[ Author: Kathy Petersen ]
Entire books have been written on this topic, so I have no illusions that this brief treatise will be as deep as it could be. Rather, this is intended to be a brief discussion about a Biblical defense of the Trinity. When I first got started in Christian apologetics, I’ll be honest – I couldn’t really defend the Trinity from the Bible! It was something I was taught growing up and I accepted it as truth, but I couldn’t show it myself. However, the Trinity will probably be one of the first things you’ll discuss with many non-Christians (and even with some groups who claim to be Christians).
Starting with a broad brush stroke
There are many non-Trinitarians (even among those who claim to believe the Bible but more so among those who do not claim to believe the Bible, such as Muslims, atheists, etc.) and Trinitarians will need to specifically tailor their arguments to each different non-Trinitarian belief, as the case may arise. A broad argument or defense will work at least as a starting place in most cases. (Of course, atheists, Muslims, etc., will not necessarily believe the Bible because of this but you can still show them why you believe in the Trinity if they ask.)
The shortest version is this:
The Bible clearly and repeatedly says that there is only one God and it identifies the Father, the Son, and the Spirit all as God.
To expand upon it a bit, you could also add:
The Father, Son and Spirit are also identified as different people, in that the Son could speak of Himself as “Me” and of the Father and Spirit as “Him”, and to the Father as “You/Thou”.
Assuming the Bible is true, and assuming you believe all of the Bible, the Trinity is the only explanation for the above. [If the Bible isn’t true, then it doesn’t matter what the Bible says, does it? But if the topic comes up with an atheist, Muslim, or some other person who doesn’t even claim to believe the Bible is true, you may be presented with the objection that the Bible is contradictory, in that it says there is only one God, yet the Father, Son and Spirit are all considered as “God”, so being able to explain it is helpful.]
Most non-Trinitarians who claim to believe the Bible either deny the deity of Jesus Christ, or go either into Modalism or Polytheism. In brief, Modalism is the belief that there are not three Persons of God, but only one Person who appears in different “modes”; He “puts on different masks”, so that Jesus is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Polytheism, of course, is the belief in multiple Gods (so that the Father is one God, Jesus is another God, and the Spirit is another God), though this can take on different forms, in the details of the different belief systems.
A misrepresentation of belief
A common objection that Trinitarians hear is, “How could Jesus pray to Himself?” Well, unless you’re a Modalist, you don’t believe that, so that’s technically a straw-man argument. [Modalists essentially say that when Jesus prayed to the Father in the garden of Gethesemane, that it was the human side of Jesus praying to His divine side.]
I’ll be honest, I really don’t understand how Modalists can claim to believe the Bible. Passages such as, “I will pray to the Father and He will send you another Comforter, which is the Holy Spirit” are the death-knell of Modalism, in my opinion, because if the Father, Son and Spirit are all the same Person, then shouldn’t Jesus have said, “I will pray to Me and I will send you another Comforter, which is… Me in a different mask.” It just doesn’t make sense. There are also such passages as Jesus’s baptism where He is present on earth, the Father speaks from heaven and the Spirit descends in bodily form like a dove. One Person? I think not!
Going back to the general topic of the Trinity, the Bible clearly and repeatedly says that there is only one God and even says that there is one Jehovah (though the word used for “one” can allow for a plural unity, such as a bunch [singular being] of grapes [multiple objects] – that is, many individual grapes in one single group). The most famous passage is the “Shema” of Deut. 6:4, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”
Most non-Trinitarians have no problem with accepting that the Father is called “God” in the Bible. Most have a problem with believing that the Son is also God and that the Spirit is a Person (for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Holy Spirit to be “God’s impersonal, active force” and liken Him to electricity–they have even translated their Bible to reflect that).
Going a different direction
Mormons, on the other hand, don’t have a problem with accepting that Jesus is considered a god in the Bible, since they think that Jehovah is the name of the pre-incarnate Jesus and Jehovah is obviously called “the God of Israel” (but they think that the Father is called “Elohim” in the Bible; Elohim is the Hebrew word for “God”). [If you want mental whiplash, switch back and forth between Mormon and JW groups and argue in both about the identity of Jehovah! In one, you’ll have to try to get them to accept that Jesus is considered Jehovah, while in the other, you’ll have to try to get them to accept that the Father is Jehovah.]
