In the preceding three rounds of this debate, I have argued that the person of Jesus Christ existed as God prior to the creation of the world and that the Holy Spirit is also a divine person. If my argument up to this point has been successful, I have thoroughly refuted the Biblical Unitarian position and established two key elements of the doctrine of the Trinity. Add to these two points the premises that there is only one God who existed before creation and that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Father is not the Holy Spirit, and the only theological position in the marketplace of ideas that is left is the doctrine of the Trinity. Since these are all premises that Biblical Unitarianism accepts, I have not defended them here.
A possible objection to my argument so far is that it does not show that the “threefoldness” of God that the doctrine of the Trinity affirms has any clear support in the Bible. I will therefore now address this aspect of the doctrine directly.
I think everyone is aware of the fact that the NT in many places exhibits a “triadic” pattern in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are coordinated in some fashion. The NT writers sometimes use these three specific designations, but they also use other terms, such as God, Christ, and Spirit, or God, Lord, and Spirit, or some variation of one of these triads. My online outline study of the Trinity lists well over fifty clear examples of such triads, and that is a conservative list. I won’t discuss or even list all such texts here, but will instead draw attention to several notable examples and comment on their relevance to the doctrine of the Trinity in some depth.
“Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into [eis] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
It is not without good reason that orthodox Christians historically have usually regarded this statement as at least implicitly trinitarian. It specifies the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as all objects of confession in the initiatory rite of the Christian religion. No one claims that this verse presents a formal, systematic theological definition or complete exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity, but it does give us a particularly clear and straightforward example of a triadic statement in which the three persons are equally the object of Christian faith.
Don’t take my word for it. Consider the many anti-Trinitarians over the years who have grasped at the straw that the fourth-century writer Eusebius supposedly testified to an original form of the text in which Jesus said to baptize disciples “in my name” instead of what we find in all of the Greek manuscripts. Many continue to repeat this claim today, though it is hard to find any contemporary scholars who will support it. The Biblical Unitarian website that Dave recommended prior to our debate endorses this theory: “we believe that the earliest manuscripts read ‘in my name,’ and that the phrase was enlarged to reflect the orthodox position as Trinitarian influence spread” (emphasis added). In a comment in the first round, Dave implicitly disagreed with this claim; I cite it to show how popular it still is among anti-Trinitarians.
Note that these Biblical Unitarians acknowledge that “the phrase” does seem to “reflect the orthodox position”; indeed, they claim that it was written to promote a Trinitarian view. Yet in the very next breath they argue hard that even if the text is authentic it “does not prove the Trinity”! They cannot reasonably have it both ways.
The usual strategy of Biblical Unitarians to defuse Matthew 28:19 is the argument from silence. Matthew 28:19, they point out, does not say that the three are “one God.” The site just quoted makes this point, as does Anthony Buzzard (Doctrine of the Trinity, 333). The Biblical Unitarian site also insists that the text does not say explicitly that the Holy Spirit is a person. No text says explicitly that the Holy Spirit is not a person, either, but this doesn’t stop Biblical Unitarians from drawing that conclusion.
If Biblical Unitarianism is true, the Father is God himself, while the Holy Spirit is an aspect of God, specifically his power. Thus, two of the three names in Matthew 28:19 denote either God himself or an aspect of God, according to Biblical Unitarianism. The middle name, however, supposedly refers to a mere human being (though the greatest of them all) whom God exalted to a divine status. This would seem to be a problematic way of reading the text. If we simply paraphrase Matthew 28:19 to express explicitly how the Trinitarian and Biblical Unitarian theologies understand its meaning, the difficulty facing the Biblical Unitarian will become clear:
Trinitarian: “Baptize disciples in the name of God the Father, the name of God the Son, and the name of God the Holy Spirit.”
Biblical Unitarian: “Baptize disciples in the name of God, the name of the exalted virgin-born man Jesus, and the name of the power of God.”
Criticizing the Trinitarian interpretation based on arguments from silence ignores the fact that the Biblical Unitarian interpretation cannot simply repeat the words of the text without explanatory comment. Both views offer an interpretation of the text. The question is which of those interpretations best fits the text.
