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The Trinity in the Letters of St Paul and Hebrews

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the concept of Trinity in the Book of Hebrews and Pauline epistles in the New Testament. Rather than seeking “proof-texts” or studying the implications of particular words as applied to Jesus, this article suggests that the narrative fabric of the books sets forth an idiom, a grammar, or logic, that can only be rightly interpreted through Trinitarian conceptions. It suggests that attending carefully to the linguistic pattern of the texts' speech about God requires us to look behind the actual arguments of the texts to the theological judgements that make such language possible and that the sense that the New Testament language makes depends upon a larger pattern of theological judgements.

Keywords: Trinity, Book of Hebrews, Pauline epistles, New Testament, Jesus, narrative fabric, linguistic pattern, God, theological judgements

About this we have much to say that is hard to explain

(Heb. 5:11)


As we know from ancient biblical manuscript evidence, Hebrews frequently circulated with the rest of the corpus Paulinum and was considered the fourteenth of Paul's letters. Indeed, even our earliest attested form of the Pauline letters includes Hebrews (P46). This did not, however, prevent ancient scholars from expressing serious reservations or outright doubts about the Pauline authorship of Hebrews. Tertullian, to mention a prominent example, believed the author was Barnabas. Origen was less sanguine: about the author of Hebrews, he said, ‘only God knows’.

Today it is safe to say that most scholars would agree with the ancient sceptics against the view of authorship implied by the manuscript tradition and accepted by Jerome and Augustine (among many others). Though there is hardly a consensus about the identity of Hebrews’ author—the suggestions are many and varied (Barnabas, Apollos, Silas, Priscilla, etc.)—it would be exceedingly difficult to find a modern New Testament scholar who would argue for the Pauline authorship of Hebrews. Indeed, it would be only slightly less difficult to find academics in the mainstream of New Testament scholarship who would argue for the Pauline authorship of all thirteen of the Pauline epistles. From a typical New Testament scholar's perspective, therefore, grouping these fourteen texts together is likely to seem artificial.

Hermeneutically considered, however, a modern judgement of this kind is in fact no more than the concrete evidence of privileging a certain kind of interpretive commitment over others, the kind that believes that the New Testament texts should be arranged (p. 42) according to authorship (as it is critically reconstructed). But, as everyone knows, plenteous other schemata are on offer. We could, for example, organize the texts according to the drift of their reception history, their canonical order, their genre, their similarity in patterns of thought, and so on. In each case, the ordering of the texts would result from a particular hermeneutical posture vis-à-vis the canonical witness and would require—no less than presuppose—theological justification for its adoption. In the case of this article, the justification is rather simple: grouping Hebrews together with Paul allows us to inhabit a particular stream of Christian reflection on the biblical texts as a way to direct our attention to certain theologically productive modes of reading that have by and large been forgotten in the modern period.

Yet we would be mistaken were we to think that a Pauline/Hebrews organization in particular would facilitate a more Trinitarian reading than any other, or help us to draw more clearly the lines between Scripture and its dogmatic explication. The reason, of course, is that the doctrine of the Trinity is not based upon a particular ordering of only a few biblical texts. It is instead the antecedent theological logic of the Christian canon as a whole. Offering an ultimate justification for grouping all the letters attributed to Paul together with Hebrews is therefore not only unnecessary but, strictly speaking, impossible in an article focused on the connection between these texts and the doctrine of the Trinity. The working procedure herein is instead no more complicated than seeing how the Trinitarian framework helps us to read well the language about God in these texts. Methodologically considered, however, such a statement could point in any number of different directions, and we must therefore elucidate its intent for this particular article.


Taking Trinitarian doctrine as the hermeneutical lens through which we consider Paul's letters and Hebrews entails the following points as basic corollaries to the more fundamental shape of the enquiry:

  1. (1) The texts considered below are not to be read as evidence of ‘proof-texting’ in the manner of the old dicta probantia/classica. Despite the disdain of modern critics, it is true that we can still learn much from this older way of reading Scripture. For example, we always have particular schemata that help to structure our reading of Scripture; we cannot think, that is, without ordering thought. The schemata of the dicta classica are clear—above board, so to speak—whereas those of contemporary New Testament scholars are frequently hidden behind false and illusory notions of an exegesis that prescinds from larger doctrinal commitments. Paying attention to an overt schema should help us to become more aware of the way in which the order of our thought already directs our exegetical attention in certain ways rather than others.

