Plausibly, most Protestant scholars who think that the Bible teaches the Trinity focus on the New Testament. They argue that while trinitarianism isn’t explicit there, it is implicit. Imagine a bigoted northerer who is insulting a southerner. “All southerners are stupid. Sally is from the south, so Sally is stupid.” But our rude notherner can express the insult just as clearly by saying, “All southerners are stupid, and Sally is from the south.” We all mentally hear the conclusion that she intends us to hear. The merely implicit statement is just as clear, and is more elegant than the explicit one.
The Trinity can’t be implicit in the New Testament in quite that way, as seemingly no one made the inference to a tripersonal God until the fourth century. It must’ve been a tangled chain of reasoning to have remained tangled so long, despite so many dedicated readers. But apologists claiming to derive the Trinity from the New Testament tell a very simple story, such as that in the New Testament the following argument is implicit:
- The Father is God.
- The Son is God.
- The Spirit is God.
- Those three are numerically distinct.
- There is only one God.
- So, this one God is the three of them together. (1-5)
But this reasoning is demonstrably confused. If “is God” means is numerically the same as God, 1-5 is an incoherent set of claims, and obviously so. Numerically different things can’t be numerically identical to the same thing! If “is God” means being divine in the sense of being a god, then 1-4 tell us there are three gods, and 5 tells us there is only one god. If 1-5 can’t all be true, then 1-6 can’t be a sound argument, whatever 6 may mean.
In support of 1-3, proof-texts are cited in which (allegedly) three different ones are each called “God.” But if this is what 1-3 mean, then 6 doesn’t follow from 1-5; the argument is invalid. In other words, it could be that 1-5 are true, while 6 is false. How? It could be that three different beings are called “God” (making 1-4 true), and there could be exactly one God, making 5 true, but this one God might be the Father alone. The other two may be called “God” because of their similarity to and derivation from him. Thus, while 1-5 are true, it can be that 6 is false. This is pretty much what Tertullian thought in the early third century. But it’s not a trinitarian theology.
I don’t think there is any argument of this sort which shows how the New Testament implies the Trinity. But observe how short and simple the chain of reasoning is supposed to be. How could a thing like that remain unpacked, the conclusion not drawn, for hundreds of years? It would seemingly require that God as it were struck blind the readers of the New Testament until the time was right for the fullness of trinitarian revelation. This sounds like the non-Protestant view that the apostles’ mantle was passed on to the bishops, through whom God completed the revelation begun in the times of Jesus, John, Peter, and Paul. If this is true, then truly Christians need the Church to tell us how to understand the New Testament. It was all, unbeknownst to first-century people, heading towards the culminating declarations of the councils, just as unbeknownst to the ancient Jews, it was all heading towards the ministry of a self-sacrificing Messiah.
There are many other sorts of arguments from the Bible to the Trinity. But here’s the thing: scholars who focus intensely on the biblical texts, trying to understand them properly in their own contexts, discerning the aims and assumptions of their authors – these generally do not make such arguments.
A Protestant, to be trinitarian, must derive the Trinity from the Bible somehow. Some sophisticated theologians have retreated from the claim that it is implied there, to the claim that trinitarian theology best explains what is and is not said there. In so doing, they recognize that trinitarian ideas are foreign imports which the latter-day reader brings back to the ancient scriptures in order to better understand them, and not something discovered in the texts themselves. The issue, then, is what makes a good biblical theology, and how exactly does a trinitarian one constitute a better explanation of what is and isn’t said in the Bible? The battle here will have to be fought by trained theorists, and the result is not obvious in advance!
Most Protestant trinitarians are not eager to enter into such trench warfare. It will be much easier to defend trinitarian theology if we can help ourselves to later authorities, as we’ve seen. Others prefer to wave their hands and intone that the Trinity isn’t taught in any one scripture, but is to be observed (by the spiritual) in the scriptures as a whole.
