Let's Talk about.... the "Trinity"

The Old Testament Data

Over the past few months, I have gotten several survey forms and letters concerning the Judeo-Christian understanding of the Trinity. Some of these letters were from dear Jewish-Christians SO TROUBLED by the doctrine that they were considering returning to Judaism. Some felt the teaching was simply 'non-sensical'; others were deeply disturbed by the notion of calling the man Jesus by the name "God"--that the messiah was to be human, and NOT divine; still others that it is thinly-disguised polytheisim.

I decided to write this piece in response to these questions and concerns (mainly the latter one), for of ALL the 'strange' teachings of the Judeo-Christian faith, the Trinity ranks WAY UP THERE in 'strangeness' perhaps.

I have thought a reasonable amount about the Trinity over my life, and have re-evaluated its basis any number of times--as honestly as I could at those points in my Christian experience. I still ALWAYS come up with the intellectual conviction that God has multiple, real, independent persons within Him. There are certain 'stubborn' data points that I just cannot EXPLAIN any other way, than by the plurality of persons within a unitary ultimate agent.

What may surprise you is that the OLD TESTAMENT is the source of the STRONGEST evidence for this plurality within God! The New Testament provides clearer data about the persons, perhaps, but the OT has more 'stubborn' passages for our evaluation. If my assessment is correct in this regards, then JUDAISM has the SAME "PROBLEM" that Christianity has, and correspondingly, is NO ESCAPE from that 'problem'!

What I want to lay out here is the way I approach the problem, the data I find--both PRO and CON, why humans might have such a problem with it, some philosophical/theological musings on it, and then an examination of my own day-to-day experience of that plurality-in-unity.

First, let me start with my basic understanding of what the concept of "Trinity" is.

In simplest terms, it is that there are three Persons who can accurately be called 'the One God'. The early church would convene 'thinktanks' (e.g. councils, although some of them were apparently more akin to political circuses!) to come up with better notions, and ended up with "three Persons in one essence", and by this they meant "three Persons in one Being".

"Orthodoxy" maintains this definition. I feel a little uncomfortable with the notions of 'being' and 'essence'--relative to 'person'--so I prefer the notion of 'unit'. So I get "three Persons in one ultimate unit".

A couple of points about this. First, the adjective 'ultimate' is the 'god-word' in this definition. If I had 15,000 persons, each of which was 'ultimate', I would still only have ONE ULTIMATE. (This is the somewhat obtuse philosophical discussion about not being able to have multiple 'ultimates' because then the principle which distinguishes them is MORE ULTIMATE--a nonsensical phrase. For example, this is the objection to ethical dualism--if good and evil are both ultimate, then they are THE SAME--but we KNOW they are NOT and the distinction between them MUST be the 'REAL' ultimate. But I REALLY don't want to get into that tonight! But I will come back to some of the philosophical/theological issues at the end of these discussions.)

So the notion basically says that ALL the 'things' I find that can appropriately and accurately be called "God" or "Ultimate", are 'one in essence' ALREADY--by DEFINITION of 'ultimacy'.

The second point is this: I am not sure we could ever really understand how the "persons" and the "essence/unit" are related--especially in GOD! We don't understand these things in HUMANS, much less God. But then again, we probably don't have to.

And, to be QUITE FRANK, I would expect a "God" to be a bit more complex than everything He created! I would expect SOME overlap, perhaps, say in the notion of 'personality' but for me to say that God COULD NOT have three interior Persons would be VERY intellectually presumptuous (especially for a mortal creature of only 5'10"!) To say that a God who could speak a universe into existence HAS TO BE no more complex in His nature that humans are would be GROUNDLESS speculation of the most ludicrous sort! I think Feuerbach would call it 'making God in OUR image'!

The "net" of this is that:

  1. If the data of revelation calls multiple individuals 'God' (and if I cannot come up with alternative explanations of the textual data) then I am 'stuck' with the problem of the plurality-in-God.
  2. Whether I can construct a theory of how these individuals 'relate' or not, IS IMMATERIAL to the issue of truth.
  3. The lack of appropriate human analogies or models of this plurality-in-unity IS IRRELEVANT to the issue of truth.
  4. As long as I can state the teaching at a 'folk' level (as opposed to a 'scientific' level) on the basis of revealed data, then I can be justified in saying I 'understand' this teaching in a meaningful way. (In other words, just because I do not understand all the issues in sub-atomic physics doesn't mean I don't know how to use molecules to get stuff done.)
Okay...enough background stuff...

