The Trinity and the Old Testament

The oft-quoted remark that “God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor” has been attributed to a variety of people, from Rousseau to Mark Twain. In any event, there is surely truth in it. The nature of man, left to himself apart from divine revelation, has displayed a tendency to create gods that are agreeable and manageable.

In the modern era, the gods that are honored involve such as pleasure, individualism, science and reason. But in the pre-Christian era of the Old Testament, the gods were hand-crafted deities of all sorts, representations of the powers of nature, etc.  Often worshipped on high places in particular, they held an attraction for people longing to fill the God-shaped vacuum of the soul. And they so often even drew in the Jewish people, resulting in repeated disasters for the nation.

So the emphasis of the Old Testament was upon the essential oneness and singularity of God as the one and only true God. And probably the most famous and oft-quoted OT text would be the Shema prayer of Deuteronomy 6:4 – “Hear, Oh Israel. The Lord your God is one.”  This was distinctively different than the panoply of Gods worshipped in the surrounding nations.

We would therefore not expect to see the idea of the Trinity particularly elucidated in the Old Testament. But even from the very beginning there are more than just mild hints that God existed in more than one person, yet with unit. By the very beginning, I’m talking about the second sentence in the Bible …

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And we see throughout the Old Testament that the Spirit of God – the Holy Spirit – would come upon various prophets, priests and kings for the purpose of divine empowerment. This was more than just a powerful influence, as the work and words coming from these indwelt people had a divine empowerment and first-person authority. David, after his sin with Bathsheeba, was terrified of the thought of losing the presence of God living within, praying in Psalm 51:10,11 …

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.

As well, in various places in the OT, there is the presence of plural pronouns. For example, in Genesis 1:26 … Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”

Though this may simply be a way of expressing noun-verb agreement, the early Church believed that this was an evidence of the Trinity, as have most scholars over the years.

And as the OT moves along, references to a future Messiah-King are seen. And though this looks forward to a physical and visible person, there are clearly divine attributes connected, the most well-known being those in Isaiah …

7:14 – Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

9:6 – For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

That is about as clear as it can get for OT times, though comprehending this was a fuzzy experience before the incarnation. Fully understanding the eternal Trinity would take the events and writings of the time of Christ and the New Testament era. But the Old Testament is not without Trinitarian references as we look back upon it from our point on the continuum of time.

Speaking of the continuum of time, our minds cannot understand God’s position above and beyond this human limitation and sphere. He is above it and sees it all – past, present and future – all the same. And likewise, the limitations of the human mind make it difficult for us to grasp the three-in-one nature of the Trinity.

But there is a wonderful peace and comfort that can accrue to us as we grasp all that we are able about the knowledge of God, including the Trinity. It is wonderful to know that God is not locked-down as we are. Being above time, He is not limited … He is not making up the story and reacting to events as they happen. Rather, He is revealing the full story more and more as time goes by. We call this progressive revelation. The future is in God’s hands and is as certain as if it has already happened. Just as the doctrine of the Trinity was progressively revealed and understood as time passed, so also will all of God’s sovereign plan for the ages be increasingly evident as the years pass. And in that theological truth we may find great personal comfort, even in a broken world.

This entry was posted in Him Alone and tagged , by Randy Buchman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

1 thought on “The Trinity and the Old Testament

  1. I appreciate you giving credit to God for what he has yet to do.

    Specifically I was struck by, “Just as the doctrine of the Trinity was progressively revealed and understood as time passed, so also will all of God’s sovereign plan for the ages be increasingly evident as the years pass. And in that theological truth we may find great personal comfort, even in a broken world.”

    Sometimes Christians seem more like the lukewarm church in Revelation that thinks it has no need …

    We have great struggles personally to obey God perfectly in a sinful world.The church also needs to be ready to defend itself against new intellectual attacks. Just as the doctrine of the Trinity came about because of questions of opponents, today the church needs to address attacks of skeptics by going deeper into spiritual truths revealed in scripture.

    Paul mentioned that something about seeing darkly in this life. There are plenty of truths that Jesus has not yet fully convinced the church of. Perhaps it wasn’t “Need to know information” in the past. Questions that seem speculative or hypothetical to the church, largely irrelevant to how we are to live our lives, they may need to be readressed with honesty. Paul mentioned that there are “waves of doctrine” or something like that — which can lead people astray. And since the church today isn’t perfect, the fact that we might be interpreting some scripture (or sciptures) wrong should not come as a shocking thought. R. C. Sproul once remarked that fallible human beings interpreting infallible scripture can lead to errors.

    Paul mentioned too about Christians get caught up in genealogies, the law and words … they may miss the key points of scripture — even if they can make a good case for there error. “Paul wasn’t saying they were making a “good case” but rather that wolves can easily decieve people.

    The battles that Jesus had confronting the Pharisees … it just points out that we humans need to be careful as we set up fortresses around particular beliefs or traditions that we hold. Jesus may not be stationed where we think he is. Beliefs about what is literal or figurative can be misunderstood. The early church misunderstood what Jesus said to Peter regarding the apostle John. Jesus said, “If it is my will for him to remain until I come — what is that to you? You follow me.” A belief spread in the church that this disciple would not die until Jesus returned. Yet Jesus point wasn’t to point out the timing of John’s death, nor the timing of his return, rather that Peter had to focus on following Jesus rather than on whether John was going to have an easier time in life than he was going to have.

    The early church had troubles grasping whether circumcision of gentiles was necessary and the Jews in the church even fell prey to whether Jews should eat with Gentiles.

    In any case your spirit of humility reflected in your statement that more of “God’s sovereign plan for the ages” being “increasingly evident as the years pass” — I like that spirit.

    Great post.

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