Are they right? Now that you understand the difference between trinitarian and unitarian theologies, ask yourself the following questions. What would I expect the scriptures to say, and what would I expect them not to say, if they in some sense teach that God is a Trinity? What would I expect the scriptures to say, and what would I expect them not to say, if they in some sense teach that the one God is none other than the one Jesus calls “Father”? Actually make a list for each.
Now, study the scriptures as a whole, with help from leading scholars of all loyalties: Jewish, Christian, Protestant, Catholic, believing, unbelieving, trinitarian, non-trinitarian. Now, what do you see? Does it confirm or disconfirm claim 3 in our inconsistent triad from last time?
- The Trinity is taught by authoritative tradition.
- The Bible is the only authoritative tradition.
- The Bible doesn’t teach the Trinity.
About the “ecumenical” councils, do you agree that they are authoritative for any disciple of Jesus? If you’re committed to Catholic or Orthodox Christianity, you must agree to this. If you’re a Protestant, you should actually read the results of those councils, and their histories, and see if you discern the hand of God in all of it. Are they faithfully expounding the Bible, and drawing out what is implicit in it, or what best explains it? Or are they adding to it, and sometimes adding things inconsistent with it, or otherwise objectionable? Has what you learned increased or decreased the plausibility of 2 in our inconsistent triad above?
When it comes to the Trinity, who’s to say? Do you go with your church’s official creed? Or must you choose the Bible over that? Or are you convinced that those two don’t conflict?
I’ve been investigating these things for almost two decades. At the end of this post I can only share my conclusions. My study of the Bible with the help of countless translators and commenters has made me very sure about 3. And my study of later catholic traditions have confirmed my pre-existing Protestant belief that catholic tradition has veered perilously away from apostolic tradition in various ways on important beliefs and practices. I agree with 2, and not because the bishops ratified that exact collection of books, but rather because at least most of the New Testament comes from the apostles and their immediate circles, those directly taught by the Lord Jesus, and those directly taught by them. Listening to him requires listening to them. Not so much, in my view, when it comes to the Popes or the feuding bishops of the fourth century.
I’ve done what a philosopher can do try to be helpful to others on this issue, classifying different Trinity theories, analyzing arguments from the Bible to the Trinity, and tracing the historical origins of the standard Trinity formulas, and evaluating various theological arguments. But of course no Christian should ever adopt a theology because some purportedly Christian scholar told her so. You must read the sources for yourself, with mind and spirit open. You must ask the one God to clarify his revelation to you, and you must be patient through a process that will probably take you many months, if not many years.
Here are some questions to get you started. Take the New Testament in hand, and try to answer these questions to your own satisfaction.
- Does the New Testament in any sense appeal to “mystery” about the Trinity or the trinity?
- Does the New Testament anywhere mention or refer to a Trinity, or only to a trinity?
- Does it teach that there are three eternal, equally divine Persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who all together in some sense “are” the one God, Yahweh?
- Does it teach that those three Persons share an ousia, and if so, in what sense would the New Testament authors mean that claim?
- Does it teach the absolute equality of the Father, Son, and Spirit, so that each is eternally unlimited in power, knowledge, and goodness?
- Does the New Testament teach or positively portray the religious worship of: Father? Son? Spirit? All three of the together – the Trinity?
- Does the New Testament teach that the God just is the Father himself, or does it teach that the Father is but one of three Persons “in” God?
- Does the New Testament make catholic bishops the successors of the apostles, with apostle-level authority to settle questions of Christian doctrine, working in emperor-led councils?
That is the way of a Christian who would be a good “Berean.” (Acts 17:10-12) A good Catholic, in contrast, has the Church as her teacher. This Church has proclaimed the Trinity as “the central mystery of the Christian faith.” (Catechism, paragraphs 238-267) Protestantism was born from the insistence that in many areas mainstream Christianity had strayed from the path of apostolic teaching and practice. Is this topic of the Trinity such an area, as some within the “Radical Reformation” have claimed, or not?
Again, you must judge for yourself; it you who will have to give an account for what you believe.
I hope this series has helped to equip you to work towards a resolution of these questions.