Jesus says explicitly here to baptize disciples “into the name of…the Holy Spirit,” so that “Holy Spirit” is a name, like “Father” and “Son.” Anti-Trinitarians commonly assert that the Bible never gives the Holy Spirit a name and therefore he is not a person (at best another argument from silence), but Matthew 28:19 says explicitly that “Holy Spirit” is a “name.” This would seem to be very good evidence that the Holy Spirit is a person after all.
Matthew 28:19, then, refers to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three names. The coordination of these names in this context of the initiatory rite of baptism strongly supports the conclusion that all three are names of divine persons. Keep in mind that Biblical Unitarians agree that the Father is a divine person (indeed, God himself), that the Son is a divine person (though “God” only in a secondary sense), and that the Holy Spirit is at the least an aspect of the divine being. Also recall the evidence I presented in the previous round that in biblical usage the term “spirit” (pneuma) commonly designates an incorporeal, invisible person, being, or entity. This means that the presumptive conclusion with regard to Matthew 28:19 must be that the Holy Spirit is also a divine person.
We agree that the Father is God. If the Holy Spirit is a divine person, obviously he must also be God, because (we agree) the Holy Spirit is at the very least an aspect of God’s being, not some creature or other deity. But if in Matthew 28:19 the Father is God and the Holy Spirit is God, then it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the Son is also God. Nor is this conclusion out of keeping with the context, which reveals the Son as one who has universal authority and is capable of being present with all disciples in all nations in all generations until the end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20). Thus, Matthew 28:19 presents powerful evidence in support of the doctrine of the Trinity.
“But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”
Here the Father, in the Son’s name, sends the Holy Spirit. It is remarkable that the Father does this in the Son’s name, since the Father obviously is not a mere agent acting on the Son’s behalf. Can one imagine Moses saying that the Father would send the Holy Spirit (or anyone or anything else) in his (Moses’) name? Can one imagine Elijah, or Michael the archangel, making such a statement? Recall also the evidence presented in the previous round that the Paraclete here is clearly a divine person, not an impersonal power or force. We have, then, three divine persons coordinated in a nutshell of the NT narrative: The Son came here, returned to heaven, and then the Holy Spirit came from the Father in the Son’s name.
“Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father, he [Jesus] has poured forth this which you both see and hear.”
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all in evidence here. Jesus (v. 32) has been exalted to the right hand of God; that is, he now sits on God’s throne at the Father’s right hand, exercising divine sovereign rule over the cosmos. As evidence that Jesus the Son performs the functions consistent with him occupying this position, Peter says that Jesus “has poured forth this which you both see and hear.” Earlier in the same speech, Peter has quoted Joel 2:28, where the LORD states that he will pour forth from his Spirit (Acts 2:18). Yet here Peter says that the Lord Jesus is the one who does this “pouring forth.”
The statement in 2:33 is not the only indication in Acts 2 that Peter identifies Jesus as the LORD of the Book of Joel. After his speech, Peter tells the people to be baptized “upon the name [epi tō onomati] of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (2:38). In context this statement means that they are to call “upon the name of Jesus Christ” for salvation when they are baptized, also echoing the words of Joel 2:32, “everyone who calls upon the name [epikalesētai tō onomati] of the Lord shall be saved” (quoted in Acts 2:21). We know from the rest of the Book of Acts that this is how the apostles and other early disciples applied Joel 2:32 (see Acts 7:59-60; 9:14; 22:16), and Paul makes this explicit (Rom. 10:9-13; see also 1 Cor. 1:2, 8, and my discussion of these texts in the third round).
Dave and other anti-Trinitarians think that Acts 2:34-36 shows that Jesus’ designation “Lord” in these contexts does not identify him as the LORD YHWH: “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Biblical Unitarians interpret Psalm 110:1 to mean that the LORD YHWH exalted a mere man to be the Messianic lord, and so they understand Acts 2:36 to mean that Jesus’ designation as “lord” refers to a status that he acquired for the first time in his exaltation.
Taken out of context and read with modern eyes, “God has made him both Lord and Christ” may very well sound as if it means that before he was “exalted” Jesus did not have those titles. Luke, however, explicitly disagrees. In his Gospel, Luke reports the angel announcing Jesus’ birth with these words: “Today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Luke tells us several additional times that Jesus, prior to his death, was already both the “the Christ” (Luke 2:26; 4:41; 9:20; 24:26, 46) and “the Lord” (Luke 3:4; 6:5, 46; 7:13, 19; 10:1, 40-41; 11:39; 12:42; 13:15; 17:5-6; 18:6; 19:8; 22:61). Therefore, Luke clearly does not understand Peter to mean that Jesus receives these titles for the first time at his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father. Evidently, by “God made him both Lord and Christ” Luke understands Peter to mean that in his resurrection and exaltation, Jesus was vindicated or publicly presented or officially declared to the world as both Lord and Christ (cf. Rom. 1:4).
When we take Acts 2:36 against this background and in the context of the application to Jesus of the reference in Joel 2:28-32 to the LORD pouring forth from his Spirit on those who call on his name for salvation, the best conclusion is that Acts 2 is affirming that Jesus is indeed the LORD God.
“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
Paul here refers to the Holy Spirit as (a) the Spirit, (b) the Spirit of God, (c) the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead (=the Spirit of the Father), and (d) the Spirit of Christ. The fact that the Spirit can be described in the same context as both “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ” proves that “Spirit of God” does not mean the energy or power that belongs to and emanates from God’s being and that Christ supposedly “uses” as God gives it to him. Rather, the Holy Spirit can be called both the Spirit of God (the Father) and the Spirit of Christ (the Son) because he is the Spirit whose role it is in redemption to unite us to the Father and the Son. In Paul’s theology, one can say that the Spirit of the Father dwells in us, that Christ (or the Spirit of Christ) dwells in us, and that the Spirit (of God) dwells in us. All three are true statements. The Father and the Son both dwell in us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and this is a real indwelling by the Father and the Son because the three persons are one indivisible divine being—one God.
Romans 8:26-27, 33-34
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God…. Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.”
Here Paul speaks of two divine persons who intercede for us: the Spirit, and Christ Jesus. That these are two distinct yet complementary acts or types of intercession is clear from how Paul describes each. The Spirit intercedes for us from within us, “with groaning too deep for words.” The Son, Christ Jesus, intercedes for us from “the right hand of God.”
1 Corinthians 12:4-6
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.
And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.
There are varieties of activities, but the same God who works all things in all.”
The deliberate parallelism of these three lines practically speaks for itself. If a Jew unfamiliar with Christianity read these lines alone, he would certainly understand “the same Spirit,” “the same Lord,” and “the same God” to be three synonymous expressions for the same Creator. We know from the immediate context that the one whom Paul identifies here as “the same Lord” is Jesus (v. 3). Paul clearly attributes personhood to the Spirit, whose work of gifting believers Paul details in verses 7-10, concluding in verse 11, “But one and the same Spirit works all these things [panta tauta energei], distributing to each one individually just as he wills.” Paul here in verse 11 uses the same language for the Spirit’s working that he used in verse 6 for God’s working (“who works all things in all,” ho energōn ta panta en pasin). Thus, Paul can speak interchangeably about what the Spirit, the Lord, and God do in relation to spiritual gifts, while still distinguishing the three from one another. We have here at the very least an implicit Trinitarianism.
2 Corinthians 13:14
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
Here the three names “the Lord Jesus Christ,” “God,” and “the Holy Spirit” appear in coordinated fashion, each in the genitive following a noun describing a spiritual blessing. The proper exegetical presumption is that all three genitives have the same grammatical function and nuance. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” can really only mean something like the grace that comes from the Lord Jesus Christ” or “the grace that the Lord Jesus Christ bestows” (what grammarians often call a subjective genitive). “The love of God” here as elsewhere in Paul means, not people’s love for God (that would be an objective genitive), but rather the love that God shows toward his people (e.g., Rom. 5:5; 8:39). Thus the first two genitives are both subjective genitives. This leads me to conclude that “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” also is a subjective genitive, meaning the spiritual blessing of fellowship that comes from the Holy Spirit or that the Holy Spirit bestows. This statement, which functions as a benediction ending the epistle, is in effect a prayer that the Lord Jesus Christ would continue to be gracious to the Corinthians, that God would continue to show his love for them, and that the Holy Spirit would continue to bless them with fellowship. Here again is a statement that arguably expresses an implicit Trinitarianism.
