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 Christos Sp. Voulgaris

The Biblical and Patristic Doctrine of the Trinity

From: The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, vol. 37 (Νov.) 3-4, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, Mass., 1992.


The Old Testament

THE   WITNESS   OF   THE   SCRIPTURES The Old Testament The Holy Trinity is fully revealed in the second period of the divine Economy recorded in the New Testament, while in the first period, recorded in the Old Testament, we only have hints about it.  Here the emphasis lies on Monotheism due to Israel's tendency towards idolatry and polytheism, and to man's sinful condition, which prevented him from a clear knowledge of God (cf. Romans 1:18-2,16).

When examining the Old Testament, scholars usually confine themselves to evidence in five texts, i.e., to Genesis 1:26, 3:22 and 11:7 where according to the Hebrew text, God's name occurs in the plural (Elohim), to Genesis 18, which records the three angels' visit to Abraham, and to Isaiah 6:3, which records the threefold hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy" sung by the angels around God's throne.  However, a closer look at the Old Testament reveals a greater number of texts of a Trinitarian context.

Indeed, the Old Testament begins with the simple statement, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  In the Hebrew text the word ‘God’ occurs in the plural while the verb ‘created’ occurs in the singular. The explanation given by scholars here is that we are confronted with a ‘pluralis amplitudinis’ according to which, as in the case of the kings and rulers of antiquity, the plural form ‘Elohim’ stresses God’s majesty, while many saw the purpose of the author to prevent polytheistic tendencies by placing the verb in the singular.  But if this was the case, then the word ‘God’ should have been exclusively used in the singular throughout the Old Testament; but it does not.  Besides, if a ‘pluralis amplitudinis’ is indicated each time he word ‘Elohim’ occurs, then the verb should always occur in the singular, as in Genesis 1:1.  It does not, because in the account of man's creation in the same chapter, the verb, used twice, is first placed in the singular and the plural, agreeing with the plural pronoun, “Then God said, let us make man in our image, and after our likeness (Genesis 1:26).”  Since the verb and the pronoun occur here in the plural, the word ‘Elohim’ stands for the Godhead, indicating more than one Person.  A similar case is found in Genesis 3:22, where the singular ‘said’ is followed by the plural ‘one’ of ‘us’, and in Genesis 11:7, where the singular verb is later changed into the plural, “Let us go down and let us confuse their language”.  A case similar to Genesis 1:26 is also found in Genesis 3:22.

In their efforts to impose a singular connotation upon Genesis 1:26, 3:22, and 11:7, scholars maintained that the dialogue here is not among the persons of the Godhead, but rather between God and the heavenly spirits.  In practical terms this explanation implies that God the Creator addressed Himself to the heavenly spirits and asked them to participate in man’s creation. If correct, then the being about to be created (man) should be created ‘in the image and after the likeness” of both God and the spirits.  Such an idea, however, is anathema as far as the bible is concerned, because it places the uncreated God and the created spirits on an equal footing as models of other creatures.  But that God alone is man’s model is evident from Genesis 1:27, where it is clearly stated that “God created man in His own image of God He created him” as well as from Ecclesiastes 12:1, where a multipersonal Godhead is said to be man’s model.

The interpretation of the above texts in the context of a ‘pluralis amplitudinis’ is of Jewish origin, dating at the time of Theodoret of Kyros who says that “they (the Jews) maintain that God of all said to Himself “let us make man” after the example of those in high honor.  Indeed supreme rulers are accustomed to say in the plural “we decree,” and “we write” and “we command,” and the rest.  But they (the Jews) did not realize that the God of all speaks mostly in the singular, “It is time that every man come in my presence (Genesis 6:13)” and “I remembered that I created man” and “I will blot out man (Genesis 6:6-7)” and “Behold, I am doing new things; now they spring forth (Isaiah 43:19).”  In the entire divine Scripture we hear the God of all conversing in the singular, while a few times he converses also in the plural, indicating the number of the Persons of the Trinity.  For when He confused the languages, He did not say in the singular “I will go down and confuse their language,” but “Let us go down and let us confuse their languages (Genesis 11:7).”  Every time it is said “God said” it is meant the common divine essence; but when it continues “Let us make” the number of the Persons is implied.  Likewise, when it is said ‘image’, it is meant the identity of nature, for He did not say “in images,” but “in image.”  And when He said “in our” He indicated the number of the persons.”[ii]

