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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Trinity

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That nearly all the Pagan nations of antiquity, says Bishop Tomline, in their various theological systems, acknowledged a kind of Trinity, has been fully evinced by those learned men who have made the Heathen mythology the subject of their elaborate inquiries. The almost universal prevalence of this doctrine in the Gentile kingdoms must be considered as a strong argument in favour of its truth. The doctrine itself bears such striking internal marks of a divine original, and is so very unlikely to have been the invention of mere human reason that there is no way of accounting for the general adoption of so singular a belief, but by supposing that it was revealed by God to the early patriarchs, and that it was transmitted by them to their posterity. In its progress, indeed, to remote countries, and to distant generations, this belief became depraved and corrupted in the highest degree; and he alone who brought "life and immortality to light," could restore it to its original simplicity and purity. The discovery of the existence of this doctrine in the early ages, among the nations whose records have been the best preserved, has been of great service to the cause of Christianity, and completely refutes the assertion of infidels and skeptics, that the sublime and mysterious doctrine of the Trinity owes its origin to the philosophers of Greece. "If we extend," says Mr. Maurice, "our eye through the remote region of antiquity, we shall find this very doctrine, which the primitive Christians are said to have borrowed from the Platonic school, universally and immemorially flourishing in all those countries where history and tradition have united to fix those virtuous ancestors of the human race, who, for their distinguished attainments in piety, were admitted to a familiar intercourse with Jehovah and the angels, the divine heralds of his commands." The same learned author justly considers the first two verses of the Old Testament as containing very strong, if not decisive, evidence in support of the truth of this doctrine: Elohim, a noun substantive of the plural number, by which the Creator is expressed, appears as evidently to point toward a plurality of persons in the divine nature, as the verb in the singular, with which it is joined, does to the unity of that nature: "In the beginning God created;" with strict attention to grammatical propriety, the passage should be rendered, "In the beginning Gods created," but our belief in the unity of God forbids us thus to translate the word Elohim. Since, therefore, Elohim is plural, and no plural can consist of less than two in number, and since creation can alone be the work of Deity, we are to understand by this term so particularly used in this place, God the Father, and the eternal Logos, or Word of God; that Logos whom St. John, supplying us with an excellent comment upon this passage, says, was in the beginning with God, and who also was God. As the Father and the Son are expressly pointed out in the first verse of this chapter, so is the Third Person in the blessed Trinity not less decisively revealed to us in Genesis 1:2 : "And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters:" "brooded upon" the water, incubavit, as a hen broods over her eggs. Thus we see the Spirit exerted upon this occasion an active effectual energy, by that energy agitating the vast abyss, and infusing into it a powerful vital principle.

Elohim seems to be the general appellation by which the Triune Godhead is collectively distinguished in Scripture; and in the concise history of the creation only, the expression, bara Elohim, "the Gods created," is used above thirty times. The combining this plural noun with a verb in the singular would not appear so remarkable, if Moses had uniformly adhered to that mode of expression; for then it would be evident that he adopted the mode used by the Gentiles in speaking of their false gods in the plural number, but by joining with it a singular verb or adjective, rectified a phrase that might appear to give a direct sanction to the error of polytheism. But, in reality, the reverse is the fact; for in Deuteronomy 32:15 ; Deuteronomy 32:17 , and other places, he uses the singular number of this very noun to express the Deity, though not employed in the August work of creation: "He forsook God," Eloah; "they sacrificed to devils, not to God," Eloah. But farther, Moses himself uses this very word Elohim with verbs and adjectives in the plural. Of this usage Dr. Allix enumerates many other striking instances that might be brought from the Pentateuch; and other inspired writers use it in the same manner in various parts of the Old Testament, Job 35:10 ; Joshua 24:19 ; Psalms 109:1 ; Ecclesiastes 12:3 ; 2 Samuel 7:23 . It must appear, therefore, to every reader of reflection, exceedingly singular, that when Moses was endeavouring to establish a theological system, of which the unity of the Godhead was the leading principle, and in which it differed from all other systems, he should make use of terms directly implicative of a plurality in it; yet so deeply was the awful truth under consideration impressed upon the mind of the Hebrew legislator, that this is constantly done by him; and, indeed, as Allix has observed, there is scarcely any method of speaking from which a plurality in Deity may be inferred, that is not used either by himself in the Pentateuch, or by the other inspired writers in various parts of the Old Testament. A plural is joined with a verb singular, as in the passage cited before from Genesis 1:1 ; a plural is joined with a verb plural, as in Genesis 35:7 , "And Jacob called the name of the place El- beth-el, because the Gods there appeared to him;" a plural is joined with an adjective plural, Joshua 24:19 , "You cannot serve the Lord; for he is the holy Gods." To these passages, if we add that remarkable one from Ecclesiastes, "Remember thy Creators in the days of thy youth," and the predominant use of the terms, Jehovah Elohim, or, the "Lord thy Gods," which occur a hundred times in the law, (the word Jehovah implying the unity of the essence, and Elohim a plurality in that unity,) we must allow that nothing can be more plainly marked than this doctrine in the ancient Scriptures.