(p. 43) Still, it is hard to deny that the manner by which these compendia remove particular words or phrases from their more immediate scriptural contexts ignores hermeneutically what is prima facie one of the most striking aspects of holy Scripture itself, namely, that it is has discrete literary units (‘books’). Put more directly: the methodological moves of the older proof-texting approach occlude the theological significance of the surface shape of Scripture. If modern biblical studies has anything crucial to teach us in this respect, it is that engagement with the literary texture of Scripture's surface forms a critical part of fruitful interpretation in our own time.

  1. (2) The texts considered below are also not focused interpretively by ‘predication’. To put it bluntly, for many interpreters of Scripture, modern biblical criticism destroyed the possibility of taking the dicta probantia seriously as a way to conceive constructively the relation between Scripture and the Church's doctrinal teaching. They therefore sought other methods by which to connect the Bible with doctrinal explication. Prominent among these was a mode of reading whereby the New Testament was explored for passages in which, for example, the word theos (God) was predicated of Jesus (e.g. Jn 1:1, 18, Rom. 9:5, etc.). Because of their immediate relevance to what it would mean to think of Jesus as divine, these texts were thought to help fund materially the doctrine of the Trinity.

There is doubtless much to learn from the collection of such passages, but the problem remains that the exegetical procedure is still vulnerable to the critique of more sceptical scholars who see this approach as the residue of an older method of reading Scripture that extracted small amounts of texts for a predetermined outcome. Attending more carefully to the immediate context of these statements, so it was argued, disclosed not so much the prefiguration of later doctrinal truths as it did a complex set of exegetical ambiguities (e.g. the significance of the anarthrous use of theos in Jn 1:1 for the Logos). In short, though the predication approach helped to direct our attention to striking features of the scriptural texts, it remained within the ambit of a kind of exegesis that was unable to deal with the vast amounts of biblical material that would obviously not fit inside the range of texts generated by the methodology. It therefore furthered rather than countered the impression created by the older proof-texting model of reading, namely, that the Bible and Christian doctrine could only be related artificially through some version of an externally imposed schema.

  1. (3) The texts considered below are not examined through a lens ground by a (re)construction of a particular historical trajectory: a kind of reading structured by the question of ‘how we got here from there’, or focused on the way in which Scripture raised theological issues that could only be settled after decades of rigorous doctrinal reflection. In more recent history—after the rise of the so-called ‘historical consciousness’—this approach has been rather common. All treatments of the development of doctrine, whether of a more liberal (e.g. Adolf Harnack) or more traditional (e.g. Alister McGrath) leaning, presuppose the theological importance of attending to the linear dimension of history and move from the biblical texts to the later creedal formulations.

(p. 44) Accounts of the relation between Scripture and the dogmatic tradition that are shaped by a conception of a historical trajectory that begins in Scripture and moves toward the creeds are particularly important. This importance is tied not only to the fact that such accounts take seriously the historical shape of our noetic boundaries but also because they can be read—whether their author intends it or not—as attempts to foreground the economy of God's self-revelation. By attending carefully to the linear dimension of doctrine, studies premised on the significance of historical trajectory correspond to the epistemic priority of the economic Trinity and help us to (re)trace the path of theological knowledge from the economic to the immanent reality of God.

  1. (4) Instead of the three reading strategies just described, the approach in this article takes shape from the three primary considerations:

    First, the theological grammar in the New Testament presupposes certain basic judgements about the identity of God. The particular grammatical moves of the texts could not be made, that is, unless larger theological judgements have been made that allow these linguistic possibilities. Put thetically: the New Testament speech could not have taken shape in precisely this way unless X or Y is true about God. This ‘unless’ then requires explication in a theological idiom.

    Second, the development of the doctrine of the Trinity was the explication of this ‘unless’, the unpacking of the internal theological logic behind the particular form of Scripture's grammar. In part, of course, this is what it means to say that the immanent Trinity is ontologically prior to the economic (whereas the economic is epistemically prior to the immanent). But it is also what it means to say that Trinitarian doctrine is the lens through which we can rightly perceive the particular form of Scripture's speaking about the identity of the God who has revealed himself there. To employ a Trinitarian framework to read Scripture, therefore, is hardly to impose an artificial schema upon the New Testament. It is instead to reason inside the theological patterns required to understand the language used to speak about God in the texts.

