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Is the doctrine of the Trinity biblical? Well, that depends on what you mean when you say “biblical.” Does the Bible anywhere contain anything like the Nicene Creed? No. Does the Bible anywhere present a systematic statement of the doctrine of the Trinity using technical theological terms such as homoousios or hypostasis? No. So, if this is what is required in order for the doctrine of the Trinity to be biblical, then no, the doctrine isn’t biblical. But this is not what is required for a doctrine to be biblical.
The Westminster Confession of Faith explains, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (1.6). The doctrine of the Trinity is not expressly set down in Scripture in the technical sense described above, but it is certainly a “good and necessary consequence” of what is expressly set down in Scripture. So, what does Scripture expressly teach?
First, Scripture expressly teaches that there is only one God. There is very little controversy about this proposition among those who accept the authority of Scripture. Almost every page of Scripture testifies to the truth that there is one and only one God. Deuteronomy 4:35 is representative when it says, “To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him” (see also Deut. 4:39; 32:39; Isa. 43:10; 44:6–8). The polytheism and idolatry of the nations surrounding Israel are strongly condemned on the grounds that Yahweh is God and that there is no other (Isa. 44:6–20).
Second, Scripture expressly teaches that the Father is God. This claim is also relatively noncontroversial in the history of the church. Jesus speaks of “God the Father” (e.g., John 6:27). Paul speaks numerous times of “God our Father” and “God the Father” (e.g., Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 8:6; 15:24; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:1, 3; Eph. 1:2; 5:20; 6:23; Phil. 1:2; 2:11; Col. 1:2; 3:17; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1, 2; 2:16; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philem. 3). So, Scripture is clear that there is one God and that the Father is God.
Third, Scripture expressly teaches that the Son is God. If all that Scripture taught were that there is one God and that the Father is God, there would be little difficulty. A Christian could easily conclude that in the Old Testament this one God was spoken of as Yahweh and in the New Testament He is revealed to be the Father. Things become more complicated, however, because of what the Scripture expressly teaches about the Son, about Jesus the Messiah.
Scripture explicitly identifies the Son as God. In the prologue to the gospel of John, for example, we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Here, the “Word” is identified as God (“was God”) and at the same time distinguished from God (“with God”). Who is this “Word”? Verse 14 reveals the answer: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The Word is Jesus the Son.
There are many other ways that Jesus is identified as God by the authors of Scripture. He is, for example, identified as the one the Old Testament speaks of as Yahweh. One example must suffice. The gospel of Mark begins with a quotation of Isaiah 40:3. In the original prophecy, Isaiah is comforting the people with a promise that one day Yahweh will come to Israel. They are told to “prepare the way of the Lord.” The word “Lord” here is a translation of the Hebrew name Yahweh. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is the One who fulfills this prophecy. John the Baptist prepares the way of the Lord Jesus, who comes to Israel. Jesus is thus identified as Yahweh, who has now come to Israel as He promised.
It is also significant that throughout the New Testament, words, deeds, and properties are attributed to Jesus that are properly predicated only of one who is God. He is worshiped (Matt. 2:2). He encourages His disciples to pray to Him (John 14:14). He forgives sin (Matt. 9:1–8; Mark 2:1–12; Luke 5:17–26). He is the Creator (John 1:3; Col. 1:16). He sustains all created things (Col. 1:17). He is sovereign over nature (Matt. 8:23–27). He will be the judge on the last day (John 5:22; Acts 10:42). Scripture could not affirm these things to be true of the Son if the Son were not God.
Fourth, Scripture expressly teaches that the Holy Spirit is God. This claim has been disputed by heretics just as much as the claim that the Son is God, but the authoritative Word of Scripture is our standard, and what it teaches is the basis for our faith. Many Christians are aware of the way in which the Holy Spirit is identified with God in Acts 5:3–4, where lying to the Holy Spirit is equated with lying to God, but some Christians incorrectly believe that this passage is the only biblical evidence for the deity of the Holy Spirit. It is not. Space constraints prevent a full discussion of every relevant passage, but a few may be noted.
Compare, for example, Isaiah 6:8–10 with Acts 28:25–27. Isaiah presents a statement by Yahweh in his prophecy. In Acts, Paul attributes the statement to the Holy Spirit. In other words, what Yahweh said is what the Holy Spirit said. We see something similar by comparing Psalm 95:7–11 with Hebrews 3:7–11. What Yahweh says in Psalm 95, the author of Hebrews attributes to the Holy Spirit.
Fifth, Scripture expressly teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinguished. If all we had in Scripture were the first four teachings, we might come to the conclusion that they could be understood as teaching that there is one God and that this one God sometimes manifests Himself as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and sometimes as the Holy Spirit. This solution is ruled out, however, because in addition to providing the previous four teachings, Scripture also distinguishes the three in such a way that each person is not the other even though each person is God.
Scripture clearly distinguishes the Father from the Son. The Father sent the Son (John 3:16–17; Gal. 4:4). The Father and Son love each other (John 3:35; 5:20; 14:31). They speak to each other (John 11:41–42). They know each other (Matt. 11:27). The Son is our Advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1). None of these texts makes any sense unless the Father is distinguished from the Son.
Scripture also clearly distinguishes the Son from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit descends upon the Son at His baptism (Luke 3:22). The Holy Spirit is another Comforter (John 14:16). The Son sends the Holy Spirit (15:26; 16:7). The Holy Spirit glorifies the Son (16:13–14). Finally, Scripture distinguishes the Father from the Holy Spirit. The Father sends the Holy Spirit (14:15; 15:26). The Holy Spirit is said to intercede with the Father (Rom. 8:26–27). All three are distinguished in numerous passages, but the most familiar one is part of Jesus’ Great Commission when He commands the disciples to baptize the nations “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
The theological question, then, is this: how must we understand God in order for everything Scripture expressly teaches to be true? In other words, what is the good and necessary consequence of these express teachings? Every early Trinitarian heresy failed to do justice to one or more of these teachings. Tritheism1 failed to take into account the express teaching that there is only one God. Modalism failed to take into account that the three persons are distinguished. Arianism failed to take into account that the Son is God and not merely a god. And so on. In order to answer these false doctrines and in order to explain the truth, the church worked out the good and necessary consequences of the express teachings of Scripture taking into account everything Scripture teaches. The church also used technical terms to do this. It had no choice since the heretics often insisted on using only biblical words so that they could disguise their false doctrine more easily.
The result of the efforts of the early church was and is the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine is stated concisely in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed2 (commonly referred to as the Nicene Creed), but the theologians of the church have also explained it in more detail in many theological works from Augustine’s De Trinitate to Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae to John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and beyond. All of them have explained the good and necessary consequences of the teachings of Scripture.
So, is the doctrine of the Trinity biblical? Beyond a doubt.
- Tritheism is a Trinitarian heresy that denies the single essence of the Godhead, instead arguing that there are three divine essences—three individual gods—not one God in three persons. ↩
- Popularly known today as the Nicene Creed, the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed confesses the full deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It was produced by the Council of Constantinople (AD 381), building on the work of the Council of Nicaea (AD 325), and is commonly confessed by orthodox Christians from all theological traditions. ↩︎