing that the word “Man” does not imply that humanity is comprised of a single person, and even though many assume that “God” is a solitary entity, the fundamental question is whether or not the Bible indicates a plurality within the one God.
In Genesis 1:26 God speaks using plural pronouns: “us,” “our” (cf. 3:22; 11:7). What does this indicate about God? The Hebrew word translated “God” in Gen. 1:1-31; 2:2-22; 3:1-23, etc. is elohim (the plural form of el), found 2,570 times in the Hebrew scriptures. This plural form, in reference to Almighty God, is used with singular verbs and adjectives throughout the Old Testament. Despite the potential confusion generated by this anomaly, God’s complete revelation did not end with Malachi. That which is somewhat ambiguous in the Old Testament is more clearly revealed in the New Testament (cf. Matt. 13:17; Mark 4:22; Acts 17:30; Eph. 3:3-11; 1 Pet. 1:10-12).
In Matthew 28:19 the plurality within the one God (Divine Nature) is identified as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Since “name” in this verse is singular, a unity among these three is presumed (see also Mark 1:9-11; Rom. 8:9-11; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6). While mentioned here collectively, note that elsewhere the Father is acknowledged as “God” (Phil. 2:11),2 Jesus is acknowledged as “God” (John 1:1; 20:28),3 and the Holy Spirit is acknowledged as “God” (Acts 5:3-4).4 Nevertheless, the biblical doctrine of monotheism forbids the conclusion that there are three separate gods and therefore requires a unity of these three divine Persons as one God or a single Divine Nature. In John 17:20-23 a plurality of human persons is depicted as “one,” providing a parallel to the similar concept of a plurality of divine Persons depicted as “one” (see also Gen. 2:24; 11:6; Judg. 6:16; John 10:16, 30; 11:52; 17:11; Acts 17:26; 1 Cor. 12:12).
In Deuteronomy 6:4 [the monotheistic 'Shema' of Judaism] the word “God” is translated from the plural elohim, so how can the plural elohim be “one”? There are two Hebrew words translated “one” in the Old Testament: (1) yachid = “only, solitary, only one” (Gen. 22:2, 12, 16; Judg. 11:34; Jer. 6:26), never used in reference to deity; and (2) echad = “unite, join together” (Gen. 2:24; 41:1, 5, 25; Deut. 6:4), used in reference to deity and signifying a compound unity.
WHAT THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY DOES NOT TEACH: (a) there are three separate gods; (b) the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the same Person; (c) only one of the three, but not the other two, is God. WHAT THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY AFFIRMS: (a) there is only one God; (b) the one God is the Divine Nature consisting of three divine Persons; (c) the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons; (d) the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each God with the same essence collectively comprising the Divine Nature; (e) while equal in essence, each member of the Godhead has a different role, giving the appearance of a superior to inferior relationship within the Godhead, though the distinction is essentially in function not in nature or substance.5
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See also Isaiah 55:8-9; Job 9:10; Psalm 147:5; Proverbs 20:24; Philippians 4:7; and Romans 1:19-20; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Ephesians 3:1-5; John 4:24; 2 Peter 3:16.
2 See also Malachi 2:10; John 8:41; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Ephesians 4:6.
3 See also John 5:18; 10:33; Colossians 2:9; Revelation 1:8, 17-18; 22:12-13.
4 The Holy Spirit is a Person in that he speaks (1 Tm. 4:1; Acts 8:29), teaches (Jn. 14:26), guides (Jn. 16:13), has a mind (Ro. 8:27), has a will (1 Co. 12:11), and can be grieved (Eph. 4:30). He possesses the attributes of God: eternal (Heb. 9:14), omniscient (1 Co. 2:10; Is. 40:13-14), omnipresent (Ps. 139:7-10), creator (Gen. 1:2; Job 26: 13; 33:4), sanctifies (2 Thess. 2:13), gives life (Ro. 8:11), can be blasphemed (Mt. 12:31).
5 Helpful resources for further study include Loraine Boettner, Studies in Theology (Washington DC: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1985): 79-139; Carl Brumback, God in Three Persons (Cleveland, TN: Pathway, 1959); Billy Lewis and David Lipe, The Lipe-Lewish Debate (Winona, MS: Choate, 1984): 1-52; J. J. Turner and Edward P. Myers, Doctrine of the Godhead (Abilene, TX: Quality Publications, 1985).
Related articles: Wayne Jackson's Biblical Doctrine of the Godhead; Ben Giselbach's Why the Trinity Matters
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