God in the Plural?

Is God plural?

You will not understand the answer to that question if you don’t read yesterday’s post, “The Early Christian Definition of the Trinity.” If you don’t want to read two of my posts today, yesterday’s is more important … by far.

So, go there first.

I’m not going to argue for the early Christian definition of the Trinity today. I have written an entire book on it (Decoding Nicea). I have posted the Trinity chapters of my book online. I have also posted a scriptural defense of Nicea online.

The definition of the Trinity I gave yesterday is the definition given by the early Christians, and it is also the definition given in the Nicene and Apostles creeds.

There is no doubt that this was the teaching of the early churches, and it answers numerous Scriptural difficulties left to us by the modern definition of the Trinity (e.g., Jn. 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:6).

Today, I am going to point out one more way that the Nicene definition of the Trinity meshes with Scripture better than any other view.

God in the Plural

In preparation for this post, I asked my FB friends, over 500 of them, if they knew of any verses in which God is addressed with a plural you.

As I point out regularly, though modern English does not distinguish between a singular and plural you (except in dialect, such as “y’all” or “youse”), King James English did. In the King James Version, the words thou, thee, and thy are singular, and ye, you, and your are plural.

It’s been almost 30 years since I read a Greek interlinear New Testament that claimed that God is addressed as “ye” in Scripture. The book gave no reference, and in almost 30 years I have never found that verse. Admittedly, I don’t usually read the KJV, so it would be hard for me to find.

So, as I said, I got on Facebook and asked for help.

I didn’t think to ask about verses which refer to God as “they,” or the verses in which God says “us,” but my friends did, so I address those below.

Saying What Scripture Says

Today’s teaching is a side issue. The purpose of the Scriptures is to equip us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17). I cannot imagine how this subject will affect the way you or I live.

So why cover it?

As I pointed out yesterday, we have forgotten what the apostles taught about the Trinity. The church held on to that teaching for centuries, finally codifying it in the Nicene and Apostles creeds. It was only afterwards, in the doctrinal battles with the Arians during the fourth century, that the definition of the Trinity was lost to the modern one. The reasons that happened don’t need to be recounted here, and they can’t be determined with certainty. Suffice it to say that the fourth century is when the definition of the Trinity began to change in the west.

It has never stopped amazing me that millions of Christians recite the Apostles Creed week after week after week without even knowing, much less believing, what it teaches about the Trinity.

Knowing what the early Christians taught makes the Scriptures significantly clearer, so I bring their Trinity teaching up here and there.

One of the principles I espouse, in this modern, divided, and confused age, is that we learn to say what the Scriptures say, without adjustment, even if we don’t know why the Scriptures say it.

My favorite example is James 2:24. It is not an ignored verse. It is mentioned regularly, but in the Protestant world, it is almost always mentioned in order to explain it away. It conflicted with Martin Luther’s theology so much that he called James’ letter “an epistle of straw.” He offered his doctor’s cap to anyone who could reconcile Romans 3:28 with James 2:24. (I make my bid for Luther’s cap at Christian-history.org.)

James 2:24 is never quoted, at least in the Protestant world, then left alone to say what it says. In many churches if you simply quote the verse, then argue that it is true “as is,” you could get yourself ejected from the church.

So today, I am hoping to make Scripture clearer.

Is God “They”?

By our modern Catholic/Protestant version of the Trinity, God can legitimately be referred to as “they.” The one God, we say, consists of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Thus the one God can be “they.” “Plurality in unity,” it’s been said to me.

I don’t think this is controversial. I think most or all modern Trinitarians would agree that is what they believe.

In Scripture, in early Christianity, and in the creeds, however, God would never be referred to as they, only “he.” The one God reveals himself though the Son and the Spirit, but the one God is the Father.

I believe in God the Father … and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord … (Apostles Creed)

We believe in one God, the Father, … and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, … (Nicene Creed)

For us there is but one God, the Father … and one Lord, Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 8:6)

One early Christian gave the reason for this terminology.

I shall follow the apostle [Paul], so that if the Father and the Son are alike to be invoked, I shall call the Father “God” and invoke Jesus Christ as “Lord.” But when Christ alone [is invoked], I shall be able to call him “God.” As the same apostle says, “Of whom is Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever” [Rom. 9:5].
   For I should give the name of “sun” even to a sunbeam, considered by itself. But if I were mentioning the sun from which the ray emanates, I would certainly withdraw the name of sun from the mere beam. For although I do not make two suns, still I shall reckon both the sun and its ray to be as much two things—and two forms of one undivided substance—as God and his Word, as the Father and the Son. (Tertullian. Against Praxeas 13. c. AD 210)

You will find this instruction by Tertullian to be universally followed in Scripture, in the pre-Nicene Christian writings, and in the Nicene and Apostles creeds. None of those sources will ever use the terminology “God the Son” or “God the Holy Spirit” even though, “when Christ alone is invoked,” the Scriptures and early Christians do call him God. None of those sources ever use the word “God” to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together.

