The Trinity is Not Tritheism

A critique of Naji I. Al-Arfaj, Just one Message. Al Hofuf, Saudi Arabia: Author, 2001. www.sultan.org/books/just-one-message.pdf [available from multiple sources online]

Someone shared the above booklet with me, and asked for my response. The headings below correspond to the headings in Al-Arfaj’s booklet.

1. “Straight to the Point”

It is curious that Al-Arfaj declares that he will get “straight to the point,” and promptly misses the point entirely. His argument goes something like this:

  1. The Christian Bible teaches monotheism.
  2. The Christian doctrine of the trinity goes against monotheism.
  3. Therefore, the Christian doctrine of the trinity goes against the Christian Bible.

If this were true, it would give Christians real pause for concern. But of course, line #2 is false. The apostle Paul, whom the author credits with inventing the trinity (p. 24), clearly affirms monotheism:

Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. – 1 Cor 8:4

[all quotes from the NKJV, unless otherwise stated; mouse-over the citation for ESV]

Al-Arfaj’s fundamental mistake is to confuse the trinity with tritheism. For instance, the author refers to the Christian dogma of “three ‘Gods’” (p. 13). As we can see in Paul’s statement, Christians do not believe that there are three gods. And again in the “Conclusion” he takes himself to have proven that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are not “supposed gods” (p. 24). Christians do not believe that the Son and the Holy Spirit are “supposed gods.” Christians believe that the Son and Spirit are Persons of the Triune Godhead. Look at how Jesus speaks of the relationship between his Father and Spirit:

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you. – John 14:26

The inspired writers of the New Testament did not have to name or explain the trinity – it was glaringly obvious on every page.

Christians do not believe in tritheism. The trinity is neither bad maths (1+1+1 gods = 1 god), nor false religion (1 god + 1 god +1 god =3 gods). It is one Divine Being existing as three Persons. This is not an easy idea to wrap our minds around. After all, each of us is one human being and one person at the same time. But God is not like us. The doctrine of the trinity may be difficult to grasp, but that does not make it wrong.

Al-Arfaj proceeds to quote a number of Scriptures, either in part or in whole. In each case I identify the mistake and explain why the verse in question does not say what Al-Arfaj wants it to say.

John 5:37

  • Mistake: Scripture quoted out of context.
  • Why? Only part of John 5:37 is quoted. Only part of Jesus’ full statement is quoted. In context, Jesus’ point to his audience is as follows: you believe the Father whom you have not seen, but you do not believe the one whom the Father has sent (John 5:37-38). The Son of God is the one whom the Father has sent (John 5:23). A few verses earlier we read that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is coequal with the Father (John 5:17-18).

1 Timothy 6:16

  • Mistake: Scripture quoted out of context.
  • Why? Only part of 1 Tim 6:16 is quoted. Only part of Paul’s complete thought is quoted. Paul commands Timothy, in the presence of both God and Christ Jesus, to remain faithful (1 Tim 6:12,14). The apostle finishes by praising God the Father (1 Tim 6:15-16).
  • Mistake: Missing the point.
  • Why? The point of the passage is that, although God the Father has not been seen in all His glory, God the Son has been seen in the person of Jesus. Consider these verses:

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” – Matt 1:23

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. – John 1:18

but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. – John 20:31

Exodus 33:20

  • Mistake: Scripture quoted out of context.
  • Why? Only part of Exo 33:20 is quoted. Only part of the exchange between God and Moses is quoted. In context, Moses wants to see the glory of God (Exo 33:18). This is something that God will not reveal to anyone. He will show Moses his back, but not his face (Exo 33:23). Moses has “seen” God, but only in a limited sense. He never saw God’s full glory.

Isaiah 45:19

  • Mistake: Incorrect citation.
  • Why? The quote as presented by Al-Arfaj is the last line of Isa 45:18 and some of Isa 45:19.
  • Mistake: Missing the point.
  • Why? Isa 45:18 is a statement of monotheism and does not address the doctrine of the trinity.

 

2. “The One True God in the Bible: The Old Testament”

Deuteronomy 6:4

  • Mistake: Missing the point.
  • Why? Deut 6:4 is a statement of monotheism and does not address the doctrine of the trinity.

Malachi 2:15

  • Mistake: Missing the point.
  • Why? Mal 2:15 is a statement of monotheism and does not address the doctrine of the trinity.

Isaiah 43:10-11

  • Mistake: Missing the point.
  • Why? Isa 43:10-11 is a statement of monotheism and does not address the doctrine of the trinity.

Isaiah 44:6

  • Mistake: Missing the point.
  • Why? Isa 44:6 is a statement of monotheism and does not address the doctrine of the trinity.

Isaiah 45:21-23

  • Mistake: Missing the point.
  • Why? Isa 45:21-23 is a statement of monotheism and does not address the doctrine of the trinity.

Many other passages in the Old Testament affirm monotheism. Christians accept monotheism because they accept that the Old Testament is divinely inspired Scripture (Rom 15:4; 2 Tim 3:16). However, by definition, monotheism is not inconsistent with the doctrine of the trinity.

