The Apostle Paul and the Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity is not a second or third century invention of the early church. Even though the term itself does not appear in the Scriptures, the Trinity is found to be at the heart of many New Testament authors’ thought, namely in the writings of the apostle Paul. The texts supporting this doctrine are numerous, much more than the oft-cited Trinitarian formula from Matthew 28:19–20 and 2 Corinthians 13:13. A glance at the New Testament reveals that the writings of John and those of Paul are the main ones presenting God in three persons who are eternally distinct, co-eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent.
Approaching the Issue from Different Perspectives
One could deal with the doctrine of the Trinity in Paul from different angles, either by studying the titles given to the Father and to the Son (e.g., the title “Lord” or “Saviour”), or by studying passages describing the actions of the Father, those of the Son, and those of the Spirit. One could also examine the divine attributes predicated of each of the three persons of the Godhead.
We choose here a different path. We will deal (for the most part) with passages where the three divine persons are mentioned together, and try to understand the respective roles of the Father, of the Son, and of the Spirit with respect to different facets of the divine work.
The apostle Paul especially deals with the work of the Trinitarian God in creation, redemption, sanctification, confession of the Lord’s work to non-believers, adoration, and finally discussion of the new creation.
Before we examine the first two of these topics (creation and redemption) in different letters from the apostle to the Gentiles, let us take a few steps back and ponder who wrote these texts. The remaining four topics (sanctification, confession to non-believers, adoration, and new creation) will be covered, Lord willing, in a forthcoming article.
Paul, a Faithful Monotheist,
Devoted to the Faith of his Fathers
While some contemporary theologians seek in vain to discover the source of Paul’s thought in mystery religions or in Greco-Roman religiosity, we need to be reminded that Paul was a Jew, raised in strict monotheistic Judaism, and that nothing predisposed him to understanding God as existing in three distinct persons.
On many occasions, Paul reminds his readers and hearers about the Jewish background of his life and thought: “I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin” (Rom 11:1). He tells the Galatians that nothing in his past life predisposed him to believe in Jesus and the Messiah: “For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal 1:13–14). Answering those who boasted of their ties with Judaism, Paul specifies: “If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.” (Phil 3:4b–6).
Seeking to bring back the Corinthians to their senses, as they were under the influence of so-called “super-apostles,” Paul declares: “Are they Hebrews ? So am I. Are they Israelites ? So am I. Are they servants of Christ ? . . . I am more” (2 Cor 11:22–23a).
There is therefore no doubt that Paul’s background was Jewish. At the heart of this Jewish faith stood a strict monotheism, which Paul never renounced. On the contrary, he can thus affirm without any doubt that God is one, that there is only one God, a New Testament echo to the Jewish Shema (cf. Deut 6:4). “God is one,” Paul writes in Gal 3:20; this statement he repeats in identical terms (in Greek) in Rom 3:30: “there is only one God” (NIV). As he praises God, Paul declares: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim 1:17).
The texts Paul left us are not those of a tri-theist, nor those of one believing in three different modes of being in God (a doctrine known as modalism), but those of a monotheistic Jew.
Before meeting the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was resolutely committed to monotheism. And after God revealed His Son to him (Gal 1:16), Paul remained monotheistic, even though this monotheism was now expressed in a new form. As he writes to the Corinthians concerning idols, Paul notes: “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through who all things came, and through whom we live” (1 Cor 8:6). Paul’s faith in a unique God does not exclude the fact that he assigns the title “Lord” to Jesus Christ, nor does it prevent him to speak of Jesus as the creator of all things. However, one finds in Paul’s letters not a single trace of tri-theism or of modalism. Rather, one rather reads in Paul’s letters to the churches and to his coworkers about a Triune God: Father, Son, and Spirit. Nothing in Paul’s background predisposed him to believe in—or to even understand—a God in three persons.
Paul’s understanding of a Triune God came through a revelation from God about His Son, concerning the identity and mission of Jesus the Messiah, leading to a fuller understanding of God Himself. Nothing predisposed Paul to speak of God in terms of the Father, the Son, or the Spirit; God himself revealed His Son to him (Gal 1:16).
Paul, Minister of the Gospel Message
Concerning a Trinitarian God
The apostle to the Gentiles mentions the Triune God in numerous places in his letters. Let us browse the main passages mentioning together the three persons of the Trinity when it comes to describe God’s handiwork.
The Trinity and Creation
One does not find a specific text in Paul’s writings mentioning Father, Son and Spirit together, in the context of the (first) creation. However, the epistle to the Colossians (one of the few letters of Paul without any mention of the Holy Spirit) speaks unequivocally of the role of the Son: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist (Col 1:15–17). “God the Father” to whom Paul gives thanks in Col 1:3, and to whom the Colossians are called to give thanks (1:12) has created everything by His Son. The Son is the Agent (“through him, by him”) of creation, and the goal (“for him”) of creation. In fact, the Son is not only the creator, but also the sustainer of all creation. Though Paul does not mention the Holy Spirit in this context, he nonetheless unequivocally affirms the central role of the Son.
The Trinity and Redemption
We will deal here with passages referring to redemption, justification, and salvation by faith. Let us begin by well-known texts.
As he lays out the divine plan along chronological lines, Paul writes to the Galatians: “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal 4:4–6). We find here the three persons of the Trinity mentioned explicitly: God (who has sent His Son, so this God cannot be anyone but the Father), His Son, and the Spirit (called here the “Spirit of his Son”). Let us note that sending is attributed twice to the Father: He first sent His Son when the time had fully come, a unique moment in salvation history, and He sends the Spirit of His Son in the hearts of believers, as they individually throughout history place their trust in the Son for their own justification.
