The Trinity and Theological Language

I have a strong theological commitment to Trinitarianism. I firmly believe that there is only one God, but that he exists in three divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I further believe that the Son is not the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit the Son; however, in a way that can be difficult to comprehend and even harder to explain, I affirm that all three Persons of the Trinity are God. I don’t pretend to have a perfect understanding of this doctrine; however, I believe that Trinitarianism is the idiom of scripture and of salvation.[1] To use the words of the Athanasian Creed, I “worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity.”[2] As a pastor, I unapologetically call my church to do the same.

There’s a problem with Trinitarianism, however: The Bible never says that God is a Trinity—at least not explicitly. In fact, when the New Testament was written, there was no such thing as the word “trinity!” To find the first occurrence of the word “trinity,” we have to go all the way to the end of the 1st/start of the 2nd century to the writings of Tertullian, one of the church fathers.

The fact that the Bible never mentions the word “trinity” has been a source of concern for many Christians. In middle school, one of my substitute teachers offered my class a handful of cash if we could find the word “trinity” in our Bibles—King James Version only of course. Later, when I first taught on the Doctrine of the Trinity at my church, one of the people in the audience spoke up and said, “the word ‘trinity’ isn’t even in the Bible.” Needless to say, I didn’t get to bring home that wad of cash, and a respect for truth compelled me to agree that the word “trinity” is indeed not in the Bible.

When people claim that the word “trinity” isn’t in the Bible, they typically act as if they’ve dealt a crushing blow to the Doctrine of the Trinity. This fact alone, however, doesn’t really say much about the Doctrine of the Trinity. Perhaps people think that this fact fits into a larger argument that might look something like this:

  1. When doing theology, we ought only believe the things that the Bible teaches.
  2. If the Bible doesn’t use the word “trinity,” then the Bible doesn’t teach the Doctrine of the Trinity.
  3. The Bible doesn’t use the word “trinity.”
  4. Therefore, the Bible doesn’t teach the Doctrine of the Trinity.
  5. Therefore, we ought not believe the Doctrine of the Trinity.

The problem with this implied argument, however, is that 2. is clearly false. Here’s why: It’s possible to talk about some object x without using the term for x. The reason why we can talk about some object x without using the term for x is that there is a gap between our language and the thoughts which our language expresses. Applied to the example of the Doctrine of the Trinity, if the Bible expresses the thought of the Trinity, then it doesn’t really matter whether the word “trinity” is in the Bible. That might sound confusing initially, but I promise that when you understand it, it’s quite simple.

Behind all language are thoughts (philosophers call them propositions) that can be expressed in a variety of ways. When we use language, we’re simply packaging our thoughts in sounds and symbols so that other people can understand them. For example, when the apostle John contemplated the nature of God, he expressed his thought by writing, “ο θεος αγαπη εστιν.” When I pick up my English Bible and read 1 John 4.8, I see this sentence: “God is love.” When a Spanish speaker picks up her Bible, she reads “Dios es amor.” Obviously, each of these sentences is different; however, in some sense, they’re also the same. They look different, and they sound different; however, they share something. That something that they share is the thought behind the sentence: Each sentence, whether in Greek, English, or Spanish, expresses the same thought or proposition. The reason that each sentence can be different and yet express the same thought is that there’s a gap between our language and our thoughts that allows for different languages to express the same idea.

The ability to package the same thought in different terms doesn’t appear only when crossing between languages, it happens within languages, too. From time to time, we all forget a word that we should know. When I’m trying to describe a thought that I’m having but for which I can’t seem to recall the correct word, I may tell my wife that I’m looking for the thing that plugs into the wall and gives my iPhone more battery life. My wife immediately knows that the thought I’m having is about a phone charger. The reason that she can understand what I’m looking for is that it’s possible for me to talk about a phone charger without using the phrase “phone charger.” I’m having the thought of a “phone charger,” but packaging the thought in different terms. When I say “the thing that plugs into the wall and gives my iPhone battery,” and my wife says “phone charger,” we’re talking about the same thing—the same idea; however, we’re cloaking the idea in different words. The reason that we can talk about the same thing in different terms is that there’s a gap between our language and our thoughts.

Since there’s a gap between language and thoughts, it shouldn’t really concern us whether the Bible uses the term “trinity” or not; indeed, it seems that the Bible could use the word “trinity” and not teach the Doctrine of the Trinity! Imagine that the Bible had a verse that said: “God does not exist as a Trinity.” If the Bible said that—which, of course, it doesn’t—then we’d have the word “trinity” in the Bible while still rejecting the Doctrine of the Trinity. What really matters is whether or not the Bible teaches the idea of the Doctrine of the Trinity; the words that the human authors used to cloak the idea of the Trinity is of secondary importance.

To quote the Athanasian Creed again, the Doctrine of the Trinity says that “the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. Yet there are not three gods; there is but one God.” If the Bible teaches this concept, then it doesn’t really matter whether it uses the term “trinity” or not. The debate, then, should be whether the Bible teaches the idea of the Trinity regardless of what terms the Bible uses.

Notes & Sources

[1] For the argument that the Trinity is the idiom of scripture, see Malcom B. Yarnell III, God The Trinity: Biblical Portraits (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016).

[2] For the full text of the Athanasian Creed, visit this website: https://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/athanasian-creed

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