Few Christian doctrines are as bizarre as the doctrine of the Trinity. Most people have a vague understanding of what the doctrine entails but far fewer can articulate it without accidentally falling into some cesspool of heterodoxy. Lest I follow suit, I’ll allow the Westminster Confession of Faith1 to define the doctrine:
In the unity of the Godhead there are three persons, having one substance, power, and eternity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Father exists. He is not generated and does not come from any source. The Son is eternally generated from the Father, and the Holy Spirit eternally comes from the Father and the Son. (2.3)
For many Christian doctrines support can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. But the doctrine of the Trinity is one for which an individual is hardpressed to find any clear formulation of it in the New Testament2 and it is absolutely missing in the Old. As theologian Gerald Bray has noted, Christians “must find their models for understanding the Trinity in the New Testament, not in the Old, because it is in the New Testament that this great mystery has been clearly revealed.”3 Bray and I may squabble over whether the Trinity “has been clearly revealed” in the New Testament but he is no doubt correct that the Old Testament lacks any clear model for the Trinity. It is a concept entirely foreign to it and one that is imposed upon it by later Christian interpreters. In other words, reading the Trinity into the Old Testament is necessarily eisegetical.
Of course, this hasn’t prevented Christians from thrusting their post-biblical views into the ancient Hebrew scriptures. A cursory reading of the New Testament makes it quite clear that Christian authors were often quite creative in their reading of the words of biblical texts. One thinks of the Gospel of Matthew and its author’s odd interpretation of Hosea 11:1 of which we read in Matthew 2:13-15. Or of Paul and his treatment of Sarah and Hagar in his epistle to the Galatians (Galatians 4:21-31). But this trend continued even after the canonical New Testament texts had been written as the works of various ante-Nicene church fathers make clear. For example, Theophilus of Antioch, writing in the second century CE, wrote that the three days prior to the creation of the sun and moon in Genesis 1 “are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.”4
Much of this rather creative exegesis is known to us as typology. In his classic text on early Christian doctrines, J.N.D. Kelly notes that typological exegesis
was a technique for bringing out the correspondence between the two Testaments, and took as its guiding principle the idea that the events and personages of the Old were ‘types’ of, i.e. prefigured and anticipated, the events and personages of the New. The typologist took history seriously; it was the scene of the progressive unfolding of God’s consistent redemptive purpose. Hence he assumed that, from the creation to the judgment, the same unwavering plan could be discerned in the sacred story, the earlier stages being shadows or, to vary the metaphor, rough preliminary sketches of the later. Christ and His Church were the climax; and since in all His dealings with mankind God was leading up to the Christian revelation, it was reasonable to discover pointers to it in the great experiences of His chosen people.5
Thus an exegete could pick just about anything found in the Old Testament and correlate it to something in the New. As Kelly writes, “The list of correspondences could be expanded almost indefinitely, for the fathers were never weary of searching out and dwelling on them.”6
But the Trinity is a different sort of animal if for no other reason than its formulation is missing from the New Testament. Reformed exegete Albertus Pieters noted in his book The Facts and Mysteries of the Christian Faith that the doctrine of the Trinity “is an induction made by the early Christians” from a series of “facts.” Per Pieters they are:
- That there is only one God.
- That Jesus Christ is God in the flesh.
- That though he is God, he is subordinate to the Father.
- The Holy Spirit is God.
- The Holy Spirit is distinguished from both God the Father and God the Son.
Pieters then writes,
The early Church, having these facts before it, coming from undoubted historical evidence and accredited organs of revelation, sought in form of words that would combine them into the clearest possible conception of the divine nature. The formula of the Holy Trinity is the result. God is confessed to be one in essence and three in persons.7
All of this depends on certain assumptions about the Bible. For example, one must assume that the Bible speaks univocally about Jesus. But this is clearly not the case as even a cursory reading of the Gospels makes clear. The Markan Jesus is so thoroughly human that the Matthean redactor sought to cushion the blow of some of his emotional outbursts.8 And there is a sharp contrast to be seen in how the Markan Jesus is portrayed before his death and how the Johannine Jesus is portrayed.9 Furthermore, of the four Gospels John’s has the highest Christology: his Jesus is divine and existed before the cosmos (John 1:1). We do not see this in the Synoptics.
