In the comments of the last post, there’s a lively discussion between myself and a Mormon lawyer named Murdock Wallis (don’t worry, I’m saying lawyer like it’s a good thing here). He asked:
I have a question about something in your last post regarding the Trinity. DOES the New Testament talk about the Trinity? If so, does it talk about the Trinity in a way that would exclude the Mormon Godhead? A couple years or so back, in General Conference, Elder Holland cited the Catholic Encyclopedia as saying that the Trinity did not appear in the New Testament. Do you agree with that? If the Trinity DOES appear in the New Testament, then why was there a Nicene Creed?
Also, my Church teaches that the creeds were works of men and not works of Heavenly Father. I think you said that (I think maybe you said from the time of Jesus?) there is no more public revelation. If I got that right(I hope), then is it not true that the creeds are merely works of men? If so, then why do you believe creeds can add to scripture? Does not there have to be a living prophet, to receive revelation, in order to add to scripture?
If creeds do not add to scripture, then why do you believe them?
While I confess to not having a clue as to what the Trinity actually is, I do understand that it is a major, really important doctrine of Catholicism and Protestantism. So, why is not the Trinity in the New Testament — unless it is, in which case back to why the Nicene Creed– or in later revelation from a living prophet?
This is a good question, and the source of much confusion. Let me explain the general Catholic position on the relationship between the Church and the Deposit of Faith before addressing the Trinity in particular.
I. The Church and the Deposit of Faith
Catholics believe that Christ left us “once for all” (Jude 1:3) with what’s called the Deposit of Faith. These are the Traditions taught by word of mouth (which we know from the writings of the Church Fathers, and are generally called Apostolic Tradition or Tradition, with a capital-T), and the Traditions taught by epistle (a.ka., Scripture, the Bible, Holy Writ, whatever you want to call it). St. Paul describes these two as binding in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. So that’s what the Deposit of Faith is. And since Christ left it once for all, there are no more deposits — nothing has been added since the death of the last Apostle.
The Church’s role, then, isn’t to add anything new to the Deposit of Faith, but to explain what those teachings mean when they’re misunderstood. In the New Testament, we see the beginnings of this infallible exegesis at work. For example, Matthew 1:22-23 tells us what Isaiah 7:11 means. Could someone, left to their own devices, have understood Isaiah 7:11? Yes. Could they have misunderstood Isaiah 7:1? Yes. And so it was helpful of St. Matthew, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to tell us what the passage meant. He’s not making a new prophesy, he’s explaining an old one.
Since you’re a lawyer, Murdock, I’ll use my favorite example. Think of the original Deposit of Faith as the Constitution, and the Magisterium of the Church as the Supreme Court interpreting the Constitution. The Supreme Court isn’t supposed to add anything to the Constitution, but determine authoritatively what the existing words mean, in instances of controversy. The Catholic Church works the same way, with two major exceptions — one, we have a perfect “Constitution,” with no need of amendment; two, we have a perfect “Court,” with no need of overturning precedent, no “activist judges,” etc. In other words, the Magisterium’s relationship to the Deposit of Faith works the way the Court’s relationship to the Constitution would work in an ideal world.
This brings me to an important difference: inspiration vs. infallibility. With inspiration, there’s new revelation – prophets are inspired. Infallibility isn’t the granting of any new insight, but the Holy Spirit’s protection that none of the Church’s binding exegesis will be heretical. John 14:26 gives us the distinction:
But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
The first bolded part is inspiration: the Apostles were given insights by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and beyond (up through John’s Revelation) which weren’t specifically taught by Christ during His time on Earth. The second bolded part relates to infallibility: the ability to continue teaching what we already know. So how does this apply to the question of the Trinity?
II. Biblical Teaching on the Trinity
The Trinity is the belief that there is One God who is Three Persons. That’s a confusing statement, so let’s unpack it. We believe that:
- There is One God.
- God the Father is God, God the Son is God, and God the Holy Spirit is God.
- God the Father is not God the Son. The Holy Spirit is distinct from Both, even though He proceeds from Both.
- Nevertheless, they remain “One in Being,” not separate Gods.
