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The Trinity and the Bible

Last night I was reading a good book from a doctoral fellow from Princeton Theological Seminary who made this comment: “Jesus’ final words in Matthew’s Gospel contain the only overt reference [to the Trinity].”  Unfortunately I’ve heard this before, but it just isnt’ true.

It is true that the doctrine of the Trinity as we often articulate it is not found in one passage of the Bible.  However, there are a great number of passages that have overt references to the Trinity.  What makes many of these passages remarkable is that they are often stated in passing.  The reason why this is remarkable is because it reveals that the Trinity was a basic theological understanding of the earliest church.  They often make overt references to the Trinity without even thinking about it because it was so embedded into their thought.

This very fact challenges the notion that the doctrine of the Trinity was a later theological construct of the church.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Consider the following two examples:

…knowing, brothers and sisters beloved by God, your election, how that our gospel came to you not in word alone, but also with power, namely, with the Holy Spirit and full conviction, just as you know what manner of men we were toward you for your sakes; and how you became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the message amid great affliction, accompanied by the joy of the Holy Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 1:4-6)

1 Thessalonians is unanimously considered the earliest of Paul’s letters, perhaps one of the earliest books of the New Testament.  In this passage, then, we have one of the earliest references of Christian conversion which is purely Trinitarian.

“But we ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.  He called you to this salvation through our gospel, so that you may possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14).

This passage is important for a variety of reasons.  First, “this is the first of several semi-creedal soteriological passages in which Paul refers to the saving event as the combined activity of the triune God.  Here the Father “elects,” the Son “has loved” (in the cross), and the Spirit effects it in their lives by “sanctifying” them” (Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 78).  Second, this second letter to the Thessalonians is also one of the earliest books of the New Testament and, therefore, contains a very early reference to the Trinity.  It is also intriguing that Paul describes conversion in tersm of sanctification, but that is a different thought than my focus today…

It is clear from these two very early passages (and there are many, many more) that the Apostle Paul and his communities were explicitly and overtly Trinitarian.  Trinitarian language flows out of Paul’s mouth even when he isn’t thinking about it!

Anyone wishing to learn more should consult Gordon Fee’s magisterial God’s Empowering Presence.

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