    Third, precisely because the doctrine of the Trinity is the true reception of Scripture's particular way of speaking about the identity of the Christian God, it also constitutes an otherwise unavailable form of exegetical perception. Thinking in Trinitarian patterns does not obfuscate the specificity of argument in, for example, Romans or 1 Corinthians—turning it into, say, an actual argument about the Trinity—but rather interprets the particular language about God within the horizon of that language's subject matter (res). In this way, Trinitarian reasoning enables us better to understand the deep and theologically essential connection between the specific language of Scripture and the God who—always and antecedently—speaks it forth.

(p. 45) Hebrews and the Pauline Letters

Given the amount of material involved in treating Hebrews and Paul, we obviously cannot aspire to comprehensiveness. What we can do, however, is to select strategically important passages that have substantial bearing not only on our reading of the larger text under discussion (e.g. Hebrews 1 is important rhetorically for the whole of the letter) but also on our more central question. In so doing, we shall by and large omit discussion of the protracted exegetical debates that surround virtually every verse of these texts and shall instead simply display our readings of the selected passages on the way to a more synthetic judgement.


Hebrews is a complex text whose basic theological grammar exhibits many and various substantive connections to the doctrine of the Trinity. Because it would be impossible to canvas the entire letter, we must restrict our enquiry to particularly striking features of these connections. The opening two chapters of the letter relate directly to our central concern, and we shall therefore focus our attention there (though let it be noted that what can be said here about Hebrews applies elsewhere in the letter).

If Hebrews’ theology has been thought to be ‘supersessionist’—a judgement that is in need of serious rethinking—it cannot be on account of its doctrine of God. Indeed, the first verse of chapter 1 immediately and clearly identifies the God about whom Hebrews speaks as the God of Israel, the one who ‘spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets’ (Heb. 1:1). This is not a new God, a divine figure other than the Jewish God, the one who brooks no rivals, whose identity is bound together with his uniqueness, and whose demand for worship is therefore total and exclusive. Indeed, the opening of the letter both states and assumes that the theos of Hebrews is in no way anything other than the Old Testament God.

This point is important to grasp clearly because immediately the letter begins to render more complex the identity of just that God by extending the range of language by which we could rightly speak of him: ‘But in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed as the heir of all things, and through whom he also made the ages’ (Heb. 1:2). Over against the notion that the Son is a divine figure to be contrasted with God, Hebrews immediately speaks of their interrelation. The Son is the ‘radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his nature’ (Heb. 1:3). To put it in contemporary language, the Son is not other than God but is in fact God expressed or externalized—embodied, as we will shortly see—in relation to the world. That the Son is not fundamentally other than God is immediately made explicit by the citation of Psalm 44 in which the address to God (ho theos) is extended to include the Son: ‘But of the Son he (God) says, “Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever” ’ (Ps. 44:7, LXX). The (p. 46) theological judgement underlying this hermeneutical move is rather clear: the Son is none other than the God of whom the Psalm speaks.

It is generally well known that in the Old Testament the creative and ordering power of the God of Israel was frequently rendered with metaphorical dexterity—spoken of as Word or Wisdom as, for example, in Prov. 8:22—and that this way of speaking of God's relation to the world became quite common around the time of the New Testament. Hebrews may well owe much to this way of thinking about God, but the letter also moves in a profoundly new direction, namely, that ‘the Son’ is not at all to be understood in a purely noetic sense. The Son of Hebrews, that is, is not a metaphorical way of speaking about God's mediated relation to the world, a kind of grammatical holding place that gestures toward the fact that the true, high God could never come directly into contact with the material realm. Indeed, Hebrews is resolute in affirming the Son's human life. The Son we hear of as theos in Heb. 1:8 is none other than the Jesus we hear of in Heb. 2:9: ‘But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one’. That the suffering and death was that of a real human, moreover, is made clear on page after page of the letter. Jesus the Son partook of the ‘same nature’ that other human beings have—that is, flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14)—and he was tempted in precisely the same way that other humans are (which is why he is able to aid them in their temptations; Heb. 2:18; cf. 4:15). He was the ‘pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Heb. 12:2).