These complicated theological issues are what make finding types of the Trinity in the Hebrew scriptures a fundamentally pointless task. The doctrine is so thoroughly an invention of Christian minds that seeking it out in the Old Testament involves severe abuse of those pre-Christian texts. But some still believe they are up to the challenge and one of them is no stranger to my readers. In a recent blog post entitled “Is the Holy Trinity Found in the Old Testament?” pop-apologist SJ Thomason takes it upon herself to find the doctrine in the ancient Jewish texts. And where does she find them? Why, in the furniture of the ancient Israelite Tabernacle! She writes,
The three persons of God can be found in the rituals surrounding the Ark of the Covenant. The Lord gave very specific instructions to Moses in the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, which is a gold-covered wooden chest that housed the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments (c.f., Joshua 3:11 and Exodus 25: 10-30; 37; 38; 39) or God’s Word. The Ark of the Covenant was placed in a sanctuary with a candlestick that contained seven oil lamps, which the priests were instructed to continually keep lit with olive oil. The candlestick, or “Menorah,” was the sole source of light for a 30 foot long, 15 foot wide, and 15 foot high room. The sanctuary further included a golden pot of “lechem panim,” which is literally translated as “face bread,” or the bread of the presence. The bread was to be accompanied by wine.
What is interesting about this paragraph is not so much what she says but what she doesn’t. Thomason mentions three items found in the Tabernacle:
- the ark of the covenant,
- the golden lampstand, and
- the bread of the Presence.
Three items for the three persons of the Trinity. But there weren’t three items found in the Tabernacle; there were four:
- in the Most Holy Place, the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:10-22);
- just outside the curtain separating the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place, the altar of incense (Exodus 30:1-10);
- in the Holy Place both the golden lampstand (Exodus 25:31-40) and
- the table for the bread of the Presence (Exodus 25:23-30).
In what follows, Thomason states that each of the three items she listed signified a member of the Godhead. But this selective reading missed the altar of incense. So what does it represent in relation to the Godhead? Is the Trinity really a Quaternity? This is one of the first problems with Thomason’s take.
Thomason explains what each of the items signify. She writes,
When these passages are considered in the context of the Gospels, one can assume that the Ark of the Covenant signifies the Father and His Word and promise to His children. The candlestick (or Menorah) represents the Holy Spirit of fire and ever-burning light. The bread of the presence represents Jesus, the Bread of Life (e.g., John 6.35). The bread and the wine together form a communion, which represents the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Without even an attempt to justify her assumption that “in the context of the Gospels” the texts which describe the furnishings of the Tabernacle signify things other than what they are, Thomason asserts that
- the ark of the covenant signifies God the Father,
- the golden lampstand signifies the Holy Spirit, and
- the bread of the Presence signifies Jesus.
Let’s briefly consider each, beginning with the golden lampstand, moving on to the bread of the Presence, and finishing with the ark of the covenant.
The word used in the LXX to describe the golden lampstand of the Tabernacle is luchnia and it is also the word the New Testament uses for it. In twenty-seven books, luchnia appears only twelve times: four times in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 5:15; Mark 4:21; Luke 8:16, 11:33), once in the Catholic Epistles (Hebrews 9:2), and seven times in the book of Revelation (1:12-13, 1:20 [2x], 2:1, 2:5, 11:4). The author of Hebrews makes a clear reference to the lampstand of the Tabernacle but beyond that there is no explicit mention of the lampstand of the Tabernacle. And in twelve instances of the word, there is no connection between a lampstand and the Holy Spirit.
But one New Testament author does use golden lampstands, like the one found in the Tabernacle, to signify something other than a lampstand. That author is John of the book of Revelation. In the opening chapter of the book we are told that John has a vision and hears a voice telling him to write down everything he sees into a book “and send it to the seven churches” (Revelation 1:11). When he turns to see who was speaking to him he sees “seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands…one like the Son of Man” (Revelation 1:12-13). If it isn’t clear from the mention of the seven churches and the seven lampstands that the latter represents the former, this connection is made explicitly by Jesus: “As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Revelation 1:20).
This imagery continues in the very next chapter as John records for the Ephesian church the words of Jesus. He is the one “who walks among the seven golden lampstands” (Revelation 2:1), a metaphor for Jesus’ continual presence among his followers. Jesus also threatens to “remove their lampstand” if the Ephesian Christians do not repent of their sin (Revelation 2:5). In every passage where lampstands appear in the book of Revelation except one (Revelation 11:4) the lampstands represent churches, not the Holy Spirit.
If the Holy Spirit is signified by the lampstand of the Tabernacle, why is there not a single reference to this found among New Testament authors? On textual grounds at least, Thomason’s inference is invalid.
The Bread of the Presence
Thomason draws a connection between the bread of the Presence and Jesus’ claim that he was “the bread of life” (John 6:35). But do any New Testament authors make this connection?