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”
The most natural way of understanding this passage is that God’s Son existed before becoming a human being. Four elements converge to express this idea: (1) the statement that “God sent forth his Son”; (2) the description of this Son as “born of a woman”; (3) the contrast between Jesus as God’s (apparently natural) “Son” and believers as those who have received “adoption as sons”; and (4) the parallel statement that “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son.”
Attempts to circumvent this evidence inevitably fail to consider how these elements function cumulatively. God sent his Son from heaven to redeem his people, and then he sent the Spirit of his Son from heaven to dwell within them (see further Putting Jesus in His Place, 89 and the notes there). The parallel between the sending forth of the Son and the sending forth of the Spirit, in turn, supports the conclusion that the Spirit is a person. Thus, this short passage in Galatians treats the Father, Son, and Spirit as three distinct preexistent persons, each of whom is integrally involved in our “adoption as sons.”
“…for through him [Christ] we both [Jews and Gentiles] have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.”
Christ is the central figure in this passage, as he is throughout the epistle (Paul mentions him explicitly in 58 of the 155 verses of Ephesians, as compared to 38 verses for God the Father and 14 for the Spirit), but he is closely flanked by both the Father and the Spirit. In verse 18 Paul states that through Christ both Jews and Gentiles have “access in one Spirit to the Father.” The language distinguishes the three from one another and attributes distinct but essential roles to each. Paul names the three again in close association in verse 22: “a holy temple in the Lord…a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” Paul describes the dwelling place (the temple) as being both “in the Lord” and “in the Spirit.” The phrase “in the Lord” is a favorite of Paul, who consistently uses it in reference to the Lord Jesus (about 51 times; it occurs only once elsewhere in the NT, Rev. 14:13). Yet this phrase in the Greek OT refers uniformly to YHWH (about 24 times).
“One body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”
If we had only this passage we might be forgiven for not seeing a triadic pattern in this passage, since the text has seven occurrences of the word “one.” However, three exegetical considerations prove that this text does exhibit a triadic pattern within the sevenfold statement of Christian unity. (1) This passage repeats, in reverse order, the triad from an earlier Pauline passage, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (Spirit, Lord, God), with the word “one” modifying each name instead of the word “same.” (2) Both passages in context introduce the subject of spiritual gifts (cf. 1 Cor. 12-14 with Eph. 4:1-16, especially 4:7-11). This thematic connection makes the recurrence of the three names Spirit, Lord, and God all the more likely to be significant. (3) The structure of the sevenfold statement actually places the three names at specific junctures in that statement. Thus, the affirmations of “one Spirit” and “one Lord” are interrupted by a whole clause “just as also you were called in one hope of your calling” (instead of simply “one hope”), and “one God and Father of all” comes at the climax with the threefold flourish “who is over all and through all and in all.” This analysis supports the conclusion that “one Spirit,” “one Lord,” and “one God and Father of all” are references to deity, as distinguished from the other four terms in the sevenfold statement.
“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to the God and Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.”
As I explained in the previous round, NT language about being “filled with the Spirit” does not imply that the Spirit is not a divine person. Paul in this same epistle speaks of both Christ (Eph. 1:23; 4:10) and God (Eph. 3:19) “filling” the church and its members. Thus, the whole epistle in a sense presents a kind of “triadic” or implicitly “trinitarian” view of divine filling, since Father, Christ, and Spirit all fill God’s people.
Paul says three things in this short passage that exalt Jesus above all creatures. The first is that believers are to sing spiritual songs “to the Lord.” For Jews steeped in the faith of the OT, to “sing to the Lord” meant to sing to Yahweh, the LORD (Ex. 15:21; Judg. 5:3; 1 Chron. 16:23; Ps. 7:17; 9:11; 92:1; 95:1; 96:2; 104:33; Is. 42:10). Yet in context, Paul is speaking of singing to the Lord Jesus. We know this because of the typical Pauline triad “Spirit-Lord-God” that we have already seen more than once, and also because Paul in the same breath refers to him as “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Thus, Paul directs Christians to sing hymns to Jesus as if he were Jehovah.
Second, Paul tells the Ephesians to thank God the Father “in the name [en onomati] of our Lord Jesus Christ.” While Paul distinguishes the Father and Christ here, he does not distinguish them as sharply as one might suppose. “The name” of the Lord Jesus has a place unimaginable in Judaism for any man. The Jews would never dream of giving God thanks in the name of Moses or even in Michael’s name. Furthermore, Paul’s language here actually echoes the words of the Psalmist who spoke about thanking God in his name: “In God we will make our boast the whole day, and in your name [en tō onomati sou] give thanks forever” (Ps. 44:8).
