Is God a Trinity?

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Is God a Trinity?

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"Did the New Testament really teach the elaborate—and highly contradictory—doctrine of the Trinity?" —Karen Armstrong, A History of God

We have seen that God is revealed in the Scriptures as a family—comprising the Father and the Son in heaven, with many potential members of the same divine family now on earth. The Bible speaks of "the whole family in heaven and earth" (Ephesians 3:15).

To put it another way, two divine members of that family, the Father and the Son, reside in heaven, but the human children of God on earth even now help make up this family (Romans 8:14; 1 John 3:1-2). 

But what about the Trinity? Many millions believe that God consists of three distinct persons or entities—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—in one being. How do we choose between explanations regarding the nature of God?

Simply stated, only the Scriptures can give us the true answer. The fact that the word Trinity appears nowhere in the Bible also gives us reason to reflect. We must not cling to long-held religious traditions if they contradict the Scriptures. Our beliefs must rest solidly on the teachings of the Holy Bible. Jesus declared that God's word is truth (John 17:17; compare Psalm 119:160).

Historical evidence

The fact of the matter is that the Bible does not teach the Trinity. The opening words of The Oxford Companion to the Bible under the article "Trinity" are enlightening: "Because the Trinity is such an important part of later Christian doctrine, it is striking that the term does not appear in the New Testament. Likewise, the developed concept of three coequal partners in the Godhead found in later creedal formulations cannot be clearly detected within the confines of the [New Testament] canon" (Bruce Metzger and Michael Coogan, editors, 1993, p. 782).

The term later is a vital key in understanding why general Christian belief has been burdened with the Trinity doctrine. Theologians after the first century originally conceived the doctrine, and others added to and elaborated on it over the years that followed.

Notice this admission in the New Bible Dictionary:

"The term 'Trinity' is not itself found in the Bible. It was first used by Tertullian [one of the early Catholic church theologians] at the close of the 2nd century, but received wide currency and formal elucidation only in the 4th and 5th centuries" (1996, "Trinity").

The same dictionary explains that:

"the formal doctrine of the Trinity was the result of several inadequate attempts to explain who and what the Christian God really is... To deal with these problems the Church Fathers met in 325 at the Council of Nicaea to set out an orthodox biblical definition concerning the divine identity." However, it wasn't until 381, "at the Council of Constantinople, [that] the divinity of the Spirit was affirmed."

Another theological source admits that there was "an impression of binitarianism [that is, two in unity, the Father and Son] given by much second- and third-century thought ... Pluralist thinkers ... maintained the full co-presence of the two (later three) distinct entities within the Godhead" (Alan Richardson, editor, A Dictionary of Christian Theology, 1969, p. 345).

Indeed, the second-century bishop Irenaeus, an earlier church father, stated unequivocally, "There is none other called God by the Scriptures except the Father of all, and the Son, and those who possess the adoption [i.e., sonship as God's children]" (Against Heresies, Book 4, preface; compare Book 3, chap. 6). We find no mention here of the Holy Spirit being a third person as God. Rather, the concept here is that of human beings becoming part of the family now consisting of God the Father and God the Son.

We see, then, that the doctrine of the Trinity wasn't formalized until long after the Bible was completed and the apostles were long dead in their graves. It took later theologians several centuries to sort out what they believed concerning the Holy Spirit. Regrettably, the Trinity doctrine has been a major barrier to clear comprehension of the biblical truth that God is a divine family.

Continuing with the account in The Oxford Companion to the Bible: "While the New Testament writers say a great deal about God, Jesus, and the Spirit of each, no New Testament writer expounds on the relationship among the three in the detail that later Christian writers do" (p. 782). The scholars being quoted here are, of course, somewhat understating what is obvious to those who comprehend the biblical explanation of God.

Spurious addition in 1 John 5:7-8

Some Bible translators of past ages were so zealous to find support for their belief in the Trinity in the Scriptures that they literally added it. A case in point is 1 John 5:7-8. It reads in the King James Version, also known as the Authorized Version: "For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one." The words in italics are simply not a part of the accepted New Testament manuscripts. Regrettably, in this particular passage the New King James Version reads essentially the same.

Most Bible commentaries tell us that this is a spurious addition to the biblical text. Consider the words of The New Bible Commentary: Revised: "Notice that AV [the Authorized Version] includes additional material at this point. But the words are clearly a gloss [an added note] and are rightly excluded by RSV [Revised Standard Version] even from its margins" (1970, p. 1269).

