The Reclaiming the Mind Ministries staff will be responding to all comments allowing David and Rob the time to focus on their debate. If you wish to post questions and/or comments directly to them please wait until the open Q&A time following Part 6.
Once again, I wish to express my gratitude to David Burke for his willingness to invest his time and energy in this important debate. In my opening statement, I will explain the assumptions I bring to the subject regarding Scripture and the nature of God. Along the way, I will address certain a priori objections to the doctrine of the Trinity that non-Trinitarians commonly raise.
Before proceeding, I should briefly define the position I will be defending in this debate. The doctrine of the Trinity is that doctrine that affirms that there is one God, the LORD (YHWH, Jehovah), a single divine being who exists eternally in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This doctrine of the Trinity is a conceptual framework or system for affirming the following six core propositions drawn from the Bible:
1. There is one (true, living) God, identified as the Creator.
2. This one God is the one divine being called YHWH (or Jehovah, the LORD) in the Old Testament.
3. The Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is God, the LORD.
4. The Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is God, the LORD.
5. The Holy Spirit is God, the LORD.
6. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each someone other than the other two.
In this debate, I will be seeking to defend the doctrine of the Trinity by showing that each of these six propositions is taught in the Bible.
Authority of Scripture
As a conservative evangelical Protestant, I firmly hold to the full inspiration of the Bible, specifically the 66 books of the Protestant canon of Scripture. My understanding of biblical inspiration and authority is classically evangelical. The first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Of the Holy Scripture” (1646), remains an exemplary statement of the Protestant understanding of Scripture. More recently, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) gives an excellent, representative definition and exposition of the evangelical view of the nature of Scripture. While neither of these statements is itself inspired or inerrant, I refer to them as superb expressions of the evangelical view of Scripture that I heartily endorse. These confessions, along with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982), also provide excellent statements about the proper approach to the interpretation of Scripture. Due to limitations of space, I will postpone some of my comments about hermeneutics until later parts of the debate as the relevant hermeneutical issues arise. Two excellent textbooks on biblical hermeneutics are Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral (2006) and Interpreting the New Testament Text, edited by Darrell Bock and Buist Fanning (2006).
Evangelicals commonly refer to their view of Scripture using the Reformation slogan sola scriptura. While I rally behind this slogan along with my fellow evangelicals, we need to distinguish between sola scriptura and what some people call Biblicism, or perhaps we could call it hyper-Biblicism. Biblicism radicalizes sola scriptura in a way that goes beyond the view that all doctrine must be biblically grounded to the view that all doctrine must be spelled out explicitly in the Bible. There are two issues here that I wish to address in some detail.
Using Words Not Found in the Bible
Biblicism sometimes takes the form of maintaining that we may only express biblical truths using biblical terminology. Of course, this is a common a priori objection to the doctrine of the Trinity. There are several problems with the claim.
First, the restriction against using extrabiblical words is itself not taught in Scripture. The Bible never states that in expressing doctrine or theology we must restrict ourselves to using words found in the Bible. The closest the Bible comes to making such a statement would be Paul’s injunction to Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13 ESV). Here Paul refers Timothy to his “sound words” as a pattern or example of good teaching. Paul did not mean that Timothy was to use only the words that he heard Paul use. If he had, this might have precluded Timothy from using words found in other parts of the Bible that did not happen to be in Paul’s vocabulary!
Second, taken literally the restriction against using extrabiblical words would require us all to speak in Hebrew or Greek. If we may only use biblical words to speak about doctrinal matters, then we must use only words in Hebrew or Greek (or those Aramaic words that happen to be in the Bible). Not only is this patently absurd, but we have clear biblical precedent against any such restriction in the miracle at Pentecost, when the disciples spoke about God’s works to the people in Jerusalem in over a dozen different languages (Acts 2:5-11).
Third, non-Trinitarians typically use extrabiblical terminology to articulate their positions. For example, the terms Bible, biblical, and extrabiblical are all extrabiblical! So is the term Unitarian, although it is built on the word unity, which the Bible does use (though not in the context of the nature of God or in reference to the issue under dispute). Anthony Buzzard, a noted advocate of biblical Unitarianism, uses the term unipersonal to describe God (e.g., Doctrine of the Trinity, 15), even though this word is not in the Bible. He also describes Jesus as God’s “agent” or “representative” (43-46), terms that the Bible never applies to Jesus. Kermit Zarley (aka Servetus the Evangelical) dubs his position “exclusive God-in-Christ Christology” and describes it as a “functional” Christology (Restitution of Jesus Christ, xii).
