The dogma of the Holy Trinity is not a dry philosophical abstraction without proper foundation in Scripture, nor an encroachment by pagan influences into ‘pure’ monotheism. Its formulation is at least partly couched in a philosophy and vocabulary rooted in Greek thought and language; however, to admit this is simply to admit that this is the world in which the early Church lived, and thus the terminology and concepts with which it had to work; if Christianity had developed at a different time and place, it would have used different terms and concepts.
As it happens, one could make a good case that the Church being born in such a time and place was greatly fortuitous, and that Greek language and thought are particularly well suited to theological discourse, but that is by the by – things happened when they did, and there is no a priori reason to assume that the surrounding culture distorted the biblical witness or the apostolic faith in any substantive way. In fact, when one examines the scriptural data most often used to support Trinitarian doctrine, the motifs and ideas underlying it seem to have a much richer establishment in those texts than in anything found in Greek philosophy – I shall address these texts briefly in due course.
An important point to note firstly though, is that the dogma of the Holy Trinity, whilst seeming to be clear in Scripture retrospectively, is by no means obvious from its witness. Whilst it may be hard for those of us who have grown up with the orthodox Creeds to see how one could do better justice to the scriptural data, it is clear both from the debates of the early Church and from the various non-Trinitarian groups that emerged in the wake of the Protestant Reformation that it is indeed very possible to do so. As an aside, both these cases (early Church and Reformation) are excellent illustrations of both the need for recognition of a regula fidei in developing and interpreting doctrine, and the interpretive chaos inherent in the sola scriptura hermeneutic.
Despite the dogma not being clearly evident in Scripture, it is however possible to see how the Church eventually came to that conclusion. It all revolves around the figure of Jesus – who He claimed to be, the intimate relationship with the Father that He taught, and the work of the Holy Spirit (also referred to in personal terms), intrinsically linked to the person of Jesus. When one considers these points, and also sees them in the context of how Jesus was known (i.e.; a figure recognised as human, but also worthy of worship and capable of being prayed to) in the light of Easter and Pentecost, it can be seen that the dogma of the Holy Trinity is the only place the early Church could indeed end up and remained faithful to all these central issues.
That the apostolic Church itself may have found these concepts hard to articulate is easy to appreciate, given that the vast majority had come from a Jewish background, and that the sheer newness of what had happened in and through Jesus was still reverberating through their lives – they were too busy living out that early wave of mission to sit down and decide doctrinal specifics; the dust had yet to settle. Given that this was the case, it is then remarkable how much Trinitarian potential exists within the New Testament. Here are a few examples (to set beside the obvious case of Matthew 28:19):
‘Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one’ (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
‘But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us; he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee’ (2 Corinthians 1:21-22)
‘And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba! Father!”’ (Galatians 4:6)
‘So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit’ (Ephesians 2:19-22)
‘But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through the gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (2 Thessalonians 2:13-14)
‘but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour’ (Titus 3:4-6)
‘Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappado’cia, Asia, and Bithyn’ia, chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you’ (1 Peter:1-2)
As well as the above, there are also plentiful examples of the close relationship between Jesus and the Father (c.f.; Matthew 11:27; John 1:1; 1 Corinthians 8:5-6; Philippians 2:5-7; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:1-4), which do not mention the Holy Spirit explicitly, but which heavily imply an association with Him when read in the light of other passages mentioning the Spirit’s relationship with either the Father or the Son (including, but not limited to, the passages quoted above).
The main characteristic shared by the above quotations though, is that they are reflections on a recurrent pattern of divine activity experienced by the early Christians – the apostolic writers clearly felt that they could not do justice to the entirety of that experience without involving all three divine persons. It was by reflecting upon this witness, and the continued experience of the same pattern of divine activity working within the Church as it developed over the years, that led to the Fathers formulating the dogma that we still use today.
Given all that I have related above, I would now like to conclude by examining three verses (John 16:13-15) that I have not seen used as scriptural support for Trinitarian doctrine throughout the debates in the early Church or elsewhere later on (this is only in my reading anyway – so no guarantee by any means!), but that seem to me to capture the essential nature of the dogma of the Holy Trinity. The verses are as follows:
‘When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’
Here we have Jesus telling the disciples about the arrival of the Holy Spirit in the latter days, and telling them that the Spirit will guide them into all truth – He will be able to do this because He will not speak on His own authority. The implication then is that, just as the Son receives His authority from the Father, yet is ‘one’ with Him, so the Spirit receives His authority from another, but this other is also someone who He shares a profound unity with – ‘whatever he hears he will speak’ implies a closeness with the one from whom He receives the truth that He will then impart to the disciples.
Then we read that the Spirit will glorify Jesus, just as many times throughout John’s Gospel we have read that Jesus will glorify the Father – the Spirit will be able to do this because He will ‘take what is mine and declare it to you’, now implying with even greater force that the Spirit is in a relationship with the Son of such closeness that He can receive and transmit what properly belongs to the Son. Again, Jesus uses language very similar to this to describe His close relationship with the Father.
After Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit has access to what properly belongs to Him, he says to them that ‘all that the Father has is mine’. Combining this with the preceding verses, we can see that just as the Spirit has access to what is the Son’s, so does the Son have access to all that is of the Father – therefore, the Spirit has access to all that properly belongs to both the Father and the Son. If one takes this pattern of interpersonal relationship between the three persons elucidated by Jesus, and also remembers how similar the language He uses to describe these relationships is to the Father-Son language used elsewhere in John’s Gospel, it seems that within these three verses there resides a compelling means for both supporting and explicating Trinitarian doctrine.
One final point – Jesus says about the Holy Spirit that ‘whatever he hears he will speak’. This is deeply consonant with the role that the Fathers (particularly Saint Augustine) finally discerned for the Spirit within the Holy Trinity; the bond of community, dialogue and love between the Father and the Son. If the Father is conceived of as the Lover, and the Son as the Beloved, then the Spirit is the bond of Love between them; similarly, if the Father is seen as the One who communicates, and the Son as the One who is communicated (the Word) and who returns that Word to the Father, the Holy Spirit can be seen as the pulsating course of exchange and dialogue between the two, so that it can not only be said that He ‘hears’ this exchange, but that He is that exchange.
All this of course lacks the sophistication and clarification that would be required to properly expound the three verses and relate them exactly to orthodox doctrine (particularly with respect to the Holy Spirit, who is so notoriously hard to describe). However, it does seem to me that in John 16:13-15 we have a remarkably clear description of much of what makes the Holy Trinity what it is – the oneness of the persons, their sharing everything each has with the others, and the pattern of self-giving and relatedness between them that both constitutes the nature of each person and makes concrete our claim that God is Love.