Though the August name of Jehovah in a more peculiar manner belongs to God the Father, yet is that name, in various parts of Scripture, applied to each person in the holy Trinity. The Hebrews considered that name in so sacred a light, that they never pronounced it, and used the word Adonai instead of it. It was, indeed a name that ranked first among their profoundest cabbala; a mystery, sublime, ineffable, incommunicable. It was called tetragrammaton, or the name of four letters, and these letters are jod, he, vau, he, the proper pronunciation of which, from long disuse, is said to be no longer known to the Jews themselves. This awful name was first revealed by God to Moses from the centre of the burning bush; and Josephus, who, as well as Scripture, relates this circumstance, evinces his veneration for it, by calling it the name which his religion did not permit him to mention. From this word the Pagan title of Iao and Jove is, with the greatest probability, supposed to have been originally formed; and in the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, there is an oath still extant to this purpose, "By Him who has the four letters." As the name Jehovah, however, in some instances applied to the Son and the Holy Spirit, was the proper name of God the Father, so is Logos in as peculiar a manner the appropriated name of God the Son. The Chaldee Paraphrasts translate the original Hebrew text by Mimra da Jehovah, literally, "the word of Jehovah," a term totally different, as Bishop Kidder has incontestably proved, in its signification, and in its general application among the Jews, from the Hebrew dabar, which simply means a discourse or decree, and is properly rendered by pithgam. In the Septuagint translation of the Bible, a work supposed by the Jews to have been undertaken by men immediately inspired from above, the former term is universally rendered Λογος , and it is so rendered and so understood by Philo and all the more ancient rabbins. The name of the third person in the ever blessed Trinity has descended unaltered from the days of Moses to our own time; for, as well in the sacred writings as by the Targumists, and by the modern doctors of the Jewish church, he is styled Ruach Hakhodesh, the Holy Spirit. He is sometimes, however, in the rabbinical books, denominated by Shechinah, or glory of Jehovah; in some places he is called Sephirah, or Wisdom; and in others the Binah, or Understanding. From the enumeration of these circumstances, it must be sufficiently evident to the mind which unites piety and reflection, that so far from being silent upon the subject, the ancient Scriptures commence with an avowal of this doctrine, and that, in fact, the creation was the result of the joint operations of the Trinity.