It is this human life of the Son to which the statements in Heb. 1:5–6 make reference:

For to which one of the angels did God ever say, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’? Or again, ‘I will be a Father to him and he will be a Son to me’? And when he brought the Firstborn into the life of the world (oikoumenē), he says, ‘Let all the angels of God worship him’.

Heb. 1:5–6 does not deny, that is, that the Son is eternally theos but instead speaks from the perspective of post-resurrection knowledge about the entrance of the Son into the life of the world in the person of Jesus. The ‘begetting’ of the Son, that is, does not point to the creation of the Son but to the beginning of his human life in the human realm, or oikoumenē (or perhaps, if the author of Hebrews indeed knows the traditions surrounding Jesus’ baptism, it speaks of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry). Even in his earthly life the ‘Firstborn’—a reference to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, not his creation (cf. Rom. 8:29; Col. 1:15, 18; Rev. 1:5)—can be worshipped by the angels. In short, the figure of Jesus is the Son whom God is—both in himself and in his creating and redeeming relation to the world.

That the Son is internal to the identity of God is at bottom what differentiates him from the angels. Modern readers might be perplexed by the amount of energy the author of Hebrews expends to distinguish the Son from the angels. But in fact, as Athanasius saw so clearly in his own way in the fourth century, the question that lies behind such a focus goes to the heart of God's identity. If God is the God of Israel, and if God's Son is (p. 47) Jesus the human being, why then—a good Jewish theologian should ask—can the Son be worshipped? How is this worship of the Son not idolatry? Is this not an affront to the one and only true God? Hebrews’ way of navigating this basic question is through a grammar of contrast: Jesus should not be conceived as, or in analogy to, an angel.

Hebrews develops this contrast already in the opening of the letter: the Son has become ‘as much superior to the angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs’ (Heb. 1:4). The contrast is then deepened by citing a variety of Old Testament texts, all of which are intended to emphasize the difference between the Son and the angels: ‘Of the angels [God] says, “Who makes his angels winds and his servants flames of fire”. But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is for ever and ever” ’; and, later, ‘But to which one of the angels has he said, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”. Are not all [the angels] ministering spirits who are sent forth to serve those who will inherit salvation’ (Heb. 1:13–14; cf. 1:5–6). Thus it is no less than God himself who declares through Scripture the Son's superiority to the angels. And yet—in view of the use of Ps. 44:7 in Heb. 1:8—it would be more precise to say that God declares his own superiority to the angels in the person of the Son. God does not, that is, declare the superiority of something other than God but speaks of himself as theos in the figure of Jesus the Son. As the text of Hebrews would have it, ‘Son’ is thus internal to the meaning of ‘God’.

Still, in the theology of Hebrews ‘God’ is not collapsed into ‘Son’ or ‘Jesus’ any more than it excludes them. That is to say, ‘God’ is sufficiently relational in its meaning to require of the reader nimbleness in thought, a movement between selfsameness and difference. To put it in the terms of Hebrews, the Son can both be called theos and ‘have’ a theos. In the very same citation of Psalm 44 where the Son is clearly called ‘God’, to take only the most striking example, we learn that ‘God’ is not reducible to the Son. Addressing the Son, Heb. 1:8–9 continues, ‘You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; for this reason God, your God, has anointed you’ (cf. the expressions in Heb. 1:3; 2:17; 10:12; 12:2; 13:20, etc.). Even within one citation, therefore, ‘God’ (theos) is both the Son and yet not reducible to the Son.

Or again, if we ask who the kyrios is in Hebrews, ‘the Lord’ is both Jesus the human being and the God of the Old Testament. Not only does Heb. 7:14 speak of Jesus clearly as ‘the Lord’ who was descended from Judah (cf. Heb. 13:20), in Heb. 1:10–12 it is no less than God himself who addresses the Son as ‘Lord’ through an Old Testament text in which kyrios originally referred to the God of Israel: ‘You, O Lord [kyrie], did found the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands’ (Ps. 101:25ff., LXX). Yet in the citation of Ps. 110:4 in Heb. 7:21 and elsewhere ‘the Lord’ is clearly the God of Israel. In Heb. 8:8, for example, Jeremiah 31 is cited with the characteristic ‘says the Lord’, which plainly refers to God. Were we to attempt to assign one meaning of kyrios to Jesus and another to God, we would have already dismantled the language through which Hebrews presents God/the Lord and, therefore, moved away from the theological pattern created by Hebrews’ continuous attempt to speak of the Old Testament God and of Jesus together.

