The Trinity in Biblical Theological Perspective (2)

The Trinity in Biblical Theological Reflection: New Testament Appropriations of Old Testament Evidence 

Three NT passages that are often used to support the doctrine of the Trinity are Matthew 28:19; John 1:1-8; and 1 Corinthians 8:1-6.  They show the New Testament revelation of the Trinity–one God, three persons.  However, as will be evidenced below these passages are not merely New Testament irruptions, rather they find dependence on earlier Old Testament passages.  The point being made then is that while the doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly made in the OT, there are incomplete revelations in the Hebrew Bible that prepare the soul for the Christian revelation of the Triune God.  Let us consider these passages together. 

Matthew 28:19.  The Great Commission is the most explicit Trinitarian verse in the Bible.  While there are other triads,[1] no other passage of Scripture so clearly and concisely delineates the three persons of the Godhead.  It reads, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Here all three members of the Godhead are listed in order and united under a singular name,[2] and as was referenced previously this New Testament postulations depends upon Old Testament revelation, in at least three ways.  In short order, Matthew 28:18-20 has a typological precedent in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23,[3] a literary precursor in the three-fold, baptismal benediction found in the Aaronic blessing (Num. 6:22-26);[4] and a view of the Godhead that corresponds with the eschatological vision in Daniel 7:13-14.[5]  In each of these Old Testament passages there are glimpses of what is fully conceived in Matthew 28:18-20.   More to the point theologically, the significance of God’s name cannot be undervalued.  That the “I am” is now the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, marks a seismic shift in Theology Proper; nonetheless, it is one that was anticipated in the OT (cf. Isa. 7:14; Jer. 23:6; cf. Isa. 43:25 –> Phil. 2:9-11).[6]

John 1:1-18.  John’s prologue is another lucid example of the way OT ideas of Word and Wisdom were taken and applied to Jesus, so that God the Father and God the Son were inseparably united and yet hypostatically distinguished.  Consider John’s use of Genesis 1 as he introduces Jesus as the eternal Word of God—the one in whom “all things were made,” the source of all life, and the light of the world (1:1-5).[7]  That the Word, the Son of God, Jesus Christ is responsible for creation, life, and light is a clear testimony to his uncreated eternality and the fact that he is the unnamed divine agent in the Old Testament.  Köstenberger summarizes, “The prologue’s portrayal of the Word’s creative agency thus establishes an important theme [in John]… While the Word is personally distinct from God, the work he performs is nonetheless nothing but the work of God.”[8]  

Then, using imagery from the revelation on Mt. Sinai, John compares Jesus intimate knowledge of the Father with Moses fiery encounter in Exodus 19-20.  Moses was permitted into God’s presence, but he was disallowed from seeing God’s face, or later entering into his presence (i.e. the promised land).  Alternatively, Jesus Christ, “is in the bosom of the Father” (1:18 NASB).  He is the “one-of-a-kind Son” who alone has seen God and now is explaining him to the world.  In this comparison, Jesus is not a New Moses.  Rather, if the imagery from Sinai holds, he himself is YHWH in the flesh.  So that as Bauckham concludes,

Without contradicting or rejecting any of the existing features of Jewish monotheism, the Fourth Gospel, therefore redefines Jewish monotheism as Christological monotheism….in which the relationship the relationship of Jesus the Son to his Father is integral to the definition of who the one true God is.[9]

1 Corinthians 8:1-6.  Like John, Paul in his letter to the Corinthians expands the static notion of monotheism to include Jesus Christ.  Quoting the shema (Deut. 6:4) in 1 Corinthians 8:4, he argues against idolatry in verse 6 saying, “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”  It is absolutely fascinating to see Paul reject the existence of other (so-called) gods in one verse and then to turn and insert into the singular deity of God two names—God and the Lord Jesus, the Father and the Son.  Certainly, this Christology interpretation was a result of his Dasmascus Road experience with the risen Lord.  Richard Bauckham’s balanced explanation summarizes Paul’s thought process here,

The only possible way to understand Paul as maintaining monotheism is to understand him to be including Jesus in the unique identity of the one God affirmed in the Shema.  But this is, in any case, clear from the fact that the term ‘Lord’, applied here to Jesus as the ‘one Lord’, is taken from the Shema itself.  Paul is not adding to the one God of the Shema a ‘Lord’ whom the Shema affirms to be one.  In this unprecedented reformulation of the Shema, the unique identity of the one God consists of the one God, the Father, and the one Lord, his Messiah (who is implicitly regarded as the Son of the Father).[10]

While it has been argued by some that the semantic range of the word ehad allows for complexity,[11] this is a shocking statement.  Still, it is this kind of OT-dependent reading that best explains how we are to understand the traces of the Trinity in the Old Testament.  For nowhere in the shema is there a negation of a Triune God.  Rather, there is a firm affirmation of God’s unity, which orthodox Trinitarians also hold.  What Paul does in 1 Corinthians 8:6, however, is to unpack the unity of God in the OT in a way that fits with the greater revelation of Jesus as God (cf. Rom. 9:5; Tit. 2:13).  That the Spirit is not present in this passage does not deny the Trinitarian nature of the verse, it simply indicates that like the OT, aspects of the Godhead can be spoken of in isolation, though never upheld ontologically as independent or separate.

These are not the only passages either.  Other relevant Trinitarian passages in the NT that appeal to the OT  include Acts 2:17-21, where Peter quotes the prophecy in Joel to explain the events of Pentecost and the coming of God’s Spirit; Philippians 2:9-11, where Paul applies Isaiah 45:23, which speaks of YHWH, and applies it to Jesus saying God “bestowed on [Jesus] the name that is above every name;”[12] and 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30 and Colossians 2:3 which call Jesus “the wisdom of God,” the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”  Each of these passages develops Old Testament evidences for the Trinity—the coming of the Spirit, the Name of God, and the Wisdom of God. 

And I am sure that there are others.  Can you think of any? 

Sola Deo Gloria, dss


[1] Matt. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6; 1 Pet. 1:2; Jude 20-21; Rev. 1:4-5.

 

[2]  For more on the significance of ordered relationships in the Godhead see Bruce Ware, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, & Relevance.  (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005).

 

[3] G.K. Beale makes this often overlooked connection in The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A biblical theology of the dwelling place of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 169-80.  He writes, “This passage [2 Chron. 36:22-23] has three things in common with Matthew 28:18-20: (1) both Cyrus and Jesus assert authority over all the earth; (2) the commission to ‘go’; and (3) the assurance of divine presence to fulfill the commission…the 2 Chronicles passage would be viewed as a historical event to commission a temple that foreshadowed typologically the much greater event of Jesus’ ‘Great Commision’ to build a greater temple” (176-77).  This observation is very informative for understanding the work of the Trinity expounded in Matthew 28, where the Son is building the temple, the Spirit is indwelling the temple, and ultimately the temple is for God the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19).

 

[4] Viviano cites Luise Abramowski’s research and summarizes her work showing the relationship between the Aaronic blessing, the Nazarite vow, and the rite of baptism.  He writes, “Crucial to her case is the placing or putting of God’s name on the people.  This then links up with baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit” (Viviano, “The Trinity in the Old Testament,” 16). 

 

[5] Craig Blomberg writes, “Jesus’ closing ‘Great Commission’ of his apostles seems to allude to Daniel 7:14.  Jesus whose favorite title for himself throughout the Gospel has been ‘Son of Man,’ is given all authority on heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18), just as the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision received an identical universal authority.  It is even possible that the Trinitarian formula in 28:19 reflects a modification of the triad of Ancient of Days (God the Father), Son of Man (God the Son), and angels as God’s spiritual servants as the implied agents of the Son of Man being led into God’s presence (and thus functioning analogous to the Holy Spirit), also found in Dan. 7:13-14” (“Matthew” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D.A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 100.

 

[6] For more on the names of God see John Frame, The Doctrine of God, 343-61; cf. John Piper, The Pleasures of God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000), 98, 193-94.

 

[7] Andreas Köstenberger, “John” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D.A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 421; see also Carson’s comments and detailed exegesis in The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1991), 111-39.

 

[8] Andreas Köstenberger, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008), 115.

[9] Richard Bauckham, “Monotheism and Christology in the Gospel of John” in Contours of Christology in the New Testament, ed. Richard Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 165.

 

[10] Richard Bauckham,  Jesus and the God of Israel, 101.  This quotation comes from an entire section devoted to solving this theological riddle, see pp. 97-105.

 

[11] The task of demonstrating God’s singularity and unity in the OT is more challenging than may first appear.  OT scholars like Michael Heiser are pressing for a reappraisal of traditional OT monotheism, where an OT binitarianism is asserted over against the classic understanding of monotheism. See his dissertation “The divine council in late canonical and non-canonical Second Temple Jewish literature” Ph.D. diss., The University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2004 and his weblog devoted to the subject, http://michaelsheiser.com/TwoPowersInHeaven.  In his recent article “Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible” in Bulletin for Biblical Research  18.1 (2008), 1-30, Heiser concludes, “It is my hope that scholars will be encouraged to re-evaluate their assumptions about the reality of divine plurality in Israel’s worldview and how to parse that reality in understanding Israelite religion” (30).

 

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