Fourth, using different words to express and correlate ideas is a necessary part of learning. Hopefully, all of us remember being taught in school to express ideas in our own words. If we merely repeat biblical words, phrases, or statements without expressing their meaning in words that address disputed issues, we will do nothing to show that we have understood what we are repeating. If I say, “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God,” what do you know about my beliefs? You would know precious little, beyond the fact that I believe in some sort of God. I might mean that Jesus is a highly advanced extraterrestrial, or the literal offspring of Heavenly Father and Mary, or a man who manifested the cosmic dimension called the Son of God, or the first angel God created, or a man elevated to semi-divine status after his death and resurrection, or the eternal Second Person of the Trinity.
Using Concepts or Formulations Not Explicit in the Bible
A somewhat more subtle, if still a priori, objection to the doctrine of the Trinity is that the concept or formulation of the doctrine is not biblical. The argument runs as follows: The non-Trinitarian points out that Trinitarian scholars routinely acknowledge that the Bible does not teach the formal, systematic doctrine of the Trinity; that the concept of the Trinity is nowhere explicit in Scripture; that the biblical writers did not themselves think of God as triune or conceptualize God as triune; and so forth. The non-Trinitarian, aghast that such scholars would continue to adhere to a doctrine they admit they cannot find in the Bible, and commending them for their “candor,” concludes that tradition, creed, or ecclesiastical authority has evidently trumped Scripture for Trinitarians.
This objection also fails, for reasons similar to those mentioned above regarding the objection against using extrabiblical terminology. All non-Trinitarians adhere to some concepts or formulations that are not explicit anywhere in the Bible.
For example, the concept of two “canons” of Scripture, the Old Testament and the New Testament, is not formally, explicitly, or directly presented anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, many scholars argue that the very concept of “canonicity” is something that developed in the postbiblical era. I think that claim is debatable, but what is beyond debate is that the division of Scripture into the Old and New Testaments is not a concept explicit in the Bible.
Specific concepts that non-Trinitarians present in opposition to the doctrine of the Trinity also are typically not explicit in the Bible. For example, no biblical writer sets forth the distinction that Biblical Unitarians make between “the Holy Spirit” as another name for God the Father and “holy spirit” as the impersonal spiritual power of divine nature that God gives to believers (see “The Giver and the Gift”). There may or may not be something to this conceptual distinction, but it is at best an inference, not something that any biblical writer sets forth explicitly.
Systematic theology is an intellectual activity or discipline that seeks to answer specific questions that arise from the reading of Scripture. The Bible may not answer these questions explicitly, but it may provide information or statements from which the theologian infers an answer. Did God create the world ex nihilo (out of nothing), ex Deo (from God’s own being), or ex materia (from preexisting matter)? The Bible does not answer this question explicitly, but the question, once asked, is unavoidable. The theologian does his best to answer it in a way most faithful to the teaching that the Bible does present. What is the relationship between the second coming of Christ and the thousand-year period mentioned in Revelation 20? One may adhere to amillennialism, premillennialism, or postmillennialism, but none of these is set forth explicitly in the Bible. Some of these questions are more important than others, but the point is that such questions are extremely common in theology and no serious student of Christian doctrine can or should avoid them altogether.
The Westminster Confession of Faith articulates the principle I am defending here:
“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: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men” (WCF 1.6, emphasis added).
Again, the Bible, not this or any other confession, is the authority, but the above statement nicely expresses the historic evangelical Protestant understanding of the authority of Scripture. It realistically and faithfully recognizes that the authority of Scripture is such that not only what it explicitly states, but also what logically follows from what it states, is true and important for believers to know and accept.
In short, sola scriptura means that all doctrine must derive from the teachings of Scripture, not that we are restricted to using words found in the Bible or to using concepts that one or more biblical writers explicitly formulated.
The Nature of God
I accept a classically orthodox Christian understanding of the nature and attributes of God. There are many excellent systematic theology textbooks that discuss these attributes of God, such as Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology (1998) and Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (1994). On the doctrine of God specifically, see especially John Feinberg’s No One Like Him (2001) and John Frame’s Doctrine of God (2002). There are some minor differences between Feinberg and Frame (e.g., Feinberg holds to a linear everlasting understanding of God’s relation to time, while Frame holds to divine “omnitemporality,” which is closer to the classic “timelessness” view). Nevertheless, both are excellent textbooks on the subject, carefully examining what the Bible says in constructive engagement with other theologians. Among older, popular works that I have found personally helpful, I should mention Arthur W. Pink’s The Attributes of God (Baker, 1975) and A. W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy (Harper, 1961).