That Jesus is identified as Jehovah or as God (for JWs and similar groups who deny the deity of Christ), you can go to the numerous places in the NT where OT passages about Jehovah are quoted and applied to Jesus. There are very, very many, but the two best pairs are these: the last several verses of Psalm 102 (which is addressed to YHWH), are quoted in Heb. 1:10-12 and said to be of the Son; and John 12:41 (in its context), which is a quotation of Isaiah 6:1. [This can be especially helpful with JWs, because the margin notes even in their NWT Bible for John 12:41 directs the reader to Isaiah 6:1,8.]
Whose house is it?
For Mormons, to show that the Bible identifies Jehovah as the Father, the two main ways I like are to point out that the OT calls the Temple “the house of the LORD” (i.e., the house of YHWH/Jehovah), while in the NT, Jesus calls it “My Father’s house”. If the Temple is Jehovah’s house and is also Jesus’s Father’s house, then Jesus’s Father is Jehovah. [That should settle it but they’ll just cite “divine investiture of authority”, that is, “Yeah, it was Jehovah speaking, but He was speaking for the Father but in His own name, so when the Jews built a house for YHWH, it was really in honor of Elohim, the Father.” However, this is actually completely backwards of how it should be!
For example, when an ambassador speaks for someone else, does he say, “I John Smith want…”, or does he say, “My country which I represents wants…”? That is, when you’re speaking on someone else’s authority, you invoke their name! [You don’t speak in your own name.]
The second way, is to compare and contrast Hebrews with Genesis, to show that in Genesis, it is YHWH/Jehovah who appears to Abraham and swears by Himself because He can swear by none greater (again, if the Father/Elohim is greater than the Son/Jehovah, then how can Jehovah say He can swear by none greater?), while in Genesis, it is said that “God” does this, thus equating the two. [Most Mormons have no problem with agreeing that when the NT says simply “God”, that it is referring to Heavenly Father alone. If someone does have that objection, go to Heb. 1:1-2, which says, “God… has now spoken to us in His Son.”]
Can you grieve a thing?
As for the Holy Spirit, again, we are dealing with different potential objections, which require different responses. For groups like the JWs, who deny the personhood of the Spirit, point out in the Bible all the things that the Holy Spirit does and is and how the attributes are personal – for instance, that the Holy Spirit can be grieved. How can an impersonal, active force be grieved? [They might be able to get around that the Holy Spirit warns us, because does not the buzz of electricity give us a warning? But how can electricity be grieved?] Secondly, you can show from Acts 5 that lying to the Holy Spirit is equated to lying to God (the account of Ananias and Sapphira, where in back-to-back verses, Peter says that they have lied to the Holy Spirit and asked how they could have dared to lie to God). In addition to this equating, you can’t lie to an impersonal active force!
The proper requirement
Again, Mormonism requires a different response, because they usually accept that the Holy Ghost is a god and part of the Godhead but still reject the Trinity. Here is where knowing their own literature helps you because on the website (I think in their “Bible Dictionary”), they say that the Holy Spirit is sometimes called “the Spirit of God”. In 1 Sam. 10, verses 6 & 10, the Spirit of the LORD (YHWH/Jehovah) is equated to the Spirit of God – first, Samuel tells Saul that the Spirit of the LORD would come upon him and when that happens, it is recorded that the Spirit of God came upon him.
This shows that the Spirit of Jehovah (remember, they think this is Jesus and Jesus only) is the Holy Spirit which is the Spirit of God. How can Jehovah (Jesus) and God (the Father) have the same Spirit, but still be separate beings?
Another conundrum for Mormons in this area is, “How Jesus/Jehovah and the Spirit could both be gods, when their belief system requires that a person be born in a human body and go through “mortal probation” before they can become a God?” [Again, different Mormons may have different beliefs, so some may actually reject that. Most still accept it, though, and usually have no response to this question, except to say, “As the Articles of Faith say, we believe in all that God has revealed, is revealing, and will yet reveal. He simply hasn’t chosen to reveal that to us yet, so I’m not bothered by it in the slightest.” But I’d bet that most actually are bothered by it; they just won’t admit it.]
Again, there is much, much more that can be said on the topic but this is just a simple explanation, which I hope you will find helpful, when dealing with non-Trinitarians