(p. 48) Hebrews mentions the Holy Spirit only seven times (Heb. 2:4; 3:7; 6:4; 9:8, 14; 10:15, 29). Yet it does so in a way that makes clear the relational determination of the Spirit's identity. Speaking of the nature of salvation, the author of Hebrews says, ‘It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his own will’ (Heb. 2:3–4). Here the Spirit is explicitly described as God's Spirit—the Spirit's gifts are distributed according to God's will—and tied to the salvific life of Jesus (the Lord). To speak of the Holy Spirit, therefore, is also to speak of God and of the Lord Jesus (cf. the context in Heb. 6:4 and 10:29).

Moreover, the Holy Spirit cannot be reduced to a simple metaphorical way to speak about God's presence, as if using Spirit language were but another way to speak of God's immanence. The Spirit in Hebrews is rather the one through whom Christ offered himself to God. As the author argues a minore ad maius: ‘For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ—who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God—purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God’ (Heb. 9:13–14). Or again, Hebrews clearly portrays God as the one who provides the voice of Scripture, but no less do we find the Spirit performing the same task—indeed, with the same basic scriptural text:

And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord, I will put my laws on their hearts and write them on their minds’, he then adds, ‘I will remember their sins and misdeeds no more’. (Heb. 10:15–17, citing Jer. 31:33–4; cf. the speech of the Holy Spirit in Heb. 3:7)

As will be obvious to any reader, the letter to the Hebrews employs a highly complex theological grammar primarily because Hebrews speaks of God in ways that simultaneously maintain and extend the discourse of the Old Testament. ‘God’ is none other than the God of the Old Testament, and yet this God is described also in relation to a human Son that is internal to his eternal identity—Jesus the Christ—and in relation to the Holy Spirit. Moreover, in its defence of the propriety of Jesus worship (esp. chs. 1–2), Hebrews reveals a sense of the profound questions that surround its extension of the Old Testament's theological discourse to a ‘flesh and blood’ human being. To speak of the Old Testament theos and Jesus anthropos together (Ps. 44:7; Heb. 1:8) is already to effect a dramatic revaluation of both terms. And to tie inextricably the Spirit of God to the self-offering of Jesus is yet again to revalue the meaning of Holy Spirit.

Hebrews does not itself so much articulate this revaluation as presuppose it. Later doctrinal language—Trinitarian reasoning, to be precise—developed the interconnection between the relation of the terms that Hebrews presupposes for its particular theological grammar. Hebrews’ grammar, that is, becomes intelligible in light of a larger linguistic range that allows one to say God and Jesus and Spirit together. In this way, Trinitarian doctrine explicates the intelligibility of the particular theological lan (p. 49) guage of Hebrews no less than it creates an exegetical perception of ‘God’ in the text itself.

Pauline Epistles

As New Testament scholars have long emphasized, the letters by or attributed to the Apostle Paul are occasional documents. They are not systematic treatises aimed at the elucidation of the whole of the Christian faith. They are—with only one real possible exception (Romans)—written as ‘words on target’, pastoral responses to the particular problems and questions of early Christian congregations. Because of their character, it is an entirely unexceptional fact that the Pauline texts do not contain long discourses on the nature of God, person of Christ, and so forth. This is exactly what one would expect in occasional, pastorally-targeted letters. However, it does not follow from the absence of such direct discourse that one can understand Paul quite apart from thinking through the theological judgements that form the possibility of several of his particular formulations. Indeed, to attend carefully to the grammar of the occasion is immediately to perceive the larger syntax in which the theological logic of such particular formulations is made possible. With respect to the view of God found in the Pauline epistles, Trinitarian reflection is the larger theological syntax that illumines and—ultimately—renders intelligible Paul's particular grammatical moves.

Obviously the Pauline corpus is too vast to survey in this article. We shall therefore select only four instances from across the corpus that will serve to establish paradigmatically the theological point of view from which the identity of God should be seen when thinking through the witness of the Pauline letters. These four instances are not chosen, however, because they are unusual (and therefore particularly interesting to academics) but precisely because they are typical of the theological grammar of the Pauline corpus as a whole (and therefore all the more important).