The Oneness and Uniqueness of God
A couple of the divine attributes bear closer examination due to their importance for our subject. One of these is the uniqueness of God. The Bible states explicitly, in both Testaments, that there is only one God. It says this in several ways. In the Hebrew Bible, it states that there is one EL and one ELOHIM, that there is no other EL or ELOHIM besides YHWH (Jehovah), and so forth. The New Testament states that there is one theos, or only one true theos.
The Jewish creed, classically, is the statement in Deuteronomy called the Shema (“Hear”), which says, “Hear, O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH one” (Deut. 6:4), or, as most English translations today read, “the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (ESV, JPS, NIV, NKJV; NASB is similar). This verse tells us, first, that Israel has one God, namely, Jehovah. This God, Jehovah, is “one.” The sense in which Jehovah is “one” is not specified, at least not explicitly in this sentence. It could mean that there is only one deity or divine being named Jehovah. It might mean that Jehovah is a single being (which amounts to the same thing). It also might mean that Jehovah, as Israel’s God, is to occupy the first, primary, most important place in their lives. As we might put it in idiomatic English, “Jehovah is the One” or even “Jehovah is Number One!” This connotation actually has support in the immediate context, as the very next sentence says, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). Loving Jehovah their God with all of their being was another way of saying that Jehovah was “Number One” for the Israelites.
These different nuances or connotations in the way we might read the Shema are all consistent with one another, of course. They are also consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity as well as with Unitarian forms of non-Trinitarian theology. That the Shema is consistent with Unitarianism is obvious. That it is consistent with Trinitarianism is also obvious to anyone who bothers to understand Trinitarian theology correctly. The doctrine of the Trinity maintains that Jehovah is one Jehovah, one God, one divine being. There are not three Jehovahs, or three Gods, or three divine beings. Mormons regard the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three Gods, but Trinitarians do not. We affirm and believe that there is only one God, known in the Hebrew Bible as YHWH, and that this Lord God is one eternal divine being.
The fact is that Deuteronomy 6:4 does not address the issue of whether Jehovah is a “unipersonal” or “triune” being. It is just as much a mistake to read into the Hebrew echad that Jehovah is unipersonal (as all non-Trinitarians I have read do) as it is to read into it that Jehovah is a “composite unity” (as some Trinitarians have fallaciously argued). The word echad is the common, garden-variety, ordinary Hebrew word for the cardinal number “one” (1). It occurs hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible and just means “one,” period. It does not specify one what; in what sense Jehovah is “one” we must learn from the context or from other statements. The word is consistent with Jehovah as a unipersonal being or as a triune being. Yet critics of the doctrine of the Trinity often lean hard on this statement as supposedly an obvious disproof of the Trinity.
Consider Anthony Buzzard’s two books on the subject, The Doctrine of the Trinity (with Charles Hunting, 1998) and Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian (Restoration Fellowship, 2007). Buzzard and Hunting cite Deuteronomy 6:4 or Jesus’ citation of that text in Mark 12:29 on some 22 pages of their book. In Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian, Buzzard cites these texts on at least 66 pages—about once every seven pages. Buzzard offers four arguments in connection with the Shema in support of his conclusion that it teaches that God is unipersonal.
(1) This is how Jews historically, both in Jesus’ day and to this day, understand the Shema. Indeed; but this is a historical argument, not an exegetical one. What if the understanding in Judaism is incomplete or imperfect at this point? Buzzard also states the point this way: No one, having only the Shema, would ever have arrived at a Trinitarian understanding of God. Again, true enough; but so what? It is completely unnecessary for Trinitarians to try to extract the full doctrine of the Trinity from the Shema alone. The Shema may establish one core element of the doctrine of the Trinity—that there is only one Jehovah—without establishing the rest of the doctrine.
(2) The efforts of some Trinitarian apologists to argue that the word echad means a composite unity, or that the plural form for “God” (elohim) implies a plurality of divine persons, are linguistically fallacious. I would agree; but this negative result does not establish Buzzard’s position that the text means that God is unipersonal.
(3) Other texts in the Bible use the Hebrew word echad or the Greek word heis in the context of speaking of a human being as one person (e.g., Lev. 4:27; 14:10; Josh. 23:10; Mark 14:20, 69; Rom. 9:20). Well, we know this because we know that each and every human being is one and only one person. This has nothing to do with the meaning of the words for “one,” which is simply one, and leaves undetermined whether the one Lord God is in fact unipersonal. These other texts do not tell us in what sense the Shema means that Jehovah is “one.”
