Is the Old Testament Trinitarian? by Jonathan McLatchie [2020 NCCA Confc. 8]

The doctrine of the trinity can be deduced fairly readily from a number of New Testament verses, although it was not fully formulated and endorsed until two or three centuries later. But how can this concept be reconciled with the strong monotheism taught in the Old Testament?

This continues our coverage of select talks from at the 2020 annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics (NCCA). Dr.  McLatchie holds a masters and PhD in evolutionary biology and has been active in many debates regarding the credibility of Christianity. He has hosted or appeared on apologetics-oriented internet/radio shows like “Unbelievable?”   He is currently assistant professor at Sattler College in Boston, Massachusetts. He represents the doctrine of the trinity diagrammatically as:

Dr. McLatchie works to make a case that divine plurality, as well as divine unity, is taught or at least strongly implied by diverse passages in the Old Testament.   I will reproduce or quote portions of some of his slides, without his supporting discussion, as he argues the following points:

( 1 ) The Hebrew Scriptures teach a plurality of divine persons.

( 2 ) The Holy Spirit is a divine person.

( 3 ) The Messiah is a divine person.

( 4 ) The Angel of the Lord is a divine person.

( 1 ) The Hebrew Scriptures teach a plurality of divine persons.

One of the most foundational statements in Judaism is the “Shema”: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Does this bedrock confession of monotheism preclude any plurality in God? It depends, according to Dr. McLatchie, on the meaning of the word “one” (Hebrew “echad”) here. It turns out that this word can refer to a composite unity. For instance, Adam and Eve became “one” (echad) with one another and also “one” with God:

The notion of divine plurality shows up a number of places in the Old Testament, including Isaiah, Zechariah, and Proverbs:

11 For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another. 12 “Hearken to me, O Jacob, and Israel, whom I called! I am He, I am the first, and I am the last. 13 My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand forth together.

14 “Assemble, all of you, and hear! who among them has declared these things? The Lord loves him; he shall perform his purpose on Babylon, and his arm shall be against the Chaldeans. 15 I, even I, have spoken and called him, I have brought him, and he will prosper in his way.
16 Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there.” And now the Lord God has sent me and his Spirit.

17 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go.” (Isaiah 48:11-17, RSV)

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord, the praises of the Lord, according to all that the Lord has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel which he has granted them according to his mercy, according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, Surely they are my people, sons who will not deal falsely;
 and he became their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

10 But they rebelled and grieved his holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.  (Isaiah 63:7-10)

Ho! ho! Flee from the land of the north, says the Lord; for I have spread you abroad as the four winds of the heavens, says the LordHo! Escape to Zion, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon. For thus said the Lord of hosts, after his glory sent me to the nations who plundered you, for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye: “Behold, I will shake my hand over them, and they shall become plunder for those who served them. Then you will know that the Lord of hosts has sent me. 10 Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for lo, I come and I will dwell in the midst of you, says the Lord11 And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in the midst of you, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. 12 And the Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.” (Zechariah 2:6-12)

The words of Agur son of Jakeh of Massa. The man says to Ithiel, to Ithiel and Ucal:Surely I am too stupid to be a man. I have not the understanding of a man.
I have not learned wisdom, nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.
Who has ascended to heaven and come down? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name? Surely you know!
(Proverbs 30:1-4)

( 2 ) The Holy Spirit is a divine person.

( 3 ) The Messiah is a divine person

This is a long and key section of this talk. However, to reduce the size of this present article, I presented and discussed most of the supporting passages for this particular point (“The Messiah is a divine person”) in an earlier article on this blog, Jesus in Old Testament Prophecy.   Here I will just include one slide with Daniel’s vision of the messianic “Son of Man” who is given everlasting dominion over the entire earth, and a couple of slides where Dr. McLatchie argues that the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53 is not a regular human (e.g., a prophet) or people group (e.g., Israel or a righteous remnant), but rather is some sort of supernatural person. (It’s complicated, because sometimes the “Servant” in Isaiah probably is Israel).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is trinity-dan-son-man.jpg

The identity of the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53, who bears our sins:

Further passages cited from Isaiah which build the case that the Servant is a supernatural figure, not just a powerful human king or insightful prophet or righteous people group: Isaiah 9:2,6-7; 11:1-5,10; 49:1-7.

( 4 ) The Angel of the Lord is a divine person.

