Is It Clearly a Bible Teaching?
IF THE Trinity were true, it should be clearly and consistently presented in the Bible. Why? Because, as the apostles affirmed, the Bible is God’s revelation of himself to mankind. And since we need to know God to worship him acceptably, the Bible should be clear in telling us just who he is.
First-century believers accepted the Scriptures as the authentic revelation of God. It was the basis for their beliefs, the final authority. For example, when the apostle Paul preached to people in the city of Beroea, “they received the word with the greatest eagerness of mind, carefully examining the Scriptures daily as to whether these things were so.”—Acts 17:10, 11.
What did prominent men of God at that time use as their authority? Acts 17:2, 3 tells us: “According to Paul’s custom . . . he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving by references [from the Scriptures].”
Jesus himself set the example in using the Scriptures as the basis for his teaching, repeatedly saying: “It is written.” “He interpreted to them things pertaining to himself in all the Scriptures.”—Matthew 4:4, 7; Luke 24:27.
Thus Jesus, Paul, and first-century believers used the Scriptures as the foundation for their teaching. They knew that “all Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.”—2 Timothy 3:16, 17; see also 1 Corinthians 4:6; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Peter 1:20, 21.
Since the Bible can ‘set things straight,’ it should clearly reveal information about a matter as fundamental as the Trinity is claimed to be. But do theologians and historians themselves say that it is clearly a Bible teaching?
in the Bible?
A PROTESTANT publication states: “The word Trinity is not found in the Bible . . . It did not find a place formally in the theology of the church till the 4th century.” (The Illustrated Bible Dictionary) And a Catholic authority says that the Trinity “is not . . . directly and immediately [the] word of God.”—New Catholic Encyclopedia.
The Catholic Encyclopedia also comments: “In Scripture there is as yet no single term by which the Three Divine Persons are denoted together. The word τρίας [tri′as] (of which the Latin trinitas is a translation) is first found in Theophilus of Antioch about A. D. 180. . . . Shortly afterwards it appears in its Latin form of trinitas in Tertullian.”
However, this is no proof in itself that Tertullian taught the Trinity. The Catholic work Trinitas—A Theological Encyclopedia of the Holy Trinity, for example, notes that some of Tertullian’s words were later used by others to describe the Trinity. Then it cautions: “But hasty conclusions cannot be drawn from usage, for he does not apply the words to Trinitarian theology.”
of the Hebrew Scriptures
WHILE the word “Trinity” is not found in the Bible, is at least the idea of the Trinity taught clearly in it? For instance, what do the Hebrew Scriptures (“Old Testament”) reveal?
Encyclopedia of Religion admits: “Theologians today are in agreement that the Hebrew Bible does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity.” And the New Catholic Encyclopedia also says: “The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not taught in the O[ld] T[estament].”
Similarly, in his book The Triune God, Jesuit Edmund Fortman admits: “The Old Testament . . . tells us nothing explicitly or by necessary implication of a Triune God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. . . . There is no evidence that any sacred writer even suspected the existence of a [Trinity] within the Godhead. . . . Even to see in [the “Old Testament”] suggestions or foreshadowings or ‘veiled signs’ of the trinity of persons, is to go beyond the words and intent of the sacred writers.”—Italics ours.
An examination of the Hebrew Scriptures themselves will bear out these comments. Thus, there is no clear teaching of a Trinity in the first 39 books of the Bible that make up the true canon of the inspired Hebrew Scriptures.
of the Greek Scriptures
WELL, then, do the Christian Greek Scriptures (“New Testament”) speak clearly of a Trinity?
Encyclopedia of Religion says: “Theologians agree that the New Testament also does not contain an explicit doctrine of the Trinity.”
Jesuit Fortman states: “The New Testament writers . . . give us no formal or formulated doctrine of the Trinity, no explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons. . . . Nowhere do we find any trinitarian doctrine of three distinct subjects of divine life and activity in the same Godhead.”