There is, quite frankly, not an earthly analogy that adequately captures this complex reality. Good ones I’ve heard include: St. Patrick’s use of the shamrock – the shamrock has three distinct parts which form one shamrock, and the idea of an egg (which has three distinct parts – yolk, egg whites and shell – but is only one egg). I also like this image from Wikipedia, the so-called “Shield Trinity”
So where do we see the Trinity in the Bible? Let’s look at each part individually:
- There is One God. This is explicit in Isaiah 45:21-23. We also see this clearly in places like 2 Kings 19:19, Isaiah 44:24, Mark 10:18, James 2:19, 1 Timothy 2:5, Ephesians 4:4-6, Romans 3:29-30, and 1 Corinthians 8:5-6. Note particularly that 1 Corinthians 8 makes clear that the other “gods” are “so-called gods.” That is, the Old Testament speaks of other things being “gods” to the people of Israel, but it doesn’t mean those things are actually gods, any more than Jesus meant money is literally a divine being in Matthew 6:24. Given that, Deuteronomy 5:7-8’s prohibition against any gods besides God is a testament to monotheism and the Oneness of God. This God is YHWH, or “I AM WHO AM,” as Exodus 3:14 tells us.
- God the Father is God. All of those verses above apply for this — that the Father is God is agreed upon even by those who reject the Trinity (both Mormons, on one side, and Oneness Pentecostals, on the other).
- Jesus Christ is God. Mark 2:7 is a great early hint of the Divinity of Christ. John 1:18 calls Jesus the Only God. In John 8:58, John 13:19, John 18:5, John 18:8, and so on, Jesus calls Himself “I AM,” the Greek form for YHWH. That’s how this self-declaration was understood, too: look at the response of the mob in the Garden. John 18:6 says that when Jesus declares “I AM HE” they fall backwards onto the ground. Additionally, in Acts 7:59-60, St. Stephen hands his spirit over to Christ, clearly signaling that Christ is YHWH (see Psalm 31:5). Hebrews 5:9 says salvation comes through Christ, just as Psalm 3:8 says it comes through YHWH. Hebrews 1:8 applies Psalm 45:6 (a praise of Elohim, God) explicitly to Christ. Compare that with Isaiah 45:21-23, which makes clear that Elohim is the One True God.
Finally, look at verses like John 20:28, in which Thomas unambiguously calls Jesus, “my Lord and my God.” If Jesus is not THE God of Exodus, Thomas is violating the Ten Commandments by worshiping another god. Same with the rest of the Apostles. We hear from Matthew 28:9 and Matt 28:17 that the Apostles worshiped Christ. Same with the man in John 9:35-38. Now, Jesus Himself made clear that “the LORD alone” may be worshiped (Luke 4:8), and yet allows Himself to be worshiped. Either He’s a hypocrite or He’s God.
- God the Father is not God the Son. Luke 22:42 and Luke 23:46 both show the Son submitting to the Father, implying that there is a distinction between the two.
- God the Holy Spirit is a Distinct Person. He’s seen hovering over the abyss as early as Genesis 1:2, He’s talking to Peter in Acts 10:19, and through David in 2 Samuel 23:2. He’s distinct from the Father and the Son. Jesus talks about asking His Father to send the Spirit in John 14, and the Spirit and Jesus are obviously distinct (see Acts 8:16, e.g.). Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son — He submits to the Father and the Son, just as the Son submits to the Father. For this reason, the Holy Spirit is also known as the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus. Acts 16:6-7 makes clear that the Holy Spirit and Spirit of Jesus are the same, and 1 Thessalonians 4:8 is explicit that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father as well.
- Nevertheless, they remain “One in Being,” not separate Gods. This is clear from #3. Jesus and the Father are both YHWH. Additionally, verses like John 10:28-30, which talk of the Father and Son being One.
- The Trinity in the Bible. There ARE Trinitarian formulas in the Bible. We see them in places like Matthew 28:19, 2 Corinthians 13:14, 1 Peter 1:2, 1 John 5:7-9, and Jude 1:20-21.
Additionally, there are other Internet resources which go into even greater depth. Here’s one which seems reliable enough. Anyways, everything which the Nicene Creed says regarding the Trinity is IN Scripture. But that doesn’t mean everyone who reads Scripture will understand it that way. Remember Acts 8:28-31 — just because something is in Scripture doesn’t mean it’s clearly understood without guidance.
In the early Church, there were quickly camps which declared that there were three gods, not One; or that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit were interchangable, or God wearing different masks (“modalism”), and all sorts of other attempts to understand how the above pieces fit together. The heresies were usually in the form of embracing one part of Scripture and ignoring the other part. So the Church, at the Council of Nicea, had to say, in effect, “No, my children, here’s how Scripture is to be understood.” And we believe that the Holy Spirit protects Her to always be able to make those declarations — which is the same reason that the Apostles were able to know in Acts 15:28 that the Council of Jerusalem was Divinely protected.
EDIT: I forgot my favorite verse, 1 John 4:8. Fr. Robert Barron explains how for God to be Love, He must be simultaneously be distinctly Lover and Beloved, within Himself.