The keystone of biblical theology
By Norman R. Gulley
I don’t believe in the Trinity!” That’s what some Adventist pioneers concluded. In fact, questions on the Trinity continued for 87 years. It’s happening again today. Is history being repeated? “Is God a Trinity?” “Does it really matter?” “Doesn’t Scripture say ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one’”?* (Deut. 6:4, cf. 4-9; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41).
What do we forfeit if God is only one Person? For one, Christ could not be our Savior. It took the Holy Spirit to bring Christ to Mary. It took the Father to answer Christ’s prayers and give Him needed help. That’s how important the Trinity is to us. Our eternal life depends upon this truth.
The Lord Our God Is One
So why did God say, “The Lord our God is one”? In the ancient Near East there were numerous deities that surrounded and imperiled Israel. God knew His people would be attracted to these gods, and abandon Him. In that context He said, “I alone am God” (“there is no other,” Deut. 4:39). That’s why the prologue of the Ten Commandments states, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt…. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2, 3). Only the true God could save in the mighty rescue at the Red Sea! The word “one” focuses on God’s uniqueness, not on His being alone.
The English word “one” is used to translate two words in biblical Hebrew: yāhîd (unique, only son, Gen. 22:2) and ’ehād (those united in marriage “become one flesh,” Gen. 2:24). “The Lord our God is one” translates ’ehād, and means God is not solitary, even though He is unique. It suggests that God is united, or more than one Person. Scripture declares that God is love (1 John 4:8-16). Prior to the commencement of any creation there was an eternity when God existed as love. God could not be love if He was solitary. For whom would He love? It takes more than one to love. So God’s nature requires that He be more than one Person.
Hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament
Scripture often indicates that God is more than one. Plurality is indicated in the following: In creation “God said [singular], ‘Let us [plural] make man in our image’” (Gen. 1:26). After sin’s entrance into the world, “the Lord God said [singular], ‘The man has now become like one of us [plural], knowing good and evil’” (Gen. 3:22). In response to the Tower of Babel builders God [singular] said, “Come, let us [plural] go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (Gen. 11:7). Isaiah said, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord say [singular], ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us [plural)’?” (Isa. 6:8). While focusing on one God to keep His people from many gods, He allowed them to glimpse that one God is more than one Person. This is really about a different dimension. If God was only one Person, who would have ruled the universe when Christ was on earth, and where would God have been when Christ was in the tomb?
Scripture designates Father, Son, and Spirit as God. Let me just list a number of powerful examples. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1), and He created the universe through His Son (Heb. 1:1, 2). After Christ’s death “He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb. 1:3). The Father said to Him, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever” (verse 8). The Father called Christ God (cf. John 1:1-3, 14). Paul urged the Ephesians, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God” through unloving talk and acts (Eph. 4:30). Peter told Ananias, “You have lied to the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:3), and in so doing “You have not lied to men but to God” (verse 4).
Scripture Interpreting Scripture
Some say the Trinity is only explicit in the New Testament, not in the Old Testament. A good example is the Father speaking to Christ at His baptism and the Holy Spirit descending on Him as a dove (Matt. 3:16, 17). Another example is the gospel commission, sending His children to baptize in the name of all three (Matt. 28:19). A third example is Paul’s ending to his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14). So, clearly, the New Testament teaches the Trinity.
There is, however, more about the Trinity in the Old Testament than some people realize. When Scripture interprets Scripture, we discover that the Old Testament makes a contribution to our topic. In Luke 4:18, 19 Christ read from Isaiah 61:1, 2, and in so doing recognized that the verses tell of His mission. In other words, Christ gave His commentary on these verses in Isaiah, noting that they speak of the Trinity as follows: “The Spirit [Holy Spirit] of the Sovereign Lord [the Father] is on me [Christ]” (Isa. 61:1).
There are several places in Isaiah where the Trinity is explicit. Here are three more examples: First, in Isaiah 42:1 it says: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” God the Father is speaking about His Son, to whom He will give His Holy Spirit. The New Testament corroborates that this passage from Isaiah was fulfilled in the healing ministry of Jesus (Matt. 12:15-21), who was sent by the Father (John 3:16, 17) and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:16, 17; Luke 4:18). Second, Isaiah 48:16 states: “Come near me and listen to this…. And now the Sovereign Lord [Father] has sent me [Christ], with his Spirit” [Holy Spirit]. Third, in Isaiah 63:7-16, reference is made to “the angel of His presence” who “redeemed them” (verse 9, Christ), the Holy Spirit (verse 10), and the Father (verse 16).
If I was marooned on an island and could take only one book each from the Old and New Testaments, I would choose Isaiah and John. The Trinity is found in both. The Old Testament is about the love of God just as much as the New Testament. Isaiah 53 is one of the best biblical chapters on our Savior’s love for all of us. Isaiah presents the Trinity with greater specificity than any other Old Testament writer. The Old Testament gives evidence that God does not change (Mal. 3:6), a concept that is echoed in the New Testament as “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit love each other, and in so doing each one loves God and fellow beings (cf. Matt. 22:37-40). That love is eternal and reciprocal in their inner history, and overflows to enter human lives so we can reflect to some degree that love for God and for others. A solitary God could not be a God of love. What an awesome Trinity!
*All Scripture quotations have been taken from the New International Version.
Norman R. Gulley is research professor in systematic theology at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee. He is currently working on the fourth and final volume of his systematic theology, published by Andrews University Press.