New Encyclopædia Britannica observes: “Neither the word Trinity nor the explicit doctrine appears in the New Testament.”
Bernhard Lohse says in A Short History of Christian Doctrine: “As far as the New Testament is concerned, one does not find in it an actual doctrine of the Trinity.”
New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology similarly states: “The N[ew] T[estament] does not contain the developed doctrine of the Trinity. ‘The Bible lacks the express declaration that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are of equal essence’ [said Protestant theologian Karl Barth].”
Yale University professor E. Washburn Hopkins affirmed: “To Jesus and Paul the doctrine of the trinity was apparently unknown; . . . they say nothing about it.”—Origin and Evolution of Religion.
Historian Arthur Weigall notes: “Jesus Christ never mentioned such a phenomenon, and nowhere in the New Testament does the word ‘Trinity’ appear. The idea was only adopted by the Church three hundred years after the death of our Lord.”—The Paganism in Our Christianity.
Thus, neither the 39 books of the Hebrew Scriptures nor the canon of 27 inspired books of the Christian Greek Scriptures provide any clear teaching of the Trinity.
by Early Christians?
DID the early Christians teach the Trinity? Note the following comments by historians and theologians:
“Primitive Christianity did not have an explicit doctrine of the Trinity such as was subsequently elaborated in the creeds.”—The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology.
“The early Christians, however, did not at first think of applying the [Trinity] idea to their own faith. They paid their devotions to God the Father and to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and they recognised the . . . Holy Spirit; but there was no thought of these three being an actual Trinity, co-equal and united in One.”—The Paganism in Our Christianity.
“At first the Christian faith was not Trinitarian . . . It was not so in the apostolic and sub-apostolic ages, as reflected in the N[ew] T[estament] and other early Christian writings.”—Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics.
“The formulation ‘one God in three Persons’ was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. . . . Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective.”—New Catholic Encyclopedia.
What the Ante-Nicene Fathers Taught
THE ante-Nicene Fathers were acknowledged to have been leading religious teachers in the early centuries after Christ’s birth. What they taught is of interest.
Justin Martyr, who died about 165 C.E., called the prehuman Jesus a created angel who is “other than the God who made all things.” He said that Jesus was inferior to God and “never did anything except what the Creator . . . willed him to do and say.”
Irenaeus, who died about 200 C.E., said that the prehuman Jesus had a separate existence from God and was inferior to him. He showed that Jesus is not equal to the “One true and only God,” who is “supreme over all, and besides whom there is no other.”
Clement of Alexandria, who died about 215 C.E., called God “the uncreated and imperishable and only true God.” He said that the Son “is next to the only omnipotent Father” but not equal to him.
Tertullian, who died about 230 C.E., taught the supremacy of God. He observed: “The Father is different from the Son (another), as he is greater; as he who begets is different from him who is begotten; he who sends, different from him who is sent.” He also said: “There was a time when the Son was not. . . . Before all things, God was alone.”
Hippolytus, who died about 235 C.E., said that God is “the one God, the first and the only One, the Maker and Lord of all,” who “had nothing co-eval [of equal age] with him . . . But he was One, alone by himself; who, willing it, called into being what had no being before,” such as the created prehuman Jesus.
Origen, who died about 250 C.E., said that “the Father and Son are two substances . . . two things as to their essence,” and that “compared with the Father, [the Son] is a very small light.”
Summing up the historical evidence, Alvan Lamson says in The Church of the First Three Centuries: “The modern popular doctrine of the Trinity . . . derives no support from the language of Justin [Martyr]: and this observation may be extended to all the ante-Nicene Fathers; that is, to all Christian writers for three centuries after the birth of Christ. It is true, they speak of the Father, Son, and . . . holy Spirit, but not as co-equal, not as one numerical essence, not as Three in One, in any sense now admitted by Trinitarians. The very reverse is the fact.”
Thus, the testimony of the Bible and of history makes clear that the Trinity was unknown throughout Biblical times and for several centuries thereafter.