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The Trinity in the Old Testament (Part 1): Divine Plurality
Tuesday, January 15, 2019 7:48
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It is often assumed that the doctrine of the Trinity – the idea that there is one being of God that is comprised of three eternal and co-equal divine persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is something that is revealed only in the incarnation of the Son, between the penning of the Old and New Testaments. The New Testament, then, serves as the written record of the revelation of the Trinity, in the incarnation of the Son in the person of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentacost. While it is certainly true that the expression of the Trinity reaches its climax in the New Testament, few Christians are aware that one can find evidence of divine plurality – and even of there being three divine persons – throughout the Old Testament as well. The purpose of this article series is to highlight the continuity of the Old and New Testaments with respect to the nature of God.
Before we delve into the evidence, however, why is this an important subject for Christians to consider? I believe that it is important for a few reasons. Firstly, the gospel is fundamentally Trinitarian. God’s plan of salvation is a plan that was initiated by the Father, accomplished by the Son, and is applied by the Holy Spirit. The gospel can therefore not be divorced from the Triune nature of God. Secondly, various pseudochristian sects (e.g. Biblical unitarians, Jehovah’s witnesses, etc), as well as Muslims and orthodox Jews, deny the Trinity and we need to know how to defend this doctrine against attacks – including against the allegation that the Trinity is inconsistent with the Old Testament.
A further reason to consider this subject is that the study reveals what I call “intricate harmonies” in the Bible, which provide evidence for the divine inspiration of Scripture. What are intricate harmonies? When different parts of Scripture (which are often scattered across different authors, genres, and centuries) interlock with one another to be subtly consistent on a matter that is highly surprising, this provides evidence for the divine inspiration of Scripture. Indeed, the very concept of there being multiple divine persons in one divine being seems very unlike the sort of thing that humans would invent – let alone its subtle consistency across different authors, genres and centuries. However, we need to make sure that, at the end, nothing is being shoehorned or forced. If it even begins to feel that way (to a thoughtful listener), that will be a big turn-off to this style of argument. As with many of the categories of evidence for Christianity, this phenomenon is best explained by giving examples, and so it is to this that I now turn my attention. I hope that in doing so, over the course of several blog posts, the strength and power of the cumulative argument from intricate harmonies becomes clear.
Does the Shema Exclude Divine Plurality?
It is sometimes alleged by Biblical unitarians and others that the Jewish shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) precludes the idea of divine plurality, for it clearly states that God is one. Here is the text:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
The Hebrew word used for one in this text is echad. Echad can refer to a singular unity, but it can also refer to a compound or complex unity. For example, in Genesis 2:24, we read that Adam and Eve became one flesh (the word for ‘one’ here is again ‘echad’). In 2 Chronicles 30:12, we read that God gave the people “one heart” (lev echad). Various other examples could be given. If the word used for one in Deuteronomy 6:4 had been yachid, that would have been more of a problem, since that word does mean an absolute and solitary unity (e.g. Psalm 68:6). But the fact that the author of Deuteronomy 6:4 used echad allows for (but does not require) a compound or composite unity.
Do the Singular Pronouns Used of God Exclude Divine Plurality?
Another objection I often encounter to the concept of divine plurality is the fact that the Bible uses singular pronouns for God (i.e. “he”, “his”, “him” rather than plural pronouns like “they”, “their”, “them”, etc). Does this preclude God from being multipersonal? No, not at all. For example, even the entire nation of Israel is spoken of at various times in Scripture with a singular masculin pronoun. For one example of many that could be given, consider Psalm 130:7-8:
7 O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. 8 And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
This suffices to show that even a corporation comprising multiple individuals can be spoken of in the Hebrew Bible using singular pronouns.
Examples of Texts that Affirm Divine Plurality
One of my favourite examples of texts that affirm divine plurality in the Hebrew Bible is Zechariah 2:6-12. The context is God promising deliverance for the Jewish exiles in Babylon, and their return to their own land. Here is the text. Pay careful attention to the three sentences that I have highlighted:
6 Up! Up! Flee from the land of the north, declares the LORD. For I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, declares the LORD. 7 Up! Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon. 8 For thus said the LORD of hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye: 9 “Behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall become plunder for those who served them. Then you will know that the LORD of hosts has sent me. 10 Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD. 11 And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. 12 And the LORD will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.”
No fewer than three times in this text, Yahweh (the LORD God) states that he has been sent by Yahweh. Now hang on a minute – Yahweh has sent Yahweh? That’s right – that is exactly what the text says. Here, there are two persons identified by the title of Yahweh. There is simply no way of reading this except through the lens of divine plurality. In light of the New Testament, we can conclude that here the Son speaks of Himself being sent by the Father to dwell in the midst of God’s people.
Is this an isolated case? Absolutely not. To take another instance, consider Isaiah 48:11-16. Let’s look firstly at verses 11-16a:
11 For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another. 12 “Listen to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am he; I am the first, and I am the last. 13 My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand forth together. 14 Assemble, all of you, and listen! Who among them has declared these things? The LORD loves him; he shall perform his purpose on Babylon, and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans. 15 I, even I, have spoken and called him; I have brought him, and he will prosper in his way. 16 Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there.
I think all readers will agree that this whole section records the words of Yahweh. But in verse 16b, this is followed by something very odd:
And now the LORD God has sent me, and his Spirit.
Again, we see that Yahweh has been sent by Yahweh, along with the Spirit of Yahweh.
My interpretation here is by no means new. Consider the wisdom of several early Christian theologians who saw this text as an allusion to God’s Triune nature, including Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo, and Jerome.
