The Trinity: What Is It?

Does the Bible teach the doctrine of a triune God? Did the early Church hold the Trinity as a key teaching? The facts show the answer to both questions is no.

The Roman Catholic Church considers the Trinity to be a central doctrine of the Christian religion. Likewise most Protestant denominations teach the doctrine of the Trinity as well. But let’s look at the facts regarding this venerated doctrine. To many in the world of Christendom, a church cannot be considered valid without belief in the Trinity. But what do history and the Bible show us? Do churches offer convincing explanations that can stand the test of Scripture?

The Catholic Church instituted the doctrine, and over time it carried over into the majority of Protestant denominations. Hundreds of years transpired during its development. A long metamorphosis of terms and explanations occurred, and the church finally established a definition that gained wide acceptance and has changed little since around A.D. 400.

What is this definition that has such wide acceptance?

The definition of the Trinity

My Catholic Faith, a volume written in layman’s language by Louis LaRavoire Morrow, states that there is only one God (1963 edition). Then he explains further, “In God there are three Divine Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. … In speaking of the ‘Persons’ in God, we do not use the term in exactly the same way we use it when speaking of people. We use it only for lack of a word to show our meaning better” (p. 30).

On the next page Morrow asserts, “The three Divine Persons are really distinct from one another.” Then a page later he writes, “The three divine Persons are perfectly equal to one another, because all are one and the same God.”

How can we understand three persons as one Being with one nature? We can’t! The book My Catholic Faith further says: “We cannot fully understand how the three divine Persons, though really distinct from one another, are one and the same God, because this is a supernatural mystery” (p. 33). Later on the same page we read, “The doctrine of the Blessed Trinity is a strict mystery; that is, we cannot learn it from reason, nor understand it completely, even after it has been revealed to us.”

But what about the Bible?

The Church of God, a Worldwide Association, believes that all doctrines must stand the test of Scripture—that we must test or prove all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21). And that proof lies in the Bible. We should not just take someone’s word for it.

To see what the Scriptures say about the Godhead, please read our article “What Did the Apostles Believe About God?”

No scripture in the Bible truly supports this doctrine of the Trinity, which emanated from the mind of man and was influenced by philosophers like Plato. Athanasius, who wrote the creed accepted by the church in A.D. 325 at the Council of Nicaea (see below), was influenced by Platonic teaching, as were others who figured into the doctrine’s development.

Although we wouldn’t go so far as to say that it originated directly from Greek philosophers or pagan trinities, interestingly there are various parallel forms of the Trinity that predate the early church by many hundreds of years—Brahma/Shiva/Vishnu and Osiris/Isis/Horus, for example.

Please note the following quote from Substance and Illusion in the Christian Fathers by Christopher Stead: “The problem of Trinitarian origins is rather like the problem of Gnostic origins. In each case, we have a pattern of thought which emerges about the same time as Christ, but which has close affinities with pre-Christian or non-Christian thought; while the evidence of first-century documents is scanty and enigmatic, so that we can hardly be certain that the doctrine is exclusively or even predominantly a product of Christian inspiration.”

History and development of the Trinity doctrine

The Trinity doctrine is not taught in the Bible. So how did it develop? Let’s look at a quick overview of some of the key stages in the formulation of this doctrine that’s accepted by Catholics and most Protestants.

  • A.D. 180: Theophilus of Antioch is the first person to write about this “important doctrine.” However, even though he used the term, the trinity he spoke of was “of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.” At best, this was an introduction of the term, but it didn’t come close to what was later taught in classic Trinitarianism. Even 150 years after Christ there is no evidence of a formulated doctrine. Could this really be considered an essential teaching? A part of “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3)? Hardly!
  • In the early third century Tertullian introduced the expression “three persons, one essence.” “Persons” was used in the sense of “faces” or “masks.”
  • The Council of Nicaea was held in A.D. 325 at the behest of Roman Emperor Constantine. Strong disagreement characterized this council. Arius argued the nonbiblical heresy that Jesus Christ is a created being and not equal with the Father. Many held to this view, but the view that prevailed was presented by Athanasius, a deacon from Alexandria, Egypt. His view forms the essential basis of Catholic and Protestant teaching today. It is frequently known as the Athanasian Creed.
  • During the last quarter of the fourth century the doctrine underwent slight modifications, and those were mainly to make a point against Arian teaching. This basic explanation has been passed down through the centuries. Slight variations exist in the teaching of the Eastern Church, but they also hold to the doctrine of a triune God.

The 1967 edition of the New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “The formulation of ‘one God in three Persons’ was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. But it is precisely this formulation that has first claim to the title the Trinitarian dogma. Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective” (emphasis added).

Personification and translation

The Bible does not teach the Trinity. But what about the seeming personification of the Holy Spirit in John 14-16 with “He, Him, Whom and Who”?

The rules of Greek grammar require that pronouns agree in gender with the nouns that are their antecedents. The antecedent of these masculine pronouns is “comforter” (Greek parakletos), which is masculine in Greek. The use of a masculine pronoun simply means it is in gender agreement with the masculine antecedent “comforter.” This fact of grammar does not prove that the Comforter is a person.

Consider other examples. Proverbs 8 refers to wisdom as “she.” That doesn’t make wisdom a person. El libro means “the book” in Spanish, which is another language that assigns nouns as masculine or feminine in gender. In this case the gender is masculine. But, of course, we don’t think of a book as a person.

Translators, believing in Trinitarianism, also incorrectly assigned masculine pronouns to another Greek word for “spirit,” pneuma (meaning spirit, breath or wind). However, in Greek this word is neuter in gender. In Romans 8:16 it is correctly translated in the King James Version, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit” (emphasis added throughout). The New King James Version translates it incorrectly as “Himself.”

Other points

Now notice the following scriptures and points relating to the alleged “personhood” of the Holy Spirit. Once it is established that the Holy Spirit is not a person, the doctrine of a triune God fails.

  • 1 John 5:7: “For there are three who bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one.” This passage is acknowledged as spurious even by Catholic scholars. “The words do not occur in any Greek [manuscript], version or quotation before the fifteenth century” (Tyndale New Testament Commentary). They did appear in an obscure Latin text in the fourth century.
  • In Matthew 1:20 we see Christ being conceived by the Holy Spirit. Why then does He not call the Holy Spirit His Father?
  • In Acts 2:17-18, Peter quotes the prophet Joel describing the Holy Spirit as being poured out. Is a person poured?
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:19: “Do not quench the Spirit.” Is this terminology that would be applied to a person?
  • John 7:37-39 describes drinking of the Holy Spirit, which is not how we would describe a person.
  • 2 Timothy 1:6: “Stir up the gift of God which is in you,” referring to the Holy Spirit. Do we stir up a person in the sense described here?
  • The Holy Spirit is consistently left out of greetings in Paul’s epistles, such as in Romans 1:7: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Wouldn’t this be an affront if the Holy Spirit were a coequal third “Person” of the Godhead?
  • 1 John 1:3 describes our fellowship with the Father and the Son. Where is the Holy Spirit?
  • Matthew 11:27: “All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.” How could a coequal person of the Godhead be left out? Obviously the Holy Spirit is not a person! See also Luke 10:22.
  • The Holy Spirit is described as speaking, but this does not make it a person. We find in 2 Peter 1:21, “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” God uses His Spirit to speak through human beings, as with Peter in the case of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. So the word “speaking” simply means communicating. God communicates through His power, the Holy Spirit, just as He communicates through His inspired Bible, the Scriptures. There are a number of places where the Bible states “the Scripture says” (for example, Romans 9:17; 10:11). Consider also that, in a metaphorical sense, dead Abel still speaks (Hebrews 11:4). Hebrews 12:24 even describes blood as speaking!

The analysis presented here is just an overview of some of the important points. Much more can be gleaned from our articles on God and Jesus Christ. But the essential point is that not only is the word Trinity not in the Bible, the doctrine is not in God’s Word either.

For more information, see the article “Is the Holy Spirit a Person?”

About the Author

Larry Neff

Larry Neff is a retired pastor of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He and his wife, Linda, have three grown children and four grandchildren.

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