Monday, 17 March 2008

Trinity in the OT?

A student has emailed to ask whether the plural references to God as "us" in the OT can safely be taken as trinitarian references.

I don't think there is any single verse in the OT OR IN THE NT we can point to as in itself "safely" capable of being read as teaching the doctrine of the Trinity. I believe that from Gen 1:1 the references to God are to our Trinitarian God, but I can only say this on the basis of a theological construct, putting together the whole of Biblical teaching and the benefit of Church reflection for hundreds of years. The "us" references used of God, e.g. in Gen 1:26 and 11:9, can hardly be taken as proof of a Trinitarian understanding of God within OT times. That would be anachronistic. These plurals are better taken, I believe, as referring to God portrayed as deliberating in the presence of his heavenly court, letting them into his counsels.


John McClean said...

John I agree. There are hints of complexity in God's identity in the OT (e.g. the angel of the Lord) and these are recognised and developed in intertestmental Judaism (see Bauckham's "God Crucified"). These are background for New Testament Christology. But it is only in the light of the incarnation that we can articulate the doctrine (and that took more than 200 years and the pressure of Arianism). I would say that we should read the OT in Trinitarian terms because of the full revelation of God in Christ.

Peter Hastie said...

While it has become popular in recent times to construe God’s plural form of deliberation, ‘Let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26) as referring to God deliberating in the presence of the angels in heaven (so Gerhad von Rad & Gordon Wenham), there is an insurmountable problem to this interpretation. It is presented by the use of the word ‘our’ towards the end of the statement. One verse later in 1:27 it becomes clear that the ‘our’ of 1:26 cannot refer to the angels because the writer makes it clear that ‘God made man in His own image’, not the image of the angels. ‘Our’ image in 1:26 must refer to God’s own image, unless of course we are meant to assume that God is the same as His angels, a conclusion which the rest of Scripture forbids. Thus, the only alternative we are left with in interpreting ‘us’ in Gen 1:26 is to construe it as a form of divine self-deliberation. This opens the possibility of plurality in the Godhead right at the start of biblical revelation.

Subsequent usages of the term ‘us’ in reference to God in Gen 3:22, “the man has now become like one of us”, and in Gen 11:7, “Come let us go down and confuse their language…” simply serve to strengthen the impression of a mysterious plurality in the Godhead. This perception only becomes stronger when we read Isaiah 6:8: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” True, there is no developed doctrine of the Trinity here per se, but there is also a suggestion that God is certainly something more than a monad. The writer’s treatment of the Spirit in Genesis 1:2 and 6:3 also raises this possibility.

While it is certainly true that some of the early church fathers claimed that these texts shed greater light on the doctrine of the Trinity than is warranted by reasonable exegesis, the view that they shed no light on the Trinity contains even more problems. The New Testament makes it clear in John 1:1-3 that ‘the Word already was with God in the beginning’ (note the use of the Greek imperfect) and Paul asserts that “by Christ all things were created…..He is before all things” (Col 1:16, 17). This certainly creates the presumption that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were active in the initial act of creation and that the use of the plural pronouns in Gen 1:26, 27 should be seen by Christians as a foreshadowing of the doctrine of the Trinity that was to be fully revealed with the coming of Jesus Christ.

Peter Hastie
Ashfield Presbyterian Church

John McClean said...

Peter Barnes (minister at Revesby and Church History lecturer here at PTC) emailed in this comment.

I have never heard of anyone who argued that we can derive the doctrine of the Trinity from the Old Testament. But the argument that the Old Testament prepares the way for the teaching of the Trinity is much stronger than John Davies implies.

The Angel of Yahweh is identified in a mysterious way with Yahweh in numerous places (Gen.16:7, 13; 18:1-33; Exodus 3:2, 6, 14; Judges 6:11-16; 13:3, 9, 22). The commander of the Lord's army is both man and God (Josh.5:13, 15; 6:2). The child of Isaiah 9:6 is given divine names. Allan Harman relates 'everlasting Father' to the Messiah's relationship with his people, not God the Father, but that is not necessarily so, and John 10:30 may be a help here. In any case, the child is called 'the mighty God' (Isa.9:6), the same title given to God in Isa.10:21. Psalm 110:1 teaches that there are two Lords (Yahweh and Adonai in the Masoretic text, but both Lords are Kurios in the LXX). Psalm 45:6-7 is another example. God makes man in our own image (Gen.1:26) and His own image (Gen.1:27).

That fits the pattern we see elsewhere. The Old Testament does indeed prepare for the full-orbed teaching of the Trinity found in the New Testament."

John Davies said...

I'm not suggesting the OT says anything inconsistent with it a full-orbed doctrine of the Trinity, nor that it provides no material relevant to it! What my student was asking is if there are any OT texts, particularly the “us” texts, which can “safely” (independently of further revelation) be taken as referring to the Trinity.
Yes, there are passages in the OT which hint at a complexity in God, such as the angel of the Lord passages, the Spirit of God references, and even perhaps the “us” passages in a sense. And yes, I read the OT in the light of the New and perceive in the fuller revelation in Christ what was not understood by its first readers. My point is that the Trinity is not a matter of a single proof text (OT or NT), but the result of a process of theological reflection, taking all of Scriptural revelation into account.

While the language may seem strange to us to have God “thinking out loud” in the presence of a heavenly court, and including the heavenly beings in his purview without necessarily having them as an active part of the creation team, it may not be beyond Hebrew ways of thinking and speaking, taking into account the linguistic and cultural background. The function of a heavenly court in some of the literature roughly contemporary with the Bible (e.g. the Ugaritic epic texts) is to serve as a form of cheer squad to applaud the high god’s every significant decision and in a sense enter into that decision. It is in this sense that I understand the “us” references, and the Isa. 6 reference (in the presence of seraphs) is consistent with this. I’m not insisting on this interpretation, but I think it has the most going for it.