Let us turn now to another kind of Old Testament texts where the existence of more than one person in the Godhead is indicated by the New Testament where they are cited.  Thus, e.g., v. 2 of Psalm 2 which has a messianic significance (cf. Matthew 3:17, 17:5, Mark 1:11, 9:7, Luke 3:22, John 1:49, Acts 13:33 etc.), speaks about “the Lord” and “His Christ.” ‘Lord’ is a translation of the Hebrew word ‘Adonai’, signifying God as the Lord of the universe and of Israel.  But in Acts 4:26 and Revelation 11:15 “the Christ” of Psalm 2:2 is expressly identified with Jesus.  A similar case is that of Psalm 18:26-27, also a messianic Psalm, “whose coming one in the name of the Lord” is also identified in Matthew 21:9 and Luke 19:38 with Jesus by the multitudes.  No doubt, the multitudes’ conviction was based upon Jesus’ own conviction that He came in the name of His Father (John 5:43), whom even He called ‘Lord’ of heavens and earth (Matthew 11:25).

In the Old Testament, the title ‘Lord’ is applied also to another Person, besides the Father, of divine status.  A classic case is that of Psalm 110.1, “The Lord said to my Lord…”  In the Synoptic tradition, the second Lord is identified by Jesus with Himself (Mt 22:44); this identification was deposited in the early Church (Acts 2:34-35, Rom 8:34, etc.).  The Son’s Lordship is stressed in all these cases on account of His participation in the creation of the world and of His redemptive work by which He detached creation from the rule of Satan and submitted it to Himself (cf. Ephesians 1:3-23, Colossians 1:12-20, 1 Corinthians 15:12-28, Hebrews 1:2-3, etc.).  Jesus Christ’s Lordship over creation is stressed also by Psalm 102:26-28, according to its interpretation in Hebrews 1:10.  Additional cases of application of the title ‘Lord’ to another Person besides God in the Old Testament are Deuteronomy 9:10, 1 Chronicles 17:16,21, Amos 4:11, Jeremiah 50:40, etc., where this other “Lord” appears acting in a special way as a mediator between God and the world and is invested with a divine power and authority.   In the New Testament this person is always identified with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, called equally ‘Lord’ like his Father.

Indeed, the Lordship of the Son is grounded upon His equal honor with God the Father.  Thus in Psalm 45:7-8  and Isaiah 9:6 He is equally called ‘God’ in a purely biblical sense, since quite often in the Old Testament the future Davidic ruler appears as a representative of God.  But in Psalm 2:7 and 110:3 this Davidic Messiah is called not only Son of God, but also God himself.  A similar case is found in Psalm 45:7-8, where the word ‘God’ occurs twice, once in the vocative and once in the nominative, the first indicating the Messiah, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews (1:8-9, Christ) and Aquila.[iii]  Also the “Mighty God” in the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 9:6 is anointed with “the oil of gladness” (cf. also Acts 10:38) and destined to rule the world with equity and righteousness (cf. also Isaiah 9:7, 32:1; Psalm 45:7-8).