1 Corinthians 12

In chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians Paul begins to admonish the Corinthians for their misunderstanding of the importance of spiritual gifts. The Church in Corinth, it is well known, had an abundance of those who spoke in tongues, prophesied, and so forth. The question thus arose as to how the manifestation of the true (Holy) Spirit should be differentiated from its counterfeits (‘spirits’). Paul instructs the Corinthians: ‘I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, “Jesus be damned!”; and, no one can say “Jesus is Lord!” except by the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor. 12:3).

What is initially intriguing about Paul's argument is that it does not argue for discerning the true Spirit by giving the Corinthians an extensive check-list of things that the Holy Spirit would or would not do through the Corinthians (scream profanity incoherently, foam at the mouth, attack people, and so on). He names only one thing, though of course it has both a negative and positive side: the Spirit never testifies to the permanent death of Jesus but, entirely to the contrary, leads one to confess that Jesus is Lord.

(p. 50) At its deepest level, the argument is that to know the manifestation of the true Spirit is to know the relational determination of the Spirit's identity. Such determination is by God on the one hand and Jesus on the other: God's Spirit is the one who enables the confession that the Lord is Jesus. Paul does not, of course, specify the proper method by which to construe this relational identity in any overtly metaphysical way. But he does say rather clearly that the way to differentiate the true from the false is to see the connection of the Holy Spirit to God the Father and Jesus the Lord. The Spirit of God, that is, cannot be abstracted from Jesus Christ. As Paul will later say, the Corinthians are baptized by the Spirit into one body (which of course is Christ; 1 Cor. 12:12ff.). In 1 Cor. 12:4–6 this relational determination of God's identity is expressed in a neat parallelism:

There are varieties of gifts—but the same Spirit (to auto pneuma)

There are varieties of service—but the same Lord (ho autos kyrios)

There are varieties of working—but the same God (ho autos theos)

Again, Paul's argument is not actually about God's relational identity. It is about how to know the true Spirit and the proper place and worth of spiritual gifts in Christian community. Yet God's relational identity is the ground upon which this argument is constructed, which is to say that the Trinitarian pattern of speech is the linguistic fundament of Paul's particular appeals. One can, of course, conceive of other ways in which he could make the same argument. But that is to miss the point (as hypotheticals often do). The point is rather that when attempting to shape the communal life of the Corinthians vis-à-vis the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, Paul draws upon a theological language that positions the Holy Spirit in relation to the ‘same Lord’ and ‘same God’.

Of course, when ‘Lord’ refers to Jesus, to say ‘same Lord’ and ‘same God’ almost in the same breath is to speak idolatrous nonsense—unless the referents of the words ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ are to be understood in a noncompetitive manner. And, indeed, Paul's argument gives us no reason to suspect that Lord competes with God. It is rather the case that Paul's seamless theological grammar requires us to think in terms of a reciprocally determining identity between the Lord and God. Differently said, while in the Old Testament the question of competition between God and the Lord could never arise—the Lord was simply God, and vice versa—Paul's language extends the referent of ‘the Lord’ to include Jesus in such a way as to condition what we mean when we now say ‘God’. In brief, Paul's argument presupposes a linguistic interconnection between God, Jesus the Lord, and the Holy Spirit such that to speak of one is necessarily to invoke or imply the others. As Paul himself puts it: no one can confess that Jesus is Lord except by the power of God's Holy Spirit.

To receive such speech—to understand the theological possibility of the grammar—is already to reason in a Trinitarian pattern of thought. In this way, Trinitarian reasoning articulates theologically the ground of the text's grammatical moves and really is, therefore, the deeper presupposition of the particular Pauline argument in 1 Corinthians 12. That this is not an isolated instance but constitutive of Pauline argumentation as a whole could be easily shown from a variety of texts (e.g. 1 Cor. 2:2–5; 2 Cor. 13:13(14); Gal. 3:1–5; Phil. 3:3, etc.). Due to the necessary brevity of our reflection, however, we shall illustrate the material continuity with 1 Corinthians 12 by three further examples, each one of (p. 51) which is selected from a major textual area in the Pauline corpus (the Hauptbriefe, the deutero-Pauline letters, and the Pastoral Epistles).