If the argument above offered should still appear inconclusive, the twenty- sixth verse of the first chapter of Genesis contains so pointed an attestation to the truth of it, that, when duly considered, it must stagger the most hardened skeptic; for in that text not only the plurality is unequivocally expressed, but the act which is the peculiar prerogative of Deity is mentioned together with that plurality, the one circumstance illustrating the other, and both being highly elucidatory of this doctrine: "And God (Elohim) said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." Why the Deity should speak of himself in the plural number, unless that Deity consisted of more than one person, it is difficult to conceive; for the answer given by the modern Jews, that this is only a figurative mode of expression, implying the high dignity of the speaker, and that it is usual for earthly sovereigns to use this language by way of distinction, is futile, for two reasons. In the first place it is highly degrading to the Supreme Majesty to suppose he would take his model of speaking and thinking from man, though it is highly consistent with the vanity of man to arrogate to himself, as doubtless was the case in the licentiousness of succeeding ages, the style and imagined conceptions of Deity; and it will be remembered, that these solemn words were spoken before the creation of any of those mortals, whose false notions of greatness and sublimity the Almighty is thus impiously supposed to adopt. In truth, there does not seem to be any real dignity in an expression, which, when used by a human sovereign in relation to himself, approaches very near to absurdity. The genuine fact, however, appears to be this. When the tyrants of the east first began to assume divine honours, they assumed likewise the majestic language appropriated to, and highly becoming, the Deity, but totally inapplicable to man. The error was propagated from age to age through a long succession of despots, and at length Judaic apostasy arrived at such a pitch of profane absurdity, as to affirm that very phraseology to be borrowed from man which was the original and peculiar language of the Divinity. It was, indeed, remarkably pertinent when applied to Deity; for in a succeeding chapter, we have more decisive authority for what is thus asserted, where the Lord God himself says. "Behold, the man is become as one of us;" a very singular expression, which some Jewish commentators, with equal effrontery, contend was spoken by the Deity to the council of angels, that, according to their assertions, attended him at the creation. From the name of the Lord God being used in so emphatical a manner, it evidently appears to be addressed to those sacred persons to whom it was before said, "Let us make man;" for would indeed the omnipotent Jehovah, presiding in a less dignified council, use words that have such an evident tendency to place the Deity on a level with created beings?

The first passage to be adduced from the New Testament in proof of this important doctrine of the Trinity, is, the charge and commission which our Saviour gave to his apostles, to "go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,"

Matthew 28:19 . The Gospel is every where in Scripture represented as a covenant or conditional offer of eternal salvation from God to man; and baptism was the appointed ordinance by which men were to be admitted into that covenant, by which that offer was made and accepted. This covenant being to be made with God himself, the ordinance must of course be performed in his name; but Christ directed that it should be performed in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; and therefore we conclude that God is the same as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Since baptism is to be performed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, they must be all three persons; and since no superiority or difference whatever is mentioned in this solemn form of baptism, we conclude that these three persons are all of one substance, power, and eternity. Are we to be baptized in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and is it possible that the Father should be self-existent, eternal, the Lord God Omnipotent; and that the Son, in whose name we are equally baptized, should be a mere man, born of a woman, and subject to all the frailties and imperfections of human nature? or, is it possible that the Holy Ghost, in whose name also we are equally baptized, should be a bare energy or operation, a quality or power, without even personal existence? Our feelings, as well as our reason, revolt from the idea of such disparity.

This argument will derive great strength from the practice of the early ages, and from the observations which we meet with in several of the ancient fathers relative to it. We learn from Ambrose, that persons at the time of their baptism, declared their belief in the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and that they were dipped in the water three times. In his Treatise upon the Sacraments he says, "Thou wast asked at thy baptism, Dost thou believe in God the Father Almighty? and thou didst reply, I believe, and thou wast dipped; and a second time thou wast asked, Dost thou believe in Jesus Christ the Lord? thou didst answer again, I believe, and thou wast dipped; a third time the question was repeated, Dost thou believe in the Holy Ghost? and the answer was, I believe, then thou wast dipped a third time." It is to be noticed, that the belief, here expressed separately, in the three persons of the Trinity, is precisely the same in all. Tertullian, Basil, and Jerom, all mention this practice of trine immersion as ancient; and Jerom says, "We are thrice dipped in the water, that the mystery of the Trinity may appear to be but one. We are not baptized in the names of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but in one name, which is God's; and, therefore, though we be thrice put under water to represent the mystery of the Trinity, yet it is reputed but one baptism." Thus the mysterious union of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as one God, was, in the opinion of the purer ages of the Christian church, clearly expressed in this form of baptism. By it the primitive Christians understood the Father's gracious acceptance of the atonement offered by the Messiah; the peculiar protection of the Son, our great High Priest and Intercessor; and the readiness of the Holy Ghost to sanctify, to assist, and to comfort all the obedient followers of Christ, confirmed by the visible gift of tongues, of prophecy, and divers other gifts to the first disciples. And as their great Master's instructions evidently distinguished these persons from each other, without any difference in their authority or power, all standing forth as equally dispensing the benefits of Christianity, as equally the objects of the faith required in converts upon admission into the church, they clearly understood that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, were likewise equally the objects of their grateful worship: this fully appears from their prayers, doxologies, hymns, and creeds, which are still extant.

The second passage to be produced in support of the doctrine now under consideration, is, the doxology at the conclusion of St. Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost, be with you." The manner in which Christ and the Holy Ghost are here mentioned, implies that they are persons, for none but persons can confer grace or fellowship; and these three great blessings of grace, love, and fellowship, being respectively prayed for by the inspired apostle from Jesus Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Ghost, without any intimation of disparity, we conclude that these three persons are equal and Divine. This solemn benediction may therefore be considered as another proof of the Trinity, since it acknowledges the divinity of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Ghost. The third passage is the following salutation or benediction in the beginning of the Revelation of St. John: "Grace and peace from Him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven spirits which are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ." Here the Father is described by a periphrasis taken from his attribute of eternity; and "the seven spirits" is a mystical expression for the Holy Ghost, used upon this occasion either because the salutation is addressed to seven churches, every one of which had partaken of the Spirit. or because seven was a sacred number among the Jews, denoting both variety and perfection, and in this case alluding to the various gifts, administrations, and operations of the Holy Ghost. Since grace and peace are prayed for from these three persons jointly and without discrimination, we infer an equality in their power to dispense those blessings; and we farther conclude that these three persons together constitute the Supreme Being, who is alone the object of prayer, and is alone the Giver of every good and of every perfect gift. It might be right to remark, that the seven spirits cannot mean angels, since prayers are never in Scripture addressed to angels, nor are blessings ever pronounced in their name. It is unnecessary to quote any of the numerous passages in which the Father is singly called God, as some of them must be recollected by every one, and the divinity of the Father is not called in question by any sect of Christians; and those passages which prove the divinity of the Son and of the Holy Ghost separately, will be more properly, considered under those heads. In the mean time we may observe, that if it shall appear from Scripture, that Christ is God, and the Holy Ghost is God, it will follow, since we are assured that there is but one God, that the three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, by a mysterious union, constitute the one God, or, as it is expressed in the first article of the church of England: "There is a Trinity in Unity; and in the unity of this Godhead there be three Persons of one substance, power, and eternity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."