Now, let's try a little 'thought experiment'.

Let's make some 'test' ASSUMPTIONS for a moment:

  1. That the Judeo-Christian notion of God as plurality-in-unity IS TRUE.
  2. That all of the 'persons' in the Ultimate are somehow involved in human history
  3. That the activities of these Persons are originally directed to primeval humanity
  4. That the activities of these Persons are later narrowed in primary focus to the special nation of Israel in OT history
  5. And THAT THE RELATIONSHIP between the Persons is NEVER made explicit in the revealed data, perhaps because it is 'beyond' the understanding of humans, or because it is intersubjectively 'understood' by those who experience such a God.
When I put these assumptions together, and ask myself 'what would ancient religious history look like?' IF THIS WERE THE CASE, I immediately understand why the ancient world was uniformly POLYtheistic. Granted that the experience of the ancients with the various and often conflicting forces of nature would suggest to them multiple 'deities' (e.g rain, sun, wind, sea, Nile), the fact that 'pre-ancient' experiences with God might have ALSO been structured by multiple Persons (and passed on through the religious literature of the ancient near east) would make the polytheism that much more natural for them.

So, IF the plurality-in-unity had been experienced somehow by the originals of the race, and somehow passed down in the literature (as it has been), then polytheism would have been MUCH MORE PROBABLE to occur than monotheism. (Naive polytheism is much more easy to believe that a 'plurality-in-unity' monotheism!)

This is interesting, of course, but the real data will have to come (for the Judeo-Christian) from the recorded words and acts of this God's actions in history--the Bible.

So, if our ASSUMPTIONS were true, what would we expect to find in the Old Testament?

Quite simply, we would expect to find passages:

  1. In which different persons were called "God" appropriately and without censure(Type 1)
  2. In which these different persons might address ANOTHER of the Persons as "God"(Type 2)
  3. In which the two situations above occur without the "god" word, but with the presence of some action and/or attribute that is ONLY ascribed to God.(Type 3)
This is exactly what we find in the Old Testament! Let's look at some of the Persons/passages.

First, let's consider The Angel of YHWH--The Angel of the Lord.

Summary: The Angel of the LORD is both God and yet refers to someone else as God. (If we don't believe there are TWO gods, I think we are 'locked into' developing some kind of plurality-within-unity concept.) This figure is beyond the normal angels and indeed is somehow SPECIALLY linked to the 'being' of God--He is called the angel of "His presence" (Is 63.9) and the angel with God's "Name" in Him (Ex 23:20-23).

NOTICE:These passages ALONE would be enough data to 'force' us to accept the basic concept of multiple agents WITHIN the One God. Once we have broken the conceptual and 'logical' barriers down to plurality-within-unity, the issue THEN would become 'how many persons' in the Godhead? Two, three, ten?

Next, let's consider the Spirit of God.

We can take a different approach with the Spirit of God, simply because the linkage between God and His Spirit is already understood. The Spirit of God is 'part of' God already, so we don't need passages that say that the Spirit of God IS God. Instead, we need to look for any passages that seem to argue that

  1. the Spirit of God is a thinking, feeling, choosing Person --as distinct from just an attitude or orientation or principle of animation (i.e. other notions of 'spirit') (Type A)

  2. the Spirit of God is somehow 'distinct' from God (e.g. God 'sending' His Spirit somewhere) (Type B)

Now, in principle we COULD run across a special problem here, in the areas of figures of speech--especially in those where one part of something can stand for the whole (synecdoche). But in reality, I cannot find a single clear case of this in hundreds of uses of the OT words for spirit! Instead we have a narrow range of uses. Spirit in the OT sometimes meant a 'personality' (e.g. 'spirits'--2 Chrn 18), sometimes meant a 'mood' ("distressed in spirit"--Is 54.6), and sometimes meant a 'vital principle' ("a new spirit in them"--Ez 36.26).

Let's look at some passages that manifest some sort of 'distinction' between God and His Spirit (e.g. sending, putting, withdrawing, giving)--TYPE B's.

Let's look at some passages that demonstrate the personal characteristics of this 'remote Agent' of God--TYPE A passages.

Summary: The Spirit of God seems to be a 'dispatch-able' Agent, who can grieve, teach, give rest, be angry, be rebelled against, etc. He is at the same time a 'part of' God and 'distinct from' God. Plurality-in-unity.