In the entire New Testament there are only four references to the bread of the Presence. In the Synoptic Gospels we see it mentioned in a story wherein Jesus justifies the disciples’ plucking grain on the sabbath by appealing to David’s eating of the sacred bread when he was hungry (Matthew 12:4, Mark 2:26, Luke 6:4). The final reference to the bread of the Presence comes in Hebrews 9:2 where the author lists the various items found in the Tabernacle. In none of these instances do we find any indication that the writers sought a connection between the bread of the Presence and Jesus.
But what about the bread of the Presence and the “bread of life”? Surely there is a connection! No, not even the Johannine Jesus makes a connection between himself and the bread of the Presence. As is quite clear from the context, Jesus is comparing himself to the manna that God provided to the wandering Israelites during the Exodus (John 6:30-35). Is Thomason suggesting that because the phrases “bread of the Presence” and “bread of life” share the word “bread” that this means there is a connection? Is that all she has?
If Jesus is signified by the bread of the Presence, why is there not a single New Testament text that makes that connection? On textual grounds at least, Thomason’s inference is invalid.
The Ark of the Covenant
Last but certainly not least is the alleged connection between the ark of the covenant and God the Father. In the entire New Testament, the ark of the covenant is only mentioned twice: Hebrews 9:4 and Revelation 11:9. In the former it is part of a list of the furnishings found in the Tabernacle. In the latter it is part of a vision John has of the heavenly temple. In neither is there a connection made between the ark and God the Father.
If God the Father is signified by the ark of the covenant, why is there not a single New Testament text that makes such a connection? Yet again, on textual grounds, Thomason’s inference is invalid.
Typology Run Amok
So if there is no New Testament textual warrant for such views, on what basis does Thomason make these claims? Why should we accept them as valid?
The fact of the matter is that Thomason’s claims are prime examples of typology run amok. As noted earlier, typological exegesis leaves everything in the Old Testament up for grabs. But if that is the case, how do we know when someone has made the wrong connection? What are the rules of such exegesis?
And there are other questions we should ask. Why does Thomason exclude the altar of incense even though it is counted among the items within the Tabernacle? Why can’t it represent the Holy Spirit or Jesus or God the Father? Why can’t the ark of the covenant represent Jesus? After all, within it was a container of manna and Jesus makes an explicit connection between his identity as the “bread of life” and the manna in the wilderness. Why can’t the golden lampstand represent Jesus? After all, it’s purpose was to bring light to the otherwise dark Tabernacle just as Jesus is “the light of the world” (John 8:12).
Do you see the problem? It isn’t difficult to suggest parallels between the items in the Tabernacle and the supposed members of the Trinity. But that one can make such parallels doesn’t mean that they were intended by the authors of the texts. And if even the New Testament authors didn’t see those connections, why should we?
Answering the Question
So what is our answer to the question of whether the “holy Trinity” is found in the Old Testament? Well, based on what we’ve seen from Thomason here the answer is a clear and resounding “No!” I’m not convinced by such shoddy and selective eisegesis and I hope you’re not either.
1 From Westminster Confession of Faith in Modern English (The Summertown Company, 2014).
2 The exception to this may be the Johannine Comma which includes these words: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (1 John 5:7, KJV). However, the Comma is of dubious origin and is absent from virtually all Greek manuscripts of the epistle of 1 John that we have available. For a brief summary of the case against the Comma, see Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (United Bibles Societies, 1994), 647-649.
3 Gerald Bray, “God,” in Alister E. McGrath and James I. Packer, editors, Zondervan Handbook of Christian Beliefs (Zondervan, 2005), 101.
4 Theophilus, To Autolycus, 2.15. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/theophilus-book2.html. Accessed 28 September 2018.
5 J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised edition (Prince Press, 1978), 71.
6 Ibid., 72.
7 Albertus Pieters, The Facts and Mysteries of the Christian Faith (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1933), 186-187.
8 For example, in Mark Jesus is said to have been “[m]oved with pity” when approached by a leper (Mark 1:41). But Matthew omits this detail entirely (Matthew 8:3). And while in Mark Jesus’ family comes to Capernaum to seize him because they thought he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21), there is no sense of this in the Matthean parallel (Matthew 12:22-32).
9 The Markan Jesus in the garden is described as “distressed and agitated” and he tells the disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (Mark 14:33, 34). He even prays to God, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14:36). But in John Jesus is far more resolute and approaches his death would unflinching committment. The entire scene in the garden we find in Mark is a blip on the Johannine radar (John 18:1-2).
10 From Lane T. Dennis, executive editor, The ESV Study Bible (Crossway Bibles, 2008), 186.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.