In the New Revised Standard Version, 1 John 5:7-8 correctly and more concisely reads, "There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree." John personifies the three elements here as providing testimony, just as Solomon personified wisdom in the book of Proverbs.

"The textual evidence is against 1 John 5:7," explains Dr. Neil Lightfoot, a New Testament professor. "Of all the Greek manuscripts, only two contain it. These two manuscripts are of very late dates, one from the fourteenth or fifteenth century and the other from the sixteenth century. Two other manuscripts have this verse written in the margin. All four manuscripts show that this verse was apparently translated from a late form of the Latin Vulgate" (How We Got the Bible, 2003, pp. 100-101).

The Expositor's Bible Commentary also dismisses the King James and New King James Versions' additions in 1 John 5:7 as "obviously a late gloss with no merit" (Glenn Barker, Vol. 12, 1981, p. 353). Peake's Commentary on the Bible is very incisive in its comments as well: "The famous interpolation after 'three witnesses' is not printed in RSV and rightly [so] ... No respectable Greek [manuscript] contains it. Appearing first in a late 4th century Latin text, it entered the Vulgate [the 5th-century Latin version, which became the common medieval translation] and finally NT [New Testament] of Erasmus [in the 16th century]" (p. 1038).

Again, Trinity did not come into common use as a religious term until after the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, several centuries after the last books of the New Testament were complete. It is not a biblical concept.

Why the Holy Spirit is sometimes called "he" and "him"

Many people assume that the Holy Spirit is a personal entity, based on references to the Spirit as "he," "him" and "himself" in the New Testament. This confusion arises from two factors—the use of gender-inflected pronouns in the Greek language and bias on the part of some translators.

Greek, as do the Romance languages deriving from Latin (Spanish, French, Italian, etc.), invokes a specific gender for every noun. Every object, animate or inanimate, is designated as either masculine, feminine or neuter. The gender is often unrelated to whether the item is indeed masculine or feminine. For example, in French the word livre, meaning "book," is of the masculine gender and is referred to by a pronoun equivalent to the English "he." And in Spanish, mesa, or "table," is in the feminine. Clearly, although these nouns have gender, their gender does not refer to actually being male or female.

In the English language, in contrast, most nouns that do not refer to objects that are male or female are referred to in the neuter sense, with the pronoun "it."

In Greek, both masculine and neuter words are used to refer to the Holy Spirit. The Greek word translated "Helper," "Comforter" and "Advocate" in John 14-16 is parakletos, a masculine word in Greek and thus referred to in these chapters by Greek pronouns equivalent to the English "he," "him," "his," "himself," "who" and "whom."

Because of the masculine gender of parakletos, these pronouns are grammatically correct in Greek. But to translate these into English as "he," "him," etc., is grammatically incorrect.

By the same token, you would never translate a particular French sentence as "I'm looking for my book so I can read him." While this grammatical construction makes sense in the French language, it is wrong in English. Thus the supposition that the Holy Spirit is a person to be referred to as "he" or "him" is incorrect.

Only if the parakletos or helper were known to be a person could the use of a gender-inflected pronoun justifiably be used in English. And the term parakletos certainly can refer to a person—as it refers to Jesus Christ in 1 John 2:1. Yet the Holy Spirit is nowhere designated with personhood. So personal pronouns should not be substituted for it. 

Neuter in nature, not personal

Indeed, there is absolutely no justification for referring to the term "Holy Spirit" with masculine pronouns, even in Greek. The Greek word pneuma, usually translated "spirit" but also translated "wind" and "breath," is a grammatically neuter word. So, in the Greek language, pronouns equivalent to the English "it," "its," "itself," "which" or "that" are properly used in referring to this word for "spirit."

Yet when the King James or Authorized Version was produced (early in the 1600s), the doctrine of the Trinity had already been accepted for more than 1,000 years. So naturally the translators of that version usually chose personal rather than neutral pronouns when referring to the Holy Spirit in English (see, for example, John 16:13-14; Romans 8:26).

Notice, however, that in some passages in the King James Version the translators properly used neuter pronouns. For example, Romans 8:16 says, "The Spirit itself [not himself] beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God." Matthew 10:20 and 1 Peter 1:11 are other places in the King James Version where the proper neuter pronouns are used.

Regrettably, later English translators of the Bible have gone even further than the King James translators in referring to the Holy Spirit as masculine rather than neuter. Thus the Holy Spirit is almost always referred to as "he" or "him" in the more modern versions. This reflects not linguistic accuracy, but the doctrinal bias or incorrect assumptions of Bible translators.