The word Trinity does not occur in Scripture, nor do we find it in any of the early confessions of faith; but this is no argument against the doctrine itself, since we learn from the fathers of the first three centuries, that the divinity of the Son and of the Holy Ghost was, from the days of the Apostles, acknowledged by the catholic church, and that those who maintained a contrary opinion were considered as heretics; and as every one knows that neither the divinity of the Father, nor the unity of the Godhead, was ever called in question at any period, it follows that the doctrine of the Trinity in Unity has been in substance, in all its constituent parts, always known among Christians. In the fourth century it became the subject of eager and general controversy; and it was not till then that this doctrine was particularly discussed. While there was no denial or dispute, proof and defence were unnecessary: Nunquid enim perfecte de Trinitate tractatum est, antequam oblatrarent Ariani? But this doctrine is positively mentioned as being admitted among catholic Christians, by writers who lived long before that age of controversy. Justin Martyr, in refuting the charge of atheism urged against Christians, because they did not believe in the gods of the Heathen, expressly says, "We worship and adore the Father, and the Son who came from him and taught us these things, and the prophetic Spirit;" and soon after, in the same apology, he undertakes to show the reasonableness of the honour paid by Christians to the Father in the first place, to the Son in the second, and to the Holy Ghost in the third; and says, that their assigning the second place to a crucified man, was, by unbelievers, denominated madness, because they were ignorant of the mystery, which he then proceeds to explain. Athenagoras, in replying to the same charge of atheism urged against Christians, because they refused to worship the false gods of the Heathen, says "Who would not wonder, when he knows that we, who call upon God the Father, and God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, showing their power in the unity, and their distinction in order, should be called atheists?" Clement of Alexandria not only mentions three divine persons, but invokes them as one only God. Praxeas, Sabellius, and other Unitarians, accused the orthodox Christians of tritheism, which is of itself a clear proof that the orthodox worshipped the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and though in reality they considered these three persons as constituting the one true God, it is obvious that their enemies might easily represent that worship as an acknowledgment of three Gods. Tertullian, in writing against Praxeas, maintains, that a Trinity rationally conceived is consistent with truth, and that unity irrationally conceived forms heresy. He had before said, in speaking of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, that "there are three of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, because there is one God:" and he afterward adds, "The connection of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Comforter, makes three united together, the one with the other; which three are one thing, not one person; as it is said, I and the Father are one thing, with regard to the unity of substance, not to the singularity of number:" and he also expressly says, "The Father is God, and the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God;" and again, "The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, believed to be three, constitute one God." And in another part of his works he says, "There is a Trinity of one Divinity, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost." And Tertullian not only maintains these doctrines, but asserts that they were prior to any heresy, and had, indeed, been the faith of Christians from the first promulgation of the Gospel. To these writers of the second century, we may add Origen and Cyprian in the third; the former of whom mentions baptism (alluding to its appointed form) as "the source and fountain of graces to him who dedicates himself to the divinity of the adorable Trinity." And the latter, after reciting the same form of baptism, says that "by it Christ delivered the doctrine of the Trinity, unto which mystery or sacrament the nations were to be baptized." It would be easy to multiply quotations upon this subject; but these are amply sufficient to show the opinions of the early fathers, and to refute the assertion that the doctrine of the Trinity was an invention of the fourth century. To these positive testimonies may be subjoined a negative argument: those who acknowledged the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Ghost, are never called heretics by any writer of the first three centuries; and this circumstance is surely a strong proof that the doctrine of the Trinity was the doctrine of the primitive church; more especially, since the names of those who first denied the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Ghost, are transmitted to us as of persons who dissented from the common faith of Christians.

But while we contend that the doctrine of the Trinity in Unity is founded in Scripture, and supported by the authority of the early Christians, we must acknowledge that it is not given to man to understand in what manner the three persons are united, or how, separately and jointly, they are God. It would, perhaps, have been well, if divines, in treating this awful and mysterious subject, had confined themselves to the expressions of Scripture; for the moment we begin to explain it beyond the written word of God, we plunge ourselves into inextricable difficulties. And how can it be otherwise? Is it to be expected that our finite understandings should be competent to the full comprehension of the nature and properties of an infinite Being? "Can we find out the Almighty to perfection," Job 11:7 ; or penetrate into the essence of the Most High? "God is a Spirit," John 4:24 , and our gross conceptions are but ill-adapted to the contemplation of a pure and spiritual Being. We know not the essence of our own mind, nor the precise distinction of its several faculties; and why then should we hope to comprehend the personal characters which exist in the Godhead? "If I tell you earthly things, and you understand them not, how shall ye understand if I tell you heavenly things?" When we attempt to investigate the nature of the Deity, whose existence is commensurate with eternity, by whose power the universe was created, and by whose wisdom it is governed; whose presence fills all space, and whose knowledge extends to the thoughts of every man in every age, and to the events of all places, past, present, and to come, the mind is quickly lost in the vastness of these ideas, and, unable to find any sure guide to direct its progress, it becomes, at every step, more bewildered and entangled in the endless mazes of metaphysical abstraction. "God is a God that hideth himself." "We cannot by searching find out God." "Behold, God is great, and we know him not,"

Job 23:9 ; Job 11:7 ; Job 36:26 . "Such knowledge is too wonderful and excellent for us; it is high; we cannot attain unto it," Psalms 139:6 . It is for us, simply and in that docile spirit which becomes us, to receive the testimony of God as to himself, and to fix ourselves upon that firmest of all foundations, and most rational of all evidence, "Thus saith the Lord."


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Trinity'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/t/trinity.html. 1831-2.

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