 

3. “The One True God in the Bible: The New Testament”

Matthew 19:16-17 (KJV)

  • Mistake: Ambiguity.
  • Note: It is hard to say why Al-Arfaj switches to the KJV. Modern translations of Matt 19:16-17 do not have the rich young leader addressing Jesus as “Good Master,” or Jesus replying, “Why callest thou me good?” However, both Mark 10:17-18 and Luke 18:18-19 contain these phrases.
  • Why? At first glance, the exchange can be read in at least two different ways. Jesus means to say either,
    1. “Don’t call me or anyone else good. Only God is good and I am not God.”; or
    2. “By calling me good, you recognize me as God, because only God is good.”

Al-Arfaj wants us to pick #1, but how do we know #2 is not right? We cannot make or settle any argument by trading on an ambiguity. We would have to look at the immediate and broader context to see what Jesus means. For our purposes, it is enough to look at the broader context and note that Jesus praised Peter’s confession three chapters earlier.

16 Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. – Matt 16:16-17

So, despite the potential ambiguity, we can hardly use it to deny the deity of Christ and the trinity when so many other passages clearly affirm both.

John 17:3

  • Mistake: Missing the point.
  • Why? John 17:3 is a statement of monotheism and does not address the doctrine of the trinity.
  • Mistake: Passage quoted out of context.
  • Why? Only part of Jesus’ thought is quoted. John 17:1-5 affirms His deity:
    • the Son has authority over all flesh;
    • the Son can give eternal life;
    • the Son shares the same glory as the Father; and
    • the Son is coexistent with the Father.

Matthew 4:10

  • Mistake: Missing the point.
  • Why? Matt 4:10 is a statement of monotheism and does not address the doctrine of the trinity. Worship of the one true God is not incompatible with the worship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Revelation, Christ the Lamb is praised along with the Father (e.g., Rev 5:12-13).

Mark 12:29

  • Mistake: Missing the point.
  • Why? Mark 12:29 is a statement of monotheism and does not address the doctrine of the trinity.

1 Timothy 2:5

  • Mistake: Missing the point.
  • Why? 1 Tim 2:5 is a statement of monotheism and does not address the doctrine of the trinity. The whole point of the incarnation is that God came to us as a man.

“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” – Matt 1:23

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. – Phil 2:8

If God did not come and live among us in flesh and blood, then He could not offer that flesh and blood as a sacrifice on the cross for our sins.

 

4. “The One True God in the Qur’an”

Sura 112:1-4

  • Mistake: Contradicts Scripture.
  • Why? Jesus is the only begotten Son of God.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. – John 3:16

The phrase “only begotten” does not mean that God fathered a child like a man fathers a child. It does not mean that God created His Son. The word is used in the sense of “only” or “unique.” Modern translations reflect this understanding of the word, e.g.,

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16 (NIV11)

The Greek word translated “only begotten” or “one and only” is the same word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to describe Abraham’s son, Isaac.

And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” – Gen 22:12

Isaac is not literally Abraham’s “only son.” Abraham had another son, Ishmael (Gen 16:11). However, it was through Isaac that God would fulfil His covenant promise to Abraham (Gen 21:12). In this sense, Isaac was Abraham’s unique son, as Jesus is God’s unique Son – it is through Jesus that God fulfils His covenant promise to all of us today.

Sura 5:73

  • Mistake: Straw man.
  • Why? This passage implies that there are some, presumably Christians, who believe that God the Father is one of three Gods. This would be tritheism. The Christian doctrine of the trinity is not tritheism.

 

5. “Conclusion”

Isaiah 45:22, 43:10-11

  • Mistake: Missing the point
  • Why? Isa 45:22 and Isa 43:10-11 offer statements of monotheism and do not address the doctrine of the trinity.

“the Essenes, an early Christian Unitarian community”

  • Mistake: False.
  • Why? The Essenes were a Jewish community. The author may mean Ebionites, in which case…
  • Mistake: Irrelevant.
  • Why? The existence of non-Trinitarian sects does not prove that the doctrine of the trinity is unscriptural.

“the Pauline innovation of the trinity”

  • Mistake: Contradicts Scripture.
  • Why? Paul is not the only inspired writer to affirm the trinity. The passages below list all three persons of the Godhead:
    • Matthew: Matt. 3:16-17; Matt 28:19
    • John Mark: Mark 1:9-11
    • John the Apostle, son of Zebedee: John 1:32-34
    • Unknown: Hebrews 9:14
    • Peter: 1 Peter 1:2

If Paul were pushing a heretical doctrine, it is unlikely that this doctrine would be accepted and passed along by the apostles and inspired writers. In fact, Peter affirms Paul’s writing as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16).

Finally, you will notice in this response that I do not mine the Qur’an for problem verses that I can use against Muslims. Although I have studied the Qur’an, I recognize that our English translations are less than ideal, and I respect the Qur’an as the Muslim’s holy text. It would be unfair of me to quote sura out of context so that I can criticize Muslim beliefs that I do not properly understand. I would respectfully ask Muslims for the same consideration.

© 2014, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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