Third, Paul instructs the Ephesian believers to behave “in the fear of Christ.” The KJV and NKJV (which generally follows the textual tradition of the KJV) say “in the fear of God” here, but modern translations follow the better textual evidence that supports “in the fear of Christ” (ESV, HCSB, NAB, NASB, NET, NIV, NJB, NRSV, etc.). In the parallel passage in Colossians (the two epistles closely parallel one another), Paul directs servants to obey their masters, “fearing the Lord…. You serve the Lord Christ” (Col. 3:22, 24). Paul, then, teaches Christians to “fear the Lord,” that is, to fear Christ (see also 2 Cor. 5:10-11; Eph. 6:7-8). Of course, to “fear the Lord” in a Jewish context means to fear the LORD Jehovah (Deut. 6:13; 10:20; Prov. 1:7; 2:5; 9:10; etc.; Is. 8:12-13).
The epistle of Paul to the Ephesians presents one of the most concentrated series of triadic passages that in various ways reflect what must be called at the very least an implicit or incipient trinitarianism. Paul not only repeatedly refers to God, the Lord, and the Spirit in statements that coordinate them in complementary roles in cosmic history and the Christian life of the believer, but he articulates a Christocentric faith in which Jesus Christ is identified as the divine Lord and is the object of confession, the singing of hymns, and the holy fear of the LORD.
1 Peter 1:2
“…elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied.”
Anti-Trinitarians often raise an objection to the doctrine of the Trinity on the basis that the salutations of the epistles do not mention the Holy Spirit. The objection rests on a fallacious argument from silence, but it also misses this salutation, which does mention the Holy Spirit. As with the benediction in 2 Corinthians 13:14, this salutation features names of the three, each in the genitive case associated with specific divine blessings. The exiled believers in the diaspora, Peter says, are “elect” or chosen in relation to the blessings that come from God the Father, the Spirit, and Jesus Christ. The “foreknowledge of God the Father” refers to the divine blessing of God foreknowing his chosen ones. The “sanctification of the Spirit” refers to the divine blessing of the Spirit sanctifying those chosen ones. The “obedience and sprinkling of the blood” refers to the divine blessing of Jesus Christ bringing us into a new covenant relationship with God in which we are redeemed and freed to live as his obedient children (1 Peter 1:14-19). Here again, then, a NT author describes the Father, the Spirit, and Christ as each acting, performing divine functions of salvation that are coordinated and complementary to each other.
The NT repeatedly speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (sometimes with these specific designations, sometimes with others) in triadic statements that attribute divine functions to each of the three. There is nothing arbitrary about the Trinitarian claim of a threefoldness in Scripture’s revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as if, for example, one might just as easily speak of a quaternary of Father, Son, Michael, and Gabriel, or of God, Jesus, Peter, and Paul, or perhaps a fivefold revelation of the Father, Adam, Christ, Power, and Truth. No, this threefoldness of Father—Son—Holy Spirit or God—Lord—Spirit is found throughout the NT in the Synoptics, John, Acts, the Pauline epistles, the Petrine epistles, and elsewhere that space prevents me from documenting with any detail.
Dave and I agree that the Father is God. We agree that the Holy Spirit is at least an aspect of God (Dave thinks the Holy Spirit is God’s power, I think the Holy Spirit is God). Thus, we agree that two of the three referents in this common NT triad refer to God or an aspect of God. There is some force to the argument, then, that the third referent in this triad is also God. I have argued in rounds two and three of this debate that the Son is in fact God and in round four that the Holy Spirit is a divine person. I have further shown in this round that the triadic passages in the NT often provide additional confirmation of the essential deity of the Son or of the personhood of the Holy Spirit or both. These passages therefore provide substantial support, within the larger context of the biblical teaching already examined, for the doctrine of the Trinity.
In the final round of this debate next week, Dave and I will give our closing statements and invite your questions and comments. In my closing statement, I will draw the threads of the arguments together and offer a comparison of the Biblical Unitarian and Trinitarian theological positions.