Is God really a Trinity?
The most universally acknowledged teaching about the nature of God in professing Christianity is the doctrine of the “Trinity.” As shocking as it may seem, this doctrine is not found in the Bible.
What is God really like? Do you know? If you think you do, how can you be sure? Even asking such a question strikes many people as presumptuous. How could we possibly be sure of such answers? they ask. Is not God, by His very nature, unknowable and unfathomable by humans?
While many in the Western world either have vague ideas about God as some “First Cause” or have bought into “New Age” beliefs (most of which really come from Hinduism and Buddhism), there are others who cling to traditional Catholic and Protestant teaching about a triune God—traditionally explained as “one God in three persons.”
Weighing in against the secular humanists and New Agers that increasingly dominate Western culture, Trinitarians view themselves as the “defenders of the faith.” They believe they are defending the Bible against those who undermine its revelation as the source of our knowledge of God. But are they, really? Where did this so-called Christian orthodoxy about God’s nature originate?
God is knowable because He has chosen to make Himself knowable. When Paul was invited by some of the philosophers of Athens to address an audience on Mars’ Hill, he took as his subject the “Unknown God” (Acts 17:23). He explained to his listeners that the God whom they labeled as unknown was the Sovereign Creator and proceeded to tell them about the true God and His plan for mankind. That is why it is so important to understand—from the Bible—what God reveals about Himself. When we understand this, we will gain insight into God’s great plan for mankind. The truth is clearly provable from the Bible—and it will amaze you.
The Origin of the Trinity Doctrine
Orthodox “Christian” teaching about God’s nature is that He is “one God in three persons.” Shocking as it may seem to many, the Bible nowhere teaches the Trinity, even though it is the most widely acknowledged teaching about God in professing “Christianity.” In fact, the word trinity is not even in the Bible. Where, then, did this teaching originate? And how did it come to be so universally believed?
Writing about thirty years after the founding of the first-century Church of God, the youngest of Jesus’ half-brothers (sons of Joseph and Mary), Jude, exhorted his brethren to “contend earnestly” for the faith that was once and for all “delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Clearly, the true Christian way of life had already been revealed prior to Jude’s writing. The Apostle Jude explained that ungodly men had secretly crept into the Church and were already beginning to distort the true teachings that Jesus Christ had delivered to His disciples.
Even Catholic scholars admit that Tertullian (c. 150–225) was the first writer to use the term “trinity.” If this fundamental teaching about the very nature of God is true, why was it not revealed until over 150 years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Why was this teaching not clearly taught and explained by the original disciples of Christ and by the Apostle Paul? As we shall soon see, they taught a very different explanation of the true God’s nature.
In the second and third centuries there was not simply one heresy regarding the nature of God, but many contradictory ones. There seem to have been almost as many different ideas as there were philosophical schools and teachers. Mainstream Catholic thought, from which orthodox Protestant teaching on the subject sprang, merely represents the particular brand of heresy that won out over its competitors.
The background of third-century orthodoxy on the subject of the Trinity is to be found not in the Bible, but in Greek philosophical writings. The Roman Catholic New Dictionary of Theology makes a number of frank admissions in this regard. Concerning the scriptural teaching on the nature of the Holy Spirit, it acknowledges, “As such, the Spirit is never the explicit object of NT worship, nor is the Spirit ever represented in NT discourse as interacting in an interpersonal way with the Father and the Son” (“Trinity,” 1987, p. 1052)
Later in the same dictionary entry, modern Catholic scholars, discussing the background of orthodox teaching on the Trinity, confess pagan influences upon their theology:
Christians… conversant with the then dominant philosophy of middle-Platonism seized the opportunity to proclaim and elucidate the Christian message in a thought form which was meaningful to the educated classes of the widespread Hellenistic society. This movement, which Catholic theology has generally evaluated positively, will have an enormous impact on the development of Christian theology.… Confident that the God they [pagan Greek philosophers] preached was the Father of Jesus Christ and the salvation they proclaimed was that of Jesus, the apologists adapted much of the Hellenic world-view…. [Tertullian made] the first known use of the term “trinity.”…
This concept of “eternal generation” was an adaptation of the middle-Platonic doctrine that the whole world of spiritual beings was eternal. The Son is eternally derived (or generated) from the very being of God and hence is of the Father’s essence, but second to the Father.… Origen, like Tertullian coined a generic term for the “three” of the divine triad. The Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit are “three hypostaseis”.… Origen’s major contribution to the formulation of the trinitarian doctrine is the notion of eternal generation. His generic term for the “three” (hypostases) will be adopted and refined in the fourth century (pp. 1052, 1054).