The fourth Evangelist, referring to the “Lord of hosts” of Isaiah 6:10, whom the prophet saw and whose voice he heard at the moment of his call, identified Him, Jesus the Son followed, by the explanation “Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke of Him (John 12:40-41).”  John’s interpretation of Isaiah 6:10 forced the Church Fathers to see in all the theophanies of the Old Testament the Son of God.  Indeed, according to the Fathers, it was the Son who appeared to Abraham (Genesis 12:7, 17:1, 18:1), to Isaac (Genesis 26:23-24), to Jacob (Genesis 35:7; 48:3; 32:28,30), to Moses (Exodus 33:13-14), to Ezekiel (Ezekiel 1:1ff), etc., albeit in different ways.  Christ’s invisibility in the Old Testament was due to His pre-incarnated state in accordance with His observation to Moses that “you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live (Exodus 30:20),” or as the Fathers explained, that creatures cannot see the uncreated essence.[iv]

In addition to this, in the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 6, the Hebrew word for the ‘Lord of hosts’ is ‘Yahweh’.  It is interesting to note that many Old Testament passages using this name are cited in the New Testament as fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.  Thus, besides Psalm 102:26-28 cited in Hebrews 1:10-12, we are told in 1 Corinthians 10:9 that the grumbling against Yahweh at Rephidim (Exodus 17:2-7, Numbers 21:6-7) was against Jesus Himself.  Also, the Lord, who sends His messenger to prepare the way before Him, according to Malachi 3:1, is identified with Jesus in the Synoptic tradition; the messenger himself is identified with John the Baptist (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4).  Finally, the prophecy of Isaiah 35:3ff is applied by Luke 7:19-22 to Jesus.

Closely connected with the above is the figure of the ‘Malachi Yahweh’ of ‘Malachi Elohim’ found mostly in pre-exilic texts.  This figure appears superior to men in knowledge, power, and wisdom and is sent by God to protect or guide Israel (Exodus 14:19, 23:20; Numbers 20:26) or certain individuals (Genesis 18, 24:7, 28:10,15, etc.) to smite the enemies of the people of God (2 Kings 19:35), to punish Israel (2 Samuel 24:16,1 Chronicles 21:16), to announce messages from God (Genesis 16:7-11, 22:11-25, etc.), and to provide help (1 Samuel 29:9;2  Kings 14:17,20).  Quite often He speaks and acts as though He were God himself, while at times He is clearly distinguished from Him.  Recent scholarship wavers between the identification of this figure with God and its differentiation from Him, while the Church Fathers, with the exception of Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Thomas Aquinas, identified the ‘Malachi Yahweh’ with the Son of God, forecasting his incarnation.[v]  However, besides the active presence of the first two Persons of the Holy Trinity in the Old Testament, a few texts also indicate the active presence of the Holy Spirit.  Thus, Psalm 95:7-11 speaks about “the voice of God,” which in Hebrews 3:7-11 is identified with the Holy Spirit.  Similarly, the expression, “Says the Lord” in Jeremiah 31:31-34, cited in an abbreviated from in Hebrews 10:15-17, is identified with the Holy Spirit, with the comment “and the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us.”

Finally, there are passages in the Old Testament that suggest the active presence of all three Persons of the Holy Trinity.  Thus, besides the identifications of “the Lord of hosts” with Jesus Christ in Isaiah 6:8-10, the “voice of the Lord” in the same text is identified with the Holy Spirit in Acts 28:25-27.  Therefore, in this prophecy we have all three Persons present.  Similarly, in Isaiah 48:16-17, except the speaking Lord, we have also the Lord who sent him and “His Spirit.”  The same thing is observed in Isaiah 61:1-2 which is cited in Luke 4:18-19.

The above texts are a sample only of greater evidence in the Old Testament.  It is interesting to point out, however, that when the Old Testament speaks generally about ‘God’, most of the times it is the Godhead indicated.


[ii] Questions in Loca diffic. Sacrae, In Genesim, 19, PG. 80.101 A-C.

[iii] Cf. Eusebios Interpr. In Ps 44.

[iv] Cf. Eusebios, Comm. In Isa, 6 ; Cyril of Jerusalem., Catech. 10, 6-8. John of Damascus, The Orthodox Faith 10,4. etc.

[v] Cf. Justin, Dial 57-60. Irenaeus, Haer 1;4,5-7; Eusebios, Comm. In Isa. 6 ; Cyril of Jer, Cat 14,27 ; Athanasius, Against Arians, 3,12-14; Saint Basil, Contra Eunom. 2,18; Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunom. 11,3 etc.