Let us also note the simultaneous presence of the great realities of salvation: redemption (“to redeem” – v. 5), adoption (making us to be sons and daughters of God), and all of this in the larger context of a discussion about justification by faith, a discussion which started in Gal 3:1 and continues until 4:11. We therefore see the three persons of the Trinity involved in our justification, our adoption, and our redemption.
Paul previously wrote in Galatians, “ But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident….Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law. . . that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:11–14). Though covering four verses in our Bibles, these are two sentences presenting consecutively the person of the Father as the One who justifies, the person of the Son who redeemed us from the curse of the law by his death of the cross, and the person of the Spirit whom we receive as promised. We read here about the specific role of the Son in our justification, and the gift of the promised Spirit. One finds here no confusion in the roles or in the identity of the divine persons. God the Father, declaring Abraham to be righteous before Him through his faith in God’s promise (Gal 3:6), has through the Scriptures spoken beforehand and foresaw the gospel of our redemption accomplished in Christ, leading us to receive the Spirit. Our prayers of thankfulness would benefit from being a bit more precise: we must praise our Triune God for such a great salvation.
The familiar text from Gal 4:4–6 should not makes us forget that Paul also mentions the three persons of the Trinity some verses earlier in the same epistle, namely in Gal 3:1–5, where Paul speaks about the Galatians’ initial taste of salvation. Paul first mentions Jesus Christ as crucified (v. 1), continues in reminding his readers they have received the Spirit by believing what they heard (vv. 2, 4), and concludes this brief paragraph speaking about the One who gives them the Spirit and works miracles among them, this One referring to God the Father (v. 4). Though this text covers five verses, reminding the Galatians of their initial salvation serves here as the thread tying together a series of questions from Paul, whose purpose is to recall to his readers that their salvation is the work of the Son, of the Spirit, and of the God who justifies, the topic of justification being what Paul deals with immediately in v. 6.
Changing epistles, one finds in Eph 1:3–14, in what is one of the longest sentences in the New Testament, a depiction of the spiritual blessing which is ours in Jesus Christ. Paul presents this spiritual blessing with eight or nine pictures, the work of the Father, that of the Son, and that of the Spirit. Some of the spiritual gems can be attributed to “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3), namely our election before the foundation of the world and the fact that we were predestined to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will (vv. 4–5, 11). It is also the Father who had made known to us the mystery of His will, that is, to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (vv. 9–10). On the other hand, it is in the Son that we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins (vv. 7–8); it is the Son, Christ, to whom all things in heaven and on earth come together (v. 10). Finally, the Spirit is the one who marks us with a seal, as a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the final redemption (vv. 13–14). Our salvation in all its components, from eternity past to eternity future, is the work of the three persons of the Trinity. What God the Father had planned, the Son accomplished, and the Spirit sealed, authenticated, and confirmed. Our salvation finds its source, fulfilment, and certainty in the work of the Triune God.
The same truths are declared also to the Thessalonians, as Paul writes: “God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thess 2:13–14). The sequence Father–Son–Spirit, found in Eph 1:3–14, is here slightly altered to God (the Father)–Spirit–Lord Jesus Christ. The Father is presented as the source of our election, the Holy Spirit as the one who sets us apart for God, and the Lord Jesus as the One whose glory we will share. Once again our entire salvation—its source, present work, and eternal finality—is the work of the Triune God.
The final passage we will consider in this short article is Rom 5:1–11, a text rich in content when it comes to describing our salvation. Paul presents different perspectives concerning our present salvation: peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (v. 1), hope of the glory of God (v. 2), death of Christ for the powerless, the sinners, God’s enemies (vv. 6–10), love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom God has given us (v. 5), justification by the blood of Christ (v. 9), salvation through Christ from God’s wrath (v. 9), reconciliation with God through the death of his Son (v. 10). Though we do not find Father-Son-Spirit mentioned together in a single verse, these verses taken together present us a salvation through different lenses (justification, reconciliation, salvation from God’s wrath), a salvation being the work of God the Father, Christ (also called here the Son), and Holy Spirit.
Let us conclude this brief analysis with a few observations. First, the apostle Paul does not always mention the divine persons in exactly the same sequence. Often the Father comes first, but not exclusively. Sometimes, salvation is presented first through the lens of what the Son has given us. Elsewhere, it is the presence and the work of the Spirit which precedes any mention about the Son (cf. 2 Thess 2:13–14).
There are different roles within the Triune God: the Father is the one who, with the Son, designed the work of redemption, but it is through the Son, by his death on the cross, who fulfils it, and it is the Holy Spirit who applies, seals, and authenticates this salvation in the believers’ hearts. Moreover, when it comes to discussing the roles within the Godhead, it is said nowhere that the Spirit sent the Son; on the contrary, it is the Father who sent the Son, and it is again the Father who sends the Spirit (cf. Gal 4:4–6). There is a subordination among the three persons of the Trinity, from the Son to the Father, and from the Spirit and the Son to the Father.
Lastly, our salvation is indeed the work of the Triune God. What the Father has planned and designed, the Son accomplished, and the Holy Spirit authenticates and guarantees. From eternity past to eternity future, our salvation finds its source, its reality, and its ultimate goal in the work of the Triune God.
Dr. Pierre Constant is the H. C. Slade Chair of New Testament Studies at Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College.