As we look at the development of “Christian” theology in the late second and early third centuries, the names of Tertullian and Origen keep coming up. Tertullian, called the father of Latin theology, was “one of the most powerful writers of the time, and almost as influential as Augustine in the development of theology in the West” (Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity, p. 77).
Tertullian lived in Carthage, North Africa, and in his later years broke with Rome to become a Montanist. This meant that he accepted the claims of two women who claimed to be prophetesses. They went into ecstatic frenzies and “spoke in tongues,” claiming to be the Paraclete (a term for the Holy Spirit in John’s gospel), and taught a message called the “New Prophecy.”
Origen (c. 180–254) “was the greatest scholar and most prolific author of the early church” (p. 104). About AD 203, Origen succeeded Clement of Alexandria as leader of a famous school that claimed to prepare Christians for baptism and offered courses in philosophy and natural science for the general populace. For all his reputation as a great scholar and teacher of theology, how much did Origen really understand about the meaning and intent of Scripture? According to fourth-century church historian Eusebius, not too long after he took over the school at Alexandria, Origen castrated himself. This was based upon his idea of what Christ meant in Matthew 5:29–30. This same lack of sound-minded understanding of the real meaning and intent of Scripture is shown in much of his theological writings.
Tertullian and Origen were Catholic theologians who flourished in the last part of the second century and the beginning part of the third. Neither of them was even born until well over a century after the founding of the first-century Church of God on the day of Pentecost. They were the ones who laid the foundation of Catholic (and later Protestant) teaching regarding the Trinity and the nature of God—not New Testament Apostles such as Peter, Paul, or John.
The Bible Does Not Teach the Trinity
Having seen that what came to be considered Christian orthodoxy did not originate until long after the writing of the New Testament, notice what the New Testament really does teach. To begin with, we need to examine a couple of passages of Scripture that are sometimes quoted by Trinitarians to lend credence to their teaching.
First, note 1 John 5:7. As given in the text of the New King James Version, this verse reads, “For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.” On the surface, this verse seems to clearly teach the Trinity. However, there is one problem with that: this verse was never in any of the inspired Greek manuscripts. That it originated as a monkish insertion into the Latin text is almost universally admitted by Bible scholars. The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible explains that, during the fourth century controversies about the doctrine of the Trinity, the text was expanded—first in Spain around AD 380, and then in the Vulgate, the official Roman Catholic version written in Latin (p. 939). E.W. Bullinger’s Companion Bible explains in its footnote on the text of 1 John 5:7, “The words are not found in any Gr. MS. [Greek manuscripts] before the sixteenth century. They were first seen in the margin of some Latin copies. Thence they have crept into the text” (p. 1876). The New Bible Commentary: Revised simply states in its comment on that text that “the words are clearly a gloss and are rightly excluded by RSV even from its margins” (p. 1269). Clearly, the early Trinitarian teachers of the Catholic Church were at such a loss to find any biblical substantiation for their teaching that they resorted to simply adding words to the text—quite an admission of the Trinity’s unbiblical nature.
Another section of Scripture that is often turned to in order to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit is a person in the same way that the Father and Christ are is the discourse by Jesus recorded in John 14–15. On the night of His final Passover, Jesus Christ told His disciples that He was going to return to the Father, but that He would not leave them comfortless. Rather, as He went on to explain, He would send them another Comforter or Helper. The term used in the Greek language is paracletos and it is normally used to refer to someone who gives help or support. In the context of John 14 it clearly refers to the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised to send to His disciples after He had ascended back to the Father.
Many have assumed that the Holy Spirit should be considered a person of the Trinity because the pronoun he is used in these verses. However, the Greek language, along with many other languages, routinely assigns gender to nouns. The gender of a noun is fixed and has little or nothing to do with either sex or personhood. For instance, the Greek noun for “little girl” is neuter while the word for “hand” is feminine—whether or not it refers to part of a woman’s body. The pronoun used—he, she, or it—must always agree with the noun to which it refers (see The Language of the New Testament by Eugene Van Ness Goetchius, 1965, pp. 33–34). In Greek, the noun pneuma, translated as “spirit,” is neuter and always takes a neuter pronoun such as it, while paracletos is masculine and demands a masculine pronoun. The pronoun used has nothing whatsoever to do with proving personhood.