(4) Galatians 3:20 states that “God is one” in a way that Buzzard claims indicates that he is one person. Translating literally, Paul writes, “Now the mediator is not of one; but God is one.” Buzzard likes the Amplified Bible’s paraphrase: “There can be no mediator with just one person. But God is only one person” (Buzzard, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian, 314-15). But this is not what Paul wrote or meant. His point is that a mediator always mediates between two parties, or two sides, in an agreement, whereas God is only one party to the agreement. Hence translations like the following: “Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one” (Gal. 3:20 NRSV; NIV and NASB are similar). The other “party” to this agreement, by the way, was Abraham and his offspring (vv. 16-19). So the number of persons in each “party” to the agreement is not indicated by the word “one” (heis).
I could discuss other proof texts that Biblical Unitarians and other non-Trinitarians cite as proof that God is a unipersonal being, but the result will be the same in each case: such texts typically prove that God is a single being but do not address the specific Trinitarian claim that God is a unipersonal being. Non-Trinitarians typically argue, for example, that it is obvious from the pervasive use of singular pronouns for God (I, he, him, his, you [sing.]) throughout the Bible that God is only one person. This argument would be sound if by “person” we meant an individual being. However, in Trinitarian theology, a divine “person” is not an individual being, because God is one being, not three. The doctrine of the Trinity cannot be refuted by assuming that it is false; and this is what non-Trinitarians do when they assume that a person can only be an individual being.
That God is a single divine being, revealed in the Old Testament as YHWH, and that YHWH alone is God, is basic and fundamental to the doctrine of the Trinity. These are core affirmations that the doctrine seeks to uphold. While Biblical Unitarians agree with these affirmations, other non-Trinitarians do not, which is why, for example, my Outline Study on the Trinity has two lengthy sections defending these affirmations. It is simply a mistake to argue against the Trinity as if it were teaching three divine beings or three Gods, or as if it did not adhere to the truth that the LORD alone is God. Monotheism is fundamental and essential to the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Incomprehensibility of God
Another attribute of God that merits close attention here is God’s incomprehensibility. In orthodox Christian theology, this term is a technical term denoting the idea that God’s being is in some ways beyond human ability to understand completely or comprehensively. It does not mean that we cannot know God, or that we cannot know some things about God, but that our knowledge of God is always partial. Furthermore, it means that some of the truths about God that we know from his self-revelation in Scripture are beyond our capacity to analyze or correlate completely. We can know that these things are true, but we find ourselves at a loss to explain them completely or to understand how all of these truths correlate with each other and with what we know about the world.
The Bible itself proclaims that God is beyond our comprehension. In a broader sense, in fact, the Bible warns us that all of our knowledge, at least in this mortal life, is incomplete, partial, and even tenuous. “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Cor. 8:2-3 ESV). “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12 ESV). This last text does not mean that we shall ever be omniscient, but it does emphasize that our knowledge falls woefully short of the full knowledge that we will have in the consummation.
There are two reasons (at least) that God is beyond our comprehension. The first is that God is unique. As the Creator of the world, there is nothing in this world to which we can compare God or liken him that adequately exemplifies what it means to be God (see Isa. 40:18, 25). This is why analogies for the Trinity always fall short, by the way (and why I generally avoid them). Not only do such analogies not prove the Trinity, they can never adequately illustrate or exemplify the Trinity because nothing in nature is “triune.” Every attribute of God, indeed, is unique in some respect, because God is unique. Omnipotence, for example, is not just God’s possession of quantitatively more power than anyone else has. It is his attribute of transcending all limitations of power by virtue of his unique identity as the Creator, the source of all power.
The second, related reason that God is incomprehensible is that God is infinite. By “infinite,” I do not mean that God is a numerical or quantitative infinity, but that God qualitatively transcends the finite limitations of created existence. Orthodox Christian theology affirms that God is in some way transcendent with respect to space, time, energy, and information. With respect to space, God’s transcendence is such that his being fills and exceeds all space (what theologians call his immensity) and he is personally present everywhere simultaneously (omnipresence). With respect to time, God’s transcendence is such that he is the only eternal being, having no beginning to his existence (however this is understood). With respect to energy, God transcends all limitations of power because as the Creator he is the source of all power (omnipotence). With respect to information, God is the transcendent source of all of the information in the cosmos and so of course knows all things (omniscience).
The Bible does not articulate these attributes in a formal, systematic way, as I have done here. However, it does speak of God in ways that clearly support the doctrines of divine immensity and omnipresence (Gen. 28:15; 1 Kings 8:27; Ps. 139:7-10; Isa. 66:1-2; John 4:20-24; Acts 17:28), eternity (Ps. 90:2; 102:25-27; Rom. 1:20; 1 Tim. 1:17), omnipotence (Gen. 18:14; 2 Chron. 20:6; Job 42:2; Isa. 14:27; 55:11; Jer. 32:17, 27; Dan. 4:35; Matt. 19:26; Luke 1:37), and omniscience (1 Kings 8:39; Ps. 139:1-4; 147:5; Isa. 46:9-10; 55:8-9; Matt. 10:30; Heb. 4:12; 1 John 3:20).
