Where in the Bible is the Trinity?

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:

  1. There is One God.
  2. God the Father is God, God the Son is God, and God the Holy Spirit is God.
  3. God the Father is not God the Son. The Holy Spirit is distinct from Both, even though He proceeds from Both.
  4. 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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.

  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


  1. Joe

    In our exchange of comments on one of your earlier blog posts, one of the questions I asked you was whether the Bible verses that you cite as supporting the doctrine of the Trinity are also consistent with the Mormon Godhead. You kindly responded to my inquiry as follows:

    As for compatibility [of certain Bible verses stated to support the doctrine of the Trinity] with Mormon views of the Godhead, am I right in understanding that you believe in an eternal progression – that God the Father was once a man like us, and was made by another God?

    If so, I’d say that doesn’t just contradict Catholic teachings on the Trinity, but also the notion that God is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, and the maker of all things. It also is metaphysically impossible: you can’t have a negative infinite regress.

    My little brother put it this way: if you start counting from negative infinity, how long until you arrive at 2010? The answer is that you never arrive at 2010, and that you can’t even begin from negative infinity. So there can’t be an eternal progression of Gods. There must be a God who created Time and Space. This is YHWH.

    If I’m not understanding your own views, let me know, and I’ll try and explain in what ways they fit or don’t.

    Apparently, you are assuming that the nature of the Godhead arises from or is connected to the origin of God. That is an incorrect assumption. The Godhead and the origin of God are separate and independent matters. I think that it will be simplest to explain my views if I break this down into three sub-topics: (1) the Godhead, (2) the teachings of the Church versus the beliefs of Mormons as to the origin of God, and (3) the “problem” of infinite regression.

  2. The Godhead

    In the LDS handbook “True to the Faith”, which can be read online at http://www.lds.org for any readers who would like to see it, gives the following explanation:
    The first article of faith states, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.” These three beings make up the Godhead. They preside over this world and all other creations of our Father in Heaven.
    The true doctrine of the Godhead was lost in the apostasy that followed the Savior’s mortal ministry and the deaths of His Apostles. This doctrine began to be restored when 14-year-old Joseph Smith received his First Vision (see Joseph Smith—History 1:17). From the Prophet’s account of the First Vision and from his other teachings, we know that the members of the Godhead are three separate beings. The Father and the Son have tangible bodies of flesh and bones, and the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit (see D&C 130:22).
    Although the members of the Godhead are distinct beings with distinct roles, they are one in purpose and doctrine. They are perfectly united in bringing to pass Heavenly Father’s divine plan of salvation.

    The late Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s book “Mormon Doctrine”, which is not a publication of the Church, but has sold millions of copies over 52 years and is enormously influential, includes the following in its discussion of the Godhead:

    “Though each God in the Godhead is a personage separate and distinct from each of the others, yet they are “one God” (Testimony of Three Witnesses in Book of Mormon), meaning that they are united as one in the attributes of perfection. For instance, each has the fulness of truth, knowledge, charity, power, justice, judgment, mercy, and faith. Accordingly they all think, act, speak, and are alike in all things; and yet they are three separate and distinct entities. Each occupies space and is and can be in but one place at one time, but each has power and influence that is everywhere present. The oneness of the Gods is the same unity that should exist among the saints. (John 17; 3 Ne. 28:10-11.)”

    I am asking only whether the Bible verses you have cited as supporting the doctrine of the Trinity are consistent with the Godhead as described by the Church and Elder McConkie. My question does not raise a dispute as to whether or not the Bible verses that you have cited support the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, I am not asking whether the Bible verses you cite are consistent with the Godhead alone. I am not asking for the view of the Catholic magisterium as to what these verses actually mean. I am asking only whether, without reference to the Trinity, and understanding that reasonable people can differ, these verses can be read by reasonable people as referring to the Godhead.

  3. The Origin of God

    The classic statement as to the origin of God is in Joseph’s April 7, 1844 King Follett Discourse:

    “I will prove that the world is wrong, by showing what God is. I am going to enquire after God; for I want you all to know him, and to be familiar with him; and if I am bringing you to a knowledge of him, all persecutions against me ought to cease. You will then know that I am his servant; for I speak as one having authority.
    I will go back to the beginning before the world was, to show what kind of being God is. What sort of a being was God in the beginning? Open your ears and hear, all ye ends of the earth, for I am going to prove it to you by the Bible, and to tell you the designs of God in relation to the human race, and why He interferes with the affairs of man.
    God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible,–I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form–like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another.
    In order to understand the subject of the dead, for consolation of those who mourn for the loss of their friends, it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.
    These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did; and I will show it from the Bible.
    I wish I was in a suitable place to tell it, and that I had the trump of an archangel, so that I could tell the story in such a manner that persecution would cease for ever. What did Jesus say? (Mark it, Elder Rigdon!) The Scriptures inform us that Jesus said, As the Father hath power in Himself, even so hath the Son power–to do what? Why, what the Father did. The answer is obvious–in a manner to lay down His body and take it up again. Jesus, what are you going to do? To lay down my life as my Father did, and take it up again. Do we believe it? I you do not believe it, you do not believe the Bible. The Scriptures say it, and I defy all the learning and wisdom and all the combined powers of earth and hell together to refute it.
    Here, then, is eternal life–to know the only wise and true God; and you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done before you, namely, by going from one small degree to another, and from a small capacity to a great one; from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you attain to the resurrection of the dead, and are able to dwell in everlasting burnings, and to sit in glory, as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power. And I want you to know that God, in the last days, while certain individuals are proclaiming his name, is not trifling with you or me.”

    Of course, all persecutions against Joseph did not cease, and he was killed about three months later.

  4. The Church and the Mormons on the KFD

    The King Follett Discourse was not a revelation, has never been canonized and, thus, is not included in the Standard Works (the scriptures) of the Church. Consequently, Joseph’s teaching as to the origin of God is not a teaching of the Church. It is Joseph’s opinion. Latter-day Saints are free to arrive at their own opinions as to the King Follett Discourse’s explanation of the origin of God. I have never heard of a survey, but my impression is that the overwhelming majority do accept it. I do. Oddly enough, the Sunday School manual for the one year course of instruction given to all new converts, Gospel Principles, at page 279 of the 2009 edition, quotes the King Follett Discourse as to the origin of God albeit in the context of the exaltation of men rather than of God.

    In any event, the question of the origin of God is entirely separate from the nature of the Godhead.

  5. Infinite Regression

    Your younger brother shares his epistemology with Justice Scalia:

    “The allusion is to a classic story told in different forms and attributed to various authors. See, e.g., Geertz, Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture, in The Interpretation of Cultures 28-29 (1973). In our favored version, an Eastern guru affirms that the earth is supported on the back of a tiger. When asked what supports the tiger, he says it stands upon an elephant; and when asked what supports the elephant he says it is a giant turtle. When asked, finally, what supports the giant turtle, he is briefly taken aback, but quickly replies ‘Ah, after that it is turtles all the way down.’ “

    Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).

    In fact, it really is turtles all the way down. Consider the hymn “If You Could Hie to Kolob” which is Hymn 284 in the LDS hymnal.

    If you could hie to Kolob
    In the twinkling of an eye,
    And then continue onward
    With that same speed to fly,
    Do you think that you could ever,
    Through all eternity,
    Find out the generation
    Where Gods began to be?

    Or see the grand beginning,
    Where space did not extend?
    Or view the last creation,
    Where Gods and matter end?
    Methinks the Spirit whispers,
    “No man has found ‘pure space,’
    Nor seen the outside curtains,
    Where nothing has a place.”

    The works of God continue,
    And worlds and lives abound;
    Improvement and progression
    Have one eternal round.

    There is no end to matter;
    There is no end to space;
    There is no end to spirit;
    There is no end to race.

    There is no end to virtue;
    There is no end to might;
    There is no end to wisdom;
    There is no end to light.

    There is no end to union;
    There is no end to youth;
    There is no end to priesthood;
    There is no end to truth.

    There is no end to glory;
    There is no end to love;
    There is no end to being;
    There is no death above.

    There is no end to glory;
    There is no end to love;
    There is no end to being;
    There is no death above.

    As Joseph’s opinion as to the origin of God is not a teaching of the Church, then why do we sing this hymn? Beats me.