In John 14:16–20, Jesus emphasized that after His departure to be with the Father, the disciples would not simply be abandoned. Rather, through the power of the Holy Spirit, He and the Father would dwell inside true Christians (vv. 20, 23). The Holy Spirit imparts both understanding and strength. It flows out from God and connects our minds to His. It is not some separate and distinct personality of a trinity; rather, it is the means by which Christ and the Father make their presence felt in the hearts and minds of believers.
The Holy Spirit is God’s out-flowing power (Luke 1:35). It is the means by which He created and brought into existence the very universe (Psalm 104:30). It is the power by which He works in the minds of human beings, who are made in His image (Genesis 6:3). It is also the power by which the lame miraculously walked, the blind saw, the deaf heard, and the dead were raised from their graves during the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ (Luke 5:15–17).
There are various comparisons to the Holy Spirit that are drawn in the Bible. Primarily, the Spirit is compared to wind. After all, the Greek word for spirit, pneuma, means “wind” or “breath.” In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word translated “spirit” is ruach and has the same meaning as the Greek pneuma.
Another common analogy is that of flowing water (cf. John 7:38–39). Just as air and water are necessary life-giving forces, so the Holy Spirit is the source of eternal life for Christians (Romans 8:11). Also, just as air and water both flow and have power to affect and change that with which they come in contact, so also does the Holy Spirit.
God offers us His Spirit for a purpose. It is the means by which we come to share in God’s power, His attitude, and His thinking. God’s Spirit is intended to transform our lives by renewing our minds (Titus 3:5; Romans 12:2). We become a new creation because God is changing us by writing His laws in our hearts and minds (Hebrews 8:10).
While the Holy Spirit plays a vital role in accomplishing God’s purpose, it is never described as a person in the same way that the Father and Christ are. For instance, in the opening verse of nearly all of Paul’s epistles, there is a greeting similar to one used in Romans 1:7, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon all open with an identical phrase. 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus open with a slightly modified version of it. Additionally, 2 Peter, 2 John, and Jude open with similar phrases. The point is that not one of the books of the New Testament opens with anything even approaching a greeting that links the Holy Spirit with the Father and Christ as a separate and distinct personality.
In the opening chapter of 1 John, the beloved apostle talked about the importance of our fellowship with God and with one another. Notice the way that he expressed it: “and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (v. 3). The Bible nowhere speaks of our having fellowship with the Holy Spirit in the same way that we can have it with the Father and with Christ. Rather, the Holy Spirit flows out from the Father and Christ and is the basis of our connection to God and to one another. It is the means by which Christ lives His life in us (Galatians 2:20).
God Is a Family
Perhaps the most profound truth about the nature of God is that God is a Family. The ultimate destiny of human beings, originally made in the image of God from the dust of the ground, is that they might be converted or changed by an inward spiritual renewal and ultimately reborn into the very Family of God at the resurrection. God is bringing many sons to glory (Hebrews 2:10). Jesus Christ is described as the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29).
In Genesis 1:1, we are told that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Notice what Scripture clearly reveals about God; the Hebrew word for God is Elohim, a word that is plural in form though often singular in usage. A little later, in Genesis 1:26, we learn that God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” Who is the “Us” and the “Our” being referred to?
The answer is clearly given in the New Testament: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1–3). As the Apostle Paul emphasized in Colossians 1:16, “All things were created through Him [Christ] and for Him.” Ultimately, the Word—the One who had existed in the beginning along with the Father—emptied Himself of His great glory and power to become a human being and die for our sins (John 1:14, Philippians 2:7–8). As the Creator, His life was worth more than the sum of all human lives added together.
Christ came to declare—to reveal—the Father (John 1:18). He was totally yielded to and submissive to the Father and gave His life to pay the penalty for sin in our stead. Raised from the dead by the power of the Father, He has been restored to the glory that He shared with the Father since before the world began (John 17:5). He is now seated at the right hand of the Father in Heaven, preparing to return to this earth in power and glory to rule as King of kings and Lord of lords.
But what about those who are now converted and are living their lives led by the Spirit of God? Paul explains in Romans 8:14, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” What is the implication of this? If we are God’s children, that means that we are His heirs, “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (v. 17). Ultimately, God’s children will be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).
God is building a family, and that family takes its name from the Father—it is the Family of God (Ephesians 3:14–15).
The real truth of what God is like and what He is doing goes far beyond anything that most have ever imagined. God is knowable because He has chosen to reveal Himself. He wants you to come to know Him and to build a relationship with Him that will lead to you being part of His very Family forever.
For more information on this vital subject, request our free study guide What Is the Meaning of Life? or read it online at TomorrowsWorld.org.