Many people are so comfortable with these theological affirmations that they do not realize that they attest to the incomprehensibility of God. How can God’s being to exceed the bounds of the entire cosmos and yet to be personally present everywhere at once? It seems contradictory to assert that God existed (exists?) before the universe began to exist: how can something exist before physical time began? But if there is no “before” the beginning, then didn’t God’s existence “begin” at the beginning as well? How can God know something that hasn’t happened yet? The questions easily multiply. On the basis of such questions, some people either abandon the classical Christian conception of God altogether, try to revise it in order to resolve the logical difficulties, or even claim that the very concept of God is irrational. However, orthodox Christians affirm these attributes because they find that Scripture teaches them—that this is what God reveals about himself. We are prepared to accept truths about God that Scripture reveals (explicitly or implicitly) even though these truths are often beyond our ability to comprehend fully or to penetrate logically. They are not illogical, but they transcend our ability to provide a perfectly logical analysis of them that leaves nothing unexplained or correlated.
In an online article, Biblical Unitarian author Don Snedeker quotes the following statement from a book on the Trinity that I published over twenty years ago: “Trinitarians are willing to live with a God they cannot fully comprehend” (Why You Should Believe in the Trinity, 138). (It isn’t clear that Snedeker has actually read the book, since he quotes this sentence from the book’s back cover.) Snedeker then comments:
So are Unitarians, and we do every day. The debate is not whether or not God is fully comprehensible under either system of beliefs. The debate is whether or not Trinitarians have reasonably made the leap from God being one to Him being three-in-one…. It is one thing for us not to comprehend something we do not fully understand…. However, it is quite another thing for it to be impossible to know something to be true. This latter case arises when contradictory assertions are made about the same thing. For example, on the trinitarian hypothesis God is said to be both three and one, which is a proposition that cannot be predicated of the same being. Hence it must be false. The way in which we use language and words disqualifies such a statement from being true. Something is either three or one, but not both. Since in trinitarian theology no reasonable qualifications of the predicates three and one are offered, the proposition about God being both is rightly rejected.
The type of accusation that Snedeker makes here is one that many critics have made against the classical Christian attributes of God, such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. Critics allege that these attributes lead to logical inconsistencies and therefore cannot be true. I disagree. The divine attributes, as well as the triunity of God, lead to logical difficulties but not to genuine logical contradictions.
Snedeker claims that Trinitarianism offers no “reasonable qualifications of the predicates three and one.” The qualification “reasonable” is the slippery term in this criticism. Trinitarianism does offer qualifications of these predicates: God is one God, one divine being, but three persons (with the term person stipulated to be used with a somewhat different connotation as compared to its use for human beings). Given this qualification, the doctrine may be metaphysically difficult or problematic, but it is not a simple logical contradiction.
By no means am I arguing that people should simply accept the Trinity on my say-so and not ask any difficult questions. I am not using “mystery” (a term I normally do not even use in this context) as a catch-all explanation or a smokescreen. Whatever we can understand of God’s revelation in Scripture, we should make every effort to understand. But approaches to Scripture that a priori disallow all mystery, paradox, or incomprehensibility are just as illegitimate as approaches that impose mystery or paradox where there is none. Logic is a set of tools for discovering truth, not a set of rules for dictating truth. We should use reason to clarify what the biblical texts say, not to dictate to them what they can and cannot say.
I am concerned here only to plead that non-Trinitarians not dismiss the doctrine of the Trinity, or any other doctrine, merely because it is difficult to understand. In the context of this debate, I am anticipating and arguing against a priori objections that amount to saying that the Trinity cannot be true regardless of what the Bible may say. And that is precisely what Snedeker’s objection is. He is arguing that the Trinity “must be false” by definition. Such a claim really is a way of shutting the door on any inquiry into whether the Bible might teach such a doctrine. There is no reason to examine the texts if one has already decided that the doctrine in question is false by definition. Indeed, the presupposition that the Bible cannot teach anything that is not susceptible to our logical analysis will (ironically) lead us to interpret individual texts unreasonably—to force them to conform to what we have a priori decided is possible. Let us not go that way. Instead, let us examine the Bible with an open mind, even though it may lead to a God who is beyond our ability to comprehend or analyze logically. He might just be the real God.