It wouldn’t take much to refute this teaching. All you have to do is find a reference to “God” as plural, though a New Testament reference would prove a much better defense of modern terminology concerning the Trinity than an Old Testament reference would.

Here’s why.

Plural References to God in the Hebrew Scriptures

My request on Facebook netted several decent replies. In particular, Brian Williamson (whom I don’t even know) directed me to a web page called “Trinity: Plural References to God in the Old Testament”. It’s on the Bible.ca site, which I consider a good reference.

The problem is, as I have pointed out, the early Christian definition of the Trinity is forgotten by almost everyone (except the Orthodox churches), so the article does not address their view.

Here’s why the plural references to God in the Hebrew Scriptures are not refutations of what I’ve written above.

Elohim and “Us”

As many of you may know, the Hebrew word for “God,” Elohim, is a plural word. In Hebrew, there are two ways to use plural words. One way is to indicate plurality, as we do in English, and the other is to indicate majesty or greatness.

Thus Elohim can mean “God” or “gods” or even “great men” or “rulers” in the Scriptures. (Here is one reference. I don’t usually use Yahoo! answers as a source, but in this case the first answer is given by an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. It was hard to find good references, but if you want to research it further, you will find that what I say here is true.)

The article referenced by Mr. Willamson argues that the use of Elohim at least suggest plurality. He goes on to say that the use of “us” in Genesis 1 and Isaiah 6:8 is a reference to the Trinity as well.

That is all entirely plausible, but it really doesn’t address the early Christian definition of the Trinity. (In fact, how can anything in the article be a refutation of the early Christian view when it references the early Christians as authorities?)

Review of New Testament and Early Christian Terminology

Tertullian argued that proper terminology is to refer to the Father as God and Jesus as Lord when they are referenced together. When the Son is mentioned apart from the Father, only then should he be referred to as God.

Further, there are but six places in the New Testament where the “one God” is mentioned (Mark 12:32; Rom. 3:30; 1 Cor. 8:6; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; James 2:19). In four of those cases, the phrase is a clear reference to the Father apart from the Son. In the other two, no determination can be made.

Thus, Scripture confirms the terminology of the early Christians while specifically disagreeing with our contention that the one God should be described as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together.

One last statement. I am repeatedly accused of denying the divinity of the Son by teaching what all the early Christians taught, but of course, I am not. I’m hoping that tomorrow’s post might establish that more firmly for you.

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4 Responses to God in the Plural?

  1. paulfpavao says:

    I got a very similar reply from a friend on FB. This is well said. How did you know to write this, especially the word “monarchy”? Are you Orthodox or are you just somehow familiar with early church history? I don’t know of anyone but Tertullian–and the heretics he opposed–who used the word monarchy the way you just did before the middle part of the third century.

  2. While the Bible doesn’t say “God The Father God The Son and God The Holy Spirit” it makes clear that they are all equally divine and separate from creation and all played a role in creation, John first chapter says all was made by for and through The Son. Tertullian’s remarks should be taken seriously because of the early time, is he not “early church?” Regardless of his descent into Montanism, his terminology shows what the early church understood.

    Since all of The Holy Trinity are fully divine, but within it is a monarchy with YHWH The Father as origin and king of the other Two, all three qualify as “God.”

  3. Ben says:

    Hi Paul,

    How does the Athanasian Creed fit into this? Doesn’t it offer a great explanation of the Trinity?

    Honestly, I’m really bummed to see you referring to bible.ca as “a good reference”. Have you looked around that site much?

    God bless!

    -Ben

    • paulfpavao says:

      Thanks. Great question and comment from my perspective.

      1. Re: Bible.ca: What I actually meant was that if an article on bible.ca says that there are x many times that plural adjectives are used of God, the figure will probably be true. I didn’t mean anything more than that. Thank you for letting me clarify.

      2. I disagree with the Athanasian Creed, and I am mystified that anyone can claim to believe both the Nicene and Athanasian Creed. They teach two different things. Tie Athanasian Creed is an excellent summation of our modern doctrine that I am complaining about. The wording in it is not only different, but contrary to Nicea and the pre-Nicene Fathers. Nonetheless, both Protestants and Catholics claim to believe both. I am speechless. Does no one pay any attention to the creeds they recite or promote?

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