Three-in-Oneness in the Old Testament

Is there evidence of the Trinity in the Old Testament? Truth about God’s nature and personhood has been progressively revealed in Scripture. Therefore, while the Old Testament is clearly limited in what could be considered direct support for the doctrine of the Trinity, the Hebrew Scriptures nevertheless allow for the idea of a plurality of personhood within God’s single nature. This allowance of plurality is evidenced in at least three ways in the Old Testament.

First, while the Hebrew Scriptures strongly present the truth of monotheism (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 43:10), it is curious and probative that the Hebrew noun for God (‘elohim) is generally found in the plural.

Second, in a handful of Old Testament passages plural pronouns and verbs are used when speaking about God. Three times in the Book of Genesis God speaks of himself in the plural. Genesis 1 records that just as God was about to create man he said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). The very next verse defines “our image” as being “God’s image.” Similarly, after Adam and Eve’s fall into sin in Genesis 3, God said: “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). And following the building of the Tower of Babel, God said: “Come, let us go down and confuse their language” (Genesis 11:7). It is highly unlikely that these mysterious divine plural references can be explained as merely “plurals of majesty.” Nor is it reasonable to conclude that God was speaking to the angels because the comments apply, in context, to the person(s) of God (Genesis 1:26).

Third, in anticipation of the New Testament, references to “Lord,” “Word,” and “Spirit” (or Hebrew: divine breath) are spoken of in the Old Testament within the context of God’s unique activities. For example, Psalms 33:6 says: “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth” (emphasis added).

While these Old Testament scriptural passages and others that suggest a divine plurality certainly don’t prove the Trinity, they are consistent with the New Testament apostles’ modification of the traditional understanding of Jewish monotheism. The one true God reveals himself in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For more on the historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity, see “How Can God Be Three and One?,” in my book Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions.

  One thought on “Three-in-Oneness in the Old Testament

  1. DESERTSAGE
    August 21, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    These arguments by Trinitarian writers like your are groundless: The Trinity is not supported by the plural form of two of the titles of God found in the Hebrew Scriptures: Elohim (translated as God and gods) and Adonai (translated as Lord and lords). Basic knowledge of the Hebrew language dismisses the support from these titles. Ancient Hebrew was a simple language without vowels, punctuation, or capitalization. Therefore, the use of the plural forms for emphasis was common. The use of plural nouns for subjects who are not God is included in the practice of using the grammatical plural for majesty and scale –e.g. Job 40:15 one Behemoth is plural; Abraham is called Adonai in Gen. 24:9-10; Moses is called Elohim in Exodus 4:16. Elohim is used of Dagon, the god of the Philistines (1 Sam. 5:7); of Chemosh, the god of Ammon and Moab (Jud. 11:24; 1 Kings 11:33); of Ashtarte (or Ashtoreth), the goddess of the Sidonians and of Milcom, another god of the Ammorites (1 Kings 11:33).
    Translators of the Hebrew Scriptures for thousands of years, beginning with the Greek Septuagint before the birth of Christ, have consistently translated these terms as singular. The inspired writers of the Greek NT did the same when referring to these OT passages. Some Trinitarian sources have agreed. For example, Smith’s Bible Dictionary, a standard reference work, commented, “The plural form of Elohim has given rise to much discussion. The fanciful idea that it referred to the trinity of persons in the Godhead hardly finds now a supporter among scholars. It is either what grammarians call the plural of majesty, or it denotes the fullness of divine strength, the sum of the powers displayed by God.”

    The simple application of rules of hermeneutics to the rare use of plural pronouns in reference to God quickly dispels any substance to that related line of reasoning to support the Trinity in the OT. For example, Genesis 1:26-28:
    Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them; and God said to them, …
    Simply, ten thousand singular allusions to God in the OT are contrasted with only four cases that ambiguously involve him (Gen. 1:26, 3:22, 11:7-9, Isa. 6:8). Additionally, clear teaching of monotheism and narrative examples of Yahweh existing as the only Divine Being (often in the very context of plural cases, like Gen. 1:27) left no doubt in the minds of God’s people throughout biblical recorded history.
    Honest Trinitarian scholars have retreated from all these facts. But some like you have desperately suggested that perhaps some mysterious hints about the Trinity are to be found in these ancient Hebrew forms and grammar, despite any real evidence (especially when it is pointed out that other Semitic languages utilize these same features!).
    Brother, you should really know better than to use these flimsy arguments. Where is your fear of God’s and His Word?

  2. September 19, 2016 at 12:38 pm

    Dear DesertSage:

    I’m sorry I missed your comments a couple years ago.

    Here’s my brief response:

    My article is very careful to say that the Old Testament is very “limited” in what might might be considered evidence for the Trinity. I explicitly state that the three areas of the Old Testament that I identify “allow” for a plurality within God’s unity.

    Here’s a couple quotes from respected Trinitarian scholars (both Protestant and Catholic) who appear to agree with me. I’ll let you decide whether they are “honest” or not and whether their points are “flimsy” or not.

    “Many of the Fathers saw in Genesis 1:26 a reference to the Trinity. While this was concealed from the original readers and from the OT saints as a whole, the Fathers were not at variance with the trajectory of the text. Rabbinical commentators were often perplexed by this passage and similar ones suggesting a plurality within God (Gen. 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8)….Puzzling over these passages, Jewish interpreters tried to see them expressing the unity of God. The NT never refers to Genesis 1:26 with regard to the nature of God, but that does not make it unwarranted to see here a proleptic reference to the Trinity. The NT does not refer to everything, but it does give us the principle that the OT contains in seed form what is more fully made known in the NT.”

    Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004), 20.

    “Does this Divine ‘we’ evoke a polytheistic age anterior to the Bible? Or a deliberation of God with his angelic court? Or does it not rather indicate the interior richness of the divinity? How does it happen that only in these four passages the plural form of the name Elohim used here has influenced the verb, which is plural only here? And what is more extraordinary is that these plural forms are introduced by formulas in the singular: ‘Elohim says’ or ‘Yahweh says’ (Gen. 1:26; 3:22; 11:6).”

    Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., The Christian Trinity in History (Still River, Mass.: St. Bede’s, 1982), 4.

    From these two biblical scholars it appears that even Jewish scholars were puzzled by these references to God in the plural and thus the mysterious hints to the Trinity may be a viable explanation after all.

    Respectfully,

    Kenneth Samples

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