Romans 5

Turning first to Romans, we can see several different places where a Trinitarian pattern of speech is employed (e.g. chs. 3, 9–11, etc.). A rather striking instance occurs in Rom. 5:1–11, where Paul describes God's reconciling work. Commentators have long noticed that chapter 5 begins another major section in Paul's argument. Having established that justification occurs through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (chs. 1–4), Paul now begins to describe such justification as ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (5:1). Of course, for Paul, peace in its Christian sense is not opposed to suffering; indeed, suffering provides the occasion for Christian hope (5:2–3). And hope ‘does not disappoint us because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us’ (5:5). God's love is not a fickle declaration that can be given and taken away again, but is displayed in the fact that Christ in fact ‘died for us while we were yet sinners’. We can rejoice, therefore, ‘in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation’ (vv. 6–11).

Here Paul does not argue for the truth of a Trinitarian way of speaking about reconciliation and the form of Christian life it commends. Instead, as in 1 Corinthians 12 and elsewhere, Paul's hermeneutical moves presuppose a fundamentally Trinitarian pattern. The way to articulate reconciliation theologically, that is, includes a reference to God the Father (with whom we now have peace, whose love is given to us, etc.), the Lord Jesus Christ (through whom we have been given such gifts), and the Holy Spirit (through whom such gifts are spiritually efficacious, ‘poured into our hearts’). What argumentative logic we can detect in this portion of Romans thus rests more basically upon the linguistic ability to speak of the reconciling act of ‘God by the death of his Son’ in relation to the Holy Spirit's work in forming Christian life. The entirety of Paul's language about reconciliation in Rom. 5:1–8 requires a Trinitarian grammar for its intelligibility.

Ephesians 4

The so-called deutero-Pauline epistles are no less indebted to a Trinitarian grammar for their theological language than are the Pauline letters proper. Ephesians 4, for example, in which Paul urges the Ephesians toward Christian unity, couches its plea in an appeal to the unity of God himself. The Ephesians should ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’; for ‘there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is over all and through all and in all’ (Eph. 4:3–6).

It is remarkable that, in an attempt to ground Christian unity—one faith, one baptism—in the unity of God, Paul's language moves seamlessly between ‘one Spirit’, ‘one Lord’, and ‘one God’. The implication of such language is that the Spirit, Jesus the Lord, and God the Father constitute the unity of God that makes intelligible Paul's exhortation. To embody unity in the life of the Church is precisely to display the unity of the Spirit, Jesus the Lord, and God the Father.

(p. 52) But, once again, the argument at this point in Ephesians presupposes rather than argues for a Trinitarian pattern when speaking of the unity of God. Paul does not, that is, argue one way or another about how Jesus’ identity as Lord does not threaten the Lord God the Father; it is simply assumed in the course of the chapter that the theologically proper way to admonish the Ephesians toward unity is to speak of the unity of God—and this with the language of Spirit, Jesus the Lord, and God the Father.

Titus 3

The short letter to Titus is striking for its focus on salvation (e.g. 1:3, 4; 2:10, 11, 13; 3:4, 5, 6). For the purposes of this essay the most important aspect of this focus can be seen through the fact that if one were to ask, ‘who is the Saviour?’ the theological grammar of Titus would require us to answer at once both God and Jesus. After first speaking of God in 1:4 as ‘God our Saviour’, the letter moves only a sentence later to speak of Jesus as ‘our Saviour’: ‘Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Saviour’ (1:4). In 2:10 the reader hears again of ‘God our Saviour’ and then immediately learns—in the same Greek sentence—of the work of ‘our Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2:13). And in 3:4 God is ‘our Saviour’ just as in 3:6 it is Jesus Christ ‘our Saviour’: ‘When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour’ (vv. 4–6).

Attending to the language of salvation in Titus thus discloses a necessity to speak of God the Father and Jesus Christ together in one breath as ‘the Saviour’. So doing extends the Old Testament's soteriological language about the God of Israel to Jesus Christ. The ‘Saviour God of Israel’ (Isa. 45:15) has become God/Jesus Christ our Saviour. Moreover, at least in vv. 4–6, the connection between God the Saviour and Jesus Christ the Saviour is the Holy Spirit: the Spirit is the way in which God's loving and merciful good work in Jesus Christ is mediated to the Christian community.

As in the other New Testament examples above, the letter to Titus does not actually argue for the legitimacy of the new theological grammar. The legitimacy is rather presupposed. It is in fact the foundation upon which Titus explicates the various facets of salvation for its readers.