There are other similar passages in the OT that speak of some aspect of God in highly individualized, 'dispatched', and/or personalized manner: His "Presence" (e.g. Ex 33; Is 3.8), His "Name" (e.g. Ex 23:21; 2Chrn 6,7), and His "Glory" (e.g. Ex 16, 40; I Kgs 8). These are generally understood (but not unanimously so) to refer to His Spirit as well.

WHAT IS STRIKING about all this data is that there is NO attempt to 'synthesize' this into a coherent whole--the tension within a strictly monotheistic system is simply NOT addressed. The Israelites don't try to 'wrestle' the concept to the ground, establish a logical schema for it, or even to probe the implications--they simply recognize YHWH in each of those experiences.

(It is interesting to me that the awe of encountering the Angel of YHWH did NOT stop them from engaging in some reflective work. For example, when Jacob wrestles with the Angel of YHWH in Gen 32, he is amazed that he saw 'God face to face, yet my life was spared'. And in Exodus, Moses is consistently warned that if anyone sees YHWH's face, he will die--yet Moses speaks face-to-face with YHWH frequently (cf 33.20 with 33.11). The Angel of YHWH seems to be the One who is always seen face-to-face in history, whereas YHWH Himself is never seen. A plurality-in-unity understanding makes this a little easier to understand, but their early efforts in this area stayed very pragmatic--they were still alive after confronting God!)

What emerges from this cursory study of some OT passages is a concept of a plurality of agents, that are very much God, but still somehow separate agents WITHIN God. So the Angel of YHWH seems to be the main 'external interface' with humans and the Spirit of God seems to be the main 'internal interface' with us. In other words, an Israelite would meet God 'face-to-face' in the Angel, but would be confronted with God INSIDE his thoughts by the Spirit of God.

Pushback time...

Over the years I have learned that the best way for me to stay honest with the text is to try to "shoot down" my own arguments. I try to find weak points in my data and usage thereof, and try to make counter-arguments to them. Here are the 'pushbacks' to my above arguments (cast in the voice of an antagonist.)

One final observation. IF INDEED God is a plurality-in-unity, then two of the strangest phenomena in the OT become understandable:
  1. The use of the plural noun 'elohim' for God, consistently with A SINGULAR VERB.

    This has been generally explained as a 'plural of majesty' or 'singular of intensity' . But all the related ANE cultures use the singular form "El" without a single case of 'elohim'--there are no ANE parallels to support this usage. If this incipient plurality-in-unity was either an implication of religious experience (e.g. "we experience Him as multiple-agents in One God") or simply a revelation, THEN there would be no better way to 'say it' in the text than elohim(plural)+verb(singular)! (see TWOT, s.v. 'elohim')

  2. The use of the "composite unity" word for 'one' in the Shema of Deut 6.4-5.

    This is the famous Shema: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one." There are two words for 'one' in Biblical Hebrew: 'ehad (composite unity--one made up of parts) and yahidh (uniqueness-only one of its kind). This verse is sometimes used by groups within the Jewish tradition to asset the numerical unity of God, over against what they perceive as a 'Christian' notion of plurality-in-unity. (Which I have been arguing for hours and hours is a Jewish issue too!). But this verse actually does the opposite. Instead of using yahidh, which MIGHT be of some support to their position, it uses 'EHAD, which lends itself to the plurality position. Consider just two passages in which EHAD is used:

    This composite unity attribution to God would otherwise be just another OT linguistic enigma, but in light of the OT data we have already studied, we can turn it into another OT THEOLOGICAL enigma!--Plurality within Unity!

My main point of this section on the OT is this: the issue of 'trinity' or plurality-within-unity is very much an issue in the OT. Traditional Judaism, which would take these passages in a conservative manner, would have the SAME SIZE 'problem' as Christians would, with respect to monotheism.

[Granted, the NT difficulty of calling a man "God" is a DIFFERENT challenge than calling three 'supernatural' figures (YHWH, Angel of YHWH, Spirit of YHWH) all "God", and THAT issue will be addressed in my analysis of the messianic prophecies. Although strictly speaking, it is just as blasphemous to call a angel 'God' if he is not, as it is to call a man 'God' if he is not. But it is sufficient to the point herein to acknowledge that the TRINITY concept itself is not "escaped" by simply abandoning the Judeo-Christian scriptures in favor of the Judeo- Scriptures only.]

Go to Part Two, Trinity in the NT (not done yet)
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