  6. Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta’s Analogy between the Blessed Trinity and the Solar Sun:

    In order to explain myself better, according to our human language, I will say that I see a shadow of God in all Creation, because in all Creation – somewhere He has cast the shadow of His beauty, somewhere His fragrances, somewhere His Light, as in the sun, in which I see a special shadow of God. I see Him as though veiled in this sphere, as the king of all other spheres. What is the sun? It is nothing other than a globe of fire. One is the globe, but many are the rays; from this we can easily comprehend: the globe – God; the rays – the immense attributes of God.
    Second. The sun is fire, but it is also light and heat – here is the Most Holy Trinity veiled in the sun: the fire is the Father, the light is the Son, the heat is the Holy Spirit. However, the sun is one, and just as one cannot separate the fire from the light and from the heat, so one is the Power of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, who cannot really be separated from one another. And just as fire, in the same instant, produces light and heat, in such a way that fire cannot be conceived without also conceiving the light and the heat; in the same way, the Father cannot be conceived before the Son and the Holy Spirit, and vice versa, but all Three of the Them have the same eternal beginning.

    To be continued

  7. Continuation:
    I add that the light of the sun diffuses everywhere; in the same way, God, with His immensity, penetrates everywhere. However, let us remember that this is but a shadow, because the sun cannot reach where it cannot penetrate with its light, while God penetrates everywhere. God is most pure Spirit, and we can represent Him with the sun that makes its rays penetrate everywhere, without anyone being able to grab them with his hands. Moreover, God looks at everything – the iniquities, the evils of men – and He remains always as He is, pure, holy, immaculate. A shadow of God is the sun, which sends its light over rubbish, and remains immaculate; it spreads its light in the fire, and is not burned; in the sea, in the rivers, and is not drowned. It gives light to all, it fecundates everything, it gives life to everything with its heat, and is not impoverished of light, nor does it lose any of its heat. Even more, while it does so much good to all, it has need of no one, and remains always as it is – majestic, resplendent, ever immutable. Oh! how well can one recognize the Divine Qualities in the sun. With His immensity, God is present in the fire, and is not burned; in the sea, and is not drowned; under our steps, and is not trampled. He gives to all, and is not impoverished, and has need of no one; He looks at everything – even more, He is all eyes, and there is nothing He does not hear. He is aware of each fiber of our hearts, of each thought of our minds, and, being most pure Spirit, He has neither ears nor eyes, and regardless of any happening, He never changes. The sun, investing the world with its light, does not tire; in the same way, God, giving life to all, helping and ruling the world, does not tire.
    A man can hide, he can place shades in order not to enjoy the light of the sun and its beneficial influences, but he does nothing to the sun – the sun remains as it is, while all the evil will fall upon man. In the same way, by sin, the sinner can move away from God and no longer enjoy His beneficial influences, but he does nothing to God – the evil is all his own.

    The roundness of the sun also symbolizes to me the eternity of God, which has no beginning and no end. The very light of the sun, penetrating, is such that no one can restrict it within one’s eye; and if one wanted to fix on it in its full midday, he would remain dazzled; and if the sun wanted to draw closer to man, man would be reduced to ashes. The same for the Divine Sun: no created mind can restrict It within its little mind in order to comprehend It in all that It is; and if it wanted to try, it would remain dazzled and confused; and if this Divine Sun wanted to display all Its Love, allowing man to feel It while he is in his mortal flesh, he would be reduced to ashes.

  8. I’ve always seen the concept of the Trinity as similar to the forms water takes in a storm. In the sky you have the cloud. To the people on earth, the cloud cannot be touched, or interacted with, only observed. Observing the cloud can bring about intense serenity, or intense dread, depending on how the cloud presents itself (one need only see an Oklahoman super cell to know what I’m talking about). Indeed, this cloud could bring about the end to a long season of drought, or ravage the land.

    The rain that comes down from the cloud is Christ. It a physical embodiment of the storm that we can feel on our faces and on our hands. It is the primary means by which the land is replenished and represents the continuation of life. We celebrate its coming, we curse it when it seems absent for too long, and we constantly wonder when it will come again.

    The Spirit is the moisture in the air after the storm is over. We cannot see or cup it in our hands, but every breath we take brings it into our bodies and feels invigorating. It is a constant reminder of the presence of the storm and the fact that it will eventually return.

    All these things are the same water. The water in the clouds liquified and fell to the earth before evaporating again. However they are similarly three very distinctly different things. A cloud can be without rain, but you’ll never see rain without the cloud. I can wax poetic further, but this is the best analogy I’ve ever heard.

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