Taking Hebrews and the Pauline corpus together, we can discern several common themes that together emphasize toward the hermeneutical importance of Trinitarian reflection. First, as in all the texts of the New Testament, both the Pauline letters and Hebrews presuppose that the referent of the common noun ‘God’ is the God of the Old Testament. The letters’ arguments and exhortations, that is, are not constructed on a general or amorphous theological basis but are instead the quite particular outworking of the God of Israel's salvific self-disclosure.

Second, the explicitly theological language employed in the passages considered above forms a single linguistic skein: to remove either ‘Jesus Christ’ or the ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘God’ from the argument of the passage would not be simply to truncate the strength of the argument—as if Paul's argument in Romans 5 could proceed with reference to Jesus but not to the Spirit. It would rather be to dismantle the sense of the passage as a (p. 53) whole. The significance of such linguistic unity inheres in the fact that to speak of salvation and of the one who saves requires a theological grammar sufficiently supple to speak of a final unity of identity and act between three distinct ‘persons’.

Third, as a whole Hebrews and the Pauline letters presuppose rather than argue for any specific Trinitarian judgements. Though it explicitly addresses the question of the worship of the Son, even Hebrews does not engage in a debate about exactly how a ubiquitous God could be localized in a particular human being, how Creator and creature could coexist in one life, how the Son of God could actually die, and so forth.

Such presupposition is significant precisely because it manifests a pattern of speaking that Trinitarian reasoning later uncovers. Or, to put it more precisely, the reciprocally interpreting and overlapping ways to speak truly about the one God of Israel constitute the theological ground of the biblical texts’ linguistic freedom.


As this brief survey of Hebrews and Pauline texts suggests, attending carefully to the linguistic pattern of the texts’ speech about God requires us to look behind the actual arguments of the texts to the theological judgements that make such language possible. To put it simply: the sense that the New Testament language makes depends upon a larger pattern of theological judgements that makes the sense. This larger theological pattern of sense-making is precisely what we call Trinitarian reasoning. To speak in the manner of Hebrews and the Pauline letters is already to presuppose a Trinitarian range of linguistic possibilities vis-à-vis the identity of God. In just this way, Trinitarian reasoning proves to be exegetically illuminating—indeed, the requisite theological language by which to receive Scripture's grammatical moves.

To be clear: such exegetical illumination occurs not because the conceptual apparatus of the author of Hebrews or the Pauline texts was outfitted with ideas that were still two or three centuries in the future. Finitude—in intellectual terms, the intractable historicity of our reflection—conditioned the authors of Scripture, as it does all human enquiry. It is rather because Trinitarian judgements about the identity of God underlie the intelligibility of the linguistic patterns of the texts. Trinitarian reasoning works on the level of what must be the case to make theological sense of the way Paul and Hebrews speak of the Old Testament God's salvific act in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Precisely for this reason, to read Scripture within a Trinitarian framework of theological understanding is to move within the deep theological pattern of thinking that Scripture itself requires.

Suggested Reading

Barth, K. (1975), Church Dogmatics, vol. I: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, trans. G. W. Bromiley, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, ch. 2, pt. 1 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark), 295–489.Find this resource:

    (p. 54) Bauckham, R. (1998), The Crucified God: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).Find this resource:

      Buckley, J. J. and Yeago, D. S. (eds.) (2001), Knowing the Triune God: The Work of the Spirit in the Practices of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).Find this resource:

        Childs, B. S. (1993), Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress).Find this resource:

          Davis, E. F., and Hays, R. B. (eds.) (2003), The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).Find this resource:

            Jenson, R. (1997, 1999), Systematic Theology, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press).Find this resource:

              Watson, F. (1997), Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).Find this resource:


                Brown, R. E. (1994), An Introduction to New Testament Christology (New York: Paulist).Find this resource:

                  Fee, G. D. (1994), God's Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).Find this resource:

                    Rowe, C. K. (2002), ‘Biblical Pressure and Trinitarian Hermeneutics’, Pro Ecclesia, 11: 295–312.Find this resource:

                      Yeago, D. S. (1994), ‘The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma: A Contribution to the Recovery of Theological Exegesis’, Pro Ecclesia, 3: 152–64.Find this resource:

                        Young, F. M., and Ford, D. F. (1988), Meaning and Truth in Second Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).Find this resource: