But we discover Jesus and the Holy Spirit as distinct persons who are also God. Because of this New Testament revelation, Christian orthodoxy relies on an understanding of God as a Trinity—one living and true God who exists eternally as three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In light of this revelation, can we expect to see traces of the Trinity revealed in the Old Testament as well?
In the New Testament, Christians are given a new lens through which they see God. He is still the one true God we discover in the Jewish Shema prayer:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”—Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (emphasis added)
But we discover Jesus and the Holy Spirit as distinct persons who are also God. Because of this New Testament revelation, Christian orthodoxy relies on an understanding of God as a Trinity—one living and true God who exists eternally as three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In light of this revelation, can we expect to see traces of the Trinity revealed in the Old Testament as well? Dr. Fred Sanders, Associate Professor of Theology in the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, answers this question in his online course, The Triune God. The following post is adapted from this course.
9 possible signs of the Trinity in the Old Testament
There’s a whole set of traditional ways to find the Trinity in the Old Testament—and it’s kind of a mixed bag. Some of them provide a good demonstration of the elements of trinitarianism in the Old Testament. As soon as the Trinity is revealed in the New Testament and we have a clear revelatory statement about what’s going on in regards to the godhead, it throws a light back on the things we’ve seen in the Old Testament.
Here are some traditional proofs (some more compelling than others) for the presence of the Trinity in the Old Testament.
- THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN ELOHIM AND YAHWEH
Some commentators make a lot out of the distinction between the name Elohim and the name Yahweh. Right at the very beginning of Genesis, you have two different ways of talking about God during the act of creation.
A lot of older theologies ask, “What is the ultimate reason why two names are given to us right at the beginning of Scripture?” Within that question is an analysis—one that relies on an assumption. That assumption can be summarized in this question: “Why is the one God called both Elohim and Yahweh?” These older theologies keep working at that question until getting to a trinitarian distinction.
It’s hard to summarize exactly what that distinction is because it’s never stated as simply as “the Father is Elohim and the son is Yahweh.” Instead, it’s a witness to a diversity of naming that establishes what’s going on within one God.
It could be that the use of multiple names for God points to his trinitarian nature.
- THE PLURAL FORM OF THE NAME ELOHIM
While the word Elohim has the distinct im ending that marks it as plural, Elohim seems to be an agent of singular verb actions. It would irresponsible to translate Elohim as gods as in “In the beginning the gods created the heavens and the earth.” So it seems that that this name of God that is plural in nature could also point to the coming New Testament revelation of the Trinity.
- THE CONCEPT OF THE ANGEL OF THE LORD
Throughout the Old Testament we catch glimpses of an agent of Yahweh who sometimes behaves as if he were the presence of the Lord, and at other times he appears to be an emissary. It’s easy to understand how a trinitarian theologian, informed by the New Testament, would recognize the angel of the Lord—a figure who seems to be with God and to be God— as a christological figure.
- “The angel added, ‘Iwill increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.’”—Genesis 16:10 (emphasis added)
- “‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he [the angel of the Lord] said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from meyour son, your only son.’”—Genesis 22:12
- “On that day the Lord will shield those who live in Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the angel of the Lord going before them.”—Zechariah 12:8
Many think that the angel of the Lord is a Christophany—a manifestation that, while distinct from God, is also God.
- THE CONCEPT OF WISDOM PERSONIFIED (PROVERBS)
In the book of Proverbs, we are introduced to the wisdom of God personified as a woman. This personification is a speaking agent who is difficult to distinguish. We’re left wondering if this is just a way of talking about God or if it’s an agent sent from God. How much of it is personification, and how much is an actual person?
Does the personification of wisdom in Proverbs allude to a trinitarian reality? Many theologians would suggest it does.
- THE CONCEPT OF THE LORD’S “WORD” PERSONIFIED
There are points in the Old Testament where God’s very word is personified as it would be if God’s Word referenced Jesus.
- “For the word of the Lord is right and true;
he is faithful in all he does.”—Psalm 33:4
- “The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”—Isaiah 40:8
In his gospel, John describes Jesus as the Word of God. This sheds new light on the on many of the Old Testament references to God’s Word.
- THE SPIRIT OF GOD IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Similar to the personification of wisdom in the Old Testament, many things said about the Spirit “going forth” or “being with” seem to indicate agency. It seems throughout the Old Testament that the Spirit is the self-conscious immanence of God, as well as the revelation of God. God’s Spirit also seems to dwell with God’s followers, and seems to act as an objective personality.
- “Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you.”—Psalm 51:11–13
- “Yet they rebelled
and grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
and he himself fought against them.”—Isaiah 63:10
- “Come near me and listen to this:
‘From the first announcement I have not spoken in secret;
at the time it happens, I am there.’
And now the Sovereign Lord has sent me,
endowed with his Spirit.”—Isaiah 48:16
Jesus promises us the Spirit in the New Testament, and in Acts we see the Spirit’s advent at Pentecost. In light of this, it’s no surprise that this would reframe our understanding of God’s Spirit in the Old Testament.