In reading commentaries of this text, however, I have encountered three alternative interpretations. One is that it is Cyrus of Persia interjecting. However, this seems to be a stretch. Not only would that break up the flow of the text (and verse 17 returns to Yahweh speaking), but such an interpretation seems to stand refuted upon a read of Isaiah 45:1-6 in which Yahweh addresses Cyrus. Pay careful attention once again to the highlighted text:
Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed: 2 “I will go before you and level the exalted places, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, 3 I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. 4 For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. 5 I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me, 6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.
Thus, Isaiah says, Cyrus of Persia, a pagan king, has been annointed and equipped by God to do God’s bidding, even though Cyrus does not know the LORD God. It thus seems unlikely that just a few chapters later Cyrus would announce “And now the LORD God has sent me, and His Spirit.”
The second alternative interpretation that I have encountered of Isaiah 48:16 is that it is the righteous servant that interjects. The very next chapter, after all, Isaiah 49, presents the righteous servant speaking in the first person. As I will show in a future article in this series, however, the righteous servant is Himself a divine person who shares in the very essence of Yahweh Himself. Thus, even if that interpretation is correct, I do not believe it would undercut the thrust of the argument that the text communicates divine plurality.
The third alternative interpretation that I have encountered is that it is Isaiah interjecting. This interpretation is possible (although I still think it unnecessarily breaks up the flow of the text, since what comes before and after is clearly Yahweh speaking). It is the only viable interpretation which would seem successful in undermining the case for God’s triunity. However, even in this case, one could still make a case for at least binitarianism, since there is still an allusion to the distinctive personality of the Holy Spirit, who either is sent along with the other individual or cooperates with God in sending him (the text in that respect is rather ambiguous).
Isaiah 48 is by no means the only text in Isaiah that communicates divine plurality. Another instance is in Isaiah 63:7-10:
7 I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. 8 For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” And he became their Savior. 9 In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. 10 But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.
God is described as Father in verse 8, since the Hebrews are said to be his children. Verse 10 also describes the Holy Spirit, who was grieved by the rebellion of God’s people in the wilderness. This indicates the personal identity of the Holy Spirit (you cannot grieve an impersonal active force). Curiously, this text also dovetails with Psalm 78:40, in which we read,
How often they rebelled against him [i.e. the LORD God] in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!
The very same language is therefore applied in the Psalms to Yahweh, the God of Israel, suggesting that the Holy Spirit is Himself Yahweh.
Isaiah 63:9 also refers to the “angel of His presence”. I shall have more to say about this individual in a future article in this series. For now, please note that the Hebrew word malak(translated here “angel” in our English Bibles) does not necessarily refer to angelic creatures, and can refer to human messengers as well. Indeed, the name Malachi means “my messenger”. The term could also therefore be translated “messenger” rather than “angel”.
The text alludes back to Exodus 23:20, in which we read,
20 Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared. 21 Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him.
I will show in a lot more detail in a future article that this messenger/angel is in fact Himself a divine person, and identified by Scripture as none other than the preincarnate Messiah Himself. But, for now, notice that in verse 21 He is said to have authority to forgive and withhold forgiveness of sins (an exclusively divine prerogative). God also states that He bears the very name of God Himself. As I’ll show in a future article, for God’s name to be in this messenger is a Hebrew idiom for His nature to be dwelling within this Messenger.
There are many other reasons besides these considerations to understand this figure as a divine figure – but that is a topic for another day. For the time-being, notice that in Isaiah 63 there are three distinct divine persons spoken of. Some commentators on Isaiah 63 understand the messenger of His presence and the Holy Spirit to be one and the same. However, this seems to be refuted by Zechariah 6:8 in which the angel of the LORD appears to distinguish His Spirit from Himself.
For yet another text that expresses divine plurality, consider Hosea 1:7:
But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by the LORD their God. I will not save them by bow or by sword or by war or by horses or by horsemen.
Here, we read that Yahweh intends to save the house of Judah by Yahweh their God. This text sounds rather awkward, unless read through the lens of divine plurality.
I will consider one further example of a text that expresses divine plurality. Consider Proverbs 30:1-4:
The sayings of Agur son of Jakeh—an inspired utterance. This man’s utterance to Ithiel: “I am weary, God, but I can prevail. 2 Surely I am only a brute, not a man; I do not have human understanding. 3 I have not learned wisdom, nor have I attained to the knowledge of the Holy One. 4 Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? Surely you know!
Here, in verse 4, we read of the son of God. The concept of a son of God is not foreign to the Hebrew Bible. It is a title used of Israel (Hosea 11:1), Solomon (2 Samuel 7:14: 1 Chronicles 17:13), and of Adam in the New Testament (Luke 3:38). The question, then, is what does the title son of God refer to here? The context can give us some clues.
Agur is contemplating the incomprehensibility of God. He says in verse 3, “I have not learned wisdom, nor have I attained to the knowled of the Holy One.” In other words, God is unfathomable. He then asks a series of rhetorical questions: “Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth?” The answer to each of those rhetorical questions is obviously God. He then concludes with a final rhetorical question: “What is his name, and what is the name of his Son? Surely you know!” To know someone’s name is a Jewish idiom for to understand their nature. Thus, the answer to the rhetorical question, based on the context, is “No, we don’t know the name because God’s nature is incomprehensible.” Thus, the nature of the Son is incomprehensible in just the same sense that the nature of God is incomprehensible. This suggests strongly that the Son being spoken of here is not a Davidic heir or the nation of Israel or Adam, but is in fact a divine person who is co-equal with God Himself.
I have only scratched the very pinacle of the proverbial ice berg. There are many, many more texts in the Hebrew Bible that communicate the concept of divine plurality. In future blog posts, we will consider some further examples and explore how the Old Testament expression of God’s personal plurality relate to the Biblical portrait of Israel’s Messiah. As we do so, we will see with increasing clarity how intricate harmonies point to the divine inspiration of the Scriptures.
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