There are a number of passages referring to a figure called the Angel of the Lord, who seems separate from the Lord, yet also identified with him. For instance:

The Angel of the Lord removes sins:

Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with rich apparel.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments; and the angel of the Lord was standing by.  (Zechariah 3:1-5)

The Angel as Messenger of the Covenant:

Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you into the land which I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you (Judges 2:1)

Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)

Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression; for my name is in him. (Exodus 23:20-21)

A reference for further reading is: Our God is Triune: Essays in Biblical Theology, edited by Michael Burgos.

My Reactions

When I was around twelve years old, I thought I understood atomic physics. Having read children’s books on science, I could confidently explain that the nucleus was composed of relatively heavy particles called protons (which gave the nucleus its positive charge) and neutrons. Around the nucleus whirled the small, negatively charged electron particles. My picture was roughly that of the 1913 Bohr model, with each atom being like a miniature solar system, only the attractive force between the nucleus and the whirling electrons was electrostatic rather than gravitational. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, as discovered by 1925, the quantum reality of atoms turns out to be much more weird and non-intuitive. The probabilistic quantum wave description is so weird that Einstein had a hard time fully accepting it. Meanwhile, on the macro level, Einstein’s relativistic physics are equally bizarre, with time itself stretching and space itself warping.

If I were going to invent a religion, I think I would opt for some nice clean monotheism, perhaps with some well-defined rules, maybe something like Islam but nicer towards outsiders. Nothing too fuzzy or complicated; I don’t want to think that hard. Something like my childhood picture of physics.

However, the God of the Bible is more complex and nuanced than I would have imagined. Both Old and New Testament insist that there is only one God, and Christian theologians and philosophers such as Thomas Aquinas argue that God is radically “simple”.  That said, the New Testament reveals fairly clearly that this one God exists in the form of three interacting, mutually-honoring and loving persons. Theologians argue that this sort of inter-relational God is more glorious and gives a better grounding for the complex-but-unified universe and for relational humans than could a single-person Supreme Being [1]. These are deep waters, which I will not try to traverse here.

Dr. McLatchie took on a formidable task to canvass what I would call “hints” of the Trinity in the Old Testament. His talk covered a very wide range of material. I did not do it justice here, since I did not show all his slides, and did not convey his extensive verbal explications. The Trinity can be a gnarly topic to discuss, even with an audience which is favorably predisposed. I would not expect many skeptics to be won over, at least not at first.

However, I appreciated the texts and thoughts he presented. I was already familiar with the scriptures which describe a supernaturally empowered messianic figure who will bring worldwide peace and justice, and those which describe a Suffering Servant who would bear the sins of his people. I understand as a Christian that both of these roles apply to one person, who fulfilled the task of salvation at his first appearing, and will fulfill the role of judgement upon his second appearing.

I was less familiar with some of the texts dealing with the “Angel of the Lord” and the “Spirit of God” in the Old Testament. I would have to do more reading on the various arguments for/against different interpretations of these passages before totally buying in, but Dr. McLatchie’s views seem like a reasonable place to start.

ENDNOTE

[1] As one example of the importance of God-as-Trinity for the God/human connection, consider this summary by Donald Fairbairn of the early Church father Cyril of Alexandria:

Although we were foreign to God, his warm love for us has led him to raise us up to the intimacy of communion which characterizes his own inter-trinitarian relationships, and the only difference is that we possess that fellowship by grace, whereas the Son has it naturally. The idea that Christians can possess by grace the natural communion of the Trinity is a striking one indeed….This arresting language shows the depth of God’s self-giving as he graciously shares his own fellowship with us.

Jesus tells us that the love with which he has loved his disciples is the very love with which the Father has loved him (John 15:9). And in his high priestly prayer, he prays that believers might be one in the same way that he and the Father are one (John 17:21–24). Conservative Christians read this latter passage and balk, for we wonder how we can possibly be one with each other or with God in that way. But as Cyril has shown us, there are two kinds of oneness: unity of substance (which God does not share with us at all), and unity of fellowship (which is the heart of what he does share with us). Jesus here is speaking of the second of these, and his words show us that the basis for our relationship with God and with other believers is the relationship between the Father and the Son. We are called to and granted not just a relationship with God, but a share in the very same relationship that God the Son has enjoyed from all eternity with his Father.

This is a far more deeply personal way of describing salvation than evangelicals typically employ. It is rooted in Jesus’ self-understanding in John’s Gospel; it formed the basis for the thinking of some of the early Church’s greatest theologians; and it enables us to connect our evangelical soteriology more directly to the life of the Trinity. – – cited from Church Fathers on Atonement

About Scott Buchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, theology, folding scooters, and composting toilets, at www.letterstocreationistists.wordpress.com . Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 100 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas. Now retired and repurposed as a grandparent.
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